Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Almaty, Kazakhstan Long Distance Bus Station Maps and Schedules



Information taken December 2009. Click photos to enlarge.

It may also be worth inquiring in-person at the bus station about other bus destinations and schedule changes not listed in the Lonely Planet or here (which is many).



Almaty, Kazakhstan

Disclaimer: Due to the single day I spent in Almaty, there is not much I can enlighten the traveler about in this entry.

Unlike my initial thoughts about the "wilderness of Central Asia," Almaty seems like another metropolitan European city, with well-kept buildings, wide streets, and modern buses clogging around town. In fact, while on a bus (50T) I was surprised to hear songs by Juares, as Kazakhstan would be the last place one would expect to hear Mexican music.

Getting around the city is simple, even for those Russian language-challenged. From the train station, there are trolley tracks running down Abylay Khan that can take one to city-center. ATMs are also plentiful, as well as travel agents for onward travel.

While we were there, we managed some logistical tasks that may be of interest to future travelers:
  • Adding passport pages at the US Embassy. Unlike the Russian Embassy, I was able to add pages without advance notice and without working on US Embassy time (eg. not on their scheduled consular hours). This was not possible in Russia, and may be an option for those in a rush.
  • Obtaining a visa for the Kyrgyz Republic in one day. We were able to obtain a single-day visa for $130, although this was a bit of a swindling deal (the consular officer usually takes certified bank order but took our cash instead); the visas were as low as $30, US citizens included, for longer periods of time of processing (up to a week). Keep in mind that visa-on-demand can be obtained for $40 (15 day stays) or $50 (1 month stays) at the Bishkek airport, and there are 3-weekly flights on Air Astana from Almaty to Bishkek as of Dec 2009.
We were not able to do much touring in Almaty, but did take the Kok-Tobe cable car (800T one way, 1500T return) up. I would not recommend doing so on a cloudy day, as nothing can be seen and the cable car is not particularly impressive. Additionally, there is a bus which takes one down for 300T, but this is a huge ripoff - walk instead down the hill the 1/2 mile the bus takes you, and you will reach the public bus drop-off point where it ends. Then, take the public bus to Dostyq Road (50T).

Finally, in the 4th edition of Lonely Planet: Central Asia the long-distance bus station is not accurate, but has moved away from town. Buses can be caught there for pretty much anywhere in Central Asia; minibuses left for Bishkek when full (which was sooner than every hour) for 1000T.

Snowy Almaty, city center


The top of the Kok-Tobe cable car (on a foggy day)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Getting from Ürümqi to Almaty, via N895

To get to Almaty, Kazakhstan from Ürümqi, China, we took the N895 train departing on Monday at 23:58. The tickets ended up costing $130 USD same-day purchase, but could have been probably bought for the going price of 690 RMB at the train station (however, we thought the train was sold out, but it was 3 carriages that were not even at 50% capacity). If doing the latter, the train station closes at 4PM.

In hindsight, there are faster and cheaper ways of getting to Almaty (our train took 36 hours). These include the overnight buses which travel through the Khorgas pass, or a bus/taxi to the Khorgas pass, walking across, and a bus/taxi to Almaty. One lesser known option but highly recommended by the Alashankou border guard is a train from Ürümqi to Alashankou (departs everyday), crossing the border by foot, and then taking a shuttle bus to the Kazakhstani border where a train meets you and takes you to Almaty 6 days out of 7 (100 RMB for the train to Alashankou, unknown (but low) amount to Almaty). All of these options are significantly faster and cheaper than the international train, which takes upwards of 6 hours to switch gauge. All of these options also run in winter.

Regardless, the train was an enjoyable if slow experience. The carriages were Kazakhstani metal. Bring your own food as there is no canteen car! There is power in the carriages. The border crossing is a different experience; I was interrogated individually for 2 hours by Chinese border patrol, holding up the train in the process. Be prepared to have all of your pictures gone through, and your documents meticulously inspected item-by-item. Anything deemed “not Chinese” will be taken, such as a Lonely Planet map book showing a picture of Taiwan. Although admittedly the interrogation was friendly, it was quite persistent. Also, delete or encrypt pictures if you do not want them taken; besides checking for pictures for export, I found out later that land crossings in Xinjiang practice counter-espionage, where they take any pictures military/infrastructure related from other countries and copy them off of your SD cards.

The international train will arrive at Almaty-2, north of city center.


The flat Kazakh steppe


Kazakh train official


Inside of a carriage

Monday, December 21, 2009

Ürümqi, Xinjiang, China

Disclaimer: I visited Ürümqi and Kashgar during a politically sensitive time post-“7-5”, when there was no internet or international phone calls into or out of Xinjiang province, as well as little journalist access. Consequently, statements in this blog should be interpreted as a travelogue, not as a journalistic piece.

Lading in Ürümqi is like traveling back in time in Chinese history to see my first visit to Beijing in 1997. Our route took us by air from Beijing to Ürümqi, and the contrast on the approach from these two cities is significant. For me, Beijing a decade-and-a-half ago used to be defined by pollution the same way Ürümqi in winter is now. Although it was sunny the winter days I was in Ürümqi, the pollution cloud kept the city in a world of haze and smog. As one of the top polluted cities in China in the winter, it may be worth a visit just for the sights (and smell) of pollution out-of-control. The infrastructure is also less developed from eastern Chinese cities, with buildings (and costs) distinctly out-of-proportion from Beijing (for example, taxis with 6 RMB starting fare).

There is a lot to love about Ürümqi, however (though arguably not much in terms of the other gems in the region, and, you’ll inevitably find yourself in the city if you intend to do any Central Asia traveling). The city has a distinctly multicultural feel unlike anywhere else in China, and is composed of a mix of Uighurs, Han, Hui, and the usual mix of Central Asian ethnicities. Perhaps most telling is the sound of a Uighur speaking Mandarin Chinese in an accent usually only reserved for Caucasians learning the language. We did not get a chance to sightsee much in Ürümqi, but rather got a feel of the multicultural ambiance traveling through the city. There was also surprisingly little ethnic tension or hostility while we were there, which caught us off guard. We were helped throughout by Han, Uighurs, Russians, Kyrgyzs, and a Kazakh couple – the kindness of the people of Ürümqi stands in stark contrast to the violence of 7-5, and had there not been a huge police presence I would not have believed the city to be capable of producing such ethnic tension.

I recommend exploring the southern section of the city (around Hetian Lu), where the Uighur and Russian/Central Asian parts of town are for sensory overload. Food in the city is of particular note; do not leave without trying the lamb kababs sold on the street and lamian, a Xinjiang speciality (although these two are usually adapted to the Chinese palate).

If using Ürümqi as a base for travel, some notes:

  • You will want to know Chinese to navigate this city, or at least bring a Chinese friend; English does not go far, and even Mandarin is difficult to use in Uighur-only communities.
  • The Lonely Planet: China book is notoriously inaccurate for this chapter!
  • Buses to city center cost 10 RMB p/p; taxis no more than 50 RMB.
  • For flights to Kyrgyzstan (Bishkek), there are nondaily flights on China Southern and AC Kyrgyzstan as of Dec 2009. One may get a slight discount through a China Southern travel agent, but the cheapest option when we were there was 2100 RMB o/w. Flights on AC Kyrgyzstan were less than 1500 RMB o/w, but extremely unreliable. The booking office for AC Kyrgyzstan consisted of two people (one of which spoke no Chinese) working out of a hotel, and we were informed all flights were canceled over December due to low turnout. There are also flights to Osh; in Central Asia, Kayak is rather useless, but finding out all departures/arrivals from airport pages will net you timetables to work off of. To book the AC Kyrgyzstan flight, contact Эрбол at Xinhua Nanlu 786 (Huaqiao Binguan) [ask the receptionist], tel: 0991 8529061, 0991-8528062, or 13999935658. The Lonely Planet information on this is wrong. The above hotel is also good for arranging all things Kazakh and Russian, including overnight buses (it is the hub for business from Central Asia and Russia).

Huaqiao Binguan, for logistical travel information


Keeping warm in winter


Naan, the Central Asian islamic food of choice


Lamb kabab vendor at night

Friday, December 18, 2009

Winter in Moscow, Russia

Although I admittedly do not have summer Moscow to compare it to, Moscow in the winter definitely has a distinct character worth exploring, if only for the four days I was present. Being so far North, the short days and long nights define the days and activities - at the end of December, sunrise occurred at 9am followed by a sunset at 4pm. However, the lack of cars and activity on the Metro shows the life truly starts around 11-12pm; and the ample cars at 2am means a shifted schedule more akin to a college town than a major center. The two times I was there, it was either bitterly cold - with highs of 0F - or passably warm, which was 20F. Needless to say, warm clothing is a necessity, but forget North Face; here, the choices are the local fur and down or freezing (and out of fashion).

First, logistics. Getting a visa to Russia is a huge pain, but doable once one gets all the rules (see earlier post about this process). We flew into Domodedovo, which is on the southern side of the city; there is an express train (250 руб) that takes 45 minutes to Paveletsky Station. It's probably worth it for the new visitor, but (at least in reverse) taking the metro to Domodedovskya and a bus to DME is cheaper (100 руб bus, 22 руб) and almost as convenient. The shuttles run on New Year’s. Similarly, there is a train to Sheremetyevo (300 руб) but buses can be picked up from Rechnoy Vokzal and Planernaya back and forth. Once inside the city, the Metro is excellent and extensive, and a pleasure to explore the stations. The one caveat is the station names; transfer stations, unlike elsewhere, all have different names and usually only one exit.

Second, registration. Registration (in Moscow at least) is “required” if you stay more than three days. However, this is three business days. Our hotel was willing to do this for us for $20 USD, and advised it even though we didn’t need it (if you stay less than three business days, they legally cannot detain you). Although stories exist of people being bribed by the police regardless, it probably is not necessary unless you are in Moscow an extended period of time.

Third, language. Russian is a very useful language to know if traveling to Moscow, as unlike other European countries Muscovites have not had to learn English to prosper. However, not knowing Russian (as we did not) is fine; but you must learn the Cyrillic alphabet! This is especially true on the Metro, which has very limited Roman alphabetization. Contrary to popular belief, I found Muscovites extremely helpful; those with limited English approached us clearly lost tourists on the street, and those who only knew Russian tried to simplify their language and help us around. Once Cyrillic becomes secondhand, navigating Moscow becomes infinitely less intimidating.

Fourth, food and shelter. We stayed at the Godzillas Hostel (off Tsvetnoy Bul’var) within the Metro Ring, which was extremely well-kept, organized, and definitely highly recommended (dorms from $28 USD, doubles from $35 USD). Food was all around expensive within the Ring; a typical “Russian” fast food meal came out to $5-7 USD, and stolovaya (canteen) cuisine up to $10 USD. McDonald’s was the only resemblance of cheap.

While we were in Moscow, we visited mainly Red Square and sights around the Red Square, such as the Lenin Maosoleum (free), St. Basil’s Cathedral (20 руб), and the Kremlin (350 руб). All of these I found worth my money, although I did not go to the armory. Red Square is a spectacular must-see, although it definitely does show Russia as a semi-police state (especially on New Year’s). Red Square can be seen in a day. Additionally, we went to the Great Patriotic War Museum (40 руб) off of Poklonnaya Gora / Park Pobedy station, which was quite fascinating despite the lack of English. The rest of the time was spent exploring the stunningly beautiful metro, shopping at Izmalylovo Market (definitely worth a visit) and exploring the streets of the city. Izmalylovo Market in particular is significantly cheaper than the market outside of Red Square on Okhotny Ryad metro; we were able to get a Siberian fox fur hat for 1500 руб. Note to save money on tickets, bring a student ID!

In summary, I think Moscow can be seen in 3 days. I regret not having time to see St. Petersburg, but the capital has definitely made me want to revisit Russia in the future (with basic knowledge of the Russian language). It is a fascinating mix of Soviet and Western influence, and has done much to dispel the Western notion of Russian life as backwards; given the design of the city (and the metro) alone one can see that Russia was truly a Cold War powerhouse. The Russian people are also extremely friendly, arguably giving arguably more help than those in New York or Boston. Visa and cost hurdles aside, Moscow is definitely worth a visit.


Kremlin at nightfall


Moscow Metro


Great Patriotic War museum


St. Basil's Cathedral

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sinaloa, El Fuerte and San Blas, Mexico mission trip


For a weekend, I went on a mission trip with LIGA International down to San Blas, Mx, a clinic next to the larger town of El Fuerte in Sinaloa, Mx. Although I was unable to get out to see the town of El Fuerte much, I had these impressions of the area:
  • The scenery is a bit like what one would find in Guatemala, with arable land surrounded by volcano-like structures
  • El Fuerte itself seems to not have many attractions, though is a good stopover town. Avoid the Hotel La Choza and crash instead at the Rio Vista lounge, which was less than $20 USD p/p shared in a double setup and had views of the Rio Fuerte
If you happen to be stationed at San Blas, there is almost little to nothing to see. With regards to the clinic work, the locals are wonderfully friendly and accommodating; however, I have mixed opinions about LIGA International's mission at said clinic, learning more on the negative side for what I see as a waste of resources. The mileage (and contribution) first and second year med school students can deliver seem limited, if any.


Clinic at San Blas, Sinaloa, Mx

Friday, October 16, 2009

Central Asia / Former USSR trip

With school, breaktime has become more and more valuable. With two weeks to work with, below is a semi-confirmed trip (airfare from LAX - MOW, from MOW - URC confirmed). Should be fun!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

I-10: New Orleans to Los Angeles

To migrate to Los Angeles, I had to drive along I-10 for the majority of the route. Some of my impressions:

  • It's really hard to find Cajun food along the Louisiana route. Better luck going straight to the French quarter in New Orleans.
  • Having lived in Houston for a month and half, there is not much fun to do for the tourist; however, dinner in Chinatown/Bellaire can be nice.
  • Fuel up in San Antonio, TX, because gas prices only go up from there.
  • There is nothing between San Antonio, TX and El Paso, TX other than vast hill country. Although it's beautiful, stop wherever you can to get gas and food! And the speed limit is 80 MPH!
  • See previous entry for El Paso, TX.
  • The section between El Paso, TX and Tucson, AZ is likewise void of life aside from Las Cruces, NM. It is also among the most scenic of the drive.
  • Los Angeles, CA traffic is horrendous; avoid making it in during rush hour.
  • For hotels, I found Orbitz cheap at times, but without an Orbitz option Motel 6 was best for walk-in prices. (as low as $30/night taxes inc'd on Orbitz, $40/night otherwise for Motel 6)


Sonoran Desert typical off-highway view (New Mexico)

Texas Hill Country

El Paso, TX and Ciudad Juarez, MX

Although only a day trip, I found the El Paso / Ciudad Juarez relationship fascinating, as although the two cities are sepearated by the Rio Grande for all intents and purposes they feel like one symbiotic unit. Prehaps it is due to El Paso's isolated location in the States, the large Hispanic / cowboy culture in both cities, or the creek-size Rio Grande separating the two huge metropolises. Regardless, a visit across the border is well-worth it, and most likely (was) a common adventure for those from El Paso.

As of Jun 2009, however, Ciudad Juarez and the state of Chihuahua has been engulfed in a war between drug cartels, which has led to kidnappings and killings galore. Although in context the area might be no more dangerous than Guatemala City, it's still potentially a serious situation. The steps of the Mexican military to curtail the violence were abundantly clear once crossing over into Juarez; at any given street corner, a armed-to-the-teeth army patrol would pass almost every minute. The positive spin is that this makes (in my opinion) the city safe to visit, while taking out the normal day-tripping American crowds.

Logistically, driving requires Mexican insurance; however, walking over the Paso del Norte / Santa Fe Bridge is pretty trivial and parking is $3. Once in Ciudad Juarez, the street blocks become much more walkable. I found the Mercado Juarez, on the Ave. 16 de Septiembre [cross bridge, walk along Ave. Juarez ~1000m, turn left] very underwhelming; however, the real market on the other side of Ave. 16 de Septiembre [turn right at the intersection of Ave. Juarez] was fairly impressive.

Things to buy in Mexico can include: spices (dried), liquor (1L handle of Kahlua / Cuervo-type liquor for $10US at 13 MXN to 1 USD, random trinkets / silver, and knockoffs. Street food is ample. There are ATMs along Ave. Juarez to pull pesos. The allowance is 1L liquor for Texas residents / 4L liquor otherwise. To cross the bridges is $0.35 USD to Juarez / 3 pesos to El Paso when walking.

The Rio Grande separating El Paso (left) and Ciudad Juarez (right)


Av. 16 de Septiembre; notice the military convoy

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Silk road tentative trip - anyone in?

With a month and a half left until I start professional training, I have been getting a bit restless and am torn between taking one of the trips outlined below. I chose this route because it covers South and East Asia, goes through the Karakoram Highway and mountains which is part of the Silk Road, and enters China in Kashgar, which is where The Kite Runner was filmed and is en-route for "modernization" (read: demolition of Uyghur compounds). The part starting from Beijing is flexible. Anyone interested in joining?

Cost

Transport, air

  • $750 r/t early summer airfare, New York-Frankfort/Munich-Delhi and Chennai-New York return (priced from 22-May to 28-Jun)
  • $100 o/w Islamabad-Gilgit flight
  • $20 + 20,000 SkyTeam Frequent Flyer miles, Kashgar-Beijing, Beijing-Kuala Lampur, Malaysia (or any other asian destination). w/o the miles, it costs upwards of $800.
  • $120 o/w, Kuala Lampur-Chennai.

Transport, ground, estimate:

  • ~$175, transport in India (bus/train/taxis/auto-rickshaws)
  • ~$200, transport in Pakistan to Kashgar, China along the KKH (bus/jeep)
  • ~$150, transport in China including train tickets Beijing-Qingdao
  • ~$50, transport in Malaysia (bus/train)


Food, entertainment, room, other estimate:

  • 12 certain days * $25/day in India
  • 7 certain days * $20/day in Pakistan
  • 7 certain days * $25/day in China
  • 3 certain days * $35/day in Malaysia
  • 16 unknown days * $ 25/day


Visa:

  • $120 Pakistan single-entry
  • $130(?) China single/multi-entry
  • $150(?) India 10-year multi-entry, or less for single


Total cost: $2700 +/- 15% ($2300 - $3100)

Sights

  • Delhi
  • Agra - Taj Majal
  • Jaipur
  • Amritsar - Golden Temple
  • Wagah border crossing w/ Pakistan
  • Lahore, Islamabad
  • Gilgit and Northern Areas
  • Karakoram Highway, old Silk Road, 2nd highest mountain in the world (K2), 8000m+ peaks
  • Kashgar, old Sunday Market
  • China proper (Beijing)
  • Malaysia
  • Chennai (Maderas)

Safety concerns

  • India: (None)
  • Pakistan: Flying to Gilgit to avoid Swat/Dir region of KKH, minimizing time in Punjab province and Gilgit (although these three are pretty safe), avoiding Peshawar (though arguably the coolest part of Pakistan =()
  • China: (None)
  • Malaysia: (None)


View Planned Silk Road / Asia trip in a larger map

Monday, March 16, 2009

Impressions about Central America: budget

For my trip, I kept a running tally of all of my expenses accrued out of curiosity what the average backpacker's budget would look like. The numbers are below, for a total expenditure of $2458 (including airfare) for travel from Jan 19th to March 3rd. This number is verified within +/- 0.5%, based on comparison to expenditures from my bank account.

  • Int'l Airfare: PIT->GUA, PTY->PIT.
  • Theft: Money stolen at homestay and through huslers.
  • Telecommunications: Total costs for cell phone service in Guatemala, and internet.
  • Transportation: All buses, cars/taxis, boats, etc... within Central America, as well as border duties.
  • Food: All money spent on foods or drinks, including meals but excluding modest board in Guatemala for 2 1/2 weeks.
  • Tours/Entrance: All money spent on entrance fees or activities part of tourism. This includes $220 for scuba diving classes.
  • Education: Cost for Spanish lessons for 2 1/2 weeks at $65/20 hour/wk, plus supplies.
  • Room: All money spent on living arrangements, including homestays. This figure also includes modest board for 2 1/2 weeks in Guatemala.
  • Other: All other categories, including souvenirs.

Impressions about Central America

Nicaragua: For the value, Nicaragua cannot be beat. It has the most off-the-beaten-track feel of all of the Central American countries I visited, yet amenities are comfortable. The costs are the lowest in all of Central America, and the wildlife is relatively well preserved. Between the volcanoes by Granada, the hiking in Isla de Ometepe, the amazing surfing and beach scene around San Juan del Sur, and the Carribean pleasures of Bluefields and the Corn Islands, the attractions are all present (although some of the high-altitude wonders of Guatemala and the Mayan cultural finds are missing). The people are also one of the kindest on the continent. Finally, and most important, Nicaragua is much safer than the countries in the north. If I return, I would spend more time in San Juan del Sur and around Granada. I would also travel to the Little Corn Islands.  I spent around $20-30/day while in Nicaragua. 9/10

Guatemala: Guatemala is endowed with much natural beauty, and deserves its title as the “Nepal of the Americas.” However, Guatemala has a major security problem in its cities. While this should not be a deterrent, having to constantly think about one’s security does detract from the travel experience. With that said, Guatemala definitely has the cultural gems of the region and is a fascinating place to see cultural clash – in this case, between the Mayans and Ladinos. The Western Highlands have a beauty uniquely different from the rest of Central America, and Tikal in El Petén is a must-see. I also liked the food best in Guatemala. If I return, I would spend time in Xela and Coban, and try to hike El Mirador. I spent $37/day, including tuition during my stay; I found the costs to be maybe 5-10% more than Honduras and 15-25% more than Nicaragua. 7/10

Honduras: Honduras I found to have a definite different atmosphere from Guatemala; besides the obvious proliferation of cowboy hats, the people are extremely friendly and helpful and the society as-a-whole seems more unified. For tourist attractions, however, I was largely disappointed in the Bay Islands; they were expensive, but admittedly necessary for scuba certification. Copan was interesting, but lacked the “wow” factor of Tikal; however, the wildlife at Copan was quite stunning. Safety is an issue but I felt safer than while in Guatemala. If I were to return, I would spend time exploring the area around La Ceiba, which is quite beautiful; I would also try to visit the remote jungle area in the eastern half of the country. I spent around $50/day in Honduras, including scuba diving. 5/10

Belize: With limited time in Belize, there is not much to write about; however, the countryside looked extremely well preserved, the melting-pot culture is a must see, and I have only heard good things about the Caribbean Caye Caulker beaches. I would incorporate Belize as a week or week-and-a-half visit from the States, making sure to visit Caye Caulker as well as some of the inland rain forests; longer time would be cost-prohibitive for backpackers. NA/10

Costa Rica: Cannot comment, however I have heard great things about the rain forests and beaches. In my limited travels through the region there was an extremely noticeable price gap (bottle of Coke in Nicaragua: $0.60 USD, in Costa Rica $1.35 USD). It also seemed significantly more touristy than Nicaragua, and the people less friendly or perhaps more accustomed to gringos and the like. I would also visit Nicaragua on a separate week or week-and-a-half vacation, probably going to Montverde and the Nicosia Peninsula. NA/10

Panama: Panama is another destination I wished I had the opportunity to further explore. It is noticeably better developed than the rest of Central America, yet the prices are affordable; food can be found at Guatemalan prices, and rooming is perhaps at a 50% premium but still cheaper than Costa Rica and Belize. It also does not have the touristic feel of Costa Rica, for example. Panama City is a fascinating metropolis to explore (think a southern Miami). Safety is not an issue. With time, I would definitely venture out to explore the pristine rainforests of the Darien, and attempt to get to the Bocas del Toro. I spent $35/day while in Panama. 7/10

South America: Although I did not venture south, I met many people returning from the region or with plans to go. I heard raving reviews about Bolivia, Venezuela, and Argentina. In particular, Argentina was cited as being surprisingly affordable for its metropolitan sights. Colombia, Chile, and Peru were also recommended. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

Panama City, Panama

Panama City is a fascinating city unlike anywhere else in Central America; perhaps the first giveaway is the skyscrapers and visible downtown so unlike the usual capital sprawl. Although there are some odd contrasts, such as the chicken buses going past huge casinos and shopping malls, as a whole Panama City is a metropolis like its North American counterparts, except with Spanish language and 50% discounts on pretty much anything (much more noticeable when prices are published in USD or B./). It is also safe to walk around at night, something that is not taken for granted in Central America.

I found exploring the city by day and exploring the multiple casinos by night to be entertaining. Caseo Viejo was also worthwhile, if not to see the ancient buildings (after visiting San Juan, Puerto Rico this is not impressive) but the Panama City skyline and the Puente de la Americas instead. Finally, the canal is a must (although whether it is worthwhile is another story); visit the Miraflores Locks before 11am or you won’t be able to see the ships go through.

For getting around the city, the buses are pretty straightforward. There are only a few routes that go along the main roads, and all non-metro buses connect through the Albrook Bus Terminal to the north of the city. A ride costs $0.25, which beats a $4 taxi ride. For living, the Bella Vista area I stayed in was wonderful and quaint; the Caseo Viejo area didn’t look too nice, but La Exposition looked pretty good as well. I would recommend avoiding the Voyeur International Hostel due to its slight bait-and-switch tendencies and poor staff.

Panama City from Caseo Viejo


Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal


Saturday, February 28, 2009

San Juan del Sur and vicinity, Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur is a Nicaraguan beach town on the Pacific, bordering Costa Rica. It's known for its surfing, and for good reason - the surfing on Playa Madera (no picture, sorry!) is wonderful for beginners, with fast-rolling waves much better than what one would find on Waikiki, Oahu, Hawaii and almost nobody present. The beach itself is also a beauty reminiscent of the California coastline. If you're into surfing, you can rent quality boards for $8/day, and get lessons for $20/day, teacher included. Also, there's little information available but you can stay on Playa Madera for extremely cheap ($10?) and from the looks of it, for surfing it is definitely a worthwhile investment. San Juan Del Sur is a wonderful place to make your travels, too... I very strongly recommend Casa Oro, probably one of the best organized and nicest hostels out there in Central America.

San Juan del Sur boardwalk

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

Isla de Ometepe is a most-unusual place - a large island formed from two volcanoes in the middle of a largest freshwater lake, itself surrounded by land and surrounded from only a few hundred miles by the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It's also a rustic place, not quite ready for tourism but filled with nature galore; a place for peace and quiet, and a place where you need at least 3 days to fully appreciate. Beware; if you intend to get from Moyagalpa to anywhere on the Maderas side, it will take you at least 3 hours if you're lucky... horrendous is an understatatement for the roads surrounding Volcan Maderas. You'll need to book a full day to get to and from your destination; don't let the low mile counts deceive you. Keep in mind that the Northern coast of Maderas is much easier to get back to Moyagalpa than the South coast, but from both places you'll most likely need to hitchhike. From experience, one can walk 5 miles on the South coast in the afternoon and not see one motorized vehicle.

With that said, Maderas is a wonderful cloud forest hike and worth the hike if you can afford the time to get to a trailhead! Contrary to what the tour guides say, the later the better; in the morning the volcano is covered in fog and it's not possible to see into the crater lake or out beyond the island. Book 6 hours if you're fast, 8-10 if you're not to climb to the top and back. Guides run $20/ea solo or split among groups of max. 3; book at any hotel.

For the record, if you decide to go to Maderas and need a place to stay, I would suggest avoiding Hacienda Merida; although it had good reviews in the Lonely Planet, I only found a profit-maximizing "resort" with truly horrendous customer service.

Volcan Conception from Merida

Cloud forest on Volcan Maderas

Hieroglyphics?!

Isla de Ometepe from Lago de Nicaragua

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Granada and Volcan Masaya, Nicaragua

I found Granada to be one of the liveliest places in Nicaragua, with much to see and do and definitely worth a long stay. Part of Granada is exploring the old cobblestone streets and admiring the beautiful architecture (eg. Antigua in Nicaragua), but Granada also has much to offer with surrounding attractions. It is definitely one of the places I wish I had more time, at least a week, to explore. I did not get the chance to go to the islands in Lago de Nicaragua, although they recieved raving reviews; I did get to go to Volcan Masaya, however, which although off the beaten track is definitely worth a visit. Only pictures reveal the size of its sulfur-emitting crater...

To get to Volcan Masaya, take any northbound bus to Managua and ask to get off at the entrance post; a shuttle can then take you to the summit for 50C, or it's a relatively nice 5 km walk.

The crater of Volcan Masaya; note the size of the cars

Granada from La Merced

The Granada Cathedral and Lago de Nicaragua

Monday, February 23, 2009

Managua, Nicaragua in pictures

There's not much too Managua, really, other than to see Daniel Ortega's picture splattered everywhere in pink; spend 2 hours or so seeing the old town, climbing the hill behind the Crowne Plaza, etc... and you're set to move on! Expect to pay no more than 20-30L for taxi rides, and 15L for short hauls - and forget about navigating the bus system. Don't listen to the Lonely Planet, walking in the old part of town if you stick to the main roads is safe (during the day)! Also, nearly everything is closed on Monday, so plan ahead!

Looking towards Lago de Managua

One of three Daniel Ortega posters surrounding the abandoned square

The old cathedral - embodies Nicaragua to a tee.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

León, Nicaragua

When Nicaragua’s crown jewels are mentioned, Leon is always mentioned with Granada. However, for the typical tourist Granada is probably superior. I found Leon itself to have relatively few attractions, with the exception of the large and beautiful cathedral on the Parque Central. Otherwise, its streets look like a less spiced-up version of those of Granada, and the natural beauty of the surroundings is a bit lacking. While it is definitely worth a visit to experience the city and its atmosphere (is it possible to classify as sobering?), if one is in a rush it is not a must in the Nicaragua travel plans. Transport to Managua is available in microbuses which leave when full from the Market for 40L; if one is Tica-busing from Tegucigalpa, the 9AM bus has an unpublicized stop in Leon.

Leon: Sandinista Stronghold



Cathedral in Leon, the largest in Central America

Monday, February 16, 2009

Utila and the Bay Islands, Honduras

Utila is one of the three Bay Islands off of the northern Caribbean coast of Honduras. It’s known as a scuba paradise, although most likely more for the price then the mind-boggling sights – its probably the cheapest place to get scuba-certified.  If scuba diving isn’t a priority, it may be better going to a cheaper location with better beaches (Little Corn Island, Nicaragua possibly), although there is good snorkeling accompanying the scuba boats. Otherwise, it has been pretty touristy and looks like a typical backpacker haven with steeper prices. In my opinion, keep your expectations low and spend minimum days obtaining certification – although the wildlife is definitely interesting, the hyped whale sharks are hard to see; chances are you’ll see only a sea turtle or two instead.

Finding a scuba shop: To shop at all of them would take most likely a full day. It’s probably better to screen a couple based on price and commodities, and then vigorously weed out candidates from there. There are generally three categories:  (all prices as of Feb 2009)

1)                         The most expensive ones ($270-290 USD all-inclusive) which guarantees good training but is run like a factory, taking in trainees and spitting them out ASAP. (Utila Dive Centre, Gunter Dive Shop)

2)                         The mid-range ones ($240-270 USD all-inclusive) which has decent facilities and good training, and are more relaxed. (many)

3)                         The dirt-cheap (one) ($229 USD all-inclusive) which has horrendous facilities but apparently decent training, and is the one the island loves to hate. (Paradise Divers)

Be aware that most dive shops will include both (a minimum) of two free dives, as well as (a minimum) of three days paid dormitory housing. Some also include more housing days, as well as additional free dives. Many places do not include the reef tax ($3-$5/day), and some give horrendous Lempira to USD exchange rates (up to 7% markup) as well as large credit card surcharges. Besides asking all of the usual questions, make sure to ask if the shop goes out to the North Shore; many of the cheaper deals hug the south of the island, which can make for repetitive dives.

In the end, I chose Utila Water Sports, which was $252 all-inclusive of 5 nights’ accommodation, reef tax, and four free fun dives (as opposed to the usual two). This was for a SSI course; add $15 for PADI. It takes five days at the least to get certified and use the fun dives!

When budgeting for Utila, be sure to factor in the cost of the ferry, which currently holds a monopoly on the passage (425L depart from La Ceiba, 400L return). Also factor in costs for meals, which run 50L for basic baleadas to 100L for a set course. It is also possible to cook, but expect to pay US-prices or more for groceries.

Main (and only main) Street in Utila

Dock of my dormitory, also used for confined training

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Livingston, Guatemala and Las Siete Altares

The two things the guidebooks generally say are true – first, that Livingston is unlike any other place in Guatemala; and second, that there is not much to do besides absorb said fact. If you are looking for natural wonders, Livingston may not be the best place (though the Rio Dulce is said to provide beautiful surroundings), however it is definitely a Caribbean cultural wonder for those used to Guatemala’s ladino and Mayan culture.

The main town is a bit touristy and overrun by hawkers and hustlers; for a more realistic Livingston, it’s worth walking along the beach towards Las Siete Altares. One doesn’t have to go far to see Garifuna settlements along the beach, though if one is looking for swimming it’s best to walk for at least half an hour to avoid the rampant pollution. Las Siete Altares is an hour-and-a-half walk down the beach, and is a set of freshwater ponds and waterfalls; it’s not too impressive, but good for a swim. If you decide to go, it’s also possible to take a taxi to a bridge or back to cut the walk to 30 minutes; inquire at the entry booth for the return trip.

The beach at Livingston

Largest waterfall at Las Siete Altares


Tapado, a must-try seafood stew unique to Livingston (60Q)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Reflection on the melting pot of Belize

Belize is perhaps the friendliest and most integrated yet diverse of all of the countries I have visited. The ethic mix is impressive and ranges from Guatemalans, Europeans, Chinese, and Indians that have just immigrated to those that have had roots since the days of British Honduras. Surprising however is the integration of the cultures one finds in Belize; although a place like Hawaii has equal diversity, the integration is lacking. Perhaps it is the Belizean sun which equally tans all or the combination of languages that merge into a barely discernable Creole English, but just to see the integration the country is worth a visit.

Ethnic diversity, according to 2000 Belize govt. survey: Mestizo 34%, Kriol 25%, Maya 11%, Garifuna 6%, Spanish 15%, Mennonite 3.6%, Indian 3%, other 3%

Disclaimer: I spent very little time in Belize, so the sample size to gather this impression is statistically irrelevant. Also, staying in Belize for extended periods of time will bankrupt the average Central American backpacker!

Belmopan, Belize, Punta Gorda, Belize, and transferring to the Guatemalan coast

Belmopan perhaps symbolizes classic Belize; the smallest capital in the world (population 16,000), it has persons of all ethnicities and races. Admittedly, however, there is not much to do – there is a Central Market for food, two banks with ATMs, and a pretty easily navigated bus station for transferring to all destinations Belize. I was unable to discern the exact schedule, but it looked like destinations south departed every 1 ½ hours, with 1:30 PM being a departure time.

Punta Gorda can be reached 5 hours later on a modified chicken bus. On James Bus Lines, the local bus cost BZ$19 for the trip. The trip takes one through orange groves, national parks, and relaxed costal towns. The bus is fascinating in itself for the ethnic diversity one finds – Garifuna, Chinese, German Memmonite, Indian, Creole, Europeans, Mayans, and Ladinos to name a few. The town of Punta Gorda itself does not feature many attractions (nor a very pretty beach), but is a good place to see the melting pot of Belize.

Punta Gorda is also good for transferring to Livingston, Guatemala and Puerto Barritos, Guatemala. However, the schedule is notoriously difficult to find. As of January 2009, there are definite daily departures operated by Belizean boats for Puerto Barritos at 9:30AM and 2PM; arrive 30 minutes earlier to buy the ticket at the customs dock. Livingston departs at 2PM, but if there are five or more passengers the captain will make a stop at Livingston on the 9:30AM boat. It costs between BZ$35 to BZ$50 depending on the amount of people in your group; the boat drivers have a bit of a cartel. There may also be departures from Guatemalan-owned Transportes El Chato and Belizean-owned Requena’s Charter Services but I am unsure of the schedule. Like all travel in C. America, take it for granted that the schedule is flexible and put in time in your schedule, keeping in mind hotels in Punta Gorda can be expensive (upwards of BZ$36/room). Pay a BZ$7.50 fee upon exit to customs.


Stew beans and rice with chicken - a cheap Belizean staple (BZ$5)

Sunday Market in Punta Gorda, worth a visit


Melchor de Mencos, Guatemala, Benque Viejo del Carmen, Belize, and the Belize-Guatemalan Border

A quick rundown on getting to Belize from Flores/Tikal:

Minibuses leave from the Santa Elena, Guatemala bus terminal about every hour; there are also Pullman buses that leave at 6am and in the afternoon, but the minibus will allow for more flexibility. The minibus costs 25Q as of January 2009, and takes about 2 ½ hours. The route takes one through some amazing scenery, but gets rough towards the end when the road becomes unpaved. Ask the driver to stop at the border crossing (look for the Statue); a 5 minute walk across a bridge brings one to the crossing. The crossing is pretty standard; 20Q for exit formalities from Guatemala, and free for entry into Belize. Although taxis will do the 3km after the border crossing to Benque Viejo del Carmen for BZ$5, it is a manageable walk. Get ready for massive culture shock when entering Belize. To get to San Ignacio, take a bus that leaves every 30 minutes or hitchhike with the friendly people of Belize! One can catch connections throughout the country in Belmopan.

One fascinating aspect of Belize-Guatemalan relations is the “hidden tension” between the two countries on the international sphere. From speaking to Belizians and Guatemalans, it is clear the two do not get along; Guatemala believes Belize is part of its territory (as it amply shows on its tourist map), while Belize has stuck to a self-reliance mentality. Although the border crossing is easy, according to a member of the Belize Protection Forces I spoke to in Punta Gorda nationals rarely cross, although in the eclectic mix of ethnicities of Belize one finds many new Guatemalan immigrants of questionable legality.

What, signs in English in Centro America?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Santa Elena / Flores / Tikal National Park, Guatemala

Santa Elena and Flores are sister cities deep in El Petén; unlike the highlands, being around sea level means these two cities do not have the bone-chilling freeze of the South. Santa Elena is a typical Guatemalan town (except slower moving), and Flores is a tiny island in the Lago Peten Itza connected to Santa Elena with functions as a tourist hub. The town itself is beautiful; think of it as the Antigua of the North. Tuks-tuks cost 5Q each, although the towns are small enough to walk in.

Tikal, a 1 ¼ hour drive away, is the regional highlight. It was an old Mayan capital, and it features impressive ruins and temples deep within the jungle. Be sure to bring water and snacks for the 10km walks! Although the temples and complexes are all intriguing, I would recommend skipping the Temple of the Inscriptions (Temple VI) if you do not have the time; the jungle walk there is possibly more interesting than the inscription-less ruin.  Also, watch out when climbing Temple II and V; one slip equals death sacrificial-style... Finally, bring extra money as the ticket price jumped to 150Q as of Feb 2009. If you like Tikal’s partially excavated temples, consider a hike to El Mirador; someone I met there was able to do a 8-day jungle hike with food and camping equipment for $200 out of Carmelita.

To get to Tikal from Flores/Santa Elena, you can take a minibus which leaves on the hour through San Juan Travel Agency in Flores (60Q r/t as of Feb 2009), or take regular microbuses which go around town looking for passengers. If you go the microbus method, (from experience) I would strongly recommend not buying the round-trip; the driver has no incentive to return to pick you up and will demand cash up-front. Beware of the fleecing $10 USD microbuses that meet the buses! If you get stuck in Tikal, you can probably get on a random bus for 30Q. One can reasonably see the place in 6 hours.

One doesn't just find engrish in China...

Templo I, Tikal


Flores from my hotel

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Busing direct vs. travel agency in Guatemala: Linea Dorada (Feb 2009)

From the Zona 1 bus station in Guatemala City, here are the latest prices for Linea Dorada when one buys direct from the source. Luxury and first class is theoretically a different bus, however when I took it they used the same double-decker for both classes with the sole difference being priority boarding and a dinner consisting of a hot dog and soda. Although the bigger seats and recline of the luxury bus for an overnight trip is probably worth the extra $5 USD, check the seat maps for both buses at the ticket counter if you have a first-class ticket before choosing to upgrade or you may find yourself paying extra for the same services. The bus has no security, but for a reason I am not sure of people consider Linea Dorada the safest in El Petén.

In contrast, the cheapest ticket in Antigua I could find for first-class Linea Dorada to Santa Elena/Flores with a shuttle service from Antigua to Guatemala City was $30 USD / 240Q. With a difference of 90Q, I suppose you are paying the premium for the shuttle service direct to the station. Given the area of the bus station (the graffiti, lack of people, and history of crime), it’s probably worth the premium.

For Santa Elena/Flores, the bus leaves at 9AM and arrives at 6AM, making stops at both cities.

Edit: Having trouble getting the piture to load; its 150Q for first class and 190Q for luxury from Guatemala City to Santa Elena/Flores.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Antigua, Guatemala


As my residence for 2 ½ weeks, Antigua has become my Guatemalan second home. As such, it is hard to give typical tourist attractions as the churches all seem alike after some time. However, even after time it is still easy to appreciate the beautiful setting amidst three volcanoes and the impressive colonial architecture around every corner. If traveling through, I would recommend staying a couple of days and just walking the streets and exploring the church ruinas that interest you the most. Be sure to go to Cerro de la Cruz (during daytime hours), the Central Mercado, and browse the Parque Central while you’re here!

Dusty bus station with Volcan de Agua in the background

The symbolic Antiguan landmark which I cannot identify

View from Cerro de la Cruz

Best place to go for internet: Bagel Barn, by the Parque Central, which has fast and free wireless and affordable drink prices – try the smoothies!

Best evening activity: Catch a movie at Café 2000, or Bagel Barn, at 8:00 or 7:15 respectively. The former is highly recommended for its atmosphere (and cheap 2x30Q mojitos)

Best place to find affordable (clean) street food: Antigua is admittedly lacking in this department. Try the area between the Parada de Autobuses and Mercado Central for cheap pollo fritos (Q7), fruit snacks (Q5), or the area around Inglesia de la Merced for tamalitos, or mini-tamales in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon (Q4-6). When in doubt, choose steamed or deep-fried food.

Best way to get mugged: Walk around the outskirts of town after 10pm, carry items in front pockets, go to Cerro de la Cruz after 4pm when the police escort leaves, or go to Guatemala City at night.

Best free thing to do when churches begin to bore you: Check out a Spain-sponsored museum between 4a Calle Poniente and 6a Ave Sur; it has interesting free exhibits and occasional movies.

Best place to learn Spanish: Empathetically not Antigua. However, it is by far the most comfortable place to do so, though do not expect to learn much in this decisively non-immersive setting.

Best investment if you're here in the dry season: A blanket, preferably of Mayan origin. Although 50F may sound warm, remember the houses do not have heat!