Honduras by the Books

Honduras didn’t end up being as cheap as we expected or hoped, and this is mainly because the list of appealing things to do was longer than we anticipated. Activities eat up the budget pretty quickly, as do islands – what with pricier than normal food and getting to and from and such. My budget numbers here aren’t a true reflection of what we did, as I was generously gifted my dive course on Utila. So, minus diving – here is what Honduras looked like:

Days: 9
Total Limpiera: 7414
Total US Dollars: 322
Approx. Daily Expenditure (USD): 36

This is a little, uncomfortably close to the 40 USD / day budget we are aiming for, particularly in a country that we figured would be one of the cheapest. We’ll have to be watching the numbers in Nicaragua!

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The Journey from La Ceiba, Honduras to Leon, Nicaragua. Featuring San Pedro Sula, The Most Dangerous City in the World?

San Pedro Sula, Honduras, has been dominating the lists of the World’s Most Dangerous, Deadly, and Violent cities since 2011. I’ll be more clear; San Pedro Sula dominates when the lists are determined by murder rate per capita, and do not include countries at war. If you solely possessed this information, you would imagine that this a place the average person would like to avoid. However, San Pedro Sula is a major transportation hub for Hondruas, and the chances of going through it are exceptionally high for the average traveller. It is also true that the vast majority of the violence in San Pedro Sula, in Honduras, and the rest of Central America and Mexico, is gang- and drug-related. It is reasonably unlikely the average tourist will get caught up in it.

We spent a good amount of time staring at bus timetables and counting hours in transit before deciding on our approach to get from La Ceiba, Honduras (essentially either of the Bay Islands, Utila or Roatan) to Leon, Nicaragaua. We wanted to find the sweet spot somewhere in the rosy trifecta of cheap, timely, and minimal back-tracking.

The general rule, with all services, anywhere in the world is this: You take a triangle, and at each point you put a word. Cheap, Fast, and Good. This is what everyone, everywhere in the world wants when they pay for a service. They want it to be good quality, to be quickly completed/delivered, and they want it cheap. Now the tricky thing is, you can only really ever have two of the three. Think about it. If you want it cheap and fast, it’s not going to be the best quality. If you want it good and fast, it most certainly isn’t going to be cheap.

Essentially the same rules apply to bus travel in Central America.

There are a million different ways you could combine as many buses to do this journey, but here is what we did:

We came from The Jungle River Lodge, and didn’t arrive in La Ceiba until about 2 p.m. We then caught a Diana Express bus from La Ceiba to San Pedro Sula that left around 4:30 p.m. and arrived about 8 p.m .There are many different buses doing this journey, all throughout the day. The upside of Diana Express is that it is cheap (115 L each way). The downside is that its terminals, both in La Ceiba and San Pedro Sula, are not connected to the main bus terminal and are a bit out of the way.

If you are coming from Utila, the ferries depart at 6:20 a.m. and 2 p.m., arriving in La Ceiba approximately one hour after departure. From Roatan, the ferry departs at 7 a.m. and 2 p.m., and it takes almost two hours. Even the afternoon ferries would get you into La Ceiba in enough time to take a bus as far as San Pedro Sula.

From a poster on the wall of the Diana Express terminal in La Ceiba, we came across a lovely hostel in San Pedro that offers free bus terminal pick-up, and return transport to the bus for 2 USD/person. Arriving in the dark in San Pedro means that you will really benefit from having something like this arranged. Guaras Hostel was very nice and was run by very nice people who accommodated our early start without a worry. We were woken up about 10 minutes before our alarm, at around 4:05 a.m., as an assurance that we wouldn’t miss our scheduled pick-up. We joined a host of other travellers, and were welcomed with coffee and biscuits at this obscenely early hour. Our transport arrived (in the form of a Hilton branded minibus) and we were at the bus station before our 5 a.m. goal. We hadn’t bought a ticket yet and had been warned that our bus has a tendency to fill up. We had decided to splurge, in an effort to make the trip slightly less draining, on a direct bus that would take us all the way from San Pedro Sula to Leon (or Managua, if you so desire). The Tica Bus was scheduled to leave San Pedro at 5:30 a.m. and arrive in Managua at 5:30 p.m. The Leon stop would be around 3:30. (I think it ended up being closer to 4:30, but that’s pretty damn close.) This bus also stops in the capital city of Tegucigalpa (Tegus for short). On chicken buses, I don’t even know how long this trip would take. The bus cost 658 Limperia, or around 32 USD.

The bus got on its way only slightly behind schedule, and its only major stops were Tegus and the border. The international buses tend to help handle the border crossing details, and will often collect everyone’s passports and border fees to handle all of the paperwork. I’m generally convinced they charge everyone (or at least the tourists) a bit extra for the convenience of it all as well. It cost us a total of 15 USD each for departure tax from Honduras and entry into Nicaragua. We were aware that Nicaraguan entry cost around 12 USD, so we figured this wasn’t too far off.

On the Nicaraguan side of the border, we all had to unload our luggage and go through a cursory customs line. Most of the tourists hardly unzipped the top of their backpack before being waved through. Neverthless, avoid taking any restricted items into Nicaragua, included fresh food, or you could get stung at the border.

Eventually, we were on the road again, and Wolverine dubbed in Spanish helped pass the remaining time before we made it to Leon. Volcanoes became an every-present feature on the skyline, and anticipation for our dive into our next Central American country rose. When we were deposited outside of a petrol station in Leon, the informal bus-stop that doesn’t require a dip into the city limits, it was easy to jump into a shared taxi to our hostel. “Our” hostel, La Tortuga Booluda, was one that we had grabbed out of our guidebook and had, of course, not booked. Upon arrival, we were told there wasn’t quite enough space, so we took the owner up on his recommendation for a nearby bed at Sin Fronteras. Dorms at Sin Fronteras run 7 USD per person, rooms are $22. This seemed pretty par for the course in highgly popular Leon, though we did see a dorm bed offered above a bar for $5.

Journey complete, we ventured out into the dimming light and rising sounds of evening in steaming Leon.

Rafting the (Dry) Rio Cagrejal

We had heard that the Rio Cangrejal, just out of La Ceiba in northern Honduras, offers some great rafting at a budget-friendly price. There are a number of jungle lodges set up about half an hour outside of La Ceiba that will offer pretty comparable experiences. We chose the aptly named Jungle River Lodge. They offered a deal that included a short rafting trip, transportation to and from La Ceiba, and a night of free (in a dorm) or discounted (in a private room) accommodation, for 40 USD per person. It sounded pretty good to us, so we contacted them and had a driver waiting for us when we disembarked from the Utila Princess, slightly shattered after four days of diving.

We made our timely way to the Jungle River Lodge, where we were shown to our slightly scummy room that, nevertheless, had amazing views of the river. Being dry season, the area hadn’t had much for rain in the preceding few weeks, and the river was exceptionally low. To make up for the sub-par rafting, the lodge informed us that the normal trip would be supplemented with a bit of a river walk as well, so we planned to do it all the next morning.

Raft

The Jungle River lodge is like many somewhat remote lodging operations in Central America. It runs on a tab scheme, where you just charge everything that you do, eat, and drink to your room at pay at the end. We had pulled out our daily limit of cash on Utila to pay for diving, and had arrived at the lodge a little short on funds. Credit card payments, we were told, would incur a 19% surcharge on top of the normal taxes. Luckily, the staff at the lodge was accommodating enough to have the driver stop at an ATM the following day, before dropping us off in La Ceiba.

The major downfall of Jungle River is what we discovered at dinner. As per most similar set-ups, a guest kitchen is not on site. People are expected/able to purchase meals through the hotel kitchen. Jungle River offers dinners for 8 USD, which in this part of the world, should without a doubt fill you up. While very nicely cooked, the small bit of chicken, two miniature tortillas, and salsa that we received for dinner just didn’t quite do it for the majority of the people at the table. Add in a cup of beans and rice and you would have had a meal. Unfortunately, most people left the dinner table a little bit hungry, which is never a nice feeling.

Due to my only occasionally flailing cheap-ness, we had brought along all of the food we needed for snacks and breakfast, so weren’t required to purchase any more of the lodge’s meals. Definitely at least bring along some snacks, as you may need a little bit of filler in between the set meals.

In the morning, we woke up and geared up for our rafting trip. Eight of us jumped into the back of massive four-wheel drive truck and headed upstream. Once we reached the river bed, one of our guides led the way further upstream, dipping and fighting his way across the river, over rocks, and through some rather tricky sections. The walk felt a bit like a very relaxed canyoning trip. There we a couple of little jumps off of rocks, and then we reached the big guns.

I’m really very scared of jumping off of things into water. It’s not the height, really, and it’s not the water. It’s just all of it, combines, generally scares the bejeebers out of me and I refuse to do it. I did the small, couple-of-metre-high ones without an issue, as I just didn’t give myself enough time to think about it. When we got to a massive boulder several metres higher than the surface out of the water, and the guide pointed out the place to run down the boulder’s slope and jump into the water, I instinctively started shaking my head. I watched the rest of the group run and jump into the water, each landing with a satisfying foot-first splash.

I confessed to the guide about my long-seated fear, and he very patiently coaxed me to the edge, holding my hand and keeping his feet in front of mine so I wouldn’t slip. Finally close enough, I told myself to just do it, let out an ear-splitting scream before I even moved, and launched myself off of the edge.

It was, of course, fine. Still, as I surfaced, my heart was pounding and my limbs were shaking and it took some concentrated effort to swim back to shore. Everyone climbed up for another round, this time jumping more to the side and then swimming to the opposite wall to do some rock climbing. I was more than keen to try the climbing, but the longer I sat at the top of the rock, the more freaked out I became, and I wasn’t able to jump a second time.

Our fit young guide easily made his way up the first section of the wall, where he ended up hauling a good number of the other group members up by rope. Tim managed the first climb without any issues and then, no rope or harness involved, ascended with the rest of the group to a point maybe 13 metres (this is a very vague guess, my distance estimations are poor) above the water. One after the other, they plummeted down, time stretching as they hung in the air, and then jerking forward as the surface of the water broke with the contact of their feet.

At this point, it was almost time to start the real highlight of the day: Rafting! We floated in a convoy back down to our initial entry point of the river, and loaded up, two or three people and one guide to a raft. We practiced the basic strokes, commands, and practices for a couple of minutes before heading down into the first set of rapids.

Rio Cagrejal gets up to Class V rapids. We could see the high water line on the boulders far above our heads. The amount of water in this area during the wet season would be astonishing. One of the guys with us had a friend who had rafted all over the world and said Cagrejal was one of his favourite rivers. Unfortunately (or maybe not so) we were visiting well into dry season and the rapids would peak at about Class III for us. Regardless, we had an awesome time making our way down the river, and there were definitely a couple of moments I was expecting to get thrown out of the raft. Our guide knew the river better than most people know their own houses, and was clearly enjoying sending us exactly where he wanted to go. His ability to park up on rocks in the middle of the river river was pretty outstanding.

Freshened up and exhilarated, we arrived back at the lodge to gather our things and jump on the truck back to La Ceiba. Our next stop was essentially Nicaragua, but it’s a rather long way so we would have to overnight somewhere first.

Dive This. Utila.

The Bay Islands. Utila. The backpacking, diving mecca of Honduras. It’s cheap, it’s lively, and it actually does offer some amazing diving. It also offers the rare and fleeting opportunity to see whale sharks, the largest fish in the world. Obviously we were going to go.

You can get there in a day from Copan, no worries. Second time’s a charm, when we actually woke up to our 5:30 a.m. alarms. There’s a Transportes Casasola bus that leaves from a bus by the stream in Copan at 6 a.m. This will cost 140 L and take you as far as San Pedro Sula’s massive, shiny bus terminal. Here, options are abound for buses to La Ceiba. We hopped on one in very questionable condition that, amazingly, made it all of the way to our destination (for 115 L). From here, there are endless taxis jumping at the chance to drive you out to Muelle de Cabotaje, where the ferry for Utila (and the other popular Bay Island destination, Roatán) leave from. The ferry to the island is what hurts the most, coming in at 542 L (about $28) each. There are two boats that make the trip to and from the island. They look almost identical, but have one very important difference: one is dual-hull, and one is not. The ocean gets pretty damn rocky, and if you’re prone to seasickness (particularly if you get the single-hull boat) definitely take some tablets with you and sit outside.

The trip takes about an hour. When we arrived, a group of pamphlet-carting reps tried to rope us in to their hotel and their dive school. Utila is known as one of the cheapest places in Central America to learn to dive and, while the course prices are not drastically different than neighbouring areas (about 280 USD for an Open Water or Advanced Open Water course), you do end up saving a lot of money because of all of the perks they offer with the course. Most dive schools will offer free or discounted accommodation, throw in a couple of meals, and also toss in some free dives. This makes booking accommodation ahead of time, or with an unaffiliated hotel, a less than budget friendly choice. Given that we didn’t know how much we’d be diving or where we wanted to stay, we ended up wandering a fair distance down the main street of Utila before we stumbled upon Parrot’s Dive Shop. We could get a very cheap room in a (sort of) nearby hotel, and we’d struck out so far, so we decided to give it a go. We returned the next day to hear their sales pitch on diving. Tim and a couple we had met in El Salvador were thinking about doing a dive course. Both Tim and I have our open water, but there are certain dives that require an advanced diving certification, so he was thinking about doing his advanced. After hearing what the course entails and the dives we would get to do, my interest definitely piqued. When Tim said it sounded like exactly what I needed right now to learn some new skills in diving, I couldn’t help but agree with him. I was mainly choking on the price. We were offered the course (normally $289) for $279, including four nights of discounted accommodation, a breakfast, and two free dives when the course was finished (roughly $80 of value-added perks). When Tim suggested he get me the course as an early birthday present, I was completely surprised and stoked. It’d be a fun adventure to do the course together, and I wouldn’t have been able to swing it otherwise.

For anyone who has done an Open Water course, you know there is a rather mind-numbing amount of “class” involved. To get your advanced, it involves a lot more fun (a.k.a diving) and a lot less school. You need to complete five dives, and only need to do the chapter review questions for the applicable chapters. Our plan was to do our deep dive and our navigation dive the first day, and do our buoyancy control, wreck dive, and night dive on the second day.

Utila is basically surrounded by dive sites on all sides. The weather is the main factor deciding where you will go, as when the wind picks up the north side of the island is pretty tricky to get to. The north side offers dramatic coral walls, steep drop-offs, and the open ocean – which comes with the opportunity to potentially, maybe, possibly see whale sharks off the boat between dives. It takes significantly longer to get to than the south side. The south side is a bit less dramatic, but tends to have more of an abundance of sea life, and the coral (to me, at least) appeared more intricate, delicate, and beautiful.

The first day, we headed around to the north side of the island for our first dive: our deep dive. An open water diver’s recommended depth limit is 18 metres. Today we would dive down to 30. My problematic ears have gotten increasingly better with equalising, so the depth didn’t prove to be an issue. We dropped down from the boat and made our way towards the edge of the massive coral wall. Utila is perched on the edge of a continental shelf, which means that the walls, in places, are essentially no-bottom. They are hundreds of metres high, so for all intents and purposes, they have no bottom. The cherry on the top of our dive was spotting a sea turtle. It was so relaxed, so calm, and so powerful as it made its way effortlessly throughout the water. It reached its flippers out to balance against the coral as it investigated food sources. It seemed impossible to believe this turtle would, at some point, need to return to surface to catch a breath of air.

When we were almost at the boat, we got the signal to hurry up and out of the water. The captain of the boat, Rudy, had spotted another boat which had spotted whale sharks. We hauled ourselves and our gear into the boat and, pulses quickening, headed off towards the boat on the horizon. You can’t dive with whale sharks off Utila; only snorkelling is allowed. The crew informed us that if we were successful in our pursuit, and actually managed to snorkel with the whale sharks, there would be a 300 L mandatory tip to the driver. (And then asked if everyone was on board with this. We were.) We came up to circles of jumping fish above the water, the tell-tale sign that whale sharks were feeding below the surface. As soon as we arrived, the fish stopped; the whales had moved on. We followed them, flippers and masks on, perched on the side of the boat, ready to jump in, but our chase was fruitless. Every time we arrived at the scene of the monstrous fish, they would run away, and eventually we called it a miss. Disappointed, but excited that they were at least in the area, we completed our second dive for the day and then headed home in the sunshine.

The following days were filled with more diving, far too many rum and lemonades from the best bar on the island (Skidrow), and lots and lots of key lime pie. Advanced diving certs in hand, we paid our rather exorbitant ferry fair (this time we got the dual-hull) and headed back to the main land of Honduras.

Utila

Copán Ruinas and Copán Ruinas

We arrived in Copan on a Thursday, which just so happened to be a major night in their annual festival. On this particular night, there was what felt like a beauty-paegent-meets-high-school-prom hybrid during which the “queen” of Copan was crowned. This, mixed with a carnival-gone-wrong mix of gunshot-like fireworks and really bad candied apples, made for an interesting entry into the town.

Copan is actually Copán Ruinas, a town made a destination due to the nearby Mayan archaeological sight of the same name. Most people come for the ruins, but the town itself is surprisingly charming and enjoyable, and it’s easy enough to spend a couple of days. I wondered aloud at one stage how many people come to Copan for the ruins, and then learn about the brewery. Indeed, we came across a handful of people who never even visited the ruins at all.

This, in my opinion, is a mistake. Copan isn’t the grandest, or the most picturesque of the ruins that we’ve visited on this trip, but it does offer elements that the others do not. Primarily, Copan is known to have some of the most extensive and interesting hieroglyphics of Mayan sites in the area. This includes the Hieroglyphic Stairway, and amazingly detailed staircase with carvings on each block of each step.

Copan Staircase

Much of the carvings, sculptures, and hieroglyphics visible amongst the ruins are reproductions. The originals are housed in the museum, which has an additional entrance fee of $7. The general entrance fee to the ruins is $15. This is perhaps the biggest drawback of Copan: it’s well expensive. There are also tunnels you can pay another additional fee to view, though they are reportedly not worth it. They are archaeological tunnels dug for research purposes, not traditional Mayan tunnels, and allow you to see some of the temples buried underneath the current structures.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

We enjoyed spending a couple of hours of our afternoon at Copan, though the heat can get intense. We returned to town that afternoon and indulged in some rum, some excellent street food, and some general merriment that went along with the festival weekend. The quantity of rum made it rather impossible for us to catch our planned 6 a.m. bus the following day, so we ended up with one more day of relaxation in the heat before making our leave from Copan.

El Salvador by the Books

We did this one pretty cheap. This was mainly due to limited movement between towns and the fact that dinner rarely cost more than $4. Here’s a quick breakdown of the El Salvador spending:

Days: 15
US Dollars: 351
Approx. Daily Expenditure (USD): 23

As a reminder, the entire trip budget is 40 USD / day. This is by far the best we’ve done at being under budget, and hopefully it will be enough to offset some of the more expensive countries. We’re hoping Honduras and Nicaragua will keep us on the cheap for long enough before we have to start splashing out in Costa Rica.

Border Crossings: El Salvador to Honduras (via Guatemala)

When our exploration of the El Salvador coast became, instead, a week and a half of lounging in El Tunco, our plans for afterwards changed as well. When we finally convinced ourselves we had to leave the town (which wasn’t easy), we began to look at our next destination. Our initial notion was that we would head into Honduras through one of the southern points of entry, head north through the centre, and explore North Eastern Honduras and the Bay Islands. Since we had not managed to get anywhere near those borders, we re-evaluated.

A couple staying at our hostel had booked one of the tourist shuttles directly to Copan Ruins in Honduras, which is very close to the eastern border of Guatemala. After some map-consulting, bus-estimating, and dollar-counting, we decided to do the same. We could undoubtably make it to Copan on chicken buses, but we guessed it would take us about two days and involve another night on the road. The general rule is that the tourist shuttles are about twice as expensive (at least) and take half as long. For shorter trips we have found it’s rarely worth it, but when you’re talking about a 10 hour shuttle (at best) it can be worth the cost not to spend two days of your life crammed in to the back of a bus with chickens squirming at your feet, constantly watching your pockets and worried that your backpacks are going to go careening off of the roof at every corner.

We paid $35 each for the transfer, plus a $3 charge for the surfboard bag. (No, there is not really surfing on Honduras’ Caribbean coast. But there is surfing through Nicaragua and the rest of Central America, so Tim’s surfboards get a bit of a scenic tour.) This $3 became a bit of an issue between us and one of the tour operators. We had been told, when we booked the shuttle, that it was $3 for our surfboard bag. We are carrying two boards in one bag. In San Salvador, when we changed shuttles, we were told to pay $3 per surfboard. With a lot of bickering, and a fair amount of hostility, we eventually were able to pay only the $3 we were initially quoted. This isn’t the first issue I’ve heard about with Gecko Tours, as friends of ours had problems with missing shuttles and trip refunds. I wouldn’t jump to travel with them again. If you do, just be sure to triple-confirm all of the details, times, and costs, as it appears that things can often be misinterpreted.

The route we were to take would mean an extra border crossing, but the shorter drive would apparently make it worth it. We travelled from San Salvador back up through Guatemala, and then entered Honduras very close to our destination of Copan. We had to pay 2 USD each to leave Guatemala, which seemed to be a function of travelling with this tour company. When asked why we had to pay a departure tax when we had all been under the impression it was unnecessary, our guide became a bit abrasive and started on about seeing the border people every day and not wanting to step on any toes. I heard later on that he had mentioned to one of our travelling companions that it is not an official tax, and exists because Gecko crosses these borders so often and essentially wants expedited service and feels the need to grease the wheels a bit. Hmm … It seems as though taking the quick and easy tour company option was costing us more than we thought. We paid 130 Limpera total to enter Honduras (It’s approximately 1 USD = 20 L) and then were on the final stretch – it is only about 30 minutes from the border to town.

We were deposited from the shuttle into town where we used our standard strategy of one person wait with the bags while the other goes and scouts a room. This was a quick process this time around, and we hauled ourselves and our gear into the hotel/hostel hybrid of Hotel Don Moises, exhausted after a long day of travel.