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“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.

Price of beer in a bar: US$1.85 for 1 liter
Song currently stuck in my head: Boys Better (The Dandy Warhols)

Okay, here’s our path across Honduras and into Nicaragua, starting in Utila and ending in Esteli:

We took the 6:20am Utila Princess Ferry to La Ceiba, where a taxi was waiting for us. We called Rafael (aka “Orlando”, phone: 9731 2676) the day before to arrange this pickup. We got his name and number from a receptionist at Mango Inn and we can further recommend him. He took us across town to the Viana bus station in the Esso Minimart on “15th of September Blvd”. Once there we purchased tickets for the 10:30am bus to San Pedro Sula, economy class, which was still plush. We arrived at the bus station in San Pedro Sula around 1pm. I crossed the hall to the Ticabus station and purchased 2 tickets to Managua, Nicaragua for the next day. We had already arranged a hotel in San Pedro Sula for the night, based on a recommendation from a traveling expat and a collection of glowing internet reviews. Luis, the proprietor of Dos Molinos B&B (los2molinos@yahoo.com), picked us up at the bus station and dropped us off there the next morning. The hotel was nearby in a safe, upscale shopping disrict. Security is a primary concern in San Pedro Sula, 2009’s runner up for Murder Capital of The World (reigning champ: Juárez) and, here of all places, we wanted as hassle free of an experience as possible. Luis provided exactly this.

The next morning we arrived at the bus station at 4am, our bus departed at 5am, stopped briefly in Tegucigalpa, Honduras before crossing the border and deboarding in Leon around 3 in the afternoon. We took a taxi from the bus station into town to Bigfoot Hostel, which was full, so we went across the street to Via Via Hostel and got exactly the room I was imagining/hoping for; huge old colonial building, well maintained, all tile and plaster and gardens with a good bar/restaurant in front. We considered staying on another day, but wanderlust held sway and we had the hostel staff recommend us a taxi driver to the Leon bus station. There we caught a chicken bus and rode for about 2.5 hours to Esteli, took a taxi to town from the bus station (paying double (US$2) for “expresso”, meaning the driver won’t pick up additional strangers on the way. We went directly to Hostel Luna, which is run by an english speaking woman (we could really use that foothold to get started here). We’re a little (but only a little) off the major backpacker path and now we’ve mostly decided to make a month of it here while investigating one or two of the other towns in this region as well.

Mostly we’re hiding from the rain, which has been near constant for the last couple of days and is likely to last a couple more. As we understand it, we got off the Bay Islands just in time to avoid a serious tropical storm. We haven’t talked to anyone back on the islands yet, so I can’t speak to the extent of the chaos.

So here we are in Esteli, Nicaragua; the intersection of high quality cigars, coffee and rum all in a pleasantly cool climate. If I ever see the sun I just might experience a perfect day, but for now it’s cold, torrential and, paradoxically, the water keeps getting shut off.