WHERE I WENT & HOW I GOT THERE

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FEATURED - SJDS Sunday Funday


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Why I’m Not Going to “Sunday Funday” in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

Yes, I’m in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua on a Sunday.  And no, I’m not going to attend “Sunday Funday”.  What’s not to love, and why am I not going?  Happy to share.  But first…

WHAT IS SUNDAY FUNDAY?
San Juan Del Sur’s “Sunday Funday” is a full day of binge drinking, splashing about in hostel pools with other backpackers in various states of undress, drunken dancing to DJs, and forgotten walks home.  Sort of a Central American answer to Thai “Full Moon Parties”.

I’ve been told it’s a very fraternity party-like celebration largely populated with a party crowd in their early twenties.

It takes place on SUNDAYS.  Surprise.

SOUNDS GREAT!  WHY DON’T YOU WANT TO GO?
Yeah, it sounds fun, but it’s too expensive and too time consuming versus the other unique opportunities for great activities I’m provided in not only southeastern Nicaragua, but the rest of Central America.

Remember:  smart budget travel is about allocating your available money and time effectively for the greatest enjoyment and value, and the ability to understand what’s worth it and what’s not – in other words, critical comparative reasoning in regards to activities, lodging, transport, everything.  When I consider the costs and time allowances required to go play at Sunday Funday, it fails the test, at least to me.

Here’s why:

#1.  THE PRICE OF ADMISSION TO SUNDAY FUNDAY IS FAR TOO HIGH FOR BUDGET TRAVELERS TO JUSTIFY.

The promoters of this event seem awfully greedy to me.  Admission to Sunday Funday, which is a 3-hostel “pool crawl”, is $30 US, which includes:

  • Admission to three San Juan Del Sur hostels that have pools, and transport between them
  • A total of zero included/free drinks
  • Extremely ugly, but free tank top (call it a “vest” or a “singlet” as you like)

Note:  your ticket price is halved to $15 US if you choose to stay at one of the participating “Sunday Funday” hostels in San Juan Del Sur (Pelican Eyes, Naked Tiger, PachaMama), but that means staying at a party hostel on it’s biggest party day of the week!  Not worth it to me.  Also – if you plan to take advantage of this savings, book your hostel bed at least a few days prior – PachaMama, for example, reached capacity prior to Sunday when I was in San Juan.

$30 US admission for a pool party is an incongruously high cost that’s out of sync with nearly every other activity I’ve done in over five months in Central America.

Amazing activities in Central America are largely inexpensive by comparison.  For example:

  • $15 US:  transport and surfboard rental for a full day of surfing on Playa Maderas, near San Juan Del Sur.
  • $23-30 US:  Sea turtle tour in San Juan Del Sur.  People were seeing THOUSANDS of sea turtles on the beach at the time I was in SJDS.
  • $25-30 US:  Motorbike rental ($20-25 for rental, $5 for fuel) for a full day of zipping around the dual volcanoes of Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua.
  • $25-30 US:  Volcano boarding Volcán Cerro Negro in León, Nicaragua.
  • $45 US:  Canopy tour (ziplining) in Monteverde, in Costa Rica.
  • $50-60 US:  two-tank scuba dive in the Corn Islands, Nicaragua or in Utila, Honduras (meaning $25-30 each tank).

Super-low budget:  I also climbed a Guatemalan volcano for $0.50 US through independent means!

Again, drinks are NOT included in Sunday Funday admission – it’s a safe bet that during a 12-hour day of drinking that you’ll put away at least 12 drinks, and buy a number of beers for friends as well – so let’s just call that an estimated $30 additional.

So… your estimated total for a day of drinking is now $60 US (or $45 if you stay at a participating hostel).  Do you still feel like you’re in Central America at that price?  I don’t.

#2.  SUNDAY FUNDAY IS A POOR USE OF MY REMAINING BUDGETED TRAVEL DAYS.

Drinking and partying at Sunday Funday means a full day of boozing on Sunday, and likely a full day of crippling hangover the next day (a 1.5 to two-day time commitment with the way my hangovers go).  This would all be fine and well if San Juan Del Sur was located in a boring, ugly area, but it’s not – it’s on Nicaragua’s gorgeous Pacific Coast where there’s much to do and much to see.  I can do a lot with two days here!

A time-budgeting exercise:  let’s say you’re on a relatively short, three week trip in Nicaragua:  attending Sunday Funday probably means you’ve just used up almost a tenth of your trip on an expensive pool party.

On the flip side, let’s say you’re traveling for a full year:  Yeah, you could allocate the days, but can you allocate the cash?  Most one-year-plus travelers that I know are budgeted for $30-50 US per day – so that doesn’t fit either, especially once you consider additional food and lodging costs for the day.

At the time of writing, I had three weeks left in my 6.5 month Central America trip and wanted to use my days as effectively as possible for the greatest level of enjoyment.

#3.  I DON’T WANT THE UGLY, POORLY DESIGNED “SUNDAY FUNDAY” TANK TOP.

It’s ugly, ugly, ugly.  The tramp stamp of Central American freebie shirts.  I don’t want it, and I don’t want to carry it in my already heavy backpack.

I’ll get a picture of said tank top up shortly.

#4.  I ADMIT IT, I’M TOO OLD FOR THIS SHIT.

I’m 34 years old and binge drinking isn’t new, novel nor cute to me.  I also met people of 18 years that felt “too old for this shit” too, though.

Field report:  a 41-year-old friend attended Sunday Funday and was faced by a young bro that told him “I love to meet old people travelling, no I really mean it.”  How inclusionary!

Ok, the meat of it:  I don’t want to sound like an old codger, but the thing is, bouncing around to now-ancient LMFAO and Black Eyed Peas songs (which were never good in the first place) and screaming “woo” (or listening to screams of “woo”) just isn’t a good time to me, and never really has been.  I haven’t just recently discovered alcohol and I don’t need to be present when others do.

#5.  WANT TO HAVE A DRINK?  THERE ARE NO SHORTAGE OF OTHER BARS AND PARTIES IN SAN JUAN DEL SUR.

SJDS is a tourist-oriented party town.  Drinks are everywhere, as are surfer babes/dudes with tans and defined abs.  You don’t really need to pay admission to access either of the two.

#6.  THIS IS “BEING A TOURIST” AT IT’S ABSOLUTE WORST.

Sunday Funday represents trashy drunken backpacker culture to the max.  Yes, I like to let loose from time to time, but I don’t relish getting glared at by middle aged Nicaragüense women that have to deal with pukey shouting half-naked backpackers that piss in their gardens every god damn week.  It’s embarrassing.

More:  I’ve long rolled my eyes at extremes and excess of backpacker party cultures in otherwise poor and/or developing countries, in places like Vang Vieng (Laos) and San Pedro La Laguna (Guatemala) where the party culture stands in stark contrast to the culture/customs of the local community, or worse, has more or less obliterated it.  It’s a truly insidious thing.

Given, San Juan Del Sur seems a little more at home with its tourist culture (and will happily take your tourist dollars – it’s one of the most expensive places I’ve been in Nicaragua!), but that doesn’t make it ok to act like your party life exists in a bubble and doesn’t influence local communities and economies.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Central America trying to learn Spanish, learn about the culture, make friends and make a good impression.  Why screw that up now?

#7.  IT WAS HARD TO GET MY TRAVEL BUDDIES INTERESTED IN SUNDAY FUNDAY FOR THE EXACT SAME REASONS.

Anything can be fun with a good group of friends – and frankly, if good buddies wanted to shell out the cash (and time) for Sunday Funday, I probably would have gone along, because PARTIES ARE OFTEN FUN (wow!).  But the vast majority of the people I befriended along the way in Central America just didn’t want to go, primarily due to the cost of the event and the idea of blowing two days of valuable travel time on something that just seemed completely overhyped.

Numerous other travel blogs have referred to Sunday Funday as a “bucket list” (I hate this term) item, which is not only patently incorrect, but poor, hackneyed writing.  It’s just an overpriced drunken pool party, people.  That’s the way so many of my travel buddies felt, and I do too.

IN CONCLUSION:
I’m going to surf Nicaragua’s beautiful Pacific Coast for two days instead of getting drunk at Sunday Funday, all for the same cost as I would have spent for Sunday Funday admission alone.

I can get drunk anywhere in the world.

I can’t surf world-class waves anywhere in the world.

Goodbye, I’m going to go surfing now.

IF YOU WERE LOOKING FOR MORE OF A “TRIP REPORT” ON SUNDAY FUNDAY, LINK THROUGH TO THESE BLOGS:

Note:  prices of Sunday Funday admission are already out of date on some of these links as of November 2014, and times/places may be out of date by the time you read this as well.

POSTSCRIPT:

By the way, I hate saying, typing, and hearing the phrase “Sunday Funday”.  It’s a horrible name, just HORRIBLE.

FEATURED - DDLM Matagalpa


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Day of the Dead: Matagalpa, Nicaragua

Is Dia de los Muertos celebrated in Nicaragua?  Yeah, but if you’re expecting sugar skulls and catrina-style skeleton face paint, you’ve come to the wrong place.  This ain’t Mexico.  It’s Nicaragua, and Nicaragüenses celebrate a bit differently.

In 2012 (two years prior to my visit to Nicaragua), I witnessed the celebration of Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico – a joyful, raucous affair observed on November 1st and 2nd, complete with brass band after brass band and dancers circling on the streets, plenty of mezcal for those that cared to imbibe, sand paintings (tapetes) and decorated altars (altars) dedicated to those that had passed on, markets full of colorful flowers, pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and other food items to be left for the dead, and multiple visits to the cemetery where graves had been adorned with offerings, and where families often stayed late into the night eating, drinking, talking and singing around the graves.  Add a healthy dose of modern Halloween costumes and associated revelry, and you’re there.  It’s quite an affair, and it’s a ton of fun.

Out in the street for Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca.  2012.

Out in the street for Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca. 2012.

Mexican DDLM is well-known and well-documented.  But Nicaraguan Dia de los Muertos hasn’t received anywhere near as much attention on the internet and in travel guidebooks (in fact, information is pretty minimal!).  Curious to know more, I started inquiring to locals and other travelers – where was the best place to witness/celebrate DDLM in Nicaragua?  I was rewarded with more shrugs than tips.  Locals seemed somewhat confused in why I would be interested at all, and most travelers really couldn’t help me.  Hmm.  From what I was gathering, there just wasn’t that much going on anywhere – or at least nothing like what I had seen in Mexico.  And that’s fine and understandable – the holiday has Mexican origins, after all.

Still, there had to be SOMETHING going on, right?  I was going to at least try to find out.  Since I couldn’t find convincing evidence that one city would be better than another for DDLM, I didn’t change my itinerary, and found myself in the northern city of Matagalpa.

a mural of political heroes in Matagalpa.

a mural of political heroes in Matagalpa.

On November 2nd, 2014, I made a visit to the city cemetery in Matagalpa.  The front desk of my hostel seemed confused when I asked how to best get there.  “The cemetery will be really busy right now”, they told me, strangely attempting to dissuade me from going for some reason.  Other travelers from the hostel opted out of joining me for my cemetery visit, citing rationale that they believed this wasn’t something to go look at – they thought it was more of a personal/familial day, not for their eyes.

Naturally, I wasn’t hearing any of it, and went anyway, taking a taxi to the cemetery entrance.  As expected, DDLM in Matagalpa was by no means off-limits and was quite a friendly and accessible place to be.

Vendors were selling flowers at the gates.  Families were repainting/maintaining graves, arranging and planting flowers around each unique grave.  People were smiling, enjoying their Sunday with their loved ones.  Kids were running around playing games amongst the graves.   Dress was casual.  There was all kinds of food available for sale in the cemetery.

I wandered freely and photographed as I wished.  Below are some of the results of a couple of hours of meandering.

Passing time with the passed.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

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Dia de los Muertos bros.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

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Dia De Los Muertos cemetary maintenance crew.  Matagalpa, Nicara

A relatively simple, but pleasant celebration method, no?

My expectation is that Dia de los Muertos is quite similar in other cities in Nicaragua – not a party by any means, but a reason for family to get together, pay respects to the dead, and take care of some grave maintenance in the meantime.

Have you celebrated/witnessed Dia de los Muertos in Nicaragua?  Relate your story or your favorite city to visit for the goings-on below in comments and we’ll try to build up a little more information on the topic to share with others.  Thanks!

FEATURED - How To Choose A Dive Shop


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TRAVEL TIPS: How To Choose a Dive Shop

I love scuba diving, but every time I go scuba diving in a new place – either for an increased level of diving certification or simply for fun dives, I have to go through the same tedious routine of picking a dive shop/resort with which to dive.

It’s a time-consuming pain in the ass, but it’s worth the effort every single time – because when you pick right, you not only increase your chances of staying safe, but also your overall level of enjoyment while diving.

My priorities for picking a dive shop in an unfamiliar place:

  • SAFE DIVING above all else.  Priority number one!
  • Diving with skilled (and fun) divemasters/instructors that know and love the area well
  • Access to the best dive sites in the area
  • Good/fair prices
  • Potential free and/or discounted lodgings

My process and decision structure for picking a dive shop is below, in FOUR EASY STEPS!

As for me:  I’m a certified PADI Rescue Diver and have diving experience in Thailand, India, Belize and Honduras.

Koh Tao, Thailand.

Koh Tao, Thailand.

Step #1:  Research area dive shops prior to arrival at your diving destination.

If you’ve got friends that have visited the place in which you plan to dive, ask them if they had a good or bad experience there with their dive operator.  Note the names of the shops, and follow up on sites like Tripadvisor for positive and negative reviews from other divers.

Now, pick a few favorites from what you’ve learned.  I usually start with the negative side of things in order to eliminate less reputable dive shops.  Any diver’s first concern should be the safety record of a given dive shop – so if divers didn’t feel safe with their dive operator, you’ll hear about it in their reviews, generally to the tune of the below:

  • Poor maintenance of dive equipment and boats, and/or notable equipment failures
  • Overcrowded boats
  • Willingness to take divers beyond the depth limits for which they are certified (as in, taking an Open Water diver beyond 18m depth), or on specialty dives (wreck, night, nitrox, etc) for which divers are not qualified
  • Impersonal service and lack of attention to diver complaints about the above

Safety violations like these are a huge black eye for any dive shop and a reason to possibly eliminate them from my list of possible dive operators to work with.  Another bad sign is if dive shops in question allow divers to touch corals and wildlife while diving.  This generally means they’re not a particularly careful organization.

Once you have a few favorite dive shops picked out, check their websites for pricing and start e-mail or phone conversations to make sure their prices and terms are clear and current (often times websites are out of date) and that they respond to potential clients well.

Make a list of three to four favorite dive shops based on this process of elimination (or maybe less – sometimes there’s only one or two shops at your intended destination).

I do all of Step #1 before traveling to the diving location.

Divers resurface in Utila, Honduras.

Divers resurface in Utila, Honduras.

Step #2:  Upon arrival on location, visit your preferred dive shops in person.

I recommend a solid multi-hour scout of dive shops once you arrive on location.  At minimum, visit three of your now-preferred dive shops to talk to the owners/instructors and to ask a bunch of questions, like these:

What is the TOTAL COST of diving with a given dive shop?

Every dive shop seems to do their price breakouts a little different, so make sure you understand all costs before you sign on with anyone.  Questions to ask:

  • Are all taxes included in listed costs of certification courses and/or fun dives?
  • Does diving in said area incur reef fees?  Are they included in listed costs, or are they additional?
  • Is all equipment (regulator, BCD, booties & fins, wetsuit, mask, snorkel, tank itself) included in listed costs?
  • Is there a discount for using your own equipment?
  • Anything else we haven’t talked about?

Have the person in the office write out an EXACT price of your certification course or fun dive package given your scenario.  No surprises this way!

How many dive boats does the dive shop have, and how many do they send out each day?

Some dive shops only send out one boat a day.  Others send out multiple boats in the morning and afternoon (and sometimes for night dives as well).  Greater frequency of boat departures provides greater flexibility to you as a diver, and can help expose you to a greater variety of dive sites.  It isn’t critical that a dive shop have multiple boats, but it can be nice.

Does the dive shop have the ability to segregate advanced divers from beginners?

If you’re a beginning diver, this won’t matter much to you.  But if you’re an Advanced Open Water Diver or at a higher level still, you may want to visit deeper and/or specialized dive sites that the beginners won’t be able to access.  Separate boats means more flexibility, and potentially more enjoyment.

What dive sites will you be visiting in the coming days?

Most dive shops have a whiteboard calendar with listed/projected dive sites and an area for divers to sign up for dive boats.  Ask to see the board and make note of what dive sites they’ll be visiting, and how frequently (a cellphone photo works well for this).  If the dive shop doesn’t have listed boats for the next few days out, ask why.  It could be a weather concern, or equipment problems – or even just a clerical oversight.

How many other divers are currently diving with the shop, and are they completing certification courses, or doing fun dives?

If there are few other client divers at your dive shop, the dive shop will be less willing to send boats out – after all, fuel is expensive.  On the other hand, if there are TOO MANY people at your dive shop, it may be harder to secure your place on a given dive boat if boats are small or limited to one per day.

Also – if everyone at a certain dive shop is a student completing a certification course, said shop might not be a great place for you as a fun diver, as the shop will likely send their boat to known sites that are good for teaching and skill acquisition instead of those known for interest, beauty and wildlife alone.

I prefer to dive with shops that have a moderate level of activity, and a mix of fun divers and students.

Can I see the dive equipment you use as well as the boat(s)?

While scuba equipment will look a bit alien to a beginning diver, it’s still worth eyeballing it.  If they won’t show you the equipment room, or if the equipment is noticeably falling apart, that’s not a good sign.

Take a look at the boat as well.  Is it a boat you’d like to ride?

Is there free or reduced-cost accommodation available for divers through the dive resort?

Some dive resorts can throw you a room or dorm bed for cheap or free if you sign on for a certification course or a certain number of fun dives.  Others don’t have it.  Ask around, you might save a few bucks.

Can I meet the person that would be my course instructor and/or dive master?

This isn’t always possible – but when it is, it’s very helpful to speak in person.  After all, your relationship with your instructor and/or dive master will be an important part of your comfort and enjoyment while diving.

Can you throw in some free fun dives with a certification course?

In places like Utila, Honduras, dive shops were regularly throwing in two free fun dives with each certification course.  Might as well ask (and/or negotiate), worldwide.  You might get something for free!

The dive boat I did my rescue diver course from in Belize.

The dive boat I did my rescue diver course from in Belize.

Step #3:  Talk to other divers in the area.

Chances are that if you’re in a beach town or on an island (or near a lake for that matter), there are other divers there for the same reason.  Strike up a conversation and ask a few questions, like these:

What dive shop are they diving with?

And do they like it, or have reservations?  A strong personal recommendation could be quite helpful in an unfamiliar place.

Did the shop offer them discounts and/or free or reduced cost accommodations?

Might as well ask!

What are the best dive sites they’ve encountered nearby?

Make note of the names, and compare them to where the local dive shops are planning to visit over the next few days.

Plus, figure out how deep the notable sites are.  No use in getting excited about a dive site at 25 meters depth if you’re only certified to 18 meters (of course, you could always up your certification to go deeper).

And thank them, of course.

You might end up on the dive boat with these folks.

Step #4:  Make the call.

I usually gather information and then sleep on it before picking a dive shop.  But if you don’t have the time to do so, just make a call that you feel comfortable with, based on the below:

  • General reputation and safety record of dive shop via conversations and research
  • Price – diving costs, with a balance against potential free/discounted rooms and other incentives like free fun dives
  • Accessibility of great dive sites, and frequency of boat departures to preferred sites
  • General gut feeling is important too!  You know what’s right (or you should, anyway).

And remember, the whole goal of this exercise is to guarantee that you have the most fun you can when you go diving.

Do you have something to add that I’ve forgotten?  If so, please comment below.  Thanks for reading!

FEATURED - Utila


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UTILA, HONDURAS: Diving, Drinking and Disappointment

It’s easy and relatively risk-free to write about a place you loved.  It’s not exactly cake to write about a place that disappointed you.

I spent ten days on the island of Utila, Honduras in October of 2014, spent too much money and wasn’t all that impressed.  I admit – it’s a cheap place to get your scuba diving certification – but is it a good and cheap place to go in general?  I didn’t really think so.

My major Utila complaints, which I’ll expand on below:

  • There’s nothing to do on Utila but scuba dive during the day and drink hard at night.
  • A lot of diving and drinking quickly wrecks a backpacker’s daily budget.
  • Food is kind of expensive and not that tasty on Utila.
  • Utila is far from the prettiest or most pleasant place I’ve ever been.

LET’S START COMPLAINING!
I await your hate mail.

This is where Utila, Honduras is.  At the red thing.

This is where Utila, Honduras is. At the red thing.

Here’s what’s cheap and advantageous in Utila:
If you’re traveling in Central America, you’ll hear about Utila as the storied cheap place to scuba dive more cheaply than anywhere else in the region (and as cheaply as anywhere else in the world), as hear tales of cheap and/or free lodgings and a backpacker-centric vibe.  And I admit – all of these things are in Utila, yes.

For example, diving costs:  completion of a PADI Open Water Diver certification (4 day course) or Advanced Open Water certification (2 day course) costs about $300 US at any given dive shop – competition is intense between the myriad operators in tiny Utila Town.  A lot of dive resorts even give out free accommodations with certification courses or packages of fun dives.  Fun dives usually run about $25-30 US per tank.

This pricing is not only competitive on Utila, but worldwide.  It’s by no means a bad deal.

Just as an example:  here's the public price list as of October 2014 for Parrots Dive Center on Utila.  Make sure to ask if tax and reef fees are included in the cost of certification and/or fun dive packages.

Just as an example: here’s the public price list as of October 2014 for Parrots Dive Center on Utila. Make sure to ask if tax and reef fees are included in the cost of certification and/or fun dive packages.

THE CHEAPEST DIVE SHOP ON UTILA:  upon research/visit in October 2014, only one dive shop really stuck out as a bit less expensive than the others – Paradise Divers, a popular spot for Spanish-speaking divers, which offered certification courses at around $250 US.  Accordingly, Paradise’s facilities and accommodations appeared just a bit less shiny and new than others.  I did NOT dive nor stay with Paradise so I cannot comment beyond this, though.

AND IN FULL DISCLOSURE:  I went diving with Bay Islands College of Diving – but you certainly don’t need to follow my lead – I think you should visit multiple Utila shops before choosing your dive operator (I certainly did)!

A few pictures from my time diving on Utila:

Heading toward a dive site, and a small island too.

Heading toward a dive site, and a small island too.

naps on the way to the first dive site of the day.

naps on the way to the first dive site of the day.

in progress.  no wetsuit for me.  and yes, I know my snorkel is on the wrong side.

in progress. no wetsuit for me. and yes, I know my snorkel is on the wrong side.

They saw a hammerhead shark.  I didn't.

They saw a hammerhead shark. I didn’t.

but we all saw dolphins running alongside the boat that day.

but we all saw dolphins running alongside the boat that day.

unloading the boat after a dive.

unloading the boat after a dive.

Another unique thing about Utila:
Another key thing that Utila boasts that many other places can’t:  diving/snorkeling Utila’s north side means that you may stand the chance of seeing whale sharks – the world’s largest fish, sometimes reaching 30-40 ft (9-12 meters).  This is one of the places you can see them for an extended season each year (dive resorts may tell you that they can be seen ALL YEAR, but they have money to gain by saying so!), and that’s not necessarily common.  I’m dying to see whale sharks myself, and haven’t yet.

But… If you’re on a backpacker budget, Utila isn’t as cheap as you’d think.
This’ll seem like I’m nit-picking at first, but bear with me.

Examples of non-diving costs on Utila:
Prices for food in restaurants – say, a desayuno tipico (typical breakfast), or a set menu lunch – don’t vary considerably between establishments on the main road of Utila Town.  You can expect to pay around 80-100L for breakfast, 80-150L for lunch, and 100-200L for dinner.  Prices are slightly higher than I generally prefer to pay in Honduras, and though they’re not exactly runaway costs, little things like this add up if you’re on an extended trip (and yes, I know things just cost more on islands in general!).

Don’t expect a wealth of back alley comedores nor taquerias to save your budget either – there just aren’t a lot of them on hand.  And yeah, there’s a bit of street food available, but living off tacos (20L each) and baleadas (simple ones for 12L) alone will be tough if you’re diving every day.

The biggest problem for me was that I just didn’t think the food here was good QUALITY for its price.  Nothing blew me away, and I was on the island for a week and a half scouting hard for food that DID blow me away.  I was regularly disappointed at meal time and ended up just eating simple foods for as cheap as I could find them for the most part.

One of the cheapest lunches I had on the island.  70L (a little under $3.50 US) for a bit of fried fish, plantains, rice, beans and salad.  Decidedly not from Shoneys.

One of the cheapest lunches I had on the island. 70L (a little under $3.50 US) for a bit of fried fish, plantains, rice, beans and salad. Decidedly not from Shoneys.

Let’s say you have a kitchen in your accommodations and want to cook instead:  bad news – food in grocery stores isn’t all that inexpensive either – and there’s not really a “cheap” grocery store either – prices are nearly fixed between shops.  On the extreme high end of food costs, I saw a box of cereal for $9 US, and smallish plastic bags of pasta for $4 US.  Yikes.

Friends on the island that were staying for long, multi-level dive certification courses complained to me how they couldn’t really save a lot of money by shopping and doing their own food prep.  Bummer.

Roughly $8.00 US for cereal.

Roughly $8.00 US for cereal.

$4 US for a smallish bag of pasta.

$4.00 US for a smallish bag of pasta.

Also of note:  transport costs to the island:  Taking the ferry to Utila from La Ceiba costs around $25 US each way, which is a somewhat considerable expense for a budget backpacker.  It’s not a disastrous amount, but it’s still a cost worth mentioning for travelers that’ve been chicken-bussing and dorm-ing their way through Central America.

Utila Princess posted prices (current Oct 2014) for transport from La Ceiba to Utila.

Utila Princess posted prices (current Oct 2014) for transport from La Ceiba to Utila.

Swedes buying tickets.

Swedes buying tickets.

The little one goes to Utila.  The big one goes to Roatan.  Same dock.

The little one goes to Utila. The big one goes to Roatan. Same dock.

The ferry ride to Utila can be pretty bumpy.  There was a lot of passenger puking going on, and a lot of plastic bags being handed out accordingly by staff.

The ferry ride to Utila can be pretty bumpy. There was a lot of passenger puking going on, and a lot of plastic bags being handed out accordingly by staff.

For your ease of use, here’s the Utila Princess daily ferry schedule, current October 2014 (it comes and goes twice daily, and takes about an hour for transit):

  • Depart Utila for La Ceiba: 6:20 am
  • Depart La Ceiba for Utila: 9:30 am
  • Depart Utila for La Ceiba: 2:00 pm
  • Depart La Ceiba for Utila: 4:00 pm

But here’s the REAL budget killer:  there’s not that much to do on any given day aside from DIVE AND DRINK.
Dive during the day, drink hard at night.  No exceptions, and nothing more to do.  I know this sounds like a fantasy to some, but I think it’s pretty limiting routine that can destroy modest travel budgets.

Here’s what you should expect insofar as a daily budget if you do the daily Utila dance, which goes like this:

  • $60-70 US:  go out on the dive boat for a 2-tank dive (meaning two immersions in the water and a surface interval).
  • $0.00 US:  a day of diving often means your accommodation is cheap or free, so we’ll say that’s zero bucks per day.
  • $10-20 US:  eat at least two meals in modest restaurants.
  • $10-15 US:  go out with friends (or new acquaintances, whatever you want to call them) at night for a battery of drinks in one of the local bars ($2+ per drink, and you may drink 4-5 or more).

This not-unusual daily budget breakout means spending $80-105 US in one day – double or triple many backpackers’ anticipated budgets.

I know, I know – it’s not necessarily THAT MUCH MONEY on the grand scale.  But the thing is – remember – Utila is a place that, in my opinion, is NOT THAT TERRIBLY INTERESTING, and NOT REALLY THAT PRETTY.

Here’s one way to spend your drinking money in Utila:  several bars offer “challenges”, which mean slamming four shots of terrible-tasting alcohol, sometimes performing a physical activity like running about or spinning.  For the cost of 200 Lempira (just under $10 US) you get the shots – and should you complete your nasty drinks, you are awarded a t-shirt, which many people wear around the island like a badge of courage.  I admit, I did two of them, including that of dive bars La Cueva and Skid Row.

Skid Row’s challenge pictured below, as executed by myself and Rob of travel blog The Seafaring Canuck and our unsightly beards.

Get it?  GET IT?

Get it? GET IT?

First, take three shots of "guifity", a horrid combination of rum and herbs.

First, take three shots of “guifity”, a horrid combination of rum and herbs.

Then, spin in circles ten times in the street while avoiding passing motorbikes and tuk-tuks.

Then, spin in circles ten times in the street while avoiding passing motorbikes and tuk-tuks.

Now, run around Skid Row's pool table ten times, CLOCKWISE, without touching the pool table.

Now, run around Skid Row’s pool table ten times, CLOCKWISE, without touching the pool table.

Take one more shot afterwards (for a total of four) and feel like this.

Take one more shot afterwards (for a total of four) and feel like this.

Then, pick out your t-shirt or tank top.

Then, pick out your t-shirt or tank top.

woo!

woo!

winner of the "Skid Row:  Just Dirty Enough" tank top.

winner of the “Skid Row: Just Dirty Enough” tank top.

Utila isn’t that pretty compared to other beaches and islands I’ve visited in other parts of the world.
I know, I know – Utila is supposed to be the rougher-edged Honduran bay island, and Roatán is supposed to be the pretty one.  Fine.  But Utila still isn’t that pretty.

Utila Town itself is a somewhat nondescript hodgepodge.  It’s not decaying in a particularly scenic way, it’s not historically preserved, it’s not shiny and new.  I wasn’t attracted to this place and didn’t find a lot of local interest or drive to photograph the city.  Along the main road, more buildings are abandoned and/or boarded up than you’d imagine.

And while I don’t need a pristine, Disneyland of an island, I was just hoping for something with a bit more character.

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Utila Town waterfront property.

Utila Town waterfront property.

Palm trees and power lines.  A METAPHOR PERHAPS?  I DON'T KNOW.

Palm trees and power lines. A METAPHOR PERHAPS? I DON’T KNOW.

What’s more, the traffic on the few roads of Utila Town favors motorbikes, ATVs and tuk-tuks to the point where pedestrians are often left cramming themselves against walls or into doorways to avoid passing vehicles, which maintain right of way and often nearly clip pedestrians regardless of how full the road is.  It’s incredibly irritating.  Oh, and there are no other options for places to walk other than this motor vehicle-dominated road.  UGH.

swerving out of a near miss at high speed on Utila Town's main road.

swerving out of a near miss at high speed on Utila Town’s main road.

mixed media traffic.

mixed media traffic.

A large-ish sand crab hides in one of the gutters that you might have to lean into while avoiding traffic.

A large-ish sand crab hides in one of the gutters that you might have to lean into while avoiding traffic.

The beaches in Utila are low grade by anyone’s standards (even if the water is usually quite clear and warm once you’re in it).  Along the bay of Utila Town, there’s not really a good beach to speak of.  Some dive shops and other businesses offer nice docks on which that you can sit on the sun (which is great after a long day of diving), but if you like REALLY NICE BEACHES you will be HIGHLY DISAPPOINTED here.  I prefer beaches in places like this.

The one easily accessible beach that I saw:  Chepes Beach, to the west of Utila Town, is reachable by tuk-tuk or via a long walk, but kind of an apology of a beach as far as I’m concerned.

Something that helps a bit with this issue:  you can take boats to nicer beaches.  Water Cay is a small, uninhabited island to the east of Utila where I whiled away a nice afternoon in the sun with friends.  My transit there (with said friends) cost me $12 US in a small boat.  There’s a nicer restaurant called Neptune’s that you can also visit that has a sandy patch in front of it as well – it’s only accessible by boat, though (free and operated by the restaurant – I’m not sure about schedule, though).  Here’s a friend’s trip report to said restaurant/beach.

Here’s are some pretty pictures that I shot on Utila that will probably step on the above text a bit.  But then again, what am I supposed to do, post up a bunch of repulsive, poorly composed photos?  DON’T MAKE ME DO IT.

Pico Bonito (2436 m) viewed from near Water Cay.

Pico Bonito (2436 m) viewed from near Water Cay.

Pelicans sitting in a conifer on Water Cay.

Pelicans sitting in a conifer on Water Cay.

Pumpkin Hill, the highest point on Utila at a whopping 243 feet (74 meters) high!

Pumpkin Hill, the highest point on Utila at a whopping 243 feet (74 meters) high!

Ceiba the dog.

Ceiba the dog.

Pico Bonito National Park, as viewed from Utila, Honduras.

Utila isn’t really that pleasant.
In my experience, the majority of the locals here were either very icy, or completely tired of tourists (even in low season, when I visited Utila).  I can’t blame them – this place attracts a party crowd that probably doesn’t give a shit about them either, and comes and goes with perceived impunity.  THIS ISN’T TO SAY THAT THERE AREN’T GOOD PEOPLE ON UTILA – I MET PLENTY – it’s just that a considerable percentage of the locals could take you or leave you.  This kind of burnout is pretty normal in touristic party spots worldwide, but that doesn’t mean I need to get used to it or make allowances for it.

Example:  people like the owner of the grocery store across from my dive shop seemed to HATE me.  As far as I know, I’m a pretty pleasant dude, and I certainly don’t need to get brow-beaten for doing something like buying food and drinks from a store.  I started making my purchases elsewhere as a result, and felt a little less welcome on the island than I had before (not that I ever really had a warm feeling about the place).

More:  the mosquitos on Utila are some of the worst and hungriest I’ve encountered, and I can say this after spending five weeks in lowland Amazon jungle in late 2013.  These things gave my ankles polka-dots, and seemed to have a specific affinity for biting my hands – especially the tasty area BETWEEN MY FINGERS.  Ow.  Of course, mosquitos are less of an issue if you’re in a pretty, amazing place.  But again, I don’t think Utila is that pretty nor that amazing of a place.

And more:  Utila’s airport is rumored to be a place favored by Columbian drug planes for stopovers on the way north, and (probably) accordingly there’s a bit of a slimy drug-culture vibe on the island.  Cocaine (and other things like MDMA) is readily available and the party culture is happily putting it up their noses.  This is all fine and well until you have a 30 minute spitting-close-talker conversation with a coked-up dive instructor and the young backpacker he’s fucking as of that week (I take it that this is one of the perks of the job, as dive instructor pay is not good), and afterwards neither can remember who you are, what you talked about, or what country you’re from.

They:  “What part of Canada are you from again?”

Me:  “The United States.”

So nice to meet you again.

A lot of the people I met on Utila quietly didn’t like Utila that much either.
I thought I was the only one with this distaste at first, but then multiple other divers and travelers I met confided in me that no, they didn’t like Utila much either, and they didn’t think the diving there was as good as they had hoped, and they were pissing away too much money on boring food and too much drinking once the sun had set.  Not exactly an endorsement.

Ok, I get it – you didn’t like Utila that much.  What about the nearby island of Roatan?
I don’t really know – I didn’t visit Roatan, so I won’t speak to that.  Fair!

CONCLUDING:

There are a few GOOD reasons to go to Utila:

  • You want to get dive certified, or want to quickly blast through your Divemaster or PADI Instructor course for prices that are competitive worldwide.
  • You enjoy diving and drinking every day.
  • You love extreme humidity and mosquito bites, and hate good beaches.
  • You’re not picky about food.
  • Your budget is $80-100 US per day or more (this can be lessened if you’re not diving every day, but I don’t see a lot of point in being in Utila if you’re not diving most days).

Are you trying to talk me out of my trip to Utila, Matt?
NO.  Do whatever the hell you want.

If you’re passing through northern Honduras on a bigger trip, there’s no reason not to visit one or more of the Bay Islands of Honduras.  However, if you’re planning a single-destination trip for vacation, natural beauty and diving, consider looking elsewhere.

Utila COMPARED:  would I rather get my Open Water diving certification (or beyond) in a place like Koh Tao, Thailand?
A comparison, just for fun:  when compared to Koh Tao, Thailand (another small island that’s about as diving certification-centric as it gets, and price-competitive), dive certification on Utila is more or less EQUAL in price.  Upon research in October 2014, dive shops in Koh Tao were offering PADI Open Water certification for right around $300 US, and include free lodging on dive days.  It’s the same!  Divemaster and PADI Instructor courses are similarly competitive on price in Utila.

With that said… I would have to say YES, I’d prefer Koh Tao if I was getting started in diving.  And in fact, I did complete my PADI Open Water Diver certification in Koh Tao, way back in 2011.

Though it’s by no means perfect, Koh Tao is just a bit of a prettier place, Thai food beats Utilian food any damn day of the week, Koh Tao has a couple of accessible modest beaches, and I thought the dive sites near Koh Tao were better and more filled with life, at least when I was there a few years ago.  And remember, the cost of diving and living are more or less the SAME in both Utila and Koh Tao.

But to be fair, Koh Tao’s local population definitely exhibited a bit of the tourist burnout that Utila’s did too – and there are certainly prettier places in Thailand, but Koh Tao isn’t ugly, either.  Can’t win ‘em all!

Did I have a good time in Utila in spite of myself?
Yes, of course.  What am I, a complete idiot?

I met good people, threw back too many drinks, ate a bunch of forgettable food and had fun doing a bit of diving.  But the only reason I stayed on Utila as long as I did on wasn’t for diving, or drinking, or whatever.  It was because of the friends I made.  Friends like the people below.

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Thanks for reading.  If you’re looking for more information on travel in Honduras, check out my previous posts on Copán and crossing the border from Guatemala to Honduras.

FEATURED - Copan


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A Quick Trip to Copán, Honduras

Copán Ruinas, Honduras (also known as just “Copán”) is worth two full days of your travel itinerary, but can be covered in one day on a tight budget.  I spent three days there in October of 2014 after a somewhat tortured border crossing from Guatemala to Honduras.

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Everyone goes to Copán for one thing above all else:  a visit to the Mayan ruins of Copán – an ancient Mayan site that held considerable power and influence between the fifth and ninth centuries (AD).  Admission to the main ruins site of Copán costs $15 US.

A shrouded view of structure #9 of Copán’s Mayan ruins.

Structure #4.

Structure #4.

I know, I know.  So maybe you’ve been traveling in Mexico and Guatemala and you’ve seen enough ruins sites to consider yourself “RUINED”.  But the thing is, Copán is just a little bit different than the others, and it still warrants a visit.

Myself:  I’ve been to basically every major (well, popular) Mayan ruin site aside from Palenque (Chiapas, Mexico) and sometimes I honestly dread visits to touristic sites like these.  I’ve found myself bored at Mayan sites in the past, for sure.  But I went anyway, and I actually liked it and spent about five hours there in total (though most people should be able to see the whole site in two to three hours).  I did not hire a guide, but wouldn’t advise against it if you’re in a group.  I just prefer to wander, personally!

The hieroglyphic stairway of 2200 glyphs, built in the eighth century, and unique to Copán.

The hieroglyphic stairway of 2200 glyphs, built in the eighth century, and unique to Copán.  It’s covered by a huge tarpaulin to prevent further damage by the elements.

The main ball court of Copán.

The main ball court of Copán.

The ruins of Copán don’t tower over you like those at Tikal (in Guatemala).  This isn’t a “massive imposing pyramid” ruins site so much as it is more a site that shows greater artistic detail than the other major sites.  I know, it sounds boring.  But it wasn’t boring, even for an complaint-filled curmudgeon like me.

Then again, I wouldn't say this is a SMALL pyramid.  Structure 16, Copán.

Then again, I wouldn’t say this is a SMALL pyramid. Structure 16, Copán.

What really makes Copán unique is its stelae.  Stelae (English, plural of “stela”, or “estela” in Spanish) are carved stone reliefs in the form of obelisks, sometimes featuring hieroglyphs and patterns, other times featuring human faces and figures.  They’ve been found all over the Mayan world – but the ones at Copán are some of the most impressive due to the level of detail and complexity in the reliefs.  Most of the viewable stelae at Copán were carved between the sixth and eight centuries, under the rule of kings with fun (translated) names like “Smoke Jaguar” (628–695) and “18 Rabbit” (695–738).  Unsurprisingly, many of the stelae depict rulers of Copán.

detail - Estela N

detail – Estela N.

Estela C.

Estela C.

Estela F.  All stelae on site at Copán are free-standing stone sculptures.

Estela F. All stelae on site at Copán are free-standing stone sculptures.

You won’t really find artistic complexity like this at other major sites, believe me!

The ancient Mayan world's first Fred Flintstone PEZ dispenser?  No really, I don't know if this actually qualifies as a stela or not.  Probably not.

The ancient Mayan world’s first Fred Flintstone PEZ dispenser? No really, I don’t know if this actually qualifies as a stela or not. Probably not.

Another highlight of a visit to Copán’s ruins:  free-roaming Scarlet Macaws!

Scarlet Macaw.

Scarlet Macaw.

One of the most important symbols of the ancient civilization of Copán is the scarlet macaw, and accordingly, there are semi-wild (or are they semi-domesticated?) scarlet macaws screeching and flying to and fro over both the entry to the main area of the ruins, and over the structures themselves.  Between bouts of squawking and circling the ruins in flight, they munch on peanuts in feeding troughs near the entrance of the site.  Seems like a pretty good life for a bird.

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After you’re through with the main ruins site, you may consider visiting the sculpture museum, which is located near the entrance to the park.  BUT KNOW THIS:  the Copán ruins sculpture museum requires a SEPARATE TICKET ($15 US) than the main ruins site itself.  Accordingly, I would recommend waiting until AFTER you visit the main ruins site to see if you still want to buy a ticket for the museum, as there’s no discount for buying both at the same time.

That said – the museum is nicely laid out with a 1:1 full size replica of an important underground temple of Copán built in the middle, and an open ceiling that allows the entry of pleasant natural light.  Stelae and other carvings line the walls along with descriptions in both Spanish and English.

The centerpiece of the museum:  a 1:1 replica of the "Rosalila" temple found at Copán's ruins.

The centerpiece of the museum: a 1:1 replica of the “Rosalila” temple found at Copán’s ruins.

skull wall!

skull wall!

The "old man of Copán".

The humorous “old man of Copán”.  Not meant to be humorous, but humorous.

The evil-looking "water bird" sculpture - the highest-relief piece found at Copán.

The evil-looking “water bird” sculpture – the highest-relief piece found at Copán.

Smiley sculptures in the museum.

Smiley sculptures.

Aspects of the Copán ruins NOT covered in this post:  the sepulturas site of Copán, 4 km away from the main thrust of the ruins.  This site is free with your general admission to the ruins site.  You can walk there, or take a mototaxi.  As you wish.  Is it cool and interesting?  I have no idea – I didn’t go.

Also, I didn’t pay the additional cost to explore the tunnels in the main site – it just didn’t make sense to pay $15 US to explore something that’s relatively unphotographable.  I usually don’t go out of my way to visit underground sites, and generally find them disappointing.

Current prices at Copán's Mayan ruins as of October 2014.

Current prices at Copán’s Mayan ruins as of October 2014.

A visit to the ruins are about as much as many people will fit in in Copán, and that’s ok.  Some people even day-trip in from Guatemala, see the ruins, and return to Guatemala in the same day (which sounds even less fun considering that traveling from Antigua, Guatemala to Copán Ruinas takes about six hours each way in a tourist shuttle van!).  But there’s a bit more to do in Copán Ruinas, and allocating more time here can be pretty rewarding.

There's a nice 1 km footpath between the ruins and the town.

There’s a nice 1 km footpath between the ruins and the town.  No reason not to walk.

THE SECOND THING YOU SHOULD DO IN COPÁN, AFTER THE RUINS:  MACAW MOUNTAIN!

Macaw Mountain is a privately funded bird sanctuary about a 30 minute walk outside of Copán.  Admittedly, the name makes it sound like it’s a spot just for kids, but I found it quite interesting and worthwhile as an adult as well.

Keel-Billed Toucan.

Keel-Billed Toucan.

It doesn’t feel like a zoo, because it’s not a zoo.  The park spans nine acres of old growth forest and contains hundreds of birds – most of which are rescues or donations.  At least some of these birds will be released back into the wild after rehabilitation.

You can get pretty close with a lot of the birds.  This Great Green Macaw was quite curious about how my fingers might taste.

You can get pretty close with a lot of the birds. This Great Green Macaw was quite curious about how my fingers might taste.

The park winds back and forth across a river, with exhibits on either side.

The park winds back and forth across a river, with exhibits on either side.

Macaw Mountain is about a 30 minute walk up a moderate hill, just outside the city center of Copán Ruinas.  Tickets are $10 US to enter.  Tickets to Macaw Mountain stay valid for three days, so you can go back if you found you didn’t have enough time there on your first go.

Also, Macaw Mountain is “free” when you combine it with a “canopy tour” of 16 zip lines for $45 US.  I didn’t realize this at first, and thus paid Macaw Mountain’s admission – and then paid for it again when I decided to go zip lining.  Whoops.

More pics!

Emerald Toucanet.

Emerald Toucanet.

friendly little pa

Me!  Blue and gold macaw photo op.

Me! Blue and gold macaw photo op at the end of my tour of Macaw Mountain.

The bird park also grows its own coffee.  You can pick some up at the gift shop if you're so inclined.

Coffee in progress at Macaw Mountain.

YOU MENTIONED ZIP LINING?

Yep.  Zip lining “Canopy Tours” in Copán means coasting down a series of 16 zip lines over two hours.  I don’t usually do this kind of “adrenaline” activity on my trips because they’re comparatively expensive to many other ways to spend your day in a developing country.  But I splurged on the $45 US activity and had a good time in spite of myself.

Canopy tours can be booked through your accommodation in Copán.  The starting point is a short walk from the entrance to Macaw Mountain.

A few photos:

Ziplining.  Copán, Honduras.

Ziplining buddy Monica.  Copán, Honduras.

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WHAT ABOUT THE TOWN OF COPÁN RUINAS ITSELF?

The town of Copán Ruinas itself is quite small, and pretty touristic, but not so much so that it’ll make your skin crawl.

I’ve become a bit wary of the “charming colonial town” title that seems to be boilerplate for so many Central American and Mexican towns.  I’ve seen so many damn churches and central squares and rotting Spanish architecture to last me years.  But here’s the thing:  Copán is actually a charming colonial town, and it’s nice.

Around Copán’s central square, there are bars and restaurants run by locals and expats alike, so there’s a variety of food and drink to be had at a variety of prices.  I admittedly ate mostly street food as there was plenty on offer around the main square over the weekend.

German beers at Sol de Copán, in low light.

German beers at Sol de Copán, in low light.

One of the most unexpectedly funny and pleasant places in Copán was the German-run craft brewery, Sol de Copán, which was run by a German guy with big, friendly presence.  Big beers here (Hefeweizen was available at the time I visited!) were 75L – definitely more than the 20L or so you’ll spend at a tienda for a can of Honduran clear beer like Salvavida – so maybe a no-no for strict budgets (because you’ll need to drink two or three while you’re there).  They offer food as well.

A few photos from my time in the city:

Cowboy hats are popular here.

Cowboy hats are popular here.

So is football.

So is football.

Picking flowers.

Picking flowers.

Cooling off.

Cooling off.

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strange sculptures surround central park.

training wheels and purse.

training wheels and purse.

BUT HONDURAS IS RUMORED TO BE DANGEROUS!  IS COPÁN SAFE?

Copán is a small city, centered around a central square, featuring significant police presence (probably to KEEP the city tourist-friendly as much as anything) and it feels pretty safe.  Walking around at night didn’t give me the heebie-jeebies or anything, but I’m guessing it’s probably best to stay close to the center when the sun’s down (Why wander off, anyway?  It doesn’t make sense.).

Central Park.

Central Park.

PLANNING AN DAILY SCHEDULE FOR YOUR TRIP TO COPÁN

To me, one day isn’t really enough for this place, but I know a lot of us are on tight schedules.  Here’s how I recommend scheduling if you have limited time:

If you have ONE full day in Copán (sleep two nights in Copán):

  • Wake up early, walk to Copán Ruins, enter at 8:00 AM.
  • Spend three to four hours at Copán Ruins.  Consider including the on-site sculpture museum, but skip the sepultura site (you probably won’t have time for it).
  • Walk back to the city, have lunch in town.
  • Hire a moto taxi from the city center to Macaw Mountain.
  • Spend one to two hours at Macaw Mountain.
  • Walk down the hill to town, or hire a moto taxi for return.
  • Sit in Copán’s central park for sunset and watch the locals come and go.
  • Have dinner in town.

With TWO full days in Copán (three nights), you can relax things a little.

DAY ONE

  • Wake up early, walk to Copán Ruins, enter at 8:00 AM.
  • Spend three to four hours at Copán Ruins.  Visit the sculpture museum as well.
  • Hire a moto taxi to take you to the sepulturas area of Copán Ruins (it’s about 4 km away) and check it out as well.
  • Return to the city.  You’ll be tired and hungry at this point, so just take the rest of the day off and do with it what you will.  Relax!

DAY TWO

  • Start the day with an activity:  ride horses in the hills with a guide ($15 per person, three hours), or go zip lining for ($45 per person, about two hours).
  • Visit Macaw Mountain in the afternoon ($10 per person, or included in the cost of zip lining).  Spend one to two hours here.  Walk back down the hill to town, or take a moto taxi.
  • Spend the afternoon and evening in town at a local restaurant.  Ask your accommodations if there are good nights to step out for drink specials or activities like salsa nights.

With three full days in Copán, you can relax things further and just enjoy yourself.  Nothing wrong with that.  More time than that could even be quite nice here – I wouldn’t advise against it!

AN IDEA OF LOCAL DAILY COSTS IN COPÁN, AS I EXPERIENCED THEM:

$1.00 US = 21.32 Honduran Lempiras at the time of writing.

  • LODGINGS:  128L per night in a dorm bed at Hostal Berakah.
  • LUNCH:  50-60L for set lunch in a small local restaurant, or 49L for a baleada and a soft drink.
A set lunch of chicken, pasta, rice and vegetables.  With a drink, this cost me 60 Lempiras.

A set lunch of chicken, pasta, rice and vegetables. With a drink, this cost me 60 Lempiras.

  • DINNER:  45-90L if you buy it in the street.  Prices raise considerably in touristic restaurants.
  • TACOS IN THE STREET:  35L for three of ‘em.
  • DRINKS:  35-45L each for beers or basic mixed drinks
  • TRANSPORT:  I never took a moto taxi within Copán because everything’s so close together, and I like walking.  Zero costs here for me.

    Mototaxi.

    “VIP” mototaxi.

Thanks for reading!

FEATURED - Antigua to Copan


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How NOT to cross the border from Antigua, Guatemala to Copán, Honduras

After 3.5 months in Guatemala, spanning mid-June of 2014 to early October, it was finally time for me to leave my beloved city of Xela (aka Quetzaltenango) and to leave Guatemala as a whole.  Yeah, going somewhere new is great, but I was still pretty miserable about the whole thing.

Existential Terror / Cat Bath in the Pila.  Xela, Guatemala.

I kind of had a cat in Xela. Yeah, I stayed that long. This is Lula’s first bath in the cold water of the pila at Casa Seibel, where I stayed/lived for two months.

Zenaida, of Casa Seibel.  Xela, Guatemala.

I have/had a lot of friends there too. This is Zenaida.

My next stop would be Honduras, starting at the city of Copán Ruinas.  This is the border at which most travelers cross between Guatemala and Honduras.

A view of the Mayan ruins of Copán, Honduras - the primary tourist attraction in the area.

A view of one structure in the Mayan ruins of Copán, Honduras – the primary tourist attraction in the area.

“BUT HONDURAS IS DANGEROUS!” THEY SAID.
Honduras was awarded the title of “most dangerous country in the world” in recent years due to chart-topping murder rates, largely due to gang and drug violence – recent stats state that in Honduras, between 75-85 people out of each 100,000 are murdered.  Ow.  The Honduran city of San Pedro Sula (pop. 437,798) is, as of late, known as the “world’s most dangerous city”, and the capital, Tegucigalpa, doesn’t have a considerably better reputation.  How nice.  Accordingly, the US State Department has a current travel advisory on Honduras, updated as of June 24, 2014.  Great.

For all this, Honduras maintains a pretty nasty image problem, and travelers aren’t oblivious.  Many backpackers/travelers I met in Guatemala were wary of entering Honduras at all, despite unique attractions like the Mayan ruins of Copán, and the popular Bay Islands, located in the Caribbean, on the north side of Honduras (not to mention the different food, different culture, etc etc etc).

The fear is big for a lot of people, and there’s a lot of resultant fear-mongering BETWEEN travelers about travel in Honduras – but most of the people that talk the loudest HAVEN’T YET BEEN TO HONDURAS!

With that said – hey travelers (and everyone else, for that matter) – if you haven’t been to a place and have no real experience with it, stop talking trash on it.  It’s a ridiculous thing to do!

LISTEN.  YOU CAN SKIP HONDURAS IF YOU WANT.
On a given Central American trip, you can just SKIP Honduras altogether if you want.  There are basically two ways to do it (and I’m going to just “SKIP” El Salvador as well in the below, just to make things easier to understand):

Method #1:  Fly over Honduras on a one-way ticket, maybe from Guatemala City to Managua, Nicaragua – for what will probably be (at minimum) a couple hundred dollars.

Method #2:  Take a lengthy van or bus ride from Antigua (or Guatemala City), Guatemala all the way to Leon (or Managua), Nicaragua (or vice versa).  I mean, like one BRUTALLY full day of transit, or two days of considerable transit.  Also not fun and not free either, but cheaper than the flight.  You can do this by tourist shuttle van, or by private bus companies like Ticabus.

I didn’t want to skip Honduras.  There it was, in the middle of the Central American map, and I wanted to check it out (US State Department travel advisories be damned!).  So off I went, from Antigua to Copán.

In truth, you can't pass from Guatemala nor El Salvador to Nicaragua without crossing through at least a patch of Honduras.

In truth, you can’t pass from Guatemala nor El Salvador onward, overland to Nicaragua without crossing through at least a patch of Honduras.

HOW MOST PEOPLE TRAVEL FROM ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA TO COPÁN RUINAS, HONDURAS:
The common routine for transit from Antigua, Guatemala to Copán (for most travelers) is to take a tourist shuttle van, departing from Antigua.  It picks you up at your hotel at around 4:00 AM and terminates in the town of Copán Ruinas around 10:00 AM, and costs between Q150-200 ($20-25 US).

The likely road-route from Antigua to Copán Ruinas.  Approx 280 kilometers.

The likely road-route from Antigua to Copán Ruinas. Approx 280 kilometers.

Alternatively (and for potentially slightly less cash) you can travel from Guatemala City to the border by booking a ticket on larger private buses – but to be fair, Guatemala City is notoriously inconvenient for bus connections – each private bus operator has their own station in different parts of the city, so it’s impossible to check fares and departure times in person, in a centralized location.  Plus, moving from one station to another requires use of taxis, which can get pricey fast for budget travelers.  Expect something like $5-7 US for zona-to-zona cab rides there.  Cab costs can instantly ruin the potential savings of traveling from Guate instead of Antigua.  So there’s that.

Accordingly, I opted for the shuttle-from-Antigua method – and of COURSE it didn’t work.

Antigua.

Antigua.

MY EXPERIENCE IN ANTIGUA
After bussing from Xela to Antigua on October 7th, 2014 (Q35 on a chicken bus), I talked to about ten different Antigua-based travel bookers, requesting a ticket for the 4:00 AM shuttle the next day.  Of the two transport companies that offer this route, one had a full shuttle, and the other had canceled the route for October 8th due to lack of volume/interest in the ride.

Should I have booked ahead?  Maybe.  But I hadn’t, and there I was, in low tourist season, with limited transport availability.

Antigua-based travel agency Onvisa was the only travel agency that gave me a response other than “you can go in two days from now”.  They proposed a next-day (October 8th) 12:30 PM departure from my Antigua hostel via shuttle van, for a connection to an *actual* bus in Guatemala City (as in, something nicer than a chicken bus) which would take me as far as the Guatemalan border at El Florido.  This, for Q175.

Note:  Q150 fares via shuttle were available in Antigua, and I probably should have negotiated for this price through Onvisa for this work-around – but at the time I was just happy to be leaving Antigua on the correct day, so I didn’t bother.

Also part of Onvisa’s proposal:  from the border, I would have to arrange my own transport from the Honduran side into Copán.  My travel booker expressed no concern regarding this last step – he thought it would work fine, take only about 15 minutes, and only cost me around $2 US to get there (oh, if only it had.).

I wanted to get the hell out of Antigua (I personally think Antigua is quite a boring place, contrary to the opinions of many others), and on with my trip, so I handed over my Q175 to the booker and steeled myself for the (inevitably inconvenient) ride to Honduras the next day.

THE ROUTE, IN EXECUTION

12:30 PM, October 8th, 2014:
So it began.  My initial shuttle van arrived at my hostel about 10 minutes late and scooped me up.  The van was full of other backpackers, all heading to Guatemala City’s airport for flights home or onward to other international destinations (nobody here would be doing the border run with me).  Midday transit from Antigua to Guatemala City took about 45 minutes, which is normal.

1:15 PM
Upon arrival in Guate, we dropped passengers off at different hotels as well as directly to Guatemala City’s airport.  I was last off the bus at my proprietary bus terminal (the bus company was Litegua) for onward transit to the border.

2:15 PM
My bus was scheduled to depart at 2:45 PM, so I grabbed a quick, basic lunch from a nearby street food vendor.  Q20 (just under $3 US) for chicken, rice, beans, tortillas and a Coca Cola.

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last meal in Guatemala.

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where it was made.

2:45 PM
We rolled out of the terminal right on time, with half the seats in the bus empty.  I hoped to arrive at the border around six hours later, close to 8:45 PM.  I was also hoping that both the Guatemalan and Honduran border offices would be open – I still wasn’t sure if this border crossing was (officially) possible 24 hours a day, and certainly didn’t want to have to crash in some horrible border town when Copán was just 15 minutes away on the other side.  Uhhh.

The bus was a REAL BUS with bucket seats and a TV which screened a Vin Diesel family comedy dubbed in Spanish, in which ol’ Vin balances his life as some sort of secret agent assassin-type with home life in the suburbs, or something!  HILAROUS!  The bus driver listened to bachata so loudly on his phone that I couldn’t hear the dialogue of the movie anyway.  No huge loss.

A real bus, with an IDIOT on it!

A real bus, with a sweaty, insane IDIOT on it!

3:45 PM
We were now stuck in stop-and-go traffic, still watching the same horrible movie.  By 4:00 PM, the DVD skipped so badly that we weren’t anymore.  Nobody protested.  This tragedy was followed up by some movie about a guy that grew up cutting lawns achieving his dream of playing professionally for Newcastle United and meanwhile honoring his dead father by kicking a goal.  Or something.  Who cares.  We were back at a reasonable speed by 4:15 PM.

Rains hit us at 5:15 PM.  By 6:00 PM the sun was gone.  Oh boy – this would be a border crossing to Central America’s most dangerous country in the dark, likely alone.  Or would I be forced to stay in El Florido on the Guatemala side?  And if so, where would I stay?  Nerves.  A few.

6:45 PM
We began to pass through the city of Chiquimula.  By this point my single sweater was no longer sufficient for the amount of icy air conditioning being pumped into the bus.  Why was it ALWAYS like this in 1st class buses in developing countries?

Here in Chiquimula, I saw a McDonalds drive-thru with a line about 30 cars long.  Even motorcycles were waiting – in the rain.  What goes on?  Also – an easy fix for long drive-thru line – GO INSIDE OF THE FAST FOOD RESTAURANT.

6:50 PM
Stopped at the small Litegua bus terminal in Chiquimula.  All but about 10 passengers including myself disembarked.  Were these people crossing to Honduras as well?  I guess the answer was possibly YES.  Apparently I was supposed to change buses where we stopped.  After  (AFTER, AFTER, AFTER) we pulled away from the bus station, the ayudante (“helper” – the bus conductor) approached me to tell me about how a smaller bus had waited for me to change at that station.  I had been completely unaware of this at the time, and began blaming my somewhat passable but imperfect Spanish language ability for why I had missed this connection.  May. have. screwed. myself.  Errr.

Another passenger on the bus started commenting about how he could help me find a hotel in some alternate town – probably Camotán, Guatemala – in other words, an option to quit what was becoming a difficult route to sleep instead of carrying on aimlessly in the dark.  This vote of non-confidence just made me even more nervous about having missed my connection.

Yet through all this, nobody forced me off the bus.  I wasn’t sure what to do and stared into space for a while.  From all I could tell, I was just going have to take this bus to its terminus, at which point one of two things would happen:

  • 80% estimated chance:  I would be screwed and have to spend the night in some little Guatemalan town, in some dumpy little hotel – knowing that my expedited route had been a failure and that I should have just waited in Antigua for the tourist shuttle van to run again.
  • 20% estimated chance:  I would somehow still get to the Honduran border that night, come what may.

7:30 PM
My bus now arrived its terminus – likely in Camotán, Guatemala (though in my worried moment, I didn’t catch the name, in honesty).  All remaining passengers disembarked, and I headed for the exit as well.  As I stepped down, I told the bus driver I may have missed a critical connection, and asked if it was still possible to get to El Florido tonight.  Yes.  YES, he said, as he smiled and pointed to a “busito” (small bus) next to ours, headed for El Florido.

Similar shuttle vans are called all kinds of things in Mexico and Central America.  Combi (cohm-bee), collectivo (coh-lek-tee-vo), shuttle (shuh-tuhl), micro (mee-crow), busito (boo-see-toh), among others.

I was for some reason the only passenger (alone again!), for some reason.  We drove about 80 mph down slippery, curvy roads in the old passenger bus, which seemed to slide back and forth on its axles as we took corners.  I smiled, happy to be headed the right direction again.  COME WHAT MAY.

7:58 PM
Nearly hit a cow in the road.  Oops.

8:02 PM
Arrived at the tiny town of El Florido, Guatemala.  As I disembarked, both my bus driver and bus captain assured me that I should wait to cross the border until morning, because there were no more buses and no taxis on the Honduran side at that time of night.

I should get a room in El Florido, they said, and pointed me toward what they said was a “hotel” which was clearly just a family home with the lights on.  I thanked them and walked toward the “hotel”.  And yeah, maybe the family would have rented me a room, but I didn’t even want to ask.  I had tried so hard all day just to get to Honduras, and I didn’t want to give up now.

I took a deep breath and started walking toward the Guatemala/Honduras border, which was about two minute straight-shot from where the bus dropped me.  I’d check it out and then decide what to do.

8:08 PM
As I approached the traffic control gates at the border, an 18-wheeler driver, killing time before a big drive to Belize the next day, started speaking to me in good American English.  His name was Darwin, a Honduran guy that had lived in Houston Texas for 12 years.  He seemed actually trustworthy – not slimy like a tout or thief – and he asked me what had brought me to the border at that time of night.  I told him my story and asked him if he knew about any onward transit options to Copán.

Darwin agreed with the bus guys – no, no buses nor taxis were on hand at this hour.  But wait, he would check to see what else was out there.  He phoned a Honduran mototaxi colleague in Copán, who asked if I was a local or a tourist, and quoted Q150 ($20 US) for the 10 km ride from the border to Copán accordingly – an extremely pricey opinion.  “I hate that shit, it’s not right to charge more just because you’re not from here!” Darwin exclaimed.  “We’ll find you something else.”  We walked to Guatemalan immigration together while he thought it over.

I let him help me go through my immigration processing for both countries.  Gut feeling said it was ok.  I hoped I was right.

8:11 PM
The Guatemalan immigration window was still open, and I quickly stamped out at El Florido.  The official asked me in Spanish “Do you plan to return to Guatemala?” I gave a sickly smile and told him no, as long as it was still actually possible to get to Copán tonight.  No money exchanged hands here.

Darwin and I, joined by his long haul trucker buddy, also conveniently named Darwin, now walked together to the Honduran immigration office.  The guys were relaxed, talking and laughing with one another.

PROOF

PROOF OF BORDER CROSSING.  I couldn’t really take pictures at this point for obvious reasons.

8:25 PM
Upon arrival at the Honduran immigration office, most of the staff was lazily laying on the front steps of the building, which seemed too big for its present usage – processing one backpacker for entry to Honduras.  During the day, it must be quite a busy place.

The entry cost was 30 Guatemalan Quetzales for me.  I think it’s actually supposed to be $3.00 US (less than Q30) but I didn’t argue – and because I wanted to get rid of my remaining Guatemalan currency anyway.

Now I was stamped in to Honduras.  But what if I needed to turn back to Guatemala for the night due to a lack of transport on the Honduran side?  I didn’t want to think about it.

8:30 PM
Darwin, Darwin and I paced up a slight incline, into Honduras, after immigration.  It seemed really dark, and darker still, and I couldn’t help but think how much trust I had placed in these guys, and how vulnerable I was at this stage.  Still, they didn’t make me nervous, and I didn’t have a lot of other options at this stage.

On the Honduran side, there were definitely no buses, and no taxis of any sort either.

We plopped down on a makeshift wooden bench in the dark and the two truckers proceeded to smoke cigarettes and talk.  Darwin told me stories of a DUI violation in Houston that landed him in prison and later got him deported back to Honduras.  Our conversation was amicable and quite comfortable until he announced how much he didn’t like black people – not in Belize, not Houston, not in prison.  And things were going so well between us, too!  I grinned and bore it – this was no time to negotiate race-relations.

By this point professional transport from the border to Copán was more or less out of the question – we were just waiting for passing cars.  My first ride in Honduras, the most dangerous country in the world – would be a “jalon“.  Hitchhiking.  Whee!

8:50 PM
An extended cab pickup truck pulled up.  Darwin #1 stuck his thumb out.  The truck stopped.  Darwin ran to the driver’s window and quickly told them where I needed to go (which was fortunately more or less a straight shot on said freeway).  I threw my pack in the bed, climbed in beside it, and a few trays of empty soda and beer bottles ready for return for deposit, and we rolled off.  “Gracias chicos!” I shouted.  They smiled and waved back.

I couldn’t help but remember some of Darwin’s advice to me before I departed from the border.

“This is my country, and I love my country, but you can’t trust NOBODY here.”

But yet, here I was, trusting him, and now trusting the driver of this pickup – with whom I exchanged a total of zero words, and whose face I never saw.

About fifteen minutes later, we pulled over at a modern gas station and it was time for me to jump out with my pack.  “Está Copán, no?”  I asked two women who were grilling meats on the side of the building.  Yes, they replied, but you need a mototaxi to get to the center.  Wait here.  Ok.  I bought a bag of chips and a Coke while I waited, which would be my dinner for the night.

Five minutes later, I had my mototaxi, but I had no local currency (Honduras uses the Lempira).  Fortunately my mototaxi guy accepted Guatemalan Quetzales – 20 of them (around $3 US) – for my transit to the central square of Copán Ruinas.  It took less than 10 minutes to get there.

It started to rain as I loaded out of the mototaxi.  It kept raining as I walked in the incorrect direction of my chosen accommodations thanks to bad directions from my driver.  Darwin’s words of “YOU CAN’T TRUST NOBODY” flashed through my head again.  After walking a few blocks out of the way in the precipitation, I could no longer see through my glasses.  But then there it was – Hostal Berekah.  And they had one bed left in the dorm, for $6 US per night.  I checked in, dropped my back and recomposed myself.  I was done for the day – safely in Honduras despite the odds.

OK, SO YOU MADE IT TO COPÁN IN ONE PIECE, IN ONE DAY, LIKE A DUMB-DUMB.  WAS IT WORTH IT?

NO.  Crossing borders at night in developing countries (with no known available onward transit) is STUPID and potentially dangerous.  I admit, I was lucky – I met honest, kind people that actually wanted to help me out, and did.  You might meet the opposite type of person.  I shouldn’t have done things like this and wouldn’t recommend you approach the El Florido border at night either unless you’ve somehow already worked out your onward transit from the border.

WELL THEN, WHAT’S THE RIGHT WAY TO GET FROM ANTIGUA TO COPÁN?

You should do it one of two ways:

Option #1:  Just book a tourist shuttle van from Antigua with pretty much any travel agency or hotel – again, it should cost you between Q150-200.  If there’s not an available shuttle the day you’d like to travel, just book one for the NEXT DAY and wait it out.  That’s what I should have done.

Option #2:  Alternatively, call the bus company I traveled to the El Florido border with (Litegua – (502) 22208840 in Guatemala City) and check their bus schedule.  I would say you could check their schedules and prices via their website, but it’s a piece of hardly-functional crap as of October 2014.  So call them, or have a Spanish speaking friend do so for you.  They probably send buses to El Florido that land in the light of day if you’re willing to leave Guatemala City in the morning.  That could work.

DO I HARBOR RESENTMENT AGAINST TRAVEL AGENCY ONVISA FOR SENDING ME TO THE BORDER LIKE THIS?

My travel booker at Onvisa, in Antigua, insisted that when I got to the border, things would work out.  Then they took my money and sent me on my way to a dark, transport-less future on the frontera.  That’s not really very cool of them.  But then again, a lot of travel bookers in developing countries couldn’t give two shits about how well their clients’ routes play out in execution.  Generally, travel agents in developing countries are salespeople first, and honest/concerned individuals second.

What I mean by this:  I’ll take the blame for this stupid route – as a traveler, I need to know more about my transit than the travel bookers and I shouldn’t be so quick to trust.  It’s my safety and my money that’s at risk, far beyond the booker’s reputation.

What’s more, I could have pulled the plug on my route and stayed in a hotel along the way when said route started to feel sketchy.  This could have transpired long before hitchhiking into Honduras occurred.

But regardless – NOT COOL, Onvisa.  Research your routes more thoroughly before you offer them up.  No use in setting people (CLIENTS) up for failure!

DO YOU LOVE BORDER CROSSINGS?  YEAH?  You can read about my Central American (CA-4) Visa renewal border run to Mexico here.  It was part of the SAME CENTRAL AMERICAN TRIP, which also includes as this, this and this.  WOW!

FEATURED - Xela Feria


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Guatemalan Independence & Xela Feria 2014: Selected Photos

Guatemala first celebrated its independence from Spain on September 15th of 1821.  Guatemala now celebrates its independence for about two weeks straight.  It’s a big deal.

I was in Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala for the duration, and witnessed celebrations of Guatemala’s independence with a seemingly endless supply of children’s parades, brass bands, traditional dress, street food, beauty pageants, heavy boozing, concerts, dancing and thrill rides.

The below photos were all shot on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and are presented with minimal commentary.

One of many parades this week.  Xela, Guatemala.

Xela, Guatemala.

Xela, Guatemala.

Trajes tipicos.  Xela, Guatemala.

colorful women’s trajes tipicos.

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dance with the devil. A representation of Spanish conquistadors.

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mobile chess game.

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Men’s trajes tipicos of Sololá and Todos Santos – two of my favorites in Guatemala.

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Xela, Guatemala.

red lips / swing hips

Xela, Guatemala.

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Xela, Guatemala.

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equipped with aguardiente.

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I don’t get it.

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me. tequila and tacos.

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friends.

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illegal bar, set up in the street. everyone drank until 4:00 AM.

Walking in traffic to the Xela Feria.  Xela, Guatemala.

Nanna and Blanca, walking through traffic to the Xela Feria.

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The family that corns together, stays together.  Xelafer (Indepe

The family that corns together, stays together.

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quietly the most dangerous ride at Xela Feria.

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Relic in action.  Independencia de Guatemala / Xelafer - Xela, G

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balls out. everything was for sale along the side of the road near the Feria.

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future tacos.

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debating which ride to attempt next.

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reciprocal.

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Swing intersection.  Xela, Guatemala.

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I seem to shoot a lot of cotton candy vendors.

 

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