Traveling Central America: How to Do It Wrong

Traveling Central America: How to Do It Wrong

My recent trip to Central America proves that no matter how much you’ve traveled, there’s always more to learn.  Despite having visited approximately 60 countries at this point, my Central America trip was embarrassingly poorly planned.  Once I arrived, I realized it was actually really easy to get around, but the lack of clear information online led me to overcomplicate things.  These problems were compacted by trying to pack in a lot of miles into a limited time, in countries were things don’t always work according to schedule.  Fortunately, my trip was still fun.  Here’s a few tips to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes that I did, followed by reasons why a Central America trip is totally worth it.  1. Shuttles Are A Traveler’s Best Friend I planned to figure out the details of the trip when I arrived but I wanted to know about basic options for transportation ahead of time.  Travel information for Central America isn’t as well documented online as other places I’ve been.  Somehow, I missed the incredibly important fact that there’s shuttles connecting all the major tourist cities in Central America, with a hostel pick-up/drop-off service (ex. Gekko Explorer out of El Tunco, El Salvador, Atitlan Tours out of Antigua, Guatemala, Tierra Tours in Nicaragua) .  The shuttles cost significantly more than local transport (which is ridiculously cheap) but it allows you to bypass capital cities which are hard to avoid if using local transportation.  With shuttles, you don’t have to book things ahead of time (it’s easy to get a next day departure), it’s safe and an easy way to make ~10 new friends that you can hang out with in the next city! Almost all the guidebooks to Central America recommend tourists avoid capital cities since there’s not much to see/do there and a higher chance of crime.  Furthermore, I found that Central America capital cities don’t have helpful central bus terminals… for example, the minibuses leave from somewhere, the more expensive long distance charter buses leave from somewhere else (ex. TICA bus), the local “chicken buses” leave from assorted stops around the city center. What NOT to do: I wanted to fit in Nicaragua, a few days in El Salvador and the area around Antigua, Guatemala in three weeks.  I had cheap round-trip flights into and out of Managua, Nicaragua but that met I had to start and end my journey there.   I only knew about long-distance buses connecting the city centers, which don’t operate at night because of road and crime safety reasons (the earliest buses leave at 2 or 5 in the morning then operate until the early afternoon) so I spent an entire day getting to San Salvador on the TICA bus.  Then I arrived in San Salvador, was literally the only person in my hostel and the only way I could get to anywhere (Ruta de Flores, Santa Ana) but the beach was to hire a private driver (for $100+ USD). I thought my only option would be wasting another day to go back down a long-distance charter bus.  I also worried about the border crossings, which were actually quite straightforward with the shuttle (well, for us, the border between El Salvador and Guatemala included a two-hour game of Tetris and a bumper bruising incident but supposedly that’s unusual).  So I booked a one-way flight from Guatemala City back to Managua a week and a half into my journey (which cost ~$300 USD, more than my round-trip from the States to Nicaragua). That was a mistake for a million reasons.  First, I loved Guatemala and wanted to stay there longer even if it meant decreasing my time in Nicaragua.  I wanted to hike and camp on Acatenango Volcano outside of Antigua but those tours don’t leave every day so I ended up missing out on that.  What I should have done is taken a shuttle from Antigua to Copan, Honduras to see the Mayan ruins then taken a shuttle from Copan, Honduas directly to Leon, Nicaragua.  Instead, by landing in Managua airport, I had to take an expensive taxi out of the airport (basically $25 to go anywhere), then pay to travel back North to Leon and I lost the flexibility of deciding when I wanted to leave Guatemala.  *Sigh. DO take a chicken bus: That being said, you should try the local transportation at some point during your trip, for a cultural experience, if nothing else.  I used them in El Salvador but Guatemala has some of the glitziest camionetas around.  As “Make The Most of Your Time on Earth” describes and I have verified from personal experience that ALL of these things happen, “Pre-departure rituals must be observed.  Street...

The Rescue: The Climatic End to Sailing the Florida Keys (Part 2)

The Rescue: The Climatic End to Sailing the Florida Keys (Part 2)

If you are just learning about my sailing adventure, I’d recommend starting with the preface to how I end up spending two weeks on a sailboat with a guy I had never met followed by part 1 of my stories at sea.  The following describes the final moments of mour trip when things looked bleak but some adrenaline, ingenuity, the right companion and a stroke of luck got me safely to share.  I’ll close with a reflection on jumping into the deep end of a new experience and how it relates to where my life is going next. Setting the stage Back before we even set sail, when we were preparing the boat back at Boot Key Harbor, Brandon dropped me off at the marina one day to catch up on while he ran some errands to fill up the propane tank and such.  In the middle of checking my e-mails in a the marina common room, some wild winds started racing through the garage-sized doors throwing around newspapers.  A few seconds later, a deluge of rain crashed on the ceiling and my phone beeped with a text from Brandon, “On the boat, waiting for the storm to pass.  I’ll come get you as soon as it does.” As the rain poured and the winds blew, I happily typed away on my laptop for a couple hours before checking in with Brandon.  He picked up my phone call and briefly summarized, “Minor emergency.  Mostly taken care of.  I’ll come back to the marina when I can”.  An hour or two later, he arrived, dressed in a rain jacket with a massive appetite, “so just after I texted you, a gust of wind flipped the dingy, submerging the motor.  It took a couple hours but Fernando and I were able to recover most of the stuff that drifted down shore”.  Apparently word travels fast around a marina because as we stuffed our faces on creole rice AND a sandwich, everyone already seemed to know about the incident.  Brandon’s friend Joe arrived with some motor oil, other people were texting him with advice for reviving a submerged motor and everyone wanted to hear the detailed version of the story.  I watched the exchange of information with a smile.  Brandon always jokingly called his sailing buddies “a bunch of bums that just want to have fun” but honestly, I was incredibly impressed with the boating community.  Most of the people we talked to had left secure and stable jobs to pursue a life at sea, because they found dealing with the daily challenges and victories made life a lot more interesting and rewarding.  They were always willing to lend a hand, provide advice and share skills they picked up over the years because there’s no exact science to sailing and, no matter how nice their boat is, because everyone has been stranded at some point. After our feast, we were able to get the dingy operable enough to get halfway back to the Aloha and one of Brandon’s Australian friends was happy to give us a tow the rest of the way, dispensing more advice as he dropped us off.  With a bit more tinkering, Brandon got the dingy working to escort us to a delectable enchilada party on his friend’s boat and back.  Since it was time to set sail the next day, we tied it to the foredeck and didn’t have to worry about it until we got to Dry Tortugas. When we wanted to come ashore to visit the fort, we assembled the dingy but couldn’t get the motor to start.  We spent hours taking it apart, replacing the spark plug, cleaning the clutch, even lighting the fuel on fire to test our gasoline to no avail.  It wasn’t a huge deal when we were anchored at Dry Tortugas because we had oars to row the dingy to the Fort, friends on a James Bond boat to give us a tow during a miniature afternoon storm and we had a big boat with a working motor.   Our remaining goals for the trip was to return to Key West and find a way to get me to shore… the first part was relatively simple since the motor on the Aloha keeping us moving forward on a second, stormy night sail and working like a charm until we were in eyesight of the anchorage at Key West. Anchoring Under Sail After two days of empty ocean, entering the Key West channel is a shock. Party catamarans are packed to the gills with intoxicated tourists. Motorboats blaze through the waters, flying paragliders like flags. Jet skis blaze by...

A Million Miles At Sea: Ups and Downs of Sailing The Florida Keys (Part 1)

A Million Miles At Sea: Ups and Downs of Sailing The Florida Keys (Part 1)

The vision: “The stars at sea are unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.  180 degrees of complete illumination, hundreds of specks of light you never knew existed if you’ve only looked at the sky near cities.  And night sails are the best way to experience it… the winds are steady, the seas are calm, all you need to do is put the boat on autopilot and enjoy the view from the foredeck.” The reality: “You know what to do if one of us goes overboard, right?  You know where the ropes are?  You know how to press “man overboard” on the GPS?  First, you need to try to save me yourself, then you radio for help.  You know where the whistle is on the life jacket?  You’ll have to whistle like hell because the reality of the situation is, with the boat rocking like this, no light from the moon, the rain, there’s a very slight chance, I’ll even be able to see you out there”, Brandon hollers over the sounds of the gusting winds, clanking of the sails and crashing of the waves.  I grimace in a failed attempt to fake a confident smile and not puke, peering out of a crack in the cabin door where I have been placed to shout GPS directions since the torrential rains made it impossible to keep the tablet outdoors.  Brandon is decked out in the stereotypical sea captain yellow rubber overalls and headlamp, chained to the base of the wheel and has just given up trying to fight the sea.  We both hope that heading 270 degrees west won’t send us into any wrecks or rocks since that’s the only direction the boat will go.  In the cabin, my panicked thoughts race between praying that Brandon doesn’t get thrown overboard, trying to hold down my backpacker-bean-dinner and reprimanding my naivety for getting on a sailboat without realizing it could be the death of me.  Brandon calls me on deck to steer for a bit to relieve himself, realizes we’ve been dragging a crab trap for the past three hours and shouts over the wind, comes up with a  plan to remove it so we can move the wheel again.  He dangles over the edge, waving the gaff hook in the darkness to unhook the contraption.  He lets out a victorious yelp as we leave some of the trap behind, I feel the wheel get a little freer and tried to wiggle more strategically through the wild waves.  Apparently, I had been forgetting to breathe, release a huff of air and surprised myself with a weird sense of peace about the situation because despite all the chaos, he had a plan and I knew we were going to be ok. He takes over the wheel and I lie on the bench to calm my nausea, convinced that I would be too nervous and gripping on to the side of the boat too tight to sleep.  However,  at some point, I fall asleep on the bench, hanging on to side cabinet for dear life, and am surprised when the sunlight wakes me to significantly calmer seas.  A bit confused to awaken in such relaxed surroundings, I squint and see Brandon whistling to himself, relaxed behind the wheel.  “Good morning, sunshine” he greets me.  If our life belongings weren’t scattered around the floor of the cabin below and deck of the boat still damp, I’d barely believe what just happened.  Still overwhelmed, I give thanks that I was still alive, albeit a bit wary for another day at sea. “The difference between a fairy tale and a sea tale? A fairy tale starts with ‘Once upon a time’. A sea tale starts with ‘This ain’t no $hit’!” – Edith Widder If you read my preface sailing post about the events leading up to me spending two weeks on a sailboat with a guy I had never met, you’ll remember that I undertook this adventure wanting to feel alive.  Well, seeing my life flash before my eyes several times certainly accomplished that mission.  You’ll also remember that I stepped aboard knowing nothing about sailing but on a trip like this, I certainly learned a lot… fast!  When Brandon and I embarked on the week long sail from Marathon, Florida to Dry Tortugas National Park and back up to Key West, I had no idea what to expect.  Supposedly, we experienced more disasters in 7 days than he had in four months of owning the S/V Aloha.  Maybe it was bad luck?  Maybe sailing and I aren’t meant to be friends?  Either way, I thought I’d share with all you some of the stories of our sail, some pieces of...

Preface to Setting Sail: How The Anticlimactic End To My PhD Led Me to Board a Stranger’s Boat

Preface to Setting Sail: How The Anticlimactic End To My PhD Led Me to Board a Stranger’s Boat

Two weeks on a sailboat with a guy I had never met…. what could possibly go wrong? And why does everyone turn into my mother when I told them about my plan? Well, I had to talked to the guy enough to know there was more to sailing than drinking margaritas and bikini parties on deck so I was not completely naïve. From my singular one hour sailing experience over a decade ago on a Sunfish in Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts, I knew that you need to watch your head for swinging booms and the wind may not behave when you try to dock, which may result in embarrassing photographs of a spread-eagle tumble into the sea if your parents inconveniently decide to watch you dock. So I knew enough to know that things do not always work perfectly when you’re on a boat. Why did I go? That’s a better question, one that I barely asked myself when I signed up for this. Back then, it felt like something I had to do. Reflecting back, I think the decision had some logical grounds in recent life events. I just finished my PhD in physics back in March. This goal of getting a doctorate had once seemed stimulating, challenging and worthwhile and propelled my life for the past five years. This winter involved an awful couple months, locked in a dark room, one-handedly, painstakingly producing a pile of papers that my advisor did not even read in its entirety. For what? To earn a piece of paper that I didn’t even bother removing from its envelope? To qualify to walk across a stage in a city that I left without a backward glance within 24 hours of finishing my oral defense? So I could have the option of buying a funny hat that I could potentially wear one day if I pursue a career path that does not seem as appealing as it once did? In short, I accomplishing this life milestone did not lead to any feelings of excitement, pride, satisfaction or confidence about a new life direction. It just left me feeling incredibly burnt out and relieved that I would never receive an e-mail from the university thesis editor about margins ever again. Since pursuing something logical didn’t seem to lead to anything, I wanted to spend my last couple weeks in the United States doing something completely illogical. I wanted to learn a skill that I probably won’t ever use again. I wanted to spend a few weeks trying something that I was skeptical that I would even like and doubtful that I would be good at. I wanted to spend time with a crazy person who had accomplished the American dream with a house, a truck, a nice lawn, his own business then promptly sold it all to buy a boat. He was willing to risk all that he earned for a childhood dream, despite having barely any experience sailing beyond hopping on boats in the lakes of Oklahoma. I knew he was nuts—he used exclamation points to write about running a continuous 54.92 miles— but he seemed happy and I wanted to find out how to put my life back on track for a fulfilling existence while my future was still up in the air. And I wanted to feel alive again. I’m going to save the intimidating task of summarizing our days at sea for another post but that’s how I ended up on a dark dock in Marathon, Florida, waiting to be dingy-ed to the 30′ sailing vessel that would be my home for the next couple weeks.  After a brief moment of thinking “what am I doing here?”, I reassured myself with one of my favorite quotes and life mottos then proceeded to hop aboard. “Twenty years from now you will be more disppointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain Here’s a sneak preview of the trip: there’s nothing like a lot of adventure, a little romance and a few near death experiences to get the adrenaline flowing and the blood pumping. I’m not sure if the trip revealed the answer for how I can accomplish a happy life but it did lead to lots of laughter, some tears, deep conversations, sing-a-longs and an ability to treasure every small moment. Stay tuned for the details about the trip. Song of the Moment: Ship to Wreck– Florence & the Machine (Brandon hated when I played this on the boat...

The Art Of Appreciating Small Moments on Road Trip Across The US Midwest

The Art Of Appreciating Small Moments on Road Trip Across The US Midwest

Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas. These mighty Midwestern states somehow never made the cut for family road trips, my own independent explorations but I was determined to see them before moving to South Africa for a research position in South Africa. Seeing all 48 continental states had been on my bucket list from the beginning but the dream became reality when I found a shotgun rider to accompany me on the adventure. I had met Kim when I was teaching at a university in Sonipat, India. I had glimpsed a flash of blonde hair down the hallway and thought I was dreaming, since I thought I was the only one. One morning at 6 AM, she bopped into the gym when I half-heartedly ellipticalling and thoroughly immersed in rationalizing the story line of the Bollywood music video that brought the team captain and his cheerleader girlfriend from their high school football field into the depths of an Amazonian jungle. Her voice interrupted my reverie, “so I must ask, what are you DOING here?”. I explained my nerd camp gig, she explained that she was a law professor and, as the two blondes at OP Jindal University, we were instant friends. We had a few adventures in India, involving take-out Kentucky Fried Chicken, American movie nights with a giant stuffed tiger, a hardcore yoga class and a lot of street side chai. Long story short… an unidentified health ailment sent her home from India early and the near death experience convinced her to take some time for soul searching and adventures. We kept in touch and I mentioned my impending road trip. Despite being an American born and bred, she had never been on a road trip and jumped on the invitation to join. I hesitated before I allowed her to enlist, “You know we’re going to have to go to some random places, right? I want to finish the 48 states and I don’t think I saved the best for last”. She didn’t hesitate for a millisecond, “sign me up! I can’t drive but I can DJ”.  And thus, the Great American Road Trip was born. After some arbitrary route planning on my part, before I knew it I was at the airport in Pittsburg, PA, picking up Kim and her suitcase full of “Southwesternwear” (i.e. leather and tassels), body glitter, sidewalk chalk and all sorts of fun surprises.  After a quick hug, we set out without much of a plan besides finding coffee and donuts as soon as humanly possible.  I’m not going to delve into the details of our adventures that followed because (a) it would be impossible (b) it’s not important.   However, traveling some of the most boring states in America did teach us some important lessons about road tripping, and more importantly, lessons about life.  I’m going to share a few of them: 1)  It’s The People That Make The Journey Worthwhile Our trip didn’t include any epic national parks, beautiful coasts, big cities or extremely noteworthy destinations so especially on a trip like this, people make the miles worthwhile. “Road trips are the equivalent of human wings.  Ask me to go on one, anywhere.  We’ll stop in every small town and learn the history, and stories, feel the ground and capture the spirit.  Then we’ll turn it into our own story that will live inside our history to carry with us, always.  Because stories are more important than things” -Victoria Erickson Some had legendary reputations– for example, at Wild Turkey distillery, we got to hang out with Jimmy Russell, the longest master distiller in the world.  For someone know as the “master distiller’s master distiller”, Jimmy was incredibly humble and down-to-earth, easy-going guy who laughed as his childhood dream to leave the family distilling business for a future in baseball.  After distilling bourbon for 61 years, the profession still hasn’t gotten old, despite having plans to be flown to Japan and Australia, he still seems most satisfied in his simple Kentucky home, making bourbon and making people happy. Others, we just stumbled on.  Route 66 was a jackpot for finding interesting people.  Our foray into Kansas involved a stop to the abandoned mining town of Galena.  After our obvious out-of-town vibe turned every head in the main town diner, Kim directed us further down Main Street to an old Kan-O-Tex station which was reconstructed to look like the set of the Pixar movie Cars (acknowledging that Galena inspired Radiator Springs, the setting of the film).  We said hi to “Tow Tater”, a reconstructed car outside, and poked our heads into the shop where we were warmly greeted by Melba Rigg, the voice of “Melba the...

Peru Travel Tricks and Tips: Part 2 (Puno, Ica & Lima)

Peru Travel Tricks and Tips: Part 2 (Puno, Ica & Lima)

If you’re thinking about Peru travel, start here with Part 1 to learn general tips or a suggested itinerary for things to do near Cusco.  Here’s a continuation of our itinerary, through Puno, Ica and Lima. Day 8. Lake Titicaca and Puno. Ideally, we wanted to do a 2-day Lake Titicaca tour which included a homestay on Amanti Island which was a better deal (two-day tour, three meals and accommodation for 75 sol… we paid 40 sol just for the day tour/ transportation and had to purchase lunch separately) but it wouldn’t get us back in time to make the bus to Ica. Instead, we booked the one-day, two-island tour through our Qoni Wasi hostel. We first went to Uros, the small man-made floating bamboo islands. When we first pulled up to an island smaller than my house, we weren’t sure how we would spend an hour there… it only had three huts and maybe five people living there. But the time passed quickly, as we learned how about how they built the island, how they find food and how the educational system works. What a fascinating way to live… and I guess family squabbles are pretty easy to resolve… they cut the island in two and anchor their half somewhere else! The next stop on our boat tour was the natural island of Taquile, to see a completely different lifestyle and, fortunately for us, completely different weather (sunny skies!).  Here, the island was large to support brick and concrete buildings, farms, animals and all things needed for a fairly modern life.  Although life looked a lot more “typical” on Taquile, they still had unique governance and dress that made it interesting to visit.  Unmarried men wore plain white hats whereas married men wore flashy rainbow colored ones… before they could get married, they had to knit this hat themselves.  Having a “pre-marriage challenge” like this one, probably gives you some idea of what a peaceful people they are… they also have a town council where they manage village decision-making safety and such without a police force. After our tour of the islands, we headed back to Puno, where the skies had turned stormy again.  As one of the poorest cities we visited so far, there wasn’t too much we wanted to do in the city itself but we did check out the Plaza del Armas and the shops and restaurants around the adjoining Jiron Lima street (the main pedestrian path in town).  Puno’s proximity to the highlands and Alpacas make this one of the best places in the country to find cheap, homemade textiles.  I rarely buy anything when I travel but I couldn’t resist thick knitted gloves (10 sol), wooly leg warmers (10 sol) and a warm, knitted poncho with llamas marching around the perimeter (30 sol). We also had an incredible three course meal (including beverages) for 18 sol at Lago de Flores restaurant- taquitos with homemade guacamole, Jimmy tried alpaca and indulgent chocolate cake for dessert.  It seemed to have won the locals over too because we basically shared the restaurant with a dozen Puno security officers who were happily stuffing their faces. Day 9.  Epic Bus Ride from Puno to Ica.  Our 9th day involved an epic bus journey from Puno to Ica, which you could potentially avoid with a flight.  It was easier to find nice, direct, comfortable night buses to Arequipa (we were pleased with Peru Bus) but options to Ica were more limited.  After arriving at the Arequipa terminal, bleary-eyed at 4 AM, Jimmy picked out Flores bus (the option the locals use) to get to Ica.  In general, we had been advised to splurge on reputable buses since some buses can get held up by thieves who want to hold the bus hostage steal things.  In order to board the Flores bus, we had to get fingerprinted and videotaped and we squeezed into seats as far away from the smelly toilet as possible.  The bus made stops along the way and random townspeople would board and walk down the aisle selling pears, meat pies, popcorn, jello, fruit popsicles and small sandwiches.  They’d join us for a stop or two, until the driver dropped them off in the middle of nowhere.  In addition to the excitement of seeing who was going to hop on the bus, the scenery also helped entertain us for the 12-hour ride.  Most of the route followed the coast, so we loved to peer out the window at abandoned beaches and wild, untamed coast.  We also knew Ica was famous for its desert but we didn’t expect our whole route to be sandy hills and dusty roads. Day...