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.
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.
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.