A Brit, a Guatemalan and a Canadian: My Central American Adventure
Two summers ago I had completed my first year of primary teaching in the UK and I’d managed to save enough money to get me to Guatemala to visit my good friend Monty and venture a little further to Honduras and Costa Rica. Just the sheer excitement of catching a plane on my own at the age of 23 to Central America was enough buzz in itself. I felt so liberated to travel alone, free from all other influences. There really is something special about travelling on completely your own terms. I won’t knock company though. When arriving in Guatemala City I was thrilled to be greeted by my Guatemalan friend Montserrat (Monty). After two years since our adventure together on a month long summer course in Nancy, France, it was great to be reunited as if no time has passed at all – I love those friendships.
Guatemala – Antigua 13 hours of catch up sleep later we hit the road to Antigua, a hub for backpackers in Guatemala. We picked up Monty’s fun-loving friend Michelle on the way who was really up for a party and I was told that Antigua was exactly the place to go. By day the old town is a quaint and traditional destination with cobbled streets, beautiful plazas and plenty of historic buildings set against a backdrop of majestic volcanoes and mountains to the south east of the capital. But by night the streets turn into a buzzing venue for fellow travellers to roam, share their stories and enjoy the warmth of this small but welcoming haven. I was immediately captivated by the combination of the locals in traditional dress with the rugged groups of backpackers (which at the time was completely new to me). Excitement fizzed through the air as I became aware that everyone around me was on the same drive for discovery.
Top food memory number 1: Michelada! This sounds disgusting but it really is something to marvel at. It’s true that perhaps it’s more refreshing and satisfying at the right place at the right time (my family weren’t too impressed when I recreated them back home), but my god they were good. I knocked back my first few of these in Antigua:
- Half tomato juice
- Half lager
- Tabasco to taste
- Salt around the rim of the glass
- Lea & Perrins (of course!)
- A good squeeze of lime
- Plenty of ice
I think it’s fair to say that Antigua has its own boozy nightlife scene. By the end of the night we’d got through a good number of mystery shots, one that even reminded us of our dear Canadian friend Alannah who would be joining us later on the trip. We happily downed a feisty round of Red Headed Slut (it’s not true Alannah!) and then hit the road to find ourselves a dance floor. This was only the second day and I was already having the time of my life. Lo que pasa en Antigua queda en Antigua.
The next day we headed back to Guatemala City for some chill time. There is plenty of poverty and corruption in Guatemala’s capital city but Monty’s life is far removed from the regular rumble and tumble. In the morning we went for a sunbathe at a private swimming pool at a health club Monty’s parents belonged to. I won’t deny it was pretty blissful but it was also fascinating to see how the middle/upper classes manage to escape from the rougher aspects of city life. Like many of her friends, Monty and her family live in a compound in the outskirts of the capital surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. They also had a live-in maid who prepared most of their meals and took care of the house work. This felt very weird. I was quite reluctant at first to let her do my washing and clear away our dinner plates but Monty said that this was entirely normal and that it’s common throughout Central America. I suppose it creates work for Guatemala’s poorer citizens, but it’s not a lifestyle I could ever imagine adopting. I think you have to grow up with it. Day three and we were back on the road to Antigua to take a connecting bus to a lakeside town called Pana where we would explore a stunning volcano clad lake, Atitlán. Waiting for our dilapidated minivan to arrive, Monty and I sat on the curb of one of the dusty streets and munched on some spiced mango from one of the many charming street vendors. This was basically sliced mango, a spice mix called pepitoria, salt, lime juice and chilli powder: sweet, sour and spicy! Our vehicle pulled up and we clambered aboard the tiny ramshackle bus. No AC, no seatbelts, LOTS of fun. A few hours later of weaving and tinkering along the Guatemalan cliff faces, we turned one last corner to reveal one of the most breathtaking views of my life. El lago Atitlán sparkled in the afternoon sun and proudly presented two powerful volcanoes on either side of the water. We trundled down into Pana, the gateway to the lake and its surrounding villages and got dropped at our hotel for the next two nights.
The main tourist attraction in Pana is the boat tour which take you around the four different villages, each with its own purpose and identity; San Marco – hippy bohemia, San Juan – trade town (coffee and dyes), San Pedro – tourism central, Santiago – a built up industrial town (and home of the rum-drinking demi-god of partying, Maximon!).
Sadly Pana at this time was suffering from a low point in tourism due to a build up of bacteria in the lake that occurred in 2009 which inhibited people from taking their usual dip in the water. I felt sorry for the locals as visitors to the town were their main source of income and you could see that they were feeling the effects of this decline. They seemed exceptionally keen to sell us the beautiful handicrafts on the market stalls lining the main street. (Luckily for them I was still pretty new to the colourful goods they had on offer and was utterly spellbound by the vibrant fabrics and traveller paraphernalia on offer.) The buzz from Antigua was certainly far behind us now; there were very few other backpackers in town at that time. Monty and I felt pretty lonely and we caught ourselves singing Just the two of us on more than one occasion! The following day, after a trip to a nearby nature reserve (monkeys, butterflies and a never-ending trail to a deserted beach), we headed back to Guatemala via Antigua in our little fun bus. I am slightly embarrassed to say that on arrival in Guatemala City I had my first ever Taco Bell! Possibly the naughtiest taco on the planet? Damn tasty but it’s probably for the best that we don’t have these at home. Guatemala – Guatemala City Back in the capital we spent the day exploring the city. Monty took me to her university so I could see where she studied. It was a really modern campus full of students who were from a similar background to hers. Most of the people who go onto further education in Guatemala tend to have mixed background of Mestizo (a mixture of Amerindian and Spanish) and European decent. This combination makes up around 60% of the population with the rest comprised of indigenous peoples such as the Mayans. Many of the friends I was introduced to didn’t look particularly Guatemalan as they had different, more European face shapes and colourings. Monty herself was half Spanish (her dad had moved from Barcelona to set up a fashion school in Guatemala). It was interesting to note that even today those who achieve more academically have colonial heritage whilst many of the natives (7 out of 10 indigenous people) are still living in poverty, mainly in the rural areas of the country. Honduras – Roatán After making the most of the breakfast buffet we completed the final leg of our journey on mainland before catching the ferry from La Ceiba to Roatán. I’d been told that our destination was an island in the Caribbean sea and that it had beautiful beaches. I didn’t really know what to expect from this little island but it certainly gave me more unforgettable memories than I ever bargained for. That evening our beautiful Canadian friend Alannah arrived. We had a quick catch up and then got an early night before we hit the road to Honduras the next morning. Monty’s parents had offered to drive us to their regular holiday destination Roatán, one of the Bay Islands of Guatemala’s neighbouring country.
It was an epic journey. Our first stop was at the most significant Mayan ruin called Copán just past the Honduran border. Dating back to 500AD, these were a spectacular series of pale stone structures, often made up of towering steps soaring into the clear blue sky. One of the ruins was even said to be a football pitch. Apparently the Mayans had invented an early version of the game in which they passed the ball by thrusting their hips!
Generously Monty’s parents paid for us to stay the night in a spectacular 5 star hotel in a city called San Pedro. We weren’t exactly slumming it on the road so far. We went for a moonlight dip in the pool to cool off from the sweaty heat of the car. It felt so good to do some exercise! After making the most of the breakfast buffet we completed the final leg of our journey on mainland before catching the ferry from La Ceiba to Roatán. I’d been told that our destination was an island in the Caribbean sea and that it had beautiful beaches. I didn’t really know what to expect from this little island but it certainly gave me more unforgettable memories than I ever bargained for. Monty, Alannah and I were staying in a not too shabby hostel in West End which was a buzzing little boho area full of quirky bars and restaurants (my cup of tea!). The sun was setting on our arrival so we quickly got sorted in our room and then headed out to find food and a good helping of gin and tonic (I’d learnt that quinine in the tonic water helps to fight off mosquitoes, not that I needed an excuse!).
Amazing unforgettable experience number 1: Swimming in a moonlit sea with a couple of guys, treading through a velvet seabed to release phosphorescence. Who knew seaweed could sparkle? I very swiftly got over my early morning hangover as soon as we got to West Bay where Monty’s parents were staying. I thought I’d already been to heaven at West End but that was nothing. It was and still is the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life. Pulling into the dock on the lancha (taxi boat), we were welcomed by a shallow bay of crystal clear water fading into mesmerising azure and deeper blue hues. Infinity, the private beach resort, was set on an expanse of pure white sand and framed by sweeping palm trees. We got guest passes for the day from Monty’s parents (lucky again) and rented snorkelling gear for $10 and that was it: hours were spent dipping in and out of the warm tranquil water, chasing exotic sea-life and dodging the alluring but sharp coral beds.
Some serious tanning began that day on our fancy sun loungers. It was here that we invented our Harry rating system. There were plenty of good looking rugged traveller types back at West End and Monty and Alannah had already decided that Harry was a brilliant codeword to use when boy spotting. This was based on their idea that British guys are the fittest (news to me) and that they’re all called Harry (again, what?). Anyway the idea seemed to stick and so the following rating system emerged:
The rest of the perfect day was spent back at the intoxicating West End. We devoured some amazing pad thai perched on a dock in the setting sun and then headed over to the main backpacker bar Blue Marlin which had a buzzing atmosphere and was full of chatty dive instructors (West End has a great reputation for scuba diving – unfortunately at the time we were too skint to do this!). After a few more gins we turned into karaoke stars. Our girl band would have to be called Charlie’s Angels (Monty is brunette, Alannah is a red head and I’m the blond). We totally rocked our rendition of Wannabe!
Waking up with a mild hangover we needed a health kick which was delivered at a cool little hippy cafe called Earth Mama’s. Fresh fruit, granola and yogurt (my favourite traveller breakfast) sorted me out and we went back to West Bay for one more day in paradise. Lunch is worth a mention here. We ate at the the hotel with Monty’s folks and I ordered “chicken curry salad”. Apparently in these parts this is also known as coronation chicken (if you’re not a Brit look it up) served on a bed of pineapple and banana bread – bizarre but delicious. More sun and underwater adventures followed. Beware the snorkelling in high temperatures: burnt back = ouch!
That evening we feasted on amazing nachos and tacos at the fun Cannibal Cafe in West End before party time commenced! There was no better place to be than Blue Marlin. The night was a blur of crazy dancing, lots of Harrys, trespassing hotel water slides, clambering up and over wooden docks, more sparkly seaweed and a very late night…
The angels woke me up at 10am. Five hours sleep, not bad. My day started with leg trauma! I took off my bedsheets to reveal jellyfish stings and one leg so bruised it looked like I’d been attacked by a Honduran drug gang. Damn weak capillaries. A long journey back to Guatemala City awaited us and I rocked my bruises happily on the way home with a big grin on my face. Costa Rica – San José For my last week in Central America Alannah and I parted ways with Monty as we headed via Copa Airlines for a week in Costa Rica. First stop, the big dirty metropolis, San José. It was true what people say, as soon as you arrive in San José, you want to leave. Disorganised road networks lined with endless billboards for everything and anything, a mishmash of modern drab buildings and a spattering of colonial architecture. I always find these places interesting in their own right but they’re not generally worth spending any real time in. After we dumped our stuff in our hostel, Casa Colón (beautiful on the outside but the room was basically a sweaty box with cockroaches for company), we took a wonder downtown to get our bearings. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t feel a bit vulnerable in these streets. We drew lots of attention as two pale western girls. In the main plaza we took refuge in a tourist information office where the friendly Diego booked us onto a tour which included a coffee plantation, volcano and rainforest zip-lining for the following couple of days. Costa Rica – Out and around San José Escape! We left the grey city on a tour bus at 6.30am picking up a few others from their hotels on the way. We were taken to the Abijuela province where we stopped first to learn about how coffee is produced in the region before heading higher to get a good look at a volcano. I’d never seen one close up before and the colour of the acid rain which filled the crater looked practically sci-fi – a bowl of steaming aqua green soup. Before returning to San José, we visited a nature reserve called The Peace Lodge where we saw an array of animals including a memorable little critter – Mr Sloth (weird claws!). Gustavo our guide was an absolute star, he had so much passion for educating others about his country. I clearly remember him explaining the meaning of the Costa Rican saying “pura vida”. Translated literally it means “pure life” but people use it to exclaim their enjoyment of living. I suppose we would say “this is living”, or perhaps more fashionable these days, “YOLO!” (oh God…).
The next day took us into the rainforest for a “canopy tour”. I really didn’t know what to expect from this other than some sort of zip-lining. We headed into the lush mountains on another tour bus, picking up a pleasant American couple on the way and a very sweet Chilean woman. High above the city we were strapped to some vaguely safe looking wires by a bunch of tiny but charming Costa Ricans. This had to be the coolest way to see the rainforest! The best moves by far were “the Tarzan” – we were swung out into the sky far above the canopy four times, and “the superman” – connected to the wire by our backs we flew out face down across the longest and highest zip-line!All that screaming sure worked up an appetite so we tucked into our inclusive lunch of a typical plate of food called a casado (literally meaning married man); a delicious combination of rice, black beans, fried yam, plantain and beautifully cooked chicken. It was simple but so exciting to eat! Costa Rica – Montezuma Resting in our hostel that evening, we planned the next leg of our stay in Costa Rica. San José just wasn’t cutting it so we decided to take up Diego’s recommendation of a beach town on the Nicoya peninsula (Pacific coast). Fuelled by our recent memories of Roatán, the next morning we made our way to Montezuma for some more beach adventures. But we had to get there first! Our journey started in the near dark at 5.30am and we headed to what we thought was the right bus station in the city. A kind taxi driver pulled up and informed us that the area we were in was muy peligroso (very dangerous) with lots of addicts and thieves (oops). He took us to where we needed to be and we paid $14 for our “direct service” to Montezuma. After a bus to Puntarenas, a ferry to Paquera and a further bus (chickens included) to Montezuma which we had to swap halfway due to traveller/locals overload, sweaty and mildly pissed off we finally made it to our destination. Montezuma is not just a famous Aztec emperor, nor just a very yummy brand of chocolate in the UK, it’s also a cool, quirky, hippy beach town on the west coast of Costa Rica. The Pacific coastline wasstunning, although it was tough to measure up to the idyllic views of the Caribbean. The exotic black sands and dramatic crashing waves of the deep blue ocean were enclosed by huge palms adorned with coconuts and some very animated Rastafarian locals in hammocks – good vibes! We found a cute family run hostel called Flor de la Vida (flower of life) which was basically a big old house with thick wooden beams and decking. It was pretty quiet but spacious with all the basics. The only other guy staying there was a spiritual healer from California by the name of Satya Colombo! He had quite the lifestyle hopping around various hippy destinations, using the internet as a way of communicating with his clients and charging a pretty penny for it too. We spent the rest of our first day on the beach getting some serious exfoliation from the wild waves, by far the strongest tide I’d ever felt – I must learn to surf!
That evening we were ever so slightly keen to find somewhere with as much atmosphere as Blue Marlin in Roatán. We picked up some booze from the local shop and had some pre-drinks on our balcony that looked out across the increasingly wild ocean. A few vodka cokes later, the storm hit. The hardest, chubbiest, wettest rain hammered our wooden shelter and we witnessed some fantastic thunder and lightning. I love a good storm. We spent at least half an hour waiting for it to pass but in the end decided to brave it and legged it over to a bar we’d spotted earlier called Chicos. We were drenched and not surprisingly the bar was pretty quiet. I ended up teaching Alannah how to play pool with the help of Pol from Barcelona and friends. We hung out for a bit before running home in the rain which was still pouring. It didn’t stop until 7am! I discovered a new hangover cure – powerade! We wondered through town to a different beach. Not so great; I was sad to see rubbish washed up on the shore from the mainland. A hint at the state of Honduras’ attitude towards waste and recycling. After some chill time on our original beach near our hostel, we went for a stroll to find a waterfall we’d heard about. We climbed up the rocks as far as we could but conditions were too tricky and there were risks of landslides because of the previous night’s downpour. We didn’t fancy our chances! Not all adventures work out how you want them to.
I washed down my fish casado with more vodka on the balcony before heading back to Chicos for a round of pool with Canadian sisters Rebecca and Meg (I love Canadians!). Nils and Rich, two guys from the UK we’d met on our journey to Montezuma, turned up too. We played a card game called Yusuf (no idea what this is now) which swiftly turned into ring of fire leading to mucking about on the beach and finally salsa dancing (yes!). We finished the night having to squeeze under the locked gate to our hostel… Hangover number two wasn’t much fun as we had to travel back to San José for our flight. We’d decided not to take the “direct service” due to timings. Amazingly I’ve made a note of the travel costs, probably because they were so incredibly cheap!
- Bus from Montezuma to Paquera: $3
- Ferry from Paquera to Puntarenas: $1.50
- Bus to bus station: 40c
- Bus from Paquera to San José: $1.50 (and this was a good 4 hours!)
- Taxi to bus station: $3
- Bus to the airport: $1
Not bad for an eight hour journey!
There were acouple of lasting memories from this voyage back to mainland. When getting on the bus in Montezuma, a couple were arguing about what to do with their pet dog because the girl wanted to take him with them but the guy said they should leave him behind because he wouldn’t be allowed on the bus. For some reason the driver thought a good compromise would be to store the dog underneath the bus with the luggage! I know there are a lot of countries with less sensitive attitudes towards animals, but this was really pushing it. Fortunately the girl kicked up so much of a fuss that after 10 minutes the driver gave in and got the dog out who sat happily on his mum’s lap for the rest of the journey. I love how you meet so many random characters when travelling. Terence the Texan was on our bus back to San José. He’d been on the road for quite some time and definitely looked the part in his worn backpacker gear and floppy, greasy hair. He told us hewas planning on writing a book about the perils of cuddling in Central America – he called this the “gummy bear” effect! Guatemala – Guatemala City My last couple of days were spent back in Guatemala City experiencing the culture of the centre. Sunday Catholic processions were combined with random fire crackers which sounded more like car bombs in the main square. The atmosphere always seemed a little tense here and we had to be accompanied by Monty’s parents as the area wasn’t known for its safety. We explored the huge central market for some last minute souvenir bargains (oh the colours!), I was finally starting to get the hang of the haggling. The rest of the day wasn’t exactly traditionally Guatemalan; Monty’s dad took us for a slap-up Chinese meal and then I went to Walmart to buy ingredients to say thank you to her family the best way I knew how – baked cheesecake! I flew home the following day dreaming about all the adventures we’d had, knowing that I’d experienced something special. It had been amazing being able to share it all with Monty and Alannah; travel is such a good way to meet likeminded people and make friends for life all over the world – I was very lucky to have met them in Nancy. Another chapter in the travelogue had come to an end but I knew it wouldn’t be the last.