I have a photo album. Get it? An actual photo album with photos inside! It is the only photo album that I have, sitting on a shelf all by itself, feeling lonely because all of its friends are saved in many backup files on my computer and on the internet. Oh, 2005 seems so far away!
I landed in Cancun, Mexico on Sunday, March 13, 2005 with a Let's Go Central America guidebook that I bought at the airport minutes before boarding the plane and haven't opened since. It was my first real independent trip and I wanted to do it as blindly as possible so I can get a real experience out of it. Until today I don't know what exactly a "real experience" is. All that I knew about Central America was to name the countries in the region, the shots recommended by travel clinics to enter them, a brief history of the Aztecs and Mayans from history classes in high school, and that the official language was Spanish which I never bothered to learn. This great knowledge never attracted me to Central America as a travel destination, but I also wasn't against it. Basically, I landed there with no preconceived notions of how it would be and no expectations for the trip. Except Cancun. I heard that it became a huge American dance party full of drunk college students and chose to stay away.
I boarded a second-class bus to Merida. A friend of mine volunteered in the Peace Corps and invited me (willingly or unwillingly, I'm not sure to this day) to travel through Central America with her for two months at the end of her term. The bus entered Merida four hours later than the expected time of 8pm, which made for a very uncomfortable ride and an even more stressful midnight rush.
Midnight. Mexico. Deserted bus station. No friend. No phone number to call. No phone. Foreign language. Taxi. TAXI!!!
First lesson learned: First class buses = express with second-class comfort; Second class buses = stopping at least twice in every town along the way. To make a long story short, by noon the next day my friend and I were already hugging and exchanging stories (I don't remember how I tracked her down - or did she track me down?) She came to the lobby of my overpriced hotel with a fat Lonely Planet guidebook with colored bookmarks sticking out from all sides of it and highlighted passages inside as if she was preparing for the most important school presentation of her life. She certainly did her homework while I didn't even know about the difference in bus classes. Five minutes into our "how are you"s and she was already frustrated. I was indifferent. Her frustration grew deeper. The tour begins.
One week later we successfully passed San Cristobal and crossed the border to Guatemala. During that week we visited the first highlighted sections in my friend's book: the ruins at Palenque and the cascades of Agua Azul. Both sites are nice for novice ruin enthusiasts and first-time waterfall viewers. In San Cristobal, we split up only once because my friend wanted to see museums and I wanted to horseback ride. It was one of my favorite days for two reasons: 1) Esther and her daughter (who ran the horseback business) let me taste the wonders of an orange with salt and chili; 2) after the ride, I stumbled into a church where Mayan and Christian beliefs intermingle. As I walked in, a strong incense hit me. Smoke from the candles in front of framed pictures of saints gave the place a mysterious feel and the floor was covered with pine needles threatening to catch fire at any moment. I learned that the Mayans believe that the Earth is a cube surrounded by water and held up on four posts and that the moon is the mother of the sun. I also learned that pictures are forbidden to be taken because they steal the soul of the object being photographed. I returned late in the day to recount these experiences to my friend and to prove to her that good days can be spontaneous. She, in return, showed me as much enthusiasm about her planned day. Although I still believe that my day was better.
The following morning we were happily welcomed at the Mexican-Guatemalan border (it was closed the day before and the day after due to "civil unrest"). Soon we were drowning in the bright colors of the famous Chichicastenango market and immersing ourselves in the culture around Lago de Atitlan. We quickly zoomed passed Antigua and Guatemala City and experienced the "chicken bus" that guidebooks require all tourists to try. Four features generally define a chicken bus: 1) No rules; 2) Door open so passengers can board and jump off while the bus is in movement; 3) Passengers must be flexible enough to sit on top of the back support with the head turned and folded at 90 degrees, hands spread out to the sides, and legs - well, you might as well leave them on the roof with the rest of the bags and groceries; 4) Chickens allowed.
Continuing northward, we stopped in the natural pools of Semuc Champey and opened our mouths in awe to the grandeur of Tikal, the greatest Mayan ruin in all of Central America. You can read so much about it in books, see so much of it on the Discovery Channel, but nothing compares to actually standing there and feeling the power of history beneath your feet (or above you, for that matter). Tikal itself is a bit out of the way, but the stop there is definitely worth it.
Let's fast-forward now to Costa Rica, one month later (after 10 days diving in Utila, Honduras in search of whale sharks that were encountered by other divers on the day that we left; a rafting trip where our boat forcibly capsized and the guide stressed out and yelled out, "Holy s***, this never happened to me!!!"; a week in El Salvador that we mostly spent on buses trying to get to the beach only to chicken out of learning how to surf and then turning right back around and making the entire way back; two weeks in Nicaragua with a moonlight hike to the top of a fuming dormant volcano near Leon, birdwatching in a forest with no birds, volunteering for a day on Finca Magdalena on Isla de Ometepe learning to separate good coffee beans from bad ones, a canopy tour with un-thrilling ziplines near Granada, and a bus ride dodging burning tires through the recently reopened main streets of Managua after some typical rioting.)
I finally read the chapter on Costa Rica upon our arrival but was disappointed to see that it is so expensive, especially when compared to the standards I got used to. So we agreed on the don't-miss basics: the closest beach on the Pacific coast, Monteverde for the animal and birdwatching, and Arenal for the volcano. The beach was wonderful (we dove next to friendly white-fin sharks). Monteverde was disappointing because it looked so similar to the ziplining forest of Nicaragua but more touristy and more expensive (at least we spotted some quetzals and a sloth, which made up for everything). Arenal was inspiring. Every night the volcano spilled lava over its sides and lit up the skies. It was such a beautiful recurring act of nature that I decided to stay there to pass the remainder of my trip (which I cut short by one week because I was tired, greedy about money, and eager to go home and share my experiences with family and friends.) My friend continued to the Atlantic side to follow sea turtles on their egg-nesting migrations while I went to develop my four rolls of film and place them carefully in an album.
Overall I summarize the trip as very productive, full of unexpected situations, new encounters and interesting activities. I came into Central America with no expectations and left it as the same person that I was. Plus a photo album.