Thursday, August 18, 2011
Trip to Honduras
It’s August which means it’s the height of Guatemala’s rainy season. Tired of the endless showers and losing my clothes to the unstoppable mold I decided it was time for a vacation so I packed my bag and split for sunnier weather in neighboring Honduras.
My destination was Roatan, one of Honduras’s three Bay Islands. Back in March I met a Canadian backpacker named Mike who was traveling through Central America and we made a plan to meet up on the island. Well Mike was nearing the end of his travels and so by the time I got to Roatan we only had a couple of days together so my trip was basically a solo one. I have always wanted to go scuba diving and the Bay Islands are at the tail end of the second largest barrier reef in the world. The goal was to get my Open Water diving Certification and just enjoy some time in the sun on the islands beautiful beaches.
I wanted get to Roatan as quickly as possible but I wouldn’t be able to make it all the way there in one day. I left Antigua at 3:30 a.m. aboard a seriously luxurious bus that took my across the border and eventually all the way to La Ceiba, Honduras where I would pass the night and the next morning catch the first ferry to Roatan. I crossed the border no problem and added Honduras to my list of countries visited. Including the U.S. that makes 11. Honduras is the 5th Central American country I’ve visited. The only two I’m missing on the isthmus are Belize and El Salvador and they will be visited in due time. I changed currencies at the border from Quetzales to Lempiras. It’s about 18 Lemps to the dollar.
After 14 hours of traveling I arrived exhausted in La Ceiba. Someone had advised me to skip staying in La Ceiba (Honduras’s third largest city) and stay at a hotel right next to the ferry. I ended up spending about $20 for a room that night which was more than I had hoped to spend. I cracked open a beer in the humid night air and settled into my room. One of the pluses was that it had a television and it had been forever since I’d watched TV so I was able to catch up with the news. The rain began to pour (the only time during my trip) and after spending an amusing 5 minutes watching a Benny Hinn telemercial I landed on Al Jazeera (can’t believe they had that channel) and watched an interesting special about a female Arabic rapper before I passed out.
I awoke early the next morning, shaved, packed my bag, dropped my key at the reception and walked out into a beautiful sunny day. About 7,000 ft above La Ceiba towered the Pico Bonito, a beautiful pointed mountain (it’s all in the name) that’s worth looking up pictures of. It couldn’t have been a prettier day. The hotel was right next to the port so it was a quick walk to the ferry. I piled in line with excited, chattering, Hondurans who were beach bound. There are three Bay Islands: Utila, Roatan, and Guanaja. Utila is easily the cheapest option and super popular with the backpacker crowd and indeed I could see that its ferry was swarming with travelers. Guanaja is fairly undeveloped and therefore a pricier option. Its ferry departs from a different town. Roatan where I was headed is the largest and most populated of the islands. It has become a popular vacation destination for the growing Honduran upper-class as well as European travelers who stay at the islands numerous resorts but there are also backpacker budget options, most notably West End which was where I would be staying. I chose Roatan because my buddy Mike was there and he had been to Utila earlier in his travels and advised me that the reef was in better shape on Roatan and that the island was quieter but still had a nice night life. Plus Utila doesn’t have much beach while Roatan has some spectacular ones.
Although it’s only about 50km off the coast, Roatan is much more part of the Caribbean than it is part of Honduras. I was surprised to discover that Spanish is the second language on the island. Like the majority of the Caribbean, the island was populated by ex-slaves, Black Caribs known as Caracoles. I guess I would describe their primary language as some kind of English Creole. It’s an interesting version of English. They speak quickly and many times it sounds as though they are actually singing a sentence. I very much enjoyed listening to them talk, especially the woman who ran a food stand right next to the dive shop. The Spanish influence is a recent development as Ladinos from the mainland have arrived in the past 10 years finding work as taxi drivers and security guards.
The ferry ride took about an hour and a half and after picking up my pack from the baggage drop, which was complete chaos, I caught a cab to West End. On the way we passed a gas station and there was a Bojangles. It blew my mind. North Carolina’s very own, beloved chicken fast food restaurant which is found in only a handful of States has a location on an island in Honduras. Must be the work of some franchisee who has a house on the island. I wanted to stop sooo badly but we continued on. The cab dropped me off at the beautiful beach of Half Moon Bay in West End which is where I would be spending my vacation. I had made reservations to stay and complete my Open Water Certification with Coconut Tree Divers and there they were right in front of the bay. I was greeted by a super friendly British woman who runs the dive shop and she led me to the dorm where I would be staying. I had one roommate and he was Dutch, of course. His name was Ruben and he was from Rotterdam. He had spent the past three weeks in Boston studying medicine at the Harvard Summer School and decided to cap off his time abroad with a trip to Central America. He too was taking the Open Water dive course. Ruben was awesome. Great guy and definitely one of the best people I have ever met traveling. I was to begin my course the following morning so the dive shop scheduled me to go snorkeling with the afternoon dive on the reef off shore.
On a brief stroll through the simple strip that is West End I ran in to my good buddy Mike. I met Mike all the way back in March when he came to Nebaj after meeting my Dutch roommates Irina and Esther while they were on vacation in Livingston. Mike stayed in Nebaj for a couple weeks and came up to my site, Salquil Grande, for a day. We had some great experiences together beekeeping and he came with me to my friend Cara’s site where I killed a pig (still need to blog about that). When I went to Antigua to meet my parents he came with and we climbed Volcano Agua. This was quite an amusing experience. Agua wasn’t a very popular hike because it was fairly strenuous and undeveloped and after being warned of thieves along the trail we proceeded with next to nothing in our pockets. The 12,500 ft Agua is a beautiful cone shaped volcano that towers above Antigua. Mike had never been that high up before so by the time we reached the top he was drunk off the altitude. We didn’t spend too long up top but in his almost drunken stupor he was absolutely hilarious on the trek down.
Back in March Mike had a nice mop of blond hair but now his head was buzzed. He had picked up lice during a brief stint working at a school in Eastern Honduras. We took some time to catch up over lunch. He told me about his travels as he had worked his way from Cancun down to Panama over the past 7 months. It was great to see him again. After spending just a short period of time together I already know he’s a lifelong friend. He was nearing the end of his Central American adventure and would have to leave in a couple of days to make his way up to Cancun to catch his flight back to British Columbia so it was a shame we didn’t get more time to hang out but I’m sure we’ll end up traveling together sometime in the future. He’s that kind of friend.
Mike came snorkeling with me on that afternoon. The rest of the boat was diving and as we started snorkeling I found myself staring at the divers as they descended. I couldn’t wait to be able to go explore down below. Snorkeling was one thing but diving was a whole different experience. I had only been snorkeling once before (in Costa Rica) and I’d never been to a coral reef so I was just blown away. The reef was amazing and teaming with life. They say you’ll see more animal life in three minutes on a coral reef than you’ll see in three hours in a forest and that is certainly true. I saw all sorts of species of fish with no idea what they were called although I would learn more over the next week. The dive spot was named Turtle Crossing and true to its name we saw a Hawksbill sea turtle. That was really cool. We followed him for a while and watched him surface and then disappear into the blue.
The couple of days I had with Mike in Roatan were great. His last night we ate at Cannibal Café and he did their burrito challenge. If you can eat three of their burritos in an hour you don’t have to pay for them. By the end he was covered in sweat and on the verge of vomiting but he ate them all in time and got a free shirt. He came by early next morning on his way out and I wished him safe travels and he was off to Mexico.
Mike struggling with the burritos.
I started my Open Water certification my second day on Roatan. This included watching videos, doing bookwork, brief training dives in the bay and then four open water dives. My first dive was absolutely fascinating. Due to scheduling I had three different trainers during my course and they were all Canadian and all super friendly. That to me made a huge difference, diving with people you are comfortable with and that are fun to hang out with after diving. The majority of the divers at Coconut Tree were completing their dive master course. Accompanying me on my dives was a man named Bob who was working toward his dive master. Bob is a great guy, very helpful and was pleased to share the diving experience with newcomers like myself.
At night Ruben and I would hang out with another fun Dutchie named Cas. Cas was from Utrecht and had been diving all over the world and was working on his dive master course there in Honduras. We had one particular crazy rum-filled night. The next morning I woke up in my clothes still drunk from the night before. The video session that morning was miserable. Between heavy chugs of water I was cursing rum as my hangover kicked in hard. My fun night came back to bit me in the ass as it aroused my sinuses. That afternoon I had my final open water dive to complete the course but on descending I felt tightness in my face, ears and nose, the squeeze. It wouldn’t go away so I discontinued the dive. I surfaced with a nose bleed and waited on the boat and delayed my dive until the following day. As much as I wanted to complete the course I figured it was best to avoid further injury. Plus it hurt like shit.
I spent the night chugging water, chewing gum and popping ibuprofen and I awoke feeling much better. My dive wasn’t scheduled until the afternoon so I swung by the shop snagged a mask, snorkel and fins and took the hour long walk along the shore down to West Bay which is a popular resort beach. With white sand and fringed with palm trees, West Bay is generally considered the islands most beautiful beach. The shore was crawling with tourists roasting in the sun, the majority of whom seemed Italian. By the time I got to the beach I was sweating bullets and getting red quickly so I grabbed a snow cone, bought some sunblock and walked past the baking Italians all the way to the end of the beach. I was told the snorkeling at there was terrific and it did not disappoint. I swam out far from shore along the reef all the way to the wall where the reef sea drops off to 100 ft. I snorkeled along the coves and dove down for a closer view of the marine life. Just off shore in the middle of the reef there is a large rock. I dove down and was swimming around the rock when I came face to face with a Great barracuda. This threw me for a shock. Things appear larger underwater but even taking that into consideration this barracuda was easily more than four feet long. He was just hanging out by himself in the channel. I knew he wasn’t anything to worry about unless I was wearing something shiny but still swimming around the bend and running right into such a menacing looking creature gave me a bit of a jolt. I backed off a little ways and watched him for a while. After snorkeling I grabbed a sandwich in a wonderfully air conditioned deli and caught a water taxi back to West End. My afternoon dive went swimmingly (how appropriate) and I finished my Open Water course. A few days earlier I decided that since I was having such a great time diving I would stick around a couple more days and get my Advanced Open Water Certification. This would consist of five specialized dives (three of my choosing) and allow me to dive deeper, down past a 100 ft. My five dives for the Advanced Open Water Course were: a wreck dive, peak performance buoyancy dive (to improve my buoyancy since that’s what diving is all about), a night dive, a deep dive, and an underwater navigational dive.
Pleased with myself for completing the Open Water course I headed to a poolside bar on the shore to catch the sunset with a beer. I took my Advanced book with me to begin reading the chapters. The bartender was a friendly Texan named Austin (from Dallas) complete with a Stevie Ray Vaughn tattoo. I knew him from the dive shop as he was taking his dive master course there. I was reading through the deep dive chapter when I overheard a discussion on grunge music Austin was having with a patron. Ever opinionated on music I put down the book, took a stool at the bar and started a conversation about music with a guy named Jeff that would continue for several hours and several beers. Jeff was a former music critic from Colorado who moved to Roatan six years ago and had a radio show on the island. We had similar music taste, The Stooges, New Order, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Public Enemy, etc, although we disagreed on the Grateful Dead (I’m a fan; him not so much). It was a great lengthy conversation and it was nice bringing up bands and talking about how much me we like them and he told me about some of the people he had interviewed. His most amusing being GWAR (makes sense) and the people who turned out to be just incredible assholes to interview: Black Francis from Pixies and John Cale. He left me with a list of bands to check out. He disappeared to take a phone call and feeling drained by my day in the sun I decided to call it quits, strolled back to the dorm and slept hard. I had three dives the following day and if there is anything I learned it’s that diving takes it out of you. It also leaves you incredibly hungry.
The next morning I began my Advanced Open Water course with a wreck dive. This would also be a deep dive although I would do my deep dive course the following day. I was super excited for the wreck dive. There is something thrilling about diving and exploring a shipwreck as if there is buried treasure inside defended by a giant octopus (not the case). The ship was called El Aguila and since 1997 it has been resting at 100 ft below. The ship is huge and was sunk intentionally by one of the islands premier resorts in order to increase the marine life. After its sinking the island was hit by a hurricane which broke the ship in three leaving it scattered in pieces. When we got in the water it was dark and there were huge grouper down below. I couldn’t see the wreck from the surface but as we descended to 100 ft the ghostly cargo ship began to appear.
The sunken El Aguila
We swam along the wreck and through the hull.
At one point we swam into a room on the bow. The room was dark except for a stream of light from above that pierced through a hole in the bow. We went through the room and rose up through the hole in the bow. It was awesome. Bob brought his camera with and snapped some pictures.
Bear and I at the bow
After passing the wreck we swam along the wall of the reef ascending slowly. One of the cooler things I saw underwater was a moray eel swimming. They are usually tucked away in crevices. The ugly green beast’s body flowed through the water like a snake.
The snake-like eel
After my peak performance buoyancy dive I took a nap to rest up for the night dive. I was really looking forward to it since I’d heard coral looks completely different by flashlight than sunlight. Unfortunately I got stuck with a shitty flashlight. The thing could barely cast a beam so I tried to stay close to my instructor whose light was much more powerful. The ocean is very active at night and we saw lots of lobsters and the largest crab I’ve ever seen. Its arm was the size of my forearm.
The following day we did a deep dive. This turned out to be my favorite dive. We didn’t see as much marine life as on some of the other dives but the way the reef was formed was really cool. The dive site was the aptly named Spooky Channel. The reason it’s “spooky” is the way the light penetrates. The water is green and murky and you can’t see very far in front of you. We descended down cave like formations to a maximum depth of 94 ft. I finished my course in the afternoon with an underwater navigational dive at a shipwreck (unintentionally sunk; the engine exploded on this dive boat). I didn’t get a chance to observe the sea life on this one because I had to navigate with a compass and find objects. I wasn’t especially keen on having to play with a compass down below but I turned out to really enjoy the activity. It was my 10th and final dive. Back at the shop I bought Bob and Bear a beer and settled my bill with Coconut Tree. It had been an absolutely tremendous week. After a filling chicken dinner with Cas and Mike (a different Mike than my Canadian pal), I packed my bag, crawled into my sandy sheets, and was asleep by 9.
My week on Roatan was wonderful. Diving was a new experience for me and I had a blast doing it. I’m a bit of an airhog. I need to work on getting a nice breathing pattern so I can stay down longer and that will come with experience. Also this was the first time I had really traveled alone and it was a pretty cool experience as well. I was pretty much free to do whatever I wanted and I met some great people.
I took plenty of pics, the majority of which were of the epic sunsets. It was a nice escape from dreary Guatemala.
A 5 a.m. taxi took me to the ferry and before I knew it I was back on the mainland in La Ceiba. From there I caught that luxury bus to San Pedro Sula. Unfortunately the brief layover didn’t allow me enough time to see Honduras’s second largest city and perhaps that was a good thing because of its gang problem it’s also considered one of the most dangerous cities in Latin America (which says something). Honduras has the second highest murder rate in the world although you wouldn’t know it if you took the tourist route to the islands like I did.
I had one more thing to see in Honduras before I returned to Guatemala: the Mayan ruins of Copan. I made it to Copan Ruinas after my layover in San Pedro Sula. Copan Ruinas is a pretty little cobblestone town although incredibly touristy. I stayed got dinner with a Swiss traveler who was staying in my dorm room. He had worked his way up from Chile and his country count was at like 54 which put mine to shame (although living in Europe affords easy travel to a lot of different countries). I picked his brain on his adventures over a dinner of the most delicious baleada I had in Honduras. Baleadas is the typical Honduran dish. As is common with so many other staples of Latin gourmet it’s an arrangement of ingredients inside a tortilla. It’s basically just a large flower tortilla filled with beans, cream, cheese and whatever other ingredients you so desire. I ate them daily on Roatan but none of them compared to the one I had in Copan. This one was huge and in addition to the beans, cream, cheese there was egg, avocado and meat. Great meal and I was in bed by 8.
I wanted to get back to Antigua the next day and I found a cheaper shuttle than the bus company I had been traveling with. It left at noon which gave me plenty of time to visit the ruins. Only a short walk away from the town are the ruins of the Mayan civilization of Copan. Copan is one of the most famous Mayan ruins and is at the very southern end of the Maya civilization. While it doesn’t have the impressive pyramids of Chicen Itza in Mexico or Tikal in Guatemala (“the mother of all Mayan ruins”) Copan is famous for its sculptures and detailed engraving which has led to it being nicknamed “the Paris of the Maya world.” The civilization flourished between AD 250-900 and the stone carvings are mighty impressive. My guidebook had a map and brief history of the ruins so I decided to save money and skimp on hiring a guide. The site is located in partial jungle complete with the scarlet macaws that the Mayas so adored. I spent about a couple hours walking around the site, admiring the sculptures and structures. The ball court is the second largest discovered and it’s pretty impressive. I’m not sure exactly how the game went but I believe the participants had to keep a heavy ball in the air without using their hands and the best player was sacrificed following the game as it was considered an honor. The highlight of the ruins was the Hieroglyphic Staircase which bears the longest inscription discovered in the Maya world. The staircase was covered by a tarp which takes away from its aesthetic beauty but it’s quite striking none-the-less.
After exploring the ruins for a while I walked back to town and packed my bag. I turned out to be the only passenger on the Copan Ruinas-Antigua noon shuttle which was awesome. Plenty of leg room unlike the buses I’m used to traveling on in Guatemala. The border crossing was super quick and for some reason it felt nice to get back into Guatemala. Just like returning home. I’d missed Samantha during my trip so I was excited to meet up with her in Antigua. We had a lovely Saturday. We saw Inception, followed it up with a delicious meal at my favorite restaurant in Antigua and then topped the night off by having a couple drinks of absinthe at a classy French restaurant. There was butcher paper over the table cloth and we ended up drawing and writing back and forth on it. The owner came over and told us he saw that the absinthe had inspired us like it did artists in France back in the 19th century. It may sound silly but I gotta say that drawing and writing to one another while getting tipsy was one of the more fun times I’ve ever had on a date.
Though I had an amazing time in Honduras I’d say that I didn’t really get to know the country. I took the tourist route from the Bay Islands to Copan and never really got to interact with the people. The Hondurans who I did encounter were incredibly friendly as much as any country I’ve been to. I regret not interacting more with the people but who knows I may make it back there someday, after all its right next door. Overall I had a wonderful and well needed vacation. So now I’m back at Salquil and it’s cold and rainy. Figures.
My night in Copan Ruinas was August 11th, marking my one year living in Guatemala. The days can be really slow but the months have fly by. Looks like I’ve only got 15 more to go. It’s odd to think about but if I were still in Togo I would be completing my service right now.