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...

“Africa’s Not for Sissies”: Travel Zambia Overland

“Africa’s Not for Sissies”: Travel Zambia Overland

“This is NOT a luxury tour”, our tour guide Nika roared his welcome to the trip, his glassy eye adding to the intimidation factor. “Meet Bertha, our home for the next three weeks. She is NOT a bus, and doesn’t come with air conditioning, curtains or mechanical shocks for specific purposes. She’s a truck, equipped to carry 945 kg of supplies, absorb the shocks of East African roads and protect us from the wildlife. On this journey, we will have to deal with many challenges: corruption, dangerous insects, less than ideal accommodation and sometimes, harsh conditions”. He paused for emphasis and sternly added, “Africa is not for sissies, especially this region. This trip is designed so you can see the real Africa, but it won’t always be comfortable. Are there any questions?” The driver TK silently reinforced what Nikka was saying, standing like a bouncer at an inner city club, glowering at us over his bulging biceps. The eight of us shake our heads solemnly. There’s an retired Australian couple who are “expert overlanders” continuing their journey that started in Cape Town, five Europeans of holiday (a blonde Belgian couple in their early 30s, two tattooed Germans with a classy choice of hats, one Middle-Aged Austrian man who polishes off an average of 4 cans of beer before lunch) and me. The truck is pretty roomy because it’s designed to accommodate eighteen but we all scramble to find our seat belts as the truck starts lumbering out of the driveway. Life On the Road The subsequent three days could be the definition of living hell for some people. Three days in a hot van with picnic lunches on the side of the road. One day the bugs were so bad that it seemed they ate more of us, than we ate of our lunches. For the first two days of our tour, the main attraction for the first two days was a traffic jam in Lusaka (the capital of Zambia… we didn’t even get out to explore the city) and an evening activity of spider killing (mostly for the people in hotel rooms) and devising creative ways to take showers without water (our second rest camp shut off all water). The roads delivered an extra-strength “African massage” so by day 2, the Belgian girl and I donned our sports bras, to minimize unnecessary bouncing as we levitated off our seats and crashed into the metal sidewalls. The African sun shone brightly on our laps, and dust flew into the windows. We learned to shut our windows at every stop so monkeys won’t climb into the truck and steal/”shit” on our stuff. We learned to always close our tents to keep the monkeys, spiders and other insects out. We learned how to check for elephants, hippos and lions before leaving our tents for a midnight bathroom run (they actually recommended we hold it). We learned how to disassemble our tents to prevent rolling scorpions into our hand, which someone on the last trip figured out the hard way. We learned about the supremacy of the bush toilet. South Luangwa National Park “Everything in Africa bites but the safari bug is worst of all” -Brian Jackson Our main stop in Zambia was South Luangwa National Park: Zambia’s pride and joy. The park is known for its hippos and leopards, and they estimate there’s one leopard for each square kilometer of the 90,000 km^2 park. Our camp was right along the South Luangwa River, where we could see elephants crossing in the distance. Often these wildlife encounters weren’t so distant: a hippo walked straight through camp when we were eating dinner, elephants feasted a few yards from the bar, a sivet (African cat) made an appearance when the boys were drinking a beer and the whole camp was a play place for the yellow baboon. We did an morning guided walk through the park where a camouflaged guy named Jimmy guarded us with a rifle as Herman (a white native Zambian and lover of the bush) explained how to identify various tracks, feces, plants, insects, birds and more. These walking safaris are more about learning and seeing the small details that connect various elements of the bush ecosystem, instead of getting close to the big game (for safety reasons). However, we still spotted plenty of zebra, giraffes, elephants, impalas, warthogs, hippos, crocodile and dozens of species of bird. After a relaxing afternoon, we set off on a sunset game drive that provided an opportunity to get closer to these animals and see a variety of others. Before the sun set, we were lucky to see a leopard...

First Foray into “Real” Africa: Traveling Livingstone, Zambia

First Foray into “Real” Africa: Traveling Livingstone, Zambia

“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.”  ― Beryl Markham, West with the Night My plane skidded above dried, toothpick-esque trees and skidded to a stop on a small landing field at the Victoria Falls airport, surprisingly small for servicing one of Africa’s top three attractions. I joined the hoard of wheeled suitcases, walked by a sign that denoted the area where ebola inspections should have happened, cringed at some nasty pictures of ebola symptoms and passed quickly through the immigration line. I scanned the hand-written signs of taxi drivers for various resorts in my area. Not seeing my name, I asked the information desk if there was a place I could call my hostel. “Ahh… the landlines are down. If you buy me airtime, you can use my cell phone”. I crossed the airport to the only airport shop, a lady who sold snacks, handicrafts and airtime in a space as small as a closet. “You want to call a hostel in Zambia? They won’t pick you up here. Cross the border and call them as soon as you reach Zambia side. Norman will help you”. She ushered me outside into Norman’s white cab. I skeptically followed. “Welcome to the REAL Africa!” bellowed Norman after he heard an abbreviated version of my story. “I won’t move to South Africa if my life depended on it. More opportunities maybe, but no safety, man. You have to be alert at all times.” We passed through the small, touristy Victoria Falls village and he dropped me at the tired-looking gates of border patrol. The officers mechanically stamped my passport, gave me a white piece of paper, collected by a man 5 yards away then waived me to on the dusty road to Zambia. I jumped on the sidewalk to avoid laden, transport trucks and hopped behind a couple women with baskets on their heads, admiring the sexy hipsway that accompanied their walk. Meanwhile, I cringed under the weight of my backpacks and sweated, regretting the three layers of leggings, legwarmers and multiple shirts that I piled on back in the cold of Johannesburg. We walked across a rusted bridge, waived away the men trying to get me to bungee jump off of it and took a picture of the waterfall as I straddled the country line between Zimbabwe and Zambia. I repeated the border control procedure, then looked around the dirt parking lots for a phone to call my hostel. Someone directed me to the police station where a couple guys my age lounged outside in broken recliner office chairs. Eager for a distraction, they offered to help, “take a seat, take a seat”. I carefully balanced myself on a stool, and kept my bags close, since the guys advised me that the baboons that circled around us loved to steal things. Time flew as the guys gave me recommendations for my time in Zambia, advised me to check out their grandfather’s mountain resort (“you can stay for free”), taught me a few Tonga phrases and drooled with envy at my life. Kelly, the guy in the police officer, begged, “take me with you! I can fit in your backpack!”, he insisted as he yanked off his shoes and emulated climbing in. After about an hour, I remembered my mission and we called up my hostel. “What happened? He was waiting for you at the airport all afternoon. Usually we don’t pick people up from the border but we’ll send him along”. The driver came, and the two police station boys didn’t let me go without big hugs, elaborate handshakes and determined reassurance, “Katie, you’ll stay at the backpackers? Two days? We will visit you!” After welcoming me with a cheek-to-cheek smile, the driver explained the confusion. Apparently he had been waiting at the Livingstone Airport… “we looked up your flight information- Hahn Airways arrival at 15:10 from Johannesburg. There were no planes landing at 15:10 and we never heard of that airline. We thought you might be arriving on a private jet, but even then it would be registered”. He dropped me at the hostel but not without a wink and a “what are you doing tonight?”. “Well, I definitely owe you a beer for waiting for me all day,” I replied. We made plans to meet back up and I entered the...

Overall Impressions & Advice For Traveling Vietnam

Overall Impressions & Advice For Traveling Vietnam

For those of you who have read my other posts about Vietnam, I’ve had mixed feelings about my two weeks here. For some context before I dive into my overall impressions, I was initially hoping to spend this time in Myanmar, exploring a country that recently opened up to foreign travelers before it got too touristy. I had to fit the trip into specific dates before my teaching gig in China and when looking at flights, Myanmar would be much more expensive and require more plane transfers and time spent in airports. I decided I might as well see Vietnam, which eluded my prior trip to Southeast Asia because of Visa requirements, and finish off the region and visit without paying a penny for flights. So that’s why I’m here, wishing I spent the extra time and money on Myanmar. I think I would have liked Vietnam better if I was younger and less familiar with the region but this country is a well-trodden journey through the Southeast Asian backpacker trail and it was hard to avoid getting caught up in all that entails. First, the hostels are full of backpackers from the UK and Australia and vacationers from Korea.  Most travelers come here on summer break or a gap year between school, attracted by cheap booze and beaches, so the average age is around 20-22. Some of the people I saw looked barely old enough to drive a car, never mind travel around foreign countries. Since this many people’s virgin foray into foreign travel, the whole country is set up to shuttle people up or down the prescribed route from North to South. Everyone and their mother wants to sell you cheap trips to Halong Bay and Sapa, and since budget conscious people (me included!) just look for the cheapest price, I found most of the tours to be lots of people packed in small spaces with tour guides who can barely speak English and don’t even attempt to explain what you’re seeing. A typhoon in Halong Bay and my failure to just postpone the trip instead of listen to the travel agent and replace it with mediocre day tours, caused my week in the North to be back-to-back tours which are generally something I only sign up for as a last resort. Perhaps if you pay more, you’ll have a better experience. For me, traveling that way is a bit superficial and unsatisfying, however it’s often the easiest and cheapest way to get to these places if you don’t speak the language to get good taxi rates. If you have limited time, I’d recommend sticking to the North. Sapa, Halong Bay and Hanoi were all highlights for me and give a good sense of an urban experience as well as some of the most beautiful nature in the country. Hoi An, in central Vietnam, is usually the universal favorite. It’s a cultural city with cute yellow buildings, a river flowing through it and some of the best shopping in the country but definitely touristy. I had my most powerful experiences in the South of the country with the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Cu Chi Tunnel tour, which is a half-day trip from Saigon. As much as read about the Vietnam war, watched travel shows about other people experiencing these exact same tours, the extensive scope of the devastation to both sides never sank in until I saw these two things myself. One of the most surprising things about this trip and knowing the history is that no one, anywhere in the country seemed to hold the slightest bit of resentment against me, being an American. Seeing photographs of people and villages destroyed and the atrocious aftermath of chemical warfare (Agent Orange) made me uncomfortable to be an American here.  It was truly heart wrenching for both sides.   I couldn’t believe the lack of lingering bitterness over something that many middle-aged or older people in Vietnam had to live through. I really wanted to get a local perspective on this but the Vietnamese couchsurfer who walked with me through the War Remnants museum and the other locals I asked, feigning incomprehension and/or dismissing my questions with “I’m-not-going-to-talk-about-this” smiles. The hard to overcome cultural barriers was another reason Vietnam wasn’t my favorite place to travel. People of Vietnam are “friendly” and there’s always someone around who speaks enough English to get your immediate needs met/sell you things (even in the middle of Halong Bay) but the culture is much more reserved. As much as I tried to talk to locals, I rarely got any meaningful information with three surprising exceptions: I spent...

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...

Travel Jordan: Ancient Cities, Otherworldly Desert and Arab Hospitality

Travel Jordan: Ancient Cities, Otherworldly Desert and Arab Hospitality

“Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime, A rose red city half as old as time” -Dean Burgon Southern Jordan is a place that deserves to be described in haiku or serenaded with custom-composed symphonies.  Movie directors have discovered its magic and chose its otherworldly landscape to film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lawrence of Arabia, the Mummy Returns and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen because who needs a movie set when nature created something infinitely more epic than Disney could ever design?  At the same time, sun rays shining through wildflowers created dancing shadows terracotta rock walls and set rust red sand on fire.  Throughout the years, rain and wind cut incredibly intricate carvings in the walls, creating abstract shapes infinitely more amazing than the man-made hieroglyphs left by ancient inhabitants. To add another layer of mystery and excitement, one of my favorite parts of walking around Petra was imagining what it was like in its hey day.  What is now an abandoned city hidden at the edge of the Arabian desert was once a lively hub for trade caravans. The canyon walls created a naturally fortified rest station for traders and became the crossroads for the people moving spices, swords and precious metals from 100 BE to 200 CE.  The intricate Greek column cravings, massive theaters, Egyptian ornamentation testify to how profitable owning this land was to the Nabataeans.  Even today, archeologists and scientists puzzle over the construction of these enormous city structures carved into rock The well-preserved opulent facades make difficult to imagine having to abandon such a magnificent structure.  During Roman rule, sea-based routes re-routed trade away from Petra.  Multiple earthquakes in 363 and 551 disrupted the water management system which caused many of the last remaining inhabitants to abandoned the area before the Arabs conquered it. Lucky for us (but not people who work here), Petra was relatively deserted so we were free to roam the 250 acre park alone with our imaginations.  We crawled into caves, wandered off the beaten paths to an abandoned temple where a dog was guarding her pups, climbed a lot of stairs to the monasteries and a few more to test out both sites which claim to be, in screaming black letters, “the best viewpoint in Petra”.  Both the nature and the architecture in this park were so mindblowingly beautiful, it was hard to tell what I liked more…. when the two combine, it culminates in creating one of the most incredible places I have ever been.  Then, to add to the natural splendor, you have an exotic parade bedouins wandering around with camels, donkeys decked out in Rastafarian blankets and other trinkets to make them attractive to tourists… I loved every minute of it!  Just a word of warning to the wise: people offer blitz tours of Petra from Israel or day trips which combine Petra and Wadi Rum from Amman, but having just a couple hours for this place is not enough!  We stayed close to Petra and were able to hike all the major trails in the park between 8 AM-5 PM but with more time, I heard it’s possible to hike to Little Petra and further explore the outskirts.  I highly encourage you not to rush your time here! The other must-do is Wadi Rum, a natural protected site and amazing desert.  We explored it through a 4×4 desert exploration and camping tour.  Around every corner, the desert had different epic landscapes.  I’ll let my pictures do the talking since words can not describe how amazing it was. Since the Arab Spring, tourism has decreased significantly in Petra and Wadi Rum, an UNESCO site that many consider one of the 7 New World Wonders.  Our desert tour guide explained that despite it being the high season for tourism in Jordan, the maximum number of people staying in the Bedouin camps are around 70 when a decade or so ago, the camps would have reached a maximum capacity of 200.  While we didn’t mind having the magnificence of the Treasury to ourselves, it was kind of sad realizing how significantly media’s footage of violence in the Middle East can impact the livelihoods of people working in an industry in a place where things are completely safe, the vast majority of the time. Sure, it’s not the best country to hang out in booty shorts.  Amman, the capital city, isn’t the best place to get drunk and dance.  But who needs nightlife when you can take selfies with camels? If you avoid the Middle East based on the media distorting reality or based on the advice from ignorant people, you will be the one missing out. Song of the Moment: Indiana Jones Theme...