Getting out of San Pedro Sula, AIDS Capital of C.A.

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.

in the back of an Impala microbus
in the back of an Impala microbus

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.

Puerto Cortes
Puerto Cortes

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.

"ferry" to Belize
"ferry" to Belize

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.

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