As we close out our reflections on Central America (don't worry, food comes next), we are reminded of the places and moments — the good, the bad, the idiosyncratic, the illustrative — from our zigzag chicken bus journey across Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Let's dig in.
1. Best Cemetery – Xela, Guatemala
A school trip to the cemetery? Sounds morbid, doesn't it? Not if you're visiting the public cemetery in Xela (Quetzaltenango). Almost all the graves are built above ground; the wealthy hire artists to build impressive mausoleums while ordinary folks rent space in concrete drawer-like chambers.
The result is an an eye-catching panorama of colors and shapes and a walk through Xela's history. If you are studying Spanish in Xela, consider taking your teacher for a walk to the cemetery. It will make for great conversational practice and photography.
2. Most Grueling Bus Ride – Marcala, Honduras to Perquin, El Salvador
A hole in the bus floor, roads washing away before our eyes. The only improvement made to our bus in the last 30 years: a stereo system playing the same two songs on infinite repeat. After its suspension – a Rube Goldberg reinforcement of rope and wooden shims – collapsed en route, the driver tied it all back together with chains purchased in the village where we broke down. 45 kilometers (25 miles) in 4.5 hours.
Watch the video below if you don’t believe us.
3. Most Heavily Armed Ice Cream Parlors – Guatemala
Guns bristle on the streets of Central America, but where else will you find ice cream parlors guarded by men with double-barreled shotguns? That would be Guatemala.
4. Most Relatives Living in Maryland – El Salvador
We don't kid. We are here to report that almost everyone in El Salvador has a relative living in the U.S. state of Maryland.
Maybe the relatives' reports back to the homeland have something to do with #6?
5. Best Market – Antigua and San Francisco El Alto, Guatemala
Antigua gets the award for its color and accessibility. San Francisco El Alto for its animals.
“Antigua? But it’s such a touristy town.”
Agreed. However, if you venture back into the market past the souvenir and pirated DVD stands on Saturday, you'll find an engaging Guatemalan fruit, vegetable and flower market that is both colorful and friendly.
Who doesn’t love an animal market? Squealing pigs, braying sheep, stubborn cows, aggressive geese, rambunctious puppies. The best one in this part of the world can be found in San Francisco El Alto in Guatemala's western highlands.
Our advice: arrive Thursday evening and get up on market day at 5:30 AM to enjoy the scene as people pour in from the hills. Some animals are said to trade hands two or three times until they end up with their final buyer who will take them home.
Now what would a collection of superlative impressions be without a dose of scatological humor?
It was our impression that Salvadoran guest houses — from the most inviting to the most grim — seemed to enjoy refreshing our toilet paper well beyond our needs. Our room may not have been cleaned, but two fresh rolls appeared daily.
We wonder: what gave Salvadoran hotel staff the impression that gringos need at least one roll of toilet paper per person per day?
7. Most Ridiculous Swine Flu Inspection Question – Honduras
Particularly in Honduras, we were scanned, questioned and otherwise perfunctorily inspected regarding whether or not we had been within a breath of H1N1, the dreaded swine flu.
But of all the questions posed to us, this was by far the most absurd:
Q: “Have you been around anyone coughing?”
A: “Try every bus in Central America!”
We applaud Honduras' efforts to control swine flu, but how about a question that wouldn't result in the entire country's quarantine?
8. Most Beautiful Sunrise – El Hoyo Volcano, Nicaragua
The reward of climbing two volcanoes in one day: a clear sunrise view of Lake Nicaragua, the surrounding volcanoes, and a rainbow. Almost too perfect to be real.
Check out the panorama photo at the bottom of: Are We Too Old To Be Climbing Volcanoes.
9. Most Bizarre Quote – Guatemala
After hiking four hours straight uphill en route from Xela to Lake Atitlan, you too might find the following quote from our Quetzal Trekkers guide amusing: “In Panama I met this crazy Indian. He lectured me about God and after three days he tried to touch my ass.”
10. Most Sobering Quote – Guatemala
“It’s easier to build roads than it is to fix education.” A Guatemalan friend explains her government’s approach of demonstrating “progress” during election time while avoiding long-term solutions that address the country’s ills.
11. Most Absurd Reason to Stop a Bus – Rio Dulce to Flores, Guatemala
Under the guise of a police stop, our bus from Rio Dulce to Flores pulled over and all passengers were forced to exit.
The reason: our bus required a new sticker indicating its destination. As the sticker artisan proudly affixed his work — a giant flaming “Flores” the entire width of the windshield — over 70 people were kept waiting for 20 minutes. As he hand-ironed the air bubbles, the sticker man asked us our opinion.
“Bonito!” (beautiful), of course.
He flashed us a proud, gold-toothed smile and we were on our way.
12. Best “Power to the People” Moment – Nicaragua
Our bicycle rickshaw driver on the Honduras-Nicaragua border had his friend pose as a bus ticket salesman to swindle extra money from us. It worked. That is, until the Nicaraguan women on our bus got involved. They refused to let it slide and demanded that the real ticket guy chase the scam artist down.
He did. And we got our money back, to applause.
13. Best Chicken Bus Souvenir We Didn't Buy – Guatemala
Long-distance buses in Central America resemble little WalMarts on wheels. Vendors course the aisles selling anything and everything: hand-whittled back scratchers, cheap pens, cheaper razors, magic markers, snake oil and all manner of pills and elixirs to fix what ails the body from the fried snacks hawked on board.
So what's the best thing we didn't buy? Spirograph. Yes, the old childhood favorite that hails from the pre-video game era.
The vendors hawking Spirograph do so with an energy that implies it was invented yesterday. No shortage of miracle-inducing promises either, including that your child will ace all of his classes. Loved the demonstrations, too.
14. Most Frightening Boat Ride – Livingston to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala
Cue “the Minnow would be lost” theme song from Gilligan’s Island.
As the clouds darkened, the captain of our 12-person lancha (boat) passed up a thick plastic sheet. We put it on our laps: “How nice of him to think of us.” Then he yelled, “Put the whole thing on you! Now!!”
In seconds, we were met by a wall of rain and harrowing swells. The remaining thirty minutes passed in a dark, choppy blur as we huddled under our plastic covering and weathered the storm.
15. Most Animated Chicken Bus Preachers – Guatemala
The long-winded fervor with which Guatemalan evangelical preachers, worn bibles in hand, take to the aisles of their country's chicken buses is impressive.
There exists some divine irony though: the oft-repeated phrase “Gracias a dios.” (thanks to God) begins to sound a lot like “Gracias, adios.” (Thank you, goodbye.)
16. Best Waterfall – Finca El Paraiso
We usually don't mix waterfalls and superlatives, but Finca El Paraiso features an unforgettable nature-made combination of a thermal sulfuric waterfall spilling into a pool of cool, clear water. Commune with nature and a pleasant mix of tourists and leisure-seeking locals spreading themselves with the curative mud that lines the bottom of the lagoon.
To get there, take a minibus from Rio Dulce one hour and walk 15 minutes until you reach paradise.
17. Worst Hotel – La Esperanza, Honduras
If the movie Hostel were filmed in Central America, Hotel Urquia would provide the set. We watched the attendant clean our room, but the dark, leprous walls and prolific spider webs lent our dank quarters a slasher-film quality. The blankets looked like they might get up and walk out on their own. Adding insult to injury, the $14 price tag could fetch us relatively luxurious accommodation in many parts of Asia.
18. Best “We Are About to Be Eaten” Moment – Tikal, Guatemala
On the edge of Tikal National Park, we were jolted from our slumber at 2 A.M. by what sounded like jaguars howling outside our tent. We stiffened, trying to determine if they were getting any closer.
What we would do if a jaguar jumped on us?
We later found out that the ominous sounds were made by Tikal’s own howler monkeys. From their perches in the tree tops, they serenade the park all day, all night. Although we didn't get much sleep, we recommend tenting in Tikal.
We know, we know. What about Costa Rica, Panama and Belize? When we get around to visiting them (after South America), we’ll be sure to give them their due. Until then, we focus on the CA-4 (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua).