Was looking for a quick escape from the cold and stumbled on tix from ORD to SJO on Mexicana (www.mexicana.com) for $245 a ticket!
It was too good to pass up.
Went to CR last year for my friend Kim’s big 4-0. Spent time rappeling and ziplining in Arenal/La Fortuna area and some surf days at Playa Tamarindo. Even hit up the “best strip club in San Jose” with an old boyfriend.
Going in for the repeat with some time in Arenal, Monteverde and hopefully a new surfing beach to practice what Fred-o taught me a couple weeks ago in Nicaragua.
We arrive in Dangriga in no time at all (at 10:15, when we had expected a 45 minute ride), and at Phillip’s request, we stop at the Garifuna Drum Memorial to take pictures before getting to the main bus terminal.
Our bus is already there, they tell us, and we walk through the main terminal (where there is the same time schedule that they had taken a photo of a month before–hand written on sheets of paper on a board) to the recycled school bus, painted across in red, white and green.
You had to get us on a chicken bus, eh Phil, I say.
Yep, he says jovially, and he helps Cyn and I load our bags up through the emergency exit in the back.
There are still children selling food and drinks on the bus, so I buy an orange juice as Phillip runs inside to buy himself and Sarah some plantain chips and burritos.
10 minutes later, another young boy, no older than 8, boards the bus selling plantain chips.
No thanks, I say when he comes by. But then Cynthia and I look at each other. Do we want some? Okay, yea, I say, and I hand the boy a Belize dollar. The chips are thin and salted to perfection. We chomp through the bag while playing Mario on her Nintendo DS.
The ride through the countryside takes a good 2.5 hours but it is scenic and beautiful, with the Maya mountains adorning the view from the left side of the bus. I sit in the bus seat in front of Cynthia, intermittently snapping pictures and sleeping against the window.
Right before we reach Belmopan, I awake, still curled in a half shell, to find another boy sitting at the edge of my bus seat.
Scoot over, Cynthia hisses. More people got on.
In Belmopan, I duck back into Cynthia’s seat. And good thing because when the bus reloads, it is completely packed, so much so that a man has to sit on top of luggage in the last row. I guess by some standards that really isn’t completely packed because the aisle isn’t filled with standing passengers and people aren’t hanging out the back.
I sleep again until I am rudely awakened in Belize City but men who are hanging out of the emergency exit.
Airport? Airport, they yell. Who is going to the airport.
Groggily, I say that I am, and they tell me that this is the stop I need to get off at, searching for my bags along the way.
I am rather confused, but I decide to heed these people and hop off the bus with Cyn, saying a hasty and unexpected goodbye to Phillip and Sarah. Rick had left in Dangriga to find a boat to the atolls close by.
How much for the taxi, I ask.
Scanning around, I see that I am moderately screwed. The driver had explained that this was the best place to get to airport because it was right at the edge of town and the airport is about 8 km outside of town. However, because we were in a random location, there were no other cabs around to provide much leverage in bargaining a price.
Can you do it for less, I ask, pulling out my Lonely Planet, as if I could find some evidence that he was screwing me. I’m really too groggy to care.
I can take 5 Belize off the price, he tells me, but that’s it. Gas is expensive. It’s like 10 dollars a gallon, man.
I look at Cynthia. We really don’t have much of a choice. In usual fashion, she shrugs, so I say okay and the taxi man grabs our bags.
When we settle in, I pull out my LP which reads that taxis should cost $3 a person from downtown to/from the airport. I assume that it means 6 Belize per person, and even then, we have completely gotten screwed because on top of everything else, the cabbie had been honest about one thing: we were starting from a point much closer to the airport.
Learning from Phillip’s principal not to tip above a bartered price, I pay the cabbie his 45 dollars.
Cynthia, who suddenly realized on the bus that her passport wasn’t in her small purse, stops outside to unzip her suitcase and check for her passport. She is confident at first that it will appear, first in her skirt pocket, then in the pocket of her jeans, but when it is nowhere to be found, her face falls. Shit, she says.
Well, I think normally they at least allow you on the return leg of a trip, I say. Let’s see what we can do. Dammit, almost flawless.
The AA counter is surprisingly accommodating, and after paying $15 for the airport wifi, we manage to pull up a photo of Cynthia’s passport on my computer. They take note of the numbers and get her a boarding pass, even stopping to put us together in an exit row.
We pay our $39 exit tax and move swiftly through security. My mother had warned me that going through security would take forever, and so far so good.
That unfortunately left us a massive amount of time to shop at the duty free shops, and I went slightly ape shit, buying up as much $9 liquor as I could carry back with me. Add in a shirt, some hot sauce, and I soon had to buy a large Belize-emblazoned bag to carry my displaced belongings after I would have to check the liquor into my suitcase when flying domestically.
The hour and a half flight from Belize passes without issue and Cyn and I look through photos from the weeks past.
In Miami customs, Cyn is stopped at immigration for what seems like hours. I wait downstairs with our collective luggage alongside a woman who’s Cuban husband has been held up as well.
He’s a Canadian citizen,, she says, but he’s proud and travels with his Cuban passport. I told him to travel with his Canadian passport. Now look what happens.
When Cyn comes out, the airport is flooded with a massive number of international flights and the customs line wraps around the baggage carousels.
Let’s go to the bathrooms first, I say. Famous last words, because Cynthia gets so excited about her phone calls and emails, that she tips over my suitcase.
Crash! The whole thing goes down and the next thing I know, I see creamy fluid flooding my Belize bag onto the floor.
Fuck, a bottle broke, I say, and I am massively irritated. I want to punch something. And now everything is gooey and sticky with the cream of rum that I had been dying to drink. I want to scream.
We walk out of the bathroom in silence and push through the crowd of people waiting to make it through customs.
With the many failed efforts to re-schedule my itinerary, I finally give into the sad reality that I will be flying to Tennessee and waiting in Nashville airport until my 6 a.m. flight to Chicago.
Cyn and I manage to squeeze in our first Starbucks coffee at Miami, and then I depart for security. To my (pleasant) surprise, there is a Cuban restaurant right adjacent to my departure gate. Sweet ass, I think, one final order of chicken and rice!
However, when I arrive in Nashville, I am surprised and pleased to find that I am looking directly at a lounge of leather chairs filled with 15 or so travelers looking as though they’ve settled in for the night.
I approach the police officer standing in front of the glass windows surrounding the lounge.
What’s all this? I ask
Are you here for the night?
Yea, I think so. Have a flight to Chicago in 5 hours.
Then you can stay here. Feel free to arrange the couches how you like.
Sweeeeet ass, I think to myself.
A woman, flying to Dallas, offers me a blanket. I turn on my computer to find that Boingo is still free for the holidays thanks to Google. I am happy.
The drive is long, longer than I expected. The Maya Mountains flank the west side of the drive, so the drive is scenic but the road is filled with potholes. On the way, we pass a bridge that has collapsed a year ago.
Don’t they fix that shit, man, Rick asks.
No money, the cabbie explains. Corrupt government keeps it all.
We eventually turn off the main highway onto a dirt road that’s even more filled with potholes and jutting rocks.
This is much better than when we saw it last, Phil says. It was filled with water then.
The cabbie swerves left and right to avoid obstacles in the hazardous terrain. His poor Nissan Sentra that he purchased for $6000, he says, is weighted down significantly by five extra bodies and many extra bags. And we are stuffed inside, with Sarah sitting on Phillip’s lap in front, and Rick, Cynthia and I stuffed in back with Cynthia’s suitcase.
They say in Hopkins, you can’t tell the drunk drivers from the sober ones because everyone swerves, Phillip says.
Yea, give me some of that stuff, the cabbie says.
I hand Phillip my smiley face cup and he fills it with One Barrel and some of the cabbie’s water.
Ahhh, that’s the stuff, the cabbie says, as he continues to weave hitting the occasional speed bump and pothole. Everyone now and when, Sarah and Phillip get out of the car so the car can make it over a speed bump with scraping out the bottom.
You know you’re drinking your tip, right? Rick says devilishly.
Oh come on, man, the cabbie says.
It’s 4:30 when we finally reach Jungle Jeanie’s and we are thankful that we’ve managed to make it without breaking the cab. Our smart mouth cabbie, who turns out to be East Indian, gives everyone hugs and high fives and is on his way, 240 Belize richer.
Jeanie, a slight but fierce woman who looks in her 70s, comes out to greet us, giving Phillip and Sarah huge hugs. They had stayed here for a week before they went to Hamanasi resort next door to hold their wedding ceremonies.
I can’t believe you guys are back, she says.
She shows us the two cabanas… treehouses really that sit on tall stilts.. that sit about 20 meters from the beach that are still available. They are $50 US a piece, one with 3 beds, one with 2, so Rick, Cyn and I take the larger of the two. This is the largest and cheapest kind of accommodations that we’ve had so far, competing with only our Roatan cabanas for maximum comfort and space.
It’s a good thing you guys called today, Jeanie says. I’m completely full tomorrow.
The five of us head to the beach with bottles of One Barrel for..at last..some time to rest. Cyn, Rick and I go splash in the waves. It is, at least for Cyn and I, our last opportunity to swim in the sea.
The water is bright, almost green, lapping against a tropical shore. Maybe miles off shore, there are tropical reefs that break the waves coming in from the sea. On this particular night, the wind is strong and it keeps the sand flies and mosquitoes at bay. I’m grateful.
Sarah and Phillip try to rent bikes for us from Jeanie’s but as luck would have it, the good bikes were rented out, and the shitty ones were inoperable, really.
Perhaps we can all rent ones from Hamanasi, Sarah suggests, so in the darkness, the five of us walk down the lonely stretch of beach until we see the glowing torches the sand that signal we have arrived at the resort. This is the first place we’ve been thus far that it’s actually safe to walk on the beach in the dark, I think.
When we enter the resort, it is cheery and clean. Many gringos sit at the bar, some completely drunk, and upon talking to them, it seems few have left the resort to venture into the surrounding garifuna villages.
They offer a bike tour to the garifuna village for $30 US, Sarah tells me. It’s quite rubbish, as if the village wasn’t safe or something. The people are really lovely.
They talk to the staff like old friends, and Sarah graciously orders us a round of Belikin stout, which tastes close to a Guinness.
Although we had planned to come here and rent bikes, the friendly garifuna staff instead offers to drive us to North Beach, where we plan to have dinner. When we’re done, they say, as long as it’s between 8:30 and 10:30, they’ll come give us a ride home. Unbelievable.
North Beach is just a 10-15 minute drive up the street, although in distance, it’s probably not far at all. The dirt pothole roads do a lot to slow progress.
On the way, we stop in a Chinese deli to get some Off! Knowing that I’ll want snacks after a few drinks, I pick up a packet of coconut crackers, gangster Cheetos puffs and a Diet Coke.
The restaurant is empty when we get there. In the corner there are two white girl hovering over a computer, and one garifuna standing behind the bar. Having the restaurant to ourselves, we find a table just off the beach, adjacent to the beach volleyball court.
It’s usually pretty busy here, Sarah and Phil tell us, but it’s a Monday night. Even the karaoke bar is closed. Since Guatemala, we’ve been dying to get Phil and Rick to join us in some karaoke action. They keep refusing, insisting that it would take more drinks than that.
We order a round of Belikins at the bar, and when I turn around, I see Cynthia sprawled out on the beach floor clutching her ankle. And the poor thing is wearing a short jean skirt.
What happened, I say. There was only one step.
But it seems somehow, stone cold sober, she’s managed to trip on the single staircase down and sprain her ankle. Phillip and Rick support her on either side and help her to the dinner table. We use one chair to elevate her bad leg.
We have amazing dinners of fresh fish, topped off with Belikins and One Barrel – libres. Somewhere in there, I buy everyone a round of shots for $12. I force Cynthia to take one, explaining that it will help numb the pain in her ankle that has now swelled to nearly twice its size.
We leave around 10:30 and head back to the resort, where I nearly instantly go to sleep.
I’ve never seen anyone pass out so quickly, Rick tells me the next day. You were literally mid-sentence.
Everyone else chills out on balcony until 12:45, when, as Phil says, he was completely fucked up. We all sleep through the cool darkness of the night.
Refreshed from a night of passed out sleep, I wake at 6 a.m. – more like pop – remembering that Phillip had mentioned sunrise is beautiful here and just due south of the beach.
Grabbing a camera, a diet coke and some crackers, I head downstairs barefoot to catch the morning sun. I am slightly disappointed by the heavily clouded sky that blocks the possibility of a truly brilliant sunrise, but in the pockets of blue amid the clouds, you can see the bright oranges and pinks that reflect off cloud outlines.
I get bored after a while decide to check out Hamanasi during the day. It was voted eco-lodge of the year, Sarah had said, so I figure that it must be quite charming, although decidedly less so in this weather.
The walk across the coarse sand is longer than the one I remembered taking last night. I can feel the rough grains underneath my toes and I wonder if it would be less painful with flip flops on.
In the stretch between Jungle Jeanie’s and Hamanasi, the beach gets thin, with sea grass covering half of the walkable area on the dry side. When torches begin to line the beach and hammocks begin to hang off the trees, I know I have arrived.
The place does look different during the day, although I’m not sure significantly. There are the hammocks that hang diagonally from palm trees, and the pool surrounded by chairs and ground torches. The bar/restaurant looks closed, but walking along the paths, I see the lush, tropical growths between the various treehouse accommodations that dot the property.
Standing in the wind, looking at nothing in particular, I feel the wind blowing forcefully through my hair, and all of a sudden, I want to cry. I feel the tightness in my throat and the water form behind my eyes. But nothing falls.
There is a long warehouse that houses SCUBA gear. I didn’t know you could dive here, I thought. I wonder what there is to see?
Making my way back, I grab my computer and head to the main room, which is still lock. When I sit down, I am instantly nuzzle-attacked by Jeanie’s large German Sheppard.
Hey girl, I say, and the massive dog repeatedly laps my face with drooly slobber. Ugh, I think.
Jeanie’s husband is inside and he lets me in.
There’s no food yet, he says, but you can sit.
The German Sheppard and I both go in and I sit until it’s time to have a hearty breakfast of coffee, eggs, a flour tortilla, bacon and fresh fruit.
Phil and Sarah appear around 8:30 with plans for the day. They had taken a picture of the bus schedule in Dangriga and there would be a bus leaving for Belize City at 10:30. They had arranged for a ride to the Dangriga bus station with Onica, one of the garifuna of the village, for 72 Belize Dollars.
The resort would charge you $60 US a person, Sarah adds. That’s the resort price. It’s always better to go with the locals.
I take breakfast up to Cynthia – some eggs, fried dough much more delicious than my tortilla, and chicken sausage – who is still recovering from her ankle sprain from last night. We need to go soon, I say, and we pack up our things wistfully, unwilling to acknowledge that we are really leaving paradise today.
We load into a minivan with Onica, a ride much more comfortable and accommodating than the taxi.
Noting the time, Phillip asks, Do you reckon we can get to Dangriga by 1030?
She taps the digital clock, which has somehow turned black. TAP, three fingers hit the screen and 9:53 suddenly lights up in LED green.
I think so, she says.
I like the confidence, Phillip says.
Well, if you don’t make the bus, I’ll drive you to the bus and wave it down. But tell me, if you don’t make the bus, who’s fault is it? I was there at 20 past 9.
Who was on the toilet? Sarah chimes in.
Now that we’ve established who’s fault it is…. That’s what I love about the country. The buses will stop anywhere.
The road out of Hopkins is just as bumpy as the road we took in. Onica swerves left and right to avoid the potholes, and I now see what Phil was talking about when he said you couldn’t tell the sober drivers from the drunk ones.
The boat is near full when we arrive and Phil and Sarah seem visibly disappointed that all the seats in back are already taken. Those are the best spots, they tell us, so we hastily hand over our luggage to an attendant and lay a few possessions over the first row of seats.
There is some additional time for us to spend some quetzals on water and snacks. There are some weird cigarettes in Guatemala called After Hours, so I buy a pack just for kicks.
The launcha, not surprisingly, doesn’t launch at 10:30, and we can’t quite figure out why but we just want to head out. Phil and Sarah suggest that perhaps we should spend the night in Hopkins, a one-street garifuna village along the beach about 3 hours north of Punta Gorda, where they got married.
If it’s your last night, Sarah reasoned, you don’t want to spend it in Belize City.
Cyn and I are flexible at this point, and we readily agree. Rick, who had been considering going to Livingston to see a garifuna village but decided for Hopkins instead, is already in. Let’s do it, I say.
It is perhaps 11 or 11:30 by the time we launch off.
At first, we are comforted by the light rumble of the motor as we sail past the beachside Guatemalan hills to the west. Again, we see the familiar clouds swirl over the rounded peaks. The drone of the engine makes me sleepy, and I put my head down into my arms, draped over the pseudo-bench in front of me
I am rudely awakened by sea spray. One light splash, and then ten minutes later, another.
What the hell, I think.
I look up to see a Guatemalan boy sitting on the helm of the boat tossing down large, black strips of tarp.
This is just like what they did on our launcha ride from Utila, Sarah says. Apparently, you hide underneath the tarp to protect yourself from the water.
the tarp umbrella
Good thing the boy had tossed down the tarp when he did because soon, the sea gets rough and the sea spray becomes constant. I told down the front of the tarp with my left hand and pull at the back with my right. I can feel salt water rolling down the tarp, down my arm and onto Cynthia’s back. There’s not much I can do.
Looking behind, I see Rick, sitting all the way to the left of the second row. Each time the boat bounces, he is hit with another splash of sea water. His face and clothes are already drenched.
Cyn , Sarah and I duck under the black tarp, with is punctuated by small air/light holes. It almost looks like a night sky, less the edges of tarp that keep flying up in the wind. Every 10 or so seconds, as the boat violently jumps up and slams down, we hear the splash of water crashing on plastic.
Damn. I think.
I feel like we’re stowaways, sneaking across the border, Cynthia says. From then on, no one can really sleep so well, and the hour long ride seems to go on forever. All the while, we never quite rise out of the tarp long enough to see any of the scenery fly by. It’s not until we can see the lush greenery of Punta Gorda approaching that we finally unravel ourselves from the tarp. Both Phillip and Rick, who have been sitting on opposite edges of the boat, are drenched.
And you wanted to sit on an edge to take pictures, Sarah laughs.
It is 12:05 when we re-remerge into the basking sun after clearing immigration.
Not being able to quite figure out if we’ve missed the 12 p.m. chicken bus to Dangriga (which stops at the dirt road you have to take to Hopkins), we wait on the side of the road.
There are apparently many Chinese people living in Belize, Sarah and Phil tell us. So many, that in fact, they set up their own communities and anger the Belizeans. In their eyes, the Chinese open stores and restaurants and collect money from the locals but give nothing back to the community.
Yea, that sounds about right, Cyn and I say.
And here, lo and behold, across the dusty street from where we are waiting for a bus, we see a Chinese restaurant connected to a small deli.
The sun is literally scorching, and I can’t believe that it’s actually gotten hotter despite having moved further north. I tell everyone that I have a bottle of Flor in my bag still, and I take it out for a celebratory drink with Cyn and Sarah.
Meanwhile Phillip, who is excited to be back in the land of One Barrel, has already run into the deli with Rick to buy some of the award-winning Belizean elixir. They come back minutes later, and before we know it, their two bottles of One Barrel are unscrewed as well. We have a small celebration in the street.
Because Sarah tells me that Hopkins is very small, I decide that I should load up on a bottle of One Barrel as well. I am surprised when I walk in that the girl behind the counter is Chinese. Although everyone speaks English in Belize, she seems to speak very little.
When I get back outside, it soon becomes painfully clear that we have indeed missed the 12 p.m. bus, however, and the next bus will not come until 2. We move all our things to the proper bus station, about 2 blocks away, and groan.
Could we just take a taxi? I ask How much do you think that will cost?
Sarah and I walk back to the main road. A garifuna man, who has been washing a truck, whistles to us. Hey! Come here, he says, gesturing. I try to ignore him for a minute, but Sarah approaches him, so I hesitantly follow.
What are you waiting for, he asks.
We need a taxi, Sarah says. We’re trying to go to Hopkins.
There are taxis by the Central Park, the garifuna says. I’ll take you there.
No, it’s okay, Sarah says. I know where the park is. We’ve been here before.
The garifuna is insistent, but before he can walk anywhere, a red Nissan taxi zips by. He waves his hand, stopping the taxi. There already a patron inside, an Amish looking fellow, but the cabbie, upon hearing that we’re going to a destination 3 hours away, sees a cash opportunity and promises to be back soon.
When he zips off, the garifuna turns to us, asking for a tip.
What for? Sarah asks. No.
The garifuna curses a bit, but there’s little he can do, so he walks away for a bit muttering.
We sit in the sidewalk, drinking some One Barrel and waiting for the taxi to come back. By the time it does, it’s already 1:20… Only 40 minutes to go before the chicken bus runs.
$300 Belize, the cabbie says to us.
No, no, that’s too expensive, we say.
It takes a bit more haggling and the taxi driver goes down to $280.
That’s nothing! I say. And it’s not. The exchange rate is about 2:1, so he’s essentially gone down $10 US.
Sarah is a bit calmer, saying that we have to consult the others.
Stay here for a minute, she says. We’ll be right back.
We walk back to the bus station where Phil, Rick and Cynthia are sitting, sipping on One Barrel out of cups and Coke bottles.
Phil, I think you should talk to him, Sarah says. Reason with him, man to man.
She turns to me explaining that Phil had expected 200-250 Belize. The bus ride would probably cost us about 14 or so Belize a person, but who knew how long it would take. At this point, she just wanted to get there and hopefully make the sunset.
Phil and Rick are soon walking back and we see the taxi turn the corner to come for us and the bags.
We got him down to $240, Phil says.
It’s not bad.. About 48 Belize a person for a direct trip to Hopkins, right to Jungle Jeanie’s door.
How you all doing? The cabbie says as he steps out.
Good, and you, I say, holding up my smiley face cup of One Barrel and Coke.
Maria, the Guatemalan woman who owns the hotel is sweet. She asks if we have a car and because we don’t, she offers to drive us to a nice restaurant to grab dinner. That’s so sweet of us to drive us out to the next town, we think as we calculate our quetzals for a ride back to the hotel.
The restaurant, named Maria something or other, turns out to be only a mere 4 blocks away, and straight off the main road. As we unload out of the car, she says, ok, now if you can’t figure out your way back, have the restaurant call me and I’ll get you. Maria Theresa is my name.
We’ll be okay, we say, and head into a brightly painted restaurant.
Inside, the Christmas décor gleams. There are two large rooms, both with ceilings adorned with inflated sun floaties and paper fish. Inside several tanks scattered about the place, there are what we can only assume are 1 lira and 1.5 lira fish. They swim about in a cramped tank, occasionally looking as though they are going to suck the scales off of each other. They look hungry. And we are hungry.
We settle into the front room, which is not air conditioned. The back room is completely freezing. The menus are handed to us and on the inside front cover, we see a life saver with a plump woman giving a thumbs up behind it (kind of a Captain Salty sort of image). At the table next to us, we see a plump woman digging into a mujarra a la plancha. We think we’ve found the owner!
A couple of Gallos (the local beer) and lime later, we are all in bright spirits once again. What a trek, we say to ourselves, and Phil and Sarah go into their stories about their travels around the world from diving currents off the Galapagos, to the reefs in Fiji, to getting married in the Garifuna villages in Belize where funeral processions are a 9-day drunken celebration of life, leading the human spirit to realize that it is dead.
We polish off about five gallos a piece, as well as enough fish, mariscos, chicken, rice and beans to feed a small army.
Satiated, we walk back to the hotel in a moderate drizzle making plans to meet at 8 the next morning for immigration services and a little bit of breakfast before the 10 a.m. lancha.
I wake up at 6 a.m. to a blowing fan. Damn I’m cold.
I mill around for a bit, writing and waiting for Cynthia to get up. When she does, there are strange noises coming from outside. Howls almost.
Listen, I whisper to Cynthia. Do you hear that? I think a woman is getting beaten up or something, It sounds like screaming. I am sketched out.
While Cynthia gets ready, I walk out of our room and hear someone singing “All the single ladies” in an adjacent room in falsetto, only slightly howling. Moments later, a young garifuna boy walks out of the room wearing bagging pants and a large belt buckle emblazoned with a marijuana leaf.
His name is Joseph, he says. Where are you from?
Los Estados Unidos, I say, and you?
Hopkins, he says, in Belize. He drums in a garifuna band. He has been here on holiday in Guatemala.
Was that you singing Beyonce? I ask.
Oh yes, you heard that? He laughs openly. You heard that?
Oh my God, Joseph. I say. I thought someone was getting raped and beaten. That was just you singing!
Joseph can thankfully take a joke and lets out a heart laugh. Man! He says. I like you. You’re cool.
When Cyn is ready, we head to the immigration office where we pay for our immigration stamps out of Guatemala and our ferry tickets for 650 lemps a piece. We each pay with 1000 lempiras, asking for our 350 change in quetzals. The woman sifts through her bag, which is filled with dollars, cords, Belize and everything imaginable, until she finds our quetzals and give us 100 each.
It isn’t until after we leave that I figure the exchange rate is 19:1 Lempira:Dollar and 8:1 Quetzal to Dollar. We’ve been marginally screwed.
We find a restaurant around the corner that is serving desayuno but Cynthia is feeling adventurous, so we venture down Calle 12 to a more central street. On the corner, there is a farmacia that is guarded by a militiaman with a shotgun.
I don’t know if I feel safer with or without him around, I say to Cynthia. Because no one will dare rob me with him standing there, but if he shoots, I’m right in the line of fire.
I am feeling slightly shady still, packing my passport, laptop and credit cards in my purse around my shoulder.
Cynthia seems unworried with her passport in the back pocket of her skirt.
I know you’re packing nothing, I say to her, but I feel like I’m packing everything. I feel a little cautious. Do you mind if we just head back to that first place that we saw.
Sure, she says, and we head back to a little mom and pop shop in the street corner, where, from the looks of it, the family is sleeping in a room adjacent to the kitchen.
A truck pulls up while we are sitting down into our chairs. For a brief moment, when we had seen it in the road, we had thought that perhaps there was a chance its intentions were malicious. But now we see that is a lively Guatemalan couple. They sit down next to us at the table.
Buenas, I say cheerfully. They wave and smile, ordering a coffee and some breakfast plates from the restaurant. Since the place did not have menus, I say “tambien para nosotros”. I just want to have whatever they’re having, which turns out to be a plate of chicken nuggets, fresh corn tortilla and frijoles and a plate of fried eggs, frijoles and tortillas.
A woman brings out from the back a big tupperware bowl of fresh salsa, full of jalapenos, fresh tomatoes and onions. The aroma is mesmerizing.
We enjoy a hearty meal and conversation with the couple, who it turns out, have three teenage children. They show us photos of their son. Because I collect coins from the countries that I visit, the husband even runs to his truck to see if he has any spare coins to give me. He doesn’t, so he asks the restaurant owner if she has any. She does, and so I trade her cordobas and US coins for a few quetzal coins. I am ecstatic.
It is 9:30 when we are finished and we have just enough time to gather our things from the hotel and go to the lancha.
We are almost back up on the main road when a stocky Honduran man dressed in shorts and a polo waves us down and hails us back about 30 feet.
Where are you going? He asks. Do you want a ride?
That’s what I love about this country, Sarah whispers over. Everyone’s trying make money.
We bargain our way to 200 lempiras a person, and our new friend… whose name is incidentally Fresh, loads our bags into the back of his pickup truck.
Oh crap, we didn’t see this coming. The interior of the pickup truck can only fit 3 people tops perhaps, and the rest will have to ride outside in the back. It is still raining.
We hesitate for a moment, but seeing as how the border would close in an hour or two, we know that time is of the essence, so we push on. Sarah and I get into the front, gesturing for Cyn to join us, but she is already climbing into the back of the pickup with Phil, Rick and the luggage.
Together, we cruise down at 150 kph, passing palm and banana plantations as we go.
Sarah, who has traveled with Phil for the past year all over the world, tells me that in other parts, there had been sustenance farms that were bought out by palm plantations because they offered so much money for the land. Now villages would surround these plantations and instead of farming for themselves, the people now live off the plantations.
We make it to the Honduran border at around 4:30 after two checkpoints where Fresh orders us to “QUICK! Pretend to buckle your seatbelt. Seatbelt! Seatbelt!”. We bargain for Fresh to take us all the way to Puerto Barrios for 300 lemps a person but soon realize that the frontera closes at 5, not 6, and he must make it back to Honduras before then.
Quick, quick, Fresh says, as we go to Honduran immigration. We don’t even have time to use toilet although we’re dying to pee.
He cruises again to a spot where we can pick up another chicken bus. To the west, the Guatemalan mountains are gorgeous, with cloud swirling across hill like curls of smoke. Surrounded by palms, the scene is breathtaking.
Cynthia told you I’m snap happy, didn’t she? I tell Sarah. I don’t blame she says. I’ve got about 7000.
She and Phil have been posting things online as they’ve traveled. Phil does the writing. He’s got the harder job, she says.
While we speak, we look ahead to see a dog in the middle of the road. Oh, God, we think, Stop!
The dog looks to its left and sees cars zooming back in the opposite direction. It turns back to the other side of the road. Fresh slows down but only moderately. I close my eyes and scream. The truck hits slams into the dog, a loud bang followed by two thuds – Kathunk, Kathunk. We run over the poor animal.
When we arrive at the Guatemalan microbus, Fresh charges us 300 lemps a person.
That’s not fair, we say, we said 300 if you took us all the way to Puerto Barrios. We aren’t in Puerto Barrios!
I pay your bus ticket, he tells u.
No, Sarah says. That ride costs like a dollar (20 lemps). It’s 200 lemps. That’s it.
But after the fiasco of hitting the dog, we just want to get away from this crazy man, so we each pay him his 300 lemps and allow him to pay our microbus fee.
He made a killing off of us, Sarah says.
We load into the bus, which is more like a van and much more comfortable than the ride to Puerto Cortes.
This microbus also stops every here and there to pick up more people and let others off. At one point we have 10- children in the microbus, folded into every small nook possible. Children are so mobile.
That’s what I love at this place, Sarah says. People are so accommodating.
Guatemala is quite a beautiful country so far, and surprisingly much more eye appealing than the Honduran side that we’ve just left. I wonder how people have so many negative things to say about it.
It’s like crossing from Italy into Switzerland, Phil says. Funny how the Hondurans have so much shit to say about the Guatemalans. It’s so much cleaner here.
We make it to the main road in Puerto Barrios by dusk, getting off on the street just past a shop where you can apparently buy ropas exclusivos. We drag our suitcases through dirt roads, down Calle 12 until we get to Avenida 3. Along the way, men sitting outside at restaurants woot at us.
My God, Sarah says. It’s like a couple of cute girls come into town and the town goes crazy.
On the way down Calle 12 towards the Europa 2 Hotel that we see listed in Lonely Planet, we pass the immigration office and we are surprised it is still open. We stop in and are told by two immigration officers that we apparently don’t need an entrance stamp. We open at 7 am tomorrow so you can get your exit stamps, they tell us.
We walk another block further to Avenida 3 and find Europa and Europa 2 on the corner. For a hot shower, double beds, air con and a TV, we pay $16 a night.
Going into the bathroom in our room, I see wires hanging out of the shower head. Well, Cynthia wanted a warm shower. I reckon that proves there’s hot water, even if we get electrocuted along the way.
We are all rather indignant, although looking around, either we had a really small plane or the plane wasn’t anywhere near full. From the looks of it, there were only about 10 people who were going to travel on it.
A couple, judging from their accents, likely British, ae asking the agent for their money back on the flight.
We can’t give you a refund, the agent says, but you have tickets. You can take this exact same flight tomorrow.
There are no more flights today? I chime in. We can’t wait until tomorrow. We are flying out of Belize in two days. We can’t afford for this to happen again.
The couple, whose names we find out later are Sarah and Phil, begin to argue with the agent about their refund policy.
We can make it over land, Phil says. We’d rather just get on the road today. All we want is our money back.
Yes, Sarah agrees. We gave you money for a service. You didn’t give us the service, so we want a refund.
She asks to see their terms and conditions. And by now, Cyn and I are involved too. Bloody hell, we paid over $100 for these tickets.
We angrily demand to see a manager and fight with him until Phil gets him to agree to write us a letter saying that we can use the credit from these tickets to apply to any Maya Island Air flight within Belize.
I manage to irritate the agent because when he tells me–in perfect English–please give him a minute to finish his sentence, I tell him to fill it with something actually useful.
Phil and Sarah, who have trekked from Belize on south through the overland and water route, know the way, so I meekly ask if we can follow them. We can afford to lose this day, but if the plane doesn’t fly tomorrow because of the weather, we just may be completely screwed.
Our original plans of diving the next day and cave tubing on the 5th, we sadly accept, are already shot to hell. We agree with Sarah and Phil’s concept that we should just keep moving in the right direction. In addition to everything else, no one wants to spend a night in San Pedro Sula, a city known for its rampant gang violence with the lovely unofficial title of the AIDS capital of Central America. Because of its status as a transportation hub, there is a massive amount of drug trafficking that moves through the city.
Together Sarah, Phil, Cyn and I split a cab to San Pedro Sula bus station, an overwhelming bus station–the largest in Central America–that looks like a warehouse the size of Woodfield Mall. Thousands of people, some shady looking, swarm amid chicken buses and microbuses. Fresh out of lempiras, Cyn and I have to hit the ATM again.
The cabbie seems to know exactly where to go to find the Impala for Puerto Cortes, and as soon as we hop out, an attendant grabs our bags and lead us to a microbus, already filled with 15 or so people.
There are four rows back with a small aisle separating single seats on the right side and 2-seaters on the left. Lo and behold, when we arrive, there is a seat that extends down that covers the aisle. While Sarah and Phil find proper seats, I am stuck in the 3rd row back on the gypsy seat.
The attendant grabs my bag as I climb into the impala and as I sit down he hands it back to me. Phil explains that you have to carry your bag in your lap or you have to pay for an extra seat for your bag. The ride is 40/lempira a person… for love’s sake… I’ll pay the extra $2 to not have my suitcase jammed into my lap. But alas, there is no room, and the gypsy seat in front of me is plopped down so that Cyn can sit down with her luggage in her lap.
The ride is bumpy.. About an hour and a half long. The entire way, I can feel my luggage digging into my bare skin.
We stop every now and then along the way, letting people off and more people on. It is a nightmare when the man sitting next to me needs to get off. There is no aisle (Cyn and I are literally sitting on it), so two rows of people in front of me must get up and lift their gypsy seats while I lift my suitcase over my head and try to make myself as skinny as possible, leaning against the left side.
When we near Puerto Barrios, Sarah is speaking to a backpacker in his 50s in front of her, who seems to also be making his way up to the keys in Belize. He seems to think that there are multiple ferries coming out of Puerto Cortes the next day (not just the 1200 p.m. one listed in our Lonely Planet guides), so we collectively make the decision to disembark near the Puerto Cortes harbor to see if the rumor is true.
The rain is still pounding when we get off, and we stop for a minute to put on ponchos. Although Sarah braves the rain, Phil straps on his blue poncho to protect the long cigar he is planning to take back as a gift.
We walk through three blocks of mud and rock until we are under a bridge where a medium sized motorboat sits, partially covered by tarp.
Is this the ferry to Placencia, the five of us ask, and we find from the locals that yes, this is the ferry. We must be here at 9 a.m. tomorrow for visa processing and the ferry will leave around 11:30 or 12 for the 3 hour ride. The cost is 1000 lempiras.. About $50.
Are you going to go tomorrow for sure? We ask.
Well, maybe, they tell us. If the weather is like this, maybe not. After all, the ferry has to go into the open sea, which is nothing like the calm bay area we are now in.
We look around the town. It looks grey and dingy, without much to see. We look at each other.
Well, I think Puerto Barrios is a bit nicer, Sarah says.
We are all thinking the same thing–if the ferry doesn’t run tomorrow, we are still screwed. We can’t take that chance. And if we do cross into Guatemala tonight, the ferry from Puerto Barrios to Punta Gorda is much smaller, more inland, and likely, less affected by massive currents and choppy water.
We’ll keep going then, we decide, and head back up to the main road to catch the next Impala to get us a bit closer to the Guatemala frontera.
My alarm goes off at 4 o’clock, and really having slept since 7 the night before, I am completely awake.
Outside, we can hear the rain still pounding down. Dammit, I think, this is going to suck.
I guess we didn’t need all those lempiras after all, I say to Cynthia as we pack up our things. Last night, she had taken out an extra 1000 lempiras for each of us for dinner and drinks… and we had been too lazy to do either.
We go out to find the entire front walkway covered in half a foot of muddy rain water. We can do nothing but lift our suitcases to shoulder level and walk through the puddles in our flip flops.
Did you pay last night, I ask her.
Yea, she says. I paid when we got in and I gave them our passports.
Shit, I say. Then I paid twice. Let’s see if we can get our money back.
The front gate is locked, a standard night practice, and Cynthia begins to yell “Hello!” into the air.
Use the chain, I say, and bang it against the door.
There is a chain on the lock that doubles into a door bell. The Dutchman had showed me.
Cyn bangs on the gate shouting, Helllo, hellllllo, into the air, until the young boy appears.
The taxi, I say.
Ah yes, he explains in Spanish, and to the best of my comprehension, he says, sorry, we couldn’t order a taxi.
What do you mean, you couldn’t order a taxi? I say. We need to get to the airport.
He boy unlocks the gate and says he will flag one down. Meanwhile, his young wife has come up to the reception desk and we try in vain to explain that we have paid twice. She has a confused look on her face and I cannot figure out for the life of me how to explain this in Spanish. At this point, I don’t even care. It’s a bloody $12 and the longer I stand at the reception desk, the longer I get pelted with rain.
As luck would have it, a group of people traveling from Guatemala are leaving at the same time, trying to load their things into a jeep that they’ve pulled into the grounds for the night. And even more luckily still, one of the guys turns out to be a professor of language.
Within minutes of their help, we have the issue resolved, and the young girl gives me back my 250 lempiras, which then goes directly into the taxi service to the airport. Well, at least we got a taxi, I think.
We arrive relatively on schedule, at 5 a.m., an hour before our flight is to take off. But when we check into the Taca counter, they have bad news.
Sorry, my friend says. Flight has been cancelled for the weather.
Dammit! Are you serious?!!? We decided to fly because our Taca agent had told us buses were going to be unreliable.
We glance at the time: 5:30. We’ve missed the Hedman Alas bus anyway.
We go outside to find a taxi to San Pedro Sula, the only solution now, our Taca agent tells us. Seeing an opportunity, we are approached by a cabbie.
Where do you need to go? He asks.
San Pedro Sula.
San Pedro Sula, okay, $150 US.
No way, I said. That’s ridiculous. $100
No, no, I can’t do it for $100. $150.
You’re insane, I say
Fine, call your friend, the cabbie says curtly, and turns away.
We’ve got about an hour to kill and I don’t want the cabbie to smell the desperation on me. I take my time, go inside for a latte and mocha, and when I come back, Cynthia’s found a cabbie to take us for $135. Not a great deal, but not a bad one.
It takes us two and a half hours to make it to San Pedro Sula, and unlike the Taca agent’s description, the roads are fairly smooth, fast and clear.
We should have stuck the original plan of taking the Hedman Alas, I say to Cynthia, and we pay our driver $135, tipping him $10. Why do we even bother trying to bargain.
San Pedro’s airport is much larger by Central American standards. We check in, past a large tourist group waiting for Central America Airways, and settle in at Wendy’s for some breakfast. When we find out they’re serving lunch, we roll with a jr. Hamburger and Spicy Chicken Sandwich instead. It is only 8 a.m.
By 9:00, we head up past security to the waiting area, where I am disappointed that there are no duty free shops. We spend the rest of our lempiras on food and cigarettes. It’s not a worthy amount to even exchange, I say to Cynthia. We look for more postcards for Vera but cannot find anything interesting.
We settle into playing Mario on Cynthia’s DS.
The time starts to pass, and we realize that something is not right. We’re waiting.. And waiting.. And waiting.
As luck or fate might have it, we run into the Weathersby family again.. Now on their way back to the states to Atlanta.
You won’t believe this, Reid says to us. They had some sort of error. They’re routing us through Roatan.
Man, that island is like the black hole. It doesn’t want you to leave! I think.
We all wait until 12:30, when the woman who had been at the Maya Airways ticket counter comes upstairs. The flight will be landing here in 15 minutes, she says.
Oh good, we think, gathering our things a bit. But an hour and a half later, there is still no flight and no agent. I am scared we have missed it and begin asking around to the others who have been sitting in the waiting area for seemingly forever to see if they’re on the same flight.
It is 1:30 when the woman and a different man come back walking to different groups of people clustered in 2s or 3s. They shake their heads solemnly and when they are done speaking, I see the people’s faces fall.
Shit, I say to Cynthia. Stay here. I guarantee you this flight just got cancelled.
And approaching the agent, I know. It has been cancelled for the weather.
When we arrive in La Ceiba, it is still pouring rain. We instantly go to the airlines desk to see if it’s possible to book a flight to San Pedro Sula for our 9:47 a.m. flight the next day. If it keeps raining, we worry that the Hedman Alas bus, which leaves at 5:15, may take longer than the 3.5 quoted time. We don’t want to risk missing our flight to Belize.
Sosa tells us that its flight is full, but the Taca agent standing besides him overhears the conversation and says, yes, on Taca, there is room. For $70 US a person, we book 6 a.m. flights to San Pedro Sula the next morning.
A flight is better, he says, because with the rain, the roads could be bad. He adds, Be sure to be here at 5 a.m..
Thanks, I say. And tell me, what clubs are good tonight.
Haha, you’re going out? La Palapa, he says, and Hibou.
Oh good, I say. Done.
What time should I pick you up? He asks.
We say goodbye to our friend and bargain a minivan taxi to take us to Hotel Rotterdam for 150 lemps. In the back of mind, I am hoping that just maaaaybe that Canadian boy is staying there too.
Our cabbie has a sense of humor so Cyn and I karaoke to Chris Brown and Katie Perry all the way on the 20-minute drive in. I’m sure our cabbie wants to kill us… or scrape off his ears… but he is young and just laughs.
We arrive at Rotterdam again, disheveled and check into the same room that we had had a week before.
Settling in, we vow to go to dinner and then go out (it is Saturday night, after all), but I go down for a nap almost instantly.
Hours later, I wake up in a panic. Shit, have we missed our flight?! I ask.
It’s only 930, Cyn says. Outside, club music is already thumping. That damn Malarone is giving me vivid dreams, faking me into thinking I’ve had deep sleeps. Screw it, I’m not taking that shit anymore.
Let’s go out, I say.
It’s raining, she says. Do you hear that?
I step outside and get slapped with skinny rain droplets. It’s only drizzling, I say. Let’s go.
Fine, she says. But, she wants to nap for an hour. I protest, saying that she won’t wake up, but she promises she will.
I go outside to ask for a taxi pick up at 4:45 a.m. the next morning. Not knowing if Cynthia had paid, I hand over 250 lempiras for our night‘s stay. On the way back to our room from the reception, I am pelted with rain.
When I return to the room, I am torn. Club music is still thumping outside and I’m dying to go out.. But all this rain. I would have to go clubbing in stilettos and a poncho.
Ahhh, fuck it, I think, and fall into sleep that is intermittently interrupted by the sound of pouring rain and club beats that do not stop until dawn.