Traveling the Yucatan and Central America on $20 USD a day
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Landslide outside Chichicastenango in Guatemala highlands

Landslide outside Chichicastenango in Guatemala highlands.

Waking up in Huehuetenango, wrapped tight in my own blanket so as not to touch the sheets or pillow of the bed I was sleeping on, I could tell by the dim grey light that it was still dreary and rainy outside. Fine by me. We would be on a bus most of the day traveling to Lago de Atitlan anyway. I just wanted to get out of Huehue. The streets were lined with sidewalks barely wide enough for one person to traverse, water was flooding the curbs and exhaust fumes burned your eyes and throat. Why did we stop here again?

Either way, we were leaving and by the afternoon we’d be in Panajachel, a friendly town on the banks of one of the most beautiful bodies of water in the world. (Trust me, I’ve read that Aldous Huxley called it “too much of a good thing”.) The expectations I had of us for the afternoon ended sitting by the lake docks, drinking a beer and admiring the beautiful water surrounded by smoke-spurting volcanoes and sporadic village lights. However what would be the reality was us, soaking wet, exhausted by an 8km hike down a crumbling mountainside following what was among one of the most horrific bus rides ever.

No, our bus didn’t fall over a cliff forcing us to walk. Luckily, there were police blocking the road saying the highway had collapsed in a landslide and we would have to walk the rest of the way. Some might have been less than pleased at the prospect of having to walk 8km in the pouring rain — I could not have been happier.

The ride started modest enough, compared to our ride the day before that ended in a machete fight between rival drivers this bus was first-class. And then, after an hour and a half we switched buses. And this one was better yet — fewer passengers meant our pick of the seats and our backpacks could be stored inside out of the rain. But my positive outlook quickly turned to fear as we merged onto the Pan-American highway, a four-lane divided highway that should have been a welcome sight to the two lane back mountain roads — it was in fact the opposite.

Landslide closes highway? Just drive in the opposite lane.

Landslide closes highway? Just drive in the opposite lane.

Landslides had demolished several areas of the highway and as the mountainsides fell into the lanes of the road, traffic was diverted into the opposite lanes. Because of the elevation and the weather, fog made visibility nearly zero. Initially I thought all of these factors might work in our favor as drivers would have to drive slow. They didn’t.

Speeding at 60mph in the opposite direction of traffic as boulders the size of our bus grazed the sides, all I could do was take photos out of my window. I’m not sure if it was the wet, cold air whipping my face or the fear for my life that brought tears to my eyes, but they were streaming. The highway weaved along the tall crumbling Sierra Madre highlands. Paying no respect to the unpredictability and strength of a mountain’s worth of mud sliding away underneath you. According to most figures nearly 40 people were killed from the destruction of Tropical Depression 12-E, as it was called. I attribute my survival to incredibly fortunate timing and nothing more.

As we were asked to get off the bus to walk the rest of the way — I’ve never been happier to hike 8km with 70lbs of luggage to carry through the pouring rain. So down we walked, for an hour and a half in the rain, through mountain switchbacks with small rocks tumbling down as constant reminders of our precarious position along the side of an unstable mountain. The path ahead of us was littered with debris from previous rock-slides.

“Hey Dad! Are we sure there are going to be boats waiting down there?”  I asked Xavi who was about 40 yards in front of me. As I spoke, rocks began to tumble down the side of the hill next to me. I sprinted to make up the difference between us and spoke in nothing louder than a whisper the remainder of the walk.

The base of the mountain, where the majestic Lago de Atitlan was located was cloaked heavy in fog, impossible to see. I figured it was a good thing to have the lake down there. If the mountain gives way, we could try to ride it out and over the water — it seemed more feasible than if there were just the uncompromising ground and jungle.

Our optimism grew as we got closer to the docks along the lake. We had been told all along that boats would be there to take people across the lake to Panajachel — but this was never a guarantee. Coming out of the fog and approaching the lake we met people who assured us there were boats, but that we should hurry. Finally we arrived, the water was gorgeous blue-green, the fog was above us so that in comparison with the dense, opaque whiteness the lush green of the mountainside was all the more vibrant. We couldn’t see more than 100 yards across the lake, but we were on it and in a boat, so as far as we were concerned, it was a success.

The dock was submerged so we had to jump onto the boat from the elevated embankment. Once on the boat we waited about 20 minutes as others stranded by the landslides made their way down the mountain. There were 9 of us on the boat in all. Normally a lancha tour around the lake will cost you close to $20usd, this one cost us just over a dollar. Sure the beautiful volcanoes and picturesque towns were shrouded in clouds, but the struggle to get there made the lack of views all the more beautiful. And as we finally settled into a bottle of beer along the lake all I could think of was how exciting our day had been. And that I couldn’t begin to imagine having to leave town on those roads. At dinner, the owner of Tuscani restaurant told us the access roads had been destroyed, so we were stuck there. Thank God. 

To get to Little Corn Island from Managua your easiest option is to fly as far as Big Corn Island and take the half-hour ferry to Little corn. This trip can potentially have you to LCI by noon of the same day. But at about $170usd round-trip, this is not on the average tramper’s budget — so here’s the other option:

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Just remember to remind yourself often and enthusiastically that whether this journey takes you two days (as it should) or four (as it did us) it is utterly and totally worth every cent and every second of travel to see the unimaginable paradise that is Little Corn Island. 

(Full disclosure: It took us four days to get from Managua to LCI. We were stuck in Bluefields for a night due to the Big Corn boat having a hole in it. By the time we could depart the next day we arrived too late for the Little Corn ferry so we were stuck on Big Corn for a night as well.
We took the overnight cargo ship to save on lodging costs. Honestly, it was rough but the only thing I would change is to buy a little plastic hammock for sleeping. Easy fix to discomfort on this ship.)

So, from Managua grab a bus to El Rama. Bad news: It takes 6 hours (no joke). Good news: it only costs $5usd/120 cords.

Once in El Rama you need to catch a boat down the river to Bluefields. Neither El Rama nor Bluefields are a particularly charming place to spend the night, but if you’re traveling to LCI by land, you’ll have to choose one. And since we were already dirty and the sun was still shining, we decided to keep on moving onward toward Bluefields and toward Little Corn.

Here is where your options vary wildly. You can take a pancha (speed boat) that will get you to Bluefields in 2.5 hours for just under $10usd/230 cords. Or for just $2.50usd/60 cords you can take the overnight lancha (cargo) ship. If you have your own hammock, not so bad. And there is something to be said for the tranquility of floating down a river on a starry, moon-lit night. However, if you don’t have the inherent ability to be positive in the face of what others might deem a miserable environment — don’t expect much romance on this ship. The fumes from the engine room do help lull you to a slumber that is only occasionally interrupted by rats or fellow passengers stepping on you. Remember: This is worth it — it might be hard to imagine a place that warrants this type of travel, but LCI is that place, trust me.

Once you do finally arrive to Bluefields at sunrise you should be able to hop right on over to the pancha for El Bluff, the staging area for your 5-hour ride in the Caribbean to Big Corn Island. The boat to El Bluff should cost around $2usd/40 cords, depending on number of passengers.

At El Bluff you’ll need your passport to get into the port there and onto the boat which will cost another $10usd/250 cords. It’s a large boat with few seats and little shade — just keep reminding yourself that your reward at the end of this voyage is beyond any you have ever known.

And voila! You’ve reached the Corn Islands. But this is just Big Corn, not a lot to swoon over here. There are some nice beaches — but unless you have to stay the night (as we did) just get on that ferry to Little Corn! A half-hour and $5.50usd/130cords later you have arrived. Breath deep and don’t worry about how filthy you are, just get to the north/west side of the island and secure yourself a room at one of the beach huts (preferably at Grace’s). The rooms go fast, so pick one you like and hunker down for a week or two so you can balance that budget after all the travel expenses.

It was a struggle, but once you set foot on Little Corn you’ll want to cry at the beauty and simplicity of this island. Truly one of the most special, relaxing, inspiring and friendly places I have ever experienced. I can’t wait to get back there.

Backpack, rain jacket, sturdy walking boots and my iPod -- my essentials.

When traveling in Latin America, 200 km can quickly turn into a four-hour bus ride. But I don’t mind. In fact, I really love the travel days. Racing to be first on the bus and have my pick of the seats. Second-class buses vary wildly in the quality spectrum and in order to have the best window views you need to get in there early. Once I’ve found the perfect row, I settle down into the bucket and wriggle around until I find a position where I can stare out the window, doze off to sleep occasionally and access my backpack with ease — it’s a difficult task, but one of luxury and one that I relish.

Backpack, rain jacket, sturdy walking boots and my iPod -- my essentials.

Backpack, rain jacket, sturdy walking boots and my iPod — my essentials.

Long bus rides are a sort of meditation for me. I generally don’t like to talk during them, which is something Xavi is beginning to realize. Sometimes I shut my eyes and recline my seat to spend the ride drifting in and out of sleep. Other times I’ll have my notebook out and write lists or thoughts or begin working on short stories that I most likely will never finish. But the constant is my shiny purple 16gb  iPod nano. I take it out of my backpack and carefully unravel the cable of my earphones and switch the lock button off. I form the soft purple foam to fit my the shape of my ears and block out all the noise on the bus. Then I choose something to listen to — this is the most difficult part, but nothing is more obvious than when I know I’ve chosen the right music. Sometimes I won’t be paying much attention to what’s playing, but then there is the moment when it seems as though there is magic in the air and your hair stands on end and you can think of nothing else than how incredibly lucky you are that someone has created music for this exact moment. And I can’t help but smile, I’m horrible at hiding my emotions.

I watch the window and listen to the music passively; I do a lot of thinking on bus trips. I don’t necessarily think of specific things. Thoughts, memories and ideas pass through my mind as quickly as the trees pass through my window. I’ll occasionally latch onto one for a moment but soon I get lost in the scenery again. And then my meditation breaks as I notice the music and right then I am completely enamored by  the ability of musicians, after all these years, to still create music that is new and affecting.

Driving down the coast from Campeche to Sabancuy I watched out the windows as the pelicans would swoop down to graze the water searching for fish as other seabirds spiral-dived straight down 20 or 30 feet into the water to reappear with fish in their beaks. The pelicans would then follow suit. The palm trees were blowing in the wind and the waves were crashing with the shore. I was listening to Beirut’s ‘Port of Call’ and all of a sudden the view out of my window took to the music — the birds were diving in rhythm, trees were passing my field of vision to the beat of the song and the electric wires we were speeding past stretched and dipped from pole to pole like lines on a sheet of music and I could swear it was perfect. And it’s times like this where you realize music is sometimes the missing element to turn something ordinary into something spectacularly inspiring.

Generally, music is superfluous when I’m traveling — a sleep aid, a way to kill time — but there are times when the music unexpectedly becomes the driving force of a moment that otherwise would have passed unnoticed. Not to say I don’t love music or it isn’t a major part of my life. But when I travel and I’m seeing new places and people, I think sounds are a major part of the experience — the local soundtrack.

But there are certainly times that are bettered by my own musical offerings. There really are no better albums than The Best of Leonard Cohen, Explosions in the Sky, Chet Baker or Townes Van Zandt Live at the Old Quarter to slip into your ears and usher you to sleep on a long overnight drive. Or maybe if I don’t want to sleep but just relax and watch the window I listen to Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom,  Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Lou Reed. When it comes to writing I find inspiration and motivation in Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Serge Gainsbourg, MIles Davis or John Coltrane. And what could possibly be more inspiring than Otis Redding’s voice aching out of the small portable speakers when it’s late at night and you’re sitting on the beach drinking your fourth rum and Coke — the stars are the brightest you’ve ever seen, the edge of the galaxy stretches wide and nearly opaque across the black sky. You can’t help thinking that the water lapping at your feet, slowly burying them in the cool, wet sand, connects you to all the water across the planet — including the small stream you spent summer afternoons playing in as a child in Ohio. It’s impossible to articulate the intensity of emotions that surface at this moment.

In fact, Otis Redding can find his match in nearly any moment or situation; the ability of his voice to provoke so many intense and unexpected emotions is astonishing. The next time you’re feeling down, I challenge you to sit outside at night by yourself, drink a bottle of wine and listen to You Don’t Miss Your Water — just wait and see what you start figuring out.

Packing smart is important; you never know what obstacles you might encounter.

Packing smart is important; you never know what obstacles you might encounter.

Cassidi and I are anxiously looking forward to our February 28 flight from the frigid plains of Ohio to the sunny, tropical lands of Central America — but first, we have to pack.

A chronic procrastinator, I have a list but am yet to even entirely unpack my backpack from the previous tramping excursion (we have been home 3 months).

I’m pretty good at packing light and generally pack too little than too much. But I want to know how you other trampers delegate the precious space in your bags.