I arose before dawn for the last leg of the southern journey that had been necessitated by the fact that I didn’t get to go to Costa Rica on the bad ship Pamplona one week ago. Oh well. The journey to the Panama border was uneventful, as was the Panama border. I couldn’t be bothered queuing up for stamps in my passport, so I just walked across unchallenged and bought a can of Coke IN PANAMA! Woo! And then I came back to Costa Rica and waited for the bus back up North.
On the return journey, I met Jordan, a boat captain from Florida, who said he might be able to help with the old Cuba chestnut. We were pretty much made to stand for a large portion of the 5-hour journey, but that’s something I learned to do working in the Union Bar, so it wasn’t too problematic for me. Once we got to San Jose, I took Jordan and another backpacker to the hostel I wanted to stay in, the night before (it was lovely and well worth the extra $2, Sophia’s mates!), but I didn’t stay. My bus back to San Salvador left at 3am.
The great Central America relay race was only just beginning.
Back on the groovy bus up through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. No cute girl for me to annoy this time, but I did meet a guy from Texas called John, who was – like myself – backpacking around Central America on his own. The remarkable thing was that he was 86 years old.
I guess you’re never too old to hit the road. Nicaragua was amazing – driving past Lake Nicaragua, which is just HUGE, and seeing the massive, perfectly-formed volcanoes rising out of the middle of it – it looked like the backdrop from The Land Before Time. Honduras was a little less remarkable, but seriously, they don’t generally stick the cool stuff next to the road, do they?
We arrived in San Salvador late that night. The guy on the bus told me there was a bus going north to Guatamala City at 3.00 and I went and did something a little silly – I believed him. So instead of checking into a hostel and getting a few hours shut-eye in a proper bed, I stayed up. I headed to a hostel to try and grab a shower, which cost me $2. I shouldn’t really complain too much that the shower was cold, after all, judging by the warning on the bathroom wall, if it had been hot, the resultant electric shocks would have left me with third-degree burns.
I headed to the Irish Pub, but you can’t catch lightning in a bottle and there was no repeat of Friday night’s high jinks. I left the pub at 2:30am and started looking for a taxi. The streets were dead. Oh dear. I walked and walked. It was now past 3am and I was getting worried. Not just because I was walking about in the dark in a Central American country on my own with no map, carrying all of my bags, credit cards, money, camcorder, laptop etc. but because I thought – more worryingly – I was going to miss my bus.
I went to a 24-hr petrol station. The police were there (same ones I bribed on Friday night perhaps?) and I asked them where I could find some taxis. They shook their heads and asked me where I was going and I told them which bus station it was. Vamos! I think I just hitched a ride with fuzz!
The lovely Salvadorian police chaps dropped me at the bus station just in time for my bus. I thanked them profusely and strode into the bus station. Only – the 3.30am bus didn’t exist! It was more like the 6am bus.
Groan. The bus station was FREEZING. There was nowhere else to go, nothing else to do but to huddle in the corner, sit there and wait and shiver.
I got into Guatemala City about 10am (not much sleep on the bus then) and hopped straight onto a bus for Puerto Barrios on the Caribbean coast. This was the plan for getting to Belize, but it was a little stuffed up by the fact that I was running four hours late. Now Belize isn’t Belizey-Peasy as it’s name suggests. More affiliated with the Caribbean (down fried chicken!) than Latin America, this once-British enclave of Central America is a little off the beaten path and a little tricky to get to. It involves a five-hour coach journey and a couple of boats.
There’s a boat that leaves Puerto Barrios for Punta Gorda in Belize at 2pm and then comes back at 4pm. I got to Puerto Barrios at 5pm. But luckily, I met Ishmael (as in Call me…). This wonderfully crazy guy from Livingstone in Guatemala was on the bus with me from the capital. Now Livingstone is a little town on the Caribbean coast that is only accessible by boat – it’s halfway to Belize.
Ishmael took me under his wing and we headed over Livingstone. He thought he might be able to help me get a private boat over to Punta Gorda and back before it got dark. But it was not to be, it was just too late in the day. He did however, sort me out with a boat the following morning and offer me somewhere to kip for the night.
Ishmael’s place was pretty basic – no electricity or running water, but it had a hammock and you know I’m a sucker for hammocks. So I dropped off my gear and we headed out to what passes for ‘town’ in Livingston (the main street) and had a few drinks, got something to eat and got to hang out with Ishmael’s mates.
Here’s a video of me freaking out that I’m now thirty years old. IT’S DEAD FUNNY:
The boat that Ishmael had got me on (it had been chartered by a German couple – I was cheekily tagging along for the ride) was doing a trip over to Belize early in the morning, and it meant I got a speedy trip over there, and an hour to kick my heels in Punta Gorda (it was election day) before heading back. Ishmael accompanied me on the boat back to the bus station and by one in the afternoon, I was on the bus back to Guatemala City. I don’t know if in the long run this was the quickest way of doing it, but it all worked out alright – even though I was a bit late getting to Guat City, I got an overnight bus to the Mexican border.
By this stage of my Herculean bus ride, it had been a week since I’d had a hot shower. To say I was beginning to smell a little ripe, would be an understatement! The bus got me to the Mexican border before Mexico had decided to open for the day, so I found myself waiting for a) Mexico to open, and b) the bus to the capital to show up. I had been told that the bus arrived at 10am. But you should know by now not to trust anything anyone says, ever. It came at 1pm.
I was so excited to be back in Mexico – Mexican FOOD!! Woo! Enchiladas, Nachos, Burritos, Fajitas OH YEAH…
I just wanted to stuff my big greedy face, but a nasty side effect of the malaria tablets I’ve been taking (incorrectly – they aren’t joking when they say plenty of water) is that when I eat or drink anything I get a sharp pain in my chest – like when you eat too many cold McCain’s Oven Chips too fast. So I did a great Homer-eating-Pinchy impression over dinner – dinner that we didn’t stop for until midnight.
It was an overnight bus, and it was pretty grotty. I didn’t get to make any new friends, so I just turned on my ipod, looked out of the window at the ever-changing landscape and zoned out.
All I got to see of Mexico City was the outskirts and the bus station, but I hear it’s not much too look at anyway. Driving close to Tikal in Guatemala without getting to see it, was much more upsetting for me. We arrived at about 7am. A well-timed bus left the capital for Nuevo Laredo (on the US border) about 90 minutes later.
This bus was the best of the lot – cheap, fast and it showed a load of great movies – including Leon (The Professional) and Babel – makes a change from the 1980s action movies that tend to dominate this sector of captive audience entertainment. Although I really don’t understand why Central American bus drivers insist on setting the air conditioning to Hot.
Outside, the landscape was becoming more and more arid and dry – greenery had given way to cacti and dust. This was the Mexico we all know and love, but before I knew it, we had hit the border with the U. S. of A.
I had two hours to get across the border. It was 2am, nobody was there so I figured I had plenty of time. But it took ages. And, annoyingly, the taxi driver who took me over the bridge didn’t stop on the Mexican side to get me stamped out. The yanks didn’t care about that, they just kept me talking for an hour while they searched my bags three – yes three – separate times. Carlos the Jackal here, yeah.
By the time US immigration had finished with me (thankfully no rubber gloves involved), I had to hurry to the Greyhound bus station so didn’t have time to go back to Mexico and get stamped out. Hope I don’t have to go back to Mexico any time soon – they might not let me back in.
USA! USA! Not far to go now. I’ve got to say, the Greyhound buses ARE THE WORST FORM OF TRANSPORT IN THE WORLD – grotty, no films, no snacks, grumpy-as-hell drivers…
My first driver actually got pulled by the police for speeding!
My second driver told me off for filming out of the window. Seriously.
Had I not just come from the CHEAPER air-conned, hosted, free snack giving, European arthouse-film screening Latin American buses, I might consider this behaviour a little odd. As it is, it disgusts me. America deserves better.
I’d love to regale you with stories from the road a-la Dean Moriarty, but seriously – the big American concrete freeways are about as appealing as an afternoon in a wet plastic bag. There’s not much to see. If you ever drive America, keep to the old roads! From the border to Houston, I got chatting with a lovely girl from Nicaragua called Jackie – but from Houston to Baton Rouge in Louisiana, I had nobody who wanted to chat with me. Although my heart goes out to the poor kid in the seat in front of me – the guy sitting next to him was one of those headcases who says things like “I’ve done every drug in the world, but now I’ve found Jesus and I’ve cleaned myself up.”
That’s nice. Very happy for you mate. “Now promise me you’ll never do drugs – you don’t need them – you just need Jesus in your heart”. He made the kid shake on it. If my eyes could have rolled any further in my head, they would have severed my optic nerve!
We rolled through the great big State of Texas and into Louisiana. A traffic jam doomed us to getting into Baton Rouge two hours late. We had missed the connecting bus, but the driver told us ‘Florida-goers’ to stay on the bus – they’ll catch up. So we went on via New Orleans (didn’t see the old town, only the nasty concrete mess around the bus station) and caught up with my connection in Alabama.
Shattered tired by now, I got on my fourteenth long-distance bus of the last nine days.
I slept through to Orlando in Florida and then got on my last bus (for a few days at least) heading for Fort Lauderdale.
This time last week, I was in Panama. That’s Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida in less time than I spent in the Dominican Republic. When there’s no water in the way, I can travel. And I can travel FAST.
But that brings me to the last pieces of the jigsaw – Bahamas and Cuba. Bahamas is easy – there’s a cruise that goes there and back every day from Fort Lauderdale. Cuba however, is a different kettle of fish.
I’m staying in the Bridge II hostel. One of the guys who is sharing an apartment with me is a ex-navy, bomb disposal expert called Robbie. After over two months of travel, I was keen for a bit of normality in my life, so I suggested we go to the flicks to see Watchmen. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
Afterwards, we went out for a couple of drinks in one of those brilliant American bars where chicks in hot pants actually dance on the bar. Oh yeah, and for the first time in fourteen years, I got I.D.’d! But…but…I’ve got a beard! Well, it worked when I was 16.
Here’s the best bits of the bus trip from Guatemala to Florida:
Spent the day on the phone and on the net trying to sort out, how the hell I’m going to get to Cuba. However, I did win a $10 bet with Robbie that I couldn’t stuff an entire (large) packet of extra strong mints in my mouth and eat them all. In your face Robbie!!
I’ve got to say, Fort Lauderdale is monumentally unappealing – it’s got hundreds of those retail parks you get on the outskirts of every damn city in the world these days, but without a historic centre in the middle of it all to make it better.
It’s Spring Break over here in USA, which is a bit like half-term only with more sex, drugs and rock and roll. There’s a load of rowdy college kids staying in our hostel, drinking, making noise, causing trouble. Brilliant. Needless to say, we hit the bars together and a good night was had by all. Wish I didn’t have to get up at 5am to get the boat to The Bahamas…
As I write this, I’m sitting in a lounge on the day cruise over to The Bahamas. It’s usually about $40 there and back, but because it’s Spring Break, they’ve hiked the price up to $120. But still, it’s cheaper than paying for your own boat.
It’s an old-ish boat. There’s dented plastic panelling on the ceiling and gourdy little golden lights set into it. There are mirrors everywhere that have bent and distorted with time and the seats are various shades of Opal Fruit. There’s a soul-destroying casino, not enough sun-loungers outside, the air-con is set to ‘Arctic Blast’ inside. There’s a television in the corner of the bar showing fuzzy basketball games. There’s a small pool, but it’s too cold for anyone to bother swimming. There’s that constant humming and vibration that makes me wonder why people willingly plonk themselves on cruises like this for weeks on end. All I can think is Hi-De-Hi Campers!
While the engine goes hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm all night long.
It’s really not for me.
The boat’s packed full of college kids (presumably taking advantage of the fact they can actually buy alcohol in The Bahamas), which gives the boat a bit of a youthful, party atmosphere that you don’t really get on the Caribbean Cruisers – which is good – although I wish they would stop whistling the Raiders theme at me.
Back on the boat now…had a good couple of hours in Grand Bahama, nice beach – shame about the soulless development surrounding it. Looks like an outlet village. But now the only countries left to visit in the Americas both begin with ‘C’, and end in ‘A’. But one is going to be MUCH easier to get to than the other. I’m totally bricking it for one of them, that I’m not going to be able to get there. Now…where did I put my beer?