Last Stop in Central America – Guatemala!

Last stop in Central America was in the land of the Mayans – Guatemala.

There are only 3 countries in Central America that are known for their ancient Mayan ruins: Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.

Unlike Honduras, however, Guatemala has a lot more interesting activities to offer.

As it was my first time in Guatemala, I wasn’t quite sure where to begin.

By now, I had been on the road, jumping from bus to bus, and traveling non-stop for a month straight, so I was ready for some R&R.

I had heard a lot of amazing things about this one place called Antigua, so I thought I’d give it a try, and perhaps spend the last few days in Central America here.

From the city, it’s about a 45 minute bus ride on a chicken bus. The bus drops you off at the bus terminal, which is the last stop, located near the market place on the edge of town.

From there, it’s about a 3-5 minute walk into the center of town where you can find plenty of lodging options. Antigua has a wide range of accommodation options, from boutique upscale hotels to budget, hole-in-the-wall rooms with no view.

The first hotel I checked into was run by a local Guatemalan family. The place was small and dusty, but went for $12 for a bedroom with a private bath. I thought, why not give it a try.

Fail.

The place is a dump. Avoid it.

For a few more dollars, why not check into Hostel Qachoch. Clean, sunny, and breezy, this hostel is located 2 minutes from the central market. For a double bed with a shared bathroom, we paid $14 total per night.

Amenities include laundry, free internet and Wifi, and free usage of the kitchen.

The staff will also accompany you to the market if you need some help bargaining.

The town of Antigua, paved with cobbled stoned roads, is a feast for the eyes.

It is home to beautiful ruins of colonial churches scattered throughout the city. Serving as the main seat of the military Spanish governor for over 200 years, the city still shows strong remnants of Spanish influence, most notable in the architectural details of the colonial churches.

The following are a few of the main buildings to check out.

  • Cathedral of San Jose
  • Palacio de los Capitanes
  • La Merced Church

Antigua Church

Don’t forget to visit the market place, which opens early in the morning everyday and starts to break down at around sunset.

Stacked with stalls selling everything from hand-made decorative candles and Guatemalan souvenirs to DVDs and high-fashion clothing, the market place is a shopper’s haven.

Tip to the wise. Never settle for the first price that the merchant quotes you.

When bargaining, halve whatever price they give you. For instance, say you spot a hand-woven traditional Guatemalan blanket, and the merchant asks for $15.

Start your price at $7 or below. Chances are, if the seller is a good and skilled salesman, he or she will playfully bargain with you until you come to a reasonable price closer to half of what they originally asked you.

And if they don’t want to bargain with you, simply walk away. Because there are plenty of merchants who will. You don’t want to end up being one of those dopey tourists who pay full price for something that isn’t worth much to begin with.

Women in the Marketplace

If you’re up for a short hike, walk up to the Cerro de la Cruz, which offers a spectacular view of Antigua from high on top.

You are encouraged to accompany the police who leave for the hill top once or twice a day. Check with the tourist police the day before to get the exact schedule.

 

 

Mayan Ruins of Honduras

The Copan Ruins was a much needed change from the chaotic and dangerous San Pedro Sula and the festering, debauched, toxic wasteland that was Utila.

Clean, quaint, and friendly, the small town of Copan which is home to one of the world-famous Mayan ruins, offered a refreshing dose of culture that I had been desperately seeking ever since I had set foot on Utila.

Cobbled stoned roads lined with small, colorful shops and black gas lanterns are one of the main highlights. There are plenty of arts and crafts stores about. At night, merchants set up tables covered with locally made jewelry and nifty trinkets worthy of taking home as souvenirs.

Lodging options are abundant and range from budget accommodations to high-end luxury hotels. As always, best deals can be found during off-season, however, as there are plenty of places to stay, finding accommodations should not be too hard even without reservations. Check out Jennymar or Hotel Mary.

The town itself is a short walk from the ruins, and can be reached by foot or by one of the many tuk tuk taxis.

Tickets for the ruins cost $15, and an additional $15 if you wish to see the tunnels. Curious to look at what they had to offer, we bought tickets to both for a total of $30 for each person.

The ruins, itself, was nothing short of spectacular. Covering a huge area more than double the size of a football stadium, the ruins ranged from beautifully designed columns of stelaes and statues to flat stone pyramids and ornamental stairs, which included the longest Mayan staircase.

The tunnels, however, were a disappointment. At the time of viewing, only two tunnels were open, and most of the insides were closed off to the public. Jon and I were a bit on the adventurous, albeit naughty, side and slipped off into the areas that were closed off to the public. Even then, it wasn’t worth the $15 extra that we paid. We did have an Indiana Jones-esque moment thanks to the lights in the tunnels going off, and managed to find our way back to the main entrance with nothing more than the faint glow offered by our lighter.

Transportation between San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba

While there are two main methods of transportation between San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba – airplane and bus – most people tend to use the bus services. Not only do the buses offer more flexibility in terms of scheduling, but they also provide much more reasonable prices.

One way on the bus costs 100 lps ($5); you can also buy a round-trip ticket for 150 lps. (about $7.50) The bus trip can last anywhere from 3 to 4 hours depending on the bus, traffic, weather, and the whim of the bus driver.

I’ve taken a bus that took 2 hours and 45 minutes from La Ceiba to SPS. I’ve also taken a bus that took almost 5 hours to get from SPS to La Ceiba, so the travel time can vary quite a lot.

As a rule of thumb, I would try and stick with the express bus companies that run direct routes to and from La Ceiba and SPS. Avoid the older, more run-down looking buses as they tend to stop and pick up people as they go, and as a result stops every few km. This definitely adds a good chunk of time to your travel time.

The best place to catch a bus from SPS to La Ceiba is at the main bus terminal located in San Pedro Sula. It’s about a 7 minute bus ride from the city center, and costs between 7 and 10 lps. I would strongly advise against taking the taxis into and out of the city as the drivers tend to overcharge you just based on the fact that you’re a gringo. Why pay $5 when you can pay .50 cents

When you’re in La Ceiba, the most central place to catch a bus to SPS is at the main bus terminal. The busy bus stop/terminal is home to most of the major bus companies that run services between La Ceiba and SPS. You can pretty much catch a bus heading out to SPS anytime of the day. The last buses usually run at 5PM.

I’ve listed a few of the companies that provide transportation between SPS and La Ceiba. Most of them are around the same price (100 lps one-way), save for Hedman Alas, which is more on the expensive side.

  • Christina
  • Empresa
  • Mirna
  • Hedman Alas
  • Diana Express

Transportation to the Copan Ruinas

Luxury companies such as Hedman Alas and King Quality run shuttle services between San Pedro Sula and Copan. However, this option is much pricier, and may not be the best choice for the budget traveler.

If you’re looking for a safe, quick, yet affordable way to get to the Copan Ruins from SPS, then opt for the coach bus service offered by Casasola.  The office can be found on the lower level of the SPS bus terminal. They have several departures during the day, starting early in the morning. As these tend to change, I would always check with the company beforehand. Tickets can be purchased on the day of travel, and cost about 130 lps one-way. Travel time from SPS to the town of Copan is about 3 hours.

If you want to be a bit more adventurous, and want to save extra, hop on one of the chicken buses heading to Copan that depart from the main bus terminal in SPS.  Although the bus tends to get crowded fast and takes slightly longer than the coach buses, it does offer a slightly cheaper option compared to the coach buses.

You will have to transfer to another bus in the town of Entrada, which can be a bit of a hassle. But if you don’t have much baggage and have a little more time on your hands, then the chicken bus is probably the most economical way to get to Copan.

Lake Coatepeque, El Salvador

The journey from San Pedro Sula, Honduras to Guatemala involved a short stop in El Salvador.

Most visitors who have been to Central America will agree that El Salvador is probably the Central American country with the least amount of American or Western influences.

In fact, it attracts the least number of American tourists, particularly in recent years, due to the local youth gang violence and the petty crimes that ensued. As a result, things remain relatively less expensive than its neighboring Central American countries such as Guatemala and Honduras, and much less “touristy,” which, I personally think is a great thing.

Worried about gang violence? Simply use a little common sense. Avoid traveling to remote places in the dark; hide your valuables (like that expensive DSLR you just bought) that you carry on person; walk on well-lit paths when traveling at night; stay in reputable hostels and hotels, not some sketchy hospedaje or guesthouse.

Because my stay in El Salvador was so short, I had time to venture to one place - Lake Coatepeque, one of the most beautiful lakes in Central America.

Lake Coatepeque or Lago de Coatepeque (as it is known by the locals) is located on the eastern part of the Coatepeque volcanic Caldera. A stay in one of the hostels or hotels by the lake will offer stunning views of the emerald colored water, and a chance to take a dip in the cool and pristine lake.

Getting to the lake from the city, San Salvador, is quite simple.

From the international bus terminal (Terminal Puerto), catch the number 4 bus or any bus heading to Terminal Occidente. The bus stop is across the street from the bus terminal.

Get off in the town of El Congo. If you’re not sure, just ask someone on the bus, and they will most likely be able to tell you where and when to get off. From there, take the bus heading to Lago Coaltepeque.

Take heed. The bus route from El Congo to the lake can be slightly confusing because there are 2 different buses- both buses will take you to the lake, however, one will take you to the planas, which is the residential side of the lake that is quite dangerous.

Learn from my mistake. I ended up taking the bus to Las Planas. Thankfully, there were two police officers, one of whom, Angel, was extremely helpful. After realizing that my friend and I had taken one of the last buses to Las Planas, he called two of his colleagues, police officers patrolling the lake, to give us a lift to the nearest hostel.

It was quite surreal. I was on the last bus that was headed for the main town when a police truck with its sirens flashing, stopped the bus. One of the officers asked the bus driver for the two American passengers. I thought I was in some kind of trouble, only to realize that they wanted to give us a ride to the hostel.

So long story short, get on the bus that will take you to the side of the lake that houses the hostel, hotels, and restaurants. Hostel Tercero Mundo is a decent option for those looking for budget accommodation. They have dorm beds for $9 and private rooms with private bathrooms for $28.

If you go during the rainy season, which is October through December, make sure to bring a light blanket or long-sleeved clothes to keep you warm. At night, the lake’s surroundings tend to get chilly and windy.

La Casona de Tortuguero

Once you arrive in Tortuguero, be expected to deal with people trying to sell you their cabinas, which are local lodgings that are quite similar to hostels.

Depending on how busy it is, there might be a few guides or poachers as I like to call them who will try and take you to a certain cabinas. They’re probably paid a commission based on the number of people they bring in.

Sometimes they can be helpful, but overall, I find them annoying. Personally, I like looking for lodging on my own time without being badgered or harassed by someone driven solely by money. So my suggestion would be to look around for lodging yourself. The village is quite small, the beach being only about a 5 minute walk away from the port. Just walk straight ahead from the dock, past the stores, and soccer field and you’ll hit the beach.

The village is divided into 2 main sections, the part facing north of the soccer field and the area facing south of the field.

My suggestion would be to stay at La Casona de Tortuguero, located next to the hospital, which is a huge, 1-storied pink building near the soccer field.

One of the nicest and cleanest cabinas in Tortuguero

The facilities are spotless, rooms clean, and staff friendly. A private room with private bathroom and hot water costs $20 total. Wireless is available, but sorry, no computers. No worries, though, as there is an internet cafe in the center of town.

One of the things that plagues the other cabinas in the village is dampness. The rooms feel stuffy, wet, and moldy particularly during the rainy season.

The rooms in Casona, however, did not suffer from this moldy malady, and felt well ventilated. Each room comes equipped with a celiling fan as well as a regular, plug-in fan, which also helps keep the room cool and circulated.

The manager, Sarah, runs the place with her brother, Andres, who is Casona’s main tour guide. I would highly recommend doing a canal tour with him as well.

Casonas also doubles as a restaurant and serves home-made dishes such as lasgana and pizza, as well as local Costa Rican dishes. Rooms with kitchens are also available.

Private bedroom with bathroom in Casona

Double-Dipping Costa Rica – To the Village of Turtles

As our travel itinerary involved us heading back to La Ceiba, Honduras, we began our journey back north from Panama City to San Jose, Costa Rica.

Crossing the border from Panama into Costa Rica the second time around was much less painful. The whole process took about 2 hours as opposed to the 7 hours we spent the last time we tried entering Panama from Costa Rica.

Andres - our guide from Casona

Arrived in San Jose early afternoon. As we were collecting our bags, Jon casually asked one of the guys at the counter for advice on how to get to T0rtuguero. Luckily, the guy spoke a little English and had done the trip to Tortuguero quite a few times himself.

He suggested that instead of passing through Moin, as most tour books recommend you to do, take a bus to Cariari and ride the public water taxi down the canal to Tortuguero, thereby saving money and the hassle.

Unlike most places in Costa Rica that experience both  high and low seasons, Tortuguero is busy pretty much all year round. As a result, most guide books will recommend booking your lodging and transportation ahead of time.

This is not the case as both lodging and transportation is plentiful. Just make sure to arrive at the bus stop a little earlier to ensure a spot on the bus, and subsequently on the boat. But once you’ve secured your ticket for both the bus to Cariari and the water taxi to the village of Tortuguero. You can buy the boat ticket at the port, which lies at the end of the bus stop in Cariari.

If for whatever reason you need to make an overnight pit stop, as we did, then I suggest taking a bus from San Jose to Guapiles (about a 1 hour bus ride), staying in one of the locally owned Cabinas, simple lodgings that resemble hostels, for the night.The one we stayed in was quite clean and simple, costing us $22 total for the night.

It was a bit frustrating because none of the 3 travel guide books we had, including the Lonely Planet and The Rough Guides, made a note of places to stay in Guapiles, Moin, or Cariari, all of which are main stops on the way to get to Tortuguero. Perhaps it was a simple oversight, but be assured that at least in Guapiles there are plenty of Cabinas, and based on what the locals have told us, the same can be said for the two other places – Moin and Cariari.

As of October 2011, the bus from Cariari to the port leaves twice a day- once at 6:00 AM and the other at 11:30AM. (Ticket price: $3) The bus ride took about an hour and a half. Prepare for a grueling and hot bus ride particularly if you’re one of the unfortunate ones who don’t manage to find a seat.

You’ll get off at the last bus stop, which takes you to the mouth of the canal. There, you can purchase your boat ticket ($3). Make sure to water proof your bag as it tends to rain a lot particularly during the rainy season, and although you are covered by the boat roofing, most of the bags are left at the bow of the boat, and therefore, are not covered.

The boat ride can take anywhere from 1 hour to 1 hour and 30 minutes, depending on the speed of the boat and the number of people aboard the boat. Prepare your camera as wild life spottings are quite common. Look out for crocodiles, herons, caimans, and kingfishers.

They’ll most likely make a few stops in the villages, letting the locals off before they pull up to the main village of Tortuguero. And there you have it.

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