The travel in Central America never ceases to amaze me. It doesn’t matter if I am traveling to a town in the same country or traveling to a country three borders away, the travel time will no doubt take a minimum of eight hours. There are many ways to travel throughout Central America…None of them will be quick or easy.
Mexico seemed to have the most organized travel out of the five countries I visited in the last six months. In Mexico I could walk up to the ADO bus station look at departure times and purchase my ticket. These buses were usually on time and were always direct. The other option in Mexico was the Collectivo. Collectivo’s are how locals get around and are significantly cheaper. The Collectivo “bus station” is a section of the street where these mini micro buses pull over and you find one headed in the direction you are going. It is a little more difficult to travel far in the collectivo’s when having bags as there is not much space in them. The ADO buses are proper buses and have space underneath for baggage. We had planned on taking the bus the next morning from Tulum, Mexico to Belize City, Belize. However when I went to the bus station the night before to purchase tickets I saw that they had a bus leaving at eleven p.m. for Belize City. We bought tickets and ran back to the hotel to pack. Crossed the border at five a.m. and arrived in Belize City around eight. That was a nice nine-hour bus ride.
In Belize I headed straight for Caye Caulker so being on an island I did not need anymore transportation than my Chevrolegs I brought with me. The water taxi was fairly quick it only took forty-five minutes. It was easy to book travel here as well. I used a travel agent and paid a little more than I should have but it was still only thirty dollars to get from Belize to Guatemala. The bus was small and had no air conditioning but it served its purpose and I made it safely.
The travel in Guatemala is by far the most fun of any country. There are essentially three options pay high gringo prices for a direct micro bus or a proper greyhound type bus, or travel with the locals via chicken bus. The micro buses are nice for a few reasons you are guaranteed a seat, they are a direct route, and most of the time will drop you off at your hotel. The downside to these buses is the cost. They can run anywhere from thirty dollars up to seventy dollars one way. The chicken buses are in my personal opinion the way to travel.
A chicken bus is an old bluebird school bus that they have transformed into a fusion of art and transportation. These old school buses are chromed out and painted with exotic art to stand out from the others. The chicken bus station is a place of organized chaos. Buses are everywhere and being a gringo I am immediately surrounded by men asking where I am going. Sometimes I tell them and other times I wander around until I find the bus I want. The stations are typically located next to an open air market where I can purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and of course fried chicken for the ride. The buses have two people working on them one is the driver and that’s all he does is drive. The other guy is working his ass off. He is climbing up on top of the bus tying down bags and throwing bags off before the bus even stops. The same guy is climbing over people collecting money. He has to remember every face and who has paid and hasn’t paid. I know your thinking big deal a bus doesn’t hold that many people. Think again! Normally there are two people in each seat but not in Guatemala those seats normally hold three and sometimes four! The chicken buses are extremely cheap, a ride in a micro bus that would cost fifty dollars cost around five dollars with the local transport.
If you would prefer to travel in comfort you can find a bus station in the bigger cities and book on one of the big travel buses. These buses usually have air conditioning and sometimes are playing movies. Now that does depend on the bus and the company. Some of the buses will over sell their tickets on a non air-conditioned bus. I had both happen to me. One was extremely enjoyable the other I had to sit in the aisle on a four-hour bus ride. Needless to say I wasn’t super stoked about that.
I left Guatemala for Costa Rica by plane. Traveling by plane is similar to everywhere else not much different. The one major difference is the price. Where most other travel is relatively cheap travel by jet is rather expensive. It’s important to shop around when looking for flights here. Also keep in mind that most of the airlines do not have deals with the online booking agents so contacting them directly is usually what gets you the best price. Once arriving in Costa Rica I was in shock at the price differences. Costa Rica is expensive. It cost me twenty dollars to get from the airport to the bus station. The bus was relatively cheap around ten dollars for a two-hour ride.
Leaving Costa Rica headed back to Honduras was the same bus route back to the airport but then had to fly to El Salvador and then to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. From San Pedro I caught another flight to the island of Roatan.
One thing I have learned is that travel here will ALWAYS be a day long adventure. You will no doubt run into cancelled buses, changed routes, overcrowded benches, babies puking, and lots of body odor. So pack a lunch grab your camera and take a chill pill cause it is going to be a long day. It may sound strange but I enjoy how it is not an easy task to get somewhere. It’s all of the hiccups and strange customs that make the travel memorable. Whether I am hanging out the door of an old school bus going forty miles an hour down a road in Guatemala, sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned bus watching The Punisher, or laying in the aisle cause there are no seats left I find that it is the adventure I remember, not how much of a pain in the ass it was. I appreciate the small things. Travel in Central America can be cheap or expensive but no matter how much you pay you are guaranteed an experience you will never forget.
Tikal is about an hour bus ride from El Remate. Like most of the mayan ruins you can hire a tour guide or go about it on your own. One of the options for having a tour guide was the sunrise tour. The bus picks you up at three thirty in the morning and you hike to temple four and watch the sunrise from above the canopy. Sounds pretty amazing but sleep was more enticing after the long bus ride the day before. The Canadian girls who checked in the same time as us opted to take the sunrise tour and I was eager to hear about how it went. We scheduled a ride for ten o’clock.
Camera batteries charged and water bottles filled we crammed into the already full micro bus headed for Tikal. Being the only gringos aboard was nothing new but it was a little awkward when we had to stop and pay our twenty-dollar entrance fee. The locals waited patiently as we fumbled around mixing and matching our quetzals (come to find out they do not take U.S. dollars) luckily we had enough of the local currency to pay our way through. There is no grand entrance like at Coba or Chichen Itza. The bus dropped us off in a little round about area and we started our trek into the jungle.
We didn’t make it far before coming across a massive Ceiba tree that towers two hundred and thirty feet over head! The Mayans believed that these trees held up the sky. After gawking for quite some time we made our way up the trail. We came to a map of the area as well as a fork in the trail. We took a right and headed for the plaza area. Not knowing we would run into a few temples along the way. As we came up on the plaza it was hard to tell how large it really was. I climbed up the stairs leading up a large structure, wound my way through the ancient stone and BAM there it was, the Grand Plaza in all its glory! Temple one to my left, temple two on the right, and the North Acropolis straight across the plaza.
Standing inside The Grand Plaza, looking around and up at the massive temple gives me an eerie feeling. Like someone or something is watching, just waiting to unveil itself. As I leave the plaza to head up another trail towards temple four I look up. There are two spider monkeys in the trees. Of course, a hoard of tourist is snapping a million photos. As I start back into the jungle I can hear what sounds like a recording of some crazy animal. I am convinced the park has speakers and are playing odd sounds for us so that our tour seems more authentic. Come to find out it was no recording. The sound was that of the Howler monkey. Supposedly the loudest land animal in the world. Had I not heard this terrifying screech myself I would probably not believe that statement, however, I have heard it, and I do believe it is true. The sound is hard to describe in words so I encourage you to make your own trip into the jungle to hear the monkeys mockery.
Temple four is massive. It rises up through the canopy and looms over all of Tikal. From the top I can see three other temples down below. The view is stunning and I can’t imagine what it would have been like at sunrise. As we head down the rickety stairway we run into the two Canadians who did the sunrise tour. Well, turns out they actually did NOT do the tour! They explain that they were waiting for the bus outside the hotel at three am…then four am… then around five they said screw it and went back to sleep! They were not particularly happy about this but they were still enjoying themselves nonetheless. WHEW, glad I didn’t book that tour!
The ruins of Tikal are supernatural and I can’t begin to explain the energy I felt there. The vastness of the grounds is astonishing and the sheer size of the temples is mind-blowing. I spent four hours wandering the trails of Tikal and could have spent another two. I am glad I did not hire a tour guide. From what I can tell when you have a tour guide it seems rather rushed, I would prefer to take my time and stop where I want. Having a book on the subject or doing some light reading previous to your own tour will provide just as much knowledge as any “multi-lingual” tour guide.
Standing on the side of the road with our bag of chicken we start to look around for a sign to Finca El Paraíso (the hot springs). There is no sign anywhere but I do remember being told there is a tiny restaurant at the entrance so we walk up a small dirt road towards an old building. There is a man sitting on the edge of the stone wall and he sells us tickets to enter the park. It has been overcast and raining all morning so as we walk down the trail we are dodging mud and puddles everywhere we step. Halfway down the trail we encounter a family of pigs. A few adults and five little piglets! Super cute but they aren’t too sure about us and scamper off. It’s about a fifteen minute walk until we reach our destination.
The trail comes to an end and where you would expect there to be someone to take our tickets there is only a steep staircase made of logs dropping down into the jungle. Carefully navigating down the staircase I can start to see the waterfall. A hidden gem. Finca El Paraíso is all natural with only a few locals swimming in the pool under the waterfall. Steam rises up out of the pools and drifts away in the breeze.
We find a spot to set down our bags, take off our clothes (most of them anyway), and then find our way to the water’s edge. The water is a tad warmer than bath water when I first get in but the closer I get to the falls the warmer the water gets. I’m floating in the water looking up at the waterfall with the jungle canopy looming overhead. It’s like something out of a movie. I feel completely relaxed. I can’t count how many times over the past months I have felt this way. The one reoccurring thought I have during times like these is where would I be had I not gotten sober, surely not here.
Underneath the waterfall the rocks open up and there is a small space to poke your head up. Floating underneath the rocks and inside the waterfall there is a young boy. Adventurous and fearless as we once all were this little boy leads us farther back into the darkness and shows us a small passageway to another pool. The passageway is maybe two feet by two feet and half full of water. I start to squirm through the hole and my claustrophobia sky rockets. I want to back out but instead I take a few deep breaths and push on. I make it through to the other-side and am surrounded by falling water everywhere. The pool is deep with a few boulders under the surface to stand on. I do a three sixty spin of the pool and hot water rains down on me from every direction. Come to find out I could have gotten here from the main pool but where’s the fun in that? I slide out back to the main pool and tell everyone they have to try it!
There is a path to the right of the waterfall leading to the top. It’s caked with mud and is extremely slippery. As I’m making my way to the top I am overtaken by the horrid smell of bat guano. I see a small cave to my right and can hear what sounds like a thousand bats inside. I quickly get past this part and move to the top. At the top of the waterfall there is a small stream coming out of the brush and a trail leading into the woods. I heard there is healing mud here and I am on a mission to find it. I start-up the trail not knowing where it will lead. I’m barefoot and the trail is spattered with slippery rocks. After a few minutes the trail splits in three directions. Go straight? Maybe left? How about right? I decide to go left first. It doesn’t seem like the trail is leading me anywhere until suddenly it opens up to cleared flat area overlooking another stream. Not what I was looking for but pretty nonetheless.
Turning around I make my way back to the split and decide to go right (the way I was originally headed). It doesn’t take long until I find what I’m looking for. I can see that this is where the hot springs break through the ground. The mud I’m looking for is in two different spots, both are surrounded by scolding hot water. There is a makeshift bridge of two logs sunk in the water with the tops of the logs barely above the surface. I start my balancing act across the “bridge”. Reaching the middle of the first log I realize the second is completely submerged, so in one quick movement I hop to a rock on the right and then over to the shore. The mud is still farther back in the spring so I make my way over the tops of rocks and find a place to put my feet. Hunched over applying mud all over my body I feel like a kid from Lord of the Flies. I make my way back to the shore and assess my return to the trail. I can’t hop on the same rock and onto the log because the log is too unstable. I take my chances anyway. My foot plunges into the water and I let out a roar as I clamber to dry land. A hot spring indeed. Now fully caked in “healing mud” I make my way back to the waterfall.
I climb back down the slippery trail past the stinky bats and slide into the pool. A plume of brown surrounds me as the mud washes away. I scrub myself clean and feel my silky smooth skin. I don’t know if its smooth because the mud helped or because the mud was greasy and I will probably never know but I am loving every second of it!
Hearing the pitter patter of raindrops outside is one of the most pleasant ways to come back to reality. I lay in bed and just listen with my eyes shut for the next ten minutes. Hearing the different sounds the drops make as they fall on the tin roof overhead, the leaves taking a beating outside my window, the steady stream of water running off the roof hitting the deck, and the plop plop sound as the river takes on more water. There are no dogs, no roosters, and only the occasional chirp from a bird. Pure bliss. All I slept with was a sheet and now I am rather chilly so I pull the blanket over me and hunker down to enjoy the song of nature.
The nature jam session comes to a close and I head downstairs for a morning cup of joe. First an espresso and then I switch to regular coffee. Due to the rain this morning we are all a bit slow about getting around. We get the low down on the local hot springs and start to plan our day. We were told its best to take some lunch with us. The couple we met the night before comes in for coffee and we start to plan our day.
We pile in the boat, Luis pulls out of the dock, and we head to town. We stop and buy some mango in a bag (the local snack and quite delicious to boot). The supermercado is on our way to the “bus station” so we pop in and wander around contemplating on what to eat for lunch. We ultimately decide to buy a whole chicken (already cooked), some bread, mustard, cheese and a few apples. We are all set so we walk down the street dodging cars and people alike.
As we approach the micro buses we are immediately offered a ride. We follow the man over to his bus and take a look inside. There are already twelve people packed inside like sardines. We all have a pretty good laugh about it and respectfully decline the ride telling him we will wait for the next. He insist that four more people is no problem at all! We decline again. He then proceeds to tell us who knows when the next bus will be it could be hours. I wonder if he is a part-time comedian because I can clearly see three other buses. Finally after he finds a few more willing people he climbs in the driver’s seat and pulls out towards his destination. He has been gone for all of two seconds when the bus parked in front of his backs up and offers us a ride. Hours he said it could be HOURS! He wasn’t even out of sight and we were already in an empty bus waiting for others to cram into the uncomfortable positions we were offered.
It was about a forty-five minute drive maybe a little longer but there was never a dull moment. It was still drizzling outside but as you know a drizzle while driving constitutes the use of windshield wipers. I’ll explain this man’s windshield wipers. Yes it was a real wiper blade. However this was a special blade. The mechanics had clearly broken and so he had rigged it up himself. So, there is a rubber band attached to the blade which is also attached below the windshield. Also attached to the blade is a piece of string running up to the roof and into the drivers window. Pull the string, release and voilà! The windshield has been wiped! This provided for some entertainment along the way. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself every time he reached his arm upwards for the string.
Every time the bus slowed down to let people off I wondered if it was our stop. When it was finally our stop I was a little leery to get out. Our drop off point was essentially on the side of the highway with no clear signs pointing anywhere. Had it been another road I might not have been so worried. I did forget to mention that this is the most dangerous stretch of road in Guatemala. There are numerous robberies and just a few weeks prior there had been a hold up of a tour bus. The tour bus passed a police check point and then a few miles up the road they were robbed of all their belongings.