Published: March 19th 2012March 19th 2012
“Make voyages! Attempt them… there’s nothing else” Tennessee Williams.
The idyll of Belize seems a lot time ago now. We are now in Nicaragua, on the Pacific Coast where the ocean waves thunder down onto the black sands, enraged and tumultuous. Woe betide any surfer who wipes out in these foaming tempestuous waters.
Leaving Tobacco Caye, the waters of the Caribbean were pretty turbulent. A Westerley wind had picked up shaking the coconut palms and causing waves to break on the peaceful side of the island. Munch, our boat captain was prepared to take us (hope he wasn’t stoned) back to the mainland and we navigated the crossing back to Dandriga in his little plastic boat bouncing and vaulting the swell. Reaching dry land was a relief as I don’t think our backs and butts could have taken much more of that crossing. We made it onto a chicken bus and accompanied by the sounds of 1980’s soft rock (very popular in these parts) we drove all the way down into Southern Belize to the town of Punta Gorda. Here we transferred into another plastic bottomed boat for the 1hour journey across the Gulf of Honduras back into Guatemala for the night in the quayside town of Puerto Barrios – a godforsaken hellhole where the only eateries open were fried chicken shacks. “Pollo frito” seems to be the bread and butter of people’s diets in these parts – and they wonder why there is an obesity problem?!
We got chatting to a lovely Canadian couple from Vancouver Island – Morgan and Kay – on the journey and arranged to meet them the following morning to negotiate the crossing into Honduras. Sandy and I found ourselves some very bad Chinese food for sustenance as we really didn’t want fried chicken and bedded down in a dive of a hotel which seemed to be full of local immigrant workers, blood splattered walls from squashed mosquitoes and a fan that whirred pathetically circulating the limited air in our darkened room.
The rains came during the night and that combined with the rowdy group of roosters outside our window made for an early wake up and a wet, grey cold start to our challenging journey into Honduras. I say challenging because we were hustled by a minivan driver who said he could take us all the way to San Pedro de Zula – one of the continent’s most dangerous cities. From there we would change onto a bus to the coast and catch the last boat to Utila on the Bay of Islands (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utila
). Having negotiated a fixed price, the four of us clambered in feeling quite pleased we had lessened the hassle of more public buses and collectivos for the long day ahead and minimised the chance of being exposed to more 1980’s soft rock. There is only so much Foreigner and Bon Jovi a girl can take.
However, at Honduras immigration things went pear-shaped – a big fat pear. “Roberto” the Bastard Minivan Driver had called a ‘friend’ to meet us and take us onwards and therefore asked for payment there and then. We would never pay in full until we had reached our destination so I agreed to give him half. It was at this point he made it clear that the price we had agreed was for one person only and he expected that amount (about $25 US) times four. We were furious as that was not what we had agreed. Even with my limited Spanish I know that I had confirmed the correct total and here he was changing the goalposts. We refused to pay more which resulted in him throwing the money we did give him on the floor (enough to cover the journey from Puerto Barrios to the border) and driving off leaving us stranded at the border. Joy! What a charming man.
Faced with no alternative but to walk to the neighbouring town we trudged under leaden skies and got on our first Honduran chicken bus to the accompaniment of Chris de Burgh and Elkie Brooks (save me). This took us only to Puerto Cortes – some 2 hours away and from there we swapped onto a collectivo into San Pedro. Grabbing some lunch in the bus terminal we found the next bus for the 3 hour journey to the coast. By this point we knew we would never make it to La Ceiba in time to make the last boat so we changed tack and spent the night there with Morgan and Kay. It was an exhausting and frustrating day – some 12 hours of travelling and with me doing all the negotiations as none of the other three could speak any Spanish, I was shattered.
With two boats a day to Utila, we decided to take the afternoon one to give us time to shop for our stay there. As everything is imported to the island, prices are considerably higher and not wanting to eat Pollo Frito all the time, we stocked up on rum, veggies and pasta and the ubiquitous instant noodles. If I thought the boat from Tobacco Caye to the mainland of Belize was bumpy, the “Vomit Comet” to the Bay of Islands was something else. A catamaran called the Utila Princess where the Captain was handing out sick bags before we had left the harbour. An ominous sign surely?. The engine started and we edged slowly out into the open water where the waves immediately started to rock the boat up and down and from side to side. People started to go pale, then green and eventually shrink into the arms of their partners. I (perhaps erroneously) decided to take another Stugeron (the anti-motion sickness pills I used for the Drake Passage in Antarctica) and spent the journey with my eyes closed feeling I was going to fall asleep. I was totally off my face oblivious to the fact that the first to chunder was the dog on board. This set off a literal Mexican wave of collective heaving. Some people tried to cope with the choppy waters by standing and keeping their eyes on the horizon which appeared and then disappeared as the boat soared up and down like a fairground ride.
We staggered off at Utila and the land seemed to continue to undulate beneath my feet which caused me to giggle uncontrollably – man, those pills were strong. I was truly intoxicated. Kay and Sandy went off to find accommodation for us as I was in no fit state to lead us anywhere. Instead Morgan and I sat on the one main road on the island as 4x4 buggies and motorbikes whizzed by and I continued to waver between hysteria and fatigue. It was a strange , not altogether unpleasant, sensation. Note to self – don’t double up on sea-sickness pills again!
We stayed on Utila – considered one of the world’s best places to learn to dive – for 5 nights. I only did one day’s diving there as was deeply disappointed with the experience. Apart from the gung-ho approach to taking people out, the waters around the island remained rough and the boat journey out to the North Side was yet more of a duel between my psyche and my stomach. I think I have been spoiled with diving in the Red Sea, the Galapagos and Tobago. These places have set the “scuba -wow” bar very high and unfortunately Utila failed to impress. It was very cheap – 2 tank dive for $54 but the lack of attention to safety and buddy checks, the absence of decent fish life and the poor state of coral and viz made me reluctant to do any more. The lure of seeing whale sharks had made me very excited but sadly, these colossi of the oceans were staying well away. Rough waters and poor weather conditions the previous week had sent them swimming to the depths and so not even the shadow of a whale shark did I see. I live for the moment of getting wet with these titans of the deep and I will just have to seek them out on another adventure.
The rest of the time on Utila was spent lazing in hammocks, avoiding being run over by the traffic on the sole road and lazing on the rather pathetic beach to the West of town. We were less than taken with the place. It must be wonderful if you are a novice diver, putting your virgin scuba toes in the sea but other than that I really cant recommend it. We cooked together with Morgan and Kay most evenings, sat on our balcony drinking plenty of rum and for the last evening ventured out to Big Mammas for a delicious and huge T Bone steak (no fried chicken in sight) served with bread, rice and chips. Carbtastic!
Sandy and I had planned to leave the island and head inland through Honduras but with warnings from Miss Minnie of our Guesthouse (http://www.aboututila.com/AccomInfo/Sea-Side-Utila/index.htm
) that the crossing would be rough (and that she would only get on a boat if it was a family emergency) , we decided to wait. This did not bode well. With white horses in the distance and the waves pounding the reef, I had no desire to face the “Vomit Comet” again. A sensible decision and before dawn the following day we bade farewell to our Canadian friends, and walked down to the harbour in the silence of the sunrise. Utila at its nicest – no 4x4 buggies, no motorbikes, no pissed up learner divers…. It was really rather lovely. The crossing was as calm as a millpond and we easily continued to San Pedro , the transport hub for Northern and Western Honduras and then on to Lago Yojoa (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lago_de_Yojoa
)sandwiched between Parque Nacional Santa Barbara and Parque Nacional Cerro Azul Meamber.
The Lake (17kms long and 9kms wide) is surrounded by the elegant mountains of the parks and its reed fringed waters are home to a cornucopia of aquatic birds. Surrounding the Lake lies verdant cloud forest filled with hundreds of different species of birds. Birding heaven! We found the infamous D&D Brewery (http://www.ddbrewery.com/
) – a hotel and microbrewery nestled in shaded grounds, with gardens filled with tropical heliconia plants and banana trees. Their beers were truly superlative. Fruit beers (strawberry, apricot, raspberry and blueberry), Pale and Amber ales and the piece de résistance, a Porter that was malty and dark and toffee-like on the tongue. Forget birding heaven…I was in Beer Heaven. Apart from the odd brew (Negro Modelo in Mexico or Belikin Stout in Belize), the beer on offer in Central America is of the gassy, flavourless lager variety and deeply unsatisfying. Here in the midst of the cloud forests of Honduras we had found liquid perfection. Suffice to say, I worked my way through every type of beer on tap in the 2 days we were there. A girl has to stay hydrated in these climes!
Originally we had only planned to spend the one night at D&D and continue onto Nicaragua the following day but with the lure of beautiful countryside, great walking, awesome views, sunny skies and of course their onsite microbrewery we spent a day exploring the Parque Archelogica. Climbing one of the bird hides, Sandy and I settled down and sat amidst the trees and bromeliads of the forest watching tanagers, euphoniums and mot-mots (http://birdsofhonduras.com/
) flitting between the branches, building nests, singing and oblivious to our presence. I am such a geek I know…bird=watching and real ale – I’m a happy lady! We came across an enormous nest of leaf-cutter ants which had commandeered 3 metres of track, marching furiously up and down carrying their trophies from the tree and down into their burrow (do ants have burrows?). I have seen leaf cutters do their thing before but this was really spectacular – an army column of insects bearing their procured foliage above their bodies.
Unfortunately, time is ticking away and with only 6 weeks left and 3 more countries to traverse through, we had to push on to Nicaragua. Up at 5am to catch the one direct bus from the village of Los Naranjos to Tegulcicapa, the capital of Honduras we drove through the cloud forest shrouded in early morning mist and with shafts of sunlight breaking through onto the fields all to the sounds of The Scorpions. Its funny how music reminds you of places…. I remember cruising up a river in Laos to Primal Scream….. Honduras will forever be associated with the likes of Poison and KISS, heaven forbid!
Next update will be all about Nicaragua – a country that has grabbed me by the balls (as it were). Volcanoes, crater lakes and a raging ocean…….