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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Travel Potpourri: Antigua, El Salvador, Honduras & Roatan

May - June 2010

Well, so much has happened since we last updated -- let´s jump right in:

Antigua, Guatemala

Our last stop in Guatemala was all together different from the rest of the country. A beautiful colonial city full of hostels and backpacker attractions, Antigua smothered us with its architectural and historical charm and allowed us to comfortably explore a big city in Central America.

All Central American towns, from the largest city down to the smallest village, have a plaza where people gather to gossip, eat street food, or just idly pass the time. And out of all the plazas in all the many towns we have have visited we can comfortably say that Antigua´s central plaza was our favorite. With an impressive fountain at its center, (adorned with life size statues of women shooting water from their nipples. thats right, their nipples.), and a dazzling cathedral towering along its edge, we spent several much of our days (and nights) sitting in the plaza people watching and soaking up the sun. At night, the face of the church was completely lit up, making for an ideal place to sit and drink beer. The rest of our time in Antigua was spent visiting historical landmarks, such as the ruins of an old colonial church which was decimated during the earthquake of 1773, buying fresh fruits and vegetables in the most immense and chaotic marketplace we´ve come across yet, and drinking coffee on the plaza.

When we´d had enough of walking the cobblestone streets and lazing around the plaza we decided to take the advice of all the signs we´d seen around town and attempt to hike one of the two (and active) volcanoes that loom over the city of Antigua. On advice from fellow travellers we chose to explore Volcan Pacaya on a guided tour. It took about an hour and a half arrive at the foot of the volcano about 2 hours to hike to the peak. We climbed through a changing landscape that went from forest, to vast grassy plains, to endless mounds and piles of black volcanic rocks. As we reached the peak we felt as though we´d landed on another planet. The heat emanating from the rocks below us was tangible and we could dip our walking sticks (which we purchased from kids at the bottom of the volcano for 25 cents) into glowing red pockets where they would burst into flames. People were roasting marshmallows and grilling their sandwiches on the rocks and the peaks behind us were constantly emitting smoke, like being on the open sea, we could feel that the Earth is just as alive as us.

Ruta De Flores - El Salvador

Originally we had planned to skip El Salvador, as we´d been turned off by stories of civil unrest and dangerous cities with no unique attractions to draw us there. However, after meeting some very helpful travellers in Lanquin who strongly endorsed a visit to El Salvador, in particular the Ruta De Flores (Route of the Flowers), we decided that in the spirit of going with the flow and the newfound knowledge that the best advice tends to come from other travellers and not from a book we decided to brave the unknown .

The Ruta De Flores is the name of a road which connects several small cities and coffee plantations in the highlands of Northwestern El Salvador. The Route is named for the many flowers that bloom along it´s edge during the month of May. The air is fresh and cool, the landscape lush in this part of the country: it was truly a spectacular sight as we bused from town to town along the Ruta.

Ataco, maybe the smalles, sleepiest town we have visited in all of our travels, was basically closed down completely when we arrived (we learned later that weekends are when the town comes to life). Luckily, after walking through town in search of lodging, with local villagers gawking at us as if we were from outer space, we were able to find a place to stay in a hotel perched at the top of a tall steep hill, (quite a hike with backpacks on but worth it for the view). We quickly learned a few things about El Salvador, and in particular these small mountain villages : 1. They use the American Dollar as currency, 2. The hotels/hostels are more expensive but everything else (food, transportation, etc) is much cheaper, and 3. They are not very accustomed to foreigners (we were definitely the only gringos in the whole town).

In Ataco we ate cheap street food, with all of our meals being under $1 each and
consisting mainly of the Salvadorean favorite, papusas: cheese, bean or meat filled corn patties. We enjoyed the peaceful central square, one of our all time favorite plazas in central america due to its lovely fountain and magnificent, moss covered trees (which max discovered to be great for climbing), and drank strong, fresh coffee. We also found a delicious Italian-owned restaurant and treated ourselves to plate of fantastic fettucini alfredo (a real treat after so many weeks of beans, corn and chicken.) Sadly, Max got a migraine on our last day in town and we spent most of the day resting in our room before moving on to the next town, Juayua, to catch the reknown weekend food festival.

In Juayua we stayed at a inviting hostel, called Hostel Anauac, which had a nice outdoor kitchen, a tv and great dvd selection and a lovely outdoor courtyard. Our primary motivation for visiting Juayua , being the food obsessed people that we are, was for the nationally known ¨Festival Gastronomico¨ which occur every weekend and which Salvadoreños from the capital and all over the country frequent. Hundreds of food stands from around the region line up along the plaza and sell everything from fresh seafood ceviche to grilled meats to corn pastries with cream. We ate, drank beer, watched Barcelona win a soccer game (amidst hundreds of cheering Salvadoreans), and enjoyed the various forms of entertainment in the plaza (like the hip-hop performace, where we joked about the two girls at who were basically bizarre-o Flora & Deirdre at age 13).

After enjoying the food fair on both Saturday and Sunday we decided to work off all the calories with a short hike to a nearby waterfall that lay just on the outskirts of town. Created by some kind of man-made damn for hydroelectric power, these seven towering waterfalls which tumbled from the rocks above us, were set in a secluded tropical forest. We were the only ones there, and we spent the day swimming in the pools at the bottom of the falls and breathing in our surroundings. An easy, relaxing day was topped off with the comforts of home back at our cozy hostel: a home-made dinner of pasta, salad and wine(!) and Curb Your Enthusiasm for the perfect end to a wonderful weekend.

Los Cobanos - El Salvador

On a whim, after deciding we needed more time in this welcoming country, we decided to pop down to a little town called Los Cobanos on the Pacific Coast. We were directed to Kalindigo a recently opened hostel, and the only one to be found in this miniscule beach village. We only stayed for 3 nights, but we thoroughly enjoyed our time at this homey, beach-side get-away. Other than one other backpacker who was painting an incredible mural on the wall of one of the buildings, and the owner, who embraced us like family of her own, we were the only people there. We swam in the saltwater pool, walked along the beach, waded in the ocean, played Scrabble & Yahtzee and loved on her puppy and her kitten -- Ishka & Ciatci, and Flora even got to help paint some of the mural. We also enjoyed some of the most delicious and affordable seafood we´ve had yet, whole fried fish, and yummy mussels and oysters spiced up with lime, worchestire, salt and hot sauce (we were first introduced to these by a table full of friendly Salvadoreños at a restaurant who generously gave us a plateful and taught us the best way to eat them). A relaxing, worthwhile beach stop before moving onto the city of Santa Ana.

Santa Ana - El Salvador

Santa Ana was supposed to be a quick stop in a big city, El Salvador´s second city after San Salvador, before moving onto Honduras, but we found ourselves staying for longer that we planned due to the relaxing atmosphere of our hostel Casa Frolaz which was a beautiful colonial style home that the gracious and friendly owner, Javier, had converted into an hospedaje. We stayed in a comfortable bed and enjoyed a huge shower with hot water (not very common), a massive kitchen, a courtyard with lime trees, and a comfortable living room with a great selection of DVDs. We explored the city´s Central Plaza and church, its huge market and its very US-like mall (we even ate a Wendy´s burger). We got a good vibe in this city and were able to really experience the night life in El Salvador when Javier´s nephew and his friends took us out for a night. We drank beer, listened to live music, bought a piece of art from a spray-paint artist and ended the night some intoxicated teens who were big fans of Max´s recently purchased Barcelona shirt. We spent the next day lazing around watching movies and planning our trip to Honduras.

Copan Ruinas - Honduras

After another harrowing day of border crossing and uncomfortable bus travel we made it to Copan Ruinas, a town aptly named because of its close vicinity to the Mayan Ruins of Copan.

Copan Ruinas was actually a nice place to stay while we took part in nearby excursions, despite the large amount of tourists in the town. We spent the first day visiting the Mayan Ruins at Copan, known for their engravings and sculptures which are extremely ornate and unique. Although an interesting cultural site, these ruins were a little underwhelming and over-priced, requiring side fees for nearly every exciting part of the park (and after experiencing the wonder of Tikal its hard to be impressed by any ruins). We did however catch our first glimpse of a Macaw, the largest and most stunning bird we have ever seen in the wild.

Thanks to that sighting and a recommendation from some German travellers that we met in El Salvador, we decided to visit the Macaw Mountain Animal Sanctuary. With a guided tour through the park we were intimately introduced to hundreds exotic birds who had been kept as pets but mistreated or unable to be cared for. Apparently macaws can live as long as humans and are difficult to care for, requiring a lifelong commitment that most aren´t ready for: thus the reserve exists for birds who have lived as domesticated pets for their entire lives and so are unable to live in the wild but no longer have homes. It was heartbreaking to see some of the most recently adopted birds who would bite out their own feathers, an indication of stress. But it was also uplifting to see the birds who had adjusted, how well cared for they were and how spacious and well-kept their cages were. In total we saw at least 3 different kinds of Macaws, 2 kinds of Toucans, parakeets, owls, hawks and even something called a monkey night (or night monkey, the guide might have been confused about the traslation). OK, so the monkey night isn´t a bird, but it is a wonderful monkey/lemur like creature that kept holding our hands and even howled when we left, it fell in love with us and gosh darn it we fell in love with it. We even got to hold the birds on our arms and shoulders (see picture at the link at the bottom of this post).

Lago de Yojoa - Honduras

We decided to stop off and visit the Lago De Yojoa, a magnificent lake located on our way to the Caribbean Coast, and motivated in part by the blurb in our book about a small microbrewery/hostel that we could visit in the area (and so far the only one we´ve seen in Central America). We stayed at the brewery in a very basic room, enjoyed some delicious, tangy and not sweet, Apricot and Raspberry ales, and took a nice hike to the lake. It was a short worthwhile visit for the best fruit beer we´ve ever had.

Trujillo - Honduras

It took us longer than expected to reach Trujillo and at first it seemed like it wasn´t worth the difficult trip. The beach was dirty and cloudy, the town was deserted and unfriendly and the room we stayed in was claustraphobic. Fortunately, after a couple days of wondering why we had bothered with the 6 hour chicken bus ride we found Casa Alemania, an inviting hostel and a second home, a little ways out of town. The owners comprised an entertaining duo: a large, stereo-typical German man and his small but stout Honduran wife who were hilarious and welcoming. The weather turned up, and we found some nicer beach with cleaner sand and calm waters, ate some delicious shrimp with rice and enjoyed one of the best sunsets ever.

Roatan - Honduras

Roatan is literally paradise: the waters are turquoise, crystal clear and unbelievably calm, the sand so fine and white that it actually shimmers. Tropical fish swim by your feet as you relax in the still waters and you don´t even need a snorkel to admire them. Roatan was so paradisical that we never wanted to leave, and we actually ended up staying on this amazing caribbean island for 17 days, longer than we have stayed anywhere else on this journey.

We were fortunate to find a great deal for our lodging: own little cabaña with a private bathroom, air conditioning (quite a luxury in this part of the world), a shared kitchen, our very own porch with a hammock and mango and coconut trees galore, and a place to call home after being on the move for nearly three months. We adjusted easily to island life (it was reeeeally hard) and our two and a half weeks felt like one long day as we passed our time soaking up the sun, snorkelling, reading and writing, eating lobster and seafood, playing cards, talking long walks on the beach, exercising, watching the NBA Finals at our favorite neighborhood bar, cooking, doing crossword puzzles, drinking piña coladas and rum and cokes, chopping coconuts...anyway, you get the idea- We felt like we were on a vacation from our vacation.

Unfortunately, we also got bed bugs about three-fourths of the way through our time on Roatan (for our first, and hopefully last time on this trip) and had to cope with some of the worst bug bites of our lives (mosquitos and sand flies too). But if there is one thing that we have learned on this trip it´s that traveling is like a rollercoaster, and for every up there is always a down. We tried not to let this experience bring us down too much. In the end, nothing could detract from our appreciation of the island or how fortunate we felt to be right where we were -- which was paradise, delicious paradise.

Since we visited these places we have been back to the United States for Jared & Anna´s wedding and through Nicaragua. We are now in Costa Rica having a wonderful time.

Always with love

Max & Flora

Picture Links

New pictures of Antigua at the end of the Guatemala album:

El Salvador and Honduras:

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