10 WEEKS IN CENTRAL AMERICA
A short travel story about a young blonde female girl traveling through 6 countries.
I’ve returned home from my travels about 2 months ago, and ever since that moment I’ve been feeling a strange lump in my throat every time I though about that adventure.
Not because I’m sad, or because I somehow wish I was still there, but simply because it has been the most overwhelming and beautiful experience of my whole life.
I’ve always been a girl who can’t sit still; I think was born with the travel bug and everyday that passes by I realize that nothing in this world makes me as happy and whole as traveling does. During these past 9 weeks I’ve been adapting to being back in Milan. At first, I was a little excited and a little sad to be back home. Of course, there are amazing sides to it; being back in the city where I grew up, close to my friends, studying what I love, cooking, having all of my clothes perfectly folded and my new cozy and warm apartment all for myself… This kind of luxury is something I’ve been longing for throughout my travels. Although every time I book a flight I yell that I would never want to come back (the same thing happened when I first went to the States, and then when I went to Bali and lived there for 3 months), somehow I manage to miss a little bit of routine when I’m abroad. I think traveling taught me how to appreciate my home and the places that I thought were ordinary and almost banal.
In fact, there are a lot of things that traveling taught me and keeps teaching me. I noticed that nothing changes my personality and makes me grow more as a human being that traveling does. Every experience is unique and every place I go to enriches me with something new and often with some things I didn’t even know I needed.
This Summer, on the 21st of August, I left to pursue one of my all time dreams - traveling to Central America and Mexico. I’ve taken Spanish classes for 3 semesters and Spanish is one of my favourite languages, so what’s a better option that travelling to beautiful places and getting to practice it? The trip was initially supposed to last 8 weeks, but eventually I stayed for 10 weeks. My first stop was Mexico.
I’ve been longing to go to Mexico for as long as I can remember. But you know, it was one of those dreams that are hanging somewhere in the middle of your bucket list, those kind of “one day I will do it” things. But something really funny and amazing happened in July.
This past summer, during a very hot night in Milan, I was waiting for the bus to go to the airport at 2 am. The bus leaves from a very sketchy bus stop in Milan, so I tried to start a conversation with two guys, Quique and Raúl, that were waiting for the same bus to go to the airport and fly back home after their Erasmus exchange in Madrid and after having travelled Europe. I overheard them speaking in Spanish and asked them if it would have bothered them if I smoked. I think they thought I was pretty weird - they said no and kept talking. But after 5 minutes they asked me if I had a lighter and the conversation kicked off. Guess where they were from? Exactly. So we chatted briefly and exchanged contacts, and after I came back from my scholarship trip in The Netherlands and from a few days in Eastern Europe, I decided to contact one of them and told him that I was thinking of going to Mexico.
Next thing I know, after a week or so, I packed a little bag with 8 kilos of clothing and toiletries (my obsession), wrote a bucket list of places I wanted to visit, and was boarded on a plane to Mérida, Yucatán.
Mexico part 1
What can I say about Mexico, except that it’s probably my favorite country in the world? I simply and deeply fell in love with this country. From the very beginning, what really struck me was the kindness and the hospitality of the people. Having a Russian passport is a bit of a pain for a traveller, because we need visas to go almost everywhere and not everybody like Russians. Luckily, being an Italian resident, I didn’t need any type of visa or electronic authorization to enter the country.
It was the first time in my life that I’ve been greeted with a “Adelante, bianvenida a México. Que te vaya bien!”. I was both happy and slightly shocked. I knew right away that I was in paradise!
I spent the first few days in Mérida, Yucatán, where those two friends of mine live. Mérida is very safe and beautiful, the ideal city to live in. The food is superb and the weather is glorious. Mérida is a colonial city, very safe and calm, and it’s ranked as the safest city in Mexico. It is the capital of Yucatán, surrounded by natural wonders and archeological sites all around it. I visited the Mayan ruins of Chitchén Itzá, spent a few days relaxing by the pool, saw my friends.
Then, I decided to go where I always wanted to go and surf; Puerto Escondido, state of Oaxaca. That was right on the other side of the country, on the Pacific coast. It took me nearly 37 hours by bus to get there, which was exhausting, but definitely worth it. By the way, first class Mexican busses are amazing - much better than the ones we have in many European countries!
Puerto Escondido has a totally different vibe to it; it’s more of a chilled surf town, although it’s getting very touristy lately. I couldn’t surf, because the swell came in and it was deadly, but I sure did eat tons of amazing fish and shrimp tacos and met a guy from Tijuana, Jorge, who is now like a big brother to me. Jorge had an uncle in Puerto Escondido, whom he had never met before, and I was invited to dinner with them. That family is so beautiful! Jorge’s uncle, aunt and cousin are simply wonderful people. We had delicious dinner, and then lunch on the beach, eating lobster and sea food.
The best part of Puerto Escondido is definitely Playa Zicatela, where the surf and the fun are. I stayed at a lovely hostel called One Love, designed and built by a young architect named Lolo. The hostel had the best views on the ocean and the terrace and the hammocks were superb. I will never forget those hot afternoons lying in the hammock and reading my book Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (This book, by the way, is amazing, and has accompanied me through a good part of this trip.) After a few days in Puerto Escondido I decided to go to San Cristobal de Las Casas, in the state of Chiapas.
I wasn’t planning on going there, initially, but I met a Mexican girl from there in Puerto Escondido, and she strongly advised me to visit it. Actually, another friend of mine from the capital also told me that Chiapas is magical - and since it was on the way to Guatemala, I just asked myself: why not?
I arrived to San Cristobal, the most famous town in the state of Chiapas, the day after I left Puerto Escondido, after a bumpy and curvy 12-hour ride. I must say that I miss ADO busses now that I’m back home - they’ve been a great part of my travels and I appreciated having so much time to think and just appreciate the feeling of being on the road. San Cristobal is an old colonial town, really vibrant and full of backpackers. I stayed at hostel Iguana, and met a lot of amazing people there. It was really cold at night, since it’s 2000m up high.
The first day I arrived there, I decided to go on a day trip to one of the amazing natural wonders of Chiapas. There are the Mayan ruins of Palenque, the waterfalls Cascadas de Agua Azul, the waterfalls El Chiflón, Cañon del Sumidero… I didn’t have much of a choice that day, and decided to go to the closest place: the waterfalls El Chiflón. Well, it wasn’t really that close by, since it took me a good 3 hours to get there - I travelled by bus, and Mexican combis colectivos only run when full, so I had to wait for hours to leave from one place to the other. While sitting on the last bus to get there, I thought to myself that it would have been really amazing if there were horses in that place. I know it sounds weird, but I remember seeing a really cool photo on Instagram with a guy bathing with two horses in Barbados, and I just thought that it was the most beautiful thing in the world. Well, as I arrived, I saw two beautiful horses taking a dip in the mesmerizing blue water of the waterfalls. I was shocked; it truly was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. And then I asked the owner if I could swim with them, and he said claro que sí!, and the magic began. It was so beautiful… Horses are my favorite animals in the world and I just had a moment appreciating the fact that I was swimming with two of them in crystal clear water. I was so excited I almost cried - and then two little girls swung by and took pictures of me with my phone. To this day, I think that it was one of the most amazing moments of my life.
As I went back, I stayed in San Cristobal and admired the city the following day. It’s the perfect place for backpackers; it’s really cheap and fun, and there’s always a lot to do. The little street markets are amazing to buy typical Mexican products and jewelry. I really enjoyed the Chiapas vibe and decided to stay a little longer, almost a week. Then, on Sunday 6th of September, I finally took a shuttle bus and crossed the border to Guatemala.
Guatemala Part 1
The journey to Guatemala was long and hot - about 12 hours in a small non-air- conditioned shuttle bus. It was a fun journey though, as I met a lot of nice travelers going the same way. I was initially thinking of stopping in Antigua, a beautiful colonial town surrounded by volcanoes, but eventually decided to go to the Lake Atitlán area, which was on my initial travel bucket list. Crossing the border was an exciting experience - I somehow dreamt of that tiny detail before going onto this trip, and I was surprised by how funny and unique it was. Once you arrive to the end of one country, you have to go to the customs, take your luggage with you, walk until the customs of the other country, get your passport stamped, and then hop on the shuttle again. For some reason they don’t let you leave the luggage in the shuttle bus, although no one really checks it. After that, we continued on the way to the lake. It started raining very hard - this is the reason why many travellers don’t travel in August, September and October, because it’s low season and it’s supposed to be very rainy, although it really rains once in a while for a couple of hours; we arrived to Panajachel, one of the towns around the lake, to take the ferry and go to San Pedro La Laguna. I must say, now that I have visited Mexico for New Years Eve (I just came back a few days ago), I am truly grateful to have done this trip in low season. It was much freer and exciting getting to wake up every morning having the chance to choose where to go next and finding empty busses and available hostels. Anyways, we arrived to San Pedro after a rainy journey on a speed boat, completely drenched in water, and choose the closest hostel we could find. We opted for Mr. Mullets, a fantastic hostel owned by an Australian guy named Nick, who left his tiny town in New South Wales and decided to buy a hostel in Guatemala. What a legend! The hostel was really nice, with hot showers and yummy breakfast. It also had an outside bar where we could drink beer and relax at night. The funny thing about that day I arrived, which was a Sunday, was that the elections were held that weekend. Therefore drinking beer or alcohol in general was strictly prohibited, but they still served them in our hostel… But in coffee mugs!
After a very good sleep, I woke up early in the morning and walked down to the lake. I was truly breathless looking at it. In the morning the sun shines and seeing all those volcanoes almost glowing around the lake gave me a sense of infinity. Sometimes I just realize how much Mother Nature has graced us with such incredible beauty. I went kayaking on the lake for a couple of hours, which was incredible, and then we went to San Marcos, another village around the lake. It only costs 5 quetzals to get there, which is less than a dollar. San Marcos is a quiet yoga town with not much happening. It is very famous because the views from there are much more beautiful, if that is even possible, and there is a deck from which you can jump right into the lake from about 6 meters high. It’s only 6 meters, but it was terrifying!
Hint: Another amazing activity to be done at the lake is the sunrise hike up to the nose of the volcano. It is mesmerizing watching the sunrise overlooking craters and 7 of the 22 Guatemalan volcanoes.
The day in San Marcos was beautiful, and in the late afternoon we went back to San Pedro. There, in the same room were I was staying, I met the people who became my travel companions for a good half of my entire trip: Pete and Ollie from Brisbane and Nick from Melbourne. The funny thing is that Nick was friends with the guys that worked in the hostel were I stayed in San Cristobal De Las Casas, as they travelled together to Puerto Escondido. The world is such a tiny place! And he truly is, to this day, one of the best people I’ve met in my life. He is so funny and so easy-going, always a pleasure to have around. The same night we all went to Hostel Fe, the famous party hostel in San Pedro, to have a meal and some drinks, and play cards. One of the things that defines my trip to central America is playing cards with Pete, Ollie and Nick. We always played Presidents and Scumbags, excuse my language, a very funny game. Nick always won.
The days after we basically did the same stuff we did the day before, we went to San Marcos again, although I’ve been there already. Again, had a great time and a swim in the lake, and by night we were back in San Pedro. Unfortunately, and this is why we stayed a few extra days at the lake, we all got food poisoning. To this day we don’t know whether it was the food or the water in the lake, anyways, it was terrible. But definitely not the worst that can happen on such a long trip! Food poisoning was a domino reaction in the hostel; every couple of hours someone got sick. After we got all well, we decided to take the night bus to El Tunco, El Salvador. Nick stopped in Antigua to climb a volcano.
The trip to El Salvador was honestly horrible. Not only it was long, the road was bumpy and the weather incredibly hot, but also because we were still not feeling well and on the shuttle bus we met the most annoying person you could meet traveling. It was a not too young Italian solo traveller from Rome, loud and rude, who spent the whole journey talking about how amazing he is and all that he had travelled, being judgmental about everyone and everything. Anyways, it’s stuff that happens all the time, sometimes you just have to embrace it. Thanks to the music on my phone and the headphones in my ears I got through it.
We arrived to El Tunco, a beach spot in El Salvador in the early afternoon, and went for a meal on the beach. The place was lovely, although it was very pricey even compared to the lake, which is already expensive compared to other parts of Guatemala and Mexico. In the afternoon we met a couple Pete and Ollie have met before - Lauren and Dickie from Melbourne - and spent a few hours with them. They were planning a roadtrip to one of the volcanoes in El Salvador, but unfortunately the car was too small so we couldn’t join, and we decided to go to Nicaragua instead. By the way, I forgot to mention that Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are all the same area of countries - you can only stay up to 3 months in the whole area, therefore you need to go to Mexico or Costa Rica or whatever to renew your visa if you live in one of the countries mentioned above. The morning after, we went to the travel agency and jumped on a bus to Leon, Nicaragua. Luckily we found three available seats as we didn’t reserve the day before.
Nicaragua - crossing the border in Honduras
So as I said, Pete, Ollie and me decided to make our way into Nicaragua. They were planning on stopping there for over a month, as they had a flight to New York from Panama City the following month, but didn’t want to spend much time in Costa Rica and Panama.
As for me, my initial plan was to go to Costa Rica and Panama as well, but I also ended up staying a good 3 weeks in Nicaragua because I fell in love with the place.
Our journey to Nicaragua was long, again, but fun. First of all, we stopped in El Cuco, another surf spot in El Salvador, and picked up another 5 travelers - two twins from New Zealand, an English girl that lived in New Zealand, a guy from Perth and a girl from Melbourne. Jeremy, Matt, Sophie, Luke and Sarah. A truck full of Aussies, as Pete said, or well, close enough. It was a really fun journey. Everyone was very chilled out and we really got along from the beginning. We had to stop twice, on the border to Honduras and on the one to Nicaragua, so it took us a fair bit. At least we were traveling with a very good agency’s shuttle bus, so all the paperwork at the borders was taken care by the bus driver. Some people do the chicken bus system - I’m talking about the very cheap, ridiculously fast local busses that run from one town to the other and even cross borders. There is no air-con on those, not even windows and doors sometimes, and you have to cope with either reggaeton or Christian music. But in that case you have to be prepared to walk for miles with your backpack under the steamy sun and stay in queues for ages. Anyways, after a few good chats and a good movie on the shuttle, we arrived to Leon, Nicaragua, and decided to stay at a very nice hostel, really quiet and cheap, called Hostal Las Vacaciones.
The first night we were tired and we just went to bed - the second day we decided to explore around the city and at night there was a crazy party on the beach, organized by Big Foot Hostel, renown to be the crazy party and alcohol hostel in town. It’s actually true; the more you drink, the more alcohol they put in your cocktails. As we went out and were waiting for the bus, Nick came back from Guatemala City and San Salvador with the chicken bus system, and joined us during the party. And we also met another amazing human being, Tam, who later became my travel companion for almost all the rest of my trip. Well, the Big Foot party WAS crazy, there were people sleeping on the beach because they were partying from the day before. I’m generally not all about parties myself, but it’s fun to do it once in a while with some friends.
So as we came back, we were all very drunk, and I think I even spent the night in the wrong hostel - anyways, the following day we decided to take another shuttle bus and go to the beach at Las Peñitas, very close to Leon. We spent a few days there, just swimming and chilling, reading, drinking coffee on the beach and watching sunsets. After a couple of days I told the guys I wanted to go on and explore something new, so I took the chicken busses this time and went all the way back to Leon, then Managua, the capital, and finally to Granada.
Managua is not, in my opinion, the best city, as many capitals in Central America. But Granada is really beautiful. It’s an old colonial town, and it’s one of the few towns in the area that has an environmental program to help keeping it clean. I stayed in a very nice hostel run by a Spanish man and his Nicaraguan wife. Nicaraguan people are amazing, oh well, as much as Mexicans, Guatemalan, and all of the locals I’ve met on my trip. Their variety of Spanish is very similar to the one spoken in Argentina, called voseo. The pronouns and the verbs are different, but I am used to it because my Spanish teacher is Argentinian. The hostel was named La Casa del Poeta (The House of the Poet) because a famous poet spent his last days in that place writing his works. I explored the city and met some new German friends that have been traveling around Nicaragua for two weeks. They strongly advised me to go to Little Corn Island, which in fact was on my initial bucket list. I then met an Italian solo traveller, and we climbed volcano Masaya the following day.
It is the best option if you want to see volcanoes, have a workout day, and spend very little money. The bus rides and the entrance only cost us 5 dollars in total. The hike was not difficult, it was entirely paved and the only struggle was the heat. Once you finished the hike, you can see 4 different volcanoes, and one of them is active. We then decided to take the horse tour to the top of one of them, and got to see the beautiful lagoon underneath it. All of these places were so beautiful, I couldn’t put it down in words. I felt really appreciative for getting to witness such amazing nature around me.
As I went back to the hostel, I was deciding what to do next. All through my journey I had a little paper calendar I used to fill with the destinations I was planning to visit. I think I changed my mind a million times at least. So I decided to do a crazy thing and tick off the destination I was longing to visit the most - the Corn Islands. Next thing I know, the morning after I was boarded on a tiny little plane from Managua to Big Corn Island.
I left my luggage at the hostel in Granada as I was planning on going back there after my long weekend on Little Corn Island. All I packed with me was sun lotion and a couple of tops.
You don’t really need much in paradise!
Big Corn Island is not very different from any other Caribbean island - it has banks, hotels, restaurants, cars, big roads. Little Corn Island, on the other hand, is magical. It’s only about 2 km big, has no paved roads and no cars or any types of engine are allowed on it. People walk, swim, or bike around it. The food is delicious and they make almost everything with coconuts, as they have so many of those in there. There is one police officer on the island and people are really funny and chilled out.
As on many Caribbean islands, local people speak a mix of English and Spanish, which sounds really funny to me. That’s actually one of the many things I learned traveling - cultural and linguistic differences between places that lie so close on a map can be very big sometimes. I soaked in the sun, visited beautiful beaches, walked through the jungle, ate amazing lobster and generally amazing food, had delicious drinks, met wonderful people, got to go horseback- riding on the beach and all the way through the jungle. It was heavenly. I must say, I couldn’t imagine myself living on such a tiny island, because it would be a little daunting for me, but I can’t say I don’t understand people who move there, retiring from stressful life and deciding to build a new life on a beautiful tiny island in the middle of the ocean. By the way, during my stay there I met a guy who told me that while he was traveling from El Tunco to Antigua, their shuttle bus was hitchjacked along the way and completely robbed. This scenario happened on Fridays for three consecutive weeks. I realized that I traveled the other way around, from Antigua to El Tunco on a Friday, and felt blessed that nothing happened to me. I always had my three valuables with me - passport, wallet and phone. I carried them everywhere and never forgot to double-check if everything was there with me.
So then, after a couple of days there, I flew back to Managua, returned to Granada and decided to go all the way to Popoyo, where Pete, Ollie and Tam were. I decided to take chicken busses again, which spared me a lot of money, as my weekend treat on Little Corn was pretty expensive. Anyhow, the chicken system failed a little bit this time, as it took me nearly all day to get there and the place was not even 150 km away. Chicken busses and colectivos don’t run if not full - so it can take you ages to get where you’re planning to, and you just have to embrace it.
After a full day of traveling I made it to Popoyo and joined my friends at the hostel where they were staying at, right on the beach. The hostel was temporarily managed by two Italian guys, which were absolutely amazing and very welcoming. For the first time in over a month I had pasta, and it was delicious!
Our days in Popoyo were sweet and chilled. All we did from the beginning was hiring a surfboard and spend our days either surfing and soaking in the warm ocean or lying in hammocks reading and drinking cold Nicaraguan beer. We ended up staying there for about 10 days, and it’s definitely one of the highlights of my trip. I remember waking up every morning and being sincerely happy and appreciative to just simply be. I used to make myself a cup of coffee and walk for kilometers on the beach in the early morning, when the ocean was glassy and flat and almost no one was around. It was beautiful, calm and peaceful. After a few days, our friend Sarah decided to come and join us, whereas the rest of the crew was in a very secluded spot (I mean, Popoyo was secluded enough, as the closest bank and big supermarket were an hour away from our hostel, but apparently at that other spot there was not even wi-fi or a restaurant nearby). I must say that Sarah’s journey to Popoyo was the best I’ve heard traveling. Apparently the taxi she was on broke down in the middle of the road because of the heavy flooding, the taxi driver had a meltdown ride away and was cursing and screaming for an hour, and she had to ask for a ride in a restaurant, speaking in her broken Spanish, but the people around her were all completely drunk, so she ended up finding a tuc-tuc driver who took her to her final destination. Quite a story, but nothing that can’t be laughed at while drinking a beer with her friends. We met a bunch of Brazilian guys and an Argentinian guy with whom we surfed and drank beers at night, and it was a delight spending those days all together. We visited a very secluded beach, Playgrounds, and gave some clothes and money to a local family who was living in a house that didn’t even have a ceiling. It’s very sad seeing that poverty around you - the least we can do is appreciating what we have and help the people in need in any way possible.
Sarah had to fly back home to Australia in the following days, while Pete and Ollie decided to stay an extra 10 days in Popoyo before making their way into Panama City. So we said goodbye to Sarah and wished her a happy flight back home, and after a few days I said goodbye to Pete and Ollie, which sounded a bit unreal, as we literally travelled through 4 countries together and they were at that point a crucial part of my trip.
Tam and me had more or less the same amount of time left, and the same bucket list. So I decided to skip Costa Rica, as I travelled there two years ago for a month, and not go to Panama either, which was too far away. Instead, I made my way into Leon and joined Tam, who also left in the morning. We both arrived at the same time, and stayed at our former hostel, which was absolutely empty. We went out for drinks at Big Foot Hostel, were again, they ended up getting us completely drunk, and decided to go to Honduras the day after. The plan was to go to Cayos Cochinos, a small group of islands ideal for a snorkeling day trip.
Short stay in Honduras and back to Guatemala
Honduras is well knows amongst backpackers for the famous Bay Islands, consisting of Roatan, an expensive island ideal for rich couples and families, Utila, a backpacker island, similar to little Corn Island, but more of a party place, although a lot of people go there to learn diving, as on Little Corn, and the Cayos Cochinos, which are a group of tiny islands ideal for snorkeling.
We arrived to La Ceiba, Honduras, the day after we left Leon. Unfortunately we ended up staying in a sketchy hotel, which was cheap, but run by two cousins (or brothers) that were not very organized. The day after we arrived we were supposed to go to Cayos Cochinos, but the weather was not very good (just a drizzle) and one of the two dudes said that his boat was flooded. So we got refunded and we left the hotel to go to the bus station and leave wherever the bus was going. There was a bus to Guatemala City, and we decided to take it, and so we spent another 16 hours on a bus. Our plan was to go to Semuc Champey, a magical place defined absolutely extraordinary by all the travellers I met. So we crossed the border once again and arrived into Guatemala City late at night. Don’t mind me saying that that is probably the most horrible city I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s dangerous as hell, dirty, and even the people gave me sketchy vibes, It’s such a shame because I love Guatemala in general, but the capital is something I wish I hadn’t experienced. We had to stay the night in order to rest properly and take a bus the day after to go to Semuc Champey. The night in the hotel was sketchy, as a drunk shirtless guy was trying to get into out room at 2 am, but we survived, and safely left to Semuc Champey in the morning. It took us another day of traveling to get there, so it was literally three days in a row on a bus. Once we arrived, we decided to stay at Utopia Hostel, where my friends that worked in San Cristobal De Las Casas were now working. I was craving rest and decent food after eating packet food and junk food for three days!
Utopia Hostel is fantastic, it lies right on the river and it overlooks a forest. We ended up staying in a coffee cabaña as the bunk beds were full. The day after we arrived we went to visit the Semuc Champey site itself, which consists of a natural 300m limestone, under which passes the Cahabón River. Atop the bridge is a series of stepped, turquoise pools, and little caves underwater. The water was the clearest I’ve ever swam in. We spent the whole day at the pools and had lunch there where a local woman cooks a lot of delicious food and you can grab whatever you want for as little as 20 quetzals, which is about 3 dollars. In the afternoon we came back to the hostel… Tubing on the river! Another amazing experience, as 40 people or even more were all floating happily together on the way back. Utopia, and Semuc Champey in general, is a very chilled out location, secluded and almost cut out from the rest of the world.
It is ideal to rest and recharge, but it was definitely not the place for us to stay for more than a couple of days. There are a lot of volunteers working there at the many hostels, but I couldn’t imagine staying there for so long. The following day we went into the caves, where the water is gelid and you have to hold a candle to walk into it. We haven’t seen any bats, but apparently there were many in the area. On our last night at Utopia I met again a German guy I’ve met in Mexico, at the Cañon del Sumidero, and new Israeli friends that gave me a lot of tips about Cuba, which I was initially not planning on visiting, but ended up going there on my last week.
The following day we went to Flores, a little peninsula built in the middle of a lake. It lies close to the Mayan Ruins of Tikal. We spent a night there, went out to eat some delicious local street food and went to bed early in order to go to Belize the following day. We were both very excited, especially Tam, because we were planning on going to Caye Caulker, one of the islands of Belize, well known amongst backpackers, especially because the Great Blue Hole is right there. Tam is a diver, so she couldn’t wait to go to Caye Caulker.
Belize - not crossing the border
The following morning we took a bus to Belize, which was only a couple of hours away from Flores. After an hour and a half we finally arrived to the border. I’ve been told by the travel agency to play it cool and say nothing while my passport was going to be checked. If the person sitting there noticed that I have a Russian passport, I would have had to pay 50 US dollars for the visa to get in, if not, I would have just crossed the border no problem. This is not what happened. After getting our passports stamped by a very nice man on the exit from Guatemala, we went into Belize. My passport got checked and stamped, and I was happy not to pay for the visa, although I should have. But you know, honestly speaking, when you’re traveling you really want to spare as much money as you can. While Tam passport was getting stamped, the man in the boot realized I had a Russian passport. He called me back, and said I needed a visa. And when I explained that I could pay 50 dollars, he said that the rules had changed a few months ago, and they don’t issue visas on the border right now. So basically there was no way for me to get in.
I was sad, and ashamed, and angry all at once. My passport always gives me problems, but it was the first time that I have been refused to enter a country just like that, with no chance to do anything. I told Tam to go ahead as she was longing to go to Caye Caulker. But as a true friend and a loyal travel companion, she said she wouldn’t have left me alone, and we decided to go to Mexico together. I was humbled and overwhelmed, and truly happy to be travelling with such an amazing and genuine person. We went back to the Guatemalan border to get out passports stamped again. The nice man that saw us earlier asked me what happened, and I explained, almost crying. He said “Albina, if Belize doesn’t want you… Guatemala always will, and we love you!” and I started crying like a baby for almost an hour. I think I was just physically exhausted after days of non-stop traveling and this little episode really got me.
So we went back to Flores, and stayed the night, and went to Mexico the day after. In Flores we met again an Israeli guy that was traveling with his father, the one we met in Semuc Champey.
Mexico part 2
We had to go to Mexico through the long chicken bus way, because we literally couldn’t even cross Belize, so we decided to go through El Ceibo, in the state of Tabasco. It took us a fair bit to get there, and at night we were boarded on the bus to Mérida once again. We arrived there at 5 am and wanted to rest, but eventually decided to go to Celestún to watch the flamingos. It took us a few hours to get there, and unfortunately there were not many flamingos, but it was beautiful no matter what. The beach was very calm and the ocean was crystal blue.
We haven’t visited much of Mérida, as we were short on time, but I was lucky enough to have been there before already. We really wanted to visit the cenotes, which are natural pits, or sinkholes, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. The water in the cenotes is usually very cold and blue. There were some around Mérida, but the easiest to visit were the ones in Valladolid, so we decided to go there. We visited three of them, which were absolutely amazing, as all of them were completely different from the others. One was almost outdoors, whereas the other two were in a big cave. The water was clear blue and very cold.
After that, we were planning on going to Tulum at night. Tam was looking for her wallet and realized she lost it somewhere. Panic took all over us, as all of her money and credit cards were there, and she had to fly home in less than a couple of weeks. So we went back to the cenotes, hoping to find it, and guess what? A man found it on the street, as we lost it while waiting for the cab, and gave it back with everything inside of it. Tam almost cried of joy, I hugged the man and told him that he is amazing, and that the world needs more people like that. Now, can I just say that where I live, it’s very unlikely to get your wallet full of cash back?
We arrived to Tulum that night and went exploring the day after. We saw the Mayan ruins and decided to do a boat trip to go snorkeling and watch the Mayan ruins from the water. It was beautiful, and we had a great day. Albeit the tourism, Tulum still has a very hippie vibe to it.
At night, we went to a cinema/restaurant, where you order a meal for as little as 10 dollars, and you get your own private room, with a giant screen and comfy sofas, and a selection of movies. How amazing!
We had a great day and night in Tulum and were thinking about where to go next.
BTW: remember that Israeli guy and his dad I mentioned earlier? Well, we ended up meeting them again in Flores, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen. Totally randomly, in the middle of busy streets. One of the joys of travelling!
Tam needed to make her way to Los Angeles soon, in order to fly back home. Since the area of Mexico we were visiting was pretty expensive, and flights from Cancun or Puerto Escondido, where Tam wanted to go, were pretty expensive too, I proposed going to Tijuana, where my friend Jorge lives, the one I met in Puerto Escondido.
Jorge was literally the best host I could have ever hoped for; the minute he knew we were coming to Tijuana, he arranged everything to make our stay unforgettable.
We took a flight from Cancun that same night, passing through Playa del Carmen and flying through the capital, and arrived to TJ the morning after. Jorge knew we wanted to go to the beach, so he left us his uncle’s condo on Rosarito Beach. It was amazing! We stayed a few days there and just rested and chilled. I remember how much I wanted to visit Baja California when I was in the States last time, but couldn’t because I thought it might be dangerous. It wasn’t at all, and I’m happy to know it now.
We spent a few days in Rosarito and after that Tam had to go to LA to catch her flight. I said goodbye to my friend and went to Tijuana, where Jorge and his family live. Again, they have been the best hosts I could have ever hoped for. I fell in love with their kindness and hospitality, it was simply beautiful to be surrounded by such amazing people. I felt at home, and they treated me like a daughter. We went out in the city, visited museums, ate delicious food. Mexican food is really deliciou. I loved it everywhere I’ve been to. It’s very spicy, and it’s funny to me because in Europe there is no such thing as spicy compared to Mexico. There are literally a million different spicy sauces everywhere around supermarkets and restaurants. I must say that the food in Tijuana was probably my favorite along the whole trip. There is also a lot of craft beer, which is absolutely delicious, especially for a beer lover like me.
After a week with Jorge and his family, I flew back to Cancun to take a flight to my last destination - Cuba.
My layover in Cancun, waiting from 2 am until 11 am after two flights from TJ to Mexico City and to Cancun was pretty rough. The air conditioning at the airport in Cancun is really dreadful, and there was no place to sleep besides the floor. It was probably one of the coldest nights of my life, but I managed this time too. I spent a few days resting in Rosarito back in Baja California because I got sick, so I think I was generally a bit tired and physically drained by the time I went to Cuba.
I had a lot of expectations and heard a lot of mixed reviews about my destination. When I arrived to Havana, it felt like I travelled back in time of about 50 years.
Cuba has a fascinating vibe to it, because it stayed exactly like it was in the 50s. This is something that can be interpreted as good, charming, interesting, but on the other hand, I think it’s just sad. People are desperate to get out of the country and locals have told me several times that they can’t wait for the Americans to get it the country and fix it. There is no money, no food, and people can’t take it anymore.
I myself must say that I’m not a fan of the American way of building and buying land everywhere they go around these countries; but that is just my honest and humble opinion.
Back in Nicaragua there also was a private beach entirely owned and built up by Americans. Costa Rica is becoming the new tourist destination from people all over the States and Cancun is basically a stretch of Florida. Globalization is killing the culture and the charm of these wonderful places. I decided to visit Cuba exactly for this reason, before it was too late.
Of course, by the time I went there, it was packed with tourist from all over Europe, and with tons of Australians and Canadians. Canadians have been going there for ages now, because they have direct flights from Toronto and Montreal and it’s ridiculously cheap for them to stay a week in Cuba, enjoying the warm weather when the temperature is already below zero in their country. Personally, I stayed in Havana for two nights and I found the scenery a little sad. The city itself is pretty, and ranked to be safe as security cameras are literally every two blocks.
But people can get rather harassing. They literally stop you and ask you if you want to have sex, sometimes even touching you. It’s been a destination of sexual tourism for decades now and as I said, people are desperate to get out of the country. There is no information whatsoever about the rest of the world, internet is very difficult and expensive to get onto. A taxi driver earns a hundred times more than a surgeon does.
There are some parts of Cuba, like Viñales, and Pinar del Rio, where the vibe it’s much more relaxed and chilled out. We visited the tobacco plantations with some travellers I’ve met, and went zip-lining, and had a great time there. We ate at a local restaurant and it was amazing. The food was delicious, and we only paid 5 dollars each for a complete meal in the middle of nature, overlooking the fields.
During my last days in Cuba I haven’t done much but staying on the beach in Varadero. It’s one of the most famous tourist destinations, full of all-inclusive hotels, and I must say that it was what I was looking forward to. I wanted to rest and chill by the pool and not do much more than that. So I can say that I fully enjoyed my stay in Cuba as I soaked in the sun before going back home in a few days, back to cold foggy weather, responsibilities, school, work, routine… Everything I haven’t experienced traveling.
Mexico - Last night before flying back home
So I took the flight back to Mexico, and 24 hours later I was going to leave to go back home. I only had 24 hours left, and decided to do what my instinct was suggesting me to; I went to Merida and spent my last night in the place where everything started. It was almost 5 hours away from the airport in Cancun, all for one night out. The morning after I was already back on the bus to go to Cancun. Going to Merida on my last night was amazing. I went out and had an amazing time. Sometimes, against all odds and logic, you just have to follow your heart and do whatever makes you happy. The next day, with my little luggage full of old clothes, my eyes full of tears of both happiness for this amazing adventure and sadness for it to be coming to an end, and my heart full of hopes, happiness, new friends, love, appreciation, gratitude, and a tiny bit of fear for what was going to happen next in my life, I boarded on my plane and flew back to my ordinary life.
And this is the travel note I wrote the day I was flying back home, about 2 months ago:
I remember the day I left, exactly 10 weeks ago, to go to Mexico for the first time. And I was somewhat excited, but at the same time frightened and I surely did not know what to expect. I packed a little bag and left to pursue my all time travel dream: Mexico and Central America. Many things happened on this trip… 6 countries, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cuba (and should we consider Belize, although I’ve just been to the border cause I couldn’t get in?). 10 flights, one of which I voluntarely cancelled, deciding to go back home as late as I could. Around 50 busses, from air-conditioned comfy ones to chicken busses (inappropriately fast) with Enrique Inglesias and Pitbull playing their latino tunes throughout the whole journey, ridiculously loud. Around 200 hours, if not more, spent on busses, eating chips with my travel companions met on the way and dreaming of getting to our new destination.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of fantastic people I met traveling. Hundreds of passionate and driven travellers, with whom I had the pleasure of sharing the most beautiful art of all: discovering the world with joy and an open heart. Delicious food, amazing drinks (I think I have tried over a hundred different beers and many drinks I didn’t know the existence of), and I even started to eat spicy. Helpful, cheerful, open-hearted locals, always ready to lend me a hand whenever I needed help. Dozens of varieties of Spanish accents and new words I never heard of. My Spanish accent has shifted to Mexican and my English has shifted to Australian, and I love it!
But most of all, I’m proud to go back home having overcome all the stereotypes of being a little blonde female solo traveler, wanting to go to those countries which are considered to be dangerous, just on my own.
Because this is what I learned: when you have trust and common sense, when you’re respectful and polite, and cautious, when you’re open-hearted and eager to learn, and when you stay positive and believe in good, only good can happen. And this trip is the proof of it.
Thank you to every single person I met on this trip, those who took time to share a drink with me, go surfing, climbing volcanoes, horseback riding, zip-lining, walking, eating, talking, sharing their beautiful stories, teaching me something new, making me laugh or tear up, or just simply sitting on the beach with me, lost in our own worlds, just admiring and appreciating the beauty around us. Thank you to all of you who had time to give me travel tips, and changing my initial plans a million times, making this trip even more unforgettable. I hope I can see all of you again one day…
And I must add, as my final acknowledgements:
Thank you to my dad, who has supported me in many ways throughout my traveling. Knowing to have such a special person to count on in my life drives me to do anything I can imagine. Thank you to all the beautiful people I meet everyday. Without you my adventures would have not been the same, and I am happy to have shared my journey with you. And finally, thank you to my wonderful teacher, and thesis supervisor, for believing in me and encouraging me to write my little story and share my travels with other people.
And before I end… Can I just give you a passionate piece of advice?
Get out there. Travel. Explore. Live, breathe, eat, try something new everyday, push yourself to your limits, do everything that makes you happy, that makes you awesome, that makes you unique. Believe in yourself, walk up to a stranger and tell them they’re beautiful… Love! We only live once, and I ensure you that traveling is the best way to do it.
Unstuck in the World - from the surf movie Castles in the Sky by Taylor Steele
There was once a man who became unstuck in the world – he realized that he was not his car, he realized that he was not his job, he was not his phone, his desk or his shoes. Like a boat cut from its anchor, he’d begin to drift.
There was once a man who became unstuck in the world – he took the wind for a map, he took the sky for a clock, and he set off with no destination. He was never lost.
There once was a man who became unstuck in the world – instead of hooks or a net, he threw himself into the sea. He was never thirsty.”
There was once a man who became unstuck in the world – with a Polaroid camera he made pictures of all the people he met, and then he gave all the pictures away. He would never forget their faces.
There was once a man who became unstuck in the world – and each person he met became a little less stuck themselves. He traveled only with himself and he was never alone.
There was once a man who’d become unstuck in the world – and he traveled around like a leaf in the wind until he reached the place where he started out. His car, his job, his phone, his shoes – everything was right where he’d left it. Nothing had changed, and yet he felt excited to have arrived here – as if this were the place he’d been going all along.
To see this on Tumblr follow this link http://my10weeksincentralamerica.tumblr.com/