When we last left you, we were about to embark on the four-hour overland journey across the border between Antigua, Guatemala and La Ceiba, Honduras, our jumping off point for the Bay Islands where we would learn to scuba dive.
As we mentioned in our last update, our camera disappeared, along with Caroline's iPod, on this last section of our Central American adventure, so we have little photograpahic evidence of our time here. The photos you see below are courtesy of our good friend and fellow scuba diver Steve - plus a few we took on an underwater camera during a dive on Utila and a couple we nabbed from the internet.
Back to the story....
We were picked up by shuttle at 4am on May 27, immediately gobbled a couple of sleeping tablets and the next thing we knew, it was 10am and we were stopped at customs on the Guatemalan/Honduran border.
Border security in Central American countries is very different to that of the first world. Usually its just a matter of getting stamped out of one country at a little wooden shack, walking 10 metres along a dusty road, and then getting stamped into the next country at another wooden shack. Bored teenagers with machine guns monitor the entire process and exit and entry "fees" (read: tips for the government) are applicable at both stops.
It was no different this time, with the exception of a mandatory Swine Flu Check. Curious, we shuffled towards a third wooden shack, impressed that such a high level of security was actually being enforced. We were hardly surprised when we arrived to find the door locked and a handwritten note on the door saying the medic had taken "a few days off".
Back on the bus, we travelled another half an hour to a Honduran town called Copan Ruinas, most famous for it's Mayan ruins. However, we were there for just a three hour stopover to change buses – enough time to grab a couple of beers and catch the first half of the Champions League Final between Man U and Barcelona.
At 2pm, in swealtering heat we were very unused to after three months in the Guatemalan highlands, we boarded another bus bound for San Pedro Sula, where we changed again for a bus to La Ceiba on the northern coast of Honduras. We arrived at about 8pm, checked into the Banana Republic Hostel and by midnight, after refreshingly cold showers, promptly crashed out.
At 2.30am we awoke to the familiar feeling of the bed shaking, though this time much more intense than any earthquake we had felt before. We both jumped out of bed and ran to the nearest doorway (again, we’re not sure if this is the right thing to do, it’s just what they always do in the movies. With our track record, we should probably look into that sometime). We were on the second floor of a very rickety, two-storey wooden building and as we stood there, huddled in the doorway, the whole thing swayed back and forth, groaning against the weight. Plates and glass on shelves in the kitchen next door crashed to the floor and the lightshades overhead swung violently.
We looked out the window and saw power poles exploding like fantastic fireworks and then the power went out across the city. It only lasted about 30 seconds, but the aftershocks continued for at least an hour afterwards – alternating between dull vibrations and short bursts of violent tremors. It was easily one of the most terrifying of all our earthquake experiences so far.
We were due to catch a ferry across to Utila, one of the Bay Islands just off the coast of Honduras at 9am the next morning, but when we awoke, we heard there was a tsunami warning and all ferries had been cancelled.
We hung about the hostel all day, trawling the internet for reports of the earthquake, which, at a massive 7.3 on the Richter scale, had killed six people and collapsed the bridge in San Pedro Sula, which we had crossed in the bus just a few hours before. Every now and then during the day, we could still feel the low rumble of aftershocks.
At 4pm, the tsunami warning was lifted and we made the one-hour ferry crossing on rough seas.
As we disembarked the ferry on Utila, we were accosted by representatives from all of the dive schools on the island, handing out fliers and trying to entice us to their establishment with various offers and deals.
In the end we chose a place called Alton’s Dive Centre, mainly because there was a ute that would transport us and our bags (we not only had our overloaded big packs and day packs but also two extra bags of stuff we’d collected in Mexico and Guatemala but were too scared to send home by post after our experience with Caroline’s missing birthday presents and the stolen laptop computer cord) to the dive school.
Turns out we made the perfect choice.
Alton’s is the only dive school located right on the water. The accommodation, simple double or dorm rooms with a fan, are right at the waters edge.
The dive boats dock at a long jetty and at the end is a thatched-roof cabana strung with hammocks. A little bar, the Snack Shack, right on the water serves food, cold beers and rum.
It was at this bar we discovered Ollie and Phil – two English blokes we had become friends with in San Pedro (you may remember them from such Dodgy 80s Night photos as "The Mustachio Boys" in our first entry from San Pedro, Guatemala). We hadn’t planned to meet up and although we knew they were going to Utila, we thought they’d be long gone when we finally turned up. Both were in Utila long term, doing their Divemaster training. We’d chosen well.
We spent the first four days in Utila relaxing. Much time was spent lounging in aforementioned hammocks, reading, drinking beer and watching spectacular sunsets.
We sustained ourselves with baleadas (soft souvlaki-type bread folded over and jam-packed with refried beans, onions, spicy mince, lettuce, tomato, chili sauce and cheese…as close to a kebab as we were going to get in the Caribbean) for 30 Limperas ($2).
It was super hot (around 35-40 degrees every day), so much of our time was spent swimming and snorkelling looking for seahorses and barracuda in the crystal blue water around the jetty. You could literally step out of your room and into the water, or dive the 10m off he very top of the cabana (though this was a feat Caroline was too scared to attempt until her last day on the island).
At night, when it was still warm, we would party with other divers at the Snack Shack or head out for dinner and rumonades at RJs Grill or Dave’s, where for 100 Limperas (around $6) you could get a ginormous plate of fish (like barracuda, snapper, tuna or wahoo), chicken, ribs, steak or pork chops with heapings of salads, rice and garlic bread.
Night’s out would be at CocoLocos or Tranquilla, two bars on the water with their own jetties and cabanas.
Sometimes we'd go to Treetanic, a Dali or Gaudi-esque garden bar with a mad assortment of hidden alcoves, bridges and exotic tropical flora.
Everything is made out of recycled bottles, glass and colourful bits of crockery collected and put together to make the most amazing outdoor bar we'd ever seen. It was like a magical fairy garden summed up best by Lonely Planet, which says "who needs LSD when you can go to Treetanic?"
Saturdays were reserved for the weekly Alton’s Booze Cruise. Come 5pm, one of the dive boats was loaded with huge speakers, eskis packed with ice and beer and enough rum to last several hours on the water. A few laps around the bay as the sun set, a cold beer in our hands and music pumping – it was hard to imagine that life could get any better than this.
And the island itself was beautiful, very small, lots of cool bars and restaurants, an abundance of cheap seafood and lovely people. The only complaints we’d have would be the sweltering heat and the Jamaican-esque accents from the locals. As Chris put it, “They just sound dumb”.
But of course, we were there for the diving and, on Monday, June 1, our PADI Open Water Course began. It was just us, and two others in our group with Louis, a fun Brit, as our instructor and Dom, a Canadian doing his Divemaster course, as our assistant.
We had timed our visit to the island to coincide with the seasonal migration of the Whale Sharks and we'd heard as soon as we arrived that there had been plenty of sightings the previous week.
First up, however, learning how to breath underwater.
Day 1 was quite boring, lots of videos and a few tests from our text books. Day 2 was much more interesting as we had our Contained Water Classes. This is where we were fitted out with our wetsuits, fins, masks, tanks, weight belts and BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) vests. It was a strange sensation being weighed down by all the equipment, but even stranger taking that first breath underwater. It’s something we’ll never forget.
Our Contained Water Classes were held in an area next to the jetty reserved for such a purpose and Day 2 was spent learning skills we would need for our open dives, such as clearing our masks underwater, equalising our ears, removing and then getting back into all our equipment underwater and what to do if we or someone else runs out of air. We learned all the important sign language signals and how to control our buoyancy using both our BCDs and the pressure in our lungs. We were quite surprised at how much physics and biology is involved with scuba diving. After class, we learned how to properly wash and store our equipment.
Day 3 was our first two Open Water Dives. There is a morning boat and an afternoon boat that goes out every day at Alton’s, a mix of people doing their Open Water Courses like us, people assisting as part of their Divemaster Course or people doing fun dives.
We were on the morning boat meaning we had to be out on the deck at 7.15am to collect, check and set up our equipment. It wasn’t that much of an effort as it was usually light by 5am and too hot to sleep by 6am. At 8am we departed and arrived at our first dive site, on the south side of the island, not long after.
Despite having had several hours in the Contained Water Class the day before, it was an entirely new experience in open water. The sea was rougher and obviously a lot deeper. Descending on that first open water dive was another experience we’ll never forget – but possibly for two very different reasons.
Chris had no problem descending or equalising his ears and was on the sea bed, 10m below, in no time. Caroline, on the other hand, had a mild panic attack when she thought she wasn’t getting enough air through her regulator (mouthpiece).
One of the most important rules in scuba diving is not to shoot to the surface as it's dangerous for your lungs. Of course, when you are several metres underwater and not able to breathe, your first instinct is to shoot up to the surface and take a big gulp of air, so you start to feel trapped and claustrophobic.
Knowing that she couldn’t go to the surface, Caroline started to panic and tried to explain as best she could to Louis and Dom that she couldn’t breathe. It was quite a terrifying experience - breathing underwater is so unnatural, especially when all the usual instincts of survival have to be repressed. She did her best to keep her cool and managed to convince herself to trust her equipment and within a few minutes she was on the sea bed with everyone else.
It was touch and go for the next 10 minutes or so, as she had to focus in her breathing so as not to have another panic attack. The best way to describe it is like coming home after a big night on the booze and going to bed and having to concentrate on not being sick. It can go either way, but as long as you focus, everything will be ok.
On the first dive, we practiced more of the skills we learned in our Contained Water Classes and spent some time exploring. We had about 40 minutes underwater before heading back up to the boat for a break (you need to have 'Surface Time' to eliminate some of the nitrogen you breathe in from the tanks from your body). We moved to another dive site and went back in for our second Open Water Dive. This time, neither of us had any problems and, as well as hundreds of colourful fish and coral, we were lucky enough to spot a giant turtle bobbing about in the water.
Day 4 was the final two open water dives as part of our course. Again on the south side of the island, we descended to 18m, which is the limit for divers with our certification. Unfortunately we didn’t spot any whale sharks, but we did see two more giant turtles, a manta ray, several strange-looking flounder…erm…floundering on the sea bed and lots of colourful fish and coral.
Back on dry land, we washed and stored our equipment, then headed in for the last part of our course – the Final Exam. We both passed with flying colours, Caroline scoring 100 per cent.
We were now official certified Open Water Divers. And we have the certificate to prove it.
That night we celebrated with the rest of the Alton’s crew at a Bando party – with the biggest pot of fish stew we had ever seen, slow cooked all day by local Utilans.
The next day, Friday, June 5, we had our two Fun Dives, included by Alton’s as part of the course. Water conditions had been bad ever since the big earthquake so trips to the north side of the island – where Whale Sharks had been spotted on dive trips the week before – had been postponed. This day, however, conditions were deemed acceptable, and we headed north in search of the Whale Shark.
With our course officially over, the two dives on this day were all about having fun. Unfortunately we didn’t spot any Whale Sharks, but we did spot all sorts of weird and wonderful marine life as we glided through tunnels and along sea shelves.
We also helped retrieve a huge piece of wood from the ocean floor which we like to think was part of a small plane carrying cocaine that had crashed in the area not long before.
We had enjoyed diving so much, and made so many good new friends at Alton’s (not to mention how utterly relaxing it was just hanging out in hammocks all day), we spent the next few days considering doing our Divemaster training, which would enable us to work at a dive school in the future.
As certified Open Water Divers, we would have to do a Rescue Course, and then start our two-month training. We’d need to rack up 60 dives, assist on courses as Dom had done with us and go to more classes, but it meant we could dive as much as we want for free and, more importantly, extend our stay at Alton’s.
During that time we had earthquake number eight (or was it nine?). Ever since the big earthquake a couple of weeks before, which has been felt in Utila just as strongly as we had experienced in La Ceiba, there had been daily tremors, often up to three times a day. Then, on the evening of Sunday, June 7, as we watched TV at Dom’s house, the room started shaking and groaning. Still a bit shaken up after our last experience, we instinctively jumped up to flee outside, but this one was much tamer than the last and after 15 seconds or so, peace returned and we went back to the TV.
We spent a week pondering our decision from the hammocks, but in the end we decided that, after 16 months on the road, it was time to settle for a bit and earn some money.
We spent the very last of our holiday savings on one-way tickets to Vancouver, Canada, flying from Cancun, in Mexico. Then, on Saturday, June 13, we big a fond farewell to Alton’s, Utila and those delicious baleadas, and caught the 6am ferry back to La Ceiba to begin our overland journey to Cancun.
It was a hellish three days in transit. From La Ceiba, we caught a bus to San Pedro Sula (passing the bridge destroyed by the earthquake a few weeks earlier), then another bus to Puerto Cortes (at which point we discovered that our camera had gone missing somewhere on the bus from La Ceiba to San Pedro Sula. It was our third camera casualty for this trip. We lost all our photos from Antigua, including the cooking-sausages-on-molten-lava pictures, as well as everything from the past few weeks in Utila).
In Puerto Cortes, we boarded a chicken bus bound for the Honduras/Guatemala border, arriving at customs at dusk. There was an awkward few minutes when the teenagers with machine guns at Honduras customs inspected our passports and debated whether or not they’d let us through as the border was officially closed for the day.
We passed through just as the sun dipped below the horizon and we must have looked a sight, lugging all our excess baggage in the dark across the border. It’s moments like these, we’ll always remember.
We were stamped back into Guatemala and then faced our next problem – getting from the border to a town where we could sleep for the night. We tracked down a man with a van who, seeing our desperate situation proceeded to do exactly what Guatemalans usually do when they see an opportunity to rip off a gringo – he tried to rip us off.
He said it would cost us 200 Q ($40) for a lift to the nearest town, which was well overpriced according to a local who was also trying to get a lift. This guy said we should pay no more than 20 Q ($4) each. And so there, in the dark, being eaten alive by mosquitoes, we found ourselves in a Mexican (Guatemalan?) standoff, the man with the van waiting to go and us trying to negotiate a new price with him in our best Spanglish while preparing ourselves for the possibility we would be sleeping at the border until the first bus came through in the morning.
In the end, we came to an agreement that for 120 Q ($24) he would take us all the way to Puerto Barrios, the town we had hoped to make it to that night, and drop us off right at our hotel of choice.
We arrived at about 10pm, after 17 hours of travelling, located some street tacos, showered, then crashed.
The next day, we were up early to go to immigration to get stamped out of Guatemala as we were going to catch a boat from Puerto Barrios to Punta Gorda in Belize. We’d only been in the country 12 hours, but the stamp cost us 160 Q ($32) - thanks for coming.
The boat across to Punta Gorda took an hour and we quickly cleared customs with just enough time to make the chicken bus to Belize City. It was a seven-hour trip running almost the full length of the country and we were surprised at how void of people Belize is. For the most part, we passed though open fields or tropical jungles, driving through the odd small town only every hour or so.
We had planned to stay in Belize City overnight, but we discovered upon arriving we could take another bus to Corozal, the last town before the border with Mexico. So, another three-hour bus ride later and we arrived. It had been another long day – 13 hours or boats and buses - so we crashed immediately (even sleeping through the huge party that went on all night, music at full volume, at the house across the road from our hotel).
The next morning, in pouring rain, we lugged our bags to the bus station and bought a bus ticket to Chetamul, Mexico. We had to pass through customs (more forms to fill in, more payments to the government) and the bus was supposed to wait for us on the other side of the border to take us all the way to Chetamul bus station where we would catch another bus six hours to Cancun. It didn’t. Stranded, we had to beg a lift from another bus that wasn’t going to the bus station but would drop us off on the highway and we could walk. So we did. By this stage we were dirty and exhausted. We finally made it to the bus station, bought a ticket to Cancun and enjoyed the comfort of our first air-conditioned bus in six months.
Arriving in Cancun at 4pm, we checked into Hostel Quetzal, the same hostel we had stayed at when we first arrived in Central America in January. It felt like coming home. After three days of stressful travelling we had made it. We spent two nights resting, recouperating and eating our final fill of quesadillas, before heading to the airport on the morning of Wednesday, June 17 to catch our flight to Vancouver.
Of course, it couldn’t be that easy.
Our 4pm plane was delayed by three hours, which meant we missed our connecting flight in Phoenix, Arizona in the US. Of course, US Airway were not responsible and would not put us up in a hotel for the night, so we slept in the airport, finding a cosy spot on carpet underneath the escalators and had a surprisingly decent night’s sleep. At 10am the next day, we boarded our flight direct to Vancouver.
We arrived a few hours later, made our way from the airport to the American Backpackers Hostel in Downtown Vancouver and promptly headed to the pub for a cold beer and our first poutine – a Quebecan delicacy of hot chips covered in gravy and cheese curds.
So, now we’re in Vancouver, Canada, figuring out where to from here. It’s a lovely city, much like Melbourne though with much less people (just 500,000), or perhaps a bigger Hobart. There’s a wonderful harbour and snow-capped mountains looming in the distance.
At this stage our plan is to find a job, find a place to live and keep the dream alive as long as possible.
We’ll let you know what happens next.
Chris and Caroline xxP.S.
Congratulations to Laura and Glyn on your great baby news!HIGHLIGHTS:
Learning to scuba dive – breathing underwater for the first time and discovering an entire unknown world lies beneath the surface.
The major earthquake in La Ceiba. Terrifying, but pretty cool in hindsight.
Lazy days in hammocks, drinking Flor De Cana rum and watching amazing Caribbean sunsets. The tropical paradise we have been searching for our whole trip.SPECIAL SHOUT OUT:
To all the Utila gang – especially Ollie, Steve, Dom, Phil, Marlo, Kim and Louis.
Thanks for the good times. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we see you again.