Honduras – Utila (the cousins)

A view of Utila

Meeting two cousins and going to Utila for a week, that’s recipe for good adult fun. I met Philippe in San Pedro Sula at the hostel around 21h00 and there we had a beer and did a bit of catching up. Both hungry, we took a cab to a restaurant that was open late (no walking at night in Honduras, remember?) and ordered the most typical food we could find in a menu that mainly consisted of burgers and wings. Even before my cousin arrived, I had a weird feeling in my stomach but did not think much of it. At the restaurant though, I could not finish my plate and sort of pressed him to go back to the hostel as I could feel my general sense of well-being starting to deteriorate.

An hour after getting in bed, I was woken up by nausea and stomach aches of the type you get when you’ve had too much to drink. That plus a fever, a bit of delirium and lots of shivering. That was it I thought, I’d be sick as a dog for the coming week while my cousins were here, what a stroke of luck. After turning and tossing for a good hour and a half, I finally resorted to forcibly evict the contents of my belly and within minutes I was feeling much better. The rest of the night was uneventful and I woke up feeling fairly well albeit still having a sensitive stomach. We then had breakfast and booked a bus to La Ceiba, the city from which the ferry to Utila leaves. If it wasn’t for the price, that bus ride would have been a huge rip off, I had made sure to ask them if they were to drop us at the ferry to which they replied yes but in reality, we (and other tourists) were dumped at a taxi office and it ended up costing 50 LPS beyond the 130LPS bus ride to get to the dock. 23 LPS = 1 $US so that was not too bad, but this felt very much like a money making scheme, one which I sort of remember falling prey to in 2013 when I first went to Utila.

So at the ferry dock we met Simon and embarked for our Utilian adventure. They had replaced the ferry I took in 2013 with a more modern one but the ride was just as rough. Once on the island, we headed for the dive shop, dropped our things and went to RJ’s for some well deserved fish barbecue. It wouldn’t be honest on my part not to state the reasons I’m actually returning to Utila. First, the ambiance and the people were great, that’s a given, but since I had taken my divemaster course there, I had a life-time of free diving with BICD, the diveshop I did it with. At 30 $US a dive normally (still cheapest around the world), it would mean huge savings. Plus, the diving is great and reef is well managed. There are better spots in the Caribbean, but I have yet to encounter one that offers such a great combination of diving and partying. Second, I’m taking the 40/45/50 meters technical diving courses starting on 22nd of August, but I’ll leave the details for a subsequent post. Regardless of that, my two cousins were totally onboard with the plan and super excited to come down here for the diving (though not the type pictured below).

Diving off BICD's dock

On Utila, the days just blend into a routine of diving, chilling and partying. I honestly would have a very difficult time ordering things into a cohesive story following a timeline so basically, during the 7-8 days that we spent together on the island we did:

  • Diving, lots of it: 10-12 for me, 9 for Simon and 9 for Philippe, who did hit open water class.
  • Drinking, obviously. We went to those bars that were my favorite from my last stay on the island and tried some new ones. Some had changed, some had stayed the same.
  • Chilling on the dock and jumping from it, several times a day and sometimes at night.
  • Having baleadas, getting tired of them and arguing over what we should have instead (some of us are more picky than others).
  • Sneaking on the dock after hours to watch the eagle rays and have beers.
  • Attempting to hike pumpkin hill, but giving up because of the mosquitoes.
  • Getting a tour of the hyperbaric chamber.
  • Spending Sunday Funday on the cays.
  • Climbing on the roof of an abandoned hotel to watch the sunset.
  • Returning to the aforementioned hotel during day time to tag some of its walls. Actually Simon’s idea, who has always wanted to try his hands at graffiti, but did not want to vandalize property in Canada. Does that imply that doing it here in Honduras is actually fine? Certainly not, but the place has been abandoned for a while and is in such a state that there is no other option for it than demolition. Might as well use it for a bit of art.

BICD's dockIt took me a couple days to fully recover from my digestive tract issues and soon after, me and Simon were passed down a cold which Philippe had had for some days and that was running around the shop. Taking turns feeling ill did limit us on some occasions, but opportunities to have fun were still plenty. After a week together, Simon and Philippe took off to resume their lives back home while I would carrying on by myself. It wouldn’t be too bad as the new crowd at the dive shop was entertaining (at times…) and my tec course would start in a couple days.

Watching the sunset on the roof of an abandoned hotel

Watching the sunset on the roof of an abandoned hotel

I could not help but notice how the island had changed since I left 3 years ago. Nothing ever stays the same, of course, but you would not expect things to get noticeably different in such a short amount of time. However, the amount of mainlanders has increased drastically to a point were they now vastly outnumber the native population, who being British descendants mixed with black slaves, have culturally speaking not much to do with the rest of Honduras. Understandably, the newcomers want a take in Utila’ success, but what’s bothering is that nothing has been done on the part of the authorities to control the flow of people and all the annoyances they bring with them (ie: traffic, shantytowns, crime, etc.) That was not just an impression on my part, it was confirmed by Nick, whom I had met during my first stay on the island and who had worked here ever since.

Honduras – San Pedro Sula

I was in San Pedro Sula for a couple of hours three years ago on my way to Utila and did not think much of this place. The Lonely Planet guide did not present it in a very appealing light and the main bus station, basically a terminal within a mall, did nothing to help. With a reputation for being one the most crime-ridden city on the planet, it’s understandable that you’d aim at spending the least amount of time here. On this occasion though I could not in and out, I had to spend a night here to meet my cousin.

The view from the Coca-Cola sign in San Pedro Sula

IMG_20160809_142138The bus ride Copàn Ruinas went without a hitch, though I would care to mention a close call full frontal collision with and oncoming bus which scared the shit out of me (and the driver). On entering the city, I noticed a very large Coca-Cola sign up on the hill (San Pedro Sula’s counterpart to he large Hollywood sign in Los Angeles I guess). Having the whole afternoon to spare, I got a set of directions from the hostel’s owner and set out to reach it. The heat was brutal and it took longer that expected. Thankfully, always there to make a buck, the Hondurans had set up a stand serving coconut water, oranges and sugary soft drinks of the more artificial kind. Down from there and back in the city, the heat had receded a bit due to the clouds. I made a quick stop in the central plaza, which sported an ugly cathedral but a nice park with a concert going on and lots of activity around. Back at hostel (a gorgeous property, once an architect’s home), I went into my usual routine of writing on my computer, but I got interrupted for a while by Larry, the head of American group here on mission to rebuild the roof of a local church and a very kind man. Not that I’m into arguing with religious people, but that 12 000$ that went into renovating that church would have been much better invested into providing sanitation and drinking water for a small village or equipment and supplies to a local health clinic.

Otherwise, guess what. San Pedro’s not that bad…

San Pedro Sula main plaza

Honduras – Copán Ruinas

Getting out of El Salvador was painless and on schedule, I was on my way to Copán Ruinas, a town in Honduras whose namesake is, as you might have guessed it, the Mayan ruins of Copán. Quickly, the bus filled up with other Hondurans and since it had no roof rack to put luggage on, I had to spend the three hours to La Entrada, the town where I was to switch buses, with both my backpacks on my lap.The second bus ride, same shit. By the end of it, my legs were starting to feel numb. Finally at the ruins, I checked in the most presentable hostel that I could find, dropped my things and had a well deserved beer before heading out to check the town. Copán Ruinas is actually one the prettiest village I’ve encountered in Honduras: it’s got a nice plaza, cobble stoned streets and pretty houses. After a meal, I hung around the main plaza for a while listening to … an open air evangelical mass. Having had enough of it, I came back and opened my computer for a bit of productive time, but the previous days had taken their toll and I was in bed before 22h00, a very rare occurrence in my case.

Copan Ruinas main square

Up early the next morning, I had breakfast while chatting with Kai, a Japanese traveler and before making my way to ruins, did a bit of studying for my tec course. The Copán ruins are a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the grandest cities (others being Tikal in Guatemala and Palenque in Mexico) the Mayan civilization has left us before vanishing mysteriously. The site is immense and extremely well taken care of thanks to a debt write off from the Spanish government towards Honduras. The way I understood it, Honduras owed a bunch of money to Spain, and the latter offered the Honduran government to cancel that debt if they would invest massively into making ruins the site that it deserves to be.

Ruins of Copan

For a good couple of hours, I visited every corner of this immense complex, marveling at the achievements of the civilization that built it. I had seen Mayan ruins before in El Salvador and Mexico, but nothing that came even close to that scale. Archaeologists have done a stellar job at clearing the place and rebuilding many structures stone by stone. It must have been a colossal ordeal, as the grounds had been abandoned for nearly a thousand years when they were rediscovered and must have been overgrown with thick dense forest.

Copan Ruinas streetI was back quite early at the hostel, had another chat with my Japanese acquaintance and worked for the remainder of the night. Up early again after a restful night, I spent the morning studying and got out for my afternoon visit back to the ruins, but this time to a different site: Las Sepulturas, a residential complex where the Copán nobility used to live and not too far from the main complex. Beforehand tough, I completed my postcard duty, had an awesome (but cheap!) meal at a comedor and toured around Copán town before walking to Las Sepulturas. This archeological site was far smaller than Copán, but to my surprise, it was entirely devoid of visitors and people save for a gardener and two soldiers. I toured it for a good hour and then decided to make the way back a bit more interesting.

 

Panorama of Last Sepulturas, click for a larger version

Panorama of Last Sepulturas, click for a larger version

I had obviously reached the site using a paved road, but I knew and had seen that both archaeological complexes where actually by the river (logical) from which the valley, the town and the main ruins got their name. It also seemed that their was a dirt path that followed the river. Easy I thought, so I jumped the fence, and started following the trail. Soon, it dead-ended into the river but not to be let down by this small obstacle, I crossed a barbed wire fence and started making my way through a corn field, hoping that the trail would resume soon. It didn’t, so for a good two hours, I was walking amid crops, forest, high herbs and passing one barbed wire fence after another, trying not to get spotted in the process, because I was clearly trespassing. Eventually, I emerged back into Copán town, thankfully not too scratched from that little hike. I was hoping for a bit of ambiance that night in the hostel, but was let down big time. Oh well, I’ll save my energy for Utila, my next destination and a place that is sure to provide more partying than anyone can handle.

First tough, I had to meet my cousin Philippe in San Pedro Sula. He was arriving late from Canada so the plan was to spend the night there and make our way next morning to La Ceiba, where we would meet another cousin, Simon, and from there take the ferry to Utila for a week or hardcore diving and a reasonable amount of partying … yeah right.

El Salvador – La Palma

This one will be short I promise.

La Palma is a quiet little town known for its murals and artists. Luckily this time, my bus ride there went without a hiccup and fairly late in the afternoon I hoped off the bus. Not having a reservation anywhere, I entered the tourism office and quickly was directed to some cabins in the outskirts. Two employees were kind enough to walk me there and the family that ran the cabins was extra nice and welcoming to me. The little shack that I got for12US$ was extremely rustic, but I really needed no amenities beside a bed an an electrical outlet, which it provided.

Street in La Palma, El Salvador

My things dropped off, I went for a stroll around town, which I managed to circle about twice given how small it was. Having made the promise to my girlfriend that I would send her a postcard, I had forgotten until then so I made it my first mission. I could only find some at a café which were by a local artist but not too evocative of El Salvador. Regardless, that was my only option so it had to do. For supper, I ate some of my last pupusas and walked back to my place but not without a small supply of beers that I bought at a tienda. There, I handed my postcard to the owner of the cabins so he could mail it on Monday, which he gladly accepted. Salvadoreans are definitely the nicest bunch. Once in my cabin, I opened my computer and started writing, but soon got intrigued by the sound of live music playing in town across the river. Still early enough for me to head out again, I went and checked it out but it turned out to be a religious gathering in the local church. I hanged around for a while but quickly got bored and made it back to my cabin to get on with writing. The next day, I was up early (right before the chickens) to catch the bus to the border. I had a long way to go that day.

My thoughts and opinions about El Salvador? It’s a Central American country alright, with all that implies (chaos, pollution, heat, crime, etc.) but it is definitely the road less traveled and its inhabitants are extra nice, authentic, endearing and hard-working. In all the countries I’ve been to in this part of the world, I would rate this place close second behind Nicaragua. As an added bonus, their Spanish is slightly easier to grasp that everywhere else and the food it top notch. No attraction there is as grand as Costa Rica’s parks, Nicaragua’s colonial cities, but the people more than make up for it, making visiting El Salvador a very human experience rather than a sightseeing one.

Posing in La Palma, El Salvador

El Salvador – Santa Ana

Transportation, among other things, is dirt cheap in El Salvador. Santa Ana is a good hour and half away from the capital and the bus ride to get there was only a dollar thirty, and that for was the direct air-conditionned and more comfortable bus. Taking the chicken bus (old american school buses) would have been under a dollar.

Santa Ana's skyline

Santa Ana’s skyline

Salvadorean burger and fries!

Salvadorean burger and fries!

Santa Ana is a pretty medium-sized town where there isn’t much to do except taking a break from it all. However, it’s the gateway to the volcan parks and some other sights. I checked in Hostal Casa Verde, which luckily had a lot of beds available despite advertising itself full on the internet. This hostel, rated the best in El Salvador, lived up to its reputation by providing pretty much everything a back packer needs and then some more. What it lacked though was ambiance, but I was certain the right group of people would spark a nice party during the days to come. Upon arrival, I unloaded my things and headed out to spend the remainder of the afternoon walking around the city. Santa Ana is a beautiful Central American city, with it’s buildings all painted in bright colors, some streets full of hookers and others filled with markets. It has a pretty cathedral that overlooks a very nice plaza (much much nicer than San Salvador’s) where people were enjoying an evening out in their city, Santa Ana felt warm, authentic and friendly. Back to the hostel ater a burger, I mostly kept to myself that night (except for that conversation I had in Spanish with a Japanese man) and did some writing and studying for my upcoming tec course.

Santa Ana's cathedral

Santa Ana’s cathedral

Bright and early the next morning, I had a quick cofee and marched to a bus stop hoping to catch the 7h30 to the volcano park. Owing to my poor abilities at negotiating public transportation, I stood waiting on the wrong corner and when it dawned on me that I was not in the right place, it was too late and I had missed the one bus that could take me there in time for the hike. Extremely frustrated, especially that today was the last day where the weather was clear, I went back to the hostel to think about a plan B. A quick look at the map indicated that the Tazumal ruins, which I had heard of already and which were supposedly El Salvador’s largest, were nearby and of much easier access than the park.

Tazumal

A quick chicken bus ride and I landed in Chalchuapa, which the ruins were nearby. The Tazumal complex was a museum and a single pyramid and within an hour I was out the gate, slightly disappointed. I then proceeded to check out Chalchuapa, which in turn was quite nice. I walked around the lake, had some fried yucca and pork at one of the yuquaterias lining the road to the ruins, took a stroll around the local market, searched a café that was in my guidebook (the best of El Salvador according to them) but no longer existed and spent a bit of time checking out the town’s cemetery. There were some natural spring water pools that I wish I could have checked out, but the sky was turning a menacing grey so I returned to Santa Ana.

Back at the hostel, I had a beer, studied a bit and went out for pupusas. On my way to the pupuseria, I passed right through the prostitutes and caught the attention of a couple of them. On the way back from the pupuseria though, I tried taking a different street back but quickly backtracked when I noticed it was full of drunken men and had no lights. So through the prostitutes again, which this time were a bit more insistent, with one of them (a transvestite) even trying to lure me in by taking a very suggestive position. I wanted to do some more writing that night, but while on the rooftop terrace I met with Francis, a New-Zealander and later on got joined by Dennis, a Canadian expat teaching abroad in Taiwan and we spent what remained of the evening downing Pilsners (the local cerveza) and smoking cigarettes.

Dennis trying to catch some sleep on a busy chicken bus

Dennis trying to catch some sleep on a busy chicken bus

You don’t get to sleep in in El Salvador, the city gets loud very early with the roar of turbo charged chicken buses so I had no trouble waking up before my 6h45 alarm, because again that day I would try to go the volcano park, but this time with Francis and Dennis, my two new buddies. We met two other fellow travelers, Nila, a Belgian girl and Liam, a British guy and this time showed up at the right bus stop and caught the bus to the park. The weather report predicted rain and thunderstorms for the day because of hurricane Earl passing over Honduras, but we had decided to go anyway. The chicken bus ride took two hours, during which we got harassed by an inordinate amount of snack vendors. They climb on, advertise their wares by yelling about what they’re selling while walking to the end of the bus, and jump off when they are done. Ordinarily, that would be fine, but in a full chicken bus with half of the passengers packed back to back in the aisle, it gets annoying fast but hey, everyone’s gotta make a living and no one must ever go hungry on a bus ride. Finally, we were dropped off at the park and had some fruits and coffee while waiting for the guided hikes to start. As it turns out, it was not permitted to go hike by ourselves and had to be escorted by two police officers and two park guides. Fair enough, but the most annoying part was the two hundred Salvadoreans also accompanying us. Well, I’m saying annoying because I like having my alone time in nature and that much people will scare any chances of getting of the wildlife but in reality, I’m quite happy that so many locals were actually here for the same reason as us. The whole country was on national vacations for the week which explained the amount of people but beyond that, it was great to see that El Salavador still belonged to the Salvadoreans. The prices for the hikes were very fair and the installations were geared towards the locals, somewhat of a rarity in Central America, where popular destinations tend to charge prices that are way out of reach of the locals.

On top of volcano Izalco

On top of volcano Izalco

The group split in two, with the majority of the people opting for the hike to the Santa Ana volcano and the rest to Izalco. I asked which of the two was the most proper looking volcano and picked Izalco, which was also a much harder hike, but still we must have been a good fifty persons doing it. We were warned by the guides that should there be rain we would abort the expedition but luckily we made it to the top with the weather still on our side. Francis and I, having arrived a solid twenty minutes before the bulk of the people, had enough time to circle the crater and go inside. While the view was clouded over, it was still cool to walk around this barren landscape of black volcanic stones. There were even hot air vents here and there and on occasions I picked up the smell of sulfur. It rained for a bit on the way down but again, the two gringos soon separated from the pack and at the bottom of the volcano, we decided to push on without police escort. The way back up to the park entrance was a strenuous 1300 steps, which I managed to climb up quite fast, getting a very good work out in the process.. The rest of our traveler group had gone on the other hike so Francis and I had some warm soup, a much welcomed meal as we were both wet and cold and once they arrived, we hoped back on the bus to Santa Ana town.

On top of volcano Izalco

On top of volcano Izalco, overlooking the creater

Having bonded a bit during the day, we had a couple beers at the hostel and later, joined by others, went as a group to Café Tejas, a nice restaurant/café/bar combo run by a Canadian expat girl and her Salvadorean husband. Dennis, back at the hostel had broken the ice by launching a round table discussion on who, as an adult, had ever shit their pants and it went on from there. We had food and several (with emphasis on word « several ») beers and got stupid drunk for some, especially Jorge, who having been put out of commission for a week due to Dengue, was catching up on all the beers that he had missed during his illness. At the end of the night, we managed to pack the 9 of us into the owner’s SUV for a joyous ride back to Casa Verde and then we all went to bed, not causing too much trouble. Dennis, on the other hand, had to leave at three (for Utila) so he skipped sleep.

The next morning, Nila remarked that it’s always when you have to catch a bus the next morning that you get drunk the night before and to that I completely agree with her. In my case though, I was feeling tired but otherwise fine. After a couple of buses, I arrived in La Palma, a quiet little town along the border with Honduras and the last place I wanted to check out before bidding farewell to El Salvador.

(Note : this long post covers just about three days of traveling. It seems I always start my writing with good intentions of being short and concise but very quickly I get into details and end up writing way too much content. If you find it tedious, please accept my apologies but also bear in mind that I’m writing for myself in the first place.)