Living as a vet in Central America is not all dangling legs and tick fever! One of my non-veterinary goals of moving to Belize was to see all of the countries of this vibrant continent while I was here. A few months ago I started contemplating how I could make this happen. Who would be a good travel partner and have the time to go on this journey with me? I decided excitedly to contact my sister Alissa in Canada, and after much discussion she said yes! We spent months planning our budget tour. Between my work and her family we decided on sixteen days. Due to our time constraints and my previous visit to Tikal, we decided to forego Guatemala so she could see my home country of Belize. Belize is also technically an English speaking country, but for this trip I would need to try to get by on the spanish I have worked so hard to learn over this past year.
We began our trip at the southern most country, Panama. We flew separately, meeting up at our first hostel in Panama City around 11 pm on a night in early October.We chose to save money (Belizean vets are, shockingly, not rich!) by staying in hostels. Instead of staying in big loud dorm rooms, we booked a private room with our own bathroom at each stop, which is a great tip for budget travel. I was second to arrive, and asked my sister if everything was ok. She replied “Yes, but our toilet has no door!” And so our adventures began.
Our first day in Panama was spent visiting the Panama Canal, an engineering marvel. They provide a short movie to explain the history of the canal (in which we accidentally ended up in the spanish showing…did I mention Alissa speaks zero spanish?) as well as a very interesting museum. Many products we use and buy every day come through the Panama Canal. We did not get to see a boat pass through, but it was still pretty great. We were at the Miraflores locks on the Pacific side.
We got our hostel shuttle bus to drop us off at Ancon Hill in the afternoon and we walked to the top to see some great views. We then walked through the oldest area of the city and made our way home on foot.
Views of Panama City
On day two we were up what we thought at the time to be “early”, which turned out later to be practically sleeping in. Our pre-booked tour arrived to get us at 5:30 am to head to the San Blas islands. These tiny islands are still inhabited by the indigenous Guna Yala people, and although you can visit, they do not allow any modern development. We took a wild ride in a van (one co-passenger was able to hold on until we pulled over for her to vomit), followed by transport by small boat. The day was spent with a mom/daughter from Peru hanging out on the beach and swimming in the warm waters.
San Blas Islands
The next morning we were off to the airport to take a 1 hour flight to San Jose, Costa Rica. This allowed us to avoid wasting precious time trying to bus out of Panama.
We arrived by plane not fully sure of what we would do for most of the day. Our plan was to take the afternoon bus to the town of Monteverde/St Elena. We were dropped off at the bus station early in the morning to first buy our tickets. It was then that we found out that the location had changed. We managed to find a taxi, who tried his best to trick us into thinking that the buses were on strike and we needed a very expensive shuttle that he could arrange. This of course, was untrue. He dropped us off at a mall where we found the buses and easily bought tickets (and by “easy” I mean I used my best spanish to get by and hoped for the best). We decided that based on the safety level of San Jose (about zero) and the interesting things to see (also zero) that we would stay in the mall and read until our bus came. I also managed to unknowingly drop my wallet in the bathroom, and although I realized it quickly and got it back, I unfortunately lost all of my Colones (local currency) which I had just obtained at the airport. Rookie mistake, take note, don’t drop wallet!!
The bus ride to the small town of Monteverde was relatively short (about 4 hours) but required lots of Dramamine (for motion sickness). We were happy to finally arrive. Our B&B/hostel was amazing, more like a hotel room. We were high up in the cloud forest (higher than the rain forest) and so it was much cooler, and of course, raining. It was so humid that anything you hung up to dry out actually got wetter. Our first day was spent ziplining through the forest. Alissa had never been, it was my second time trying this out. Although we were soaked from head to toe and all the way through, we had a blast flying from treetop to treetop. We went tandem twice in the pelting rain, with me yelling “Tell me if he signals to slow down!”, and her yelling, “I can’t see anything!”. That same day we booked a night walk to try to spot some of the local wildlife in the dark. We reluctantly put our wet clothes (we each brought 1 pair of pants on this trip) back on and headed out in a group with a guide. Without him we would have been stumbling around in the dark seeing nothing but trees. With him we saw a kinkajou (really cool), sloths, toucans, a green viper, an orange kneed tarantula, and more! It was amazing. We forgot about our wet misery.
Ziplining and Night Hike
The next day we decided on a self guided tour of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. We caught a local bus to the reserve and got a map. We spent 3 hours walking the trails and managed to see an agouti (very very big rodent), coatimundi (related to raccoons), and about 8 different local species of hummingbirds that they feed near the gift shop.
Getting out of Monteverde affordably is not the easiest. We had already purchased a bus ticket from Liberia, Costa Rica to Granada, Nicaragua, but we needed to get to Liberia by 9 am first. The local bus leaves Monteverde at 4:20 am. Yup. You read correctly. We knew that we had to get off somewhere along a highway called La Irma and then stand at the side of the road and flag down a bus to Liberia. It turned out to be easier than it sounded and by mid morning we were on the Tica bus from Liberia to our next country, with leg room and air conditioning included.
We arrived successfully in Granada, the oldest colonial city in Central America. This was our most affordable stay, paying $10 US each per night for a private room with a fan and bathroom. This was also the first hostel that didn’t even pretend they might have hot water, there was just one tap in the shower. Our first morning was spent on a guided walking tour of the city.
That evening we used the same tour company to take us as part of a group to the Masaya Volcano, a short drive from town. This is an active volcano and one of the most amazing sights of the trip. Each vehicle waits at the entry to the park at the base of the volcano, then they allow a certain number to drive up at a time. Once arrived we had twenty minutes to view before rushing back down. It was amazing, very rocky, and the lava looked like waves in an ocean. Although it was bright orange, you could not feel the heat. It was mesmerizing.
The next day was for relaxing, a massage, trying the local dish “quesillo” with tortilla, crema, and onions, and enjoying the constant happy hour 2 for 1 drinks. The average price for a cocktail was $1 US.
Our next day would be our longest of travel. We needed to get from Granada to the capital city Managua in time to catch a bus that would travel through Honduras and into El Salvador. We were up at 2:55 am. WHAT? Yes, you read correctly. I longed for a day we could sleep in until 5 am! We boarded another Tica bus for the long haul, with multiple border crossings. I tried my best but couldn’t always understand enough spanish to know exactly what was going on. We also learned that you may need to show proof of Yellow Fever vaccination to get into Honduras if you’ve been to Panama, luckily we brought that along! Borders were also where I saw some of the worst cases of dogs with injuries, broken legs, missing feet, big scars. It made me realize how lucky we are here in San Pedro to have Saga Humane Society.
Driving to El Salvador
We finally arrived in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, after dark. It was too late to catch two more local buses to our destination, so we gladly hopped in a cab to the tiny beach town of El Zonte. Our spacious room was a bit like a tree house. We were ready for bed.
Although we wanted to start enjoying our short stay, we were detoured by the realization that there was no bus out of El Zonte on the day we needed to leave. How were we going to get to our next location? We decided to catch a ride to the neighboring and larger tiny town of Playa el Tunco to see what we could come up with . Indeed, no shuttle or bus. We did speak to an operator however, who taught us how we could do it by a taxi and multiple buses and we decided to try it. As a side note we enjoyed the beach, the food (love papusas), and a little shopping before returning back.
Unexpected Side Trip to Playa el Tunco
Now, how to get back to El Zonte without a taxi? We asked around and found that a local bus would pass at 12:30 pm on the main road, just wave and jump on for $0.25 (El Salvador no longer has their own currency and uses US dollars). Side note: All the $1 coins that the US mint made that Americans refused to use ended up in Central America. So, this was a true chicken bus minus the chickens, and 15 minutes of our life that will not likely be soon repeated. We stood up and held on for our lives while people got on and off, sometimes jumping in and out via the back emergency door of this green school bus. We didn’t understand how to pay, we got our feet trampled, and we laughed the entire way. Finally we jumped off as the bus slowed down near our road.
We came to the beach in El Salvador to see the black sand beaches, they did not disappoint. Everything that looked like mud was really black sand and it dried to the colour of asphalt. These beaches are for serious surfers, but I tricked my sister and signed us up for a surf lesson, her first time trying. With the help of our local pros we were bruised and battered but we had a blast. This was a beautiful surf hostel.
After only 1 full day in this beach paradise we were up early and off to try out our instructions to getting to Honduras. We headed back to the capital via taxi to catch a big bus into Honduras.
After a slight mistake with being led to the correct bus company at the wrong location we were on the bus towards Honduras. To our surprise we were served some breakfast, chocolate strawberry crepes, soon after departure. The bus was headed to the big city of San Pedro Sula but we were to get off before that in La Entrada. After many hours we were dumped off at the side of the road with our packs in tow, in search of a local bus to our destination of Copan Ruins. We were soon crammed into a small shuttle van with 15 locals (including many men in straw cowboy hats) and our packs strapped to the roof for the 1.5 hour drive. After 1 quick switch to another van we arrived. The little town of Copan Ruins is located just a few minutes from the Mayan ruins site themselves, and this is why we came. After asking around we found our hotel on foot. The streets were real cobblestone and very steep. We had a delicious local dinner. Our “hotel” was quite old and a little musty, but the best part was showing my sister how to use one of these.
Shower Head Heater
How these are legal I don’t know. But the look on her face was priceless. The tape, the string, the wires, the slight electrocution, awesome.
The next morning we were off and walking to the ruins. I have seen quite a few of these in Belize and Guatemala but every site is very different. A guided tour is always best, but our budget was to wander around by ourselves with our travel book. There was also a program to reintroduce the native Scarlet Macaw to the area.
We loved all the Mayan architecture and the birds, but we actually had to get back on the road the afternoon after we arrived. You can see us riding in a local crazy taxi/scooter to get to the bus. This next bus was not quite a “local bus” as everyone had a seat, but far from luxury. We were headed for the big city and stopped dozens of times to pick up more people with one man hanging out the door to entice them on to ride with us. One of us whispered to the other giggling, “Should I ask when they are serving the crepes?”. Hmmm, maybe not.
Finally we arrived at a huge bus station in San Pedro Sula, often referred to as the most dangerous city in the world. How welcoming. We came here only to sleep the night and catch a plane. We quickly caught a taxi to our hostel and found it to be in a safe neighborhood (as planned) and very friendly. This was our most expensive stay at $25 US each for the night. We had an amazing room and another scary shower head heater (that worked). Ahhh, hot showers.
The next morning we were off to the airport, and after a quick stop and search by the police for unknown reasons we were up in the air and off to my home country of Belize!
Alissa would soon have to go home, but I wanted her to get to see where I live and work. After she hopped on a borrowed bike to accompany me on a training run down south (a great way for her to experience our rainy season giant puddles) we were off and riding our bicycles up to visit the weekend farmers market and explore up north. We made time to tour my workplace Saga, to eat local BBQ, and to walk the beach front.
After 16 days of fun our trip had come to an end. I got to add four new countries to my passport and my sister got to add six. We experienced so many exciting locations and adventures. We collected a bracelet from each country as a memento, but we collected tons of memories to last a lifetime!
What a Great Trip
We went to places we’d never been in a language we barely speak and had a great time doing it.