Bee Says: We’re back! And we’re way behind… so let me cast my thoughts back to where we left you last, kissing goodbye to our beloved Corn Islands in Nicaragua. We had slightly overstayed our allotted time slot on this Caribbean dream, and now had a limited few days to travel up to Guatemala where we were meeting our friend Craig. To do this we needed to travel from Big Corn to Leon in one day, an epic cross-Nicaragua trip that everyone told us was impossible. We boarded our old friend Capitan D and took up a couple of bunks, ready to set sail at 11pm. This time there was a serious lack of pigs, cows… and any other backpackers! Locals told us that most tourists get the boat there, but fly back, after inevitably hating the chaos of the Capitan. We had however gained the company of two cockerels, which crowed constantly, and a stowaway cat that the crew told us suffered seasickness. 11pm passed into midnight and there seemed to be no hurry to leave. The horn eventually tooted our exit at 3AM. ARGH, so before we had even departed Big Corn we were 4 hours behind, on a very tight schedule.
Around 9am we arrived in Bluefields, and rushed off the boat and straight into a town that looked like a set from Pirates of the Caribbean! Stacked multicoloured houses lean perilously in huge colomns, creating cramped alleyways filled with sewage, children and animals. We had to race over stepping stones through one of these narrow snickets until we eventually found the dock where we could board a panga (small speedboat) to take us down the river to El Rama. This journey was incredible; 2 hours of James-Bond-style zooming down the Rio Escondido past tiny riverside communities whilst being swooped at by birds of every colour.
At El Rama, we knew our plan had come unstuck because we had missed the bus that would get us to Managua (the capital city) in time to make a connection to a bus to Leon. We now faced the bleak prospect of turning up to Managua late at night and having to wander around hunting out a hostel in one of the most dangerous cities in Central America. Luckily, a man working on the docks, came to the rescue. By pure chance Nick overheard him telling some other passengers that he had a friend who was driving from El Rama to Managua in his jeep and was looking for passengers to cover his petrol costs. Usually we wouldn’t get in a car with a complete stranger (travel safety 101) but as this was being organised by an official, plus we were being buddied up with a lovely pair of Nicaraguan ladies, we felt pretty safe. We were also stuck between a rock and a hard place in terms of dodgy scenarios. The driver was a smiley chap, although he did have an air of Tony Soprano about him and didn’t utter a word for the entire trip. What he did do was drive so fast that he covered a 6 hour journey in 4 hours… and also dropped us right at the bus terminal where we ran onto the last chicken bus of the day to Leon and it set off 30 seconds later!
You would think this is the end of the story, that our mission to reach Leon was over… but you would be wrong. The problem with chicken buses (the name given to the super cheap, old American school buses that run between towns in Central America) is that they are unpredictable and severely lacking in customer service. Despite us asking the driver to tell us when we got to Leon, he didn’t. A creeping gut-instinct that something was wrong hit me when we passed two signs to Leon Centro (city centre) with arrows facing the opposite direction. I eventually mustered up the courage to go and have it out with the driver in Spanish, and yes… it turned out we had passed Leon 3k previously and that he forgot to tell us. Despite the outcries of the other passengers (who I think felt really sorry for this pair of lost, bedraggled gringos) we were unceremoniously dumped on the side of the motorway. Did I mention by now it was nightime? With our backpacks on we set off on a very hairy dark walk back to Leon, having no real idea where we were even walking to. Considering we had now been on the road via boat, panga, jeep and bus for about 20 hours… we were in pretty foul moods. After a 2k trek we spotted the holy sight of a taxi who, smelling the desperation on us, charged us quadruple what it should have been, but I think we would have paid ANYTHING to get to our hostel at that point! Finally we were safely in a bed, in Leon, in one day. HOOOORAYYYYYY.
Nick Says: Waking up in the actually quite lovely surrounds of Lazybones Hostel (set up and run by local people), we felt mainly relief that our ambitious cross-country mission had been a success, and bar a minor late night motorway walk, had actually gone surprisingly smoothly! But now it was time for a last day in Nicaragua, and where better to spend it then Leon? If there’s one thing Latin America does not lack, it’s beautiful colonial cities. Cartagena, Cusco, parts of Panama City, Granada, and now Leon. Unlike it´s lakeside rival to the south we had visited a few weeks earlier, Leon seemed more built for people living there, with us tourists as a welcome after-thought. It is also the cultural home of many Nicarguan poets, artists and musicians, as well as acting as a hot-bed of left-leaning political thought and a home of the revolution. You could see this legacy everywhere, with paintings of various ‘heroes and martyrs’ on the walls, pictures of the great and the good of the arts world in the cafes, and a heap of museums to explore. We also heard an amazing story about the beautiful cathedral (below) which is that the architect had a plan signed off that was significantly more modest that the final creation. On the day of building, he switched his approved plan with the plan of Lima cathedral, and so got theirs instead!
Sadly for us, the museum we most wanted to see (the gallery of heroes and martyrs, run by mothers of the revolution) was closed for some sort of refurbishment. So instead we took to wandering the slightly raffish but alluring streets of Leon until we stumbled across the intriguing sounding museum of traditions and folktales. If you ever find yourself in Leon, then I guess I would recommend a visit to this place. Especially if you like your museums incredibly weird, like us (details in this Peru blog entry). Housed in a former prison of the Somoza regime, our guide Wilbur took us on a eclectic tour of the place, which mixes in, well whatever the hell they feel like mixing in to be honest. One room had some incredible black and white photography of the 1979 revolution (think young idealists on the streets wearing flares and holding machine guns and bazookas), while the next had giant papier-mache models of famous Nicaraguans, before another was a hall of giant heads and cultural dances. Oh, and in every room there were drawings on the wall of the tortures the prisoners used to suffer.
After being led to a room which seemed to contain the embalmed corpse of the lady who founded the museum (nb. it may have just been another model), we then got to go to the horror section of the tour. With a background tape playing the chilling sounds of people screaming, and very limited light, Wilbur told us a selection of his favourite ghost folk tales. Amongst them were the golden crab, the three witches, the child-stealing gnome, and the mighty witch-pig. However, my favourite (and Wilbur’s) was the legend of the ‘big busters’. This concerned a poor lady who was so hideously ugly that apparently could only attract a man because of her aforementioned big busters. Driven mad with rage, she then became a deadly spirit who lured drunk men to her before crushing them to death with her boobs. Just in case we were in any doubt about how big these busters were, there was another detailed model to demonstrate their size…
After that, we were finally led back into the sunshine before being allowed to climb up and roam the walls of the prison, the section of the tour where we could pretend to be prison guards apparently. Excellent.
That evening, we were able to call on some friends in Leon. While on the magical Little Corn, we had been caught in a morning rain-storm during breakfast. To help everyone escape the rain, we ended up sharing our table with two American ladies named Deborah and Kate. They turned out to be some of the most interesting and inspirational people we’ve met on the entire trip. They live and work in Leon, running a non-profit charity called Project Opportunity which seeks to teach skills to the poorest members of Nicaraguan society. Unlike a lot of other charities we’ve seen down here, it’s not about making the Westerners feel better about themselves, but rather empowering those who were born in a less fortunate situation then us. They make sure they work equally with their Nicaraguan partners on every project, and all the money donated goes straight to these projects, rather than anywhere else. They had just finished building a toilet block for a local school when we met them, providing clean sanitation to these children for the first time. With Nicaragua being the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, it was a breath of fresh air to meet people trying to make a difference, and not just a quick dollar. We are both hoping to fundraise for this charity in the future, and hopefully work with them once we are settled back in the UK. As well as doing good, they were also excellent company, and helped us celebrate our engagement (again) with beer and pizza. But then all too soon our time in Nicaragua was up.
We had a hell of a journey in front of us, where we would attempt to cross 4 countires in one day, with a different meal in each one. It would be the type of trip to rival my infamous Euro Man Voyage of 2011, where I ate breakfast in Switzerland, lunch in Liechtenstein, and dinner in Austria…
Bee Says: A huge difference in Central America has been the introduction of the wonderous shuttle. We spent SO many hours in South America negotiating bus stations, bus routes and setting off on journies to places that involved 3 different changes of transport and never really knowing if it would actually work. I admit this was a huge part of the fun and satisfaction of roughing it, but now that we are slightly weary and getting to the end of the trip, shuttles have made life a hell of a lot easier and safer. Shuttles basically run from Nicaragua right up to Mexico and link up every tourist destination you could dream of travelling to. They are a door to door service, taking you right from hostel to hostel, in a zippy little mini bus. You pay slightly more but it takes out every possible stress. Our first shuttle experience collected us at 2.30am from Leon and after many miles and border entry & exits, finally dropped us in Antigua at 7pm. We had coffee in Nicaragua, breakfast in Honduras, lunch in San Salvador (capital of El Salvador, which was actually really nice) and dinner in Guatemala. We used Gecko Tours, who were professional, friendly and even had wifi / showed movies onboard (even if one was a slightly dodgy choice about friends having an orgy. Hmm, the driver claimed it was cultural as it was set in Costa Rica.)
Nick was immediately off on his “solo travel” adventure to Copan giving me a day alone in Antigua, as Craig’s flight didn’t land until the evening. I have to admit, after spending every second with Nick for 5 months, I woke up alone and really had no idea what to do with myself. So, like all rounded 29 year old women, I rang my parents. After some nice nattering and a great chat with my dad about Moby Dick, I then ventured out for my day of being a lone wolf. I wanted to save the best bits for when Craig was with me, so it mostly consisted of Guatemalan hot chocolate, chatting Spanish to locals (maybe a little too keen-ly, as I got asked out for a drink by a tourist policeman and I suspect that’s a little over and above his job description. I declined, obviously!), clambering around some old church ruins and cake. Oh, and stalking Craig’s impending arriving on Flight View!
Nick Says: While Bee was seducing the locals, I was up for yet another early shuttle, this time at 4am. I had originally planned to go off to El Salvador for a few days, and while a lunch-time visit definitely wasn’t enough, it was still far more than the 2 hours we got while passing through Honduras. I also really wanted to see the Mayan ruins of Copan, and so in the end I booked my place and set off to the so-called ‘bad boy’ of Central America. Known for being the murder capital of the world, and the subject of countless horror stories from other travellers who had passed through, I was interested to see what I would make of it. Granted my view is a very limited one, and of their major mainland tourist site, but from what I experienced Honduras seemed to have an unjustifiably bad rep.
Copan Ruinas is a pretty town near the border of Guatemala. It was a long trip there (8 hours) but so worth the effort. However, we’d heard that tourism was in a serious crisis in Honduras, and the evidence was here. The place was practically deserted, apart from a few backpackers and many, many armed soldiers patrolling the main square. Which is a shame, as the Hondurans themselves seemed super friendly, and really keen to show off their country. Unlike most of the other places we’d been to, no-one bothered you in the street to buy things, or visit somewhere with them, but if you approached them then they were a wealth of helpful knowledge.
From the town, it was an easy 15 minute walk to the Mayan ruins. Located in a gorgeous valley, they were some of the most impressive temples I’d ever seen. You approach the main site through a valley filled with screeching and swooping scarlet macaws, before entering the grand plaza. Copan was famed for its craftsmanship and skill at carving, and everywhere exquistely detailed ancient monuments towered above me, including the ceremonial staircase, one of the finest workd of art in the ancient world. The main thing I took away from Copan was the knowledge that Mayan temples were actually painted in bright colours – here and there you could see the remains of red or blue. It’s something I had never considered before. However, the true draw of Copan is the fact you can basically have the entire site to yourself. In my day there the most crowded it became was when I saw about 9 other people on a tour. Yep, it was deserted. You could clamber to the top of a Mayan pyramid and gaze down on the rest of the Acropolis without seeing a single other soul. I sat on one for hours, perfectly at peace. Compared to the crowds you had to elbow out of your way at Machu Picchu, this was a welcome relief. In it’s own way more impressive than that more famous Inca site, Copan is a must-see for any visitor to Central America.
With only one night to enjoy in town before heading back to Bee, I ended up a German micro-brewery called Sol de Copan. Before being joined by other people from the shuttle here, I managed to sample several of owner Thomas’s excellent beers (all in the name of research of course) before eating the best schnitzel I’ve ever had in my life. Married to a Honduran, Thomas taught me chess (and beat me easily, even when trying to take it easy) and discussed how Honduras was struggling. It was a beautiful country which was being dragged down by the endless bad press. Lack of tourism was creating a new cycle of poverty, which was making an already desperate situation worse. He loved raising his family here, but felt terribly at how the country was suffering. So I would say to you, go and visit Honduras! Probably avoid the big cities, but check out the rest of this beautiful and friendly country.
While I often go and do a solo adventure on all my travels, this one had been truly eye-opening. However, I really did miss Bee and couldn’t wait to get back to her. We were close to the home straight now, but I almost had to spend a few extra days in Honduras. So far we’d been incredibly lucky criss-crossing countries, so it was perhaps inevitable that I would run into trouble. This trouble took the form of a protest in Guatemala just across the border. A crowd had gathered to make their unhappiness about power cuts known, and were burning a load of stuff and blocking the road to make their point. But just as it looked like we would have to turn back and return to Copan, an ice cream truck arrived, everyone got ice-cream, and then the protest was over. I’m not saying the two things were related, but I’ll just let that coincidence sit there.
What mattered was that we were off, and I was ready to rejoin Bee, and welcome Craig for 10 days of Guatemalan adventure.