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Trip Report Hopefulist's 2011 CA Travelogue - GUATEMALA & HONDURAS

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In July my husband Mike and I split nearly 4 weeks between Guatemala and Honduras. It was a well-balanced trip - a bit of running around balanced by a full week each in 3 wonderful places. It was also a good balance between cultural and interactive activities, total relaxation, and enjoyment of favored outdoor pursuits like hiking, biking, flyfishing, diving, and snorkeling.

If you're interested in details, continue here. If you want a quick synopsis with lots of photos, check out our TRIP BLOG (hit "Newer Post" at the bottom each time or check out the archive part way down on the right):
http://2011guatemalaandhonduras.blogspot.com/2011/07/arrival-and-1st-2-days-in-antigua.html

You can also check out my favorite photos in this trip's collection on my FLICKR SITE:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/staceyholeman/collections
I'll post links to the specific sets in each section below.

For more detailed descriptions and opinions of lodging and tour options, here's a list of my TRIP ADVISOR REVIEWS:
http://www.tripadvisor.com/members-reviews/hopefulist

Here are a few notes:

PLANNING AHEAD
Those of you who know me know I plan ahead in detail. In addition to loving the process pretrip, it made this trip, like its predecessors, a piece of cake on the ground. We were happy with every lodging option, meal out, and tour provider and the connections and flights went very well overall. When we arrived home the cargo door on the plane wouldn't open and the ensuing wait was the only glitch of the trip.

HEALTH
We proactively drank Emergen-C, took probiotics every few days, and drank only purified water (generally provided by our lodging choices). We shopped in local markets and prepared our own meals about 90% of the time; we were careful to soak vegies and fruits we weren't planning to peel in a microdyn solution. My husband had a few stomach issues early on due to change of diet but otherwise we no problems. I don't like bug bites or covering up at the beach or staying inside or slathering on bug stuff so we struggled a bit with that balance with no dire consequences; we had almost zero bug issues in Guatemala and on Roatán occasional mosquitoes and rare run-ins with sand flies.

SAFETY
As usual, we kept our wits about us but had no issues with personal or material safety. The scariest moment was on an uphill local bus at odds with a downhill truck on a hairpin heading to Santa Clara above Lake Atitlán. From the sounds and backward movement we feared the clutch and brakes were shot; ayudantes racing to the back tires with blocks of wood didn't reassure us. Somehow we jockeyed enough times to make it by and up the hill we went.

If you're interested in more specifics about my health and safety recommendations, let me know.

MONEY
Because of recent Antigua ATM scams, we took enough local currency (some saved from previous trips and the rest ordered online and picked up at our Bank of America branch) to get us through Antigua. We paid a few lodging bits in advance and cash for most of rest; we used an ATM in San Pedro La Laguna and one in Coxen Hole on Roatán, so far so good. BofA's ATM and foreign use fees are ridiculous but I neglected to shop for anything better before this trip - maybe next year.

SHOPPING
Other than food we did very little shopping. In addition to some of the most wonderful gifts ever received we came home with a bright blue bedspread for a spare room and a new tablecloth; the former was purchased after a bit of looking in Panajachel (still the best bet for common textile purchases imo) and the latter from a widow's weaving cooperative in San Juan La Laguna.

PACKING
I still stand by #14 on the FAQ thread, though I do pack around a tiny netbook now for photo sorting/backup, emails, blogging, and the occasional call using skype. We didn't miss anything and used nearly everything we packed other than emergency supplies we were happy to return with.

BEST ADVICE
:: Travel as light as you can:
www.onebag.com
We broke the one bag rule with 50 pounds of books and gifts for friends on the lake plus dive and fishing equipment needed in Honduras which we stored at our Antigua hotel during our time in Guatemala.
:: Don't try to cram too much in. Having 3 bases of a week each meant we could cram every day clear full and spent very little time sitting on boats, buses, planes, shuttles, and tuktuks.
:: Work on your Spanish. My ability to converse in Spanish resulted in countless wonderful conversations in the homes of locals as well as on boats, in taxies, and on the street. It not only makes travel in the region easier but exponentially richer.

*So here begins a synopsis of where we stayed and what we did with links and costs (in US$).*

ANTIGUA
On July 6th, 2011, we flew on American Airlines from PDX (Portland, OR) via DFW and into GUA, arriving at 8pm. We headed to my favorite Antigua lodging option, Casa Cristina
www.casa-cristina.com
in a shuttle they'd arranged at my request ($35). The location, attention to safety, and helpful staff attract me back every visit to Antigua. This year I splashed out for one of the view rooms near the rooftop terrace on the top floor with a refrigerator (~$40/nt) - well worth the added cost. Our room was #11; I think #12 next door is slightly larger. The view over Antigua to La Merced to the west and Volcan Aqua to the south was inspiring and we loved the light and breezes afforded by the wall of windows. With a fridge we were able to buy huge bags of strawberries, grapes, avocados, bananas and more at the market which, coupled with local breads, pastries, and nuts, provided many of our meals.

We enjoyed 4 meals out:
:: Pepián at the Fonda de la Calle Real on 3o Avenida (~$8 each)
:: Chile rellenos and chicken with beans, rice, and tortillas at the local's taco place on Alameda Santa Lucía near the market (~$3 each plus ~$3 for a private serenade)
:: Típico breakfast at Fernando's Kaffee
http://www.fernandoskaffee.us
with coffee or tea and their good cat Misha on my lap (~$4 each)
:: Cinnamon bread french toast with honey and homemade yogurt and coffee/tea at Doña Luisa Xicotencatl (~$6 plus $4 for a loaf of whole grain bread from their bakery)

Mike hasn't been to Antigua since the 80s so I showed him some of my favorite places starting with the Academia Antigüeña
http://spanishacademyantiguena.com
where I touched base with old friends and met my skype Spanish teacher, Dilia. Next door in the ice cream shop we rang the bell and Mike got to meet one of Antigua's treasures, 86-year-old Benjamin. Ben was head of tourism in Antigua for decades and has a twinkle in his eye, a hankering for ice cream, and stories to tell. My favorites (and I suspect his) are ghost stories and I returned several times and spent hours listening, taking notes, making videos, and practicing Spanish.

Mike and I strolled in and around the lovely ruins of San Jerónimo (~$5); if you're nice to the gardner he'll unlock the door to the meeting room inside and direct you to the remains of the church out back. We took a local bus (<$1 each, each way) to the village of Pastores where Mike tried on cowboy boots in half of the 30+ boot shops but didn't find a winner; our only purchase was fresh cashews from the old guy by the municipal building.

The market was buzzing on Thursday; we devoured it with our eyes and picked enough produce to last us days. We checked out Nim Pot as though it was a museum and I bought another watercolor from artist Byron González who sets up some days under the arch. We visited the Catedral ruins, sat people watching in parque central, and lucked into a Señorita Antigua parade complete with dangerously overloaded and top heavy pickup loads of teenaged boys chanting the names of their favorites.

We spent most of Friday (8:30 till 2:00) on a tour with Don Quijote Cruisers:
http://www.donquijotecruisers.com
We hopped on cruiser bikes with big tires and our friendly guide Luis led us to a few stops around Antigua and out through Jocotenango to the Filadelfia coffee finca for a loop of the fields and some delicious coffee drinks in their open air restaurant. Back in town we headed to the home of local mom Claudia for a delightful cooking lesson (chile rellenos, dobladas, atole, fried plantains, and a cabbage salad). With time left we made a quick trip to Las Capuchinas before returning the bikes and saying goodbye to Luis. Cost for all was $30 each plus ~$5 each for Las Capuchinas, a great value.

Saturday morning we hiked up to Cerro de la Cruz for the exercise and the expansive view. At noon we packed up, stowed a bag of blue water gear we didn't need in a cupboard, and waited at Casa Cristina for a shuttle to take us to Panajachel. Those share shuttles tend to run late, be full and stuffy, and expose your bags to the elements. I've had great luck overall with Adrenalina Tours:
www.adrenalinatours.com
Unfortunately they don't have a scheduled run mid day on Saturday so we suffered the consequences with a different provider including soggy bags (~$12 each); on the return trip a week later we were back to our usual better than par experience with an Adrenalina van and driver.

Here is a link to the photo set for our time in Antigua:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/staceyholeman/sets/72157627335522316

LAKE ATITLAN
We stayed 1 night in another favorite hotel, Mario's Rooms on Santander in Panajachel, a terrific value at ~$23, nice típico breakfast included. Our room, #23, was upstairs at the back of the garden and had a twin bed and a double. We hopped on a tuktuk (<$1 each) to the Panajachel Reserve (~$7 each) where we spent a sunny morning hiking - lots of green plus waterfalls and monkeys. Simultaneous with our decision to head back it started to rain; no tuktuks with new visitors surfaced so we hiked back into town in a torrential downpour.

Packed up once again we headed to the dock and waited for a lancha to San Pedro La Laguna to fill; the wait was peppered with hard sell textile venders and repeated attempts by the captain to solicit more money for a more prompt departure; eventually he gave up and called down a group of local passengers waiting in the wings and we were off (25Q or just over $3 each).

Part of my heart lives in San Pedro La Laguna. It was food for my soul to rekindle friendships with the folks at the Cooperativa Spanish School
www.cooperativeschoolsanpedro.com
and to settle into a nice apartment there on site. In the past I've lived with local families but Mike preferred the privacy and self catering of the apartment and it was a perfect fit - clean and bright, well appointed, and with a small balcony with hammock overlooking the lake ($90 for the week). We ate a robust Sunday lunch/dinner at La Piscina's barbecue just up from the Santiago dock - a big tuna steak for Mike and chicken for me with baked potatoes and salads (~$10 each). We purchased fresh tortillas from a local family (one of our Beca families); although they would have given them to us and we chose to pay more than the going rate, the typical cost is 4 tortillas for 1 quetzal which comes to about 38 cents per dozen.

We started the Beca Project
www.becaproject.org
in 2009 with the idea of paying for the education of a single student. We couldn't do it without the help of the socially conscious and devoted staff of the Cooperativa; you can read about it here:
http://www.becaproject.org/about-us
The project has since grown to include ongoing scholarships for 22 students with more added annually, an emergency food and medical fund that gets consistent use, and funding support for the Cooperativa's inspiring home building project.

We spent the next 5 days visiting the students in their homes, usually staying for an hour or more, sharing photos and giving and receiving gifts and hugs. Our guide for the week was our main Beca contact in San Pedro, Cooperativa teacher Mynor. It was a lot of work for him to organize the visits, especially since none of the families have phones. The town is a labyrinth of little lanes and footpaths, many of them inaccessible by tuktuk or even bike; contacting families to set up times for visits meant repeated treks to each home on foot. The native language of the locals is Tz'utujil, a Maya dialect. Since the majority of parents did not receive the gift of education, they don't speak Spanish so Mynor provided translations both ways. We are eternally grateful to him for his companionship, empathy, organizational skills, and devotion to this project and to people in need in San Pedro.

Most of the families survive on just $1 or 2 per day and many live in houses built primarily of corn stalks and plastic sheeting. Often we sat on their beds since their homes consisted of just one room and an outdoor cooking area, yet they welcomed us with open arms and generously shared coffee and tortillas or bread; their hospitality and gratitude were overwhelming. In one home I made good progress with my tortilla making skills and we ate them with cooked herbs similar to spinach and spicy chile powder. It was a humbling and emotional week. Knowing a picture is worth 1000 words, here is a set of my favorite photos of the visits:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/staceyholeman/sets/72157627145692185

Saturday, July 16th was an emotional, festive, and memorable day and the highlight of our time in San Pedro. Again this year we had a celebration party for all the Beca students and their families - we pick up the tab and the Cooperativa teachers plan the menu and do the shopping, cooking, and serving led by director Lorenzo's wife, Andrea. Last year there were more than 60 people in attendance and we held the dinner at the Cooperativa school. This year the guest list had grown to more than 120 so we moved the event to a large, wonderful venue just outside of town on the lake - a large palapa with a stage and plenty of seating.

Led by 2 of the fathers, the kids prepared a cultural presentation for our viewing and listening pleasure. First up was a cultural song with parts for the girls and the boys separately and together; the girls wore their school uniform (traditional wrap) skirts with their most festive blouses; the boys wore the traditional male attire in the village, usually only seen on older men except for special occasions. Next was a beautiful traditional dance depicting the trading of goods in the market.

That was followed by a detailed and well-rehearsed play showing the traditions of courtship and marriage in San Pedro, complete with grilling the young couple, lots of prayers, exchanges of food, and circuits of apologies at the request of the elders by the couple for causing so much trouble. Because the play was conducted in Tz'utujil, Mynor explained the process to us ahead of time. Occasionally the audience roared with laughter and we laughed along. Apparently the funniest bits were the "groom" answering in less than enthusiastic terms.

The final performance was another traditional dance, then Mynor spoke in Tz'utujil about the conception and history of the Beca Project and Lorenzo presented me with a beautiful hand painted plaque in recognition of the impact of the Beca Project in San Pedro. It instantly became one of my most prized possessions.

The families had been asked to bring their own tortillas and plates or bowls. The Cooperativa staff served rice with chicken and vegetables and a savory pepian sauce - absolutely delicious and the company could not have been better. After lunch, we posed for photos by the lake. As families left we received final thanks and hugs and kisses from nearly every person there; I'm practically counting the days already till I can return and be with these wonderful friends again - photo set here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/staceyholeman/sets/72157627269862882

There's also a set of photos of other scenes and activities on the lake including the Panajachel time, the garden and our apartment at the Cooperativa, visits to friends in town, and a bus trip to Santa Clara here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/staceyholeman/sets/72157627335628030

Back at our little apartment we packed quickly, took one more look at the lake from the balcony, and said goodbye to a Cooperativa resident toad as we left for the dock where we caught a lancha back to Panajachel. The shuttle trip to our hotel near the airport was comfortable and smooth with a shuttle change in Los Encuentros and a quick stop in Antigua to pick up our bag from Casa Cristina and buy more "Oh My God" chocolate from Fernando's.

We spent the night at the lovely Villa Toscana
http://hostalvillatoscana.com
which is just 5 minutes from the airport and again the night before our flight home 2 weeks later - a splurge by our standards but worth every penny. The top floor suite has a huge, comfortable bed, a desk, a nice sitting area, and a private balcony with colorful plantings and a view over the city (~$60 including a típico breakfast in a lovely setting and free shuttles to and from the airport).

ROATAN - CAMP BAY BEACH
We flew on Taca Airlines
www.taca.com
to Roatán with a quick stop at the airport in San Salvador and were met at the airport by Michael Bracewell of Camp Bay Beach Adventure Lodge
http://campbaybeachadventur.fatcow.com/www.CampBayBeachAdventureLodge.com/
near the NE end of the island; we made a quick stop for groceries enroute. Our room with huge bed, a table and chairs, and microwave/fridge was right on the gorgeous beach ($65/night, 6th night free, $25-35 for shuttles to/from the other end of the island, an hour and a half away; ac is available for an add'l charge).

We took a snorkeling/fish reconnaissance trip the 1st full day, then Mike headed out fishing day after day on foot or in a kayak, sometimes dropped off in the early morning by Michael to work his way back. Unfortunately, poachers have netted out so many fish that bonefish (or anything else big enough to eat) were tough to come by; places that held hundreds or thousands of bonefish when Mike fished some of the same spots 5 years ago were ~barren. He enjoyed the hunt, hooked a barracuda, and walked within poking distance of big nurse sharks on the flats.

Although CBBAL doesn't have a full service dive shop at this time, I dove 3 times with Michael on the house reef. Although it's a bit far to swim, kayaks put it within easy reach. The variety of fish was excellent despite the lack of large schools and large fish and the reef, which gets very little pressure that far off the beaten track, was really gorgeous.

I tend to form attachments to the local critters wherever I go and picked out a few tiny, aquatic hermit crabs to observe and photograph in a bowl in our room; the smallest one's shell was an 1/8th inch long. I named the geckos in our room, too (ok, full disclosure - I called them all Honey); I love the service they provide and the chirpy sound they make - sounds like laughing.

The restaurant there, the Tasty Tarpon, deserves the strong reviews I've read. Although we prepared most of our meals in the room, the meals we ate in the restaurant - grilled shrimp with saffron rice, grilled shrimp salad, conch chowder, and grilled fish sandwiches - were excellent ($5-10). The place is run by Michael with wife Roxanne and their teenagers Mike and Lizzy who are friendly and accommodating without being pushy. We had a relaxing, enjoyable week with them - photos here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/staceyholeman/sets/72157627335744466

SANDY BAY
On Saturday we shuttled to
Hobbies Hideaway
http://www.hobbies-hideaway.com
in Sandy Bay, nearer the western end of the island and still on the north coast. Our one bedroom apartment was next to the bar of the Sunshine Cafe and had a full kitchen, air conditioning, and cable tv ($300/week). The place is also set right on the beach and the owners, Sue and John, are also friendly and accommodating hosts. There's a long pier that puts the reef an easy swim away over interesting turtle grass flats and I was in the water more than 4 hours/day.

I dove 3 dives with Holly Williams who lives next door and is in the process of establishing a full service dive shop; I was pleased and impressed with her attention to detail and companionship and loved the dives; let me know if you'd like contact information. Another neighboring expat, Greg, dove with us and we discovered common ties to 3 different small towns in Oregon including The Dalles - small world! We dove Keyhole once and Wrasse Hole twice; highlights were huge barrel sponges, tiny shrimp cleaning stations (like line-up car washes for fish), a gigantic green moray eel, a juvenile spotted drum (one of my favorites), scrawled filefish, and lots of parrotfish and angelfish. There are more big fish than on the east end but the reef doesn't look quite as vibrant - it gets more pressure here. The visibility was only 40 or 50 feet which is common during the rainy season due to run off from the mountainous island. That didn't spoil my fun but was a little disappointing - I like my tropical water to look like air. :-)

In addition to diving I snorkeled at least once a day and it was amazing. Although the reef gets more pressure, the Marine Reserve is monitored more closely so the variety and number of fish was terrific; I identified more than 100 species during my 2 weeks on Roatán. Snorkeling highlights included spotted eagle rays, stingrays, large porcupine fish, and a school of enormous (pushing 4 feet!) rainbow parrotfish feeding in shallow water right out from the dock day after day.

As with our week in Camp Bay, Mike's focus was stalking bonefish and permit. Unfortunately there wasn't much to find around Sandy Bay, either; his scores for the week included spotting a few large bonefish, casting to a few permit, and catching (and releasing) a good-sized sargeant major. He's a good sport, though, and didn't let less than stellar fishing spoil his vacation.

The 1st morning we took a colectivo taxi to the Plaza Mar in Coxen Hole for supplies for the week; we prepared our own meals but enjoyed 2 meals out at the Sunshine Cafe ($4-10). I explored the neighborhood a bit and hiked one morning in the beautiful Carambola Reserve further west in Sandy Bay. The beautiful white sand beach was covered with pretty shells, some of which were occupied; I kept a few hermit crabs (the land variety) in a landscaped pan for a few days before returning them to the beach. They thought apple and popcorn were terrific but ignored beans and grapes. One was clever enough to use tiny holes left by a missing handle as footholds and made a daring escape; she was found tasting a clove of garlic on the other end of the counter. We also had a little crab on the bathroom counter volunteer to be our pet but I declined and promptly returned her to the beach. You can check out the photo set here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/staceyholeman/sets/72157627211556383

Saturday we packed up and retraced our steps: Coxen Hole > San Salvador > GUA and a shuttle provided by/to Villa Toscana where we spent our last night of vacation in style. On Sunday, July 31st we made our return flights to DFW and PDX where we were met with smiles and hugs all around by our mid 20s sons, Isaac and Carlos.

It is with ocean deep gratitude I reflect on another happy, memorable visit to Central America and with even deeper gratitude that I settle in to my favorite place on earth, our cabiny house overlooking the Columbia River and the Cascade mountains. Time to start planning next year's trip! ;-)
HAPPY TRAILS!

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