The Amazing Race to Costa Rica

I had originally planned on six weeks to get from Mexico City, to San José, Costa Rica, where I needed to catch my flight to South America. But as it has a habit of doing, “life” got in the way… and in the end I had only four weeks. I needed to catch up, and so I bought a ticket with TICA, a bus company that travels along the Pan-American highway from southern Mexico/Guatemala to Panama City, stopping at the major cities along the way.

You pay for the distance you want to travel, and get off in the city of your choice. It’s the quickest and easiest way to get through Central America, without flying, and definitely the most comfortable. I left Copán in the mid-afternoon, and 48 hours later… after surviving two nights in sketchy downtown hotels in San Pedro Sula (Honduras) and Managua (Nicaragua), one torrential tropical downpour, two border crossings, a major backpack search, zero hot showers and 30 hours on buses, I arrived in San José.
San José, costa rica from the air

After so many hours on buses, over the previous three weeks (84 hours to be exact) I felt the overwhelming need to go somewhere warm, sandy, and quiet, to do a lot of nothing for a few days. And that’s just what I did. I caught the next bus headed north to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast, enjoyed one of the most breathtaking rides yet (through some magnificent cloud forest), and made my way to a small bungalow near the beach with no internet, t.v., or much in the way of connection to the outside world.

I put my camera away, I relaxed on the beach, I rented a bike one morning, I read a book, and when it got really hot, I went down to the beach to buy coconut water and fresh tropical fruit from the local fishermen. Four days later, I re-emerged ready for the next leg of my trip, South America. First stop… the land of coffee, cocaine, and cartels; Colombia.

Macaw Mountain

Copán Ruinas is a small village located in the foothills of western Honduras, just minutes from the Guatemala border. I arrived in town shortly after dusk, at the end of an exhausting 12-hour day of travel via public transportation (involving one “chicken bus”, three different “collectivos”, and a “tuk tuk”). After I’d cleaned up at the hostel I wandered around the cobblestone streets and eventually found my way to a quirky ex-pat run restaurant-bar called “Twisted Tanya”.

Copán RuinsIt was a bit of gringo city of course (that is to say, full of Brits, Americans, Australians, and Germans) but a welcomed reprise after spending the entire day bumbling along with my limited Spanish trying to figure out the chaotic ins and outs of public transportation in Central America. Twisted Tanya herself served me one of the best mojitos I’ve ever had, along with an amazing salad full of fresh vegetables (anything remotely “fresh” or “green” is a bit like the holy grail in Central America…this land of fried… well, fried *everything*), and by the end of the evening she had me convinced about this supposed “hidden gem” on the outskirts of town; a sanctuary and nature reserve for rescued and endangered tropical birds.

The town’s main tourist draw is of course the nearby archaelogical site Copán (another major Maya center) from which it gets its name, and the cobblestone streets and surprisingly laid back attitude have also made it a very popular place for westerners to study Spanish… but the most memorable experience for me, was a visit to Macaw Mountain.

Macaw MountainMacaw Mountain’s history traces back to the 1980s and the Caribbean island of Roatan (also part of Honduras) where a conservationist and bird lover began rescuing toucans and parrots. An American biologist inherited the private collection in the ’90s, and by 2003, over 100 birds composed of 20 different species, were moved to the new facility on the mainland, now known as Macaw Mountain. The park is located in a pristine old growth forest, full of beautiful tropical flowers and lush foliage…and more than a few pretty freaky looking spiders! I was offered a tour of the facility, which was excellent (and thankfully in English) and learned a number of very interesting things about the birds in the park (such as the fact that macaws, a type of parrot, mate for life).

Many of the birds have been rescued from abusive owners, or owners who grow “tired” of caring for them (some parrots can live anywhere from 40-80 years…and even longer outside of captivity) and although some birds were still noticeably recovering from terrible traumas – psychological stress manifesting in physical disorders, such as feathers falling out – most of the birds looked quite healthy and were clearly well cared for. I also sampled some of the locally grown coffee, and a Bay Island-style chowder; a delicious blend of coconut milk, lime, spices and fresh seafood.

The illegal pet trade combined with human ignorance, along with habitat destruction are very serious threats to these highly intelligent and gorgeous animals, and the key to improving this situation lies in educating the public. I found Macaw Mountain to strike a beautiful balance between entertainment and education for the tourists, and quality of life for the birds. It was a pleasant if unexpected surprise, and probably the best $10 I spent in Copán. Thanks “Twisted Tanya”!

Dust and Diesel

Ah yes, the infamous “chicken bus” (a.k.a. public transportation in Central America). Well as the saying goes, “old buses never die… they go to Guatemala!”. Personally, I think this particular adage can only be truly appreciated, for both its absurdity and accuracy, after backpacking through Central America. So why are they called “chicken” buses? Depending on who you ask, it’s because they can be used to transport livestock, especially chickens (I didn’t see this), or because they cram in the human cargo like “chickens” in a cage (I *did* see this).

chicken bus central america insideBut in all seriousness, when those big yellow school buses from North America acquire too many miles and are no longer deemed safe for transporting our children, they do ship them down south for errr, “modification”. They spray paint them with bright colours, decorate them with elaborate murals, adorn them with “good luck” blessings (God is my co-pilotJesus holds the wheel…and yes if you are wondering, this disturbing “if-we-all-die-because-I’m-a-raving-lunatic-driver-it’s-not-my-fault-it’s-fate” theme continues!), plaster them with stickers and flags of their favourite soccer teams (more often than not, the universally loved “Barcelona FC”) and give them pretty names like “Esperanza”. Then my friends, they find the craziest drivers on the planet to operate them. They work in teams.

Usually a middle-aged man drives, while a younger man in his late teens or early twenties hangs out the door of the bus, screaming the names of towns on the route in an attempt to drum up more passengers, and then collect the money from those who choose to hop on. They cram as many people as possible into these death traps, along with half a dozen sacs of maize, beans, rice, and bananas for good measure, and they’re off to the races…literally.

They’re environmental nightmares, churning out giant black clouds of nastiness at every corner, and when they’re fully packed, the hopelessly under-serviced engines scream in agony going up even the most modest of hills. While I don’t think you could say the experience is one of pleasure or enjoyment, or even comfort, it is nothing is not entertaining….and a pretty remarkable window into the local culture. If you spend any length of time traveling this way, even if it’s just one day, I can say with great confidence that you’re pretty much guaranteed to see just about everything under the sun.

I’ve sat next to mothers breast-feeding their infants, children who mistook my lap for a giant pillow, listened to people preach about everything from religion to health food in the aisle. I’ve been serenaded by a revolving cast of musicians busking for change, some so terrible I’ve been tempted to pay them just to stop, and some much too talented to be performing on such a bus for pennies. I’ve rolled down my passenger window to buy freshly steamed corn-on-the-cob and plastic bags full of coconut milk from a street vendor, while sitting under speakers big enough (and more than loud enough) for a U2 show. I’ve seen terrible poverty masked behind the most remarkable generosity: one man, obviously not of great means himself, bought a massive bunch of bananas – easily 40 or 50 – from a farmer we passed on the road, and gave everyone on the bus one each. Conversely, I’ve seen the most sinister pickpockets at work relieving unsuspecting gringos of their fancy gadgets with frightening precision, and zero shame.

chicken bus central americaBut the real excitement usually comes in and around the “pit stops”; when driver gets hungry enough or has to use the bathroom, he’ll stop at random places, usually in the middle of nowhere, where you can pay to use a public toilet and buy some sort of greasy food. I once asked the driver if I had time for a bathroom break – after nearly six hours non-stop (“Si, si, senorita!”), only to come out washroom running and screaming at the bus to stop as it squealed out of the parking lot, through one giant cloud of dust and diesel.

Yes, it’s pure chaos, but somehow… it works. Well, sort of.

Tikal National Park (why not to listen to anti-tourists)

¡Hola! Remember me? World’s worst travel-blogger? At the risk of becoming “the girl who cried blog”, it’s seriously time to get this train wreck back on track. No, this time I really mean it! Really. Now, where were we…

After negotiating my first overland border crossing – through a “no-man’s land” which I can only liken to wild, wild *WILD* Mexican west – I was greeted by the lush rolling hills of the Guatemalan highlands, torrential rain, volcanoes looming in the distance, and streets lined with an inordinate number of sidewalk restaurants dishing up Central America’s number one culinary obsession: fried chicken! My first stop was the idyllic Lake Atitlan, followed by the pretty colonial town of Antigua. But I didn’t linger long, as I was really itching to get up north, near the border of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and Belize, to see my first Mayan site, Tikal (Tee-Kal).

Tikal National Park ruinsOnce a large city and major center of power and political influence (during the Classical Period, approximately 1000 years ago), Tikal National Park is now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, and what remains of the city is slowly being enveloped by the surrounding jungle… something which both adds to the mystic of the place and helps to preserve the delicate limestone structures from wind and rain erosion. Some people claim the site is too “touristy” or “commercialized”, which is true in one sense, but completely irrelevant in another.

I’ve since encountered this sort of “backpacker-holier-than-thou” attitude nearly everywhere I go, and while on one hand I say “to each their own”, I also say this: would you skip the Taj Mahal because someone figured out it’s pretty darn impressive? In fact, one backpacker actually told me NOT to go (she’d been too a Mayan site nearby that was WAY better and less crowded…). When I asked her if she’d actually *been* to Tikal (umm, no) I decided to take everything she had to say with a pound of salt.

The complex itself is so massive, it would probably take 8-10 hours to hike around and see everything. Although the terrain is relatively flat, the tropical heat and humidity of the northern lowlands is a force to be reckoned with at anytime of year, but especially so in August, and I wisely decided to split my time there into two days; late afternoon and early morning.

I am having so much fun exploring Central America.

I found myself walking the trails connecting the temples and various archaeological sites accompanied not by bus-loads of Japanese tourists, but instead by the sound of howler monkeys screaming in the distance, spider monkeys playing in the trees above, the collective chorus of myriad of topical birds and the drone of millions of insects buzzing in unison. Many times, I felt as though I had the entire place to myself. Tikal blew my mind away, and anyone who tells you *not* to go, or that they’ve been somewhere “better”, is just fooling themselves… and you.

A Tale of Three Cities… (or, the Mexican Whirlwind Dance)

1. Mexico City

Well I started off my journey around the world with the proverbially *BANG*! On the morning of August 17, I left sleepy Qualicum Beach, Vancouver Island (population 8,502) on route to one of the world’s largest cities. Ciudad de México, a.k.a. “D.F.” (Distrito Federal), was not only the first stop on my round-the-world trip, but also the first time I’d been outside of Canada/USA in my entire life. It was nothing if not a shock to the system. It’s loud, crowded, polluted, sprawling, constantly in your face; in many ways it typifies the modern megalopolis (keeping in mind that the majority of people on the planet do NOT reside in neat tidy cities like Vancouver, Chicago, or Toronto).

It’s also lush with trees, urban parks, full of a contagious vibrancy, and home to more museums than any other city in the world – yes, more than Paris, London, or Rome. It’s an embarrassment of riches for anyone even remotely interested in history, art and culture. I could have easily spend two or three weeks exploring the various museums, exhibits and cultural centres; alas, I had less than five days. A brief breakdown of the highlights:

mexico city museumMuseo Nacional de Anthropological:
This is quite possibly the most impressive museum I’ve ever been to. I was blown away by the beauty and elegance of the museum itself, and even more so by the staggering history it displayed.

Teotihuacan:

Not even the constant harassment from vendors hawking the usual tourist kitsch could detract from this incredible site (no quiero nada or “I don’t want *anything*” has since become my mantra). The massive archaeological complex, located about 40km northeast of the city, contains some of the largest pyramidal structures in the Americas, as well as the world’s third largest pyramid in “The Pyramid of the Sun” (behind the Pyramids of Giza & Cholua)

Frida Kahlo Museum (“Casa Azul”):

The former home of two of Mexico’s most celebrated artists (and tormented lovers), Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, has been turned into a showcase for their artwork as well as a museum frozen in time (complete with books, paints, photographs, medications, kitchen pots and pans, etc.). The 2002 Julie Taymor film Frida originally piqued my interest in Mexico City, and it was surreal to see this place in person.

Palacio Nacional:

The current seat of the federal executive, the building’s site has been home to the ruling class of Mexico since Aztec times (and apparently some of the original materials from Moctezuma’s original palace were used in the modern palace’s construction). Tourists flock here to see the famous Diego Rivera murals which grace the inner walls, and truly are magnificent.

The Metro:

The metro was surprisingly easy to get around on, and at 3$ MXN (or about $0.25 CDN) very easy on the pocketbook! It also proved to be an excellent showcase for the remarkable ingenuity of the Mexican people (more on that for a later post).

2. Oaxaca

It was time to move south. The greyhound-like bus ride through the Sierra Madre was very comfortable and picturesque, and six-hours later I arrived in Oaxaca (“wah-hawk-kah”); a clean, pretty, laid back (dare I say orderly!) city chock-full of beautiful colonial architecture and wonderful local arts and crafts. Rick Steves might even say it’s quaint. It’s also world-renowned for its array of culinary delights, including fried bugs or champulites (and *yes* I did try them…tastes like chicken?), and is particularly famous for three things: mezcal, chocolate, and mole (a traditional sauce).

oaxaxa mole negro dinnerI’d been introduced to mole negro in Mexico City, and was immediately seduced by its unique combination of flavours; part sweet, part bitter, part salty, entirely delicious. In Oaxaca, there are seven classic moles; negro, amarillo, colorado, verde, chichilo, coloradito, and mancha manteles. I sampled a few different ones, but kept coming back to the negro (unfortunately for me, and my limited cooking skills, mole negro is the most complicated and difficult to make!). The chocolate here is prepared by combining cocoa with sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and sometimes almonds. It’s traditionally prepared hot, though not always. One afternoon, I stopped in a local shop and enjoyed a hot chocolate prepared from scratch. Mmmmmm.

3. San Cristóbal de las Casas

Following a 12-hour helter skelter (and at times down right frightening) night bus, through winding mountain roads and over sheer cliffs in the pitch dark, I arrived at the San Cristóbal bus terminal in the early morning, to cool, crisp mountain air – and without a wink of sleep I might add. I hopped in the first taxi I saw, with a random hostel pamphlet in hand, and was soon checked-in just in time for freshly brewed coffee and breakfast.

San Cristóbal de las Casas, is a small city perched up in the highlands of Chiapas, and boasts a large indigenous population (Tzotzil Maya – in fact the city itself is named after Saint Christopher and Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Spanish priest who defended the rights of indigenous Americans). Over the next few days, I took in more beautiful colonial architecture, and also enjoyed a day trip down to Sumidero Canyon, a national park featuring 1000m cliffs and a variety of wildlife, including crocodiles.

In a country that boasts everything from beaches, tropical rainforests, deserts, magnificent archaeological ruins, colonial architecture galore, wonderful *cheap* food on nearly every street corner, modern mega-cities with all the amenities, and peaceful mountain-top villages… I barely scratched the surface of what Mexico has to offer. Off to Tikal Ruins!