“The first commandment for every good explorer is that an expedition has two points: the point of departure and the point of arrival. If your intention is to make the second theoretical point coincide with the actual point of arrival, don’t think about the means – because the journey is a virtual space that finishes when it finishes, and there are as many means as there are different ways of “finishing.” That is to say, the means are endless.”
Che Guevara, Los diarios motocicleta
Author: Ernesto “Che” Guevara
Geographic Area: South America
Original Language: Spanish
I know you recognize the name “Che” Guevara. His face has graced many a shirt and poster around the world, particularly on college campuses. He is best known for being a Communist revolutionary leader in Cuba and in Bolivia. Nicknamed “Che” because of his Argentine accent (making “yo me llamo” sound like “cho me chamo”), his appeal lies in his militancy and his rebellious, anti-capitalist views.
But before he was a military leader, before the beard and beret, he was an asthmatic medical student from Argentina, with dreams of traveling around his continent.
In 1951, as a 23-year-old, he took a year off studying to travel around South America with his friend, Alberto Granado. Their vehicle was an old Norton 500 motorcycle, nicknamed “La Poderosa II,” or “The Mighty One.” Though 500cc is not a bad displacement for a motorcycle, this was an old engine that did not put out nearly as much power as a modern counterpart, as well as carrying two passengers and their gear. Be sure that the name “La Poderosa” was sarcastic.
On this motorcycle, the two young Argentines embarked on a 5,000-mile trip that would take them across Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. Their voyage took about nine months, and saw them crossing deserts, mountain ranges, and rivers. Along the way they visited Machu Picchu, Indigenous towns, coal miners, and leper colonies.
It’s interesting to note that this was not the first motorcycle journey Che undertook in his former life. The year before, in 1950, he had somehow attached a motor to a bicycle and ridden 2,800 miles on the glorified moped around northern Argentina.
The Motorcycle Diaries is invaluable for two reasons: first, it is an eyewitness account of mid-century Latin America, and second, it is insight into how Che would become his most famous (or infamous) incarnation.
It was especially his encounters with Chilean miners, and witnessing their harsh treatment at the hands of the American-owned mining companies, that fomented his anti-capitalist beliefs. Years later, in Cuba, he would write the following:
“We will see whether some day, some miner will take up his pick in pleasure and go and poison his lungs with a conscious joy.”
To call this book “The Motorcycle Diaries” does not even do it justice, since La Poderosa breaks down about a third of the way through. They continue their journey on foot, in the backs of farm trucks, and by boat. Guevara recounts how, completely broke, he and Alberto would resort to conning people into food and a place to crash for the night.
The book was adapted into a movie in 2004, starring Gael Garcia Bernal. The film was heavily dramatized in parts, but is mostly faithful to Guevara’s notes. I do recommend the movie, just be sure to read the book as well.
Some people may not agree with Che Guevara’s politics nor practices. Indeed, it’s very important to keep in mind that this was an adventure undertaken by Che the med student, not Che the revolutionary. As a matter of fact, my grandfather personally knew Che Guevara, and didn’t have many nice things to say about him. Though he met him only a few years after the events of The Motorcycle Diaries, his personality had already changed sufficiently for him to become a different person than the one who kept the diary. For example, my grandfather says that Che would order executions as if it was nothing.
This is a case in which I would say it’s probably best to separate the art from the artist. I personally agree with a lot of the misgivings Che had about capitalism, and I can see how he would form those beliefs, based on what he saw during this journey. I just don’t agree with the methods he would use later on in his life.
Regardless of who wrote it, The Motorcycle Diaries is a quintessential travel book, and absolutely worth a read. I have even read about people who were so inspired by the book, they got on their own motorcycles and set off in the footsteps–and tire tracks–of Che Guevara.
Speaking of capitalism, if you would like to buy the book for yourself, you may use the link below. In full disclosure, should you choose to make a purchase, I do get a small percentage.
Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is.
Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho
Geographic Area: Spain and Northern Africa
Original Language: Portuguese
I decided to include a fiction book this week, because I believe that good travel books are meant to inspire you as much as educate you. And few works of fiction are as inspiring as The Alchemist.
Say what you want about much of the work done by Paulo Coelho (pronounced “quell you”), The Alchemist has been a bestseller for 30+ years for good reason. It is about discovering your “Personal Legend,” essentially your reason for being in this world, the kind of adventure you want your life to be. It’s as much fantasy as self-help, and I think it will inspire you to make your dreams come true, whether they are of traveling the world, of seeing more of your own country, or of starting a business.
The story follows Santiago, a young shepherd from Andalusia, who dreams of finding treasure in the Pyramids of Egypt. He receives a vision encouraging him to pursue his desires, so he sells his sheep and boards a boat bound for Tangier. Thus begins an epic quest that takes him across the sands of the Sahara, along the way encountering thieves, other travelers, warring bands of nomads, ancient mystics, and love in a desert oasis.
The adventure is epic, but the enduring beauty of The Alchemist is how simply it’s written. It’s essentially a modern fable, and makes for a pretty quick read. To be fair, it can be unrealistically upbeat in places, as embodied in the line, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” Luckily, the fable is tempered with reality checks, such as Santiago being robbed in a bazaar, and having to spend a significant amount of time working in a glass shop to earn money for onward travel. What’s important is that he perseveres and always keeps his goal in sight.
Coelho was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1947. For better or for worse, had a pretty interesting life, marked by happiness and success as much as tragedy and sadness. His parents threw him into an insane asylum when he was a teenager, mistaking his introversion and nonconformity for mental illness. He escaped from the institution three times before finally being released years later. He spent many years literally vagabonding around the world, exploring Europe and North Africa, places that would later feature in many of his books. He walked the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, recounted years later in The Pilgrimage. Upon his return to Brazil, he began working as a songwriter for popular rock musicians of the time. In 1974, he was arrested and tortured by the ruling military junta, accused of spreading propaganda through his songs. You can read his account of that horrible experience here.
One of his earlier works, The Alchemist originally sold so modestly that the publishing house gave him the rights back after just one year. However, in keeping with the spirit of his character Santiago, he kept at it, even literally going door to door to promote his novel. His hard work eventually paid off, and would launch him to international fame. Ever since, he has enjoyed a very successful writing career, having achieved his own Personal Legend.
If you would like to purchase the book from Amazon, just click on the image below. In full disclosure, should you choose to get the book using this link, I will receive a small percentage.
“It’s really cool, but it’s the 1950s there,” my cousin had told me.
She had visited Cuba years ago, with my uncle. I had been discussing my upcoming trip with her, and as I was to find out, she was not wrong in her assertion.
Quick disclaimer: I am half-Cuban. My mother was born in Havana. I could say that I grew up in the culture, but, that’s not really how I feel. My mother came over when she was five, and spoke mainly English at home. My grandparents spoke just as much heavily-accented English as they did Spanish. Yeah, we celebrated Noche Buena and yeah, I heard stories of the revolution growing up. But I still had to study Spanish in college to speak it passably. I look more Eastern European (my dad’s heritage), so no one has ever mistaken me for a Latino. I do have relatives in Las Tunas, on the eastern part of the island, but I haven’t written to those people since I was maybe 12, and quite frankly they’re just not a part of my life.
Having said that, Cuba is still one-half of my heritage, regardless of how Cuban I may or may not feel. For that reason, this was a very special trip for me.
This trip lasted about a week, and was spent entirely in and around Havana. I should have taken another week and headed out to Viñales or somewhere in the island’s hinterland, but I was working with the PTO I had available to me, and I had already spent several days in the Yucatan prior to this.
Flying from the US to Cuba is not difficult, but it is an odd process. You must declare one of 12 reasons for wanting to go to Cuba, none of which is “tourism.” This is an ever-changing topic, however, as the American administration recently imposed a new set of restrictions. However, for the time being, it seems perfectly fine to say that you are going to “support the Cuban people.”
There are those who choose not to get themselves involved in this pissing match, and so choose another option: going through Cancún. I’ve heard of people buying a round-trip ticket from their American city to Cancún, and then buying a separate ticket from Cancún to Havana. Thus, to the American government it just looks like you were in Mexico that whole time. I’ve never heard of those people that have done this getting caught.
A word about Cuba: It is a cash economy, and American cards won’t work there. Also, American dollars don’t have a very good exchange rate because of a 10% fee levied by all banks. So what I did and what a lot of people do is exchange your dollars into euros at your home bank. Then, when you get to Cuba, exchange your euros into Cuban pesos. I would recommend going to a larger bank branch, like the one at the Copelia or the FOCSA, because if you go to a smaller branch it’s a jodienda. Just trust me on this one.
And now a word on Cuban pesos: there are two kinds. The one you’ll see most often in the more formal institutions is the Cuban peso convertible, or CUC (pronounced “kook”). There’s also the more local currency, called simply the Cuban peso, or CUP (pronounced “coop”). The CUC is pegged to the US dollar, while the CUP is at about 25:1. However, the prices match up anyway, so it’s not like you really want one over the other. For example, if you walk into a corner store, they might have shaving cream at 2 CUC / 50 CUP. I read that it’s technically illegal for an American to possess CUP, but it’s not like there’s a cop on every corner making sure you have the right coins in your pocket.
In local slang, a 1 CUP coin is called a morrocota, while a 1 CUP bill is called a ticket (pronounced “tee-ket”). I learned that from Chiqui, a local kid, who also got me some black market internet cards. More on that later.
When you arrive at José Martí International Airport, you can request customs to not stamp your passport, and they’re totally understanding of it. Once you get outside there are kiosks where you can exchange your money into CUC. I exchanged a little bit of mine to pay for the taxi and some lunch, although the rates weren’t the greatest, so I saved the lion’s share of my euros for a local bank.
Taking the taxi from the airport, it dawned on me that this was my first time in a communist country. I noticed that a lot of the cars on the road were much older models, but not the gleaming 1950s Chevys everyone and their dog has seen pictures of. These were just regular old cars. Many were foreign makes I had never seen before, some with Russian lettering. I even saw one guy in a horse-drawn cart clomping along the side of the road.
Havana was kind of wild. The streets are narrow and the buildings press right up onto the sidewalk. There are some pretty pastel paints used on the buildings, but unfortunately lot of them are dilapidated. The driving patterns are aggressive, though not as bad as those of Mexico City or Guatemala City. One of the images that sticks out in my mind is of this old delivery truck zooming through the streets, with three guys hanging on to the back, all visibly laughing and grinning.
The taxi driver dropped me off at my hostel for 25 CUC. If you talk with the owner of your hostel, you might be able to get this price down to 20 CUC, but good luck getting lower than that; it’s a very standard price. The hostel was on a side street off Calle Infanta, the main road through Centro Habana. The wonderful host, Mirella, showed me to my room, and informed me that there were two other people staying there, an American and a Puerto Rican.
The American was named Andy, and the Puerto Rican was named José. Both were almost exactly my age, and both were extremely hungover.
Deciding that all three of us needed some food and coffee and possibly more alcohol, we set off in search of a restaurant.
Walking down the street with Andy and José, I mentally took note of the demographics of the locals. Compared to other Latin American countries, especially Mexico and Guatemala, it’s worth noting that Cuba has a large Black population. According to the 2012 Census, Havana’s Black population stands at 15 percent, while another 26 percent identify as Mulatto or Criollo, mixed. José, himself mulatto, had traveled to the eastern provinces, and said that they were the overwhelming majority in places like Holguín.
We eventually found a diner along Calle Infanta, where I recognized a lot of dishes from my childhood: Ropa vieja. Moros y cristianos. Filet mignon. Bistec empanizado. Platanos fritos. Cafe con leche.
Over food and coffee, I got to learn about my new travel companions.
Andy, tall and bearded and wearing harem pants, spoke intelligently and lackadaisically. He was originally from an affluent family in the Boston area. However, he decided to move to India for five months to let his hair and beard grow out. He was on his way back home in a few days, taking the time to vagabond around the island for a while. Having some Puerto Rican heritage, he spoke Spanish pretty wel;.
José, full name José A. Ramírez Moya, was from a lower class area of San Juan, growing up in Carolina, but had since done extremely well for himself. Perfectly bilingual and palpably extroverted, he was the founder of Globiis, a non-profit organization that develops educational video games to raise awareness for global issues.
As with literally every other encounter I’ve had in hostels, I was the least traveled, least educated, least successful person at the table. You get used to it.
Following a lengthy discussion on Trump’s election and what that meant for America and for Puerto Rico, we decided to head back to the hostel to wash up and then head out somewhere. Walking back, I took more mental notes on my surroundings.
I read later that ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba had been in a state of deterioration. That much was obvious to me as we walked down Infanta and then turned onto our street. The neighborhood could accurately be described by the average American as “ghetto.” The housing stock was very dilapidated, at least on the outside. There was a lot of trash in the streets. Stray dogs roamed everywhere. There were many young guys hanging out on the stoops of their buildings in the middle of a weekday, drinking planchao.
“Planchao,” actually spelled planchado, comes from the verb planchar, which means “to iron.” Ostensibly, you’ll feel ironed out after a few of these. It is boxed rum, and it comes in a white carton, with the word Especial on the front. Everyone in Havana calls it planchao. The preferred way to drink it is to either cut or bite off a corner of the carton, and then tilt your head to the side to awkwardly suck out the contents. It is not good rum. But, at 1 CUC, it does exactly what a lot of Havana’s poor need it to do.
It’s definitely worth noting, however, that despite being poor, Cuba is extremely safe. I heard no gunshots, nor witnessed any violence (except sort of, one time, which I’ll describe later). At no point, day or night, did I fear for my life walking through that inner-city neighborhood.
As we neared the old wooden front door, I heard José groan.
“Here he comes,” he said.
“Ah, your buddy,” said Andy.
“Alek, check this guy out.”
From a group of young dudes chilling on a handcart, one of them approached us. He was a Black kid, no more than 25 at the most, and very short. He had a friendly face but the tightened eyes of someone who grew up very, very poor. His hair was shaved on the sides, in the style of Killmonger from Black Panther. He was wearing an old pair of overalls, missing a button. He also had two gold teeth.
“Chiqui!” José called out to him, though not very enthusiastically.
He greeted Andy and José as though they were old friends, not paying much attention to me. I let the three of them talk amicably for a bit, before introducing myself.
“Chiqui” turned his attention to me.
“Que?” he said, face scrunched up.
I found it amusing that he would not understand my clear, college-educated Spanish; I can confidently say that the Cuban accent is one of the most difficult to understand for an English-speaker. It would be like if you learned Spanish in Madrid and then went to work in East Texas.
But as with any time you’re in a foreign country, it helps to be patient. I introduced myself again.
“Tu no puedes hablar espanol!” he said, throwing his hands up for emphasis. “You can’t speak Spanish!”
I laughed in his face, and told them I’d get changed and hit them up when they were done.
A few minutes later, the two of them came in and asked me if I wanted to go to the beach later, which of course I wanted to. However, they needed to sleep off the rest of their hangover, and so went back to the dorm for another hour or two. Being an introvert, and too excited to sleep, I was happy to get some time to explore the city solo. I got their numbers and told them to text me whenever they got up.
The first thing I needed to do was get an internet card.
There is no nationwide 4G in Cuba. The only way you can get internet access is by buying a Nauta Card, and accessing Wi-Fi at various points around the city. These access points tend to be parks. Just look for a bunch of people camped out on their phones as if it was a Pokemon Go gym. It’ll be pretty obvious.
Getting the cards, however, was not super obvious, and I had no internet at all to look it up. Luckily, I just wanted to get walking around, so I headed out with the intent of asking someone on the street.
That person on the street turned out to be Chiqui.
“Hey, American!” he called out in a thick accent.
“I don’t speak Spanish, remember?” I replied in his language. I didn’t care if he could understand me or not.
He shrugged, looking at the ground. I don’t know why, maybe because I didn’t want to make enemies with the locals on my first day, but I decided to drop it.
“Where can you find Nauta cards around here?” I asked.
“You need internet?” he asked, visibly excited. “Yes, I’ll take you.”
And off we went. Now, I mentioned earlier that Cuba is very safe, but I didn’t know that 100 percent at the time, so I kept my wits about me. We walked for several blocks, passing old brick and concrete buildings, with laundry hung over the balconies to dry, and kids playing in the street. There was hardly any vehicular traffic in this part of the city, so many people were walking, unhurriedly, in the street.
We got to talking. Chiqui’s real name was Carlos, but he got that nickname because he was chiquito, short. He was originally from Holguin, and was 22 years old. He claimed to work in construction, and I tied that in to the commercial landscaping company I was working for at the time.
Chiqui was a nice enough guy, but every now and then he’d turn around and whistle at a black woman on the street. The women invariably ignored him.
“Te gustan las charditas?” He asked me.
I was not familiar at all with this term, but I put two and two together and figured he meant women with a skin tone like his. I told him I really had no preference, but it just so happened that I had met someone at a hostel recently. I told him we were just friends, and that she even lived in another state, but she was really cool and if it went somewhere, I’d be fine with that.
Chiqui took out a pack of cigarettes and lit one up. I had quit smoking by then but thought what the hell, it’s a special occasion, and so asked him for one. The brand was Criollo, and they were what American Spirits smoked when they wanted to feel manly. I had one and I was good for the entire day.
Eventually we got to a little neighborhood park. There were a whole bunch of people on their phones, so I knew we had to be in the right place. I looked around to see where the stand was to actually purchase the cards, but saw none.
“So where do you get them?” I asked Chiqui.
“Wait here,” he said.
He walked over to two dudes standing under a tree, both about our age. He said a few words to them and one of the guys looked over at me, then nodded. Chiqui waved me over.
“2 CUC,” said Chiqui.
As inconspicuously as I could, which probably wasn’t very inconspicuously at all, I pulled a few bills out of the coin pocket of my pants. I handed the 2 CUC bill to Chiqui, who handed it to one of the guys under the tree. The guy took a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket. I noticed that it did not actually hold cigarettes, but rather a stack of cards. He took one out and passed it to Chiqui, who passed it to me. Chiqui told me to put it in my pocket right away.
And then we walked off.
For those of you who do not want to do it the illegal way, there are places all around the city where you can find these cards. They will have signs out front, but the signs are small, and they don’t seem to be offices, more like people’s houses that are authorized to sell them.
At any rate, I had my card, and thanked Chiqui for all his help by buying a round of planchao. I immediately regretted this, because the rum was awful, and I felt bad for enabling this habit, but it was what it was. I went to the main park by our hostel to update my social media and do some research.
After a while, I got the text from Andy and José: we were going to the beach. Leaving with beach towels wrapped around our necks, I told them about how Chiqui got me a black market internet card.
“Yeah, I don’t know about that guy,” Andy said. “We’ve been here for like a week, and he’s always hanging out with his friends on that cart. But like, we’ve never seen him move a bag of anything, or lay a brick. I don’t think he works.”
Playa Santa Maria
Just getting to the beach was an adventure in and of itself.
We tried finding a taxi, but Andy and Jose deemed all the prices too high.
“What kind of price is that?!” One driver got out of his car to yell at us, after José made an offer. “Not even my brother asks me for that!”
The Cuban accent sounds like they’ve just come back from the dentist, even more so when they’re yelling, which can be over 50 percent of the time.
So we decided on taking the bus. Which would be straightforward, except that Cubans are just as bad at giving directions as Guatemalans, and take three times as long to be wrong.
Finally, one older gentleman we stopped on the street gave us correct directions. He explained where we needed to go, step-by-step, in the same tone and cadence you would use to walk someone through defusing a bomb.
We eventually found the right street corner, standing in line with a large and diverse assortment of Cubans. We paid 1 CUC apiece for some snowcones from a vendor, which were syrupy sweet.
The correct bus arrived a little while later, and we got on, along with half the population of Havana. We were packed like sardines, squashed in among stone-faced military personnel and cool kids playing American rap and Puerto Rican reggaeton. At one point, a uniformed student tried to get on, but the bus was so full, he could not close the door all the way. One of the attendants at the bus stop started yelling “Tu arriba! Tu arriba!” Basically yelling at the kid to get in there. Eventually, with maximum effort, he squished himself in, the door shut, and the entire bus applauded.
After about a half-hour we could see the beach out the window. We disgorged along with the cool kids, who rode skateboards down the steep hill leading down to the sand.
This was Playa Santa Maria, and was a beach where my mother and uncle used to go to as kids. It was very pretty, with white sand and very clear blue water. There were tables set up for our use, and several guys selling coconut with rum. I paid 5 CUC for a whole coconut, with a hole cut into it and a generous pour of Havana Club rum.
We sat back and enjoyed the sun and the rum for a while before getting in the water.
At one point José, ever the extrovert, got us talking to two ladies on the beach. They were Nyamal Tutdeal (pronounced “two-deal”), and her coworker Simbal. Both worked for the City of Philadelphia.
Originally from Ethiopia, Nyamal’s heritage hails from present-day South Sudan. She works specifically for the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability to help people with gambling addictions, especially those in the immigrant community. Among her many side projects is the non-profit NyaEden, which works to help women in developing nations access proper healthcare. She is also a model.
After a long time talking at the beach, and swimming in the warm, clear Caribbean, we exchanged numbers and made plans to meet up that night.
Cabaret Las Vegas
We met Simbal and NyaMal at the Gran Hotel La Manazana, a gorgeous white stone building in the downtown area of Havana. The rooftop bar afforded us gorgeous views of the square and the other stone buildings surrounding us.
The four of them, having far more general life experience than I did, talked shop and about their other travels, while I sat back and recharged my socializing batteries. Hostel travel really is an extrovert’s game, but if you’re open to it, you can meet some amazing people.
Nyamal, for example, talked with me about her life back in Africa, and her time in the Itang refugee camp. She was relocated to the Midwest as a teenager, and even lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, as I had during college. Fiercely proud of her culture, she said she loved Africa, and had every intention of moving back in the future.
After a while, Jose recommended a club he had gone to on a previous night. He told us it was a gay bar, but like a lot of gay bars, it was fun for people of all types. I myself had spent many a night with friends at The Q back in college, and that wasn’t the type of thing to offend any of us.
Cabaret Las Vegas can be found on Calle Infanta, in fact only a few streets down from our hostel. It is indeed a gay bar, no doubt about that, but the performances feature both attractive male dancers and gorgeous female dancers in feathery costumes.
At one point, the MC, an exuberant drag queen, got on stage and asked if there were any foreigners present that night. Urged on by the group, I yelled “Estados Unidos!” The whole place responded with cheers, while the people in the booth played a loud country song, and projected a video montage of the stars and stripes, complete with an eagle. Jose yelled out “Puerto Rico!” and was met with more applause, and a Daddy Yankee music video.
Then Nyamal yelled out “Ethiopia!”
There was some confusion for a second, until finally deciding on the most politically correct representation: the opening to “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. Back home this would probably be seen as wildly racist, but Nyamal just laughed and covered her face. Seeing this, the MC invited her up on stage, to the applause of the entire cabaret.
The MC asked her if she was looking for a man, but Nyamal was unaccustomed to the Cuban accent, so called up Jose to translate for her. The MC asked if they were a couple, and if not, why not? After a lot of laughter and applause, they came back to the table, while they played one last round of “Circle of Life.”
Having taken some hilarious video, we enjoyed the last few performances, which included the MC lip-syncing to “Rolling on the River” by Tina Turner, complete with fake snorting lines of coke. After a very colorful finale, the tables were removed to open up the dance floor. Nyamal, Simbal, and Andy decided to turn in for the night, though Jose and I wanted to stay out a bit later. After saying goodbye to Andy and the ladies and making sure they got a cab, we decided to get some air and walk down to the Malecon.
Officially Avenida de Maceo, the Malecon is an esplanade, roadway, and seawall that stretches for five miles along the Cuban coastline. It was constructed between 1901 and 1952, and is one of the main gathering points for locals of all income levels, who socialize, fish, and swim there.
Drinking in public is permitted in Havana, so Jose and I went up to one of the many sidewalk stalls open all night and got two beers. Walking down the street late at night, I confirmed, was perfectly safe. There were police here and there, but mostly it just did not seem sketch. It was kind of liberating, in a way.
When Jose and I got to the Malecon, there were multitudes of people hanging out on the low concrete barrier, listening to music, playing instruments, or just talking loudly the way Cubans do. It was too dark to really see the ocean, but the wall of buildings across the street was a pretty sight in the lamplight. I shared with Jose stories my mom would tell me about coming down here with my grandfather when she was a kid. Especially the one that I didn’t learn until years later: at the same time that my mom and her father were on the Cuban coastline, my dad’s father was in an American submarine stationed out in the bay.
At one point we were approached by a group of people about our age or younger. One guy had a guitar, and seemed excessively friendly, possibly making up for the fact that his face was incredibly threatening. He reminded me of Henry Silva’s character from Ghost Dog.
He asked us if we were American, even though he had clearly pegged us as such. We got to talking, mainly between him and Jose due to the language barrier. At one point Jose leaned over and whispered, “I don’t trust this guy, dude.”
But we were both really drunk on rum and beer at this point, so we thought nothing of it.
The young Henry Silva disappeared and came back a little while later with two young ladies. He told us they were his cousins. One sat down next to Jose and one sat down next to me.
The girl, whose name I don’t remember, was pretty and friendly, but kind of young. Maybe in her twenties. I wasn’t sure what we would talk about. Well, we got to talking about things and such: the differences between our countries, was I enjoying myself, how pretty my eyes were, did I have a girlfriend, would I like to go somewhere private and enjoy myself even more… Like you do.
I turned to Jose, and from the incredulous look on his face I could tell he was having a similar conversation with the other young lady.
“So…” I began, “are these really his cousins?”
“I mean, they could be,” said Jose.
Two uniformed police officers stood not thirty feet away, oblivious to the situation.
Henry Silva came back and asked us if we were having a good time with his cousins. We told him that they were very nice ladies, but that it was very late and we were headed back.
“No, stay with them,” Henry Silva said. “Do you need taxi? I call you taxi. You go back to apartment with them.”
“I’m good,” I said. “Not here for that.”
“Not here for what?” he asked, dropping all pretense of amicability.
“I said, that I’m not here for that. I think you know what, sir.”
“Neither am I,” the young lady said softly, looking into the middle distance over her knees.
The man started getting a little threatening, but Jose laughed in his face. He could clearly take care of himself, and I, though maintaining a non-confrontational facade, was ready to put the guy on the ground if he got any closer. Meanwhile, the lady seated next to Jose, completely blind to the tension in the air, was talking excitedly and trying to write down her email address for him.
Figuring we’d had enough fun for the night, we drunkenly stumbled back to the hostel, not looking forward to the massive hangover but eager for whatever the next day had in store for us.
Sorry I haven’t added any new content in a while. I’ve actually been on a road trip out to Georgia and haven’t had much time to write. But Part I of my Cuba trip from last year will be out tomorrow afternoon. I will also have a new Travel Book of the Week out later this week.
“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
And we’re back in Guatemala! In this part I’ll be wrapping up our adventures in this amazing country.
Without further ado:
Unbeknownst to us, we had not been the only Americans on that bus out of Belize: waiting in line at customs, we met up with Julian, a musician from L.A., and his mother Nancy, an advocate for conflict survivors for UNICEF.
We spoke with a taxi driver at the border, who agreed to 100 quetzals per person. Good deal, right?
As we were passing out of the check point, windows rolled down, we slowly passed by an outdoor bar, around which several people had gathered. I happened to lock eyes with one man, who after a pause began to yell, in accented English: “Be careful! Be careful!”
I was reminded of my youth spent yelling random things at passing cars with my friends, so I figured this was just a grown man doing the same. We thought nothing more of it.
We got to talking with Julian and his travels, which included Iceland, India, and Southeast Asia. He gave us the idea for renting an RV to drive around Iceland, as a more cost-effective combination of lodging and transportation. Nancy reflected on possibly retiring from her profession.
“Don’t do that, mom,” Julian said. “There are too many people who need you.”
We kept driving on through the dark. At one point we deviated from the main road and hit some very rocky terrain, a completely unpaved road. After several awkward moments, I asked the driver, in Spanish:
“Are we still on the highway?”
Several more minutes of bumpy driving. Then the paved road began again.
We laughed, more nervously than genuinely. I was a little disarmed by his lack of elocution, but decided to keep it to myself. Finally, several hours later, we arrived in Flores. We produced our wallets to fish out some quetzals.
The driver shook his head. “Ciento cincuenta, por favor.” One hundred and fifty.
I shot a glance at Kristen. She was just as taken aback as I was. I politely reminded the driver that he had said a hundred quetzals per person.
The driver rubbed his eyes, clearly stressed. He began to speak a mix of broken English and rapid Spanish, telling us that the price was Q150, not Q100. All of a sudden, the bystander’s warning back at the border became clear to me. While my blood was up, I didn’t want to make the situation worse, especially not with my girlfriend and other people in the car.
“You do not understand my Spanish,” the driver said haltingly. “Do the, the–” he made the hand sign for calculator, “I did the math wrong. It is one hundred fifty.”
You didn’t do shit wrong, I muttered, and told him, in the most perfect Spanish I could muster, that we understand him in both languages, and that the reality of the situation was that we had agreed on 100, not 150.
The driver looked hard at me, and I returned an easy glance while presenting absolutely no intention of backing down. He was a thin old guy, I could take him.
“Okay, okay, one twenty five.”
Wrong as this thief was, we weren’t going to convince him to honor our agreement. So, we paid him Q125 apiece.
When we had unloaded our bags, I asked the group: “I’m not crazy, right? He said 100 quetzals apiece?”
“Yeah, totally,” Julian said. “That’s why he went down to 125. He was just trying to get extra.”
So let that be a warning to you, dear traveler. Don’t let them fluster you, and don’t let them bullshit you.
Back in Flores
We said goodbye to Julian and Nancy and found a nice room overlooking Lake Peten Itza, called La Casa de Enrico. Enrico, the man running it, reminded me very much of Jean Reno from The Professional, and could not have been more polite.
He put us up in a very nice room with wonderful amenities, and even gave us room service. The shower was not running hot, and so he offered us a free breakfast the following morning. The food we had in our room, as well as the fresh fruit juice, was some of the best we had our entire trip.
That dinner was followed by a breakfast the next morning that, rightly or wrongly, was our most memorable meal the whole trip. It was a standard desayuno tipico, a typical breakfast of scrambled eggs, fried plantains, black beans, and cheese, but it was presented so professionally and tasted so savory that it will forever stick in our minds. It really is the little things; Enrico brought out fresh slices of bread, still warm, and saucers of fresh jam, also warm, that melted across the bread like butter. To say it was delicious would be an understatement. To eat this bread and jam was to relax, and feel all your cares and worries melt away.
This was helped by the fact that we were the only people on the balcony that morning. The day was gorgeous, and so was the view overlooking the lake. We watched the boats go by, as well as people and tuk-tuks on the street below. We ate leisurely, relishing every moment together. We sipped fruit juice that had hints of cardamom, and just enjoyed the morning. After all our adventures, this was what it meant to have a true vacation.
But things are not beautiful simply because they last forever, and eventually it was time to pick up our bags and be on our way. We left a good tip for the wait staff, and went out to flag a tuk-tuk down to Santa Elena.
Santa Elena is bigger and busier, and is where the big shopping malls, movie theaters, and bus stations are located. This time, we made sure to request the best class of bus, the Clase Oro or Gold Class, at Q220 per ticket. The driver assured us that it would have working air conditioning. Unfortunately, that bus would not be leaving for another six hours.
Luckily, the station was spacious, had several restaurants and convenience markets (that only accept cash, by the way), and was air conditioned. We set out bags down and thought about what to do. There wasn’t a whole lot to go out of your way for in this part of town, but we weren’t concerned. Eventually we decided to go see a movie. Shazam! was playing at the local theater, so we got right back on a tuk-tuk and zipped on over.
The mall was very large and nice for a town of this size. I had remembered an outdoor concert being performed under the large canopy the night before, when we were driving across the causeway. We felt awkward bringing our big backpacks into the theater with us, but the staff said this wouldn’t be an issue. At Q35 a pop, the tickets were half to a third of the price as back home. With our hot dogs and drinks, we went in and sat down.
Movie theaters are a bit different in Guatemala. While still high-definition, they did not seem to be 4K quality. They are also played at lower volume, which would be perfectly fine if half the people in the theater wasn’t talking throughout the movie. Shazam! was dubbed into Spanish, and a lot of the humor seemed to translate well enough for the rest of the hispanophone audience. The fact that there was a lot more chatter actually helped in this case, as I quietly translated some of the dialogue for Kristen.
One thing’s for certain: half the people seated around us would not last five minutes in an Alamo Drafthouse.
In high spirits from the movie, we stopped by a Pollo Campero to load up on food, since the night bus can’t stop for meals. Accosted by one panhandler and with no Uber drivers in sight, we ended up walking back to the bus station. Even at night, there were plenty of well-lit bars and outdoor markets with plenty of other people on the street. We never feared for our safety.
Since I still weren’t 100 percent trusting that this bus would actually be comfortably air conditioned, I once again showed up in shorts and a T-shirt. My pants and hoodie were kept in my luggage, in the hold.
We were presented with big plushy chairs on the second level of the bus, with plenty of leg room, large storage spaces overhead, and a working bathroom on the first level. Yes, it had AC.
Lots of AC.
Whereas I couldn’t breathe on the first bus, I was about ready to have frost bite on this one. Kristen, having had the foresight to wear jeans and pack a jacket in her handbag, slept comfortably. I, on the other hand, was dying. Now I knew exactly what all those forums meant: these were the cold buses.
I asked the drivers if I could get my backpack out of the hold, but was told no. I asked them if they could turn the AC down, and they said they would. An hour later, it was just as frigid, and an older women climbed down to tell them that it was very cold and could they lower the AC. Again, they said they would, and never did.
It got so bad at one point that I had to do something drastic. Pulling my arms inside my shirt like I used to do back in elementary school was helping my top half, but not my bottom half. So, taking advantage of the darkness–and I’m really not proud of this–I slid my shorts down over my knees and calves. That way, at least all of my legs were somewhat warm, instead of one half being warm and the other half about ready to turn blue.
So let that be another warning to you, dear traveler: show up prepared for both extremes.
Back in Guate
We were dropped off at CentraNorte, another very large and very clean shopping mall. Unfortunately, we were also several miles away from the city center, and after grabbing breakfast, we had to catch an Uber into town. It was on this Uber ride that we passed through Zone 16, which was the stereotypical assortment of shacks climbing up the hillsides like lichen. It’s actually very impressive and, in a way, cool. However, be sure that areas like Zone 16 and Zone 18 are where most of the violence occurs that you hear about.
We were able to secure an Airbnb in a wonderfully spacious apartment in Zone 10 with perfectly hot water. We were just steps from a number of restaurants and in a safe area.
The next day, we went to the historic district, Zone 1, to have a look around. We had a look at the old post office, which you can explore after handing your passport to the front desk. The post office isn’t very big, and it is a functioning government building, so you won’t see too much, but the arch is quite nice.
In Parque Centenario (Centennial Park), the main plaza of Guatemala City, was a large outdoor book market. I love books and so I enjoyed browsing around the several long tables, hunting for something I had never read in Spanish. I eventually bought a Paulo Coelho book, La Quinta Montaña, for Q100 (talking the guy down from Q120). You will also have access to the Cathedral of Guatemala City, which is nice, but not the main attraction in Zone 1.
We walked across the plaza to visit what I think is the main attraction, the National Palace, also known as El Palacio Nacional de la Cultura (The National Palace of Culture). More colloquially known as “El Palacio Verde” (The Green Palace), owning to the patina on the stone blocks, it was once the residence of the president, and is now mostly a museum, with only two federal departments operating there. We paid Q40 for a 45-minute guided tour.
Built between 1939 and 1943, The National Palace is an impressive structure in its own right, made five times more so if you know its history. It was ordered built by Jorge Ubico, that crazy president I mentioned back in Part I. Ubico was originally a general in the Guatemalan army, elected to power in 1931 (as the only candidate) and ruling until his removal from office by an uprising in 1944. An oppressive tyrant, he militarized a number of social institutions, and pandered to the harsh labor practices of the American United Fruit Company. He would refer to himself as “another Napoleon.”
He was also completely obsessed with the number five.
This fixation was so well-known that he was even nicknamed “Number Five.” He found the fact that there are five letters in both “Jorge” and “Ubico” an important sign.
You will see the number five pop up a laughable number of times when learning about the National Palace. There are five levels to the palace, and five main arches on each floor. There were five main construction materials used, including concrete and oxidized copper, which gives the “Green Palace” its characteristic shine. The locals will also refer to the palace as “El Guacamolon”, or “The Big Guacamole.”
At the time of its construction, the Guatemalan quetzal had parity with the American dollar. Despite this, the palace was constructed for a relatively low cost, mainly because the lion’s share of the work was done by prisoners for next to nothing a day.
Ubico also made sure to include an entrance that only he could use. People who knew him said that he did not like to have anyone in his way.
In 1980, during the Guatemalan Civil War, a car bomb went off by the corner of the palace, prompting the removal of the president’s residence, as well as most organs of the government, to decentralize.
The palace was quite beautiful. My photos do not even do it justice. The gilded ceilings were some of the most intricate I’ve ever laid eyes on, and the two-ton chandelier in the Main Ballroom is beyond impressive in real life.
On the lower level of the palace, you will notice a map of Guatemala, but something will look off about it. You will notice that Belize is still considered part of Guatemala. I mentioned this to the guide, who said that, yes, Belize used to be a part of this country–
“And still is!” an older man in the tour group piped up in Spanish.
–but that it was given to the British to work on the railroads there, which apparently they never did.
“Chiapas also used to be a part of Guatemala,” another tour group member said, referencing the state in southern Mexico. Again the tour guide verified this truth, saying that Guatemala sold that region to Mexico in exchange for weapons during the long and bloody civil war.
Speaking of the Guatemalan Civil War, the peace accords were signed in the Plaza of Peace, in 1996. You can see a bronze sculpture of a hand, which holds a fresh rose. The rose is changed every day.
Next to it is a small altar containing an eternal flame. This altar is in honor of the many thousands of children killed during the conflict.
The guide spoke of the palace with palpable pride. On at least two occasions, he told anecdotes of American visitors commenting on how impressive the structure was. It’s certainly a must-see, in my opinion, and the tour will teach you a lot of interesting facts.
As we had been moving along on the tour, I began talking with some Americans from Utah, whose father was himself from Guatemala. He asked me if I wanted to be featured in a short video clip, to be sent to his friends who were too scared to go to Guatemala. I eventually agreed, and spoke for a few seconds on the safe zones I knew of, and all the beautiful things I had seen. I spoke simply and sincerely.
Our Last Night
That night, we walked over to a P.F. Chang’s and had a good dinner. We then walked over to the Red Horse Inn, owned by a British expat. Again, we felt no danger at all walking to and from our Airbnb.
My flight did not leave until afternoon on the following day, so we got up nice and late. We took an Uber to a fancy shopping mall to use most of the last of our quetzals to treat ourselves to a nice big breakfast.
We reflected on our two and a half weeks in Central America. We agreed that Belize was a bust, for the most part, but that Guatemala was worth every penny (although we’ll definitely plan smarter for next time). We certainly can not wait to get back.
And that’s the end of Guatemala! I hope you guys enjoyed these posts as much as I enjoyed writing them. Until our next voyage (Montreal!), I’ll be typing up previous adventures I’ve had. Safe travels!
“All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, though not for the horror, the hot spots, the massacre-and-earthquake stories you read about in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again.”
Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari
Author: Paul Theroux
Geographic Area: East Africa (like, all of it)
Original Language: English
As you can see in the image above, the full title of this book is Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. If that doesn’t make you want to pick it up right now, I really don’t know what will.
Dark Star Safari follows Theroux on a journey that he makes–solo–down the spine of Africa. He travels through a total of 10 countries, going by foot, bus, train, canoe, and goat truck. Along the way he meets a dizzying array of people, both local and foreign, and shares their stories.
This staggeringly long voyage is made no less impressive by the fact that he was 59 when he set out, celebrating his 60th along the way. However, it’s worth noting that he lived in Malawi and Uganda as a young man, so he not only speaks good Chichewa and Swahili, but also has a vast network of former colleagues and students. He meets up with many of these people throughout his voyage (including the then-prime minister of Uganda, Apolo Nsibambi), and works as a guest speaker at various local universities.
His adventures in Dark Star Safari include seeing the Pyramids, sailing down the Nile, exploring the Rift Valley, and taking a ship across Lake Victoria, visiting numerous archaeological ruins along the way. There are some wonderful moments in this book.
There are also very heavy moments in this book. Theroux shares some highly poignant scenes that put a human touch on atrocities that many westerners know only as headlines, if they’ve heard of them at all. In one chapter, an Ethiopian journalist recounts his torture in a prison during the “Derg,” a dictatorship in power during the 1970s and ’80s. Years later, after the Derg is overthrown, the journalist gets on a city bus and realizes he is sitting across from the man who tortured him.
In another scene, this one in Nairobi, Kenya, he is riding in a taxi and witnesses a naked man being chased through the gutter by a mob of people. The mob is armed with literal sticks and stones, and it is heavily implied that they murdered the naked man.
Theroux’s main goal was to revisit the countries he lived and taught in decades ago, and see how they have improved or worsened. Keeping in mind that he narrates events that took place in 2001, his prognosis is grim: he describes an Africa that is hungrier and meaner, despite (or perhaps because of) countless dollars of foreign aid. However, it’s worth noting that much of this criticism is aimed at the urban centers of Africa; he sees much more hope in the hinterland, the towns and villages of the continent, where people are more likely to be bound by kinship than by economic necessity.
Anyone who’s been keeping up with my blog will have seen that I mention Paul Theroux’s name a few times. He is one of the most famous travel writers alive today, and he’s one of my very favorite authors, in any genre. He has written a vast number of books, fiction and non-fiction, and I will be reviewing several of them in the future.
Paul Theroux has a very unique voice, and very strong opinions, that come across in his writing. He is old school, he does not suffer fools, and he will call people, governments, and NGOs alike on their bullshit. He says “f*** you” to at least one aid worker.
Matter of fact, if he were to read this blog, he would probably condemn my practice of numbering the places I’ve been to, derisively calling me a “country-counter.”
Because of his opinions, Theroux has earned himself a lot of controversy. He very much walks the walk, no one can say he doesn’t, but at least one reviewer accused him of not doing his homework when it comes to foreign aid. I don’t know enough about this topic to speak on it, just something to keep in mind when you read his work.
Dark Star Safari is a book that delves into the African continent in a way that most westerns probably don’t think about. It is an honest look at the trials and triumphs of its people, who, like with any community on earth, have their good, bad, ugly, and beautiful.
I highly recommend this book, and whether you love it or hate, feel free to let me know in the comments below. I’m happy to hear what you think.
As always, I’ve included a link to purchase this book below. It is an affiliate link, so if you choose to make a purchase, I do get a small percentage.
“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”
Kristen grew up in California, so beaches are very near and dear to her. Though we had hiked a volcano, been on a lake, and seen amazing ruins, we had not yet had the opportunity to lounge on a beach, and she said she wanted to go. Having heard wonderful things about Belize’s beaches, I knew that Kristen would love them. Plus, it would be a perfect opportunity to check off one more country on my list!
We bought tickets for another Fuente del Norte bus that would take us all the way to Belize City, for about Q100 apiece. This bus was just as muggy as the first, but thankfully not as crowded, and we had made sure to dress accordingly.
In several hours we had reached Melchor de Mencos, a small border town. The driver stopped us, and a man with a card shark’s mustache got on board. He held a calculator and a bulging roll of bills. He announced, in English, that Guatemalan quetzals were not accepted in Belize, only Belize dollars and American dollars, and that he would be happy to exchange any quetzals we had. I was of course unsure of this guy, so I got out my phone and did a quick conversion from quetzals to Belize dollars (if you don’t have internet connection, divide by 4 to get an idea). To the guy’s credit, he actually did give me a pretty fair exchange rate.
Belize was a British colony for well over a century, known as British Honduras. The official language is English (although Spanish and a local creole are widely understood), and their money still bears the face of Queen Elizabeth II. They did not gain their independence until 1981. I think this is an important thing to keep in mind, for reasons I’ll go into later.
Getting through customs was a case study in bureaucratic inefficiency, made worse by the fact that we had to bring every piece of luggage off the bus and carry it with us. At least we both had travel packs, and this is another situation in which I’ll recommend you invest in one.
The demographics, once again, shift dramatically. You will see a much higher percentage of Black individuals and hardly any Indigenous people. You will see virtually no women in colorful Mayan dresses, carrying bundles on their heads. Most people are dressed extremely casually; shorts are much more prevalent here than they are in Guatemala.
With brand new stamps in our passports, Kristen and I walked onto Belizean soil. We bought boxed lunches of fried chicken, rice, and plantains, and bottles of water before getting back on the bus. Everyone back on board, we continued on into the Belizean hinterland.
It strikes you as odd at first to be in a Spanish-speaking part of the world, but see shop signs in English, and towns named Unitedville, Mount Hope, and Ontario Village.
Belmopan, the nation’s capital, came and went. Blink and you’ll miss it. Instead, the former capital, Belize City, is the country’s largest. It is situated on the coast, bisected by a river. To stay north of this river is the commonly accepted generic advice; extensive gang activity has been reported in the southern half, although that is where many bus terminals are located.
The drive to Belize City gives you the impression that this country has a very chill vibe to it. It definitely strikes you as the stereotypical Caribbean getaway that many Americans and Europeans look forever to lounging in.
We lugged our bags across the street from the bus station to a curious combination of restaurant: Chinese food and fried chicken. The interior was sparsely adorned, and seemed to be owned by an Asian couple, employing local Black workers. Two men argued amicably at the bar while one of the Hunger Games movies played on a small set.
The fried chicken, served with fried rice, was delicious and decently priced. The waiter, an old man with bleary eyes and a steady gaze, asked us if we were headed up to the islands. We told him yes, San Pedro.
“Nahhhhhhh,” he said, drawing out the syllable. “No San Pedro. Caye Caulker. San Pedro too big, too much stress. Go to Caye Caulker.”
Perhaps we should have taken the gentleman’s advice. Indeed, Caye Caulker (caye pronounced “key”) is a popular destination for tourists. But for whatever reasons, we decided to go to San Pedro, and that will be the focus of this post.
We found the express ferry terminal, and bought tickets for the 1.5-hour boat ride to San Pedro. San Pedro is a small town located on the island of Ambergris Caye, on the northern edge of Belize’s maritime territory. The ticket was not cheap, at around BZ72 for each. The boat looked almost exactly like the SeaBus in Vancouver, though smaller and faster. Everyone aboard, the ferry revved its engines and disembarked, its prow rising and cutting through the waves of the Caribbean.
The ride began as exhilarating and settled into one of the most blissful voyages I’ve ever taken. The vessel rose and fell rhythmically. The sea breeze blew through the cabin. The occasional island passed us by, including one tiny atoll taken up by a single mansion. The sun climbed unhurriedly down from the sky, gilding the cerulean blue sea. I felt an urge to immortalize the scene with a photo, but to do so would have cheapened it. This moment felt more at home among synapses instead of pixels.
Things are not beautiful simply because they last forever, and eventually we arrived in port at San Pedro. After breaking past the ubiquitous mob of taxi drivers, we called an Uber. As we drove through the narrow streets of the small commercial center of town, I noticed that there was a substantial number of golf carts zipping around. Golf carts are to San Pedro what motorcycles are to Antigua, and the prevalence of them makes the town feel like some golf course blown out to sea by a hurricane.
I got to talking with the driver. This guy was my first real introduction to the Belize accent: it sounded to me as being similar to the Jamaican accent, if that Jamaican had been brought in a small North Country town in Upstate New York. I had read in my guidebook about gibnut (a local rodent served as a delicacy, most famously to Queen Elizabeth herself), so I asked the dude where I could get my hands on some.
“Oh, ya know, not many places around here, sir” he said. “Belmopan, the mainland, ya know, they sell that. And it’s a delicacy, ya know. Can be expensive, sir.”
“How much?” I asked.
“Oh, ya know, could be twenty dollars.”
“Belize or American?”
We deviated from the main road and turned onto a series of gravel roads sporting deep potholes. The driver unloaded us in front of Pedro’s Inn, a three-story white wooden building. The advantage of this place, as the woman at the front desk explained in a subtle island accent, was that we could use the beaches of all their sister hotels along the coast.
We noticed that the shower did not provide hot water, even after trying all taps and letting it run for a while. Even though I didn’t like, and I know Kristen sure as hell didn’t like it, we shrugged it off; in Guatemala, after all, this was a common problem. However, in that country, the rooms are priced accordingly. For BZ100 a night, though, this shouldn’t have been an issue. Alas, we let it go.
The very next morning, still no hot water. In our trunks, with towels wrapped around our necks and smelling of sunscreen, we complained to the front office, and they said they’d take a look at the water heater. Satisfied that this would be taken care of, we headed off to enjoy the beach.
We walked for a while, following the map the woman had provided us with. We took a shortcut and could see the blue horizon of the sea. Excited, we quickened pace until arriving at the edge of the ocean, where we were met with sand, palm trees, and the most seaweed I’ve ever seen in my life.
“Must not be the right beach,” we agreed, and we kept walking.
We walked for a long time, the sea to our left. Dividing us from the water, unfortunately, were great piles of ugly brown seaweed, two feet high in some places. In one area they were also doing construction of some kind, which further marred the white sands.
Incredulous, I went up to an outdoor bar and asked one of the waiters where the actual beach was.
“Yeah, the sargasso is very bad,” he said, motioning towards the clumps of sargassum piled up at the water’s edge. “It’s been that way for about two years now. It has hurt the tourism.”
I understand that tourism was a vital part of their economy, but there was no universe in which I could recommend these beaches. I had seen better beaches in Texas.
“Well, where are the beaches that don’t have this?” Kristen asked, exasperation evident in her voice.
“You can go to Secret Beach,” the waiter said. “That beach doesn’t have this problem.”
“Awesome,” I said. “Where’s that at?”
“About 40 minutes away,” he said. “By golf cart.”
I resisted the urge to say “Are you ****ing kidding me?” and we left. I felt especially bad for Kristen, who was visibly and vocally let down. Dejected, we went back to the hotel and made use of the pool.
In my mind, I was beginning to compare this town to one of those lazer tag arenas I had played in as a kid, the ones made up to look like some graffiti-spattered urban warehouse, when it was really just a dark room with ramps. San Pedro was a foreigner’s resort, only made up to look like an authentic islander’s village.
Through absolutely no fault of its own, Belize still feels, well, like a colony.
There are several places to eat along Coconut Drive, what locals simply call “the main road,” and over the course of our days in San Pedro we got to sample several of them.
K’s Diner nails the feel of a classic American diner, but not the taste. Interestingly, it is located right to an airstrip used by propeller-driven Tropic Air planes. You can stand right outside and toss a rock underhand and hit a plane preparing to take off. After paying BZ25 for bland fare.
El Fugon, where you can go and feel comfortable around Americans, as if there weren’t enough on the streets for you, was outright robbery, offering uninspiring skewers of chicken for BZ45.
Belikin, the national beer, tastes in no way different from Gallo, which is to say it tastes in no way different from Budweiser.
I never found a place that served gibnut.
Fed up, we ended up ordering pizza. This pizza came from PepperOni’s, and was actually really good.
For $50 a night in Central America, there is simply no reason to not have basic amenities, and so for a second time we ended up complaining to the front desk. The young woman at the counter, who to be fair was very apologetic and polite, moved us across the way to another building. Several minutes of letting the water run and it was still cold. We ended up requesting a night’s money back, which they refunded. Still did nothing about starting and ending our day with cold water.
Frustrated, we set out to get breakfast on our last day. We had found a place online called Estel’s by the Sea. Not affordable, but by then we had given up on finding something that was, and we just wanted food that didn’t suck. It was morning and already the sun was up and beating down on us. Tempers were flaring.
A woman driving a golf cart branded with El Fugon slowed down and pulled up next to us.
Oh Jesus no, I thought, been there, done that.
The woman, a very friendly older woman, instead asked us where we were headed, and if we would like a ride. If was a long walk to get to Estel’s, so we happily agreed and hopped in the back.
The woman’s name was Susannah, and she told us that we would enjoy Estel’s. We got to talking about the state of the beaches, and she echoed the bartender’s advice that Secret Beach would not disappoint us.
She also mentioned that she had grown up in San Pedro, back when it was a very different community.
“I grew up in that house right there,” she said, pointing a row of blue-colored buildings with a view of the sea, now occupied by restaurants and adventure agencies. “We all lived there. My brothers, my sisters, my mother. We would all play together and walk to school together. That was years ago. It has changed. My mother held out as long as she could, but eventually it became too expensive and she had to move.”
Susannah could not have been over 60, tops, and so it was evident that this faux resort was very new. I felt bad that she had lost her childhood home to the encroachment of capitalism, but I was also happy to have met someone who had a tie to this place, for better or for worse, who could inject some personality to this place.
Estel’s ended up being a very nice seaside restaurant. The only locals you’ll see are the ones that come to your table, either with a menu or trinkets for sale, but again, we learned to lower our expectations. Their mimosas are very good, their breakfast filling and flavorful. I highly recommend ordering a serving of their fry jack, which is nothing but fried bread (sort of like the crust of an empanada), but trust me is very tasty. Spread a little of jam on it and kick back to enjoy the waves roll in and out.
We talked it out over breakfast and figured that Secret Beach could in no way be any worse than anything we had seen around here. Being as we were already spending a whole lot for not a whole lot in return, what was another couple of bucks? We’d be broke anyway after this trip. Taking the bartender’s and Susannah’s recommendation, we went down to ATM Cart Rentals on Coconut Drive. $50 got us an eight-hour rental on a golf cart, plus gas.
I hadn’t driven a golf cart since my valet days, so the finicky accelerator took some getting used, as did driving on those cobblestone streets. The streets in San Pedro have little gutters running across them at various intervals. They’re small enough that you can’t really see them until you’re up on them, but they’re deep enough to bounce the hell out of your cart, so keep an eye out for them and watch your speed while in town. Other than that…this part was a ton of fun.
After dropping a bag of laundry off at an American-owned cleaners, and stocking up on snacks at an Asian-owned convenience store, we hit the road. Kristen played some driving music on her phone and we gassed the cart to top speed. We drove out of San Pedro and into the countryside, passing by lagoons and marshes. Eventually the paved roads ended and it was gravel back roads, with the occasional sign to tell us that, yes, we were going in the direction of Secret Beach. It’s not smooth, but we enjoyed it all the same.
Finally, you arrive at Secret Beach, which does not seem very secret at all, but is definitely a beach. A real beach.
While the San Pedro beaches we had been roaming were on the eastern, Caribbean-facing side of the caye, Secret Beach lies on the western side. Shielded from the oceanic currents, there is not a strand of sargasso in sight. There are just palm trees, white sands, and relaxing blue waves.
There were plenty of waiters and other staff keeping watch, so we stowed our stuff and waded out into the water. It was pleasantly warm. We walked over 200 yards out and could still keep our heads above water. We came back and got big coconut margaritas, relaxing in the shade of the palm trees swaying the breeze.
It was pure bliss. We chilled there for several hours, finally watching the sun go down over the waves. Having closed down the beach, we got back in the cart and took off into the night.
The Benque Bus
At the end of our several-day excursion into this country, it was time to board the express ferry back to Belize City. While not as gorgeous as the ride over (a singular moment), it was still wonderful to be out on the waves. We were on the second level, which offered unparalleled views of the cerulean waters, which did not seem all that deep, even this far offshore. It was beyond relaxing; one of the stewards on the boat even climbed over the edge of the handrail and took a nap on the deck. He was awakened with a start by the sound of the horn going off about five feet from him.
However, upon arriving at port, we were told that the intercity buses were not running, this being so close to Easter Sunday. The man at the ferry terminal tried to pressure us into buying what seemed like very expensive passes, so Kristen decided to ask one of the local taxi drivers.
The taxi driver said he would drive us to a local bus station, and from there we would get on the bus to Benque Viejo del Carmen, a border town. From there we could get a taxi back to Flores. Not knowing what to expect from a local Belizean bus but hoping to high hell that it was nothing like a Guatemalan chicken bus, we agreed that this was the best course of action.
The “James Bus Line” station was definitely a local one; this was a bare-bones, no-frills, definitely Central American establishment. We waited with everyone else behind a wrought iron gate and waited for the buses to pull up. These buses looked similar to chicken buses: they were also repurposed school buses, albeit painted less garishly, a cardboard sign in the window declaring the destination. When the bus bearing the name “Benque” pulled up, a surge of humanity pushed through the gate and got on board. I recommend to anyone not accustomed to riding public transit to keep your hands on your phone and wallet, if you can’t put them into a bag. Not just in Central America, anywhere.
After we stowed our bags and clambered up into the school bus, I realized this was the first time I’d been on one since a debate trip back in high school. The interior was standing room only, yet the conductor told everyone to sit down at least until we were clear of the station. A young woman sitting next to me graciously had her young child sit in her lap so I could take a seat. Looking towards the front of the bus, I could see that the cardboard sign, the one outwardly displaying “Benque,” had the name of a school district on the reverse. So it really was a school bus, just not right now.
As the driver took us out of the station, he started playing music, American music, mostly from the ’80s. Cindy Lauper and the like. Was not expecting that. The ride, though a bit packed, was not half-bad. The windows were all down, so there was a wonderful breeze passing through. Along the way we picked up a variety of soldiers, or maybe military school cadets; they were all young and wore what I counted as at least three different styles of camouflage.
The driver slowly worked his way through the crowds, and after we paid our fare (BZ20 apiece), he smiled at us and said, sarcastically, “Welcome to Belize.”
I laughed. Little did he know that we had paid almost twice as much for a bus that was more crowded and had no A/C of any kind. Everything was good.
Until the rain started. What began as a slight drizzle at first turned into a torrential downpour. I’m from Texas, so I’m no stranger to driving in a downpour, but this was on another level. Up went the windows and with them the temperature inside the bus. The pungent smell of cigarette smoke wafted over us; I mentally and sincerely apologized to anyone I had ever sat next to on a train or bus back when I was a smoker. The rain came down harder.
I wasn’t worried at first, but when I started seeing cars parked on the side of the road with their hazards flashing, I began to look for the emergency exits.
I looked out the front windshield and wished I hadn’t: I couldn’t see a thing. And the driver was going pretty fast.
“I don’t like this,” said Kristen.
“I don’t either,” I said. I held her hand tight and just kept an eye on where the exits were, my anxiety rolling through any number of possibilities, including what this this thing went off a bridge and into an overflowing river?
I always travel with a pen, a “tactical” pen. It’s large, made of metal, and the tip of it is actually a sharp piece of pointed metal. Because it just looks like a beefy pen, it is the closest thing you can get to bringing a weapon with you on a plane. This tactical pen serves two purposes: fending off an attacker, or breaking glass in case of an emergency.
My other hand gripped it tight in my pocket.
This was not helped by the fact that I could hear the passengers across the aisle from us begin to whisper in Spanish.
“No se ve nada,” said one of them. “You can’t see anything.”
And all the while that ****ing ’80s music kept playing.
Some Final Thoughts on Belize as a Destination for the Budget-Conscious, Time-Limited Traveler
The people of Belize, at every turn, showed us courtesy. I don’t remember having any kind of negative experiences with the locals. Indeed, Susannah offering us a ride to the restaurant, and the taxi driver helping us out, are two solid examples of the Belizean peoples’ generosity.
With this in mind, then, it pains me to shift focus and look at Belize through the eyes of a typical American, with limited time and limited funds, looking to see the world on a budget. From that point of view, I personally do not think there is much in Belize that you cannot find somewhere else, for a lot less money. The ferry rides were heavenly, Estel’s was good, and Secret Beach was nice. But again, nothing you can’t experience anywhere else. Go to Miami Beach. You’ll experience one of the great beaches of the world and eat better food.
I give Belize the benefit of the doubt that we were simply in a very watered down and overpriced part of it. It’s possible that San Pedro is like the Belizean version of Cancun; yeah, you’re in a foreign country, but not really.
I would like to point out that Belize does have the Garifuna culture, in towns like Dangriga, as well as some reportedly impressive Ancient Mayan sites, like Corozal. The Cayo District, in which Benque Viejo del Carmen is located, is said to have some impressive subterranean caves that you can explore. The Great Blue Hole, a few miles off the coast of the country, is a popular destination for diving and snorkeling.
But those activities do not come cheap. And many of them are not particularly accessible.
In other posts, I’ve mentioned that travel, to me, is much more than pretty Instagram photos. There’s what’s visually appealing on social media, and then there’s what you actually see and experience when you’re there.
You’ll notice this post was heavier on text and lighter on photos. The reason for that is I simply did not find much in San Pedro, nor in Belize City, nor anywhere between Belize City and Benque, worth taking pictures of. The topography is very flat and no towns were particularly interesting.
I never want to be that American that goes to somebody else’s country and speaks ill of it. I always look for something new and noteworthy. But looking for something doesn’t always mean you’re going to find it.
All I know is that we damn near kissed the ground after getting off that bus, and could not wait to get back to Guatemala.