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Planning a Backpacking trip through Guatemala/Honduras

In 2013 I decided to take two weeks and backpack through Guatemala and Honduras. Let me back up, I use the term “backpack” loosely. Central American backpackers are actually people that carry their luggage on their backs, and take public transportation, organized shuttles or other modes of transportation, excluding their feet, to travel through countries. They stay in hostels, not tents and eat at restaurants, not food prepared by a campfire. It is nothing like hiking the Appalachian trail. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure that some people actually backpack/camp down there, but I did not run into any of them.

I planned the trip about two months earlier. At the time, and one of my co-workers, Kelly, was getting out of the military, had a dream of traveling through Central and South America before moving on to his next gig, so we decided that we would fly down there together, I would show him the ropes for two weeks through two countries, and he would continue south once I departed. I was a Spanish linguist for the government, so fortunately, I knew the language and had a significant amount of situational awareness with regards to politics, crime and the culture. That was in addition to several previous trips that I had taken to Central America.

The plan was to fly into Guatemala City, catch a shuttle to Antigua for a night or two, then shuttle over to Panajachel and take the “vomit comet” across Lago Atitlan over to San Pedro a la Laguna for a few days, we only planned out a few stops and ultimately were flying out of San Pedro Sula, Honduras after a few days in

My biggest rule for planning a trip like this, was to prearrange a driver from the airport to my first hotel or hostel. I also always book a high end hotel on my last night of my trip. This is for two reasons. First, I figured that if I didn’t show up to the hotel on the last night, somebody would take notice that an American female was missing and the world would be put on alert, SEAL team 6 would be sent in and I would be saved. Second, after two weeks of staying in hostels and carrying a pack, sleeping in a room that is guaranteed to be clean, cozy and hopefully safe, is like Christmas morning, or better yet, coming home to a clean house.

So once I had my safety hotel setup and plan for my prompt SEAL team 6 rescue in place, I searched the web for the great places to see, mapped out my trip, verified that shuttles could get me from place to place, reviewed a few hostels, and I left the rest in God’s hands.

In order to prepare for the trip, I had packed and repacked my backpack at least three times to make sure that I had everything that I needed and nothing that I didn’t. The thing about traveling to Central America and staying in hostels, is that you have to bring everything that you will need including your own towel, toiletries, hand soap and lots of sanitizer. Public restrooms don’t have sinks, or toilet seats for that matter. There was one exception to the toilet seat.  I once went to the restroom in a relatively decent restaurant/bar which literally had a toilet seat duct taped onto a 5-gallon bucket that sat above a hole in the ground. On a side note, you can’t put anything down the toilet either. All toilet paper goes in the trash can. They don’t have a sophisticated enough sewage system to allow for anything beyond waste. Which may actually mean all waste is filtered into some local waterway, but I hope not. But, if that is the case, I don’t want to know, because I probably swam in it.

Departure Day

I hopped on a flight from Baltimore Washington International, flying through Houston, I landed in Guatemala City. The shuttle was a small van converted to fit way too many people. But I crammed my stuff in the back and shared a seat meant for two people, with three other people. We arrived in Antigua, got our bearings and walked a few blocks to our hotel. The place was pretty nice, but also ran about $70 a night. But I didn’t mind spending a few extra bucks for a fluffy bed and clean sheets, since I would be in hostels for the next two weeks. We dropped off our stuff and roamed around Antigua. We exchanged some money, then checked out the major sights in the city like the Arco de Santa Catalina and a hilltop hike for a great view of the city and Pacaya volcano. We found a place for dinner and drinks, and once it was dark, we headed back to the safety of our hotel for a night cap and called it a day.

San Pedro A La Laguna

In order to get to San Pedro a la laguna on Lago Atitlan, you have to take a shuttle, which takes about three hours, to Panajachel where you take a boat across the lake to the port at San Pedro. We ventured down the road to the hostel that we thought we’d like to stay at, only to check in and find dirty sheets, suicide showers, and no air flow. We opted to ditch those reservations and walk around a bit more to find a different place. We ended up at this amazing hostel that cost $12 a night and was cleaned with fresh sheets and bleach daily. I could have stayed there forever. I fell in love with the location, the price and hospitality of the owners. We ended up staying a couple of days longer than we anticipated because we loved that town so much. One day we rented kayaks and paddled across the lake to San Juan for some cliff jumping and a meal.

While in San Pedro, we obtained a guide to take us up the San Pedro volcano. Our guide was so kind and spoke extremely clear spanish. I enjoyed practicing the language as we ascended. I will say that it is a tough hike, by the time we were half way back down, my legs were exhausted and didn’t want to function properly. On our last night there, we ventured back to “Gringo Alley” and found a whole entire new section of the town that consisted mostly of ex-pats. I fell in love with San Pedro, and although I was sad to leave, we continued on our journey the next day. We hopped back on the boat to Panajachel, grabbed a shuttle and off we went. Our shuttle journey was supposed to be pretty direct, however, our drive had to drop off a barrel of something in Guatemala City.  This doubled our travel time to Copan. We were frustrated at the time, but it all worked out just fine.

Copan

 

La Ceiba

Utila

 

 

 

Nothing Good Happens After Dark

I learned on previous trips that nothing good (for tourists) happens after dark in Central America. Perhaps that is not entirely true, but I will share with you some situations that I have encountered.

A group of four of us were staying at a hostel in Grenada, Nicaragua. The owner of the hostel, an Irish fella who had lived there for more than a decade, invited us out for dinner and drinks in the town square. The dinner ran late, and once the sun started to set, I headed back to the hostel, but the others wanted to stay for some more drinks. I learned the next morning that the hostel owner had tried to hook m friends up with some women who turned out to be prostitutes. Once my friends realized that it was a setup for the girls to make some money, they excused themselves and headed to another bar. As they ventured down the road, they realized that they were surrounded by some local guys, who kept commenting in Spanish, which they did not speak or understand. Anyways, it turned out that the local guys were pissed that they didn’t partake in the prostitution and they wanted money one way or another. Luckily, they were able to evade those guys and find a solitude in an American restaurant until the group left. They quickly returned to the hostel and stayed on well lit roads during their walk.

This is very common. Everybody knows everybody in towns like that, and they all work to help each other make money off of tourists. If one person, perhaps the hostel owner, recognizes that he has a group of people with lots of money, or that just drink too much, he will tell other locals about them. Some locals will then make every effort to relieve the said tourists of their cash.

Another example of how the cities/towns in Central America work is this. When we arrived at the dock in San Pedro a La Laguna, we walked up the street and to the right was a sign that said “Cuba Libres 2/$1″Like any good tourist, we decided we should go get some drinks! So we did. Beause it was pretty early in the day, the owner came out to chat with us. We later learned that he had to pay rent for the bar, and an additional extortion fee to the family that owned the beer company. I can’t recall which beer it was, but it was not Gallo. Locals who owned bars did not have to pay the extortion fees, but foreigners were charged double and triple the prices if they wanted to run a business.

Bottom line, staying out late is just too much of a risk. Plus, I prefer to curl up with my book in room. If I really have an itch to keep the party going, I can party at the hostal with other tourists. I truly love Central America, but you have to travel smart and safe.

 

 

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Oh My Mexico!

We vacationed in the “Riviera Maya” of Mexico in February of 2007. This has got to be a joke, it is an extension of Cancun, not a giant party, but they cater to Americans, they want it to be like America, and yet they cost as much as America, and they lack the culture of the Real Mexico. The resort was under construction when we arrived, but it was ok. We were in a hurry to get outta there (the resort and Mexico).

Airfare and Hotel: $1200 each

Car Rental: $425

Fishing Trip: $900

Getting taken for $100 on our second day there by a gas station attendant: Priceless

Traveling to Dominica

We traveled to Dominica in February, 2008. The cost was about $1,100 each person for airfare and hotel. We flew out of Baltimore, had a layover in San Juan, Puerto Rico and continued on to Dominica. Landing on a tiny island causes some minor anxiety as the plan approaches, goes over a mountain, and then drops down to land on a short runway then slams on its brakes, some may get a tad bit nervous. We arrived, went through customs in a TINY airport, grabbed our luggage and walked outside to meet the guy from our rental car company (sorry I don’t remember the name), but it was more like the guy rented us his personal vehicle. Don’t get me wrong, it was fairly inexpensive, but the vehicle came stock with condoms in the glove box and sunglasses on the dash. we chose the “European Version” with the steering wheel on the right side of the car. Oddly enough car (more like a Geo Tracker) was in Chinese, the warnings, stereo, and signals were all in Chinese! Anyways, the rental guy drove us to our hotel and took a cab back to his house free of charge.

We arrived at our hotel “The Tamarind Tree Hotel” and were greeted by the owner and her son. This hotel is located on the west coast of Dominica, about half an hour from the Canefield Airport and about one hour from the Melville Hall Airport. We flew into Melville Hall Airport. It is situated on a cliff that overlooks the ocean, there is a small private beach in walking distance where we never ran into anybody else. The sunsets from the hotel restaruant/pool area were absolutely breathtaking.

All of the people at the hotel were wonderful. They were all older and us being in our late 20’s, were the youngest that were staying there. It was quiet and romantic, especially in the morning while eating breakfast (which is included) overlooking the ocean. The hotel was very quaint and quiet. The pool was rarely used by guests and was fairly small. But it did not matter since nobody was ever in the pool (except me). Definitely get a rental car and drive around the island. We went up north where Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed, we did the boiling lake hike (VERY VERY DIFFICULT AND STRENUOUS), we drove to Rosseau on a day that cruise ships came in and all of the vendors were out. We wondered through the crowds and even found a Subway (yummmmm). We picked up a couple of bottles of wine and some snacks at a grocery store in Rosseau and headed back to the hotel to relax. We went snorkeling at “Champagne” which was beautiful and drove up to the rain forest and did several waterfall hikes. Most hikes were fairly short and not strenuous, we even did one in the pouring rain (it was still warm out and pretty fun).

We drove down south and checked out Scotts Head. We had lunch and wondered the streets and beaches of the area, it is absolutely gorgeous.

There really aren’t many great beaches in Dominica, but drive around and you can find something that meets your needs. Also, make sure you do the whale watching tour from Portsmouth and visit one of the various sulpher springs areas to check out the boiling rivers.

Playa Tambor, Costa Rica

We went on vacation to Costa Rica back in January 2006. We flew into San Jose and picked up our rental car. We had about an 8 hour drive to our hotel including a ferry ride from Puntarenas. We stayed in Tambor, the southern most point on the pacific side, by Cabo Blanco. Getting there with a rental car was quite an adventure, but in a fun way, not dangerous or scary. Beware, the roads there are pretty tough, there are detours down dirt roads which are detours from route 1, the main highway.

Once we got to our resort, Barcelo Playa Tambor, we checked in without any problems and went off to ur room. The rooms were large run of the mill resort rooms with rockhard beds, but the view into the rain forest, and the pools, people and service, made you forget about the hard beds very quickly.

We drove all over the area and checked out a ton of stuff. There were a lot of Canadians there, and tons of surfers from Canada that were just bumming around in Mal Pais. We gave some of them rides to and from the tiny 4 cornsers of Cobano. Cobano had a bank, a fruit stand, and a small market, but it was the only thing in the area. We hiked the Montezuma waterfalls, got totally lost in the rain forest and had a blast. We kayaked in the bay area, went deep sea fishing and caught a HUGE Mahi Mahi. Our guide was AWESOME!

In the resort compound there is a wildlife area where we spotted monkeys, alligators, iguanas of all shapes and sizes and some really neat photo opportunities. More toward the entrance there is bird sanctuary that features parrots from all over South America. If you look up while wondering through the bird sanctuary, you will see a bunch of monkeys quietly peering down at you. It wa amazing!

We also did a 4 wheeler tour with the same guy that took us fishing. That was wonderful as well, we got to experience the country on 4 wheelers and we made some friends while we ere at it as well. During that tour we stopped, drank a few beers and went for a swim in beautiful waterhole that had a rope swing and huge waterfalls.

It was a wonderful trip that we will never forget, and byh far our favorite trip ever!

Here is a picture of the hotel pool just to make your mind up about going!

Hotel airfare cost per person: $755

Rental car $325

Driving in Costa Rica: Priceless.

Life Changing

positive testNo matter how many times you hear it, it is still impossible to understand what it really means to become a mother.  Although I knew what the two little lines in the display of the plastic stick that was covered in my urine meant, I had no idea, what it really meant to be a mother.

I was three days late, I was at an endurance ride over the weekend with friends and horses, and in the middle of the night, it struck me that I was late. I didn’t think it was a big deal, I could have been a few days off on my estimate, but when I got home that Tuesday, I took a test before racing outside to meet a client for riding lessons. Within 30 seconds, two very distinct blue lines appeared. I began to cry. I was happy, but I was scared of what that meant. I was scared that I had some drinks on New Years, and took a sleeping pill to help me sleep the night before the endurance ride. I was scared of what it meant to be pregnant for 9 months. No horses, no running, no third world country adventure travels. I was scared to be 37 and that there was a 40% risk of my baby having a chromosomal defect. I was scared to fall in love with the idea of becoming a mother in case it didn’t actually happen. I had about ten minutes to spare before my lesson, so I returned a call to my friend, and I tried not to let her hear the fear and excitement in my voice. But I was crying, I couldn’t stop crying. I broke down told her that I had taken a test, and it was positive. She asked me if that was a good thing or a bad thing. I explained that it was just plain scary.

Fast-forward to September 30, 2017. There I was with a giant gaping gash across my abdomen, skin stretched as they pulled Elijah Grant Smith out of my body. The sweet little 7 pounds 1 ounce baby, was exactly what I had been preparing for over the last 10 months. He was finally here. I had awaited his arrival so impatiently primarily for the following reasons:

  • I was excited to meet him
  • I was excited not to be pregnant anymore and feel like a whale
  • I was excited to go back to being a stomach sleeper
  • I was excited to drink wine

What I didn’t realize was what a drastic makeover my life was going through.

Let’s fast forward a year and some change. Elijah is a little over a year old. He started eating solids around 6 months, and walking at 10 months. He now says “ehhh” and points to tell me what he wants, and throws himself on the ground (the hard tile floor) when he doesn’t get what he wants immediately. He currently sleeps in bed with us, still nurses throughout the night and amazes us daily with his intelligence and understanding of complex things that we ask him to do. He laughs big old belly laughs often and 95% of his time is considered playtime. Everything is a playful game except eating, sleeping and diaper changes. His favorite, must-have objects are a shoe horn, a ladle, and a baster brush. I find 2 of the three items in the shower, or dunked in the toilet at least once a week. He loves to “help”. If I am cooking, he wants to take the spatula from me and beat the food in the pan to death with it. If I am cleaning, he wants the paper towel and the spray bottle so he can spray and wipe with me, then he looks up for approval to verify that he did a good job. He wants me to hold him most of the time, and if I try to put him down to go pee, he throws himself on the ground, unless I distract him with a toy… or a baster, ladle or shoe horn. He has to be watched all of the time. He can open drawers, even the child proof ones and yank things out. He puts everything in his mouth. He loves to taste or chew on the dogs kibbles, my toothbrush, his used wrapped up diapers (which he demands that he puts them in the diaper genie), and most recently, he sunk his teeth into a bar of Irish Spring soap, which oddly enough, didn’t phase him. When the dog vomits, or he finds liquid on the floor (or even worse, if he poops on the floor) his first instinct is to put his hands in it and smear it around. Thank goodness that I scooped him up before he played in the poop.

Let me explain, I had taken his diaper off for bath time, and as I was messing with the water, he pooped. I scooped him up before he managed to get his hands in it, but not before he crawled through it. I put him in the shower, and as I turned around to clean it up, the dog quickly darted to the pile of mush and began chowing down on it. Thanks, dog… I think.

My point is, that I didn’t realize that being a parent was a full time job. I didn’t realize that any spare time I had prior to being a mom, was no longer. Those days of going to the store after work are long gone. I pick up the baby from daycare, we go to the house, nurse and he naps from 4-6 pm. I imagined that I would be riding my horse while he napped, or doing stuff outside, but that is not the case. I prepare for the next day and make dinner so when he wakes up, we can eat, cleanup and shower. He goes to bed at 7:30 and we are in bed by 8. Yes, we could stay up later, but he wakes up a couple of times a night and we need the extra sleep. That is how each weekday goes. Weekends are less structured, and we get more accomplished, but it is a team effort. I have to give those single mothers a ton of respect, because I have no idea how they do it. We don’t have family here, we don’t have consistent babysitters, and we don’t have anybody he can spend the night with when we need a break.

Don’t get me wrong, I love being a mother, but I just didn’t understand when people said they couldn’t meet up because it was the babies nap time or because they didn’t want to bring their toddler to an event and they didn’t have a sitter. Now I see how the simple daily tasks are amplified when there is a baby or a toddler involved. I guess these are things that you would not be able to understand until you live it, but hopefully, this gives you some insight on what to expect when you are expecting.