North America · 29 Days · 44 Moments · August 2013

Central America for Backpackers & Divers

14 September 2013

Gran Cenote The last cave dive we did was at Gran Cenote. It is comparabel with Cenote Dos Ojos. It is a shallow dive within an ample cave that also attracts a lot of snorkelers as there are natural pools suitable for snorkeling which make it the busiest cenote especially during high season. We went cave diving on rainy days so there were just a few people doing the same. During the dive you will surface within a bat cave where you can watch those shy animals hanging around. There is also a funny blind fish (Pez Ciego) living in Gran Cenote. If you are lucky you will be able to see this tiny guy without eyes. Furthermore there sometimes are small turtles you can see from under water as well as from above. The entrance fee to the cave is around € 3-5,-
Seafood time! Great place to get your serve of fish and seafood! Food is fresh and delicious and you can choose from a wide range of preparation methods. The restaurant is quite busy in the evenings so maybe try to not go there during typical Mexican dinner hours. You will meet quite a lot of locals and Mexican tourists there. Prices are moderate but actually quite good for fish and seafood. Have the Agua Fresca de Jamaica with your meal, it`s a delicious freshly made juice made from a typical Mexican fruit.
Cenote Angelita Angelita is located 17 km south of Tulum and a place where you can do a very exciting deep dive. You need to be a certified advanced diver to be allowed to dive here. The landscape within the cenote reminded me of the mystic forests as you see them in movies like Harry Potter. The special thing about Angelita is that the first 30 m you will dive through fresh water. The lower part consists of salt water. In between there is a mystical layer of hydrogen sulfate. This layer in the middle appears as a dense cloud from the top and strange colored fog from the bottom. When diving through the cloud you won't see much and you can slightly taste/smell the hydrogen sulfate. The guides from Scuba Tulum explained the dive extremely well beforehand. There is a small entrance fee to be paid (can't remeber how much though). This dive is exciting, really strange and definitely different than everything I have seen before!

13 September 2013

Great coffee, best chocolate cake This little cafe and bakery offers real, freshly grinded coffee - espresso, cappuccino, latte, whatever your heart desires. After a month of filter coffee the visit to this lovely cafe was like an epiphany :D (coffee lovers will understand). And the chocolate cake and the brownies -> heaven! On your way out you should take some pieces from the bakery for the rest of the day. Delicious! Nice benefit: free WIFI (you will get the code at the Motmot dive center just next door.)
Diving at Cenote Dos Ojos One of the highlights of our trip was definitely the two days of cenote diving in Mexico! For the first time of cave diving this cenote is perfect. There are no narrow spaces and there is an easy to follow route through the two sides of the cave. The water is cristal clear and you will be diving through stalactites and stalagmites. The word "cenote" is by the way derived from the Mayan word for "sacred well" :) I strongly recommend the dive center Scuba Tulum - they are great! Super friendly staff, very good equipment and compatible prices (€ 75,- for a two tank dive at two different sites incl. equipment, lunch and transportation). A trained guide is required to go cave diving and your group will not be bigger than 3-4 people. I would love to go to Tulum again - this diving experience was one of the best I ever had!

12 September 2013

Best Tacos in Tulum Your best option to eat great Mexican Tacos for a really low price is this little Taco place called "El Carboncito" just along the main road. One Taco costs about € 0,50 :) and they are really tasty! You can watch them being prepared and sit in between the locals who eat here or get their take away serving of Tacos. You might even have the chance to watch some old Mexican film or TV show on an old-school TV set. If you are looking for a non-tourist place with delicious locals food -> go there. I am really missing this restaurant! :)
White sand beach We had bad luck with the weather as a tropical storm was going on in the north of Mexico, so it was heavily raining on most days we spent in Tulum. After visiting the Maya ruins of Tulum (which was quite disappointing after having been to Copán and Tikal) we spent an hour sitting on the white sand beach. It is easily reached by bike. There is no entrance fee and it is just a great place to relaxe (if it wouldn't have been looking like apocalypse was approaching). The water there is clean and has a beautiful turquois colour.

11 September 2013

Cosy accommodation offering everything you need When arriving in Tulum we got a flyer that included a voucher for a reduced rate per night. We payed about € 7,- per person per night. We checked into another hostel the first night (Hostel Tulum, terrible, don't go there) and moved to Casa del Sol afterwards. The double rooms on the top floor are cosy, large rooms with thatched roofs. Bathrooms are cleaned every day and breakfast is included. You can hire bikes there and the hostel seems to be a meeting point for the alternative type of young people (a lot of reggae music etc...).

10 September 2013

Snorkeling at Hol Chan and Shark & Ray Alley Hol Chan and Shark & Ray Alley are perfect spots for snorkeling. The water is shallow and warm and within a small area you will see a huge variety of fish and different forms of coral. There is a big spot where giant sea turtles come for food. You can watch them from quite a close distance. Nurse sharks and different rays are often seen as well. San Pedro on Ambergris Caye has many dive centers offering diving and snorkeling trips to the different spots around the island. We got a great dive-snorkel-combination offer at Aqua Scuba Center where staff was friendly and the guide had great knowledge about the local marine life.

9 September 2013

Minibus Trip There are minibuses from Flores taking you from your hotel directly to the port in Belize City if you want to go on to Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker. And the best thing is: it will cost you approximately the same as going by public bus and taxi (which you would have to take in Belize City) and gets you there a lot faster. They work together with a boat company which would take you to the islands. There is another boat company just a few meters away, tickets are a little cheaper there.

8 September 2013

Mayan food and great atmosphere This cute restaurant offers a nice range of different meals and has dishes with typical Mayan ingredients like for example yucca. Beside the tasty food the café is filled with photos of archeological sites, maps and books about the Mayan culture. Prices are moderate to low and the size of the portion is big enough to fill your hungry stomach after a day of sightseeing and souvenir shopping. Be sure to try the fresh juices and smoothies, they are delicious and huge :)
Best spot for souvenir shopping On the small island of Flores the colourful souvenir shops are nearly door to door to one another. From handmade leather bags to knives made from Jade (the stone of the Mayas) you will find really nice handcrafted goods. Prices are low (and lower than at the sight in Tikal of course). Just take a stroll around town and see for yourself :)
Stunning Tikal Don't let the hordes of tourist discourage you from going to see the Maya ruins in Tikal! And: if you are lucky you might have the sight nearly to yourself :) we went there in the beginning of September and besides three other small groups we did not see any other visitors. Tikal is a stunning historic place and going on the tour with a local guide will give you all interesting insights and stories. The entrance fee is about US$ 20,- and getting to Tikal is very easy. In Flores you will find many tour operators that offer you tours for every time of the day. Early norning departures are especially popular but take into consideration that the so called sunrise tours sometimes don't hold their promise - the park opens at 6am, the sun is normally already up by then! Other then that it doesn't really make a difference which tour operator you choose. Make sure you climb the pyramides (where it is allowed) - the view is breath-taking!

7 September 2013

From Copán Ruinas to Flores The trip from Copán Ruinas to the island of Flores (where you stay if you want to go to Tikal) proofed to be quite an adventure. From Copán you can take a minibus to the border. Changing money at the border is recommended (as you will have to pay for the bus and there is no bank close by) but know that they will overcharge you. On the Guatemalan side you will get "attacked" by a horde of taxi drivers. Listen to other (local) passengers if they tell you which one to take. Be prepared for a completely overloaded taxi and close contact with the other people inside. Note: we were told they would take us to our destination (Chiquimula) but in fact the taxi stoped in another city, got us another taxi, asked us to change and told us not to pay anymore to the other taxi driver as he already gave him half of our fee. The bus from Chiquimula to Flores is unproblematic.

6 September 2013

Artistic Maya Ruins in Copán Ruinas Copán Ruinas is located quite close to a crossing point at the Guatemalan border. So when travelling from Honduras to Guatemala by bus passing Copán is relatively convenient. The Maya Ruins are extremely interesting and, though not as widely known as the ruins of Tikal, definitely worth a visit. The focus there lies on the artistic remains of the Mayas - sculptures, decorated palaces etc (Tikal for example shows much more simple structures). The local guide association provides tour guides at the ruins. It is definitely worthwhile and recommendable to hire a guide, they know a lot of fascinating stories! If you want to save money just join a group. The entrance fee to the archeological park is about US$ 10,- and includes some outside locations of the park as well. From the town of Copan you can easily walk to the ruins (about 15min).

5 September 2013

Little sanctuary Mere coincidence - the fully booked hostel Iguana Azul - brought us to this lovely B&B. The price range is a different one but because of the Iguana Azul being fully booked the owner of both places gave us a room in his beautiful house for the price of a hostel room. Staff is super friendly and the breakfast is delicious. From the garden you have a great view all the way to the neighbouring Guatemala. The room was spotless, the bed the most comfortable on our whole trip and coffee, tea and water was included all day long. The hammocks on the porch of every room are a great place for relaxing. If you have some extra accommodation budget - this is where you want to spend it!

4 September 2013

You will not be able to avoid this bar Skid Row's is one of the best known places on Utila. During the day it is a quite spot where boat captains, diving instructors and all other Utilians meet, have a drink, use the free WIFI and follow whatever sport is on TV. In the evening it is a great place to enjoy a beer or two - you will meet everyone at least once there :) At night it is a notorious party location that you won't be able to avoid for long. Skid Row is located just opposite of Ecomarine. Food is (in comparison to the other places around) quite expensive. Watch this video for an insight into what awaits you on Utila ;) (don't worry, not all people and days are like these :D but you will hear that song every day on the island)

3 September 2013

Night Dive To do a night dive is a really special experience. Marine life changes completely at night. Ted's Point is a dive site that lets you explore corals, fish and a small wreck and the marine life around it. Octopus and other night-active animals will cross your way and plants that you would not see during the day just come to life. When turning off you lamp you will be able to see glowing plankton all around you. Ask your dive center for a night dive, definitely worth it!

2 September 2013

Dinner at the King A tiny local restaurant called something like "The King" (I am not entirely sure anymore...) offers the best Baleadas I have tasted on the island. It is located east of the main crossing (where the ferries arrive from the mainland), close to a church. The entrance is just beside a staircase and there are 2 or 3 tables outside the restaurant. Delicious and cheap! :)

1 September 2013

Lunch at Neyti's Just opposite the Ecomarine dive shop is a tiny restaurant called Neyti. It feels like going for lunch to your favourite aunt, eating in her roofed garden. Food is simple but delicious, portions are big and the prices are really low. And Neytiis a really nice lady. Best lunch deal in Sandy Bay!

31 August 2013

Deep dive at Black Hills Black Hills is a deep dive site. After a quick descend to about 35m depth we circled around an underwater Hill in a slow ascend. The top is in about 5-7m depth, perfectly for safety stops. There are a lot of different corals and fish in different parts of the hill with more or less current, more or less light, and so on. A perfectly diversified and colorful area in perfect condition. Marine life includes eels, lion fish, drummer fish, parrot fish etc.

30 August 2013

Choose a dive shop Utila is the place to be for budget travelers who want to go diving! Choosing a dive shop is not that simple due to the sheer amount of them located side by side along the main street. Ecomarine - Gunter's Dive Shop offers a family-like atmosphere, friendly staff and, as far as our comparison showed, the best prices on the island. When attending a course, accommodation is included. You can plan your courses individually and they offer many different locations for your dives. For socialising you can join Sushi-Tuesday where a friend of the managers brings freshly made sushi or Thai-Friday (this is not a fixed programme, they change food styles and days ;) but they do offer those get-togethers on a regular basis).

29 August 2013

Managua - Tegucigalpa - La Ceiba If you want to just cross the Hondurian mainland and get to the north within one day, the most cost and time efficient way is to put up with a 16 hour bus trip. Take the first Tica Bus from Managua which leaves around 4:00 AM to Tegucigalpa. From the capital of Honduras there are different bus companies going to La Ceiba in the north. I can recommend "Cristina". To take this bus you have to change bus station. Take a taxi. Keep in mind they will definitely overcharge you but as Tegucigalpa is not the safest city, it's worth it. You will arrive rather late in La Ceiba (around 11 PM or midnight). There are taxis waiting just outside the bus station. When we arrived there even was a lady from a hotel that offered rooms to the travellers. We were lucky with that. But use your judgement (and negotiation skills) before you agree to go with anyone.

28 August 2013

Souvenir-Shopping on the central square The bustling central square is located directly in front of the famous colonial church. Close to the square you will see horse carriages waiting to take you around town - gives the square a touch of colonial kitsch. There are different stands that offer handcrafted goods, like bags musical instruments, stuff for decoration, handmade clothes etc. and small food providers. The square seems to be a meeting place for locals. During our visit they held a karaoke-singing competition in the small pavillion :) The square is a great place to just sit and watch the locals go about their daily business.

27 August 2013

Natural spring "Ojo de Agua" After a day of hiking up a volcano relaxing at the natural spring Ojo de Agua is great to recharge your energy levels. Its a place where you will find Nicaraguan families as well as tourists enjoying the clear and cool waters of the natural pool. There are hammoks and chairs you can use. The entrance costs about € 1,- and there is a small restaurant nearby. Getting there by bike is easy and many hostels offer bikes for rent and will give you the directions to the springs.

26 August 2013

Fancy an 8-hour hike? :) A great view, a long walk, Mayan petroglyphs and a mystical crater lake is what you can expect when hiking up the volcano Maderas on Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua. You are required to get a guide for all hikes up the volcanos on the island due to accidents that happened on tours without guides. The paths can be really slippery and steep so be sure to wear good hiking boots. Most hostels offer to arrange a guided hike for you. The surroundings are really beautiful and different kinds of animals will cross your way. Descending into the crater offers you a glimpse into a "Lord of the rings"-like landscape. When cloudy inside it can be quite cold in comparison with the hot and humid air during the hike up. Be sure to take enough water (min. 2 l per person!) - you will need it :)

25 August 2013

Restaurant Casa Istiam Casa Istiam offers cheap, acceptable accommodation but the restaurant is actually the recommendation here. The menu ranges from take away sandwiches, rich breakfast to traditional casadas and delicious meat dishes. During off-season it was mostly hostal guests eating in the downstairs restaurant. Prices are cheap to moderate, value for money is amazing. Great add-on: watch the sunset from the upstairs balcony! Vulcano "Concepción" and the setting sun make for a great scenery!
Border-crossing When crossing the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua at Peñas Blancas be prepared to have a horde of taxi drivers offering you their services. If your next stop is Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua the cheapest way to get to the port, one would think, is to take the bus to Rivas. From there you will have to take a taxi to the port. When calculating afterwards we found that actually taking a taxi right from the border to the port would have cost us the same as taking the bus and would have taken half the time. But careful! Not all taxi drivers offer such a great price. The closer you get to the bus station, the cheaper taxis get. If you are alone, take the bus!

24 August 2013

Adventure diving If you are a diver this trip is a something you really don't want to miss. Bats Islands are located outside Bahía Coco so it takes about two hours to get there by boat. Rich Coast Diving will take you if they get a group of at least 4 people and depending on the participants you can do either a 2-tank or 3-tank dive. Compared to the local dives this trip is sort of expensive (US$ 190,- p.P.) but definitely worth it! Reason for diving there are the bull sharks you can see there relaxing and cleaning themselves. Seeing 3-4m sharks just leaves you with your jaw open (metaphorically speaking of course...). But also the boat trip there was an amazing experience - humpback whales, cheerfully jumping dolphins and giant turtles showed me again, how great nature is! Thanks to our travel companions for the great pictures!

23 August 2013

Diving Equipment As we went backpacking for 5 weeks we only took our mask and snorkel with us due to limited space. Every decent dive center has equipment for rent. We had good experiences with the rental equipment but we always had a look around the dive shops before we chose one. Use your judgement and trip advisor ;)
A good mix This restaurant/bar/lounge was not a restaurant we were looking for that day as we planned to have some traditional "Tico" food. To our surprise their menu was really extensive and besides some American and Tex Mex options they offered traditional "casados". You will find this dish all over Central America. It consists of rice, beans, the type of meat or fish you prefer and some other sides. They are really filling and tasty. Besides the nice food, Lizard Lounge offers Happy Hour priced drinks basically the whole day :) Service is good and prices treat your budget well. The later it gets the more it turns into a party location (which did not really happen when we were there during off season).
Local dives in Playa del Coco Divers, this is a place worth visiting! While the town itself does not really offer anything special, the dive sites definitely are! We did two local dives inside of Bahia Coco that day. Rich Coast Diving provided us with a really great local guide who was extremely good at spotting even the tiniest creatures. You will be able to see reefsharks, turtles, eels, colourful fish and corals. The water is not as warm as the Caribean but it offers you equally great things to see. Rich Coast Diving was recommended to us and I can just pass on that recommendation, however I think you might be able to find a slightly cheaper provider. A 2-tank dive would cost you around US$ 100,- incl. equipment. For the depths of the dive sites you would probably need at least a AOWD certification. Thx to your fellow diver Matt for taking some awesome pictures during our dives!

22 August 2013

Canoe tour at dawn Jungle wildlife at dawn is a great experience as it is actually really different from what is happening during the day. Animals are active, it feels like the whole forest is waking up and life is stirring. The guide association offers canoe tours at dawn where you will paddle along the various canals in unmotorized boats. The forest is extremely quiet and incredibly "noisy" (meaning buzzing with life) at the same time. The guide will point out animals and interesting plants and telling stories. It is an comfortably calming experience :) Sign up for the tour the day before! The price of the tour is around US$ 20,- per person.

21 August 2013

Giant Sea Turtles at night Do you know this moment when you are just so stunned by the wonders of nature that you don't really know what to say? Well, that is what will happen if you go to Tortuguero and go on a nighttime Turtle-Tour. You have to get a guide to join this marvellous experience because the area is strictly protected. Go to the Tourist Guide Association right next to the docking area. 20% of their revenue goes towards the development of the community. Participating will cost you around US$ 20,-. The turtle tour is one of the main reasons to visit Tortuguero and totally worth it. With a bit of luck you will sea huge sea turtles coming out of the water, laying eggs on the beach. The tour is very regulated, pictures are not allowed and guards keep an eye on the well-being of the turtles. Turtle season is btw between April and October. :)

20 August 2013

Go exploring with Rotilio & do something good On Isla Bastimentos there is a bat-cave which Lonely Planet suggests to explore. They mention a guide who however is not working there anymore. After asking around we found out about Rotilio Milton. He is a Ngöbe, one of Panama's indigenous people. He might be hard to reach as there is no cellphone network in Bahia Honda, where he lives. He only speaks a little English so if you don't speak Spanish try to get someone to come who can translate for you. Rotilio will pick you up by boat and show you his littly home community. His wife will cook for you if you want to (you should want to, its delicious simple food and all money goes towards the indigenous community!). The bat cave is a real adventure! Wear clothes that can get wet because you will have to submerge yourself into the water! Rotilio is great! He will explain a lot about the Ngöbe culture if you ask him. His community is part of an eco-tourism project and all money earned goes towards the development of the community!

19 August 2013

Snorkeling, Deep-Boarding, Beaching At Bocas you won't be able to escape the many tour operators who want to take you on a snorkeling trip around the small islands. Use the one that offers deep-boarding! Unfortunately I forgot the name, but there is only one offering this activity. It is run by Spanish people. At first it seems to be one of the most expensive but after asking around, we found out that their price already included lunch and the national park fee, which other operators don't include in their prices. Deep-Boarding is a fun activity where you get drawn by a boat holding on to some kind of blade which enables you to easily dive underwater. It's fun! The tour will take you around the islands, giving you time to snorkel, chill on the beautiful and quiet beach and explore Zapatilla Island by walking. Book a day in advance!

18 August 2013

Bus Travel in Central America You can get nearly everywhere by bus in Central America. And the system is fairly easy. Locals travel a lot by bus which is why they are a good source for information. The Lonely Planet " Central America on a shoestring" contains bus schedueles which serve well as orientation. There is one bus company called Tica Bus which serves the whole of Central America by connecting the major cities through long distance buses. Those buses you have to book in advance (at least the day before). For other buses it is most of the time easiest to go to the bus station and check your connections there. It is adviseable to buy tickets in advance, especially when going from a city to a holiday region for locals. When taking a relatively modern bus be prepared for really cold air conditioning.
Pancake Breakfast :) We stayed three nights at Hostel Heike in Bocas Town, the room was clean and spacious enough. For two people the price is just 1 or 2 dollars more than staying in a dorm. Bathrooms were clean enough. Pancakes in the morning are included and you can have as many as you want to prepare for yourself. And they taste great :) The receptionist is really nice, she remembers your name and will call around for getting any information you want! There is a cosy rooftop terrace with hammoks and couches - a great spot to watch the sun set and relax with a book.
Hello little star When visiting Bocas del Toro spending half a day at Estrella Beach is great in many ways. The beach is clean and very Caribean, meaning nearly white sand, palm trees and turquois water which make for a great chill-out area after travelling by bus over night (as we did). Take a snorkel and mask and swim just a few meters off the shore and you won't miss the many starfish that live there. The beach is popular with local people, so to get some privacy just walk along the beach heading south. From Bocas del Toro just take a Colectivo (mini van taxi) departing from the Parque Central. Locals will point out the taxi to you unasked :) You should buy the return ticket in advance to make sure you have a seat going back. When you arrive there a boatride is offered but absolutely not necessary as you can walk the distance quite easily.

17 August 2013

Panama City Skyline The old town of Panama City, called Casco Viejo, forms a peninsula and is definitely worth a visit. There is a small walkway that leads you around the peninsula along the shore. Besides being a great place to get some handcrafted souvenirs you have an incredible few on the skyline of the modern part of Panama City. Chose a sunny day to get the best pictures. The old town is easily reached by city bus.
The Panama Canal Next to Panama City, close to the Albrooks Bus Terminal, are the Miraflores Locks, one of Panamas most visited sights. You can go there by public bus but should definitely be there in the morning or after 2pm, when the really big ships are passing the locks. There are tickets for the platform itself, the museum and a movie theater. Combinations are cheaper and student prices are available. There is a short security check, a souvenir shop, a small cafe on top and a restaurant on the first level.
Get an overview Panama City's old town and the Channel are some must-sees of this surprisingly modern city with its impressive skyline. But to get a great view of a very large part of the city you want to climb Cerro Ancon! From the top you can shoot some great pictures of the old town, modern Panama City and even the Panama Channel. Going there when the sky is clear is recommendable and watching the sun set over the Channel is worth the descent during the rapidly approaching darkness. Take a city bus from or to the main terminal "Albrooks" and get off at the station "Mercado de Abastos". From there you can just walk up the hill following the street which will take you around 40 minutes.
General hint on how to behave in Central America Most of you will probably know that when travelling you should adapt to the country you are visiting. As a general guideline I would suggest: - for women: travelling with a guy makes your life easier - be cautious but don't expect the worst of everyone - be respectful - be aware of being overcharged but also willing to pay a fair price (you get over-sensitive with time) For details and specific situations feel free to contact me :)
Great welcome to Central America We chose this hostel because of its proximity to the main bus station. The price for one night per person was € 8,-. We arrived very late directly from the airport and were warmly welcomed by Rob (or Ron ;) ) He gave us all the information on how to get around Panama City and some valuable tipps on what do during our really short stay. There is a kitchen you can use and reasonably clean bathrooms. On the day we checked out we were able to come back in the evening before getting on the night bus to have a shower and freshen up and of course they guarded our luggage during the day. As far as I saw they also do Spanish courses... The hostel is located at the foot of Cerro Ancon from where you have a great view over the city and easily reached by city bus.