“Must know”


A friend of mine emailed asking if there’s any information about Central America that I consider must know.  For the purposes of this post we’ll call her “Steph” and this is mostly directed to her, though other people might find it useful (or anger inducing).  She’s already lived in Belize, so I’m leaving out comments about how idyllic Placencia is.

Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are too violent to be of much use right now.

The situation in Honduras has been deteriorating for years, which is a shame because it’s otherwise an incredible place.  The islands are still livable, but even Utila was seeing a serious rise in violent crime (I include muggings as violent crimes, many stats don’t).  When we were there we regularly read stories like “15 factory workers executed in midday”, mostly gang turf disputes in San Pedro Sula.  Are there more peaceful areas?  These days I don’t know.  I do know that routine law enforcement is basically non-existent.  I spent a few months in mainland Honduras in 2007 and even then private security was the only security (and was very, very common).  Things have only gone downhill since (a coup, a devastating series of floods, riots, increased gang activity).

For some reason everyone seems to have agreed to pretend Guatemala is a reasonable place to hang out.  The murder rate was already atrocious (and likely lowballed) before the Mexican gangs got involved.  I swear to god every 3rd backpacker I talked to mentioned either being personally mugged at knife point or knowing someone who had.  Yet they’d still always go “It’s not that bad.”  I spent a few weeks renting a room in a nice house in a gated community a short walk from upscale downtown Antigua.  The owners warned us repeatedly that guys with machetes liked to hide in the bushes and mug people outside the gate.  This was NOT a desolate area and this was a known MO, but nothing was done about it.

I haven’t been to El Salvador.  I’ve heard great things about it, including San Salvador and the beaches, but it’s still a little to dicey for me to take The Girlfriend.  If I were traveling with a few guys I’d risk it.  And while Guatemala and Honduras are on the decline (Guatemala perpetually), El Salvador has shown some signs of significant improvement lately.  Best of luck to them, I can’t wait to see it.

Nicaragua is incredibly cheap and it’s beautiful, though a lot of people are waiting to see how this election goes (how the people react to Ortega’s unconstitutional 3rd term re-election) before putting down roots.

Costa Rica is overpriced and increasingly unwelcoming to gringos.  We didn’t spend much time (just the bus stop layover), many expats we talked to were moving out of there.

Panama is head and shoulders above the rest of the region with regard to standard of living.  Great deals can be found outside of Panama City and Bocas del Toro (too far out for cheap goods to be available), though both of those places are worth seeing too.

Much of the Central American Caribbean is uninviting; it’s often the more impoverished and less secure area.  In Nicaragua you can’t even get there by road, except for one isolated town.  Development sprawls along the Inter-American Highway which runs the Pacific Coast.  That said, there are some real jewels out there, though prices tend to climb since supplies need to be transported so far.  This is doubly true on small islands.

Don’t miss:

Nicaragua: San Juan del Sur and surrounding beach sprawl is right up your alley, though the diving is lame, Leon if you can stand the heat, both Corn Islands (quick flight from Manangua, arduous journey otherwise, either might be your thing, you’ll be glad you went), Isla Ometempe (the two-volcano island in Lake Nicaragua) and Esteli if you can handle the slow life (and it gets slower from there).

Panama: Party in Panama City (if you have the funds), hideout in Boquete to restore your budget and take respite from the heat, see San Blas at least once and check out Bocas del Toro.

If I were going to buy property right now, it would probably be around Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua (if possible) or on Bastimentos Island, Panama.


Cost of beer in a bar: US$1.39 for a 12 ounce bottle
Song currently stuck in my head: So On And So On (PM Dawn)

I’m sitting in the restaurant/lounge of Little Corn Island Beach and Bungalow, bags packed, killing another 2 hours until our bags will be loaded into a wheelbarrow and pushed through the jungle, past free roaming chickens, iguanas and (occasionally) toddlers to the dock where we’ll catch a boat to the big(ger) island. We’ve been at this property 3 nights and though way out of our price range (small but delicious dinners run between US$9 and US$17 for 4 courses) we loosened the purse strings for our little island vacation. We’re on the far side of the small island, an hour by boat to the nearest road which itself is about 6 hours by boat from the then inaccessible-by-road Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. And it couldn’t be more beautiful; the water is turquoise and frothy, the palm trees tall and disarrayed and the local dogs display the lack of depth in the island’s canine gene pool (the cats are even less varied in presentation). We’ve spent most of our time on this island, about a week in all, eating, lazing and reading. The mosquitoes and occasional rain bursts have been our only annoyances; beyond that it’s idylic.

Little Corn B&B sits at that awkward intersection of rustic remoteness and mainstream vacations, where small “eco-lodges” advertise to everyday tourists who show up expecting to be able to flush the paper. In reality they’re advised not to flush the toilet at all most of the time. But some people know what they’re looking for and plenty of them are looking for exactly Little Corn B&B. Others seem to end up on the far end of a remote island almost by accident and can’t understand why the bar staff doesn’t speak English; as though Thurston Howell III managed to coconut raft over from a neighboring caye.

I’ve been trying to figure out why we aren’t spending a month in this area, not as tourists but as temporary residents. There are plenty of transplants on these islands, on a per capita basis at least, and for all practical purposes they’re more accessible than San Juan del Sur (you’d be taking a plane rather than bus, but the ride is shorter and of comparable expense). The Girlfriend says she’d prefer the little island while I’m more drawn to the big one, but there’s not that much difference. Rentals can be had for as little as US$200 on the big island, so price isn’t a limiting factor either. But while we’re still deeply enamored of Nicaragua, I think we’re both excited to move on and apprehensive about adding another 30 days (especially after having overstayed in Esteli and SJDS). Maybe we’ll come back another time, prepared to stay. These islands are out ahead of the curve for now, the kind of place you can stake a foothold before the throngs descend and prices increase. That’s something I’ve been keeping an eye out for, and now that I’ve found it I feel like I need my head examined for deciding to leave. It can be hard to remember how accessible these islands are since The Girlfriend and I took such a long route out. Don’t get me wrong, the route can get longer than ours, by way of El Rama if you’re interested, but when you take the 6 hour boat and 4 day Bluefields sojourn (the “sceptic route”) to get here it’s hard to conceptualize doing it all by plane in 1 hour.

Today we’re boating back to Big, spending the night and catching the Escondito to Bluefields tomorrow. Wish us luck.

The Girlfriend received a new camera for xmas, a simple point and shoot, but the advantages are two-fold:

1) Better equipment means better pictures
2) Smaller camera means The Girlfriend actually takes pictures sometimes now, and you’re no longer subjected predominantly to my talentless eye.

For example…

Our room at Chester’s followed by an advertisement for Dorsey’s services.

Cost of beer in a bar: US$0.91 for a cold 350 ml bottle of Tona
Song currently stuck in my head: It’s Not Meant To Be (Tame Impala)

We’re now working off a few weeks of offset, so don’t be confused that the publish dates on these posts don’t match the dates they come out. I’d been looking forward to enacting something like this and my time away from elsewhere seemed like the perfect opportunity.

We arrived on Big Corn last Wednesday and found Chester’s place a day later. We’ve been staying here ever since. Chester’s brother, Dorsey Campbell, is listed in a few guidebooks for his services (snorkel and fishing guide) and his two idyllic guesthouses (kitchen, private bath, modest, amazing view, US$10/night). Both of those houses were taken but the renters suggested we talk to Chester, who put us in a large, clean room with two large comfortable beds, AC and a private bath for US$25/night with 2 or more night’s stay. Chester’s wife prepares meals upon request (breakfast is especially good, confusingly tasty eggs and gallo pintos with coconut bread) and even though cooking in would save us a lot of money, fuck it, for these two weeks we’re on vacation. We’re over on the windy, quiet side of the island and we’ve got a nice mix of locals, transplants and visitors to socialize with. The residents over here complain about criminals bothering the tourists on the bad parts of the island, which are all the way on the other side, about 4 minutes by taxi. The higher end resorts are clustered in that area, near what passes for town and close to a stereotypically idyllic strip of white Caribbean sand stretching far out into turquoise water.

On this side we’ve done a bit of snorkeling using Dorsey as a guide (he comes highly recommended). The reef is swimmable from shore and a fair amount of life calls it home. The Eagle Rays were especially impressive and I also spotted what I think is my first Lion Fish in the wild. These are an invasive Asian species with a bounty in some places and public service posters throughout coastal Honduras instructing you on how to remove the poisonous spines and cook them up. I’d seen quite a few of them dead in jars at dive centers (they make a point of killing them whenever possible) but they look much more impressive in the wild with their spines spread. I have yet to find a restaurant serving them.

These islands are the first place we’ve been in a long while where eating out is much more expensive than cooking. In Esteli, San Juan del Sur and Utila a plate of food could be bought for basically the cost of ingredients plus US$1 or less. Here we paid about US$5.50 for a plate of spaghetti. While ingredients do cost more out here (do to the remoteness of the islands), they don’t come anywhere near that price. Breakfast is usually about US$3 to US$4 and dinner is usually about US$5 to US$7, and that’s on the low side. The menus are packed with items in the US$9 to US$13 range. Here are some menus.

The grass here on little corn reminds me of aerial shots of craggy Scottish landscapes; the kind of grass on which golf was invented. It’s low, flat and lush but apparently grows outward rather than upward.

Tomorrow we plan to head out to Little Corn Island, a trip David Foster Wallace might rightfully refer to as “getting away from pretty much already being away from it all”, had he not gone the Heming way. Afters hours of road to Managua, about an hour of air to Bluefields and 5.5 hours of nausea inducing sea to Big Corn, it’s the last 30 minutes that everyone voices apprehension about. The quick, choppy panga ride to the smaller island is said to be what keeps hordes of tourists at bay, literally, leaving the smaller island to the truly adventurous. This is complete bullshit, of course, and spewed by a source quickly becoming known for dodgy info. We haven’t been able to lock in a reservation because the small island is seemingly overrun with vacationers; full pangas departing daily. Scott Day, a voice I never ignore with regard to any matters of travel, dropped a line to recommend Casa Iguana who still might be able to put us up for a few days.

Speaking of showing up without reservations, back when I was fresh out of college I moved out to a Midwestern city to begin employment as part of a trainee class. Throughout our 6 week orientation the entire class was told, repeatedly, that we needed to learn to deal with ambiguity better. This was entirely disingenuous, a transparent attempt to re-contextualize their own inability to construct even the vague outline of a program as our own shortcoming. But either way, I’m in Latin America and you don’t get any more ambiguous than that. Things you read, like menus and bus schedules, aren’t true. Things you’re told, like all the things you’re told, aren’t true. When the ATM booth has a sticker that says “PLUS” and the ATM itself promises to be part of the PLUS network on it’s greetings screen, don’t be fooled. It’s not. Errors aplenty await. And I deal well with this. In fact, I voluntarily drop myself in the middle of it. So suck it, IT Management Trainee Program for a once prominent but now non-existent regional bank.

Yeah, I hold grudges.