Oh Utila! (Central America month 3 and 4)

“Would you like to hold a fetus?” Doctor John said. Where am I ? I was at a birthday party ten minutes ago, now I am drunk out of my mind sitting on a casket next to a skeleton with a dried-up human fetus in my hands.

“If you shake it you can hear its brain rattling inside its skull”. I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Dive master Dave and Trav seem not to be grasping what just hit them. Screw it! Mighty interesting Dr. John, now can I have some of that rum?

A crazy island full of awesome people

The people I was diving with

Utila had its three lies way before Bocas del Toro. The island is about two things and two things only: drinking and diving. Bars are as abundant as are dive shops and the partying is unending and relentless. Every day you (do) dive, every day you (can) drink. Janne’s blog post struck a point, it is excessive, shallow and quickly you reconsider choosing this destination, but in no time you make friends and realize that no too deep beneath your hangover neighbor lies an awesome person. Other divers, your instructors, the boat captain, the local baleada lady, you get into a routine, the old man sitting in front the corner store says hi everytime you walk by.

Doctor John’s place

The diving industry has this particularity where almost no one that works in it ever thought they would ever become divers. For the majority, it is a second, third or fourth career and as a result this brings a huge variety of backgrounds together in the same place under the same ideal: to have fun and to share it with others.

Consequently, many get sucked in the “vortex”. Travis only wanted to do his open water course and ended going all the way to divemaster. Dave quit his job over the phone. Nora and Meta decided to miss their flight back home so they could stay here longer. I wanted to visit El Salvador and Guatemala.

I never saw that coming

Sometimes, life has other plans for you, all I wanted was to dive: maybe do one or two courses, do some fun-dives, get a t-shirt and move on with my travelling. Problems started when I met Rebecca in Nicaragua, the boss or Bay Island College of Diving (BICD) (she did not tell me at the time), I told her I wanted to be under water and she was quick to convince me that I should just go ahead and take the divemaster course because with it comes free diving for life. The maths are pretty simple, the formation is more expensive, but paying for each individual dive I would get to do over there would cost me many thousands of dollars more.

The Bay Island College of Diving

Two days of chicken bussing north, a night in Tegucigalpa (not much to write about it except that it is super sketchy) and the next day I was starting on my advanced and then rescue diver courses. Rebecca told me that I would be starting the divemaster with Janne, “someone” from Finland. She did not specify the sex of that person, so I was left thinking my diving buddy for the coming weeks would be a Finnish lady. Wrong! Janne is actually a man’s name. I knew I was dreaming in colors. In the end Janne made up for his lack of feminine features through awesomeness in many aspects of his personality, but I felt sort of dissapointed. Anyway, with our catching up done, we joined Travis, Dave, Nora, Meta, Reba and John aboard the divemaster program at BICD.

Things were starting to pick up and already I was starting to wonder why I was doing this and what I was doing here. All I wanted was to dive.

Underwater fun

A divemaster is basically a diving guide. He equips you, takes you diving around, shows you pretty wildlife and brings you back to the boat all while making sure you are safe and enjoying the experience. Diving in itself is a risky activity for the very simple reason that while all life forms started in the water, the many hundred million years we have spend out of it has made us completely incapable of staying lengthy periods of time under it. Technology has filled the gap (SCUBA: self contained underwater breathing apparatus) by making this possible again, but not without risks. Breathing compressed air under water without training or careful supervision is extremely hazardous but if done correctly, it is about as dangerous as golf.

The risks cannot be overstated, but through relentless quality management and research, the diving community has made the sport (in its recreational form) extremely safe. As a divemaster, you become a central part of this risk mitigation effort, but that takes training and experience, which the  course is here to provide by teaching you a wide array of skills and knowledge such as diving theory, search and rescue techniques, leading dives, wildlife identification and so on.

Having all this responsibilities makes diving sound more serious and it does, but it also makes it more enjoyable. As a beginner diver, you crave the adventure, but most of your attention is devoted to maintaining buoyancy, monitoring your air and depth and keeping whoever is leading the dive in sight. As a dive master, you lead the dive, which comes with a moral duty of course, but the confidence and the experience transform what is an extreme activity for most into a sort of meditative experience, something otherworldly.

Diving is really all about fun

Relaxation techniques tell you to concentrate on your breathing, to inhale and exhale slowly, to empty your mind. Under water, this is exactly what you are taught do. SCUABA equipement adds resistance to your breathing so it has to deep and slowly. Your hearing is not that useful, you cannot talk, your sense of touch gets overwhelmed by the contact of surrounding water. All that is left is sight and luckily, coral reefs are among the most spectacular environments on this planet. It has to be experienced to be understood. Everything down there is mesmerizing in its own right. Hovering still in mid-water, watching an hawksbill turtle gnawing at a piece of coral not minding your presence at all sort of gives you the feeling that for that  brief moment you are underwater you are part of it all. Fish are generally no too scared of divers: a squid will acknowledge your presence by turning black, but it will not flee. Everything is captivating, the rules or nature are very different than on land.

Some creatures are extremely hard to find, somehow turning diving into a game of pokemon. I found a toadfish today ! I have only ever seen a batfish ! For some others, its a game of luck, they see you but you will only be able to see them if they choose so, such as is the case with the elusive octopus. I cannot think of something more gracious and beautiful to look at underwater, it is a show of colors and shapes, one moment it is looking at you all bright red in color, the other moment, it turns a shade of gray and tries mimicking a coral bush. Lose sight of it and it will most likely vanish forever. The right creature can turn an ordinary dive into a memorable experience. It takes patience and it takes luck. Some clueless idiots come diving expecting to spot an eagle ray. Sorry for you, but the only places where you are guaranteed to see animals are zoos and aquariums. Do not feel disappointed because you failed to spot that special creature, you just spend 45 minutes breathing underwater, that is also cool.

Getting ready for a staff night dive at the wreck.

There is more to diving than wildlife spotting, especially when done with friends. Explore the hulk of an old cargo ship at night. Get chased by and green moray eel. Map a dive site. Drive a spear through the skull of an unsuspecting lionfish. Come back up on the surface and seal in that memorable dive around a conversation with your buddies.

Island fun

Good times were abundant on the island as much as they were underwater, albeit with reduced options compared to the mainland. Of course, you had a beach, a few possible hikes (freshwater caves), you could rent kayaks, but in all truthfulness, much of the entertainment revolved around the consumption of alcohol and other types of drugs. And the going out was good. Most people came over to take their open water course, which limited their stay to only a couple days, but some faces would always come back and soon you would realize that they either work there or got stuck just like you. You made friends fast.

There was the bar scene, which was limited to only a handful of places. At the dive shop we had a thing called Thirsty Thurdays, which usually started as a casual barbecue and ended in a night of heavy drinking. Once in a while (in normal time that is quite often), there would be the odd memorable event. One of those was a water caye trip which turned into a massive rescue operation.

Thirsty Thursdays

Every two sunday afternoon a bar on the island would organize an afternoon of partying on a deserted island half-an-hour boatride away from town. That sunday started out like every other one, but due to miscommunication about which boat were to take what people and everyone’s desire to spent as much time as possible on the caye, about forty individuals were left stranded there. The ball got passed around a few times until Rebecca, the manager at BICD decided we should be the heroes for that night. With but an hour to sober up from an afternoon of adult fun, I was back on a boat with divemaster Dave and Chad who, all excited by the perspective of saving all those pretty topless girls from a night with the sandflies, actually kept on sipping a bottle a rum they snuck aboard. The sun had set, the sea was a lot rougher that on the way back and finally, the ride was a lot slower because had to take a much larger boat that would fit everyone. The island having no dock, this also meant that it would not be possible to beach that boat. Upon our arrival there, I remember hearing a loud cry of relief before chaos ensued. We could not get closer than about 50 meters from the island and the seafloor was too loose for the anchor to take hold, so we had to yell to everyone there they had to swim to us.

This had to be done in a couple waves as the boat was getting pushed towards shore but in the end, everyone got onboard. Reflecting back on the event, we were extremely lucky it went without incidents: everybody was drunk/high, some were poor swimmers, it was dark, the sea was rough. We were praised more than once on the way back, with promises of free thank you drinks and everlasting gratefulness. None of that would ever be fulfilled.

At the end of the day, it all blends together. At the end of the day, it was just another crazy Utilian adventure.

Learning Finnish

Every time I would be out doing some “serious drinking” with Janne I would ask him for a new Finnish word. Every time he would question my interest in learning his language and my reply would always be that I love the sound of it and find learning languages passioning. For posterity, I shall write down the extend of my vocabulary before it slips my mind. Mistakes are intentionally left uncorrected, Finnish, like Spanish, is written like it is spoken, but it being so foreign still makes it hard to guess the correct orthograph.

  • moi: hello
  • kiitos: thanks (that I learned when I was in Finland)
  • yksi, kaksi, kolme: one, two, three
  • bisse: beer
  • bessi: water (good in between bisse)
  • rarra: money (necessary for purchasing bisse and bessi)
  • koira: dog
  • liahpulla: Finnish meatballs (its what they brought to the “pot luck at cell block C (aka my house)”)
  • minnu nemene on: my name is
  • vissu ma on kandessi: fuck I’m drunk (became extremely useful during that snorkel test night)
  • kiippis: cheers!
  • uva uaatta: good night

Motherfuckin sand flies

All is not fun and games on Utila. Spending so much time high on life makes the landing back into physical reality somewhat rough. For some it is ear infections from diving every day, for me it was sand flies. At dawn especially they are a big issue. A lucky few appear to be immune but I was not part of them; my legs were soon full of bites and the urge to scratch was unbearable. Nothing I would be concerned with normally, the woulds were very superficial, but it got infected. It could be the constant wetness or grey water runoffs directly in the sea or both, I do not know, but what was merely scratches turned into pus oozing deep crater like wounds. Only after a few weeks without any improvements did I decide it was time to act. I got antibacterial cream, pulled out my first-aid kit and made it an habit of disinfecting and putting cream on them once I was out of the water.

Then something else occured, twice. I only remember feeling a small prick on my heel on my way home on night but two days later, a massive extremely painful blister with swelling radiating all around my foot had grown from where the small prick was, leaving me limping quite badly. After a week it went away and I was just starting to recover full mobility when something similar stuck the side of my foot, turning again into the same type of blister but this time a lot more painful and swollen. Now it was time to go see Doctor John.

Apparently he was hangover that day but I was taken care of by his Austrian nurse. “This is not pretty”, yes I know. “No diving for a couple days for you” shit. “This is a staph infection, we will have to scrape it off” shit. I usually am pretty ok with me or other people conducting medical procedures on my body but that time, I had to ask for a glass of water for it felt like I was about to faint, especially when she started cutting away the blister on my foot to uncover what was under: a gnarly infection.

The next day I already felt a big improvement, not only on my wounds but also on my general level of well-being. My immune system was really at war, thank you modern medicine. Concerning the two blisters on my right foot, I am still in the unknown. Staph infections do spread to nearby skin lesions, but this was something different. My first theory was that it was a spider bite and Nick suggested it could have been a brown recluse spider. However, according to Wikipedia, they are not found in Central America. .

This whole story left pretty obvious marks on my legs. Some get tattoos to remind them of places and events, I got scars. Regardless, the jungle is a mean place, if something is wrong, better act quick before it gets out of hand.

Got stuck

I wanted to make this trip about visiting every single country in Central America. Having spent much more time that planned for in Utila, this is not going to happen, I will have to leave mainland Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador for another voyage. Is that a bad thing? No. Am I dissapointed? No. The fact that I could choose to stay in Utila is a perfect example of the range of freedom allowed with no-time-limit trips. Not to forget that staying somewhere for extended duration also counts towards travelling, which some aspects are meant to be experienced this way. Like friendships, which take a while to build. Like ecosystems, which takes a long time to explore. Like baleada places, all which you should try a couple times to truly find your favorite one.

Janne, Dave, Travis, Nora and Meta, spending those two months with you was beyond awesome. Rebecca, Vanessa, Nick, Rimas, Heather, Fern, Kelsey and Captain Seth, you are the reason this was so much fun. For some of you this is only a good bye, as I will most likely come back to take technical diving courses, for the rest, farewell.

Now I need to find a way to put this divemaster thing to good use…

Spearing lionfish

A couple of lionfish (pterois) having a casual hangout on a lazy carribean Thursday afternoon. Just chilling there, enjoying time with friends under a rocky outcrop. We come around and spear three of them. Big Willy gets two, Nick gets one. The others finally notice what is going on and dart inside the closest cavity. Sad of having had their afternoon ruined.

To those unfamiliar with them, they are one beautiful fish, an amazing encounter during a dive. To those who now them, they are pest and must be exterminated. Incredibly hard to kill, three pointy end of an Hawaiian sling through the head and more often than not, they will manage to escape (albeit with massive brain damage). The trick is to spear them once and then impale them again a few times through the skull with another spear.

Sounds violent ? It is.

What justifies it is that lionfish, are an invasive species and posing a serious threat to reefs. The story goes that they were introduced some years ago when an aquarium in Florida broke during a hurricane and set loose all its foreign residents in the ocean. Ever since, having no natural predators, they have been spreading all over the Carribean sea and the Atlantic coast of the United States, eating other endemic fishes by the ton and compromising the fragile reef ecosystems they invade.

Efforts to curb the growth of their population are underway everywhere they can be found, but they are most likely in vain as the lionfish reproduces really fast. The least we can do is try to hunt them as much as we can until we find a way to teach sharks and big groupers that lionfish are in fact, tasty. So much so that they have been made part of the menu at some restaurants in Utila, Honduras. A popular fixture on the island, they have been mostly eradicated by the divers, but around sea mounts further out, they still thrive.

The dive shop I was working at is affiliated with a resort that features lionfish on its menu (the “save the reef” burger), so once in a while, they send a boat out to uncharted sites to hunt them. I was blessed to go on two occasions. It is a lot fun but somewhat technical. You dive outside of the limits of recreational diving:  you can be far apart from your buddy, you go up with little air left (and you consume a lot because of the adrenalin) and in order to take a shot at them, you need to get dangerously close.

Lionfish are extremely poisonous. A single prick from the six spines on their back or from one they have on every fin will make whatever body part affected inflate to three times its size and leave you in agonizing pain for a while. It has been compared to getting your fingers caught in a car door someone just slammed with full strenght. Since long spears are illegal to fish with, you have to get your hand very close to them in order to release the spear with enough force. Needless to say that this is not the time to tune up your buoyancy control. Lionfish will not flee, except those who have had a previous encounter with a hunting diver, they still think they are the king of the reef and will simply make themselves look big as you get closer. But miss them once and they are gone. In spite of the massive display of fins they lug around, they are incredibly fast.

Once the catch is made, the dead lionfish is carefully stored into a plastic tube as its spines are still dangerous. However, they are quite safe to fillet later on because the absence of blood pressure actually makes the venom retracts in the spines. Once in the kitchen, they make delicious ceviche.


Getting stuck

Cycling at 30 meters deep, with the wreck of the Haliburton in the background.

Over my travels I have encountered a great number of places where people get stuck. Places where they spend a lot more time in that originally planned for, sometimes ending their trip there, sometimes even coming back to establish themselves in a more permanent manner.

Not so common in Europe or in America, where tourism is generally done among cities or in their vicinity, but in Central America, these persons are abundant  It can be because of the climate, because of the proximity to a favorite activity (surfing…) but more generally, its the people you meet and the friends you find that make leaving so hard. It’s the stark contrast with a life back home in a society that is evermore criticized for its individualism and consumerism.

I am in such a place now. The island of Utila, where you come to dive and you stay for the vibe (and the diving too). Easily a third of the island are gringos and quasi every single employee in my dive shop is an expat. They all left at one point but they came back. Spending too much time here had sort of alienated them from the life they left and their old acquaintances  On the island, it’s diving every day and socializing at night. In spite of all the tourism, there is a prevalent sense of community. The job is hard, the hours are long, but everyone come to this little piece of land to go underwater and is happy to be there doing so. There are no bad days.

Going on a dive aboard the Neptune in Utila, Honduras.

Central America – Month 2

I promise I will not make this post too long, especially since two weeks from the last month  were thoroughly covered in the previous post, Saving the turtles.

On top of Concepción volcano

Adios Tortugas

So I headed out of Parismina not alone, but with Ingemer, a Swedish guy who had been a volunteer at the same project for five weeks. He had been planning to stay there for the whole duration of his trip to Central America, but me and other volunteers managed to convince him he should travel around a bit. Around a beer, we figured we could spend some time together and came to an agreement that the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica was a destination that matched both our preferences for the coming week.

A night was spent in San José at Costa Rica Backpackers (my 4th time there!). “Ingo”, who never had spent time in hostels, got a pretty good taste of what is to be expected during a night at a good one: Germans with guitars, an Hungarian who had his passport stolen, a drunk English guy, an American expat and a lot of fun and discussions at the hostel bar. Early the morning after, we took a (surprisingly comfortable) bus to Playa del Coco. Touted as one of the few remaining spots on the Pacific coast still belonging to the Costa Ricans, the  place was deserted as holy week as over. A bit disappointed, we decided that we should at least do one activity and leave. Naturally, I picked diving as I wanted to try it in the Pacific and convinced Ingo he should give snorkeling a try.

The Pacific is not as colorful as the Carribean sea, but it is home to very large and impressive animals. I saw large morays, string rays and hordes of puffer fishes but Ingo, while snorkeling around shallow waters came face to face with a nurse shark. The dives were otherwise interesting, the visibility all the way down to 10 meters was very mediocre but deeper, it was acceptable. Only the water at this depth was significantly colder than at the surface, which limited our stay there rather than our supply of air.

Anyway, having exhausted all our possibilities in Playa del Coco, we opted to stick together for a longer time so my Swedish friend followed me on my way up to Nicaragua. He had more than a month to spend before his return flight to Scandinavia and thought that exploring another country would both spice up his travels while not taking away too much time off from his original plan of visiting Costa Rica.



Spot the Swedish person!

Our first stop in Nicaragua was the island of Ometepe, an surreal (or Jurassic-park like) location where two volcanoes linked by an isthmus form a large land mass in the middle of the Nicaragua lake. It’s a one hour sketchy boat ride away from the shore. The main volcano, Concepción, is almost a perfectly conical shape, towers at around 1600 meters and is still very much active. His little brother, Maderas, is a couple of hundred meters smaller and dormant. Concepción is the one we hiked accompanied by a local guide was accompanying us. After the tree line, the ascent is done on a 30 degrees slope on loose rubble with visibility down to a couple of meters as the top of the volcano is most of the time shrouded in clouds. And the way up is not straight, canyons formed by rain water flowing down the slopes make the path confusing and treacherous for anyone unfamiliar with the route. We were not rewarded with a splendid view at the top, up in thick clouds, only the sometimes unbearable smell of sulfur and very strong winds met us over there, but hey, even without glimpsing down the crater, it still felt like we were on top of one mean mountain (see first picture). Lords of the Rings joke were plentiful – throw the ring Antoine, throw the ring! – but Will, our guide, having seen traces of very recent (like last night) ash falls during the climb, did not feel too comfortable having lunch and jokes there.

The motorcycle I rented with Concepción volcano in the background

The climb was on our second day, the first day, I rented a motorcyle even tough I had been telling everyone that renting motorcycles in third world countries, especially when you lack the experience, is a stupid idea. I did not crash, nor did I came close. I met a few people who did over the course of the day, but the riding was fine and my skills were up to the task, it was only the machine that was not.

I rented a Chinese ripoff (a Raybar ET150T) of a Japanese bike. Not so confident about slaloming around stray pigs and cows (the primary cause of traffic incidents on the island), Ingo opted to ride backseat. So we went thinking we could circle around the whole island. Quite wrong, only the main road is paved, the rest is dirt and large rubble with heavy damage from recurrent flooding and soil erosion. After 2 km around the second volcano, I decided to return as driving around these conditions with another adult riding backseat made handling too problematic. After a pause for lunch and a dip at the local waterhole, we decided to tackle going around the first volcano, which we did successfully but not without me having to drop off my passenger to negotiate some tight spots. Working the clutch was a pain and the breaks were not that efficient, but the motorcycle held up through this rough day of riding, so far.

On the way back, I dropped Ingo off to spend some alone time with the machine. I drove around for an hour, picked up an hitchiker american expat who complained that they were overcharging for the chicken bus (30 cents, really?), left him at some village and turned back to go back to my hotel where I had originally picked up the bike. Over the first speed bump, I heard a loud clunk and on stopping to inquire on what made the noise, realized I could no longer brake. Thankfully, I was not going very fast so a gear down to compress the engine and some feet dragging halted me in little time. On closer inspection, I quickly noticed the tying rod that links the pedal to the brake had snapped off and the braking lever had wrapped itself around the drum. The cause became clear as I restarted, the ride was wobbly and unstable even at very low speed, the rear axle was loose. Stopped again tightened it by hand as much as I could, and resumed the long way back to the hotel on this crippled piece of junk.

Motorcycle brakes, work on the same principle as bicycle brakes, but the weight of the machine and its suspension make stopping a different maneuver. On a bicycle, the rear brake is only responsible for a fraction of the stopping force, and that is the same for a motorcycle, but on the latter, it also prevents the torque generated by disc-pad friction (directed slightly downwards) from compressing your front suspension and sending your over the handle bar. Simply speaking, on a motorcycle, without a rear brake, you simply cannot brake.

To add insult to injury, right when I pulled in the parking lot, the chain disengaged. Luckily, I was only about 50 meters away from where it needed to be, so a kind man helped me lift the rear wheel so we could push it. Had this happened further away, I would have been forced to leave it on the side of the road and hitchhike back. Explaining this story to the lady that rented me the machine (in Spanish) was no easy task. She knows tourists crash all the time so her first reaction was to blame me of having dropped it. Convinced here that  dropping a motorcycle does not do that sort of damage. She then accused me of pushing too hard on the brake. Convinced her again that her claims were nonsensical, a brake is meant to be pushed on and should be able to withstand my full weight on it in case of emergency stop. I explained her that her idiot mechanic had not tighten the rear axle correctly when he changed the tire and on talking my theories over with the actual man

on the phone, let me go with no overcharge.

I will rent motorcycles again, but under the following conditions:

  • if it is chinese junk, it has to be brand new,
  • I will toroughly inspect the machine before accepting it,
  • if the machine is old, I will only accept reputable brands.


Ganada’s downtown screams colonial!

To Granada we went, a supposedly beautiful colonial town. Since most cities are on the Pacific coast in Nicaragua, travelling is a lot faster and that is a very good thing, because it is done in sweaty overcrowded chicken buses, lkie in Panama, old American school buses all pimped up with mags and “Dios bendiga este autobus and su pasajeros” written all over its interior. On some occasions, I am certain we were rivaling the human packing factor they can achieve in the Tokyo metro.

Granada was beautiful, touristy, but welcoming, fun and cheap. The hostel we stayed again blew Ingo’s mind, it probably started its existence as a four star facility and we made quick friends with a group of Canadians from Thunder Bay. I had some work to do so I only did little walking around but I was pleased with what I saw: colonial buildings, busy markets and smiling Nicaraguenses going about their business. Two days later, we went for a bit of relaxing time at a volcanic lake nearby and the next day headed to Managua, the capital.


It’s sketchy, ugly, and uninteresting. The whole city was leveled in 1972 by a massive earthquake and judging by the multiple photos we saw around the center, it was back then a glorious capital with a bright future. Now, it looks like the perfect place to get mugged. Onto León.


On the top of Cerro Negro

What a great place. This city is extremely hot, but it makes up for it in cultural life and looks. A colonial town like Granada, its counterpart (and historic rival), León is the university town of Nicaragua. Also located near a large range of volcanoes and the ocean, great nature, the waves of the pacific and interesting hikes are only a short (chicken) bus-ride away. The hostels are great, there is a lot of partying going down and it is cheap. All throughout the city you can see numerous advertisements for volcano-boarding, or sledding down the ashy slopes of a volcano. We decided to try it and it was somewhat disappointing. Never did we even came close to reaching the advertised speed of 95 km/h, rocks are not like snow, they will tear off whatever slippery surface you stick under the board, so my second descend was done running down. Cerro Negro, the volcano itself was very impressive and made the trip worth it. Standing out some 300 meters among a desert of black volcanic rocks (its walls it blew apart during past eruptions), it is small enough to be hiked around in less that an hour and safe enough for a visit down its multiple craters.

Going to surfing tortuga

The following day, I finally decided to try out surfing, which was OK. It’s a lot harder than it looks but I got up on the board a couple times. I will give it another go in El Salvador if I ever get there. Ingo was having a blast tough, good for him as he wanted to devote the rest of his trip going down the pacific coast to surf. With the day over, I headed back to the city while he remained at the surfing hostel to spend a night or two (or several). I would have stayed as well, but I was too eager to cross into Honduras. What a great country Nicaragua was, unlike its southerly neighbor, Costa Rica, it is cheap, welcoming, safe and has not suffered from the damages of resort type tourism. True adventure can still be found it seems, everybody I have conversed with is unanimous, Nicaragua is awesome:  comfort aside (not to be confused with safe, Costa Rica is not safe), there nothing that Costa Rica has that Nicaragua has not. 12 days was way too little, it’s just a check in my list, I will have to come back.


I had missed the Tica bus (the comfortable, air-conditionned, roomy, fast no hassle but expensive bus company) so rather than postpone my leaving date yet another time, I woke up at 4h30 and headed to the bus station with the objective of reaching Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, the complicated way. Four buses and 9 hours later I arrived at my destination. Tegus did not feel as dangerous as Managua, but the sight of armed security guards in most stores, heavy barriers and gates on every window and house and a long speech by the owner of the hotel on how I should NOT under any circumstances stay in the streets past 22h00 managed to convince me that I should not stick around too long. It seemed attractive tough, the city sits in a valley surrounded by high mountains and is generally very hilly, which make a beautiful setting. During the day it is lively and apparently has a few museums. I could have stayed one more day, but I could not wait to get to Utila.

Then one more buse and a boat where a third of the passengers got sick and I had reached my destination.


Chicken bus!

All the way down to Panama I started hearing about this island in the Carribean sea at the north of Honduras. Among backpackers, its motto is “drink and dive”, THE spot in Central America you should go for if you want to scuba dive. All the way down to Panama, I knew I had to budget my time so I could do a few courses there. Scuba diving does not get cheaper in the Americas. There are better spots, but Utila provides quality diving at unbeatable prices with great ambiance as an added bonus.

This island will get it’s own post in time as it looks I will be staying there a couple of weeks to do my dive master and a couple of specialities.

Saving the turtles

Many species of sea turtles come nesting on Costa Rica’s beaches, but mostly the leatherback, the green and the hawksbill. Not surprisingly  they are all endangered, especially from poaching. Feeling guilty about enjoying Costa Rica’s natural resources after speaking with Jerry (see Central America – month 1), I figured a bit of volunteering was in order so I decided to join ASTOP in Parismina, a small community on the Carribean coast whose beaches are nesting grounds for sea turtles and likewise a popular spot for their illegal hunting. Volunteering was harder than expected, but otherwise a very rewarding experience which I will make a detailed account of in the following paragraphs. Sadly, there are no photos of the actual volunteering work, everything happened at night and flashes can severely disturb these animals so taking picture was frowned upon. Too bad as they really are dinosaur-scale animals (lthe leatherback I saw was 1,60 meters of length and weighted around half a ton) and are out-of-this-world creatures, they spent most of their living time roaming the seas and only come on land to lay. Having me in the picture could have helped giving a sense of dimension, but trust me, your first encounter is jaw-dropping, and the best part is that it never gets old.

The association's HQ
The association’s HQ


Turtles, being reptiles, lay eggs and to lay eggs, you need a nest. Nesting begins when a mother comes up on the beach to survey the area. Not every part of the beach is suitable, on occasions it will be too steep or on others there will be too much vegetation. The turtle will crawl around to judge the site and make her decision. It is quite common that it will return to the water, dissatisfied with what she saw but if the location provides to be suitable, clearing of the area will ensue. The turtle will flap her flippers around while turning on herself to remove as much foreign objects from the sand as possible and then proceed with the actual digging. Using her back flippers, the mother will scoop up sand out of a hole she will excavate as deep as her flippers allow her, throwing the sand away in the face of any unsuspecting volunteer crouching behind to measure the progress.

Once the nest has been made, the laying starts. The size and amount of eggs is species dependent, but for the leatherback and the green it hovers around an hundred with eggs being the size of billiard balls for the former and ping pong balls for the latter. Eggs come out two or three at the time and feature of soft shell to make the landing down in the nest a bit softer.

With the last egg having been laid, the hole is filled back up and the nest camouflaged as best as possible. It is no challenge to figure out where a turtle was laying eggs, the beach has obviously been disturbed, but finding the exact location of the egg cavity is no easy task and takes either a lot probing with a stick or the eye of an experienced guide.

The process by which these animals build their nest is quite amusing and impressive but it takes some time. They are certainly gracious creatures underwater but on land, they are clumsy, slow and depending of the species, in need to conserve energy as much as possible for the return journey around the globe. As such, they will move their flippers a couple times, rest for a while and repeat, with the whole nesting and laying taking up to and sometimes more than an hour. Suffice to say that during this time, the turtles are extremely vulnerable.

Logging and relocating

While laying eggs, turtles are utterly oblivious to what is happening around them. It is night time, they are near sighted out of the water and not very intelligent animals (“you know turtles, they are not very smart” as would often say Jerry). Talk about the reptilian brain, theirs is about the size of small carrot, most of their skull is occupied by salt-filtration glands. So when busy doing their business, they could not care less about what is happening around them and this made our work a whole lot more easier.

Right when the digging is done and the first egg is about to come out, we rush to the hole and fill it with as much sand as possible to make picking eggs up more convenient: nests for the leatherback are typically 80cm deep. As the turtle expels her eggs, you pick them up and put them in a bag. Simultaneously, another person, measures the turtle, inspects it for wounds and records the tag numbers if has any or tags it if it does not.

The hatchery
The hatchery

Once the turtle has been cataloged and her eggs have been gathered, it is left to return to the see on her own if it is a leatherback. They have a foul taste and are not preyed on for their meat. Green turtles on the other hand have to be guarded until they return to sea. Then eggs are taken back to the hatchery, where a nest is dug up and one by one they are counted and disposed in the nest as carefully as possible. There the eggs will mature over the next 60 days or so and hatch as newborns, which will be then collected and released back in the sea at different locations on the beach.

Patrolling and being a volunteer

Volunteer work mostly involves patrolling the beach at night in two shifts, one from 20h00 to midnight and the other from midnight to 4. Volunteers are teamed with local guides who have been formed with working with the turtles. When one is spotted, you follow their orders and try to be useful which may mean crouching behind a massive leatherback reaching for eggs deep down as she lays them, its a good thing they actually do not smell too bad. Turtles do not come out during day time, they rely on the sea being actually brighter than the beach to orient themselves. Sadly, in the process some get lost because of artificial light from the village, but usually, shining a flashlight in their face will guide them back to where you want them to go.

Patrols work on two fronts. They protect the nests by relocating them to a safe and guarded place, but they also act as deterrents to poacher by ensuring a consistent presence throughout the night. At any given time, two teams of local guides and volunteers are walking along Parismina’s 6 kms of beach. Poachers, when spotted, will most of time walk away, knowing that the practice is illegal and that they will quickly get framed on an island only inhabited by 500 people or so. As a result, the practice has severely lost popularity over the time the association has been active, and except for a few encounters every season (mostly with outsiders), poaching is very much a thing of the past. Mission has not been accomplished tough and never will, other threats exist in the form of dogs, pollution and should the association lower its guard, poachers will surely make a comeback.

Walking on loose sand is much harder than it looks: this is no romantic stroll on the beach. Mosquitoes and sand flies are out hunting and over time, stress builds up in all the lower joints from stepping on this kind of surface. Soon, your knees, your hips and your back start aching and your legs, forever itchy from the bites, become full of scars from the uncontrollable urge to scratch.  Even at nighttime, the heat and humidity are sometimes crippling in the Carribean, especially as you wear long clothing to protect yourself from the bugs. Turtle sightings are not guaranteed either: during two weeks of patrols, I saw two leatherbacks and one green turtle (quite exceptional since it is not their season yet). This can make the work seem unrewarding and compounded with the hardships of the patrols, has depressed more than a few volunteers into quitting earlier. Thankfully, we got plenty of rest during daytime, as besides the occasional garbage pick-ups and activity with the children, there was not a whole lot to do; I got plenty of work done, helped with the association’s computers, improved the Wikipedia article on Parismina and created one for the association. The rest of the day involved killing time by going for swims, playing pool, befriending other volunteers or developing a fascination for coconuts.


Milena, my host, with one of her brothers and her daughter
Milena, my host, with one of her brothers and her daughter

The association provides rooms to accommodate large groups, but most volunteers prefer homestaying with a local family, where for a small fee (17 US$ a day), you get a bed, three meals and your sweaty sand filled clothes cleaned. Not a bad deal, but what is most interesting is the cultural experience, which does not come from eating Costa Rican dishes (you can have anything, as long as its rice and beans) but from getting to chat with your hosts, share a moment watching tele-novelas or eavesdrop on village gossip. Parsmina’s inhabitants were religious and simple folks for the most part, but finding more about their outlook on life was enriching and appeasing. While literate, they were never given the opportunity to question anything and frankly this somewhat makes them happier. Sometimes, it felt like the earth was still flat, that the world ended outside the island’s boundaries and that the only measure of time that mattered was whether it was day or night.

In terms of material comfort, it was still way below anyone from up north would consider the minimum. A few houses were surprisingly luxurious (some said it had something to do with drug money), but most of them were wooden shacks with rusty corrugated iron roofs. Sleeping without a mosquito net was not an option and at nighttime, you had to share your living space with a wide array of critters: crabs, geckos, tarantulas, cockroaches, etc. Parismina had not been spared by modernity tough, every house was (somewhat) electrified, had running water and basic appliances such as a fridge, a stove and a television. Health wise, the village had its own clinic so everyone was generally healthy and had good dentition but just like the rest of Costa Rica, obesity and its related illnesses were rampant, owing to a diet heavy in starches and fried stuff.

In conclusion

I will keep fond memories of my time in Parismina. In the past, I was quick to criticize voluntourism as an attempt by foreigners at giving themselves good conscienc

On the beach at dusk
On the beach at dusk

e. In the past, I was wrong. Whatever money I spent to the village was handed directly to those providing me services or to the association so if anything, I brought a bit of prosperity to this otherwise secluded island but really, the interactions were genuine and the cause was one worth fighting for: the whole experience was unlike anything I had previously lived. Locals see volunteers come and go with only a handful of them staying long enough to truly have a lasting impact, but all go back to their corner of the planet better individuals and share that betterment at home with their family and friends. While it cannot escape the egocentricity of travelling, voluntourism still fits within a framework of responsible and slow tourism and certainly does away with its exaggerated hedonistic nature. It is an exercise in global awareness, promotes cultural sensibility and provides original experiences to those who try it. I for one will from now on try to devote a portion of my future travels to volunteering on projects like this.