In contrast to my travel style today, this three week trip to Central America was pretty much all unplanned in advance with only the start and end points known. Equipped with my trusted Lonely Planet book, I headed for Guatemala back in December 2012 not knowing where the adventure may take me…
With cobblestoned roads and multi-coloured colonial buildings, the beautiful city of Antigua very much played up to my stereotypical view of this region’s culture perfectly. I spent many hours wandering around the Unesco World Heritage area which was full of churches, plazas and markets amid the stunning setting of its surrounding volcanoes.
An old church in a real state of decay on the outskirts of Antigua was a great to explore. This impressive monument was built in the early 18th century and destroyed in the 1773 earthquake.
According to the owner of a local restaurant, this food (along with some beers) was supposedly the most Guatemalan style dish on the menu. I only had a $100 bill but he very kindly said I could go to a bank or even come back the following day and pay the bill which was under $10. I just opted to use my credit card instead!
The active Volcan Pacaya (2552m), 25km away from Antigua, was somewhere I really wanted to climb but it didn’t quite live up to the dramatic pictures of running lava displayed on the posters in the travel agencies.
Toasting marshmallows on a stick under a natural hot rock near the summit was a highlight as was a little hole in the ground which was steaming hot inside. It took about 90 minutes to go up and far less going back down as the sun was about to set not that I minded some hiking in the dark towards the end.
It was a seven hour bus journey north the next day to the island of Flores which is the gateway to Tikal National Park where I spent a gloriously sunny Christmas Day in the company of a very nice South African couple, and we had a great day wandering around a fairly deserted place.. It was a very different story four days earlier for the end of the Maya Long Count calendar when it was packed full of people anticipating the supposed end-of-the-world!
This jungle is littered with thousands of ruined structures and was one of my must-see places in Central America due in main part to its very short appearance in ‘Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope‘ (1977). We reached the lookout point seen in the film by ascending a series of wooden steps on the back of the 64 metre temple and the stunning views of the jungle’s green canopy really are the highlight for many.
Temple I at Gran Plaza also featured in the James Bond movie ‘Moonraker‘ (1979).
Across from Temple I is Temple II and, despite not being able to climb them (due to people tumbling to their death in the past), they were still awesome to just look at.
After a two night break in Belize, I returned to Guatemala via boat for two nights in Livingston. The main event there was a day trip by boat to Playa Blanca (White Beach) with some waterfall jumps thrown in for good measure. I couldn’t truly relax though as my back had burned so much the previous day in Belize!
My final destination was unknown when I boarded a bus bound for Belize but as almost everyone else was off to an island called Caye Caulker I thought I might as well follow suit. This backpacker favourite island is no doubt very different to “the real Belize” and I felt mildly embarrassed about going there as I took the ferry over for a couple of days of beach life. First though, I splashed out on one of the islands specialities; lobster curried rice.
I later wandered a kilometre (about half the length of the island) up to the tiny beach (a bit of sandy gravel!) with a beachside bar pumping out non-stop reggae beats. I sunbathed, took a dip and basically enjoyed the laid-back feel-good vibe of the place.
A lovely sunset and evening drinks with a fellow traveller were followed by a full day snorkelling tour which was just under four hours! Little did I know that this area is actually the worlds second largest reef and inevitably I ended up burning my back quite badly whilst swimming with various sharks, rays and turtles at three different spots.
I took the 6.30am boat back to Belize City and was gonna hunt out some movie locations from ‘The Dogs Of War‘ (1980) and ‘The Mosquito Coast‘ (1986) but decided that it was too dangerous a place to bother risking life and limb just for a few minor filming spots. Time was also ticking so I just got in a taxi and went to the national bus station where a bus to the southern point of the country was imminent.
Feeling the whole trip had been pretty standard (travel-wise) up to this point it felt good to be moving on one of the cheap, local chicken buses which are full of characters and incidents. I was used to vendors coming on board to sell certain objects and food but this journey was the first time I’ve ever seen a guy get on a bus selling slices of his hot boxed pizza!
There were only about four people on the 5am bus to Honduras from Guatemala City where I had returned the previous day. Copan Ruinas were about one kilometre on foot from the bus station and pleasant enough with the detail of the carved stones most impressive but not a patch on Tikal.
Mid-afternoon I took another bus to capital city Tegucigalpa via San Pedro Sula which wasn’t too far away from where I started the day the previous morning! It was about 10.30pm on New Years Eve when I arrived in the dangerous and crime-ridden capital. Despite Comayaguela bus station not being one to linger I still thought I could make it to a hotel a few blocks away without problems and I tried but really couldn’t get my bearings so returned to the station and ended up sharing a taxi with the last remaining person in the place. I uttered the words Hotel Union to the driver but with my inability to truly communicate in Spanish I really had no idea what was in store for me.
Sadly, no one answered the door so I tried the hotel next door and was thankfully able to get a cell-like room for $13 a night. There was no wi-fi but I did have satellite TV and saw New York enter 2013 on CNN at 11pm local time. An hour later I was watching (and listening to) fireworks and fire crackers going off all around the place from the roof of the hotel which sounds far more glamorous and interesting than it really was!
My New Years Day was mostly spent watching CNN as well as the ‘Friends‘ non-stop marathon on one of the other channels. I braved the streets to find the bus station where I managed to get confirmation that there were no buses until the next day. Good to do a dry run anyway in the murder capital of the world!
I went to an internet cafe over the road from my hotel where I was warned about the dangers of the area but I was getting bored being holed up in my room so later returned to the same place to get the guy to book me a taxi to take me into the city as I thought I might as well see what it had to offer.
The place was full of police and army soldiers which was in a way reassuring for me. I saw some churches, the cathedral and other such prominent buildings in what was a small downtown area. I had asked the taxi driver to pick me up again at 4pm but he never showed up which was a blessing in disguise as I managed to catch a shared taxi back for about 70 cents.
Thanks to getting to the bus station at opening time I was able to get the very last seat to Managua in Nicaragua. A night in the capital city before heading south the next morning to the colonial lakeside wonder Granada was my plan. I checked into Guest House Santos which Lonely Planet describes as “a legendary backpacker spot with a laid-back vibe and plenty of character”. That sadly wasn’t too much in evidence as I was about the only person staying there!
In Granada the following morning I spent some time eating lunch and walking around yet another colonial town in scorching sunshine.
Mid-afternoon I decided to up the ante a bit and did some zip-lining in the foreground of Volcan Mombacho. Overall there were 11 cables for us to zip along over the jungle canopy in a variety of styles such as Superman, upside down and the more conventional manner.
My second day was a far more eventful one as a fellow Brit and I rented some bicycles to go to Laguna de Apoyo as that crater lake is considered to be one of the country’s natural wonders. Riding down a dual-carriageway, missing turnoff points, arguments, relentless bumpy hills, punctures and plenty of disappointment ensued as everything seemed to go wrong.
Masaya volcano night tour was on the agenda mid-afternoon with the undoubted highlight being a bat cave in pitch black darkness where we were then told to turn off our torches. We could hear the bats flying around us which was pretty scary and made almost worse when I pushed the clicker on my camera and saw the bright picture flash up on screen showing me how many bats there were (loads!) and how blo*dy close they were to me. I felt like Bruce Wayne in ‘Batman Begins‘ (2005) with the swarm of bats flying around me which was quite unnerving.
5. Costa Rica
My time in the capital city was a bit of a nightmare. On the border I wanted to get money out of a bank as I only had about $20 left but I couldn’t get cash out of the ATM because my bank had blocked my cards and I needed my passport (which the bus staff had to do the visa stuff) to get money out over the counter.
Once in San Jose I shared a taxi with a very nice American guy who dropped me off at Hostel Pangea. I had to pay cash for my dorm room (the most expensive on this trip) and then tried again to get cash out of a nearby ATM as the following day was a Sunday meaning that the banks would be closed.
With it being the New Year, the buses were all booked up for the next few days. Of course I could have done the journey using local buses but as I wanted to actually have a day or two in Panama City I had no option but to book a flight for the Monday morning which I thankfully managed to do (at great cost) using the same Mastercard which had been rejected by the ATMs.
I also had to pay for an extra nights accommodation but with only a few dollars left in cash I couldn’t afford it and the hostel would only let me use my card for a private room. I went to Western Union in a nearby supermarket but got nowhere there and was then worried. The situation was really ridiculous as I had two credit cards and 90,000 yen cash on me but couldn’t do a thing with it!
Luckily, a guy overheard my English in the supermarket and told me that the only place with banks open on Sundays was at a shopping mall outside of the city centre. He very kindly drove me there saying that as long as I had about half a dollar I could get back by local bus. The first bank rejected me but thankfully the second one gave me $250 cash whilst doing something with my Mastercard and passport!
The nightmare was over and from then on I could actually get some food, pay my rent, book the morning airport bus and get out to see a capital city with a bit of a bad reputation. I walked for hours round San Jose in the afternoon and though pleasant enough and not as bad as most people said, it wasn’t anything too special. I was just happy to have some money in my pocket and thereby a heightened chance of being mugged!!
Business Class travel to Panama was nice but who really needs such comfort for a flight that’s under one hour! From one extreme to the other as I then took a local chicken bus from the road opposite the Airport to Casco Viejo. Nearly 40 kilometres of travel for an incredible $0.25!
I checked into an $11 dorm room and went out for a wander around the old town which was awash with half-crumbling white coloured colonial buildings and cobbled streets across the water from the high rise buildings of the city.
In the old town it was hard at times to distinguish between ruins and just building sites! I ascended Ancon Hill for something to do as much as for the panoramic views from the top and it took far longer than I expected as there was no obvious path to the top. Similar views (albeit at night!) can be seen in ‘The Tailor of Panama‘ (2001).
Closer to my hostel in Casco Viejo were some filming locations from the James Bond film ‘Quantum of Solace‘ (2008).
My last full day in Central America was spent getting to its famous waterway; the Panama Canal. Whilst I sure can appreciate it is one of the world’s great engineering feats with an incredible history, I really didn’t anticipate it being too much of a spectacle. I intended to be there for the heavier through-flow of traffic but it took me far longer than expected to get the buses there.
We paid the $5 entrance fee for the 4th floor observatory deck at Miraflores Locks but didn’t hang around too long. Buses back to Albrook didn’t seem to be forthcoming so a German couple and I shared a taxi back to Casco Viejo where we got out at the fish market and the girl was promptly sick due to the excessive heat which was in the mid 30s. She recovered quickly and we had lunch which enabled me to get my fix of Ceviche; a cheap fresh raw fish marinated in lemon juice which is spiced and seasoned with chopped onion, celery, habanero pepper, and sea salt.
Afterwards we walked back to the old town where we parted ways leaving me to have a final look around the place and do some souvenir shopping before my early departure back to Tokyo (via Miami and New York) the following morning.
For five consecutive years between 2007 and 2011 I went back to the UK for the festive season but was starting to tire of that so instead I embarked on this solo adventure to a part of the world which I’d never been to and one that had always seemed very exotic to me. It’s fair to say that I really did under-estimate the size of Central America and the ability to go between places as and when I wanted but was ultimately satisfied with what I did manage to see and do in three weeks.
Click here to read ‘TF Top 10……Movies Filmed In Central America’
Click here to read ‘A New Hope Filming Locations: Star Wars Traveller – Yavin 4 (a.k.a. Tikal)’
Click here to read ‘Quantum Of Solace: James Bond Filming Locations In Panama’