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


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!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Volcan Pacaya / Acatenango / de Fuego, Guatemala

Volcan Pacaya is an active volcano which is probably the largest tourist attraction around Antigua, Guatemala. As it is on the other side of Volcan Agua, it is not viewable from Antigua. Almost all tourist agencies in Antigua will provide transportation round-trip leaving at 6am or 2/2:30pm for as low as $5 USD, or 40Q as of Feb 2009. This is exclusive of a 40Q entrance fee payable at the park. After a 1 ½ hour drive, it is a 3.5km hike to the top for which there are multiple trails depending on the guide’s mood. A walking stick, sneakers, marshmallows for s’mores, and water is recommended, and for the night hikes a flashlight may be a good idea. At 2200m, depending on the volcano’s mood you may see tumbling rocks or slow-flowing lava. However, at the time of writing the park guides were not climbing to the 2551m active crater. The whole tour takes 6-6 ½ hours.

Volcan Acatenango (3971m) is an extinct volcano which sits next to Volcan de Fuego, a highly active volcano. On a clear day, one can commonly see smoke coming off of the top of Volcan de Fuego. At the time of writing, it was possible to climb Acatenango and to climb parts of Fuego, however very few companies in Antigua sponsor these activities for less than $49 USD/day or $79 USD/2 days. It is possible to do it sans guided tour, and logistically it is not difficult. From an employee of one of the guided tours, one can find the Acatenango trailhead in La Soldad (upon paying a villager a 10Q “entrance fee” for doing so), and follow it directly to the top. Start before sunrise and retreat if fog settles in, especially in the crater. However, the horror stories of groups of twenty Guatemaltecos being robbed at gunpoint and of recent armed robberies (the guide indicated the last robbery only occurred two months ago, a lifetime for the mountain) make this a very dangerous trip without security. Check the security situation before proceeding.

Volcan Pacaya close-up

Lava on Volcan Pacaya

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Copan Ruinas and Copan Archeological Site, Honduras

Copan Ruinas is a small town a couple of kilometers from the Guatemalan-Honduras border. If crossing from Guatemala, the cowboy hats and leather boots should make it apparent one has made it to another country. The town itself is beautiful and quaint, with cobblestone streets and a beautiful and spacious Parque Central (although its assortment of street food was disappointing to say the least). It also offers horseback riding at the agencies/hotels ($15 USD per person, advertised for 3 hours but in reality more like 2), which is recommended for the opportunity to see traditional Indian life as well as colorful quetzals, the national (but non-nesting in-country) bird of Guatemala. We did not go to Macaw Mountain, but it received good reviews from a friend. Like many towns, US dollars can obtain a better rate for travel agency related items than the local currency.

A 15-minute walk brings one to the Copan Archaeological Site, the main draw of Copan Ruinas and one of the largest attractions of Honduras. The ruins are quite interesting for their beautiful hieroglyphics and sculptures, which one can only appreciate after seeing the lack thereof at Tikal. Whether it is worth the $15 USD entrance fee plus possible transport cost is a toss-up. The tunnels seemed underwhelming from the entrance, and not worth the additional $15 USD. It also may be worthwhile walking along the outskirts of the East Patio Plaza, where it is possible to spot quetzals. Budgeting 3 hours for the trip seems appropriate. The wildlife and upkeep of Copan is noticeably better than that of Tikal.

To get to Copan from Antigua, one can take a shuttle for as low as USD $7 as of Feb 2009, departing Antigua at 4am and arriving at 10am with a 30-minute breakfast break. However, coming back requires a more expensive shuttle bookable in Copan for USD $12 as of Feb 2009, leaving at 6am or noon. Although theoretically it should be free to cross a CA-4 border, good luck convincing the border guards. Guatemala charged a 10Q entrance/exit fee bluntly labeled as such, while Honduras charged a $3 USD “processing tax.” for entry only. Oddly, I was also able to get another Guatemala entry stamp (but no exit stamp or Honduras stamps); if you need to stay more than 90 days, it’s worth trying your luck here instead of leaving the CA-4.

Guatemala / Honduras checkpoint into Copan Ruinas

Facing Site 11

Friday, February 6, 2009

Guatemala City, Guatemala – “Guate,” or “La Ciudad”

Guatemala City is one of those places most locals and even tourists would recommending skipping altogether. Given the extraordinarily high murder rate, most of which is drug-related, this recommendation comes as no surprise. As for safety, the advice I gathered from residents and my teacher includes:

1) Try to avoid city buses. This recommendation comes from the large number of petty crime and the increasing number of bus driver murders (2/day average if one reads the newspapers). I would modify this recommendation to avoiding the far-out city buses, but using popular routes such as 83 Aeropuerto.

2) Avoid Zona 3, 4, 7, and the South of 1. Zona 3 is probably the biggest no-no; largely a slum, it has limited police presence and much gang activity. Along the diagonal separating Zona 3, every fourth or fifth road is blocked off; this is supposedly to limit escape routes in the event of a murder. Zona 4 has the Mercado Terminal, which my teacher says is asking for robbery if a tourist enters its mazes.

3) Avoid walking around at night. Pretty standard advice for the country.

Note: Despite the warnings, the “off-limit” zones also contain quite interesting off-the-beaten-track destinations. The Mercado Terminal in Zona 4 is huge, the Municipal Dump and Graveyard in Zona 3 is a great way to see the socioeconomic disparity of Guatemala, and the Chicken Bus for Antigua picks up in Zona 3 and Zona 7…

Besides the attractions in the danger zones, there is enough to see in Zona 1 around 3-5 Avenida to last a day. The Central Market is worthwhile, as well as seeing the beautiful museum and church surrounding the Parque Central (and the snipers mounted on top). While driving or walking through the city, the contrasts are also quite interesting; McDonalds, Dominos, and various strip malls sit next to Chicken Buses and hawkers selling fruit for 1Q.

Note: Photos courtesy L.Y.

Palacio National facing the Parque Central, Zona 1

The cathedral facing the Parque Central, Zona 1

Monday, February 2, 2009

A bit of Pittsburgh in Guatemala

Although probably irrevelant for most readers, I thought I'd share the Super Bowl experience in Guatemala. For the most American of all events, almost all of the expats in the Antigua area crowded around Mono Loco, a bar near the Parque Central, for four hours of Super Bowl hysteria. The number of Hines Ward jerseys and the yelling with each Holmes run goes to show that Pittsburgh fans are everywhere. For sports events, the bar is a good place to check out, or if you're craving a bit of Americana in Guatemala. (Though it is pricey by Guatemalan standards)

Congrats to the Steelers for one for the other thumb!