Copan Ruinas – first taste of the Mayans

After a long 14 hours on a bus from Managua, we finally arrived in San Pedro Sula, one of the main transport hubs in Honduras. There’s nothing here to really interest travellers and in truth it’s a pretty dangerous city, but since there were no onward buses past mid-afternoon (again, it’s too dangerous to travel at night here) we were forced to spend the night. First thing the next morning and we were off to the bus station to continue our journey to the much more pleasant Copan Ruinas and our first taste of the Mayans.

Copan Ruinas town centre

The town itself is a cute little affair, but very much geared towards tourists, with hostels, tour agencies and foreign restaurants on every street corner. We were staying at ViaVia, a lovely bar-restaurant-tour agency-hostel, with only five rooms at a great rate, having already eaten and drunk (a lot) at their Leon branch. Only a couple of blocks from the main square, it was ideally located.

Food stalls at night

That evening, we decided to sample some of the local street food. It’s been a while since we’ve gone local and the jumble of stalls were selling a whole host of Honduran delights. We plumped for the tortilla/meat combo, piled high with salads and drenched in spicy sauce. Yum. Later, we stopped off in a nearby restaurant for a quick drink and soon realised it was where Hondurans came for a novelty night out – as well as the bellow-pumped fire which all the dishes were cooked on, the waitresses carried the orders to the tables on their heads, even to the upstairs dining room – quite a feat!!

Dinner

The next day and we were up early to visit the ruins. It’s a short tuk-tuk trip out of town (Richard was reminiscing of his trip across India in a tuk-tuk) and you can either hire a guide (a bit steep at $25) or wander the ruins yourself. Armed with the Lonely Planet for assistance, we set off.

The ruins

At the entrance to the site, there are dozens of beautiful red macaws which are fed by the park rangers but free to fly into the trees. We also spotted a couple of Mrs Guatin-esque animals, exactly the same as our Merazonia friend, only twice the size!

A macaw at the ruins

The ruins themselves are impressive and despite having been spoilt by Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu we were still in awe. The architecture here is very different and our first taste of the Mayan culture, although we’ll be seeing far more of this once we hit Guatemala and Mexico.

The Ball Court

The site is well preserved and neatly kept, and the potted history provided by our guide book certainly made up for the lack of guide, giving us an insight into the history of the place and the civilisation that lived there.

Stela at the ruins

We took our time, and spent the best part of the morning there. Just be sure to take suncream and water – it can get very hot. We didn’t fork out the extra $15 for the tunnels – from what we have heard it’s not really worth it and we saw more than enough on the surface to satisfy ourselves.

The Hieroglyphic Stairway
More ruins

Back in town that evening, we decided to treat ourselves to some wine and cheese. We found a great little place which served a five cheese platter and some excellent bottles of wine and we gorged ourselves for little more than $20. A little bit different from our previous night of street food but it had been a while! Then it was off to bed before an early start – we had a 6am bus to catch to Antigua for New Year celebrations with the Stefs…

Lots and lots of New Year fireworks

Christmas on Little Corn Island

There is a darker side to Little Corn which cannot be ignored. The island is a major refuelling station for cocaine smugglers coming up from Colombia heading to the US.

Christmas was just around the corner and whilst we killed some time in Managua before our flight we visited the local shopping centre to stock up on some good stuff for Christmas. Very quickly we both realised that this year Christmas would be a bittersweet affair. Last Christmas we were barely one month into our journey, the excitement of over a year on the road ahead meant we enjoyed the novelty of holidays on the beach. Whilst shopping for sweets and drink we both felt a little homesick, not just for our absent family and friends but also for the other things that make a Christmas – drinks with friends, mince pies and Christmas puddings , even office parties. Luckily we were no longer alone and would be spending it with our new friends. We had lots of local rum, cigars and silly hats in the bag.

Getting to Little Corn Island is a bit of a mission. It’s possible to get a boat to Big Corn Island on a local boat but it’s a long journey, the seas are BIG and sea sickness is a given. We splurged a little and booked a flight from Managua to Big Corn Island where we would have to take a short water taxi to Little Corn.

Not your usual boarding cards
Not your usual boarding cards

The airline was not the most professional service I’ve experienced, the boarding cards were big lumps of blue plastic that had been altered over time by passengers. After being unable to start one of the engines on the plane we were taken off and herded back into the waiting lounge whilst engineers prodded and poked around until they got it started. A slightly less enthusiastic group were ushered onto the plane by the grinning pilot, reassuring everybody not to worry and have a nice day. The boat to Little Corn Island was not at all bad. The internet is full of horror stories of huge waves and swells, lost luggage and tears but we didn’t suffer any of it.

Our plane almost worked
Our plane almost worked

Little Corn Island is a tiny island, only three square kilometres; there are no roads, just a few paths along the west coast. Transport is bike or cart and the atmosphere is laid back. Most locals can be found horizontal in hammocks all day. It’s Christmas so we splurged again, booking into probably the only real hotel on the island. We have a balcony, air conditioning and a bathroom with electricity from 2pm – 5am, luxury. No hot water still though, that would be asking too much.

Little Corn Island
Little Corn Island

We had a few days before the others arrived and they flew by. We were instantly infected by the local condition – acute laziness. Our days went like this –bed to beach to bar to beach to bar to bed. We loved this place, at first it appeared a little cliquey, all the bars and dive shops (about four of them) had groupies and we felt like outsiders. But after a few days, we got to know everybody and were treated like family. As usual we got to know the local dog population well and gained some canine company on our balcony in the evenings. Leah made friends with the hotel monkey, Rosa. She didn’t like me so much but I wasn’t too fussed, she smelt quite bad.

Leah and Rosa
Leah and Rosa

Once our friends arrived the days quickly became a routine. Swimming on the beach, drinks on our balcony followed by happy hour at Tranquilo bar and restaurant. Tranquilo’s sells the best burgers I’ve tasted anywhere in the world as well as an impressive British fish and chips.

Christmas day started with Leah and me opening our stockings we had bought for each other, stupid toys and sweets  – a tradition Leah was not going to give up even if we were on the other side of the planet. We spent the day on the beach, started a sand castle competition (which we thought we should have won) played some pool , followed by cigars and drinks on our balcony, finishing the day with a Christmas dinner of lobster and steak. All very different but all very nice.

Christmas dinner
Christmas dinner

Little Corn Island is the first place we have visited on our trip where we really thought we could settle down for a while. I’m not thinking forever but easily for 6-12 months. We really will miss this place, especially the dogs!

Little Corn Island
Little Corn Island

There is a darker side to Little Corn which cannot be ignored. The island is a major refuelling station for cocaine smugglers coming up from Colombia heading to the US. When boats are intercepted by local police the smugglers will dump their cargo overboard. Kilogram blocks of cocaine regularly wash up on the beaches here, the locals call it ‘White Lobster’. They have the option of selling it back to the Colombians or keeping it for themselves. On the mainland there is even, in the midst of wooden shacks and mud streets, a spanking new concrete internet centre funded by the Colombians, built to enable locals to contact them if they wish to sell back lost ‘produce’. Luckily all this nonsense went unnoticed by us, locals accepted us with open doors and warm smiles. We will not be thanking them, however, for the local delicacy ‘run down stew’. A giddy brew of crab, lobster, conch and root vegetables. I thought it was hideous.

The balcony
The balcony

We thought this would be a final farewell to our friends but it turns out that the Swiss couple have made identical plans for New Year in Guatemala. So we sadly say goodbye for now to Josh from Alaska and Paola from Italy, thanks guys we had a great month.

 

Next, it’s a quick stop in Honduras before heading into Guatemala. Only 7 weeks left!

Leon – casinos and another new camera

Leon is on the verge of exploding as a tourist destination. The infrastructure is all here, hostels, bars, restaurants, but it’s not yet gone the final mile.

Leaving Puerto Viejo at around 9am we had a short five hour bus journey to the capital San Jose. All reports we’d heard were that it’s a bit of a dump and not the best place to spend a night out. Our plan was to book a bus as soon as arriving onward to the Nicaragua capital Managua.  Unfortunately, because of the holiday season all buses were booked. Nicaraguan migrant workers are all heading home for Christmas so we ended up on the 7am bus the following day.  This did however give us a chance to try and buy a new cheapo camera to keep us going until the end of the holiday. Turns out Latin Americans get a bit of a rough deal when it comes to cameras. All the models on display are at least two years old (compared to the US and UK market) and are at least twice the cost as the same model back home. Maybe it’s a bit of unfair price fixing, maybe it’s a huge import tax. Anyway, we couldn’t find one so gave up and kept our fingers crossed for Managua.

We did nothing else that day, just wrote our diaries, booked some tickets to a Leftfield gig back home in April and that evening even ordered delivery Domino’s and watched a film. A slice of normality.

Dog of the month

7am and we were a on a TransNica international bus to Nicaragua. The best buses to get are the Tika buses, they are the gringo cattle trucks of Central America, nothing like the quality of buses in Argentina but apparently very comfortable. TransNica is nothing like Tika buses. Cockroaches scampered everywhere around my seat, and by the time we got off I was covered with bites around my ankles. Still, the border crossing was a breeze and the scenery changed wonderfully from pizza joints and shopping malls back to lush tropical forest and small villages. Then we hit Managua. It was a pit, luckily we were moving straight through to Leon but not before watching some poor chap get mugged right in front of us. We shared a taxi with an American girl who spent her whole time away in San Jose and Managua, can’t think why.

We had never heard of Leon, it wasn’t on any of our various and every changing itineraries. It’s one of those places that over the months we kept getting told we simply HAVE to go to. On top of that, Josh, one of our new traveling chums, spent three months working there last year and had nothing but good things to say. So here we are, and it was a very good choice.

Leon

Leon is on the verge of exploding as a tourist destination. The infrastructure is all here, hostels, bars, restaurants, but it’s not yet gone the final mile. Expensive generic hotels and chains have not arrived, American coffee shops are not on every corner and the locals still live and sell in the city centre. The locals are usually the first to be squeezed out of the colonial city centres, either forced out by the local authorities or persuaded by huge lumps of cash. I imagine in a few years it will look a little like Cusco here, it may not have the draw of Machu Picchu but it has all the charm.

Although I’ve said many times that we had got a bit bored of colonial towns, I’ll eat my words. We spend hours walking through the cobbled streets, there is some sort of local fair on and all families are out in their best. Street food stalls pack the central squares and local musicians and street performers are also out in force. Latin America can do a rather good street party.  Whereas in England an evening event in town may well end up being awash with vomit, drunks, and a few street brawls, here it’s a family affair. Sure, there may be a few guns in pockets and a shortcut via a back street might mean you are relieved of a few valuables, but it’s refreshing to see large families all out enjoying themselves.

We meet up again with our friends we met on the San Blas tour, spending another day at the beach, and enjoying a few local tours. I also dipped into the local casino for only the second time in my life and walked out $170 up. I’ve promised Leah something nice when we are in Orlando at the end of the holiday. We also manage to find a Radio Shack and pick a up a new camera.

Leon - on the beach
Leon - on the beach

On our last day we spent a few hours with a local jeweller where Leah had a ring designed and made from scratch. She came up with the shape and style and I (with just a little help from the jeweller) smelted the silver and sculpted the ring. Turned out alright, I think.  Leah seems happy. We recorded a video of the whole process if you have four minutes to spare. It’s more interesting than it might sound.

We loved Leon, another place we could have easily spent more time. However, we have flights booked to the tiny corn islands off the coast of Nicaragua. We enjoyed our Christmas on an island so much last year we’ve decided on an encore. The plan was we would be on our own for a quiet affair. However the night before leaving Leon we managed to convince our friends to come join us. So it’s now a party of six. Should be a good Christmas!

Leon sunset
Leon sunset

Puerto Viejo -more monkeys and a birthday

The trip in from Panama is great, crossing the border is a blast. After a few stamps and $3 dollars paid to someone for something we’re not sure of we tentatively walk across an old railway bridge

We only plan to spend a few days in Costa Rica, firstly because it’s expensive and secondly because it’s quite developed. Costa Rica is very much a tourist destination these days, package tours from Europe are common and with that comes the infrastructure that we have found ourselves avoiding on our trip (well most of the time) – McDonalds, coffee shops and pizza joints aplenty. This trip is about feeling a little lost and getting deep into new countries and cultures not usually possible with a two week break from the office. Perhaps we will come back here at some point to fine dine and sip margaritas, but not this time. So this whistle-stop tour includes just a beach town for three days to break up our trip to Nicaragua. There was a plan to visit a volcano, but we didn’t go, it’s not particularly active at the moment, and I wanted to see lava!

Puerto Viejo is very much on the tourist map but it’s not so over developed that it feels spoilt. The town itself sits along miles of perfect beach and it’s a haven for surfers, luckily there are not many in town though, they can be strange bunch. At some point a switch flicked in their brain and the only thing in life worth living for now is the perfect wave, dude.

The trip in from Panama is great, crossing the border is a blast. After a few stamps and $3 dollars paid to someone for something we’re not sure of we tentatively walk across an old railway bridge. Most of the wood covering the bridge has rotted away and the railway sleepers are now stepping stones, a 50 metre drop into a river below. With heavy backpacks and locals with carts it’s great fun and exactly what you want from a border crossing! Bit of excitement and danger. In America, lawyers would make a killing waiting at the other side for the occasional sprained ankle, ready to sue.

Bridge into Costa Rica
Bridge into Costa Rica

We get lucky with a hostel in town; our first choice is full so we spend a little while walking around until we find Hostel Pura Vida. It’s not so much hostel as hotel, with a private room and our own bathroom it’s almost luxury. We pay for three rooms for us and our new travelling companions who are on the next bus into town.

After a lazy day exploring town and an evening stuffing ourselves stupid at an all-you-can-eat Thai buffet we have an early night. We’ve got a busy day scheduled for tomorrow.

Hiring bikes only costs about £5, and after breakfast we head out along the coast road to find a local animal sanctuary. Having spent a month working in one we were keen to experience another and we were shocked to see how different this place was. Originally a home project in the backyard of an Italian and Spanish couple, the Jaguar Rescue Centre is now a highly regarded place with lots of monkeys and snakes in particular and it’s absolutely awash with cash. The gardens are immaculately kept, cages are professionally made and cute baby monkeys hug tourists willing to part with $15 dollars for the experience. Aside from the money coming in from the twice daily tours they also have received large grants from the Australian government. These monkeys are living five star. The hands-on approach to the animal care is in stark contrast to what we have learnt in other sanctuaries, we are not experts, but it does feel a little wrong. Aside from snakes and monkeys they take in sloths, various birds and even a friendly deer that liked to lick my feet.

Evil frog at the animal sanctuary

Asked if we were thinking of volunteering we shoot each other questioning looks, can we? We would in a heartbeat but flights home have been booked so we leave a little sad. More monkey time will have to wait.

Sloth - wierd
Sloth - wierd

Meeting up with four more of our new traveling group (we are a now an eight strong posse) we stop for locally grown chocolate and hit a local beach. The waves here are huge and we forget that we are all grown adults (some rather more so than others *cough*) and spend a few hours playing in the surf until we are too tired to battle the strong rip tides.

Costa Rica coastline
Costa Rica coastline

An incredible day, great place, great company and REALLY good fresh chilli chocolate that left us on caffeine highs for the rest of the day.

The next day is Stefan’s birthday, so saving ourselves for later that night we have a quiet day and catch up with a few blogs.  That night we go out for a great pizza and some drinks to celebrate. Numerous cuba libres and a few games of pool later we finally call it a night around 3am. It’s goodbye to Costa Rica and hello Nicaragua. We’ve heard great things.

Stefan's birthday
Stefan's birthday

Bocas del Toro – settling into the beach life

Bocas del Toro is a small archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama. After a 12 hour journey on the world’s coldest bus and a quick hop on a boat, we arrived on the main island, Isla Colon. Along for the ride were the Swiss couple and the Italian girl from our San Blas group, as well as some guys that we met in the immigration queue back in Capurgana. Central America’s a hell of a lot smaller than South America and there’s pretty much only two routes to travel – up or down – so we knew we’d be bumping into people a lot more often around here.

We checked into our hostel, Heike, and hit the sack. It had been a sleepless night and we were in much need of some rest. Besides, Bocas is one of those places where the pace of life is SLOW and it’s kind of expected that you’ll spend your days lazing in hammocks or on the beach. We were just trying to fit in with the locals! That evening was another quiet affair, with some lychee martinis and Californian rolls at a cute little cocktail and sushi bar.

Hostel Heike - Bocas del Toro

The following day and we were feeling a little more sprightly so we decided to hit the beach with our new friends. There are several beaches on the main island, but the better ones are on the surrounding smaller islands. We’d heard good things about Red Frog beach on Isla Bastimentos so we jumped in a water taxi for the 20 minute ride over. It’s a privately owned beach so you have to pay to go there but it’s only $3 and it’s well worth it.

Ok, it’s not the powder white sands of Thailand or La Miel but it’s still a very nice beach with clean sand, good waves and a volleyball net for those who are feeling more active. Personally, I’m of the opinion that the only physical activity that should be undertaken on the beach is turning from your front to your back or vice versa but the others certainly had fun with the volleyball until it got stuck up a tree! If you want something a little more desert island-ish then head out to Cayos Zapatilla, where they filmed Survivor.

Red Frog beach - Bocas del Toro

There was a big group of us down there, mostly from our hostel but a few others too, and we spent an enjoyable afternoon sunning ourselves until our boat came to pick us up at 4.30pm. Then it was back to the hostel to shower and change before a quick bite to eat and drinks at the Sunken Ship bar, so called because of the shipwreck sitting beneath the decking which you can swim down to if you’re that way inclined. It was  ‘Ladies’ Night’ so it was free drinks all round for the girls, yay!  After a bit of a boogie on the dancefloor, Rich and I left at a rather respectable midnight, whilst some of the others jumped in a water taxi to Aqua Bar for a few more hours of partying. The funniest story I heard the next morning was of one guy thinking the dock went further than it did and walking straight into the water!

Sunken Ship Bar

Day three and things were relatively quiet as a lot of people seemed to be nursing hangovers from the night before. Rich and I decided to check out one of the beaches on the main island and hopped on the local bus to take us there. The journey is supposed to take around an hour, but ended up taking considerably longer since the driver had to keep stopping every few minutes to let someone on or off. A number of times it would stop to pick someone up, close its doors, travel no more than 10 metres, then stop to pick somebody else up. Why the people at the side of the road couldn’t stand together is beyond me but it became rather tiresome as the journey dragged on and on.

Finally, we arrived at the beach and hopped on a launcher to take us the rest of the way. It was a cute little spot with loads of starfish and very few people, but unfortunately the weather wasn’t as good as the previous day. It didn’t rain but it was pretty cloudy and it was only on the way home that the sun finally started to make an appearance.

Starfish beach - Bocas del Toro

That evening and it was another big group dinner, this time at a local Thai place. Despite having run out of green curry, it was still a delicious meal, marred only by the fact that we left our camera there at the end of the night. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to get it back, despite being the last ones in the restaurant and going back to the place first thing in the morning. Hmmm.

Anyway, despite the camera incident, it was a fun few days and a great taste of the laidback vibe we’re hoping to experience more of as we near the end of our travels. Next stop and it’s a hop across the border to Puerto Viejo accompanied by the Stef, Stef (the Swisses), Paolo (Italian) and Josh (Alaska).