Friday, May 30, 2014

NICARAGUA HAS TERRIBLE INTERNET

The internet in Nicaragua is so slow that I have been unable to upload blog posts.  Please don't worry, but I don't know how long it may be before I can post again.  I plan to stay in Nicaragua for another three weeks.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

INTO THE MOUNTAINS OF NICARAGUA - FROM HONDURAS TO LEON

May 24, 2014

5:00 AM came awfully early after having stayed up to midnight, the night before, working on my blog.  I knew I would suffer at the time I did it, but the internet was so good at D&D that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to upload all my Honduran photos.  Once I admitted that I was awake, I quickly bathed (the hot water quit after 5 seconds), dressed and packed.  I wanted to be ready early because the bus could have arrived as early as 6:00 and I had to carry my bags a quarter of a mile or so over muddy roads.  I had decided to forego my plan of returning to San Pedro Sula to take Tica Bus to Managua.  Patrick, Eliza, Brianna and I were taking the local buses to Nicaragua together.  As soon as I found one of the girls, I told her I was starting up the road and set off.  I put my daypack on my back and balance my duffel on my head.  This sort of thing is why the farmer’s carry is my strongest suit in CrossFit.  Of course, I have also developed my ability to hoist my bag over my head to hand it to the gentleman loading  bags onto the top of the bus.  It pays to travel light.

Eastern Honduras
The rest of the group caught up to me and we were all at the bus stop by 6:00.  There was only one direct bus to Tegucigalpa per day and we didn’t want to miss it.  We waited for the bus until 6:30.  When it finally arrived, it was a big, comfortable Pullman and we were thrilled.  It seemed too good to be true.  It was.  Within 20 minutes, the transmission gave out and we were stranded.  The bus company sent another bus very rapidly, but it was only a 30 passenger minibus.  The passengers pushed the disabled bus off the road and over to where the new bus was parked so that we could transfer the luggage.  From the nice, dry, easily accessible bins under the bus, we hoisted all our earthly goods onto the exposed roof rack of the minibus.  For once, the men weren’t being macho.  When the guy on the roof couldn’t reach Brianna’s pack, he just said, “Come on, Chica,” urging her to raise it higher.  We packed 44 people into that little minibus.  Patrick and I stood for the first half an hour, which was no mean feat on twisty mountain roads with a maniacal driver.  Brianna was practically sitting in the driver’s lap.  Eventually, a family of three, who were sharing two seats, invited me to perch on the edge with them.  They were very sweet.  We were there for a long time.  It took us five hours to make the three hour trip to Tegucigalpa.  Poor Patrick stood all the way to Comayagua, when he and I finally got seats.  We were across the aisle from each other and kept landing in each other’s laps as the driver hurled the bus around curves.  We were all very glad to arrive in Tegucigalpa.

I had spent part of my time perching on the edge of the seat talking to the conductress (the first woman I had seen working on a bus anywhere) about our onward journey.  She told me what we should expect to pay for a taxi.  A horde of taxistas swarmed the passengers as soon as we disembarked and we found one who charged us exactly the correct price (50 lempiras, about $2.50) each to shuttle us clear across Comayaguela to where the buses left from the border.  We had half an hour to wait, so we grabbed a cheap lunch of pupusas while we were waiting.  I paid for everybody, since I needed to change a large bill.  Lunch for four cost me about $6.00.  After lunch, we packed into another mini bus.  Everybody got a seat, but this bus had no luggage rack, so all our belongings were piled on the floor in front of the door where they had to be shifted every time someone wanted to get off.  It took us 2.5 hours to get to the border at Los Manos.  

Once again, I was on the aisle seat and had to hang on for dear life to avoid being thrown on the floor every time we went around a curve.  It turned out that the woman sitting next to me had grown up in the United States.  She worked as a translator for a Baptist children’s home run by American missionaries.  The home took in orphans and children whose parents either didn’t want them or had them taken away as a result of neglect or abuse.  The children got to stay and go to school until they were 18 and then got six months in a transition house where they were taught to fend for themselves and had time to find employment.  Often, they were allowed to stay longer than six months because employment was hard to find.  Sometimes, they were adopted.  My traveling companion was very excited for one of the girls there who had finally been allowed to go to the United States.  An American family had been trying to adopt her for 13 years, but had never been able to get her into the country.  They had come to visit her every year.  Finally, at 17 years old, they had managed to get her into a private school and she was granted a student visa.  It sounded to me that the children in that home were very fortunate.  They got to finish high school in a country with only nine years of compulsory education and they were taught English, which made them marketable.  Of course, they had to suffer some terrible experience to get there.  Their parents’ drug use was not, however, the primary reason they were there, unlike the children in foster care in the United States.

The Border at Los Manos
We got to the border in Los Manos about 2:00 in the afternoon.  Just as we got off the bus, a large group of men started cheering.  It turned out that someone had scored a goal in a soccer game on TV, but the timing was perfect.  We paid our 60 lempira exit fee ($3) and changed our money to cordobas without incident.  Our money changer was a woman, this time.  She was much less pushy than the guys were.  We walked across the border to immigration on the Nicaraguan side.  Nicaragua charges a $12 fee to enter, but they really only accepted exact change.  It took us forever to get out of there.  Patrick had $15 and they eventually managed to find him $3 change, although they tried to give it to me.  I gave them a $20, but they wouldn’t take it because someone had written on it.  Fortunately, I had exact change in cordobas.  I had to negotiate with the immigration officer for both Eliza and Brianna.  Eliza didn’t have dollars and her officer didn’t know how many cordobas to charge.  We eventually worked that out and got her through.  Brianna didn’t have any cordobas other than large bills.  She had to go back to the money changer to get smaller bills, but she still didn’t have exact change, so I ended up paying the last 20 cordobas just so we could finally get out of there.  We walked a little way further down the road and got on a chicken bus to Ocotal.

Our Room in Ocotal
Ocotal
For a chicken bus, our ride to Ocotal was pretty luxurious.  The overhead racks were big enough for our bags and the seats were extra wide and actually had padding.  We drove through dry mountains for an hour and a half or so and stopped at Ocotal because we didn’t think we could make it to Esteli or Matagalpa before dark.  We took a cheap taxi ride (about 75 cents each) to a hostel near the center of town and got two double rooms for about $8 each.  The place wasn’t attractive, but it was clean, the sheets were soft, and we had a huge TV and a quiet fan in our room.  The sketchy bit was that the town was under water rationing and didn’t have water on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  There was a tub of water with a dipper in it in the shower to use for bath water on the days when the water was off.  Fortunately, we were there on the weekend. 

Courtyard of our Hostel in Ocotal
 We all went out for dinner at a bar and restaurant called Campbell’s.  The food was actually very good.  I had pork fajitas.  Fajitas don’t come with tortillas in Nicaragua.  I got chips with mine, but they sometimes come with French fries.  Patrick and I had a couple of beers.  We drank Victorias which were not the same as the Victorias in Mexico.  They were actually pretty tasty.  After dinner, all four of us packed into our room to watch Red on our big TV.  I was so tired from two days in a row of five hours sleep that I passed out before the movie ended.  I slept like the dead.


May 25, 2014

"Garbage Truck" in Ocotal
Having passed out at 9:00 the night before, I woke up early.  At 6:00, I got up and spent an hour or so using the WiFi and working on my blog, trying to be quiet so as not to wake my roommate.  About 7:30, the others banged on our door.  We got out of there by shortly after 8:00, walked to the corner and caught another cheap taxi to the bus station.  This guy charged us about 60 cents each.  The bus terminal in Ocotal was surrounded by market stalls on three sides.  We could tell we weren’t in Honduras anymore because there were trash cans and people actually used them.  While we were there, we saw the garbage collectors come around.  The “garbage truck” was a trailer being pulled behind a large tractor. 


Patrick, Eliza and Brianna
The express bus to Esteli left at 9:00, so we didn’t have too long to wait.  It was a nice, comfortable Pullman bus and we got there in just over an hour.  The road to Esteli passed through more parched looking mountains covered with leafless trees, punctuated by the occasional bright red flowering acacias.  Esteli was a big town of 120,000 people.  It had seen heavy fighting during the war and was a Sandinista stronghold that still had strong leftist leanings.  I would have liked to go to the museum there, but we didn’t have time to stop.  The bus let us off at a gas station on the edge of town.  We needed to take another taxi ride to the southern bus terminal to catch our bus to Matagalpa.  We said goodbye to Patrick, who was headed for Sumoto, and hopped into the cab. 

Bus Terminal in Esteli

Video on the Bus to Matagalpa


The cabbie dropped us right in front of the gate for Matagalpa.  Once again, we didn’t have long to wait.  Our ride to Matagalpa was the best chicken bus I had seen thus far.  It had a large flat screen TV at the front that played music videos actually synched to the sound system.  We put our luggage behind the rear seats and the conductor made sure we sat in the back where we could keep an eye on it.  That turned out to be necessary because passengers and vendors went in and out of the rear door every time we slowed down to less than five miles per hour.  In Esteli, we saw lots of bicycles tossed on the rooftop luggage racks.  We rode for another couple of hours over the mountains, across a wide valley and then up into the mountains on the other side.  The valley was more fertile looking than the mountains, although it didn’t seem to be the growing season when we passed.  The bus terminal in Matagalpa was below the town.  We took the cheapest taxi yet to the other side of town for a total of about $1.50.  The driver was extremely pleased when I gave him a 10 cordoba (about 40 cents) tip.

My Room in Matagalpa
The girls wanted to go to the cheapest hostel in town.  It was cheap, but didn’t offer much in the way of amenities.  I got a private room for $10 and they got a double with a shared bath for about $8.  My room had a toilet and a shower, but no sink.  I had to use the sink in the courtyard to brush my teeth.  Surprisingly, my bed was the most comfortable mattress I had experienced since leaving home.  It was probably just a piece of foam, but at least it was comfy.  Even the sheets were nice.  They were exactly like some I had at home.  The hostel looked like a former stable or garage.  There was no WiFi.  There was, however, a large covered patio area with some rocking chairs and a cage containing two Amazon parrots who were amusing, but loud.  They could say, “hello,” in several languages.

Parrot in Matagalpa

After depositing our luggage at the hostel, we walked over to a restaurant called Monkey’s behind the church.  The power was out in the entire town, so the available menu items were limited.  I had spicy chicken wings with French fries and salad.  The fruit punch was very tasty.  After lunch, we started to walk up the hill to the overlook, but it started raining before we got very far, so we turned around and walked back to town.  We went into a couple of stores, looking for face wash for Breanna.  The grocery store also had a buffet.  Three dirty little boys under the age of 10, whom we had earlier seen smoking and making obscene gestures, begged me to buy them some beans and rice.  When I agreed, they asked if I would also buy some for their grandmother.  I fed all of them for about a dollar.  Then we returned to the hostel and spend the remainder of the afternoon reading, writing, washing and mending.  None of us were hungry, so we retired to our rooms and spent the evening in our windowless cells.  The girls’ room looked like a room in a whorehouse.  Mine was more like a janitorial closet with plumbing.


May 26, 2014
"Monkey's" in Matagalpa

While the parrots were covered and didn’t emit a peep in the morning, the neighbors’ rooster was not so polite.  All of us were awake by 6:00.  We set off to find breakfast at about 7:45, as checkout was at 9:00.  Most of the restaurants were closed and the open ones were all offering the same dismal breakfast buffet.  We wandered around until 8:00 when the coffee shops opened and ended up having breakfast at Seleccion Nicaraguense, the Nicaraguan version of Starbucks, minus the high prices.  I got a double latte and a piece of cheesecake for under $4.00, although that was exorbitant by Nicaraguan standards.  We hung around and used the free WiFi and then headed back to the hostel by 9:00.

We wanted to take a taxi back down to the bus station, but all the taxis were full by the time they reached our neighborhood.  We tried to find one for about 10 minutes until a gentleman convinced us that we should just walk there.  It was about ten blocks, but all downhill.  He walked with us to be sure we didn’t get lost and I talked with him along the way.  He was a former tourist guide from the collective farms outside of town, although he didn’t speak English.  When we got to the bus station, the shuttle bus for Leon was loading.  It was the last bus of the day, although it left at 10:00 am.  At first they said they didn’t have room for us.  We stood there, trying to figure out an alternate route to get to Leon, and eventually they took pity on us and packed us in.  Brianna got to sit in one of the back seats.  I sat on a beach chair suspended across the aisle on top of Brianna’s pack and Eliza sat on another beach chair on top of her pack.  My duffel was in the door well, where it fell out every time someone opened the door.  We rode like that for two hours, but at least it only cost us 74 cordobas (<$3) each. 

When we got to Leon, we were mobbed by young men with bicycle taxis who wanted to take us the long way to the hotel.  As there were three of us with three big bags, we looked around for a real taxi, but they were insistent that they could make it.  We packed into one of the bici-taxis and set off (fortunately) downhill.  We didn’t get very far before the rear wheel gave out and we had to switch to another bici-taxi.  I felt very exposed sitting in front of the driver.  I was certain we were going to smash into something as we careened down the hill, but we managed to survive the ride and arrived at the Tortuga Booluda Hostel in one piece.  Our taxi ride cost us 50 cordobas each, but it was worth it for the entertainment value.

Courtyard at Tortuga Booluda
The Tortuga Booluda was a cheerful hostel with colorful art on the walls and hammocks in the courtyard.  It wasn’t fancy, but had a self-service bar, nice kitchen and common area, and free pancakes in the morning, which attracted Eliza like a magnet.  The girls were going to get beds in the dorm, but I offered to pay the difference in price and got us a triple room.  Unfortunately, like all rooms I had stayed in in Central America, there was only one electrical outlet.  Plugging in two fans, a light, three phones and a computer involved lots of swapping plugs and a three-outlet extension cord.  Our room cost us $30.

Our Room at Tortuga Booluda
We were all hungry, so we set off in search of food as soon as we got moved in and oriented ourselves.  Eliza was a vegetarian, so we chose a vegetarian restaurant nearby.  The restaurant was run by a German woman and the food was fabulous.  I had spinach quesadillas that were more like crepes than tortillas.  Eliza had a delicious Indian Curry and Brianna had chop suey.  Just when we were sure we were going to eat there every day, the owner told us she was closing down for a week to go on vacation.  That was a huge disappointment as I think we were all planning to eat there frequently.  After lunch, I walked across town and dropped my dirty clothes off at the laundry.  It was 96 degrees out, so I was pretty wiped out when I got back.  I spent the rest of the afternoon reading in a hammock and couldn’t even move myself to go out to get dinner.  I munched a bag of chile peanuts and hung out in the room while the girls went out to see their friends.  The evening would have been perfect if I had not been attacked by huge flying insects that refused to be chased away and just laughed at me when I tried to smash them.  I finally had to turn off the light and go to sleep.

Friday, May 23, 2014

HONDURAS - COPAN AND LAGO DE YOJOA

May 19, 2014

The desk clerk knocked on my door at 4:20 AM to tell me my shuttle had arrived.  Fortunately, I was almost ready.  I shared the ride with a Guatemalan fellow who was also connecting through Rio Hondo.  We were both sleepy and didn’t say much.  It would have been nice to sleep, but that was impossible because the bumpy roads and tumulos made it impossible to rest my head anywhere that it wouldn’t eventually get smacked against a hard surface.  It started to get light after 5:00 and then I could see some of where we were going.  From Rio Dulce, we crossed the bridge and headed up into the mountains to the southeast.  The mountains were much dryer than the area around Rio Dulce and the jungle quickly gave way to orchards of mango and avocado trees and then to pine trees and grasses.  The mountains were rugged and the cloud formations dramatic.

Rio Hondo was an agricultural town where two highways crossed.  It mainly consisted of service stations and other businesses catering to the transportation sector.  We left my traveling companion by the side of the road and continued on to a Puma gas station outside of town, where we waited for 20 minutes or so until my ride to Copan arrived.  There were restrooms and a little snack bar with tables.  My ride for the second half of the journey was a Toyota Corolla.  I shared the trip with a girl from England and another from Honduras who were traveling from Guatemala City.  Our driver gave us customs and immigration forms to fill out, which we did before we left the snack bar.  The border with Honduras at El Florido was not far from Rio Hondo.  It was a much more peaceful border than the one where I entered Guatemala.  I had no trouble with the Guatemalan immigration officer, who stamped my passport and only collected the required fee of 10 quetzals (about $1.25.)  We changed our quetzals to lempiras with a couple of money changers there at the border.  They were much less pushy than the ones at the border with Mexico and their rates were fair.  I had asked the Honduran girl where to get the best rates and she confirmed that the guys at the border gave a fair exchange rate if you were exchanging quetzals.  She recommended that I go to a bank if I wanted to change dollars, which I did not.  I got nearly 2.5 lempiras to the quetzal, which made a lempira worth about a nickel, which was what I expected.  I didn’t have a lot of cash to exchange, anyway.

My Room at La Posada Copan
Past the border, we continued into the mountains.  It got drier and drier as we proceeded.  By 10:00 AM, we arrived at Copan Ruinas.  Copan Ruinas is a dusty little town that exists to serve the tourists that come to see the archaeological site.  It is all built of stone and covers about six blocks square with a plaza and small church in the center.  My hotel, Hotel La Posada Copan, was about a block above the square.  My room needed paint desperately, but was otherwise clean and comfortable enough.  A dozen or so rooms opened onto a courtyard full of birds of paradise.  Everything was paved with highly polished terra cotta tile.  It was rustic, but quiet and pleasant.  I was tired, so lay down and slept until about 1:30.  It rained a bit while I was sleeping, but had cleared up by the time I awoke.


Hotel Courtyard
Downtown Copan Ruinas
I had seen a cell phone repair place on the way into town and wanted to see if they could repair my iPod.  I went there first and left my iPod for the young man to look at.  It had died weeks earlier and refused to recharge.  Since it was less than a year old, I had hopes that it was the charging port and not the battery and might be reparable.  He told me to come back in an hour.  After dropping off my iPod, I ate a ham and cheese croissant at a cafĂ© on the corner.  A little boy of about 3 years named Alex was fascinated with the colors in my skirt and kept wandering over to talk to me, much to the consternation of his mother.  It didn’t take long to walk around Copan Ruinas.  I climbed up to the top of the town to look at the view and take a couple of photos.  The town is built on top of a steep hill.  The governments of both Guatemala and Honduras are attempting to increase literacy and I saw billboards everywhere inviting people to visit the public libraries.  They had painted slogans like, “A town that reads, progresses,” on walls beside the roads.  I was pleased to see that there was a group of children hanging out at the library after school.  The town seemed pretty prosperous and I saw a couple of mid-sized hotels under construction.  Many people visit Honduras only to see Copan.  It is rumored to be the most tourist friendly place in the country.  It certainly did not exhibit any of the poverty that I had been told I would find in Honduras more than any other country in Central America.

Main Plaza in Copan Ruinas
After an hour and a half, I went back to check on my iPod.  The fellow said that the battery was dead and, being an Apple, he couldn’t get it open to replace it.  This irritated me because I had bought the new iPod before this trip specifically because I was worried that the battery in the old one (still going after 7 years) would die.  I hoped I would get home before the warranty expired.  I should have sent it back with Scott.  I ate dinner at a nice restaurant just down the hill from the plaza that specialized in roasted meat.  I got a nice steak with beans, rice, plantains and condiments and a glass of Chilean merlot for about $10.  The restaurant consisted of two arcades on either side of a courtyard, with the bar and kitchen on one side and tables on the other.  Copan Ruinas had a sort of desert Mexico feel to it and this restaurant was no exception.  I expected to see cowboy hats and boots.  After dinner, it was a pleasant stroll back to the hotel in the dusk.


May 20, 2014

My Guide Mauricio on the Path to Copan
Macaw at Copan
I got up early and had coffee and cookies for breakfast at an espresso bar just off the main plaza.  My guide, Mauricio, picked me up at the hotel at 9:00.  From there, we walked a kilometer to the site of the ruins.  It was a pleasant walk through town and then down a paved path along a tree lined road.  Mauricio showed me how the older houses in the town had been built with stones from ruined temples.  The entrance to the archaeological site was the original entrance to the city.  Today, it is forested and there is a wide avenue leading through the trees to the principal plaza.  Scarlet macaws are being reintroduced in the area and there were several pairs of semi-domesticated birds hanging around, their bright red feathers contrasting with the intense green of the vegetation.

Acropolis at Copan
The Copan ruins are not nearly as spect-acular as Tikal, but the site was quite beauti-ful and tranquil.  We visited the acropolis where the centers of government and religion were located and the necropolis where the king and noble lived and were buried under their homes (hence the name.)  A major flood on the Copan River carved away a large chunk of the ruins in 1934.  Today, they end abruptly in a cliff.  In 1937 the Honduran government rerouted the river so as to prevent further damage to the site.  While I did not opt to pay the additional $15 to do so, there are tunnels under the acropolis where you can see earlier iterations of the city.  Each subsequent king was inclined to build new structures on top of the old ones in attempts to appear more powerful than the one before.
Abrupt Edge Where Flood Washed Away Ruins

God of Wisdom
3 Dimensional Sculpture Was Colored
Copan was inhabi-ted for roughly 2,000 years from 1200 before Christ to about AD 800.  No one knows for sure why it was abandoned, but drought seems to have been the major factor.  The number of skeletons found buried with spears through them points to war having contributed to the fall of Copan.  Drought may have caused war as groups fought over scarce resources.  There is also some evidence that reduced water flow may have created sanitation problems that led to disease.  There were sixteen kings in the dynasty of rulers during the heyday of Copan.  Copan reached the zenith of its power during the reign of the 13th.  What sets Copan apart from other Mayan cities is the quality of the sculpture there.  Unlike most Mayan sculpture, which tends to be somewhat two dimensional, the sculpture at Copan was often three dimensional.


Ball Court at Copan
The principal plaza at Copan features the second largest ball court in the Mayan world and also the hieroglyphic staircase.  Unlike the other ball courts I have seen, this one featured macaw heads for targets instead of rings. The hieroglyphic staircase was started by the 14th king and eventually completed by his son, the 15th king.  It has 64 steps, 1250 stones, and 2500 hieroglyphs.  It is the largest collection of carved hieroglyphs in the Mayan world and relates the history of Copan.  While it is somewhat weathered, it is still quite impressive.  Today, it is covered by canvas tarps to protect it from further weathering.  The principal plaza is dotted with carved stele and altars, including one clearly designed for human sacrifice, complete with channels to catch and direct the flow of blood.
Sacrifice Stone

Hieroglyphic Staircase Recreation

Hieroglyphic Staircase Today

Mauricio left me at the gift shop and I browsed a bit before walking back to my hotel.  I had time to gather my things and check out before noon.  I grabbed a tuk-tuk at the Parque Central to take me down the hill to the Hedman-Alas bus station.  The Hedman-Alas station was small, but had a decent cafeteria where I got some fried chicken and black beans for lunch.  My bus left at 2:00.  I sat next to a Honduran woman who worked for the department of education consulting on curriculum development.  She and I had a fascinating conversation.  She told me that the Honduran people have a history of being very submissive.  The government is trying to address the problems of poverty and corruption by teaching the children to be more confident and entrepreneurial.  They hope that a better educated populace will elect better leaders.  They are trying to teach the children to take care of themselves instead of expected the government or large employers to see to their needs.  It seems like a big task in a country where there are only nine years of compulsory education.
Between San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa
Honduras was originally colonized by the Spanish and then was dominated by the British during the 18th century and later by American fruit growers.  At one point, bananas were 60% of Honduras’ exports, earning it the title of “Banana Republic.”  The trouble with growing bananas was that banana trees were easily damaged by hurricanes and hurricanes were frequent.  Today, many of the banana plantations have been replaced by plantations of Chinese palms which are grown for their oil.  The oil has many uses, including the production of biodiesel.  The palm trees are very resistant to hurricanes.  Honduras also produces mahogany and teak. 

My travel agent in Antigua did a fabulous job of organizing a complicated itinerary through Guatemala and Copan, but neither she nor I was familiar with Honduras and I didn’t have a clear plan of where I was going once I got there, so I just told her I was going to Tegucigalpa because that was where I needed to catch the Tica Bus to Nicaragua.  The result was a stupid nightmare.  I had no idea that I couldn’t go directly from Copan to Tegucigalpa, but had to go to San Pedro Sula to change buses.  I misread my ticket and told the woman at my hotel in Tegucigalpa that I would be there at 6:30.  In actuality, I didn’t leave San Pedro Sula until 6:30.  It was after 11:00 by the time we got to Tegucigalpa and it was pouring rain.  I had borrowed a cell phone from my friend on the bus and tried to call my hotel when I first realized my mistake, but we couldn’t get a signal and then her battery died.  My taxi driver tried to call, but no one answered.  We drove all the way out there, but couldn’t find the hotel in the dark.  The streets were deserted because of the pouring rain, so there was no one to ask.  We ended up driving around the 5th most dangerous city in the world at midnight in the rain and finally admitting defeat.  The taxi driver finally took me to a hotel operated by Hedman-Alas, where he managed to wake someone up to let me in.  The hotel cost me $20, the taxi ride $50.  If you are going to Tegucigalpa, stay somewhere that offers transportation to and from the hotel and be sure to arrive early in the day.

Outskirts of Tegucigalpa
May 21, 2014

Despite the fact that I had not gotten to sleep until 1:00 AM, I woke up about 6:00.  It was noisy in the hotel and the mattress was awful.  I spent the morning researching places to go in Nicaragua.  My taxi driver was supposed to pick me up at 10:00 to take me to the bus station.  He didn’t show until 10:30, although he did call about 10:10 to say he was stuck in traffic.  The bus station was actually fairly close to the hotel, but I needed to stop at an ATM first.  My taxi driver was reliable, but charged me an arm and a leg.  It cost me $15 to get to the bus station and only $5 for a 3 hour trip to La Guama on Lago Yojoa.  I had no sooner stepped out of the cab than someone grabbed my bag and threw it up on the top of the bus.  My conveyance was a minibus headed for San Pedro Sula.  It was one step up from a chicken bus in that it had adult sized seats with at least some padding and no aisle to cram full of standees.  Still, we had about 40 people, many of whom had luggage, crammed into that little bus. 

Road Through Comayagua
The route from Tegucigalpa to San Pedro Sula heads north over a range of mountains and down into the valley of Comayagua, the former capital of Honduras.  The mountains were dry looking and covered in pine forest.  After crossing the valley, we climbed over another range of mountains and then down into the valley containing Lago de Yojoa.  Our bus labored up the hills and then careened down, largely without the use of brakes.  At one point, we lost someone’s bag off the top of the bus and had to back up the freeway, dodging semi-trucks.  Shortly before we reached the lake, it started to rain.  The driver pulled over and the conductor handed all the luggage down and inside the bus to keep it dry.  I sat in my cramped seat with my daypack under my feet and my 40 pound bag in my lap.  It was laughable.  The passengers started to bond.  I talked with a family who lived in Tegucigalpa and were heading to San Pedro Sula to visit relatives.  My Spanish must be improving because the father asked me if I was from Spain.

My Room at D&D Brewery
Firepit at D&D Brewery

Restaurant Pavilion at D&D Brewery
                                                                                                                                                                I got off the bus at La Guama, which is kind of a transportation hub for the Lago de Yojoa area.  From there, I could have taken another bus to Pena Blanca and taken a taxi from there, but I didn’t feel like dealing with my luggage, so accepted a ride in a tuk-tuk all the way to Los Naranjas for $10.  The rule of thumb in Honduras seems to be that the shorter the journey, the more it will cost.  I was relieved to reach the D&D Brewery (which is also a hostel) while it was still light.  I spent a pleasant afternoon sipping amber ale and using the Wi-Fi.  Then I had a large and tasty beef burrito for dinner and spent the evening chatting with other travelers.  The D&D Brewery offers cabins, rooms, dorm beds and camping.  They have a restaurant that serves beer brewed on site, which is actually quite tasty, although pricier than the local swill.  In addition, they offer a number of local tours, although the tour guide was recovering from appendicitis surgery when I was there.

May 22, 2014

Suicide Shower
I slept well even though rain was beating down on the metal roof all night.  Even with my earplugs in, however, I couldn’t sleep once some creature started scurrying about on the roof at 6:00 AM.  I lounged a bit and finally got up about 7:00.  My room had a suicide shower connected to the electricity with exposed wire nuts.  I really didn’t want to touch it, but had to keep adjusting the temperature because it had a tendency to be either all hot or all cold, so was only bearable for a few seconds after the hot was first turned on.  It struck me as a good way for the hotel to conserve water.  Carpenter ants were eating one of the boards in the ceiling at the foot of my bed.  Wood debris and the occasional giant ant rained down onto the blanket.  I counted myself lucky that it wasn’t falling on my head.
Hanging Bridge to the Eco-Archaeological Park
Lenca Ruins
I had blueberry pancakes for breakfast.  They were hearty and filling and would have been perfect if the butter hadn’t been unsalted.  Most butter in Central America is unsalted and it is amazing what a difference it makes.  I never realized that it was the salt that I liked in butter before I had to do without it.  After breakfast, I went for a walk through the local Archeological and Ecological Park down the road with one of my fellow guests named Patrick, a structural engineer from London.  We got there a bit late for good bird watching, but we still enjoyed crossing the hanging bridge and walking along the (extremely slippery) boardwalk over the marsh.  The archaeological site was an almost entirely unexcavated Lenca city.  There were a number of fairly unimpressive mounds and a few artifacts in the museum.  All of the Lenca’s implements were of bone, stone or clay.  The best parts of the walk were a tower that you could climb to see into the tree tops and the colorful butterflies that flitted about through the jungle.  We did see one skink on the boardwalk and some impressive insects.  Insects were everywhere at D&D Brewery.  The entry hall outside my room was full of impressive beetles.  My computer was full of tiny ants when I woke up in the morning and there was a giant spider in the dorm restroom that had most of the girls terrified.

Boarkwalk in the Eco-Archaeological Park
After our walk, Patrick and I had a very filling lunch of Baleadas (a sort of large taco made with flat bread similar to Turkish pide) and watermelon licuadas at El Paraiso in Pena Blanca.  The baleadas were so reasonable that we both assumed they would be small and ordered two.  One would have been plenty for me, although I had no trouble polishing off both of them.  Patrick had left his water shoes at the bus stop in Pena Blanca the day before and returned to find them gone.  As we later discovered, a little boy had picked them up and taken them to the shoe store.  The shoe store gave them to another guest at the hostel and they eventually found their way back to Patrick.  Honduras gets a lot of bad press, but I found the people to be very friendly and accommodating.  The young woman who carried my heavy bag to my room refused to accept a tip.

It started raining shortly after we returned from our walk.  I tried to sit in the restaurant to use the internet, but my phone kept getting splattered, so I eventually had to retreat to my room.  It was quite a storm with lots of booming thunder.  It lasted pretty much all afternoon.  I didn’t want to start drinking too early, so stayed in my room until 5:00 or so, when I went down to join the party in the bar.  I met three young people who were traveling while their ferro cement boat was in a yard in La Ceiba.  We exchanged boat stories for a while, ate dinner, and then played a game of liar’s dice which Patrick had brought with him.  Pretty much everyone in the hostel was gathered around our table and we had a good time.  When it started to rain again, I elected to retire early because I had to get up early to go bird watching the next morning.  I fell asleep to rain beating on the roof and lots of jungle noises.

May 23, 2014
Rowboats on the Canal
Rowing on the Canal
I got up at the ridiculous hour of 5:15 AM to be ready to go bird watching by 6:00.  I went with Eliza and Breanna, two young women from Colona, BC.  Our guide was Rolando, who didn’t speak much English, but knew a lot about birds and nature in general.  He was very good at spotting birds.  We saw quite a few just on the short walk to his house to pick up the oars for our rowboat.  He served us coffee on the porch of his very rustic house while his year old daughter watched us intently.  Once we picked up the oars, we headed down to the canal and boarded a leaky wooden rowboat.  Rolando had to bail it out before we could leave.  He brought some old throw pillows for us to sit on so we wouldn’t get out butts wet with dew.  I sat in the bow, while the girls sat in the stern.  Rolando sat in the middle and rowed.  We went slowly down the canal to the lake, stopping to look at birds all along the way.  We saw whistling ducks, northern jacanas, orioles, green herons, a night heron, egrets, tiger herons and lots of snail kites.  The muddy banks were littered with big snails that made quite a buffet for the kites.  We saw a couple of varieties of buzzards, red pigeons, grackles, brown jays, kiskadees, yellow bellied flycatchers and lots of spotted rails.

Green Heron

Tiger Heron
Attack Grasshopper
Fishermen on Lago de Yojoa
We stopped to fish a giant grasshopper out of the water and the darn thing attacked me.  He was about five inches long and cut my finger when he landed on my hand.  We rowed out of the canal and into the lake.  The views were spectacular and the clouds dramatic, but it didn’t rain on us.  We continued around the shore of the lake, past giant water lilies with northern jacanas walking around on the lily pads and stopped to go ashore so Rolando could rest and we could look for toucans.  We didn’t see any, but we did see some very cool limestone formations and some tiny little bats that actually hunted in daylight.  We disturbed them and they went flapping away.  People were living in houses along the shore that were accessible only by rowboat.  We saw them fishing and coming and going with various cargoes.  Humongous mangroves lined the banks.  Giant ceiba trees were festooned with spanish moss that the weaver birds wove into hanging nests.  Rolando brought us back to the hostel by 10:00.
Santa Barbara Mountains Over Lago de Yojoa


Tiny Bats

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 We were ravenous, but the late risers were just getting underway when we got back and wanted to go into town to get breakfast on the way to the waterfalls.  My new room (shared bath, but much better than the old one) was ready, so I made a quick switch, grabbed my daypack, and went along.  I didn’t think it through very well, because I ran off in long pants, without my bathing suit, and left my money at home.  We were a group of nine: my English friend, Patrick, the two Canadian girls, a girl who was volunteering in the area and her visiting friend, the two sailors whose boat was in the yard in La Ceiba, their visiting friend, and me.  One of the sailors refused to let me go back for my wallet and paid my way all day until we got back to the hostel.  We completely overwhelmed the El Nuevo Paraiso Restaurant and it took us forever to get our food.  It was about noon by the time we finally rolled out of there.  We had to wait quite a while until the proper bus came along to take us to Pulhalpanzak and then we packed the nine of us into it.  The bus ride was 18 km up out of the valley and down towards San Pedro Sula.  We got off above the town and walked a kilometer or so downhill to the park containing the falls.

Swimming Hole at Pulhalpanzak

Falls at Pulhalpanzak
Pulhalpanzak had a nice park with a beautiful waterfall.  It was 70 lempira (about $3.50) to get into the park, which got you a pretty path down to where you could view the falls and get thoroughly misted and the right to swim in the river and/or picnic above the falls.  For an additional 200 lempira ($10) you could take a tour to climb behind the falls and jump off ledges into deep pools.  Since I was borrowing money from Dom and didn’t have my bathing suit, I stayed behind with the other two sailors.  The rest of the group took the tour.  We watched them from above and it did look like they were having a good time.  When they got back, we all went up to the swimming hole.  Everyone went swimming while I rolled up my pant legs and dangled my feet in the cool water.  A couple of people elected to spend another 400 lempira to go zip lining, but I decided to save my zip lining budget for the Costa Rican cloud forest.  The zip lines at Pulhalpanzak were pretty tame, with the exception of the one across the water fall at the end.  Even that one wasn’t very long or high. 


Snail Kites Over Lago de Yojoa
About 4:00, it started to look like it might rain, so we began the trek back to D&D.  We walked into the town of Pulhalpanzak to catch the bus.  While we were there, we bought a bottle of 4 year old Flor de Cana rum to share later on.  The local taxi drivers were quite disappointed that they couldn’t talk us into taking taxis home, but we hung out and waited for the bus.  It was full when it came, but the conductor recognized us from before and welcomed us to pack ourselves in.  We stood in the aisle until we got to Pena Blanca, but at least we were headed in the right direction.  The rain never materialized and we made it back to D&D just in time for dinner and furtive rum drinks in the boys’ dorm.  I ordered a pineapple juice and just added my share of the rum to that.  Eliza, Breanna and I spent some time researching our next steps in the journey.  I had already paid for a cheap hotel in San Pedro Sula, but wasn’t having any luck finding a place in Leon for the next night.  Patrick and the girls were leaving at 6:00 am the next morning to take the daily direct bus to Tegucigalpa and then other buses onward to Matagalpa, Nicaragua.  I decided that it would be much more fun to go with them.  We paid our tabs and retired early.  My tab for three nights’ lodging in private rooms, most of my meals, drinks each evening, and the bird watching trip came to just over $100.  In addition, I made lots of friends.  One of the waitresses even hugged me goodbye.  I can’t say enough good things about the D&D Brewery, especially for solitary travelers.  It has a wonderful family atmosphere.  It was a bit like summer camp for adults and the setting is spectacular.  Don’t let the dangerous cities convince you to skip Honduras entirely.  The scenery is gorgeous and I found the people to be extremely friendly.