I’ve long wanted to travel into Central America.  I’ve never been to Mexico but grew up around lots of Mexican friends, and it felt like everyone around me growing up had visited Mexico at least once.  After living in Europe and then in Asia, I wanted to explore Central America even more after my new perspective of the world.  The more I move around and live outside my comfort zone, the more motivated I seem to be to explore new places.  It’s a weird cycle.

At the end of 2014, I was living in Bangkok and had plans to visit family in the US around Christmas.  However, my oldest brother had plans of getting married at the end of April.  Instead of flying to the US, spending a few weeks there, then returning to Bangkok before heading back to Colorado in April, I decided to fly to the US, travel a bit there, head to Central America and explore for 2 months, and then head back to Colorado in April for the wedding.  I got lucky on the timing and it was a perfect opportunity to finally explore Central America.

My friend Andrew, who is half Mexican, was interested in traveling as well for a couple months, so in the middle of February we bought one way tickets to Costa Rica with the plan of traveling north all the way up into Mexico.

We arrived into San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, early in the morning on February 19th.  We had plans to meetup with a friend of mine (Genji, who I met in Bangkok), as he was renting a place there and offered us a place to crash.  We took a cab to a McDonalds near his place, and ate breakfast there while we waited for him. It was weird eating at McDonalds as I hadn’t eaten there in years, but it was quite convenient this day and surprising worthwhile.  Once we met him and got to his place, we relaxed and napped, and in the afternoon headed out.

Chirripo-Wild

We ended up grabbing dinner at a side street restaurant, and then going to a casino.  The frustrating thing about getting around was that we had to cab everywhere.  At the casino, while playing craps, a group of people dressed up were dancing and celebrating some event at the casino. They handed up envelopes with about $5 cash inside of it.  I’ve never seen a casino give out cash before.  After failing at the craps table, we headed over to play blackjack and I won like 11 out of 13 hands, though others did about the same. I don’t think I’ve seen such luck at a blackjack table before.

In the evening we were going to meet some of Genji’s friends for drinks, but on the way there we found out there was a dress code so we decided to head back home.

Early the next morning we left Genji’s house and headed to the bus station to bus to San Isidro. Our plan was to meetup with Andrew’s friend from high school, Kendall, and stay with her in the jungle for a few days and hike.  When we arrived into the jungle near Mount Chirripo (highest peak in Costa Rica), it was sprinkling rain.  It was about a 25 minute hike up to her place where we would be staying.  It was at this point that I realized my new Osprey backpack didn’t have a raincover, the one downside to such a nice backpack.  I threw a raincoat over it and it worked fine.

For the next few days we crashed at the “Cloudbridge Reserve”.  Kendall was basically doing volunteer research in the jungle along with many other people her age from around the world.  Basically people could pay a fee, and stay there while collecting data on the animals, plants, climate, etc. in the area. From my understanding, if land doesn’t stay active, people can squat on the land. In the past people could own land by simply de-foresting it, so it has left much of present day Costa Rica without forest.  As a result, a South Africa family that privately owned the land here turned it into a non-profit for people to explore Costa Rica, and help re-forest the area (while preventing squatters from taking it).  Quite a cool idea.

The hike up to Cloudbridge

The hike up to Cloudbridge

There was a goodbye party one night for a few people who were leaving after a couple months volunteering there, and another night a dinner night where each person cooked a separate dish from their country. For the days we were there, we hiked around the area and went swimming in the river nearby. I met some great people and had a great time. During the party, I randomly ran into a friend of a friend from Bangkok while at the party – crazy coincidence.

We also decided to climb Chirripo, which involved waking up at midnight to start hiking and not returning home until about 3pm.  Getting the permit was a complete joke – after filling out a form, we tried to pay them but they insisted we pay by depositing to their bank.  However, to do that, we’d have to bus an hour away, pay, and then return.  Alternatively they’ve teamed up with hotels all over the region which take a 50% fee for them to pay for you.  All in all costed about $30 to climb and was very poorly run.  In hindsight, I would have climbed it without a permit after they refused to take our payment.

The hike itself was one of the longest I’ve ever done, around 26 miles round trip, with 7,000 ft of ascent, half of it in the dark. Like always, coming down seemed to take a lot longer, especially because Andrew’s portable speaker battery died, and the fact that my feet were hurting.  Along the way down, we saw several monkeys, many birds, and a small black snake.

Summit of Chirripo after 9 hours up - the highest point in Costa Rica.

Summit of Chirripo after 9 hours up – the highest point in Costa Rica.

I made the mistake of only bringing casual shoes to Costa Rica.  As a result on this hike I borrowed boots from a nearby hostel, which worked better than my casual shoes but needless to say the boots destroyed my feet by the end of the hike.  I could barely walk after the 15 hour hike, and had blisters all over my feet.

After about 4 days in the jungle, Andrew and I headed toward Dominical to explore the beach area, practice surfing, and relax. It took a bus transfer halfway and a bit of waiting, but it was easy to get to nonetheless. We arrived midday in the heat of the sun, and basically went into the first restaurant we could find to cool down and figure out where we wanted to stay.  I needed to get some flipflops desperately as my feet were hurting from my shoes and from the hike.  After grabbing some excellent Casado for lunch, we walked to a place that had a room for us along the beach.  We chiiled there for a bit, I napped and showered, caught up on a bit of work, and then we headed out to the beach.  We spent the evening watching the sunset and swimming, which was one of the most gorgeous sunsets I’ve seen.  Afterward we grabbed dinner and had some drinks.

The next couple days were spent surfing, relaxing, and drinking.  We had a couple heavy nights, one of them where we got separated but managed to meet back home a few hours later.  It was my first time surfing ever, though it was something I’ve wanted to do for awhile.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and throughout the rest of the trip we would surf many more times.

Sunset in Dominical

Sunset in Dominical

After leaving Dominical, we decided to head over to the western peninsula to Montezuma.  We figured we could explore that area, and then make our way up the western coast into Nicaragua.  To get to to Montezuma we had to go to Puntarenas, then ferry to Cabo Blanco, then take a long bus to Montezuma.  We arrived late into the night, checked into the first place we could find, grabbed dinner (again Casado), and then headed out along the beach and found the only active bar in town for some drinks.

We woke the next morning, walked around a bit more, and decided to move to a new place nearby which was the same price, but a private, more comfortable room along the beach. We then hiked into the jungle a bit into some waterfalls, where we cliff jumped and swam for a few hours.  On the way up, we saw several monkeys up close, and observed them for a few minutes which was awesome seeing them in their natural habitat.

In the evening we met some fellow Americans who had setup a slackline so we slacklined for a bit.  It was great to slackline again as I used to love doing it, but haven’t had the chance in a couple years.

The next day we walked along the beach south searching for a different waterfall that was recommended. Along the way we stopped and swam in some small pools, and then we hiked up the river to find the waterfall.  However, it was further than we felt like going, so we swam in another pond while listening to some Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the portable speaker. It was quite relaxing.  In the pond as well were little shrimp which loved picking at our feet, similar to those fish massages you see.

Beach of Montezuma, Costa Rica

Beach of Montezuma, Costa Rica

In the evening we went out on the town again, ended up meeting a group of people from Canada and practiced some dancing. One of the girls was a former Yale student from Poland who was living in Costa Rica doing online work. Another was a girl from Canada who was traveling with her.  We would later run into them on the ferry the next day and travel a bit together.

We decided to leave Montezuma the next day, and after researching for the past few days we discovered that going up the west coast wasn’t so easily possible without our own car, as buses didn’t run.  So we decided to head back to to the ferry port to Puntarenas, and then bus north from there.  The bus from Montezuma to the ferry port was late by an hour or so, and as a result we missed the ferry.  So when we got the ferry port, we had to wait a couple more hours.  While there, we ran into several people that we had met the night before, so on the ferry we just chatted about our upcoming plans. By the time we arrived into Puntarenas, it was quite late.

Since it was late and the buses weren’t running, had spent the night in Puntarenas. The Polish girl boarded a bus right on arrival and headed back to her home elsewhere, while the Canadian, Andrew, and I checked into the first hotel we could find in our guidebook.  After checking in, we stopped for food across the street, and then bar hopped around the area.  It was mostly dead, but a few places made the night worthwhile.

The next day we wanted to make our way into Nicaragua. The Canadian girl went back to San Jose, and Andrew and I boarded a bus to a nearby town, where we got dropped off at an intersection to catch another bus from there.  Some locals Andrew talked to said there were buses from San Jose that go into Nicaragua and pass every hour.  Some of them are direct, others stop and go.  One stopped, and we loaded our bags on, only for him to charge like 10x what we expected, so we got off and unloaded.  We waited there in the sun for like 30 minutes, and finally the bus we were looking for arrived.  However, it was jammed full, so we had to stand in the isle, which was an experience.

We ended up standing on that bus for roughly 6 hours.  There was a stop for lunch halfway through in north eastern Costa Rica.  Lunch was excellent, and when leaving we saw a massive iguana out front.  It was cool to see them in their natural habitat, as I’ve really only seen them as pets.  The 6 hour bus ride was long, but wasn’t as hard as expected.  For the last couple years I’ve been standing a lot more working and walking more, so perhaps it made it easier, but it really was no big deal.  The worse part about it was how crowded it was, as I could hardly rotate my body.  Never the less, we made it to the border late afternoon. It’s the experience that counts, right?

Andrew with a wild iguana as we head into Nicaragua.

Andrew with a wild iguana as we head into Nicaragua.

When exiting the border, we had to pay $9 as an exit fee, $1 miscellaneous fee (for health check or some bullshit), and then a $12 entry into Nicaragua.  After going through the border, we caught the first bus we could find north.  Our plan was to go to Lake Nicaragua first and climb some volcanoes there.  Once the bus got to Rivas, we got off grabbed a cab to the ferry port which would take us over to Ometepe Island, which was made of Volcano Conception and Maderas.

While on the ferry over to Ometepe, Andrew and I met a group of younger french Canadian students traveling around Nicaragua.  We also met a tourist guide who gave us some details about the island.  Once on the island, he told us to follow him, along with a couple others, to a hotel he recommended.  He then said in order to climb Conception, a guide was required.  We decided not to stay at the recommended hotel, and told him we wanted to research more on our own.  Within 20 minutes we found a place for like half the price that worked fine.  While there, we researched more about the climb.  Andrew wanted to climb Conception the next day starting early, but after I did some reading I convinced him that it wasn’t a good idea, and that we should go to the opposite side of the island to Altagracia and climb from that side.

Ometepe from mainland Nicaragua.

Ometepe from mainland Nicaragua.

So later that night, we grabbed dinner nearby our hotel in Moyogalpa and then called it a night.  The next day we walked several miles to Punta Jesus Maria, a beach that we wanted to checkout.  It ended up being under construction and basically vacant. There we met a guy who was driving a jeep with country names written all over it.  We talked to him for about 20 minutes and found out that he had been driving the car all over the world – all through Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and South America.  He had quite the story.

In the afternoon we headed back toward Moyogalpa, and prepared for the next day.  We wanted to catch a bus to Altagracia, and had to sort out the schedule, and also get money sorted in case Altagracia didn’t have an ATM.

We caught a bus in the morning, jam packed with people.  It took around 30 minutes if I remember right, and again, standing, barely able to rotate. Once we got to Altagracia, we walked around looking for accommodation.  We found an excellent hotel with a private room for only $3 – one of the lowest I’ve ever heard of.  The food and drinks there were excellent too. In the afternoon we decided to hike the first part of the trail to confirm we knew where it was and what it looked like. After getting back after dark, we grabbed some food and headed to sleep for a few hours.

The camper going around the world.

The camper going around the world.

We decided to climb Conception from Altagracia, starting around 3am such that we would be coming down before the brutal sun hit the mountain. The hike itself was fun, though a bit wet and muddy. A stray dog followed us all the way to the top.  When we first started, 2 guys on their bikes followed us, which was a bit sketchy, but after 2 minutes they went on their way. Also toward the beginning we heard lots of odd animal noises along the trail, some sounded like a puma hissing, which was a bit scary but in the end all went well.

We got to the top around 9 or 10am, and it was very cloudy and windy unfortunately.  We snapped a few videos and photos and then began to head back down.  On the way down the clouds rolled past and we got some good views of Altagracia from above, as well as Volcano Maderas, the other volcano on the island.

Top of Conception - super windy, and it seemed to be a bottomless crater

Top of Conception – super windy, and it seemed to be a bottomless crater

We got back around 2pm, grabbed some food and relaxed the rest of the day. The following morning we took an early bus back to Moyogalpa, where we would catch a ferry back to mainland. It started raining right as we arrived into Moyogalpa.  Luckily we didn’t have to wait in line long and we boarding before getting too wet.

The ride back to mainland was the most interesting ferry ride I’ve ever took.  It got quite windy once we were away from Ometepe, and the waves were getting quite high.  The ferry was loaded un-evenly, and before even leaving it was tilting quite a bit. The ferry driver, who probably wasn’t over 16 years old, was driving the boat horizontally for some reason, and the waves started rocking the boat.  It started rocking so much that I was thinking it might tip over.  The kids on the boat were crying, and our bags (which were all piled at the end of the boat) were moving and about to fall out.  This continued on for probably 20 minutes, and when we were about 5 minutes from shore, the boat came insanely close to tipping.  Literally was probably 5 degrees from tipping over.  One bag rolled quite a bit nearly fell out.  It was a bit scary since I had my laptop and valuables in the bag, and if the boat tipped I surely would have lost it.  Luckily, we managed to arrive, and nobody acted like it was a big deal.

Once we got on mainland, we met another older man from Canada who was interested in heading west to San Juan Del Sur as well.  So we all hopped into a cab together, and headed that way. It took maybe 35 minutes to get there, and we got dropped off in the middle of town.  It is a small place with a beautiful beach which has perfect views of sunset.  We checked into the first place we could find and then explored.  We hiked up to the Statue which overlooks the beach and town from the north, and grabbed some food and drinks while the sunset.  During sunset you could watch these massive birds dive into the water and catch fish.  There were probably 50 of them doing this relatively close.

San Juan Del Sur from above

San Juan Del Sur from above

After dinner and a few drinks, we were walking back down the main street and saw a bar with all Nicaraguans.  We decided to stop in and have a beer.  The first guy I talked to was a bit suspicious as he was asking what gang I was from, though his English was a bit broken. I remember one of his friends that I got along with and had some conversations with – a Nicaraguan who had lived in the US for a period of time before getting deported.  He spoke decent English (better than all the others there), and was a friendly guy.  When a Spanish song started playing, he was rapping it, but in English, translating the song for me.  It was hilarious.  By the time we had left that bar, a group of about 5 of us made our way further down the street.  There were a few clubs that seemed interesting, but no one felt like paying to get in.

We ended up finding a liquor store, buying 12 beers or so, and last minute the friendly Nicaraguan guy bought a massive 1.5 litre bottle of whiskey. We headed to the beach near the club and sat there for a bit talking and drinking. Next thing you know Andrew has us Vegas circling the entire 12 beers and they disappear within 3 minutes.  We then somehow end up in the club and all get separated.  By the end of the night we were stumbling home.

The next day was mostly spent chilling. The heavy night before in combination with the hiking and constant travel made us quite tired, and it was a good day to take a break.  I remember eating some excellent quesadillas at a fast food Mexican joint.

The sunsets were incredible

The sunsets were incredible

Our original plan when we went to San Juan Del Sur was to do some surfing, but we didn’t see any good waves at this beach or board rentals, so we assumed the tour packages took people elsewhere.  We considered going to Las Salinas, which was north up the coast, but getting there wasn’t easy and all the taxi drives tried to rip us off.  We decided to head north east to Granada instead.  Andrew’s girlfriend Christine was arriving in the coming days and we wanted to make our way north so it would be easier to meet her.

We arrived into Granada on the morning of March 6, getting dropped off at a pretty rundown bus station.  We made our way into town after asking a few people for directions. Our guidebook gave us a few recommendations on where to stay, so we picked one and went with it.  It was quite cheap, and we got a nice 2 bed private room close to the center of town. After dropping our bags off, we walked around using the walking tour guide from our book, and then rented some bicycles. We rode them down to the beach, and while driving along the beach we got offered to do an island tour for something like $10 each. So we locked our bikes, got onto a small boat with a guide, and rode around a various islands in the area, most with a single house on them.  Apparently each island was for sale at one point, and many people, both locals and foreigners, owned them.  The richest family in Nicaragua owned one with a beautiful house on it, and many American and English families had houses on them.  It was pretty cool.  There was also 1 island inhabited entirely by monkeys.

After the tour we returned the bikes, grabbed something to eat and drink, and relaxed along the main street.  We ended up buying 2 handmade hammocks from a street vendor for something like $7 each, which was pretty amazing.  We tried to negotiate ordering many more and having them mailed to us in the US, but he knew nothing about shipping. When the night winded down, we arranged a tour for the next day from our hotel.

Granada, Nicaragua

Granada, Nicaragua

The next morning, March 7, we woke and took a van to a Lago Apoyo, which is a massive volcano crater that is now a big lake.  The tour basically drove us to “Hostel Paradisio” along the lake, left us there the entire day, and then took us back to our hotel.  The hostel was pretty incredible – it has kayaks, boats, good swimming along the beach, ping pong tables, a great bar and restaurant, and good wifi.  Upon arriving, one of the women in our van said her friends came yesterday, were roaming around the jungle near the lake, and got mugged.  So as a result, we spent most of our time kayaking around the lake and swimming.  I must say the hostel itself was probably one of the coolest hostels I’ve ever seen.

Lago Apoyo near Granada

Lago Apoyo near Granada

We decided to continue heading north the following day to Leon, Nicaragua.  The guide book said it was a cool city, and it was near several volcanoes that Andrew and I wanted to climb.  We arrived around 11am, and took a rickshaw to a hostel listed in our guidebook.  However, that one was full.  Upon reading further, we noticed that if we wanted to do a volcano tour, we’d have to organize it as soon as possible.  So instead of searching for another hostel, we walked straight to Quetzaltrekkers, a non-profit tour agency in Leon that gives much of its money to support “at risk” children in the area.  We noticed they were in a couple countries in Central America, including Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Once we arrived, a young American girl at the front desk asked us what we needed help with.  It was a bit of a surprise to see her as it wasn’t expected.  She was very helpful, and said there is a day-trip tour to Telica volcano starting at noon.  We originally wanted to go up to Telica and camp (hence why we didn’t check-in to a new hostel), but the camping tour started the previous night, so our only option was a day tour.  We decided to signup for it, and it costed around $50 per person, and for a good cause.  Since we were crunched on time, we left bags there, went searching for an ATM to get cash, and then headed back. When we got back a few other people in the tour were arriving.

Atop Telica near Leon, Nicaragua

Atop Telica near Leon, Nicaragua

The tour itself was pretty cool.  It was a total of maybe 9 or 10 people, all females except Andrew and I. Most of them were Americans who were volunteering at Quetzaltrekkers for a 3 month period in Leon, and mostly laid back. They had hired a truck and a driver to take us there, so we all sat in the back of the truck with our portable speaker listening to music. The small, bumpy dirt road close to the volcano was quite dusty, and when we were getting close we stopped because of a fallen tree in the road.  Luckily there was a a gate right nearby that we were able to open and drive around it, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to go on the tour. We got super lucky.

Once at the base of the volcano, we hiked for about 45 minutes up to the crater.  It was an easy hike, and the crater was fascinating.  We got up to the crater around 5pm, took some photos, and then walked down to the camping area where many others had their tents setup.  We had some food and drinks there.  An older man who lives near the crater had a big cooler of cold beers that he was selling to people, so we bought a few of those.  We then watched the sunset by the crater, and then walked back to the crater to see lava at night.  It was my first time seeing lava, and it was pretty fascinating. Some of the pictures I captured this day ended up being some of the best of the trip in my opinion.

We got back to Leon around 9pm, checked into a nearby hotel, and then went out to get dinner.  We found the only live street in the city, walked into the first bar we could find, but their kitchen was closed. As a result, we had a beer and played some foosball with some locals.

There was another volcano nearby called “Cerro Negro”, but we decided to wait and climb that one when Andrew’s girlfriend arrived in a few days.  In the meantime, we decided to head to the beach nearby, Las Penitas.  The beach was only about an hour away, so we grabbed a bus and arrived into Las Penitas quite early.  It seemed empty, as most places weren’t open.  We walked around a bit checking out a few different places, and decided to checkin to a place right along the beach.  We grabbed some breakfast and relaxed, and in the afternoon we surfed.  It had some excellent surfing, and the sunset at this spot was incredible.

Beach of Las Penitas

Beach of Las Penitas

The following day was catchup day.  I had quite a lot of reading and work I wanted to get done, and Andrew left in the morning to meet his girlfriend Christine at the airport in Managua, the capital city. I spent most of the day roaming the beach, eating excellent food, working, and reading.  That night Andrew and Christine stayed in Managua, and I spent another night in Las Penitas.

Andrew and Christine came to Las Pentias the next day, and we all spent the afternoon attempting to surf, though the conditions weren’t good where we were trying. So I walked further down the beach to the main place, while they stayed in the same area trying.  In the evening we had a few drinks.  I moved to a new accommodation right near where we surfed a few days prior, and Andrew and Christine got a private room elsewhere.

We headed to Leon early the next morning, and got on a tour to Cerro Negro to do volcano boarding. It cost around $30/person, once again through Quetzaltrekkers. The group this time around was larger, maybe 15 people, and we all hiked up the volcano with an Australian guide. They had provided us with the a suite, glasses, gloves, and a board.  The hike itself took around 30-40 minutes, and at the top we changed into a full suite to protect us while boarding down.  Once we all boarded down, they asked who wanted to hike up and do it again, or who wanted to go back to the lodge nearby and relax.  A few of us decided to go again, while others headed back for drinks and lunch.

About to board down Cerro Negro

About to board down Cerro Negro

We were back to Leon in the late afternoon, where we checked into a new hostel (I stayed at one and they stayed at another across the street), showered, and got online. For dinner we walked around the big church in the city center, and had some excellent street food, which consisted of many dishes that I had no idea what they were, but it was fantastic.  After dinner we sat in the city park area talking, when a young boy came up asking for money to buy some shoes.  I told him that I had some shoes I was about to throw away at the hostel, and he willingly came with me to get them.  The shoes were in useable shape, but the bottom was breaking, so I figured he could repair them.

Once I got back to the central park area, we heard some music and singing in the building next to the park, so we went in and watched.  It was a small group of Americans from a school in Pennsylvania (where Christine and Andrew live).  In a crazy twist, Christine randomly ran into a friend who was singing there that she had met in Pennsylvania years ago.  Crazy coincidence.  After leaving there, we grabbed some drinks along the side of the park, and then headed to a bar for a night out.  At the bar we danced, met up with others we met during out Cerro Negro tour, and had a pretty heavy night.

Our plan the next day was to head north into Honduras, and we all woke up with pretty bad headaches.  Christine especially wasn’t feeling well. After spending the first couple hours in the morning relaxing while Andrew and Christine got ready, we eventually got on a bus north.  It was quite a rough ride – very crowded (we didn’t even have seats), it was hot, and it was bumpy.  This in combination with the hangover wasn’t good, especially considering that fact that we’d be on a bus or van for most of the day traveling.

The most vivid memory was crossing the border into Honduras. The van intentionally dropped us off before the border so all the locals could try to charge us to get a ride to the border.  Like in many undeveloped countries, as soon as a white person gets out, people quickly surround you fighting for your business.  Right when we got out, Christine pushed through them, went to the side and puked.  While I felt bad for Christine, it was hilarious to see the reaction of these people when they noticed her puking.

Leaving Cholutecha

Leaving Choluteca

Once we got through the border, we got onto a bus that would take us north into Honduras.  Our goal was Comayagua, but by this point it was already around 3pm, and we didn’t want to have transfer busses in Tegucigalpa (the capital) at night.  So when the bus stopped in Choluteca, the first town north of the border, we decided to get a hotel and stay there for the night.  We grabbed a taxi to the nearest hotel right when the bus dropped us off.  It was a older, haggard looking place near the middle of town, and the 1 guy working there was standing out front with a shotgun.  He checked us in, and we then relaxed a bit.  Andrew and I went looking for some snacks and an ATM while Christine relaxed as she wasn’t feeling well. The small city at first seemed a bit dodgy, but after a night there it became relatively comfortable. Andrew had chatted with a few people at the stores and they gave us some good information about the area.

The next day was March 14th, and our goal was to make it further north to Comayagua, where Andrew had a friend that we would meet.  In order to there, however, we’d have to switch buses in Tegucigalpa. The southern part of Honduras was quite beautiful, with lots of small green plants, a few rivers, some sand and cliffs.  It looked a bit like a desert, but also with a blend of tropics.  It’s hard to describe, but was something that really stuck out for me during the trip there. One of the best things about taking a bus is you get to truly see the countryside.  I spent hours just observing how unique, yet beautiful the countryside was.

Upon arriving into Tegucigalpa, I noticed tons of western restaurants like Little Ceasars, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, etc.  And there were also lots of big malls.  It was a bit surprising to see how westernized and modern Tegucigalpa was.  This seemed to be a common trend throughout Central America – while the countries were mostly undeveloped and poor, the captial cities were quite modern and westernized. It is easy for the western media to influence perspectives of underdeveloped countries, but more often than not, they are more developed than you’d imagine.

Beautiful day in Comayagua, Honduras

Beautiful day in Comayagua, Honduras

We made it to Tegucigalpa in the mid afternoon, waited 30 minutes for a transfer and headed on our way to Comayagua shortly after.  We arrived there around 4-5pm or so, and Andrew’s friend Johony met us at the bus drop off.  He then drove us to a nice hotel in the middle of town, paid for the room and refused to accept money, and then walked around the area a bit to show us the central park.  We stopped and had a beer and some dinner, and then went back to the hotel to relax for a bit while he went to meetup with his friend. After an hour or so, he returned and took us out to his house in a suburb, offered us beers, got dressed, and then we headed for a night out on the town.  We stopped first at a small empty bar for a round of beers, and then ended up at some club.  It was Johony, his girlfriend, Andrew, Andrew’s girlfriend Christine, and me. Almost no one in the club spoke English, but did see quite a few white men walk in.  Apparently there is an American military base near here, so all the military guys come to this club. We had many drinks there at the club, and danced the night away.

Johony and his girlfriend offered to take us to a waterfall and lake the following day, which was very kind of them.  We checked out of the hotel and brought our bags with us since he would drop us at a bus station after the day tour. They drove us for several hours to a cave, then to a massive waterfall (Pulhapanzak Waterfall) where we went swimming for a couple hours, and on the way back we stopped along Lago De Yoyoa to eat dinner and watch the sunset.  It was a beautiful sight.

Lago De Yoyoa

Lago De Yoyoa

After dinner, around dusk, Johony and his girlfriend dropped us off at an intersection where we could catch a bus west toward Guatemala.  We got on the bus headed toward La Esperanza, where we would spend 1 short night there.  I remember having some excellent dinner that night very cheap.  I stayed at the first hotel we could find, while Andrew and Christine got a nicer place a bit further down the road.  In the morning we met for breakfast at the place we had dinner.

One of the interesting things about Honduras that really stuck out to me so how good the roads were. All the highways were well paved, well painted, and well maintained.  At least all the ones we drove on, which was a lot of them. Literally seemed as good or better than the roads you’d see in America.  I’ve always thought that roads were one of the most important things for a country or area since it connected people, and I’ve been on buses many times where a trip that should take an hour takes 5 hours.  Over time that adds up for a lot of people.  In Honduras though, there were no issues at all.  I’m not sure why they had such nice roads, but I suspect it has something to do with either the export business moving goods, or the presence of the US military here, or perhaps something completely different.  Nonetheless, I was impressed.

We caught a bus to Gracias early in the morning from La Esperanza, after eating breakfast. After checking into a nice hotel in the middle of town, we decided to go ziplining.  However, we couldn’t get much information on the cost, how to get there, etc.  When we asked locals about it, they didn’t seem to know.  So we went to a bus stop and waited to try getting there ourselves.  While waiting, Andrew asked others, who were local, about the details of the ziplining place.  They said that it was currently closed for maintenance and we shouldn’t go.  Luckily we got that info before going or else it would have been a disaster since it was decently far away.

The hot springs of Gracia, Honduras

The hot springs of Gracias, Honduras

After discovering that, we decided to find a tuk tuk to give us a ride to the local hot spring, which was a 15 minute ride away.  When we got there, we paid the fee (which was double the price of a local but still cheap), and went in and changed.  The entire place was practically empty, but quite commercialized.  It was a nice relaxing place to be, with several different pools of different temperatures and sizes.  While swimming there, a camera crew came and started filming for what I assume was a promotional video.  It wasn’t too common to see foreigners there so they probably rushed in to see us, it was hilarious.

In one of the small pools we found a small cave under water.  After a few attempts to see how far it went, Andrew swam into it and found a little pocket where he could get above the water and rest.  A few feet off the side of the pool we could here him talking, so we looked and there was a little opening to see the sky.  He told us to join him, so we all swam into the little spot.  It was a fun experience, but a bit scary at first. We stayed at the hot springs until the evening, where we then caught another tuk tuk back into town, and had some awesome street food near the central park there.

The following day was St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, and we wanted to hike into the Parque Nacional Celaque, which was about 40 minutes out of town.  We caught a ride there, and got dropped off at the entrance.  We paid an admission fee, talked to the guy working then, and then looked at the map to see which trails we should climb.  The tuk tuk driver told us he would come pick us up around 4pm.  We hiked a few different trails along the way, and got to the top of the second highest trail which was not as impressive as expected.

National park near Gracias

National park near Gracias

Around 4pm we got back to the entrance, and walked down to a gate (about 20 minutes away) that the guy working there had closed.  As a result, the tuk tuk likely wasn’t able to come get us, so we walked for 10 minutes more until we found another tuk tuk to take us back to town.  Once there, we showered and dropped off our bags, and then headed to what seemed to be the only place that served beer, where we had a few drinks, and had dinner. Afterward we played some pool at a local joint and called it a night.

The next day we took a morning bus to Saint Rosa, and then switched to an express bus to Copan, which was near the Guatemalan border.  It is known for the Copan Ruins, which are old Malayan ruins that people explore there.  The small city is quite lively, with a few western bars, many hotels and hostels, and an awesome night market.  Upon arrival, the bus dropped us about 500 meters out of town such that they can sell us to the locals to drive us to town.  However, we had a map and knew better, so we walked into town to find accommodation.  I decided to stay at the first hostel I could find, while Andrew and Christine went to find a hotel.

The hostel I stayed in had a pool table hammocks, a kitchen, music, etc.  I was the only one staying there though, or at least in the building which was part of the hostel.  After Andrew and Christine checked in, they came over and we played a bit of pool.  In the evening we relaxed in parque central where there was some live music with lots of people dancing.  Andrew and I decided to shotgun some beers with some locals, which was a common theme throughout our trip.  It was hilarious seeing Andrew explain in Spanish what shotgunning meant, and virtually every person we offered did it with us.  On this particular night, we offered 2 local guys sitting near parque central, one being a businessman and the other an average looking bigger guy.  They gladly accepted the invite.  Nearby there was excellent street food including tacos, burritos, pupusas, and more.  I couldn’t get enough and probably ate there around 5 times in the couple days we spent in Copan.

The small city of Copan, Honduras near the Guatemalan border

The small city of Copan, Honduras near the Guatemalan border

The following day we woke somewhat early and walked to the ruins.  Along the way we met Sarah, who was traveling alone but also going to the ruins.  She was half Dutch and half Bolivian.  She spoke like 6 languages, including Spanish.  The 4 of us had some great conversions and explored the ruins together.  In the evening we played pool, met an older Canadian guy, and played a few drinking games at the hostel. At night we all went and danced in the parque central to more live music.

The Mayan ruins in Copan

The Mayan ruins in Copan

All of us had plans to go to Guatemala City, so the following day we all took a bus to the border between Honduras and Guatemala, departed Honduras, and entered into Guatemala. We arrived to a bus terminal in the suburbs of Guatemala, and Sarah departed to meet a friend in town.  We waited at the terminal while our friend Rodrigo came to pick us up at the mall nearby.

Andrew and I met Rodrigo at CSM in 2010 during our final year at university.  Rodrigo was getting his degree in Mexico but was doing a semester abroad at CSM in Colorado. We didn’t become good friends, but I do recall having a beer or two with him, hiking with him, and discussing a potential trip to Guatemala someday.  He was very kind to come pick us up, and it was beginning of much more to come.

By the time Rodrigo came to get us, it was probably 6pm.  He insisted he would come get us since he didn’t feel comfortable having us take public transport in the city, which can be quite dangerous as we’d be a big target for theft.  He said it took him about 1 hr and 30 minutes to get to the mall as he came directly from work.  It was incredibly kind for him to do this.

He took us back to his place in the middle of the city, and we ordered pizza and grabbed some beers for dinner.  He has a massive living room with a couch and several sleeping pads and was a perfect place for us to crash.  He offered us to do laundry, etc. and was very welcoming.  His girlfriend, Natalia, joined us halfway through dinner when she got back from work.  She is very similar to Rodrigo, and they met in Mexico at university, though she is from El Salvador.  The evening winded down discussing plans for the coming weeks.

Pacaya Volcano near Guatemala City

Pacaya Volcano near Guatemala City

Rodrigo took us the next morning to Pacaya Volcano near Guatemala City, a very active one to say the least.  Upon arrival we got surrounded by people wanting to guide us, but Rodrigo had already climbed this one 30 times so it was unnecessary.  However, upon entry the guy giving tickets insisted we pay for a guide.  Rodrigo argued for 10 minutes before we finally just paid to join a group waiting to get in, and then hiked the volcano alone.

It was an easy hike, and only took maybe 45 minutes to 1 hour.  The volcano had erupted only a few months before and it was fascinating looking at the aftermath.  It was all very “fresh”, though it’s hard to describe such a view and feeling.  As we got closer, there was literally steam still coming out from between the rocks where the lava beneath hadn’t yet cooled.  Rodrigo said he went there just a couple weeks after it erupted and at night he said the rocks were glowing between the cracks.  Crazy stuff, at least coming from a place where active volcanoes aren’t a common sight like in Central America.  He said it erupts almost every year, and when it does, the lava pours out slowing but consistently, so it isn’t as hectic as you’d imagine.

After the hike, Rodrigo drove us to Antigua, perhaps the tourist capital of Guatemala and for all the right reasons.  It’s situated around several volcanoes, including the most active one which has a “small” eruption every 30 minutes.  The history of the city is quite fascinating, and the design of the city gives you a warm feeling.  Here is the hub of transport throughout the country, has several high schools and universities, many small hostels and excellent food, and the streets are made of big, flat rocks.  Apparently the government insisted to keep the streets as rocks to preserve the old-town feeling that the city has, and I can’t agree more with that decision.

The Central Park in Antigua, Guatemala

The Central Park in Antigua, Guatemala

We spent the evening there watching some music, drinking some beers, and ended up at a bar with some locals and many tourists drinking Mezcal, a tequila-like liquor.  It was a heavy night discussing everything from politics to travel stories with random people, one I remember being a Oxford grad who fell in love with a Mexican girl and has lived in Central America since.  It is inspiring to hear people who learn languages and culture so quickly just by pushing themselves to enjoy life.  It is something I strive for as well.  After we finished the night, Rodrigo drove us back to his place in Guatemala City, questionably sober.  The funniest part was leaving and the police for some reason shutting down many of the roads (apparently common on weekend nights), and Rodrigo drunkenly asking police at intersections how to get out.  He didn’t have a care in the world, haha, and neither did the police.

Rodrigo and Natalia offered to take us to the beach the next day to relax, so we drove to El Paredon beach, which was a somewhat secluded beach that had only a dirt road to it the last 10km or so.  There was a hostel there but we really just chilled under a canopy and swam in the ocean most of the day.  This place had some of the strongest rip currents I had ever swam in.  After spending 30 minutes or so going out as far as we could, getting back to shore proved to be a challenge for me.  There was a moment when I was like 5 meters from the beach where I paniced a little bit thinking I wouldn’t be able to get back to shore.  The thing I learned was that you can’t swim against these currents, you basically have to swim long the beach until the current gets weaker when you can then swim to shore.  It was a tiring bout to say the least.

After a day on the beach and eating some lunch there, we headed home. It was nearly dark by this point, and after about 30 minutes of driving Rodrigo realized his GPS was taking us the wrong way.  It’s a common scenario when we rely on the GPS, but luckily he recogized the issue only after only 30 minutes.  On the way back to his place we stopped for some ice cream at a joint that he always stopped at with him family.  It was excellent and delicious, and apparently the locals liked it too since there was a 20 minute queue to even get to the counter.

Rodrigo and Natalia along the beach in

Rodrigo and Natalia along El Paredon beach

 

When we got back, as tired as we were, Rodrigo sat down and helped us plan our the next couple weeks of our trip around Guatemala.  He took out a piece of paper and wrote down the names of things, what to see, where to go, how to get there, etc.  He was genuinely interested in helping us and looking back he made our experience there amazingly better. He answered all the questions we had regarding the trip as well.

Even though the day was long and we stayed up late planning things out (and Rodrigo and Natalia had to work the next day), Rodrigo woke at 4:50am with us and drove us to the bus station to catch the 6am bus to Rio Dulce. Rio Dulce is to the far east side of Guatemala.  Our plan was to head east, then north, wrap back down south to Antigua, and then Andrew and Christine would head back to the US while I stayed another week or so heading to the west with Rodrigo and Natalia.

We arrived into Rio Dulce around noon, ate some lunch, and then discussed where to stay.  We could have crossed the bridge near where we got dropped off, but someone offered us a place a boat ride away along the water which we took.  We later learned it was super secluded and difficult to go anywhere, but it worked out anyways.  The hostel was across a big lake, and the only way to get to it was by boat.  It was too far to kayak to town, so once there you had to eat, drink, and sleep there.  After dropping bags off, we did kayak to a platform near our hostel and jump into the water.  In the evening we just chilled at the hostel planning out the next couple days in more detail.

Our accommodation in Rio Dulce

Our accommodation in Rio Dulce

We decided to do a daytrip to Livingston the following day, which is an area known to have mostly black Guatemalans and a unique culture.  The interesting thing about Guatemala is that there are regions where there are brown, black, and white Guatemalans.  It is very diverse, and different areas are quite unique to others in terms of skin color, how they dress, what they eat, and the language they speak. I heard something along the lines that if you speak Spanish, you can only communicate with like half of Guatemalans since there are so many other, unique, languages there.

We left early in the morning to Livingston, and the boat went around picking other people up along the way.  It was a beautiful boat ride which took an hour or two in total.  Apparently the only way to get to Livingston is by boat, so the route is traveled at least a couple times each day.  On the way there, we stopped along the river at a natural hot spring, where I soaked my feet and others took a dip.  The water was incredibly hot, but you could mix it with the cooler river water and you could make it whatever temperature you wanted, as long as you kept moving around.  Upon arrival to Livingston, we met a local who wanted to show us around, and told us how he used to hang out with Jerry Garcia in Livingston before he became famous.  He was an interesting guy.

We grabbed some lunch there, did a little shopping, and then headed back to the hostel.  It ended up being a full day trip.  Once at the hostel, we went and kayaked again, and met a French-Canadian couple from Quebec, and a German girl traveling alone.  They went swimming with us, and later played card games with us. The Canadian girl was a tattoo artist and was traveling with all her gear to make some money on the way.  They were all awesome people and the Canadians invited me to their place if I ever go through Quebec.

Main street in Livingston

Main street in Livingston

Because of the seclusion of the hostel, and the size of the town, we felt after a couple days we were able to explore what we wanted there.  At 9am the next day we caught a bus to Saint Elena along with the German girl, grabbed lunch hit the ATM, and then grabbed a bus to El Remate about 30 minutes away. ATMs and various other businesses throughout Central America have a guard or two holding shotguns.  Their goal is to make you feel safe, but I think it does the opposite.  In Guatemala City I saw a Little Caesars Pizza place with 2 guards in front holding shotguns.  In Saint Elena, the ATM was guarded by a couple guys with shotguns, which does leave a little odd feeling in your head.

Once we got to El Remate, our plan was to camp along the water, as Rodrigo recommended.  We walked about 15 minutes and found a place that had camping.  Because we were borrowing a tent from Rodrigo that could sleep 3, I decided to let Andrew and Christine have the tent to themselves and pay a bit more for a bed at the same place. After dropping our bags off and setting up the tent, we went to the lake nearby to swim and watch the sunset, which was stunning.

In the evening we met a couple of people who went to Tikal earlier in the day and we asked them for some advice as that was our plan the following day.  The guy, Chris, was from England, studying medicine, and he and his German girlfriend had spent the last 6 months traveling Mexico – both fluent in Spanish.  I admired the fact that he took a break from university to travel, and we had some great discussions about everything from philosophy, to medicine, to tech, to traveling.  It was quite enjoyable.

Sunset in El Remate near Tikal

Sunset in El Remate near Tikal

It was the morning of March 26th that we woke around 4am to get a shuttle to Tikal.  Tikal is one of the most famous tourist attractions in Guatemala, where there is a large park full of ancient Mayan ruins.  It was fascinating to explore, and gives you a decent glimpse of how and where the Mayans lived in the jungle.  We spent the entire day exploring there along with the German girl, and in the evening took a shuttle back, ate dinner, and swam in the lake again.  It was very peaceful.

From El Remate, our upcoming plan was to head south to Samuc Champey, then we’d head to Antigua where Andrew and Christine would head to Guatemala City to fly back to Colorado, while I would meet with Rodrigo and head west for hiking. From El Remate, we took a van to Coban, switching 3 different times and encountering several rain storms.  Every van was packed – it was the true local way of travel.  And as bad as the experience is at the time, you always look back in appreciation in the fact that people use that form of travel everyday, all day, and it gives you a better understanding of how they live.

Once we arrived in Coban around 7pm, it was pouring rain and dark out. We waited for the rain to slow, and then took a taxi to the city center, where we looked for accommodation.  The first place we looked at from our guide book was now closed, but we were recommended some other place by some locals.  Once we found a place and settled in, we grabbed some dinner at a hotel nearby, went to the ATM, explored a bit, and then headed to our rooms to relax.  It was the first internet we had in 3 days, even though it was spotty at best.

The common site of the guard with a shotgun - this one in Coban

The common site of the guard with a shotgun – this one in Coban

In the morning, Andrew and Christine grabbed some items from the local bakery (and bakeries in Central America tended to be amazing), and then we walked about 10 minutes to the bus station. Our plan was to bus to Lanquin, which is the area near Samuc Champey, and then do a day trip to Samuc, which was recommended by Rodrigo.  At the bus station in Coban, we met a German guy who was fluent in Spanish going to the same place, El Terido Resort.

Along the way, I had a great discussion with the German guy about learning languages in Germany.  Most Germans I’ve met speak at least English, German, and another language.  This guy said he had spent around 5 hours a week for about 3 years learning Spanish, and he said his Spanish was as good as his English, and his English was nearly perfect.  It was impressive, and makes me jealous as growing up I never learned another language.  I took Spanish classes for many years, aced all of them, but hardly learned anything. It’s talking to people like this that make me optimistic that someday American language education will change for the better. It also motivated me to study Spanish more and do another trip through this area.

We arrived in Lanquin and walked about 10 minutes in light rain and mud to the “resort”.  El Terido was incredible – it had buffet night at the restaurant every night, an awesome bar, a sauna, excellent music, hammocks, excellent bungalows, it was right along the river and we could tube, and it had a nice pool area (part of the river) and a board about 2 meters up to jump off.  It was one of the best places I’ve ever stayed. We ended up meeting tons of people and partying into the night at the bar, dancing with many of the other Guatemalans who were traveling and staying there. We also met a Belgian man and his daughter traveling together, and we played lots of card games with them. I ran into Kevin from LA as well, who we had met nearly 40 days prior in Costa Rica.  Small world.

El Terido Resort in Lanquin, near Samuc Champey

El Terido Resort in Lanquin, near Samuc Champey

The following day we were planning on hiking to Samuc Champey or maybe doing a tour, but we decided to take this day to relax and take in the amenities around us, and we were all a bit tired from the night before.  We basically chilled by the hammocks, got the sauna going, and swam in the river.  The sauna was pretty cool – it was a big cement room with a big stove, and to heat it we had to go to outside to the back and burn wood under the stove.  We got that sauna to be incredibly hot, which was fun to go into after jumping in the river.

Andrew and I tubed a bit on the river, and in the afternoon Christine, Andrew, and I did a “chocolate tour”.  It was basically walking 100 meters down the road to a local house where they make chocolate from the local cocoa plants.  It was a fun experience, but the chocolate was mediocre at the best.  In the evening we just relaxed at the restaurant and played cards with some others staying there.

It was March 30th the next day and we decided to go to Samuc Champey via a tour from El Terido instead of walking, which we learned was probably the better option.  We basically rode in the back of a truck on a bumpy road for about 30 minutes until we got there.  Once there, we played on a rope swing, went caving, did some tubing, and met a few cool people in the group.  2 of the other guys were from the US, one of them who had lived in Guatemala for the last several years and was about to move to Bangladesh to teach.  It was fun exchanging stores with them.

The green water of Samuc Champey

The green water of Samuc Champey

The caving was fun, though probably not particularly safe.  We all had candles, and often times the water in the cave would go over our heads.  There were a couple people who couldn’t swim so we had to help them.  I kicked many rocks along the way, which I later paid for.  Once we got like 30 minutes into the cave, we all climbed up some rocks and jumped off them.  It was fun, but a bit sketchy and I’d guess people get hurt in there all the time.

After caving we went tubing in the river.  The thing that made it so amazing was the water was basically a bright green color. While tubing locals would throw beers into the water at us (dangerous), and after we drank them they would get on a tube, look at our can and show they marked it, and then charge us for it.  A bit annoying, but they were cheap.  Afterward we went to a bridge maybe 10 meters above the waster and jumped in, which was good fun.

Finally, after doing that until the early afternoon, we hiked for about 1 hour to an overlook of the area where the river basically disappears into the caves underground.  It was quite the view.  From there we hiked down to the ponds near that area and went swimming with loads of other people hanging out there. After 2 hours or so there, we hiked back to the entrance via another route that was much shorter, taking only about 30 minutes.  Down that trail you can see the river shoot out the other side of the cave past the ponds, again being a beautiful greenish color.

The road through Lanquin, 9km from Samuc Champey

The road through Lanquin, 9km from Samuc Champey

We got back to El Terido in the early evening, showered, ate dinner, and planned out the coming days.  I decided I would catch a bus to Antigua the next day (which is a 12 hour journey), while Andrew and Christine were going to stay 1 more day at El Terido and head to Guatemala City the following day to catch their flight home.

This night I woke up with a bad stomach and diarrhoea.  My stomach had been well the entire trip, but the night before I’m about to take a 12 hour van ride, I get diarrhoea.  Bad luck, but I had to deal with the cards I was dealt.  I bought a bunch of pills for this, took them the following morning, and parted ways with Andrew and Christine, thanking them for an awesome trip.  It’s always good traveling with Andrew since he is so outgoing and willing to explore.  This trip he was especially helpful since he spoke Spanish, and I’m certain I wouldn’t have had such an awesome time without him.

The van picked me up from El Terido around 7am, and then drove to Lanquin about 5 minutes away to pick others up.  It was a bit annoying as I sat alone in the van for about 30 minutes just waiting.  Those 30 minutes would have been great to have this morning as I was quite rushed.  Once we got going, the van stopped at like 4 other places, picking up others going to Antigua. Everyone else in the van were part of groups, mostly Australians who were all quite loud and not particularly friendly, perhaps a few beers deep at that point. However, I met a couple good people and had some good conversations.

We arrived to Antigua just before sunset, and since I had spent a bit of time in Antigua already, after getting off the bus I walked straight to a hostel I knew of, Jungle Party Hostel.  Since my stomach was upset and the following day I knew would also be long, I checked into the hostel, dropped my bag off, grabbed dinner, and called it a night.  Coincidentally, as I was laying down listening to an audiobook, all the Australians from the trip come into the same room.  Later that night, about 5 hours later, they literally walk in drunkenly shouting, having zero care that they are waking up everyone in the room.

Excellent food heading west toward Mexico

Excellent food heading west toward Mexico

The plan the next day was to meetup with Rodrigo and Natalia and head west to the Mexican border and climb a volcano for Easter (Semana Santa).  Our meeting spot was outside of Antigua by 15 minutes in front of a mall where Rodrigo had dropped Andrew, Christine, and I a few weeks prior.  I woke around 9am or so after a long night of broken sleep, got online for a bit and grabbed breakfast at the hostel, and then walked to the bus station to catch a bus to the meeting point in San Lucas.

Due to some issues with traffic, Rodrigo arrived around 2 hours later than expected so I just waited there watching for them, as I didn’t have a phone to get ahold of them.  Once they arrived, I met another one of their friends who was joining us in the hike – a woman who had climbed all of the 38 volcanoes in Guatemala before.  On the drive there, we stopped for dinner at one of Rodrigo’s favorite places, which had excellent Guatemalan food.  On the way out I bought some blueberries and blackberries.  I asked for 1 bag of each, which unexpectedly amounted to around 2kg, and cost around $1 USD total.  They were amazing, and very cheap.

Our ultimate destination was a small town called Sibinal, which was near the base of Volcano Tacana. Along the way, we drove through some tiny villages, dirt roads, and questionable places. A few times along the way we got surrounded by tons of people begging for money for the Semana Santa holiday.  I guess they drink a lot of beer, raise a bunch of money, and then burn a Scarecrow to celebrate.  However, they literally shut down roads to do so.  On several occasions people had laid out spike strips on the road where you had to stop, and after donating some money they would move them.  It was a bit scary at first since it was quite late at this point, but Rodrigo said it was pretty common, and the only worry was that everyone was pretty drunk.

Our hotel in Sabinal

Our hotel in Sabinal

We arrived at the hotel past midnight, and in total the drive took around 11 hours.  It was super long after doing an 11 hour van ride the day before as well, and the fact that in 6.5 hours, I’d have to be awake to climb Volcano Tacana. During Semana Santa each year, many people climb this volcano since it lies on the Mexican/Guatemalan border.  All the Mexicans climb from their side, and all the Guatemalans climb from their side.  And then everyone camps up there for a night or two to celebrate. Rodrigo, Natalia, and other climbing friends all decided to do it together, and invited me along, which I couldn’t pass up.

The hotel we stayed in was great, and I slept very well for the time we had there.  We woke around 6am, met downstairs, grabbed some breakfast, and then waited a good 1.5-2 hours for everyone else to get ready.  Once everyone was ready, we threw our bags into the back of a truck and it took us to the trailhead.  It ended up taking about 30 minutes to get there, and it was very very bumpy, which was tiring in itself.

It was April 2nd at this point, and the group of us hiking together in total was probably 15 people.  Most, if not all of them, were part of a climbing group in Guatemala that hikes all over Central America.  Several of them had climbed all of the volcanoes in Guatemala, some of them many many times.  The hike itself up Tacana wasn’t too bad, but ended up taking around 5 hours if I remember right. When we got to the top it started raining, just as we were setting up the tent.  So we rushed to setup, and then went to the fire to eat and warmup.  Many people carried up all the gear to have basically a kitchen and a room to relax in, and in turn they sold food and drinks to make money.  They had entire families that helped carry stuff up, and virtually everyone camping up there ate or drank at one of the 2 setups like this.  I ended up chilling by the fire quite late into the night trying to practice Spanish since almost no one else spoke a word of English.

At the trailhead to Tacana Volcano. The sign is not correct though, it is further than 4.4km.

At the trailhead to Tacana Volcano. The sign is not correct though, it is further than 4.4km.

During this time, Rodrigo and Natalia went to the tent to relax out of the rain and away from the smoke. I would later join them since we only had 1 tent. Around 11pm or so I think it was, I headed to the tent to sort out the sleeping situation.  I decided to sleep in pretty much all the clothes that I borrowed from Rodrigo, and use a sleeping bag he provided.  My pillow was a sleeping bag case with a shirt in it.  Consider how cold it was, I slept decently well.  However, Rodrigo and Natalia woke at like 2am unable to sleep and went to the fire to heat up.  When they came back and tried to sleep again but couldn’t, Rodrigo asked if he could use my sleeping bag and if I waited by the fire.

Because I had slept a good 4-5 hours at this point and he hadn’t slept much at all, I went to the fire to relax.  I was planning on getting up around 5am (within the next hour) anyways to hike to the very top to set the sunrise.  This camping area wasn’t quite the top, but was an open flat area near the top where tents could be setup.  In the middle of the flat area was a white post decorated over the years in peoples writing.  It marked the border between Guatemala and Mexico.

Around 5am many people started to wakeup.  I went to wake Rodrigo but he said they would sleep and to hike alone.  So I hiked along with many others to the top in about 20 minutes and waited for the sun to come up. Over the next hour or so, I watched perhaps the most amazing sunrise I’ve ever seen.  The views from the top were amazing even without the sunrise.  You could see the tallest volcano in Guatemala, Volcán Tajumulco (13,845ft), in the distance not too far away, and in the far distance you could see Volcano Fuego, near Antigua, shooting ash out making a silhouette on the sunrise.  The bright pink sky lit up the forest below.  It was really an amazing view and while the pictures I took were okay, they certainly didn’t do justice with how amazing it was.

sunrise-tacana

After hiking back to the camp around 90 minutes later, others were awake and getting ready.  By this point the temperature warmed up a lot and most people were up and eating.  I ate some breakfast with Rodrigo and Natalia, and then hiked back up to the top again with the group that we were staying with at the hotel in Sabinal.

After getting back to the camp area, we packed up our tents, chatted a bit, and waited for others to get back. I managed to sneak in a 30 minute nap while waiting for others to get ready.  We hiked back down starting around 11am, and it took us about 2 hours to get back to the trailhead.  There, we had lunch and chatted about the experience.  The truck then took us back to our hotel in Sabinal.

Once at the hotel, we put our stuff into the car, had a beer with a few people there, and made our way.  Our plan was to head to Lake Atitlan and stay there for a couple days. On the way back, we stopped over in Quetzaltenango for dinner, the second largest city in Guatemala.  Rodrigo knew a guy in San Marcos (along Lake Atitlan) who owned a hotel there, so he called him and up to sort out accommodation for us.

We drove a good 5 or 6 hours on the highway before getting to the turnoff for the road to San Marcos.  Once on there, it was fine for the first bit but the second half was quite beatup and broken. I initially found it surprising to use such a road to get to a city along the lake (more on this later when I left).  Once we arrived we parked along the main road near the place we’d stay, and some drunken man came up telling us we had to pay.  Apparently he threatened to damage the car if we didn’t move it, so Rodrigo had to pay him a small fee, though I’m not sure as Natalia and I went to the accommodation first. We called it a night shortly after, and I was very much looking forward to some sleep.

Lake Atitlan in April

Lake Atitlan in April

The following day was April 4th, and we woke just as the sun was rising and went and took pictures along the lake.  It was truly stunning.  The lake is surrounded by 3 volcanoes.  The lake itself is the former crater of a massive volcano.  Lake Atitlan is one of the major tourist attractions in Guatemala, and several cities are built around it. San Marcos, where we were staying, was one of the smaller towns, and known for its hippy-like atmosphere.  Lots of shops advertise weird treatments like cancer cures and HIV cures through meditation and juicing.  A lot of it is bullshit, but it was interesting nonetheless.

We decided to start this day by each taking a tab of LSD, and spending most of the day taking in the stunning view along the coastline from San Marcos. It was quiet and mostly empty aside from an older hippy and his wife playing acoustic guitar and singing some beautiful music.  There were lots of swimming areas and even a place to cliff jump.  Apparently you can also scuba dive at some of the bigger cities along the lake. About 4 hours after taking the tab, the others were feeling the effects of quite well, while I felt absolutely nothing.  Stupidly, I went and bought a massive space cookie (a cookie that was loaded with THC from marijuana), and ended up eating that for lunch, along with some other small snacks.  About an hour later we were all sitting on a bench along the lake, and by this point many many others were walking around. I started to feel the effects take hold when all in a sudden a dog nearby barked and scared the hell out of me, throwing me into a very weird trip.

From that point forward, I lost control.  I started shaking quite oddly, and started to feel quite paranoid.  We waited there for an hour or so, and then walked back to our accommodation with the help of the others. I spare the details of the rest of the night, but we all tripped well into the night, and all had quite different experiences.  I will say that the space cookie was a bad idea and the night wasn’t enjoyable to say the least.

We woke the next day a bit bitter from the night before with the lingering effects of LSD hanging on, wondering what was reality and what wasn’t.  We had a great breakfast, and then Rodrigo and Natalia headed off back home to Guatemala City while I stayed in San Marcos. I would meetup with them a couple days later.  I spent most of the day swimming and relaxing, along with catching up on some work and reading from the last few days of travel.

San Pedro along Lake Atitlan

San Pedro along Lake Atitlan

I woke early the next day after a good night of rest, and took the first boat to San Pedro, about 15 minutes away across Lake Atitlan.  I wanted to climb San Pedro Volcano but after talking to a few guides they said it was too late and tried to get me to signup for some other tour, so unfortunately I couldn’t hike the volcano.  I would have went alone, but I read people mug tourists during the hike who try to go alone, so it wasn’t worth the risk.  So, as a result, I had the entire day open.  I checked into the first hotel I could find, and then signed up for a horseback riding day trip that would start midday.

I met the guide next to the hotel, and we walked about 20 minutes to the place where the horses were. I literally waited there for 45 minutes while he prepared all the horses, and then 10 more minutes later about 6 other tourists came and joined.  It was frustrating to wait, but I was excited to ride again.  The only other time I rode a horse was at the Great Sand Dunes in southern Colorado.

The horseback riding group was 2 couples (English and Israeli), 2 English girls, and me.  We rode through the edges of town out along the lake.  We stopped at an old cocoa processing facility and learned more about the history of the area. After finishing we went back to the same spot and the guide walked me back to town. I grabbed some excellent Guatemalan food at a joint by my hotel, bought some souvenirs, and relaxed the rest of the night, reading and working in the hotel.  I wanted to make sure I got a solid night a sleep this night, as the coming days would be long.

Horseback riding along Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Horseback riding along Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

I had a couple days left of my trip as my flight was April 9th out of Guatemala City.  I really wanted to climb Volcano Acetenango near Antigua, such that I could see Volcano Fuego erupting next to it. Rodrigo was originally going to hike it with me but due to some work constraints he was unable to.  However, he set me up with a guide who lives at the base of Acetenango such that I could climb it.

I booked a van from San Pedro to Antigua for the morning, around 8am. After leaving San Pedro, the van drove to San Marcos and Santa Clara to pickup others before heading away from lake and to Antigua. Remember that road I briefly mentioned that we took on the way in that was broken? On the way out, we took the same road, this time during the daylight.  The road was beatup real bad, probably a combination of the water that runs across it, the amount of vehicles that drive on it, and the amount of large trucks that are probably too heavy for it.  In the west it would be shocking to even use such a road for a major tourist path, and it is even more surprising that someone doesn’t fix it. It is literally a 10km road with huge potholes everywhere which makes the trip take 3 times as long.

When we finally got to the main road and to the highway, the trip was much more pleasant.  To get to Antigua it took just a few hours, though we stopped for lunch along the highway near a gift shop.  When I got to Antigua, I went back to the hostel I stayed at before and told them I’d like to get a bed, but that I’d be checking out at 11pm and not staying the night.  He said that I could stay for free using the couches upstairs if I wanted and there was no need to buy a bed or a room (plus checkin/checkout closed at 10pm).  So I literally went upstairs to the area where there is a bar and many couches, and crashed on the couch for a few hours.  In the later afternoon they put on music and people started showing up so I then just went downstairs and got on my laptop.

In Antigua before climbing Acatenango. Here you see one volcano close to the city.

In Antigua before climbing Acatenango. Here you see one volcano close to the city.

Around 10pm Rodrigo came and picked me up to drive me to Acetenango.  He was going to lend me some jackets and gloves, but had spaced bringing them.  So after picking me up, we drove to his friends house in Antigua and she let me borrow some gloves, hats, and jackets, and then joined us for the drive to Acetenango.  It took around 30 minutes to get there.  Without Rodrigo driving, it would have been nearly impossible to climb at this time since no tours run nor is the road well traveled at this time of the night.

Once we got to the base, I repacked my bags and left most of my stuff in his car, changed into pants and a jacket, and then met with one of the guides that Rodrigo knew.  Basically there is a family that lives right at the trailhead who has been guiding hikes up Acetenango for like 30 years.  The father is probably 85 by now and still climbs, and he has a couple sons who help.  The father opened up a room at his house and told me to nap for an hour and at midnight his son would hike with me.

So I passed out for an hour, and at midnight on the dot me and one of the sons started hiking.  It was close to a full moon on a still night.  The first hour of the hike was pretty intense, as it was quite a steep hike.  The guide I was with had climbed this volcano 100 times at least, so he was moving up it without a problem.  I kept up with him most of the way.  We stopped every 40 minutes or so to drink and eat.  About 3 hours in we got high enough where it started to get cold.

About 30 minutes from the top is a big flat area where people camp.  Most tours are 2 days, where you hike to that area, camp, and the next morning you wake before sunrise to go to the top and hopefully see Fuego erupting next to it.  We got to the top around 4:30am or so, which was much faster pace than normal.  It was very foggy, super windy, and quite cold.  We went along the top and found a few rocks to sit by on the side that was facing Fuego.  You could hear it making noise, but couldn’t see anything for about an hour.

Volcano Fuego erupting through the clouds

Volcano Fuego erupting through the clouds

As the sun came up, the clouds started to clear and we saw other people at the top walking around.  Unfortunately, luck would have it that today it was super cloudy and almost impossible to see the eruption, though for a small 5 second period I did see it erupting.  I was told that on some days it is crystal clear and the view is just stunning.  After spending maybe 10 minutes more up there, we started booking it down as the guide was quite cold and he knew the view wouldn’t be great this day.  Because we were moving so fast down, within 20 minutes we were in an entirely different environment with clear views, much warmer air, and a much more relaxed atmosphere.

It took us around 2 hours to get down, as the guide was moving real quick, almost jogging the entire way.  We only stopped once or twice, mainly to take off jackets while the temperature heated up.  About 30 minutes before we got back to his house (where we started), he got a phone call notifying him that in the evening he would have to guide a group of 10 tourists up the mountain again. It really puts these sorts of things into perspective.

Once we got back to his house, he offered me in and gave me some hot chocolate. There were baby chicks running all over the floor, and his mother and brother were there as well drinking with us.  I waited about 30 minutes for the bus to come by, and when it did, I told them thanks and headed on my way.  I was originally going to catch a bus 3 hours later, but since we got back to early I was able to catch this one, which was around 8am if I remember correctly.

Leaving the guide's house after climbing all night

Leaving the guide’s house after climbing all night

The bus was quite beatup, as was the road.  It is a common occurrence in these sorts of countries where they take a massive bus made for paved highways and they take off road daily.  It makes for a bumpy and not so pleasant experience, but it gets the job done.  Around an hour later I arrived in Antigua. Rodrigo told me to text him when I got there and he would give me instructions on how to get to his place in Guatemala City, as he was currently at work.  From the bus station in Antigua, I walked about 15 minutes to the central park where I knew of a coffee shop that had wifi.

I talked to Rodrigo about what buses to take – note at this point I had zero sleep aside from the 1 hour nap prior to the hike. I boarded the bus to Guatemala City and was supposed to get off next to a big Walmart and take a taxi from there to Rodrigo’s work office.  However, next thing I know I wake up and the bus is pulling into an old bus garage and I’m the only one on the bus.  I tell the driver that I meant to get off at Walmart, and he points to another bus and tells me to get on it as it is going back that direction. So I grab my bags and hop on that one, trying quite hard to not fall asleep.

About 25 minutes later, I arrive at the big Walmart and thank them for their help.  I grab the first taxi I can find and tell him the location of the office I need to go to.  He literally drives back near the garage where I caught the second bus, and then to Rodrigo’s office.  I arrive there, in a dirty, tired condition and meet Rodrigo.  He kindly drives me back to his place so I can sleep.  It is around noon by this point.

I sleep for about 6 hours until Rodrigo and Natalia get home, and then we head out for a nice Guatemalan dinner for my last night.  It was quite enjoyable, and great to get to hangout and chat with both of them.  They were incredibly helpful and kind and made my trip in Guatemala much much better.

View of Acatenango from Rodrigo's house in Guatemala City, also overlooking the airport the morning I leave

View of Acatenango from Rodrigo’s house in Guatemala City, also overlooking the airport the morning I leave

Rodrigo left early the next morning. About an hour later, as I was getting ready, Natalia points out the window at the airport (which is quite close and you can see planes landing and taking off) and says “that’s Rodrigo”, and a tiny single engine plane is taking off.  Apparently he was flying out to the countryside to take care of some work for the day.  Natalia drove me to the airport shortly after, and I was on my way.  I had a layover in Florida, but was back into Colorado that evening.

It was an odd feeling once again being back in the US after a couple months away. You recognize a lot of subtle things you didn’t notice before, like what is on the media, what people pay attention to, etc. It was good to be back and see family, and it was especially exciting as my oldest brother would be getting married soon, and shortly after I’d be heading back over to Asia.

Central America was beyond any expectation I had, and it just reinforces my belief that you really don’t know how good or bad a place will be until you experience it.  For the most part, everything was amazing.  It isn’t a large portion of the world, but has some much to explore.  I’d love to do that trip again with a car, a few friends, and more Spanish.  Rodrigo and Natalia invited me on a trip with them in a couple years where they plan to drive to Guatemala down to Argentina, all the way through South America.  I’m hoping to join them on at least some of the trip too, and hopefully I’ll have other experiences there before then.

I’m excited to explore more of that part of the world in the near future, hopefully as early as next year.