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Price of beer in a bar: Continues to outdo it’s self, regularly reaching $9 for something less than a pint.

Song currently stuck in my head: Stations (The Gutter Twins)

The Merino wool addict and backpack capacity-phobe Eytan over at Snarkynomad traveled Central America recently and has a write-up on doing so with a 25 liter carry on pack.

I traveled with a carry on sized pack last summer and when I returned, US Customs got really shitty with me about it. It was 2 am and the first guy was pleasant enough but apparently he wasn’t fully satisfied with some of my answers.

“Where did you fly from?”

“Costa Rica”

“How long were you there?”

[counting on my fingers…] “I don’t remember exactly, it’s been a weird few days, but I think it was less than 2 days. Or maybe just over.”

“You were only gone two days?”

“No, but I was in Costa Rica less than 2 days, I think, and that’s where I flew from. I was in Nicaragua for about 90 days before that.”

“Please step in line over there.”

The guy “over there” (secondary search with x-rays and such) was the only impolite US Customs agent I ever remember dealing with. Generally these people are the height of professionalism, even at 4am, though I’d never previously dealt with second-tier personnel. Thenew guy had real issues with my backpack being smaller than he expected. He kept asking me over and over where the rest of my bags were, eventually yelling it at me. He said to his co-workers, loud enough for me to hear (I think that was the point): “He’s been gone for 90 days and he says this is all his luggage.”

I remember thinking, How do you think this works? I take 90 pairs of pants? I’m pretty close to the carry-on restriction with this airline as it is and they’ll charge me US$100 to check anything.

Eytan also has some cost-of-travel info for Guatemala, a place I like but seldom visit.

“Must know”

10.03.11

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:  I just paid US$2 for a Flor De Cana (5 year)
and coke.  Beer costs about the the same.
Song currently stuck in my head: Powder Burns (The Twilight Singers).
Seriously, download this album.  Then go to their website and buy a T
Shirt, you filthy music downloading freeloader.  Though I’m sure the
name tips you off, this is not an album about not doing a lot of
cocaine.

I’m back in Antigua for a day or two, having just arrived a few hours
ago.  I’m working my way back to Utila to meet up with Jake, a
boarding school friend who is flying in for a week.  I’ll be retracing
my dusty steps back through Copan, Sand Pedro Sula, and Ceiba on my
way back to the Caribbean.

I don’t have a lot to report (and this computer really sucks).  I
spent a day hiking to the top of “Indian Nose” (2300 meters or so of
elevation), and then set out for a day of heavy biking later in the
week.  I’ve had a cold for the last few days and it got the better of
me about an hour into the ride.  I was getting really dizzy, climbing
50 degree inclines overlooking ledge- and rail-less shear drops of 50
feet or more and decided that I was flirting with a pretty stupid way
to die.  I turned back and my friends went on, eventually being robbed
by some guy with a bandanna over his face and a half unsheathed
machete (make sure you pronounce it the Club Dread way…
“Mah-shet-tay”).  I think he should have resisted, but I wasn’t there.
I really do think people are way to cooperative with criminals
whenever they actually meet them.  Everyone is tough on crime until
they’re faced with it, then it’s “whatever you say, Mr. mugger”.  I
mean, if a guy has you dead to rights, by all means, cut your losses
and hand over the cash.  But if you’re a young, healthy, able bodied
guy and you’ve got a good shot, I say take it.  It just seems selfish
to me to take the easy way out and encourage future recurrences of the
crime.

We’ll see if that’s true when my time comes.  Theorizing about stuff
like this is of limited utility.

My tennis elbow flared up a bit, so I went into a local pharmacy and
asked what they could do for me.  I said “Tendinitis” and they just
looked at me.  Their English was great, they just didn’t know anything
about medicine.  I said “tennis elbow” and they just looked at me.  I
pointed to my elbow and said “hurts”.  Their eyes lit up.  “Ah, hurts.
We have stuff for hurts.” and he came back with 20 tabs of
Hydrocodone (7.5mg) for US$14.  I know some friends of mine have just
booked their flights.

When I thought I’d used my levaquin for too long I emailed my Doctor
(everything is cool).  When the pharmacist handed me 20 tabs of
hydrocodone I emailed my musician.  I’ve been careful with them, but
I’ll tell you, they take the sting out of a 4 hour bus ride.

Guatemala is beautiful and boring.  The travelers tend to be on the
superficial end of the backpacking crowd (the kind of girls with
eyeshadow curling irons in their packs) because this is a very easy
place to travel.  That’s also why their is so much crime.  You’ve got
a bunch of oblivious travelers who can’t be bothered to think twice
about their own safety.  I offered to walk a friend of ours home from
the bar when she decided she wanted to leave early.  She didn’t
understand why and insisted that nothing could possibly happen.  This
girl had her passport stolen in Honduras and was along for the bike
ride earlier that day when Espen was robbed, and she still couldn’t
imagine that anything might happen to a lone girl in the middle of the
night down dark alleys in a tourist town with no police presence in
Guatemala.  I’m not sure what adjective to use to describe this level
of obliviousness, but suffice it to say some people have it coming.

The people we rented a room from in Antiqua mentioned repeatedly to
take a cab after dark because that block specifically was dangerous
and known for muggings.  Friends of mine say “fooey and psshaw on
that, what do these local residents know?  I’m walking.”

I’ll never understand.  Maybe it’s a European thing, lulled into a
false sense of safety by their low domestic crime rates.

So crime permeates this report, as is to be expected after too much
time in Guatemala.  It’s only a matter of time before some cute white
chick ends up plastered all over CNN because, shockingly, she was
abducted, murdered and dumped after wandering the night streets drunk
and alone in one of the crimingest cities in one of the crimingest
countries in Central America.

Oh yeah, I have a mustache.  The barber who gave me a shave insisted
on it.  I would describe it as somewhere between “El Guapo” and
“Legally prohibited from living within 500 yards of a school or
playground”.  Pictures are available upon request, but I estimate it
will only be around until the next time I get a shave.  If you know
Demetri Martin, he has a bit about how you can make any comments sound
sleazy by adding the word “ladies” to the end of it.  “Beautiful day,
isn’t it… ladies?”  Can I take this chair… ladies?”  Well, this
mustache is basically that, making even the most benign comment seem
lecherous.

Currently Location: San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala
Price of Beer in a bar: No idea.  I had a rum and coke for about
US1.10 last nigh, but that was the happy hour special.  I’ve only been
here about 18 hours.
Song Currently stuck in my head: Powder Burns by The Twilight Singers.
I listened to this for the first time yesterday, then immediately
played the album again.  I’m a fan.  I can’t believe I missed them in
Chicago in November.

You might be wondering how to tell if the driver you’ve hired is a
maniac.  It’s a reasonable question for two reasons; one, there are
numerous professional maniac drivers in Central America.  I don’t
think “clean driving record” translates, to be honest.  Second, it can
be difficult to assign blame for the whiteness in your knuckles as you
hug hopelessly tight 180s switchbacking your way up and down
mountains, tires barking, distracted by oncoming traffic and the
rational for putting a railing here but not there (or not replacing
the railing that’s been knocked down as it clearly came in handy once,
hopefully).  The roads, the conditions, the other drivers, the falling
rocks and washout turns… these could all be to blame.  You natural
instincts might mislead you.  For instance, when you driver honks his
horn repeatedly while crossing the center in a blind curve, is he
being conscientious and warning oncoming, righteous traffic of his
errant presence (a tactic common among Chicago bus drivers), or is he
substituting a repetitive horn for slowing down to less dangerous
speeds (in this case, the reduction from 15 mph to, maybe 7)?

I don’t know, I’m not a professional (or even recreational) driver.
So here’s what I’ve devised:  if your driver is consistently passing
lighter, more nimble vehicles, vehicles capable of superior
acceleration, on his way uphill, then he’s a maniac.  Yesterday, my
driver was a maniac.  This happens.

Having abandoned our relative luxury in Antigua, Espen and I have
arrived in San Pedro La Laguna, an area that Aldous Huxley referred to
as “almost too much of a good thing”.  You can barely see the name of
this town in print without seeing that quote attached to it, so I
would hate to disappoint.  Al wasn’t far off, the area really is more
picturesque than Antigua, and that’s a tall order.  See attached, but
be warned that it’s just the smallest taste.  On the boat ride over to
San Pedro we made a quick stop to pick up a few people (like 4), and
there was Kathryn, the German girl I’d traveled with in Belize (along
with Stew and Lynnai).  I’ve never surprised to run into people while
traveling, but this caught me off guard.  She arrived in Guatemala
when I was still in Belize, so I didn’t expect her to still be in the
country.  Jason is a guy I keep running into everywhere.  We met in
Belize (he was traveling with the London girls from the beach with the
good music), then he ended up in the room next to mine at Tony’s, a
slightly out of the way guest house in Utila.  Then he was at my guest
house in Copan, then on my shuttle bus to Antigua, and now I’ve just
run into his this morning in San Pedro.  None of this was planned in
the least.  I seldom know where I’m going, much less where someone
else might head.

Last week was characterized buy movie marathons at a local cafe and
all-night processions of the solemn, ornate Catholic variety.
Enjoyable overall, often surreal,  a bit pricey and, at times,
overwhelmingly crowded.  We were enjoying drinks in a small cafe with
the best breakfast menu I’ve ever seen (Musicians Breakfast: cup of
coffee, two cigarettes, two advil… US$0.95) when the entire street
when opaque with white incense smoke and an enormous, spooky lit float
swayed down the street on the shoulders of a hundred of the faithful,
all dressed in purple shrouds.  Such is Antigua during Semana Santa.

Which reminds me, Happy Easter all.

I began taking antibiotics a couple of days ago when I realized that
I’d lost count of the number of weeks that I’d been suffering from
diarrhea.  We had a nurse staying with us at the house who agreed with
my armchair medical opinion, so I swallowed a Levaquin and have been
marveling at it effectiveness ever since.  I’d been avoiding taking
the pills for two reasons (our reasons seem to be coming in two’s
today); one, I thought I had Cipro, a pretty heavy hitting antibiotics
that takes a firm “anti” stance to the helpful “biotics” that populate
our collective human gut.  I should have know better.  My Chicago
physician (and by far my favorite marcher in the parade of doctors
I’ve seen in my 30 years) isn’t the kind of guy to nuke my stomach
from orbit when a single bullet would suffice.

Two, it really hasn’t gotten in my way.  I seem to have developed some
kind of super human bowel control and my persistent indigestion wasn’t
causing me problems, even on lengthy bus rides.

I saw Babel the other day in the local Antiguan theater.  It looked
really good, though really gut wrenching.  I say “looked” because the
movie was shown in “English” with Spanish subtitles.  In reality, the
movie is in 4 different languages and very little of it is in English.
So even though it was an American DVD with English chosen as the
language track, the sections that would have been subtitled in an
American theater were written in Spanish (except when Spanish was
being spoken, then there were none at all).  Perhaps it goes without
saying, but I have a few questions.

Ah, the quality of service continues to disappoint, no matter how low
I set my standards.  A simple heads up that English speakers (the
majority of people in the theater) will have no idea what’s going on
would be nice, especially when I purchase my ticket in English.  This
morning we ate breakfast at a local cafe that Kathryn is working.
We’d been there quite a while and ordered before anyone, even our
inside source, bothered to mention that the cook hadn’t shown up yet.
These things are fine with me when I encounter them at local greasy
spoons, but they get under my skin when I’m paying US$5.50 for a
modest breakfast in Central America.

But, it’s a minor irritation at best, and the quality of the coffee
usually makes up for it.

My thoughts are with Sarah as she prepares for her LPC exam and my
Grandfather as he recovers from a recent procedure and awaits a
prognosis from his cardiologist.  The latter is keeping me glued to
email for updates, so I should be unusually responsive for the next
few days.

Price of Beer in a bar: I’m guessing US$2 or some other outrageous
sum, based on the cost of the house rum
Song Currently stuck in my head: Do Things by New Wet Kojak

I never had any intention of going to Guatemala.  That’s why I paid
US$50 to take a boat directly from Belize to Honduras.  To me,
Guatemala is just a tourist trap for backpackers who aren’t paying
attention.  It’s like Costa Rica, but with considerably more violent
crime.  But, I’d never been here and I’m killing a month while waiting
for my friend Jake to meet me in Utila and I’d already spent far too
long in Honduras.  The last time I wrote I was debating  between
knocking out the month or so that I plan to spend in Panama or coming
to Guat.  Other travelers had been talking up this destination, and
when I received word from Espen that he and Christian (friends from my
open water SCUBA class) were still haunting Antigua, well, the
decision was made.  I had minor trouble on the bus, since there appear
to be two towns named Copan in Honduras, but I was able to arrive at
my border town relatively easily and relatively on schedule.  I
checked into The somethingoranother Verde in Copan, a hostel that the
Lonely Planet guide had raved about fan-boy style, and was immediately
sorry that I did.  The owner also owns a tour company and a cafe in
the town, and the LP guide writers pretty much wet themselves
reviewing each.  I think they called the tour company one of the best
services available in Honduras.  Maybe it is, maybe not… but my
“bed” sucked.  Mosquitoes, odd rules, early check out times, crappy
foam rubber “mattresses”, crappy even by Central American foam rubber
mattress standards, and way too few bathrooms were all included for
the near extortionate price of US$4 a night.  Mind you that I was
paying US$5 for a private room with a good mattress in Utila, where
prices are generally about 30% higher than the mainland.

But the blood of gringo cash is in the water of Copan.  There’s an
impressive set of Ruins that I browsed before leaving (gringo
admission is 300% or the price that Hodurans pay), and the city marked
my return to coffeeland, exporting their beans all over Honduras and
beyond.  Well heeled and nearly geriatric American expats and part
timers regularly make the trip down from Guatemala and the local
pricing has been adjusted accordingly.  I spent less than 24 hour in
the town and arranged a seat on a direct shuttle to Antigua, another
spot where the streets run green with American cash.  After the
easiest border crossing that I think I’ve ever encountered I was
watching the cliff side settlements of Guatemala hurry the other way
at 60mph.

I found out about an hour before boarding my shuttle that I was
heading smack into the epicenter of Semana Santa, one of the largest
festivals in all of Central America and a sort of solemn Mardi Gras.
I was warned repeatedly that the entire town had been booked solid for
months, and I was in no position to argue.  My only comfort came from
knowing that my two friends might be able to give me a cold tile floor
to sleep on or at least a place to store my bags.  I’d faced worse
odds, though usually with the back seat of a Ford Escort to fall back
on, and if worse comes to worst I have a full supply of Pro-V to help
my wait out a long, sleepless night outdoors.

Upon arrival at Jungle Party Hostel (yeah, the name sucks… it’s kind
of an inside joke and they mention it’s suckage on their shirts), my
third attempt as the sun went down and my chances of being mugged of
my pack went up, they were able to squeeze me in.  The next day I met
with my friends at their Spanish school and wasted the afternoon
smoking cigars and drinking 12 year old Flor de Cana in a boutique
cigar store and lounge.  We ended up engaged in lengthy conversations
with the proprietor and employee, both of which eventually had
something to offer: the employee and her boyfriend (gringos from DC)
rent 2 rooms in their house for a very reasonable rate and the owner’s
wife knows a guy who runs a US$1k a night hotel here in town that may
want to hire Christian to manage it.

First things first: I’m renting a spotless, resort class private room
with two beds, private bath, hot water, laundry and kitchen access for
about US$16 a night.  Meanwhile a bed at Jungle Party in considerably
less impressive digs is going for US$25 this week.  I asked Espen if
he wanted to take a look at the room and maybe split it, and he and
his newfound girlfriend instead rented the room upstairs.  It’s even
more impressive, combining the stats above with gorgeous views of both
the surrounding mountains and Baywatch via American cable.  These are
easily the best rooms I’ve seen since arriving in Central America and
I’m pretty comfortable saying that we have the best deal in town this
week.

Second, Christian is here in Central America looking to open a hotel.
He’s doing ground research for an investor back in Quebec and had
primarily been interested in Costa Rica but is re-thinking that
position.  He has hotel experience and is currently taking Spanish
classes every morning.  Other guy is looking for a French Canadian who
is willing to learn Spanish in the mornings and the management his
US$1000 a night hotel here in Antigua by night.  Christian is more
than a little excited about all of this.  It really is amazing what
can transpire over a Cohiba, a laptop, a glass of rum, and an
afternoon without obligations.

Oh, and Antigua is beautiful.  It looks and feels like the physical
manifestation of a General Foods International Coffee advertisement.
The city is much older than the US and much of the original
architecture is preserved.  It’s a colonial town that looks not unlike
the French Quarter, up high enough that the nights are chilly and
thick comforters are in wide use, and surrounded by very nearby
mountains at least one of which is actively volcanic.  The streets are
cobblestone, for god’s sake.

From here I’ll probably go to some party town on the lake, much to my
liver’s chagrin.  Rumor of my evacuation from Utila has reached has
reached said liver, who is answering my calls again.  He’d begun
screening them after continuing disagreements and a bit
of a falling out on the island, mostly over peak performance
throughput and his modest performance goals.  Christian has agreed to
teach me to surf if I go with him to El Salvador (the beaches are
supposed to be amazing, unspoiled, and safe), and I’ve got some time to
kill, so that may come to pass as well.

Plans continue to form for post-Panamanian travel and South America
looks like the big winner.  I’m likely to hike the Incan Trail to
Macchu Picchu with my second hikingest friend Dan, choose a few other
spots to explore, and spend a good few weeks or month in Buenos Aries.
I’ll tack on Santiago if I have the money.

Utila is still on my mind, though, and also on the tongues of many of
the people I meet.  Chris repeatedly mentioned with seeming sincerity
that Utila as a very special place and I can’t help but compare.  I
miss the kind of town where you’re minding you own business, talking
up some girl at a all-you-can-drink 150 limpera barbecue when your
divemaster from the haliburton deep dive the day before starts
pounding on a drum (where the fuck did he get a drum?) and that French
brunette you’ve been chatting up excuses herself politely, picks up
two can on chains, lights them, and begins fire-dancing for the crowd
while throwing winks and smiles (beautiful, radiant smiles that defy
the kerosene’s yellow light and gleam their whitest) at you from
between swinging orbs of fire.

And the Chili Peppers are always being played within earshot,
everywhere, every day.