Report Card #1

So  now we’re home in the states for a week so we’ll take this opportunity to take stock of how we’ve done so far and what it is we need to change.  Overall, it looks like our preparation has paid off.  We’ve rarely been without something we’ve needed and have never been completely unprepared.  Since leaving the US we have not met another backpacker with smaller packs than we have (we do have the added benefit of being able to share a few things) but we have met many with things we wish we did have.

Our supplies have treated us well but we are swapping a few things out that don’t seem to be standing up to the wear and tear we put them through or just aren’t quite perfect enough for our uses.  Mostly this has to do with our  wardrobe…we’ve put several reviews up this week and several more are coming.  Once we’re done with all our trips to REI and repacking our bags we’ll update our gear page and link to the reviews we’ve written.

As for budget, which is what we are most concerned with on a daily basis, we’re spending less than we budgeted but a bit more than  we had hoped to spend.  All in all though we’re not in such a bad position.  Reminder, these numbers are updated each time we finish a country on the $$$ tab.

CountryDaysFoodLodgingActivityTransMisc*Daily Avg
Mex & C. Amr.111$17.76$10.33$23.31$20.50$7.35$79.25
Costa Rica10$18.88$15.28$12.60$11.60$6.25$64.61

MEXICO:  Our first country so we weren’t so savey yet.  Having said that, we didn’t so do badly.  We did some expensive activities, several of which we would not pay so much for now.  Overnight buses and couchsurfing helped to keep lodging low but those same buses made for some high transportation costs.

GUATEMALA: This is a very cheap country.  We could have lived there very inexpensively, especially given how long we spent there.  Spanish school is the sole reason for this being as expensive as it was.   Additionally, living with a host family proved to be far more expensive than had we lived alone.

BELIZE:  Only went here to visit some family and had a wonderful time staying at their fancy (free lodging) house.  Getting there and back from Honduras, by boat, proved to be a very expensive endeavor.

HONDURAS:  Another cheap country, but we spoiled the budget here by getting PADI certified.  How dare us!  Add to that the expense of transportation to some isolated villages in La Moskitia and the island of Utilia and this country looks more expensive than it really  was.

NICARAGUA:  Not really any cheaper than Guatemala and Honduras, but as we didn’t have any major adventures here we were more on target with our spending.  That being said, this spending still represents a few small splurges.

COSTA RICA:  Really proved to be too expensive for us to do many of the things we had hoped to do…so we visited some monkey infested beaches (mostly free) instead and continued onto Panama earlier than we intended.

PANAMA:  Home to our most expensive hotel room, two overnight (low lodging costs, high transportation costs) bus rides, and finally some awesome whitewater…oh, and a canal!

Central America Summary

Central America has been wonderful, but after almost 4 months (including Mexico) we’re itching to move on. By the time you read this we’ll be in the USA for a mini break. Yay!:) The timing and finances worked out so that we’d be able to take a week or so in the States before heading to South America. Fortunately for us it coincided with the 4th of July (my favorite holiday) and the wedding of our friends Aaron and Alexis. Sometimes the stars just align like that!

Anyway, we’re really looking forward to South America. (Really we just need to verify if the toilets do indeed swirl the other direction!).  We’ve met so many incredible people, other travelers, expats and locals each of whom has helped us adapt to life on the road. We’re pro card players at this point and play a mean game of 500. :)

We’re definitely looking forward to another continent and exploring new regions, hopefully with some different food (if I eat rice and beans one more time, arg!).  Our first stop will be Colombia and we plan to move south and east across the continent.  Send us tips if you have them!

So, drum roll please…. here’s our Central America wrap up:

# of chicken bus rides: too many to count

# of times we went through San Pedro Sula, Honduras: 5

# of natural disasters: 1

# of coup d’etats narrowly escaped:1

Most number of bug bites at one time on one appendage,: La Moskitia, Danny’s foot, approximately 50

Nights spent on overnight bus: 2

Most expensive hotel room: $30 Panama City, Panama

Least expensive hotel room: $7 San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Biggest surprise: The size and scope of Panama City

Favorite Country: Honduras

Volcanoes Hiked: 5

Monkeys encountered: tons! yay! :)

Hot springs enjoyed: 3

Items Lost: 2 more baseball hats, Jillian’s bathing suit (in Honduras), one yellow spork

Best Meal: Chicken, Rice and Beans on Ometepe, Nicaragua

Favorite Snack: Chicky’s!!!!

Tica Bus- Central America

We have taken two trips with Ticabus, we will not be taking anymore.

On the first trip, from Honduras to Nicaragua, the ayudante (helper) collected $11 from each passenger for border fees. We were told the fees were $8 to Nicaragua and an additional $3 to exit Honduras. We had already exited Honduras on our own and had never paid to exit so we decided to handle the border ourselves; we paid $7 to Nicaragua and nothing to Honduras. The ayudante pocketed $4 from each passenger and then had the nerve to yell at us for taking too long…we took only two minutes but needed to wait until the officials finished processing all of the bus’s passports.

On the second trip, from Panama to Costa Rica, we left the terminal at 11pm expecting to wake up at the border when it opened. We arrived there two hours early. Why leave at 11pm only to wake everyone up at 5am to wait for two hours? Additionally, as this was an overnight bus we were shocked to find no toilet paper or water in the bathroom. The water problem was particularly surprising as when we woke up at the border we found that all our things (on the overhead shelf and by our feet) had been soaked by water from the A/C. We have taken many overnight buses and all have had a fully functioning bathroom with no flooding inside the bus.

In Central America, there are often no other direct buses between capital cities. When there is competition however, we strongly recommend using it.  Say no to Tica Bus!

La Mosquitia- Part II

Fortunately years in the outdoors has taught me to always “be prepared”, so after the sea turtle encounter we set off into the jungle with more than enough food, our Steri-pen and what we thought would be enough 100% DEET to kill every mosquito in the area. Feeling like real adventurers for the first time on this trip, we motored up the Rio Platano. Not densely populated, but clearly inhabited, we were often greeted along the river banks with “Hola” and a wave, the children at least seemed excited to see us. As we journeyed further up the river, the shelters spread out significantly and it became clear that we were beyond the reach of the every day Western world. In our motorized dugout canoe we slowly moved upstream for almost five hours before reaching our jungle hospedaje.

Arriving at the hospedaje felt something like a national geographic documentary. As the canoe pulled up to the sandy bank the children ran down the hill to greet us. Quickly settling into our rooms and introducing ourselves to the extended family, we explored the village of Las Marias. Nestled in the jungle, the village is a cluster of about 500 families, many of whom are part of an eco-tourism cooperative. Formed more than a decade ago, the cooperative provides guides and tours of the Rio Platano Biosphere Area for visiting tourists. Organized so that the work is shared amongst the guides and boatmen, a saca guia (head guide) greets incoming tourists and provides an overview of the activities and tours available in the area. We were the only tourists at Las Marias at the time, so chatted with the saca guia and our hosts for a while before deciding on two day jungle hike to Pico Balitmore.

Setting out the next morning, the saca guia picked us up at our hospedaje to introduce us to our guides, Jose and Har. Indigenous men from the area, they showed us the way up Pico Baltimore through deep mud, jungle heat and humidity. Walking and chatting with the guides, we learned about their families, culture and their experience with tourists. Both of our guides had grown up as a part of the eco-tourism cooperative so their perspective on tourism was incredibly interesting. Well aware of the potential negative impacts of tourism, both men felt that the increase in tourism over the last several years had been good for the village and had provided many families with a decent income. Excited not only to be having the conversation in Spanish (thank you spanish teachers in xela!), but that we were in a place where our tourist dollars were making a palpable positive impact in the community I continued to press them on the subject and the impact of tourism development. Las Marias lack running water, electricity and communicates with other villages through two way radio. For the most part Jose and Har wanted basics that were currently unavailable, mainly medical care and a better education for their children. Aware of conveniences of the outside world, not just from tourists but also from family living outside of La Moskitia, Jose replied that they did not need electricity or kitchen appliances, what they needed was a cell phone tower to communicate with each other. Initially I scoffed at the idea that a cell phone town should take precedence over electricity or running water. I later came to realize that this was the true impact of tourism, that they should understand their own needs better. Jose did not want to change their way of life so much that it became like ours, he just wanted to be able to communicate better.

Trekking through the jungle was tough. It was hot, humid and extremely muddy. Although there was a faint path through the foliage, the jungle was dense and more often than not our guides macheted a path for us. I had to keep reminding myself that it was about the journey not the destination. Just before reaching our evening accommodations deep in the jungle, Jose stopped us silently in our tracks. Listening intently to the sounds of the jungle we heard a loud screech. White faced monkeys swung through the trees off to our left, screeching and playing. Reinvigorated, we continued on to the thatch roofed cabana where we promptly collapsed from the heat. Waking a few hours later we found dusk had descended and with it the onslaught of mosquitoes and other unidentifiable large jungle insects. Not to mention the 4 inch scorpion in the cabana….

Cooking dinner on an open fire, we shared our food with the guides, introducing them for the first time to chicken hot dogs. Without buns, veggies or even ketchup (everyone from Chicago is now cringing I know), the guides proclaimed the hot dogs “muy rico” (delicious) and encouraged us to save the rest for the following morning.

Hiking out the next day in a torrential downpour we pulled into the hospedaje wet, exhausted but very happy. Despite scorpions, spiders, and hundreds of mosquito bites it was an incredible cultural experience that I will never forget. As we motored downriver early the follow morning I felt protective over the people on the riverbanks silently hoping that sustainable tourism continues in this region, bringing prosperity without destroying their culture and way of life. Although we’ve been to a number of small communities on this trip, we haven’t been in a community on the edge of sustainable growth like this before. The ability of this community to band together and form a cooperative (with the help of a NGO) and continue to grow in such a way is a great template for other emerging tourist communities throughout the world. I hope as we continue to travel we find more of these unspoiled cultural gems.

La Moskitia Part I

Although we had read about La Moskitia in our guidebook, we figured that without proper gear and equipment a trip into the “jungle” would be virtually impossible. Plus we figured it would make a great trip later in life, you know when we are just “vacationing.” All but giving up, we resigned ourselves to move on to Nicaragua. As luck would have it, we met an American in La Ceiba who had just come out of La Moskitia, doing the entire trip independently without a tour agency. Excited, we plugged him for details about cost and conditions and it soon became clear that not only was it completely do-able to see some of La Moskitia on our own, it was well within our budget.

La Moskitia is called the “Little Amazon” by some.  By others it is called jungle. Still by others, it is called home. Several indigenous groups, mainly Moskito and Pech, live in this foreboding wilderness where they still speak their native languages…and Spanish. Additionally, some archaeologists believe that the fabled lost city of the “White Maya” may be hidden within the region.

We began our trip into the jungle in a small city called Tocoa where we found a pickup truck (oh, there were many to choose from) that would take us ‘out there’. The ride in the back of this truck, jammed in with other people as well as essential supplies (mostly Coke & Pepsi products) for the villages we would pass along the way, was quite the adventure in itself. Once the paved road ended, the dust picked up and we found ourselves breathing dirt as we sped along. This didn’t last forever though as the dirt road quickly ended as well…meaning it was time for the beach. Speeding along the Caribbean shore at unknown speeds we’d feel the splash of the ocean and then lurch forward as the driver slammed on the brakes to avoid the incoming tide, a piece of drift wood, or the occasional horse. We sped along holding on for dear life for about an hour and a half as we stopped in several Garifuna villages dropping and picking up passengers and supplies. Finally, very much needing a beer to calm my nerves after the ride, we reached the extent of the “road” and hopped on a boat for the village of Plaplaya.

We chose to sleep in Plaplaya this first night because we’d read it was turtle nesting season and there would be the opportunity to search out nests or release baby leather back turtles into the sea. Upon reaching Plaplaya we learned that this was all there was to do there…with the exception of killing exceedingly large spiders so that Jill would finally allow me to go to sleep. We introduced ourselves to Ismael who was the local turtle researcher and agreed to meet up after dark for a search of nests.

We began our walk, which Ismael clearly thought would be a waste of time. After walking for about 3 minutes we were rewarded. No, we didn’t happen upon a nest, we happened upon the biggest turtle I’d ever seen in my entire life. The leather back was simply huge…way bigger than those so called giant tortoises that move two feet per year at the zoo. Probably about the size of a Manatee (don’t forget, we call those cows) so it was quite huge. When we arrived it had already dug the hole (about a meter deep) to drop its eggs, but no eggs yet. Watching its movements reminded me of Disney World where you watch the anamatrnoic machines on the rides, it was just completely alien.

Eventually her eggs began to drop and from behind her we were able to see them fall and accumulate. Ismael set to removing them from the nest in order to bring them to a breeding facility where they would be kept safe from other animals [and humans] who would otherwise make a tasty snack. Ismael let us touch the racquetball sized eggs which were surprisingly soft and dented easily; makes sense given how they all fall. He also let us touch the shell of the mother turtle which was unsurprisingly leathery. By the time she was finished she had dropped 99 eggs and one small golf ball bit of food for her young once they hatched.

With the sand flies wreaking havoc on our feet and the eggs needing to be brought back for protection we ultimately called it a night and headed in. All told our encounter lasted probably less than an hour but watching something so alien give birth was incredibly special.