So yeah, we did enter the two most dangerous countries in Central America and we survived! Huzzah!
Travel Days: 39 – 41
Location: El Tunco, El Salvador
Accomodation: Layback Hostel, $8 each for private room for 4
Our shuttle let us off in the middle of El Tunco, a teeny tiny surfing village bustling with people looking for a “good swell” – I’m not in with the surfing crowd enough to know the proper lingo!!! First thing we noticed after getting off the airconditioned shuttle was that the temperature and humidity were a lot higher than Guatemala. Beads of sweat were forming from just standing on the street.
Our hostel was a one minute walk to the beach through a gate that looked like the gate to the Secret Garden. We got a private room with en suite for $8 each, but the best was this hostel had a clean and well equipped kitchen which suited us to the ground! First port of call was to find a market or shop that sold vegetables…LOTS of vegetables! The streets are lined with Tiendas, surf shops, hostels, restaraunts, bars and the odd yoga centre. More restaruants and hotels/hostels line the beach front. We found a small tienda selling all kinds of everything and bought her out of her veggie stall – enough potatoes, carrots, rice, eggs, beans, avocado, onion, garlic etc. to feed four people for breakfast, lunch and dinner cost $7. That left us a saving of at least $10 each to spend on cocktails!!
To celebrate, we did exactly that! We headed for the beach with black sand and the “good swell” that people talk about. There’s a big rock formation in the water which is the landmark for El Tunco. We got the worlds largest Pina Coladas on the beachfront in Monkey La Las and watched the surfers as the sun set. It was picturesque. This is what paradise looks like…more especially if you like surfing and/or surfers.
The next morning the girls went sunbathing, so Barry and I ventured to El Puerto La Libertad, the closest town to El Tunco, for a gawk. We hopped on the chicken bus for 25c – I love these buses for multiple reasons:
- Unlike Bus Eireann, who barely stop at a bus stop for you unless you’re standing on the road, these guys stop everywhere and anywhere. It’s kind of like a country school bus – everyone gets picked up/dropped off outside their gate.
- The locals are so ridiculously friendly on the buses. I have had hours of entertainment from children on these buses – that is until they try to talk to me and then they realise I’m incapable of conversing with them at 2 years old.
- They’re cheap. So cheap. 25c for a trip would cost $5 in a taxi/shuttle.
You obviously need to keep your wits about you, but it’s a great mode of transport, especially for day trips without your backpack. We always have to weigh the risks when it comes to longer trips – safety for our backpacks, chances of not getting to our destination before dusk, whether it’s a safe area to get the chicken bus at all (Guatemala City for example!) and most of all – frequency of toilet breaks. I was close to having an incident on the bus in Belize, but we got to the station just as I was about to give in!
After 10 minutes on the chicken bus, a local boy tapped my shoulder and told us we were at El Puerto La Libertad. The town is a lot bigger, busier and less touristy than El Tunco. In fact, I think Barry and I were the only two gringos we saw that day. It’s a fishing town (hence, “El Puerto” – the port) and the food on sale reflects that. We walked the Malecon which was lined with restaruants selling Ceviches and packed with locals. Unfortunately we had just filled up on our lunch, so had no room for more, but it looked pretty good and judging by the crowds, it tasted equally so. A local stopped us in our tracks to welcome us to El Salvador – an example of how friendly these people are. The dock was filled with fish stalls selling ceviches, dried and fresh fish. The further down the dock we went, the fresher the fish. We actually ended up watching (staring at) two men gut a sting ray about 1m wide. It wasn’t a pretty site, but I couldn’t help but wonder what it would taste like after my run in with shark at Erikas! The tourist office looked like it hadn’t been frequented all that often, but the lady in there looked more than happy to see us and directed us to both the market and supermarket.
A quick look in the supermarket didn’t show up anything other than that we were going to continue to be veggie chefs for our stay in El Tunco so we hit the actual market. It was very similar to that of Antigua, if a little smaller. Every stall we passed greeted us with gusto. It was mostly stalls for veg, meat and pharmaceuticals of sorts. Not so much trinkets or El Salvador merchandise, probably because there aren’t all that many tourists here. I was still an El Salvador patch down and no postcards to be seen! We bought one packet of pasta sauce for our trouble.
We gave up and went for ice cream to cool down – I highly recommend the waffle cone with cookies and cream scoop dipped in chocolate. I’m salivating as I think about it now. We met some more locals in the parlour. By local, I mean a 6 year old little girl who was practicing her numbers with me. Thank God she didn’t go above ten, because my teens get a little sketchy after 12. She started to tell me something about her Mam and ice cream, but I couldn’t pick it up, so we went back to counting again. Little did she know, she was teaching me! We hopped back on to the chicken bus, which filled up in jig time and head back to El Tunco.
That evening we booked our shuttle to Utila for $95 which was leaving the following morning. It seemed a bit steep, but it did include a nights stop over in Copan, Honduras and the water ferry to Utila the following day, and simply for the peace of mind for travelling through Honduras it was worth it. It did put a stop to our plans for Tamanique Waterfall the following day though, so naturally on the way home, we went for a night swim in the warm Pacific to get the last of the beach in. I tried to get a photo of the “Supermoon” but it just looked like the regular moon to me – and I’ve an obsession with the moon! The pictures don’t really do it justice either though. I couldn’t stand still long enough to take the photo for the strength of the tide pushing or pulling me. At one point I was swept from my sitting position to lying down.
The following morning we hopped on yet another luxury shuttle (Halleluljah!) to Honduras. The border crossing was an interesting one. We went from El Salvador back u p through to Guatemala and from there made the Honduras border – so now I have two stamps for Guatemala and none for El Salvador! The first crossing was non-eventful. The crossing to Honduras was absolutely manic. There were cars, vans, motorbikes and artic lorries everywhere. There didn’t seem to be any queuing system at all. Our taxi driver seemed to know the deal though and sped passed all the traffic on the wrong side of the road against an artic truck without even breaking a sweat… I on the other hand was s**ting it.
On the Honduran side, things calm down a bit. Their passport control is a bit more stringent than the Guatemalan side – they actually cross reference my face against my passport, and they also took fingerprints, kind of similar to the States. For the priviledge of them processing your passport, you pay the equivalent of $3 in either Guatemalan or Honduran currencies – not US dollars. Your receipt, however, will be in US dollars. Strange set up! It made me wonder if it was an official charge, but they stamped my passport, so thoughts of the $3 flew out of my head with joy for that!
El Salvador was absolutely beautiful, and granted we only saw a small part of the coast, it seems to be slowly shaking off the bad reputation it has. Backpackers and tourists in general are few and far between outside the beachside resorts, so experiencing the real El Salvador is quite easy. As we drove through the country to get to Honduras, the cities look very western in areas. I’m kind of sad we didn’t get to see Tamanique Waterfall, the second waterfall we’ve managed to miss! I am grateful that we got some time in El Salvador as I wasn’t planning on stopping here at all.
Travel Days: 41 – 42
Location: Copan, Honduras
Accomodation: Hostel Berakah, included in shuttle price
We arrived into the small town of Copan just before nightfall. It is very similar to the other colonial towns we visited in Central America and I was glad to have worn a sports bra!!
We dropped off our stuff in the very well equipped hostel in search of food. The atmosphere in the town is welcoming and friendly. At this point we were a little sad we didn’t give ourselves an extra day to explore the town itself. Alas, we can’t do everything!
Food inhaled, we returned to the hostel with bags of goodies for the following days travel. The sleeping situation got a bit awkward when we realised reception over booked the beds in the dorm leaving yours truly without one. Hmph. Ever resourceful, we opened the closet door to find another set of bunk beds – only one of which was claimed. I was more than willing to Harry Potter for the night and climbed in. We were woken about two hours later to a shrill Irish woman who started ranting about a private room. You know yourself – don’t argue with an angry Irish woman, so I fell out of bed to clear up the issue with reception only to be greeted with a padlock the size of your house on the gate. Reception was closed and we were locked in. That really set her off. Queue more ranting about room sharing and private rooms (not sure why she didn’t just stay in a hotel with that attitude!). A Canadian girl came to the rescue by offering a free bed in her room to me – have I ever told you I love Canadians??
I hauled my belongings and now used bed clothes to my new bed. In followed Crazy and flipped some more for taking the sheets that I had been sleeping in (from the need she wasn’t using). My questioning whether she wanted the clean sheets I was gathering to replace the ones on the bed she wasn’t using or the sheets I had already been sleeping in seemed to do the trick to get her to back off. She stormed out with the clean sheets, but left the pillow, so now I had two. #winning
I learned a valuable lesson from this one. Regardless of how hungry you are, always lay claim to a bed while staff are in the room and leave something in/on said bed so no one can confuse it as theirs.
Also, bitches be crazy and Crazy was a bitch.
The next morning we hit the road at 6.30am to make the 4pm ferry to Utila – there’s only two a day 9am and 4pm. Failure to make the 4pm meant a nights stay in La Ceiba. Luckily we made it with some time to spare. The ferry is treated as an international flight and costs similar to that! Our tickets were included in the shuttle price, had they not been, it sets you back $25. You need your passport to buy a ticket, which is cross checked as you board the vessel. On the bright side though, you check in your bag, so that’s quite literally a weight off!! The boat is very new and as comfortable as a ferry can be. I would say though, if you’re susceptible to any bit of motion sickness, take the necessary precautions before boarding!!!
Travel Days: 42- 47
Location: Utila Island, Honduras
Accomodation: Altons Dive Centre, 6778HNL ($275 for the Open Water dive course, 178HNL for extra nights stay)
About two hours later we were docked on Utila island. It’s a Caribbean island with one main street filed with diving shops, bars, restaurants and other necessary local amenities. The island is 3 miles wide and 5 miles long of pure Caribbean life – just not as rastifarian as that of Belize. The people are 50/50 between English and Spanish speaking, mostly due to the amount of expats on the island.
Altons had a rep waiting at the dock for us. She loaded our four backpacks into a tuk tuk and then made an attempt at loading the four of us in with it. It didn’t take long for them to realise there was no way we were all going to fit so Barry and Lauren hopped into another one strategically parked beside us. The tuk tuks are ridiculously cheap and pretty spacious – there’s six of us in this one (Lauren is hiding!).
At the dive centre we were checked in for our four nights accommodation and dive certification. As it was low season we got a pretty good deal – accommodation (four nights), certification and two fun dives at the end for $275. They gave us a private room for the four of us, which was actually a dorm, but it was just us. Always a plus in shared accommodation!! The manager is an Irish man named Steve, from Antrim, and he’s great craic.
We got recommendations for food (Skidrow Bar for Pizza – take a tuk tuk and they’ll reimburse you!) and so our ritual in a new area played out again. Patches, postcards and food. I failed on the first two, but feasted on pizza so there were no losers!!! It turned out to be ladies night in Vinyl (Thursdays) which meant free drink until 11pm. It would have been rude to not drop by. The island is very chill, with most of the activity happening on the south coast. Venturing from the main street brings you to the cheaper and more local eats. A quad bike or scooter could bring you around the island easily, but as we were preoccupied with the diving, we didn’t leave much time for that!
The next morning was the start of our lessons. We had one other girl, Martina, in our group. The lesson consisted of watching information and safety videos until lunch time, with a little quiz after each video. Our instructor, Jess, arrived in at the end to go through those questions and any extra questions we had. My cold was my cause for concern, but He’s assured me some self medication should help, if not I can hold off until it goes (that was never really an option for us though!!).
The afternoon saw us getting to know our equipment, how it works and how we set ourselves up. Julie, a dive master in training was also with us, so we basically had one instructor to 2.5 people – I was delighted! Once geared up I was easily carrying another 25kg on my back and waist – that’s not easy to walk around with when you’re wearing flippers.
Our first lesson was in 1.5m deep water just off the side of the Altons dock. That didn’t sound too bad until Jess asked me to walk off the dock with an extra 25kg – I really really really hate putting my head under water!!! After many deep breaths and inflating my BCD (buoyancy control device – basically a life jacket) to the last I bobbed into the Atlantic. I got an applause for being so brave…! We swam to the training spot and prepared to deflate our BCDs for the first set of skills underwater – removing our air regulators and clearing our masks of flooding. Getting down was easy, staying down and in a circle was not. In the end we had to loop arms and hold on tight while doing the skills. I wasn’t a fan of flooding my mask, but it wasn’t the worst thing to happen!
After demonstrating our skills at 1.5m, Jess upped our game to a 2m dive. This was where my head cold started to cause a problem. Because head colds are basically congestion of your air passages, it makes it quite difficult to equalise the air pressure in your body. I tried multiple times to descend, but my right ear just wouldn’t equalise. Jess eventually aborted the 2m dive due to “visibility” issues on the floor… And maybe a little to do with my ears! At that stage, I knew I had to bite the bullet and do what I never do – medicate my head cold. I got recommendations for decongestants and went hell for leather. I slept in a jumper in 24°C heat in an attempt to sweat it out.
The next morning saw a few more decongestants and sunshine, which I took for a good omen. We went back to the 2m training spot, where Julie held my hand (figuratively of course) as I descended. I took much longer than everyone else, but I made it down there!!! Jess ran through some more skills with us – fully removing and replacing our masks, breathing from our buddies alternate mask, removing and replacing our gear and emergency ascent procedures, all of which we passed with flying colours. We were ready for the actual ocean.
I popped some more decongestants with lunch and we set sail with an advanced group. Our dive was going to be to 5m, where we would repeat some skills and then get to swim and venture around for a bit. This descent was much harder and longer for both Barry and I – 14 minutes to be exact. It was 14 minutes of breathing, holding my nose and taking in the sights and sounds of the world’s second largest Barrier Reef – not a bad site. We were in a totally different world – the water surface was now our ceiling. We ended up going to 15m in that dive and I was none the wiser!
On our return to dry land, Jess informed us we had two more videos to watch so we would do those in the morning, followed by two dives in the evening with skills. Naturally, we took that as free reign to go for a few drinks. We ended up in the club with the dive shop manager, Steve, until close.
The next mornings videos were less than entertaining and paying attention was tough. Jess arrived in, chirpy as ever, and asked how our night was. She knew we were fragile and her sympathy was at an all time low. She did, however, reassure us it’s not the end of the world and advised us to puke into the alternate reg should we feel the urge. Then came the good news – our swim test was that afternoon. Delightful. Swimming 400m and treading water for 5 minutes was not on the list of things I wanted to do that afternoon. Not even slightly. Alas, I couldn’t get the cert without it!
I clambered down the dock steps into the Pacific and slowly, oh so very slowly, swam the 400m. Treading the water want so bad, because I wasn’t left alone with my thoughts and could bombard Jess with questions!
We eventually got on the boat and geared up. This time we went on two 18m dives and demonstrated our ability to run through each of the open water skills. My least favourite one being removing my mask fully! We saw angel fish, puffer fish, massive crab, lobster… the list goes on. As the group were one by one going through the emergency ascent with Jess, I was lying on the ocean floor with Julie having a starting competition with a little yellow fish hovering under the coral. Time flies by while you’re down there and before I knew it I was at 47 mins and 900psi of air. Time to go.
After Barry puking in the sea four times, Jess brought us up for the written exam. I passed with only 3 of 50 questions incorrect – Woohoo! We celebrated our new certifications with the biggest dinner you’ve ever seen and an early night – our free fun dives were leaving the following morning at 7.30am.
We rose the next morning excited for the dives ahead as I knew I wouldn´t have to remove or flood my mask. These dives were totally focused on seeing the most of the coral reef. I had some issues with equalising again, but I eventually got down! It was pretty spectacular and knowing there were no more skills testing, I was far more relaxed.
After our second dive we were just ready to sail back to the shop when the captain got wind of a school of dolphins in the area. It’s illegal to dive with them (not that we could have anyway as we would be risking the bends) but you can snorkel with them. We lined up on the back of the boat to jump in with them at the sighting. Jess pointed the direction and I bolted for them. It was a true bucket list moment – swimming with real life wild dolphins!!!
Barry and I kept up with the school of about eight dolphins. They were all too aware of our presence as they played with us. One guy in particular would swim super far ahead, then descend, swim back and ascend beside us. He was so close I could have touched him.
After what felt like 10 seconds of being in the water with them, Jess called us back to the boat. I reluctantly returned. It turns out we were over 20 mins in there and Barry and I had swam too fast for the others to keep up. Oopsies!
Elated with the sighting and Barrys photography, we went for celebratory drinks. It ended similar to all of the others, only this time I woke to find the door of our room wide open and no Barry. I went to the end dock where I could see a body slumped in one of the hammocks. There he was. I never laughed so much in my life!
Barrys day was less than pleasant. We got on the afternoon ferry (hangovers and boats are not a good mix!) to make our shuttle for Nicaragua. Martina, the girl in our diving classes and her boyfriend scoped out the best value shuttle from Utila – $40 for a nights stay in La Ceiba and early morning shuttle to Leon. They also picked us up from the ferry free of charge. It was booked through Guanaroca Hostel.
Our stay there was literally just a sleep – no exploring of La Ceiba at all. The hostel is perfect for just that. We had en suite rooms with TVs, so we didn’t even have to talk to each other! There was also a bar and free water refills which is always a plus.
The shuttle the next day was a long trip. We left at 10am and arrived at 1am. The border crossing was pain free. It cost us $12 in border fees on the Nicaraguan side.
I’m sad we didn’t give El Salvador and Honduras more of a chance. We let people’s “warnings” (who hadn’t been there before) dictate our travel rather than trusting our own judgement and reviews of people that had just come from there. Lesson learned! I’ll be back as these are relatively untouched gems of true unadulterated Central American culture…with more Spanish obvs!