Guatemala-Honduras

(January-February 2010)

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Trip report

This trip, like many we have taken, involved more traveling than vacationing. In the prelude to leaving, several people gave me questioning and almost fearful looks, not understanding why anyone would willingly drag their family on “vacation” to the forsaken lands of Guatemala and Honduras. “Do you think its okay for Sierra and Cooper to miss that much school?”, and “isn’t it dangerous down there?” were really backhanded ways of saying “you should reconsider”, and “I think you’re crazy”. To be honest, I’m getting tired of explaining myself to people with such a narrow view of the world. There is value in the experience of jumping outside of one’s comfort zone into the unknown. It's worthwhile shedding the bubble-wrapped ease of everyday life in suburban America and exploring an alternative path, seeing how the rest of the world lives. In short I was looking not just to vacation, but to travel. There’s a not-so-subtle difference between the two, and one that (in my opinion) more people should embrace. With that in mind, the family got vaccinated, loaded our backpacks and headed for Central America.

We flew into Guatemala City on the red-eye, arriving at 7:30 am. Sierra and Cooper were both thrilled to sit up in 1st class on the LA to Guatemala City leg, which was their first experience with “how the other half live” (Delta has recently changed their age rules for non-revs sitting up front). After an easy taxi ride down to the Fuente del Norte bus station, we experienced the classic initial developing-world sensory overload shock. We saw streets, little more than alleyways, choked with diesel-belching mufflerless buses; hyperaggressive late-model Japanese taxis honking their horns at every opportunity; swarms of motorcycle couriers darting about; and walking street vendors peddling Dollar Store crap as a means of survival. Shoeshine guys, their wooden box kit in hand, were aimlessly wandering the streets with their eyes locking onto peoples' shoes, looking for an opportunity to make money. Heavily armed police with machine guns chatted idly with security guards with pistol-gripped pump-actioned shot guns. A banker in starched white shirt stood next to a peasant with a herd of goats. It wasn’t so much that a few things were different than home, it’s that everything was. We waited for our bus for an hour or so, explored the nearby streets, and watched the world go by.

Our “direct bus” to Flores had its thermostat set to “arctic” (a typical “service” provided on Pullman class buses in Latin America). Our driver seemingly subscribed to the theory “drive it like you stole it”, maneuvering our 30’ means of transportation like Michael Schumacher on the streets on Monaco. He zigged, zagged, used his horn and select hand gestures . . . and when all else failed, relied on the sheer size of the bus in a high-stakes game of “chicken” with oncoming traffic (a game he luckily never lost). The first hour, as we were leaving Guatemala City, was filled with one terror-filled incident after another (cars/minivans swerving at the last moment as we rounded blind corners, in their lane). Times like these draw people to their faith, a higher being in which to draw comfort from, be it Jesus, Mohammad, or Shiva. I on the other hand relied on the quick cat-like reflexes of Jose Alverez (our driver). After coming to terms with the fact that my stress had no effect on the outcome of our eight-hour drive to Flores, I let the jet lag (from our red-eye flight) catch up with me and took a nap.

Arriving at the island oasis of Flores (at 6pm) was pure heaven after the grueling bus ride. We promptly found a lakeside hotel with a pool, bellied up to a table in a nearby restaurant, and sat down to our first real meal since lunch the previous day. WINNER-WINNER, CHICKEN DINNER! Mmm-mmm good! Stretching our legs as we meandered the cobblestone streets afterwards was a joy. The sense of accomplishment at making the long journey with Sierra and Cooper adding to the relaxed atmosphere of Flores. We rewarded ourselves with an ice cream treat in the picturesque hilltop park next to the island church (dating from the late 1600’s), and then went back to our hotel for a good nights sleep, collapsing from exhaustion.

The following day was spent recuperating, playing card games, swimming in the pool and enjoying the culinary delights of Flores. After lunch we tracked down a fisherman to give us a tour of the lake, with everyone enjoying the tranquility of the putt-putt boat, seeing the bird and animal life along the shores of Lake Peten Itza.

We woke up before the crack of dawn the next morning to get an early start seeing the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tikal (history). The ruins are located in a beautiful 200-foot canopy jungle, teeming with monkeys (we saw two different types), birds (we saw toucans, falcons, parrots, humming birds, along with countless other species), butterflies, tarantulas and crazy stripped ants, not to mention the 60-meter pyramids. Truly stunning! Sierra and Cooper had a blast climbing all over the ruins, shouting out “look what I discovered” around every bend. We wandered the site for seven and a half hours before the heat and humidity finally caught up with us, sending us back to the lakeside breezes in Flores.

Rain was coming down in buckets the next morning as we were packing to leave Flores, and making the five-minute walk to where the bus was to pick us up was out of the question. The brief exposure to the rain while loading the tuk-tuk with our backpacks caused me to be drenched to the bone, and things only got worse once we boarded our bus to Rio Dulce. Although we had opted for a first-class Pullman, this was a subjective classification (as with all things in Central America), and the bus had seen a better day. It wouldn’t have been that bad if the ceiling hadn't leaked from the heavy rainfall. I endured the drip-drip-drip of rainwater for the three-hour bus ride. Luckily Sierra and Cooper’s seats weren’t affected, and Elaine only got wet when the bus made sharp right-hand turns. Adding misery to my discomfort, I started feeling ill, with the dripping water compounding the chills and stomach cramping that would envelop me in waves.

I’m not sure if I suddenly became desensitized to the developing world road sights or my illness affected my powers of perception, but for some reason the initial sensory overload shock had run its course. Seeing horse drawn carriages (hand crafted out of wood, and using a car axles/wheels/leaf springs), people carrying ridiculously large bundles of wood on their backs (for cooking), and being thrown about as the bus driver raced down the dilapidated roadway stopped being strange, and became an everyday part of life. It is always a startling transition, to have the exotic become normal.

We were headed to the headwaters of the Rio Dulce, and the nearby town sits where the river starts at the western edge of Lago de Isabal. This narrow constriction point made it an ideal place for pirates to loot the commercial caravans and villages in the 16th century, so much so that the Spanish built the Castillo de San Felipe to protect the area in 1595. Not liking an authority figure in the area, buccaneer forces captured and burned the fort in 1684 - although their lawless autonomy was short-lived, with the Spanish rebuilding Castillo de San Felipe and eventually turning it into a prison as the buccaneer threat disappeared. (More on Castillo de San Felipe)

Dealing with the ever-present touts as we got off the bus in Rio Dulce was more of a chore than it should have been because of my impaired state. Escaping to a nearby restaurant to regroup turned out to be great call, as we needed a break and the food was fantastic. By the time a decision was made on where we were going to stay (suggested by the restaurant owner) and the hotel boat came to pick us up, my chills and belly cramping had returned - and I just wanted to curl up in the fetal position. When one is in such a state, things begin to be viewed through a dark lens, casting everything in a negative light. The rain amplified the sense of oppression in the already dark mangrove jungle setting. This feeling only lifted for me after a solid 18-hour nap, when I could finally look beyond my crummy feelings to the beauty of the place. By the time I resurfaced, I discovered that Elaine, Sierra and Cooper had adapted to our new location with flying colors. Both Sierra and Cooper thought that the mosquito nets over their beds were the coolest thing ever (Elaine wasn’t so sure), and everyone enjoyed exploring the nearby mangroves in the hotel canoes.

The hotel was set up on stilts along a mangrove inlet of the Rio Dulce. Connecting the main gathering area/restaurant to the various bungalows were stilted walkways, creating a Robinson Crusoe/Gilligan’s Island effect. The Swiss national owners charged practically nothing for rent ($15 a night), attracting an eclectic backpacker crowd. The backpackers were an interesting lot, and we enjoyed hearing stories of their extended tours and young idealism over meals.

The highlight of our time on the Rio Dulce (other than living on $50 a day for a family of 4) was a tour through the Biotopo Chocon Machacas. The boat tour started in the town on Rio Dulce, ambled through the Biotopo Chocon Machacas, which was teaming with bird life and lush jungle, and culminated in a narrow gorge before opening up to the Caribbean coastal town of Livingston. Another interesting aspect of the Biotopo Chocon Machacas were the people who called the area home. They lived off of the natural resources of the verdant jungle, river of plenty, and not much else. The locals seemed to be existing in a timeless fashion with no electricity, no running water, no formal education, and the only contact with the outside world being river traffic. We in the “western world” think of ourselves living a superior lifestyle with all of the stress and anxiety that comes with it, and seeing these people along the shores of the Rio Dulce made me wonder who has a better life . . . the romantic ideal of living off the land in a beautiful area seemingly forgotten by time looked attainable along the beautiful gorge.

That being said, the rain and bug bites started getting to us (we were in a rain forest after all) . . . so much for the romantic ideal. We packed up the following morning and decided to head to Copan, Honduras, to see the spectacular Mayan ruins, not knowing what getting from point “A” to “B” would entail. One of the joys (and perils) of making a travel itinerary as you go, is that you rely on local information. This has the benefit of being turned on to places you might not otherwise hear about, and has the consequence of potentially getting bad information (which was our experience leaving Rio Dulce). The four hour “direct” bus turned into an 8-hour marathon of broken-down buses, frantic transfers brokered by dubious touts, and a long hot day for Sierra and Cooper (who were troopers through the whole ordeal). The lesson (re)learned was that Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance (the rule of the six “P’s”).

Clearing customs at the Honduran boarder, enjoying ice cream treats in the late afternoon heat, was the icing on the cake after a long day of travel. It was Sierra and Cooper’s first overland border crossing, and didn’t involve any of the finger printing, body scanning and impersonal airport officials that have become common in most airports around the world. As we sauntered across the frontera, I reveled in the thought that this was the first of many overland crossings with the family in the years to come.

The short collectivo ride into Copan was a victory lap of sorts. With the hassles of the day behind us, the sea seemingly parted as we waltzed (stumbled) into an “upgraded” apartment across the street from the hotel we originally wanted to stay in. Truth be known, I think the hotel owner wanted to keep two wound-up rambunctious kids away from his geriatric clientele by offering us a two-bedroom apartment (for the same price of a hotel room) – giving everyone some peace and quiet. Two master suites, a living room, kitchen, dining room and back patio made our digs in Copan the nicest of our trip. After a hearty dinner and a heavenly bug-free sleep we visited the ruins the following morning.

What the UNESCO World Heritage Site ruins of Copan lack in scale (compared to Tikal), it made up for in the artistic craftsmanship and fine detail of its stelas, carvings and hieroglyphics (history). Both Sierra and Cooper were impressed with the decoded hieroglyphic “stories” throughout the site (both started creating their own “hieroglyphic language” in the weeks that followed, based on what they saw in Copan), and got a kick out of the former rulers' names (Smoke Jaguar, 18 Rabbit, etc). They also enjoyed exploring the underground tombs, alternating between the wonderment of long-dead rulers and freaking each other out at the thought of said long-dead rulers. Although the wildlife was not as plentiful and diverse as Tikal or Rio Dulce, a flock of wild macaws were a hit. After four and a half hours exploring, the heat of the day forced us back to our apartment, where we reveled in the lap of luxury.

We enjoyed the town of Copan so much (along with our accommodations) that we stayed an extra day, visiting a museum, buying some trinkets, and soaking up the atmosphere.

I took some solace in the fact that our long bus ride the subsequent morning was going to be our last. The road wound trough the countryside in nausea-inducing hairpin curves to La Entrada before mellowing out to San Pedro Sula, transferring buses and then on to La Ceiba (7.5 hours from Copan).

Seeing the vast banana plantations between San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba reminded me that the term “banana republic” was coined in reference to Honduras. The fact that Honduras is still underdeveloped and most of its people live in abject poverty can in large part be attributed to the United Fruit Company along with the political and military collusion of the U.S. government in the early part of the 20th century. Pretty sad. (History)

La Ceiba was a dive. As we got off of the bus we were told that the afternoon ferry wasn’t running because of bad weather (it was raining). With this unexpected (and suspect) information we decided to find a hotel in town and let Sierra and Cooper unwind from the long day. Our hotel, the nicest we could find in the central area of town, was disgusting. The staff lied to us about the ferry (we found out the following day that the ferry did run, the hotel just wanted to book an extra room for the night), the room was filthy, and the streets were unsafe. After a quick meal, and discussion on how Sierra and Cooper weren’t to touch anything in the hotel room, we let them watch some Spanish cartoons (the only tv they watched on the trip).

The hotel staff tried to extract an exorbitant fee for the taxi fare the following morning as we were leaving for the ferry terminal. It wasn’t the money as much as someone trying to rip me off that made me furious. All touts expect to be paid, either directly from the tourist or indirectly from the hotel/restaurant/tour operator/taxi driver/etc. This is a part of the independent travel game that I willingly participate in . . . but when crooked hotel staff try to bilk me for more money than is fair, when they look me in the eye and lie, it makes me angry. Oddly enough I felt much better after flagging down my own taxi and paying less than half of what I was quoted by the hotel staff. Good riddance La Ceiba!

After the ferry to Roatan and taxi to the beach, we checked ourselves into a hotel in the town of West End and started enjoying the fruits of island livin’. Sierra and Cooper were self-entertained on the beach, with our only concern being the strong rays of the sun. Watching the Super Bowl on a beachside projection screen with a bunch of other gringos as the sun was setting made me realize that the "travel" portion of our trip was over, and the "vacation" had officially begun! The following five days were spent snorkeling, diving (for me), kayaking, reading, building sand castles, catching up on our journals, and watching the greatest show on earth – the nightly sunset. It was a great way to end our two and a half week trip!

Getting home was a bit of a chore. We were “bumped” from the once-weekly Delta flight, but scrambled and were able to get back to the states on Continental (thank goodness for inter-airline "zed fares"). As it turned out, we were lucky to have avoided Atlanta (which is where the Delta flight connected to), as the Presidents Day weekend snow storm caused Delta to cancel 3000 flights – which would have been a multiday nightmare for non-revs like ourselves. We spent the following day in Houston, finally arriving home 30 hours after we had originally intended. Not bad all things considered.

So that’s our Guatemala-Honduras trip in a nutshell. Both Sierra and Cooper did better with the long bus rides, hot humid days, and archaeological site visits than I thought possible. Going forward the only limiting factor in our family's independent global travel is going to be my imagination coming up with interesting places to visit, because Sierra and Cooper are road ready!

Photos from the trip:  Click here for the gallery view, or here for a slideshow view.

Map of the areas we visited in Guatemala and Honduras

 

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