Region: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras
Length: 4 week trip
Timeframe: May-June 2013
In an effort to get my Spanish back in working order, I spent time with instructors and living with two wonderful Guatemalan families in Quetzaltenango (Xela) and San Pedro La Laguna (at Lake Atilan), followed by a few days hiking and exploring in El Salvador and a week enjoying the Copan Mayan Ruins and then earning my PADI open water diving certification in Roatan, Honduras.
With the goal of getting my Spanish back in working order, I reserved two one-week classes at Spanish language schools in Guatemala. I avoided Antigua, well known for its colonial charm and tourism, since I wanted to immerse myself as much as possible in Spanish and local culture. I selected Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela, its indigenous name) and San Pedro La Laguna on Lake Atilan.
Stayed 3 days based in Santa Ana, El Salvador, which is the second largest city in the country. Honestly, compared to Guatemala and Honduras I wouldn't recommend going out of your way. That said, the two hour public bus ride from Santa Ana city to the Parque de los Volcanes (also known as Cerro Verde) was worth it... The Santa Ana Volcano (Ilamatepec) is the highest volcano in the country, at 2,381 meters above sea level. I very much enjoyed the trek and the gorgeous green crater lake at top, even though it is disconcerting that armed guards are required to escort you on the hiking trail. On a separate day I visited the Tazumal Mayan ruins, about a 45 minute bus ride from downtown.
Copan was the capital city of a major Classic period kingdom from the 5th to 9th centuries AD. The ruins, which are 1km from the edge of the town, contain pre-Columbian sculpture and architecture spread through a plaza with stelae and altars, acropolis, ball court, hieroglyphic stairway. Skip the two underground tunnels
dug by archaeologists open to public for an exorbitant additional fee-- I'm a sucker for tunnels and can report that they are not worth it. There are many scarlet macaws at the entrance, much to my delight.
Rose early to catch first bus north to the Honduras coast. Aside from a baby who mistook my chest for his mother's and a toddler who vomited in the aisle next to my seat, pretty uneventful. Arrived to the station of the infamously violent San Pedro Sula and was escorted to special waiting room staffed by armed guard. He didn't flinch when a passenger entered carrying a rifle, but at a woman's request did try to reason with an elderly man in a gauzy tank top who thought it more comfortable to wait with his bare feet sticking horizontally into the aisle. We finally boarded bus and I found a cramped seat next to a window which wouldn't open, in front of a senior citizen with a small boom box blasting folk music. After several stops and starts we were halted by armed military who requested that, under sweltering sun, everyone get off bus. They carefully checked IDs and patted down all men over 18 and, presumably satisfied that none of the adult male passengers were carrying something other than rifles, allowed us back onboard. You just can't make this stuff up.
After 12+ hrs of travel, including 2 hr ferry ride, arrived Roatán, one of the Bay islands of Honduras. And it's fabulous! Due to low season I got upgraded for week to huge room overlooking the Caribbean-- enormous porch, hammock, chair and tables, and fridge for cold beers. Did 3-day PADI class (on open water dives saw huge crab, lobster, eel, triggerfish, trumpetfish, queen angelfish, midnight parrotfish, and school of blue tangs). I'm kinda glad that the dangerous conditions for solo hiking in Honduras jungles pushed me to opt for a week here instead.
I loved the "Mary's Place" dive site on the south side of island, near Barefoot Cay. However, the special highlight was the night dive to Lighthouse Reef to witness the fabulous phosphorescence-- enhanced by new moon and/or overcast night sky-- and "Strings of Pearls" phenomenon which look like Christmas lights of various tiny shapes and sizes lighting up, bulb by bulb, underwater. They are actually microscopic ostracods, tiny crustaceans about the size of tomato seeds. They use their bioluminescence to attract mates in the same way that fireflies do. The subspecies are differentiated by the spacing between the lights and the shapes of the lights. The spacing of the dots in the water is unique to a particular species so females, recognizing the code for their own species, can swim to the end of a string of dots and know that they’ll find an eligible male (source).
- Spanish Language Schools
- Centro Bilingue Amerindia (CBA) - Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala. I had an excellent instructor named Byron and was impressed by the exuberance of Hugo, the school's director. The classes take place in an enclosed courtyard, and by mutual agreement on field trips. I paid to the school US$167 for 25 hours/week of instruction and the family homestay, and US$40 for airport pickup from Guatemala City, overnight with family in the capital, and bus ticket to Xela.
- La Cooperativa - San Pedro La Laguna, Lake Atilan, Guatemala. Excellent location and a fantastic homestay with a Mayan/Spanish bilingual family. Though I support the cooperative wages behind the school, my teacher for the week seemed bored and uninspired; other students there the same week reported seeing a similar disinterest with their teachers. I paid US$170 for 20 hours of instruction and the family homestay.
- Scuba Diving
- Earned my open water diving certificate through West End Divers. In general the staff are quite friendly and informative and, most importantly, safety-conscious and responsible. Highly recommend them.
- Between Guatemala City and Xela, I took a second class (private) bus (about US$13).
- Between Xela and San Pedro (Lake Atilan), I took a packed chicken bus, 2 public van/shuttles, a pick-up truck, and a tuk-tuk. Supposedly there are direct bus routes, but at least on the Sunday I traveled the bus drivers said there weren't. Total cost was about $10.
- Between San Pedro and Antigua I took a packed van/shuttle. Tickets are available from all of the travel agencies near the waterfront.
- Between Antigua and Santa Ana, El Salvador I took a shuttle to Guatemala City and then transferred to the Pezzarozi bus (US$20), which dropped me two blocks from the Casa Frolaz Hostal (super helpful proprietor, but I don't recommend the lodging).
- Between Santa Ana, El Salvador and Copan Ruinas, Honduras, I took a private shuttle (US$30) organized by Casa Frolaz Hostal to Copan Ruins. They were nearly 3 hours late picking me up but for the first time in Central America I had A/C and plenty of leg room.
- Between Copan Ruinas and Roatan island I took the 7am Casasola bus with a transfer in San Pedro Sula and then continued via taxi to the ferry in La Ceiba. Taxis await at the Roatan ferry.
- Lodging Recommendations
- Without a doubt, my favorite accommodations were the family homestays via the language schools in Guatemala.
- I didn't care for the lodgings in Antigua (Gato Negro; my sheets were filthy) or El Salvador (Casa Frolaz; perhaps just because I didn't see anyone else staying there, and it was a bit awkward to share the "communal" restaurant kitchen, though the proprietor is quite helpful).
- Copan Ruins, Honduras: enjoyed the Iguana Azul hostal. Spotlessly clean, compact, and comfortable. Was voted one of the 10 best hostals in the world.
- Roatan, Honduras: two thumbs up for the Posada Arco Iris. My room had an enormous wooden balcony overlooking the beach, outdoor hammock, fridge and fans, and was US$35/night.