Thursday, 18 July 2013

Goodbye ancient ruins and volcanoes (for now)

Well the last 3 weeks has been a bit of a humid and sun drenched whirlwind as we whisked ourselves through 2 countries in our effort to free ourselves from the not so unfortunate grip of central America.
Leaving Guatemala began at 4am in the morning standing on a wee stenched street in the dark waiting for our collectivo to pick us up. Obviously we could've had an extra 30 mins in bed because it didn't turn up on time but I am not complaining because for once we got the back and the luxury of 3 seats between 2 of us - it may not sound like a lot but I can assure you that this was heavenly!

Considering crossing borders in central America does actually involve administrative exercises such as paying to leave one country and passing through immigration and getting stamped into the next I can't believe how easy and smooth the process is. After a short breakfast stop about an hour short of the border we arrived for processing and were stamped out and stamped in and back on our way within 30 minutes - an above average time for crossing a border in these parts.

Just to confirm, we were now passing into Honduras and even better was that our first Honduran destination was a mere 10kms from the border.
Door to door we had arrived into our new country and reached our first stop within 7 hours, meaning that we could begin to relax by 11am - sweet.

Town number 1 was Copan Ruinas, a small cobbled street town perfectly located for visiting Honduras' premier tourist attraction - The Copan Ruins.
I can't put my finger on the exact reasons why but we absolutely loved this little place that stretched out for just 4 blocks in all directions from the central square before you hit the first tracts of farmland and the encroaching jungle. Maybe it is to do with the fact that every male in this country is a wannabe cowboy with their Stetson, jeans and boots!

Copan town centre
Copan Ruinas

I left AJ in a café to watch the bags as I went in search of a place to stay and within 3 attempts we had found a suitable place with an all important 2nd level swimming pool - which we did not use!
Our first couple of days in Honduras were met with torrential downpours (the wet season now with us) so day 1 was spent in our comfy room watching movies as we listened to the thunder outside.

The next day began as each one does - blazing sunshine and blue skies before the clouds gather later in the afternoon. Today we would be visiting our 8th and final central American ruins and I think we saved the equal best for last.
The ruins are located 700 metres out of town so we took a pleasant stroll via a number of ancient tablets strewn about the place to the entrance.
We had already noted that the accommodation was much more expensive than in Guatemala but it was the entrance fee into the ruins that confirmed that our visit to Honduras would be a short one. In the real world, the one where I have a job and don't take a very long time off to do nothing of note, $30 to walk around an ancient city would be a bargain, but I don't live in the real world and 2 x $30 is the exact amount of our daily budget, so combined with a $15 hotel room (again, stupidly cheap in the 'real' world) we had already blown our daily budget without a morsel of food passing our lips.
Still, who cares? The ruins were worth it and I know you could argue that once you've seen one you have seen them all, but when you have visited 8 in a period of 3 months you really do take notice when you visit a goody.

As soon as we entered Copan we were won over because the ruins were home to a colony of Macaws that swooped low over our heads and perched on feeding tables close enough for us to touch if we had wanted to lose a finger.
Due to the time of year the grounds of the ruins were lush and green and this only added to the appearance of these fantastic ruins draped in jungle fauna with ancient trees bursting through the steps of the temples, their huge roots taking hold wherever they can gain purchase.

The central complex stretched over an area of 5 square kilometres and what makes Copan different from the rest was that once you climb up to the highest point of one of the temples you are then faced with another swath of city built atop of the temples, which were the areas devoted to the religious leaders and royalty.
The crowning glory of Copan is the main staircase of the religious temple that starts with an intricately carved alter at its base before stretching up high above you with a number of carved statues at every 10 steps which forms the central stairway.
For an additional $30 each we could've explored the catacombs but I really didn't fancy venturing into the airless tunnels in the near midday heat.

If the ruins and the macaws were not enough the insect life that were going about their daily business also kept us more than entertained. We marvelled at thousands upon thousands of leaf cutter ants marching to and from the nest, some literally falling over because the leaf they had chosen to carry was too big, we also tried to get a close as we could to the huge array of multi-coloured butterflies and then there were the spikey and furry caterpillars that would just drop out of the trees above - we just weren't sure about how close we could get to these or whether to risk picking them up!

Resident Macaws
The Copan Ruins

The Copan Ruins

Having decided that we would do Honduras as quickly as possible we decided that our next and final destination would be Utila, an island that forms part of the Bay Islands located off the north coast of the country in the Caribbean Sea. We were still hopeful of swimming with Whale Sharks and the sea around the Bay Islands is their primary habitat.

The journey to the port of La Ceiba was 6 hours and we would be passing through the town of San Pedro Sula, the world's most dangerous city with a reported 159 murders for every 100,000 people, so we decided for the sake of comfort and our security that we would travel via one of Honduras' luxury bus companies - Hedman Alas.
Again, the ticket was a budget buster but it was worth it - the fully reclining seats, free drinks and snacks and on-board movies more than matched that on an airline and it was a shame to get off it once we arrived.
My only complaint would be that if a girl is allowed to wear a vest on board then so should I! Instead I was told to dress more appropriately. Seriously, you are a bus!

The journey also marked the loss of a dearly beloved friend - our Lonely Planet Guide to Central America.
Somehow between us we managed to leave it on board and by the time we realised it was too late. With internet access being so easy nowadays this shouldn't be an issue but it is only when you don't have it that you really miss a quick reference check in the book or a recommendation of a decent hostel and town map.
Goodbye my friend, you served us well and I hope you're new parents are looking after you.

Arriving late we knew that we would need to spend the night in La Ceiba before taking the boat the following morning and fortunately I had remembered the name of a hostel before we lost the book and I am glad that we did.
We were staying in the west side of town and I later read that you should stay here if you like crack or crack addicted whores!! We did leave our gated compound for a total of 15 minutes to try and find a bank but soon decided that there was always tomorrow after an edgy walk along the dark streets.
With no money in our sky rockets we gorged ourselves on a dinner of 2 biscuits each and some jam on toast which we had left in our bags from the days journey - no way were we going back out there!

The same taxi driver came back for us at 7am the next morning because he told us that we needed to be at the port early to guarantee a ticket for the 9:30 ferry.
He was a bull-shitter - we would've have been fine to arrive at 9:10am but seeing him arrive a further 2 times after dropping us off confirmed that he was a just a sensible businessman and had lined up his morning's pay, and why not?
The ferry over the island only took an hour but it was an hour of being on the pirate ship at the fair. It is never a good sign when the sick bags are given out before you depart but I was surprised at how many people took one and at how many people slowly turned from pink / brown to pale to green as we swayed to and fro on the open ocean. Fortunately we are both ok when it comes to motion sickness so we sat back and enjoyed the pain of others.

With no guide to give us a few pointers we decided to do 'the usual' upon arrival and avoid the touts and go for a coffee and some food before actually finding a place to stay.
With the bags and AJ safely tucked away on a shaded café balcony I did my duty and found the perfect place at Rubi's Inn, a clean and tidy establishment with its own pier for jumping off into the sea.
I liked this place from the start because Rubi, busy with something else called her husband to assist me by shouting out:
"Earl, where's your ass at?" in a Caribbean accent.

Never with a timeframe in mind we ended up hanging out here for 4 nights and although I did nothing of note, I really enjoyed that fact.
Utila and the Bay Islands are all about diving - if you don't dive you are a nobody; and I don't dive!

For such a small place I was surprised by how many backpackers were here to undertake the various diving courses, but given that it is the cheapest place in the world to qualify I shouldn't be.
Amongst the masses of restaurants, cafes and bars the streets of the town 'centre' are lined with dive shops and dive schools all competing for your business and it was so cheap (accommodation included within the price) that I was tempted to take my open water - so that I could be somebody. But in the end I couldn't be arsed, I prefer the mountains.
Whilst on Utila we hired a moped to explore the island and I can't say that it was really worth it - we just seemed to end up in multiple dead ends and have to turn around.

What was worth it though was my haircut. I randomly found a hair stylist from Kent who was ex Toni and Guy now living on Utila with her Guatemalan husband who she met when she was backpacking in this part of the world. Like all good haircuts we had a yap about the weather, traveling etc as she cut away a sizeable chunk of what had become a serious lion's mane!
I have to say that life is a lot more comfortable now, especially for my neck.

Arancha took the opportunity of being on the island to reacquaint herself with actually being somebody by doing her first dive in years. Firstly she had to do a 'tune-up' to ensure that when she went back out into the open water she didn't f*ck up and drown but that all went well and the following day she was out before 7am and 18 metres under the ocean surface.
All in all it wasn't a great dive as the visibility was bad but the important thing is that she has got the taste for it again, so to ensure that I don't miss out in the future it looks as though I will be doing my PADI at some point.
Whilst AJ was fooling about in the sea I amused myself by jumping off the pier into the sea that was salty enough to allow me to lie back and float with my hands behind my head, hang out with the local hummingbird who would hover and perch within touching distance of me and do some much needed Spanish study.
Our back garden on Utila Island
Sunset over the bay

Another gorgeous sunset
Leaving the island was the start of pretty much a full 2.5 days of travel. We caught the 6:20am boat back to mainland and took a taxi to a bus station recommended by a local sharing our cab.
At the ticket booth we were horrified to learn that our 8 hour bus trip to the capital city would be $50 each so we decided to take a risk and make our way quickly over to the terminal of the company we used before - and this is where our Lonely Planet would've come in quite handy.
With no idea where we were we hailed a taxi and told him where we wanted to go. He was only too happy to nod his head and say that he understood before getting the bags loaded into the car.
I am not lying - he exited the bus terminal, turned left and drove for 10 metres, turned right into a driveway and drove 5 metres up it to drop us at the other terminal!!
Surely he could've just pointed it out for us?
Very much seeing the funny side of it we negotiated a half-price deal - about £1.50 and headed for the bus.

I can't tell you anything about the capital city of Honduras, Tegucigalpa because we literally got off the bus, took a taxi to a cheap and really good hotel that we found via someone's online blog before getting up the next day and taking another bus out over the border and to the capital city of Nicaragua.
All that we did see was a run down and dirty city and all that we experienced of its culture was a meal at a Chinese restaurant that served us so much food that we took away doggy bags and had breakfast and lunch from it the next day.

Crossing the border and getting in to Nicaragua was the easiest yet because the bus company we travelled with, Tica Bus takes care of it all for you. We handed them our passports and exit fees and apart from taking our bags through immigration (a barn) we did nothing else apart from stand about at the border eating bananas or sit back and watch the movies such as Life of Pi.

Hanging about at La Frontera (border)
Entering country number 7

Whereas we are unsure of our feelings about Honduras, yes it is a nice country but it is unwarrantedly expensive and its people are trying to hard to be American with their phoney accents, we immediately fell for Nicaragua.
Driving to the capital we passed by yet more volcanoes and now vast lakes and when we got off the bus in a dodgy part of the capital city, Managua, what we found (apart from the annoying touts, who did get us a decent room) was a little community of cheap sleeps, cheap eats and cheery people sitting out on the streets.
I think AJ has captured it perfectly when she says that Nicaragua is the country of the rocking chair - everyone just sits about rocking peacefully in the shade.

Once settled into the room and showered we went out for a bite to eat and found ourselves in an open kebab shop / restaurant run entirely by women who would sing and dance as they cooked whilst the matriarch (in obligatory rocking chair) personally tasted the food (she sent a lot back) and handled the money.
We sat back, enjoyed the entertainment, drank a beer and ate freshly barbequed beef, rice and plantain chips - what a nice way to be welcomed into country number 7.

Once again this would be a quick visit because we are now on a sort of timeframe - if we make it that is. There is a boat leaving from Panama City for Columbia on August 13th and we are planning to be on it, but as it leaves every 2 weeks this date could slip - let's see?

We had no desire to hang around the capital city so we caught a taxi over to local bus station and were on our way to the touristy lakeside city of Granada within 30 seconds of arriving, now that is efficiency (or good timing) and for the extortionate cost of 66p each.

Granada - what a lovely place! For once we had booked somewhere online prior to our arrival, primarily because it was advertised as 20p per night due to on-going construction over the summer. This deal that was too good to be true turned out to be just that but it didn't matter because we found ourselves in one of the most relaxing hostels I have ever stayed in with great staff, a good inclusive breakfast and an American owner who would do anything for you if you asked him to. It turned out that the 20p per room cost advertised online was down to his ex-business partner who after first robbing him of $35,000 then entered a campaign of hate and destruction that included hacking into his email to send his girlfriend crazy hate mail as well as booking random groups of backpackers into the hostel when it still wasn't ready and a building sight etc.
It also turned out that the Nicaraguan staff at the hostel were gearing up for the arrival of Adam Lambert the American Idol winner. They had no idea what he looked like or that he was gay but his concert schedule confirmed that he was free to visit and when we did arrive she phoned her boss to say that I could be him because I had long curly hair like a pop star and a very pretty girlfriend!! Obviously Arancha was well chuffed to hear this but AJ being here also confirmed to the boss (Greg) that he didn't have a 'star' and great marketing ploy for his new gaff in his midst.

As for Granada itself, though quite touristy, is a really lovely city set on the banks of Lake Nicaragua with long wide streets, leafy green squares and the standard brightly coloured churches.
Having taken a brief look around upon our arrival the clouds began to descend upon the town so we took affirmative action and took shelter in the local Irish Bar to eat Fish and Chips and get drunk on the local beer, priced at £1.30 per litre.


View of Apoyo Lagoon from Catarina
We spent 4 nights in Granada but didn't really do a lot with our time. On one day we did manage to catch the local bus up to Catarina, a local town famous for being situated on the rim of an dormant volcano crater that is now a lagoon and I have to say that the view out across the lagoon and down to Granada and the lake in the far distance was stunning. We also made an important acquisition in the city - basically I 'borrowed' a Central America Lonely Planet from a really expensive restaurant that we had eaten at. We had given one version to the universe to use as it so pleases so we were just taking this one to give it a life of its own and save it from its dusty shelf.

Next on the agenda was Isla de Ometepe, a real highlight for anybody that reads fantasy or adventure novels. Like the setting in an Arthur Conan Doyle book, Ometepe is a lush forested island formed of 2 volcanoes, one of which rises a mile straight up out of Lake Nicaragua in a perfect cone that is shrouded in mist and mystique.
The mystical Isla Ometepe
Dual volcanoes

Lake Nicaragua itself is impressive enough, being the largest lake in Central America and covering an area of 3,200 square miles.
Access to the island is via a 4 hour ferry ride and as we approached land and got our first real good view of the island I really expected to hear the roar of a T-Rex in the distance and see Pterodactyls circling around the peaks of the 2 volcanoes. It was all very Jurassic Park!

We visited the island for the sole purpose of summiting one of the 2 volcanoes and we decided that the highest peak of Concepcion would be the one for us. Unfortunately the weather was against us during our stay so we didn't get the chance to make a climb but that was ok, so instead we hired a couple of bicycles and explored part of the island.
We visited Agua de Ojo - volcanic thermal pools with supposed healing properties which were set amongst the monkey and exotic bird infested trees of the forest.
We also cycled down to one of the island's beaches for lunch and sat there watching the local wildlife (some introduced) that ranged from birds of prey, cows, dogs and 3 fawns following a lady as though she was their deer mother.
Our lunch was a right tasty dish of grilled beef and chicken but when one of the resident chickens came sniffing for food I was a little taken aback by the fact that it had some sort of disease and I could see right down to the bone on part of its rib cage - I really hope the chicken served for lunch was not from the same flock!!
The island was also home to literally thousands of butterflies and millions of greenfly, the latter of which we really enjoyed tasting during our ride home.

Deer on the lake beach
Agua de Ojo

With a real need for speed we decided that 2 nights on the island was enough and we got our arses over the our final Nicaraguan destination of San Juan Del Sur for a taste of relaxation; not that we really need it.
On the recommendation of fellow travelers that we met back on Tabacco Caye in Belize we had the taxi driver drop us a couple of kilometres outside of town at the bottom of a hill with a sign declaring that the road was private and there were armed men of the prowl.
Being a bloody hot and humid country we were sweating our proverbials off by the time we reached our intended destination but it was so very worth it. Casa De Olas has to be one of THE backpacker destinations, certainly in central America.
Australian owned and Australian and English inhabited this 'hostel' really is a piece of real estate quality. Set upon a hill overlooking the town of San Juan Del Sur which sits between 2 cliffs on a horseshoe shaped bay backpackers such as ourselves can sit and drink at the open plan bar or alternatively choose to take a dip and take in the surroundings via the infinity pool.
Every room opens up onto the pool and if that wasn't all good enough there is the resident pet spider monkey to cuddle up to, if you are a male. (She hates females and will pull their hair)

The sometimes unfriendly Buzz
Another aggressive female

There are only 3 negative comments I can make about this place:
  1. There are a few too many peacocks strutting about the place trying to pull the chicks, but I guess we have all been there
  2. Ralf Machio - the nickname given to a complete nobber we met at Spanish school in Xela randomly works here
  3. A young Aussie girl has been wearing revealing shorts with no underwear and sitting with her legs wide apart. This morning I got a full frontal and it wasn't pretty. A 23 year old girl should not have something in that state - it is hairy and looks like a dog has chewed on it! Given that we can hear the calls of the Howler Monkeys in the distance rolling over the hills to the hostel she is now called Growler Monkey.
These aren't really negatives and this place really is a top quality gaff.

Pool and sunset

So that's it, in just 17 days we have competed a further 2 countries but feel that we have seen enough to be able to judge them. Honduras is still developing but unfortunately is developing into an expensive destination for backpackers, whereas Nicaragua we really like, is backpacker friendly and we would love to return one day.

Onwards and downwards to Costa Rica and an ecological adventure. On the radar are nesting turtles, the elusive Mayan bird of paradise, the Quetzal, pumas, giant anteaters and sloths.   

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