Nicaragua was one of those countries I’d been dreaming of for some time. In fact, I bought the guidebook several years ago in what turned out to be a trip that never happened. The guidebook sat on my bookshelf for some time, like a big piece of pie that you knew you were going to eat… eventually. Ok bad analogy I know because pies don’t sit on shelves for years at a time but you get the picture.
Every now and then, I’d pull the pie, excuse me, I mean guidebook off the shelf and thumb through it. As I read through it I’d imagine what it would be like to walk the streets of Managua and see the old church with the clock still stuck at the exact time of the horrible 1972 earthquake that leveled Managua and killed thousands. I’d also walk along the streets of Leon, Granada and even visit the twin volcanic islands of Omotepe.
I read how Nicaragua was still very rural with pigs, cows, chickens and horses still roaming even the main highways. I read how baseball was more popular than soccer (futbol), one of the few happy byproducts of U.S. intervention over the years, this one from the early 20th century.
The guidebook pointed out that Nicaragua is becoming the next hotspot budget destination for travelers looking to explore Central America and as I was to finally find out, for good reason. Now in order to be a budget destination it stands that things need be cheap and in general, in Nicaragua they are.
Compared to nearby Belize, Nicaragua has just as much, if not more, natural beauty at a fraction of the price. Supposedly the people of Nicaragua are even more economically disadvantaged compared to Belize and other Latin American countries, but I have to be honest the standard of living in Nicaragua seemed better than Belize and on par with the rest of Latin America. However, please keep in mind I’m going by a grand total of 1 week in each country so I guess I’ll believe Wikipedia… for now.
When I finally arrived in Nicaragua it was largely as I expected… but in some ways better. We arrived, in the middle of the night, in the small tobacco town of Esteli. When I woke up the next morning to take the town in, I could already see why travelers flock to Nicaragua. It was simply lovely.
Our scheduled visit to the Rivadella & Recon Cigar tobacco shop was cool, but it was serendipitously interrupted by a stop at the Sonati Hostel. There we met Arnon Dottner, an Israeli ex-patriot and founder of Sonati. Sonati is a non-profit organization that is 100% self-sustainable and working to maintain the environment while helping Nica farmers and students.
One of the many challenges in a country like Nicaragua is convincing farmers, who may be barely scraping by, to farm in a manner that takes a more environmental, long-term focus into view. Like so many worthwhile organizations we met while on our journeys, Sonati works with farmers to show how sustainable agriculture techniques can actually increase their yield as well as their income while preserving or even improving the environment.
Sonati also works with young Nica students to teach them to appreciate & preserve the natural beauty around them. Sonati is largely sustained by its hostels (Leon and Esteli) by offering eco tours. Volunteers mostly run the hostels on a day-to-day basis, but hostel guests can also volunteer to help out in a variety of ways. Such as at local farms, which is where we ran into the fine students & teachers from the Chessum Grammar School in the U.K.
These young British volunteers were doing what is called a home-stay, which means actually living on a family farm in rural Nicaragua. Yes, that means using an outhouse (I’m sure many, if not all of them, for the very first time), sleeping and eating like a local farm family and helping the surrounding community by planting trees, building solar lamps for houses, painting eco-themed murals, and in general helping to beautify the area.
It wasn’t all work and no play for the cheerful bunch from Chessum. While we were there, the whole community was gathered to eat, drink, relax and catch a baseball game. And we’re not talking a last minute pick-up game of rag tag baseball. This was a semi-professional league with uniforms, umpires and equipment… the whole nine yards.
I was enraptured in one of the games and briefly forgot I was on a farm, in a remote part of rural Nicaragua, when I noticed something slippery & squishy around my feet. This was a vaguely familiar feeling (I grew up on a farm in Tennessee) of what standing in fresh cow dung felt like. Ahhh the farm life. I kind of don’t miss it.
I was also jolted back to reality when a screaming foul ball came within inches of taking out our most expensive camera, which was perched like a target on a tripod directly behind home plate. Probably not so smart of us as the shoot was almost over before it got started! But on the flip side we captured some great footage.
As much as I liked Esteli, it simply can’t compare to the travel darlings of Leon and Granada. While they both rely heavily on tourism, these two cities are very different. While both have loads of history including historic buildings, churches, etc. throughout, Leon is as liberal as Granada is conservative. Leon (Lion in Spanish) is named after the ubiquitous lion statues and monuments all around. What came first the name or the statues, I’m not sure… but it is largely a college town and as such attracts a young, partying adventure/tourist crowd who are there to do things like hike, bike, volcano surf, and canoe.
Arnon from Sonati hooked us up on a volcano hiking and surfing tour that I will probably remember the rest of my life. The hike to the top of Cerro Negro Volcano takes a good 30-45 minutes and at the top the wind is so intense, it makes it hard to do much of anything but hunker down and hang on. The view is incredible from that height and my only regret was that we had all this expensive camera gear to deal with, and I was so concerned about it and the safety of the crew I didn’t really get to enjoy the view as much as I would have liked to. I was genuinely worried about crew getting hurt and the cameras being blown off the side of the volcano.
Maybe I should have been worried about the fact that we were climbing and surfing down a very active volcano (last major eruption just in 1999).
But the trip down is what is so amazing. Volcano boarding while sitting on your butt is pretty easy, and doesn’t require a ton of skill. Just some bravery. Some chose to try it standing up, which I didn’t even consider given the steepness of the terrain. Regardless of your technique it’s not a clean ride. You’re going to get lava rock in every crease and crevice imaginable and I definitely recommend wearing the protective “prison” jumpsuit. Some poor souls were there with nothing but shorts… ouch!
To dial down the adrenaline we headed to nearby Granada, which is a bit more laid back and romantic. We took a horse and carriage tour through the colonial downtown in order to get a typical tourists’ point of view. Salvador, our local driver & guide, reminded me that when another Tennessean came through Granada, he was executed. He was speaking of William Walker ,who briefly took control of the Presidency of Nicaragua in an attempt to unite Central America and make it a part of the Confederate States during the Civil War. That was a while back but just in any case, I kept my Tennessee origins under wraps for the rest of the trip.
Near Granada is the small town of Masaya, known for its craft market. In fact, most, if not all of the country’s crafts originate from Masaya. The craft market is pretty easy to spot because it’s housed in an early 19th century castle. You can also, usually, take in some excellent Nicaraguan folkloric dancing on weekend nights as we did with the lovely dancers from “Rostros de mi Pueblo” and “Son Latinos”.
But I think the real beauty of Nicaragua lies in its small, rural towns and villages. We were headed to the small town of Rivas when we happened upon a tiny village that was having a very big Celebration of Santa Ana. Colorfully costumed and masked participants paraded with an image of the Virgin of Santa Ana throughout the one street of the town. With dancing and music the entire way, it was kind of like a mini version of Mardi Gras or Carnival.
These types of celebrations go on at various times of the year and have been going on for generations. The only part that proved problematic was that the parade progressed at a glacial pace down the only road in town. It was about 2 miles from the main highway, and we were stuck behind it with no way around and another scheduled shoot to attend (and no minutes on our cell phone to give anyone a heads up as to our tardiness).
I gently, but rather impatiently guided our stick shift rental car behind the parade, careful not to nudge grandma, the old guy on crutches or the kids who kept insisting to ride on our bumper. I was cursing myself for simply not thinking ahead and parking the car near the main highway in order to walk into town to get the 15 minutes of footage we needed. But alas this is what happens when you get caught up in the serendipitous opportunities that arise when travel and a shooting schedule collide.
My crew and I sighed. It’s a story we know oh too well… half a day spent to get maybe 30 or 45 seconds of footage that will make the final cut.
2 hours later when we finally reached the main road. It was off to Rivas where we’d eventually catch a 45-minute or so ferry to the islands of Omotepevia Lake Nicaragua. Omotepe is an indigenous word that roughly translated means “two volcanoes”. I wonder what the word is for “active” as these are also two very active volcanoes (the last activity was a fairly recent 1999).
Omotepe is lovely but isolated and bigger than it looks on a map. You can’t just walk or bike everywhere. We had heard that public transportation was spotty and rough so we took the rental car over with us on the ferry, which was relatively cheap. We were able to drive across most of the two islands and get a real sense of the lifestyles on each unique island.
Managua is usually the first stop for tourists when visiting Nicaragua, but since we bussed in from Honduras (and it was raining the first time we passed through) it turned out to be our last stop before catching a bus onward south to Costa Rica. Other than the old city, which had been leveled by the 1972 earthquake, the guidebook was pretty sparse (and dated) with information on Managua.
Luckily, I have a good Nica-American buddy in Los Angeles with relatives living in Managua. My buddy Francisco hooked me up with his brother Hader who gave us an insider’s tour. You don’t need a guide to see the incredible amount of construction going on (some say the Sandinista government currently in power can’t afford it and will regret it in a few years when the financing comes due, but for now it’s exciting to see it take shape).
It seems an ambitious attempt to completely renovate Managua’s infrastructure (or perhaps to spend tax money as quickly as possible), but Hader provided us with some of the unknown history of the old downtown. Most of it now functions as the government center.
I stood in awe, finally taking in the famous clock in the abandoned buildings from that fateful Christmas Eve in 1972. The devastating earthquake hurt more than buildings. It would displace tens of thousands and claim the lives of thousands of Nicas, including baseball star and humanitarian, Roberto Clemente who had rushed to deliver supplies. Clemente felt moved to do something because so much international aid was not getting through to the people who needed it most: most say it was due to a corrupt Nicaraguan government at the time. Sound familiar… Haiti anyone?
Managua gets short shrift in most guidebooks, but it shouldn’t. The city is undergoing a renovation that will, if seen through, potentially make it one of the more modern Central American capital cities. The lakefront area near Ciudad Viejo (Old City) with restaurants and bars looks like it would be a blast on a weekend night.
Nicaragua… rural landscapes, colonial buildings, city sophistication, baseball… friendly folks and farms with pigs, horses, ducks… plus, of course lots and lots of cow dung… I felt right at home!
The attempted scam began innocently enough and could have happened to any traveler. I booked a car online using the popular website Kayak.com as I’ve done dozens, perhaps hundreds of times.. Except this time it was for Roatan, the popular island and diving spot just off the coast of Honduras.
I had plenty of economically feasible rental car options to choose from, but I chose Dollar Rental Carbecause they are a familiar company I’ve used many times over the years. I figured a brand name company like Dollar would help me avoid any potential headaches from renting in a developing country where I suspected they had few protections for consumers.
I was wrong.
HEY DOLLAR RENTAL CAR…. ARE YOU THERE?
We arrived to Roatan via a ferry from the mainland in semi rough seas that had about ½ the passengers hurling into bags. I was cool, so long as I kept my head down and my eyes off of the other retching passengers.
After claiming our luggage and asking several taxi drivers where Dollar Rental Car was located, we were met with another sea, but this time a sea of blank stares that then led to huddled conferences among the taxi drivers. Eventually receiving wildly conflicting information. No one, it seems, had even heard of Dollar Rental Car much less knew the location.
I proceeded to call the Roatan telephone # provided for Dollar by KAYAK from my reservation email but to no avail. The phone # was disconnected and no forwarding number was provided. Hmmmm… more than frustrating this would turn out to be RED FLAG #1. .
Finally a lone driver stepped forward and claimed to know where Dollar’s rental office was located. Ten minutes later our driver pulls into what is essentially a wooden shack with two small Dollar Rental Car signs haphazardly tacked up to the chain link fence and an even smaller, home printer printed sign tacked or taped to a small shack that apparently served as the Roatan’s Dollar Rental Car. “This is their office?” I thought.
The shack had a very temporary feel to it, especially in comparison to the other rental car companies surrounding it. Suddenly I regretted not booking with another, even an “off brand” rental car company.
The “office” interior wasn’t any more appealing, consisting of a couple of folding chairs, a desk and an old computer terminal. But hey, function over form right? Well, the function was a sticking point as well. The lone woman in the office was busy tapping her mobile device and didn’t even look up, much less acknowledge us when we walked into the shack, creating an awkward moment until eventually I broke the silence by asking “hello, do you work here?”. That led to an even more awkward grunt that I could not decipher as either “yes” or “no”, so I waited.
Finally some young, rotund (not shorthand for someone from Roatan) guy in shorts, an ill-fitting t-shirt and flip flops came into the office and somewhat took charge.
I asked if Dollar’s phone # changed or something and he replied that he thought we were coming in by plane not by boat. What this had to do with their telephone # not working I’m not sure, but I was so relieved that they actually had our reservation that I let it slide.
CARS RUN ON GAS?
The guy proceeded to pull out a boiler plate Dollar Rental Car Contract and filling it out by hand. He then asked me what our rate was. I was further confused. “Don’t you have a record?” I asked as I dig into my bag for my laptop to pull up the reservation.
Finally we both confirmed the rate of $37 U.S. per day and he asked me to sign on the dotted line. There was none of the usual insurance disclaimer or up sells. In fact, there was no mention of insurance at all.
This would turn out to be RED FLAG #2, but we were late already so I didn’t argue.
When his helper pulled the tiny economy car around, we piled our luggage and ourselves in like clowns in a clown car and we were ready to take off when I noted that the fuel was not only on empty, the gauge was sitting on the wrong side of the “E” symbol. Was it broken? We half hoped. Nope! There was just no gas in the car, well, there was enough to pull the car around in the lot form the back to the front, but was there enough to get us where we could gas up? That was the mystery.
We all nervously tittered and laughed about possibly running out of gas in Honduras, but I was seriously concerned as we had very real time constraints and something like running out of gas could seriously jeopardize our shoot. Our entire purpose for being in Roatan in the 1st place was to produce for our Honduras episode of Raw Travel (launching Oct. 5th in the U.S.).
The guys at Dollar assured me there was a gas station just a couple of miles down the road and that the car would make it there and we did. But not before some very nervous moments and not before filming the thing on our Go Pro camera just for laughs. Who rents a car to a customer on empty? No, not even on empty but past empty? Evidently Dollar Rental Car in Roatan that is who. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present RED FLAG #3.
WE HARDLY DROVE THE CAR
This was my 2nd time in Roatan and I sort of knew the lay of the land. We were heading to the West End of the island which is where most of the action we needed to document happens and was only a 20-25 minute drive away from the airport and the rental car agency.
I was torn over whether we actually needed a car, but in the end decided on one in case we needed to drive to other parts of the island. Since we were going to be in Roatan less than 24 hours I felt I wouldn’t take chances in case we needed a vehicle to chase a good story.
Turns out, one of the stories WOULD be the Dollar Rental Car experience and will hopefully serve as a warning for other unsuspecting travelers to Honduras or any other country that Dollar Rental Car operates that they do not take responsibility for the action of their agents in other countries.
As things turned out we didn’t need the car. We promptly drove to the west End, checked into our hotel and began setting up shoots for that afternoon and the next morning. The West End is easily covered on foot so the car remained parked until it was time to return it and catch the early afternoon ferry back to the mainland. What little we drove the car was 100% without incident.
The next day, right on schedule we returned the little car to the Dollar Rental car shack this time with an 1/8 tank of gas so at least the next customer wouldn’t be sweating bullets wondering if they will be stranded in Roatan after renting from Dollar (unless of course the staffers go joy riding after hours).
Mr. T-shirt and flip-flops, and his hearty assistant from the day before inspected the car and gave it a “good to go” thumbs up. The assistant then drove us a few miles back to the boat ferry. No issues and again no problems with the car whatsoever just some small talk about Roatan, our trip, living in the U.S., etc.
Mr. Assistant made it clear we were early for our ferry and had plenty of time to eat at the ferry station ,which we proceeded to do immediately after waving goodbye and thought we’d seen the last of the Roatan Dollar Rental Car folks.
We checked in for the ferry, breezed through security and had some lunch. While we were waiting around for our departure time is when the Dollar Rental Car scam kicked into high gear.
IT’S “SCAMMER” TIME
I emerged from the restroom when one of my travel mates alerted me that some guys from Dollar Rental Car were in the lobby of the ferry terminal and wished to see me. I thought maybe I had left something in the car or something so I walked outside to the lobby where 2 guys I’d never seen before, wearing official looking red polo shirts with Dollar Rental Car logos, were waiting for me and glaring my direction severely. The younger of the two spoke English and told me in his most grown up voice that there was a problem with the car.
I sighed. Here it comes. After all this time, all these red flags, here is the very scam I’d been hoping to avoid. I tried to remain calm. “What problem?! I barely drove it” I replied.
The young guy then proceeded to tell me that somehow I had messed up the transmission or something or another. I laughed at the audacity of the claim. He pulled out his mobile phone, which already had a man on the other line claiming to be the “manager” and asked me to come back to the office. The ferry would be leaving soon so that was not possible I said.
This official sounding gentleman, who spoke perfect English, then went straight into full scam mode accusing me of screwing up the transmission and “ruining the car” and said I was going to “have to pay something”.
I relayed to him that I had barely driven it and said that if there had been a problem with the car why didn’t Mr. Assistant who drove us to the ferry say something then? Wouldn’t he have noticed something? Maybe he messed up the car on the drive back to the office form the ferry or maybe, just maybe, there was nothing wrong with the car in the first place. Were they just some guys trying to extort a little money from tourists?
He replied that Mr. Assistant had alerted them that there HAD been a problem with the car when he dropped us at the ferry and when he returned it to the shack it was damaged and I owed money to fix the car.
I was on the verge of hanging up when he asked me if I’d ever driven a stick (manual transmission) before.
I informed Mr. Official Sounding Voice (AKA the manager) that I’d driven a stick many times, including learning how to drive as a preteen on a stick on the farm I grew up on many years ago.
After more back and forth and my voice beginning to raise a bit, a small crowd was now gathering as more travelers arrived to catch the ferry. I finally wearied of this brazen scam and told Mr. Official Sounding Voice the truth. I told him that we were in Roatan filming a travel show and that we had videotaped the pickup of the car and would now begin filming this incident and since the whole thing is taped documentary style it would be no trouble at all to put the whole thing on national TV for the world to see in a cute little segment entitled “Dollar Rental Car Tries to Scam Us”.
I gave him the name and website (www.RawTravel.tv) of the show and told him to look it up. He paused, and then asked to speak to his “mechanic”, the other employee. After a brief conversation in Spanish the mobile was returned back to me.
Mr. Official Sounding said “never mind” and that even though I had ruined the car he was going to forget about it.
That is when I really got mad. Really? You are going to forget all about me ruining a car now?
NOT THE OLD “I PRODUCE A TRAVEL SHOW” ROUTINE?
All it took for him to give up this charade was for me to simply offer up some potentially damaging publicity? If I had really damaged the car would he have rolled over so easily?
What if I hadn’t been a producer for a travel show and had been just on vacation as I was in 2010 when I first visited Roatan? What of the people who, like me, use Kayak and rent from Dollar Rental Car because of the brand recognition and they think this will protect them from scam artists like these clowns who prey on unsuspecting tourists?
How many people are afraid of any issues like this in another country and simply pay these guys money to go away and forget the whole thing?
I told him too late. This WAS going on TV and nothing he can say or do will stop it. I hung up the phone, pointed to the two guys and said something like “the next time you try to scam somebody you better, you better…” and just like in a bad sitcom show I could not find the words to finish my sentence in English or Spanish. So I stormed off, but I think they got the point.
To be honest I’m not sure what I said exactly, but I wish I had it to do over again. I would have played along longer with the scam, gathered my Go Pro camera and gotten the names, images on tape, etc. before unloading the travel show truth on them.
But I had a ferry to catch and let’s face it, in the heat of the moment, you don’t always think rationally and that is exactly what the scam artists are hoping.
Dollar is supposed to be a legitimate business operating in a very popular tourism destination as a service to their customers worldwide. Yet, when I contacted them about this issue thinking I was doing them a favor reporting on some rogue agents using their good name in order to scam unsuspecting travelers, they took days to get back to me. Then they absolved themselves of any responsibility stating they sent the Roatan managements an email.
They sent them an email? The so-called and alleged managers are the very ones who tried to commit the scam in the 1st place and all Dollar does is send an email? What did the email say? “Bad agents… bad!” or perhaps “better luck next time guys”.
You can see Dollar Rental Car’s response to my emails below as well as my follow up email to them to which they have thus far never responded (as of 8/13/13).
I’ve always had positive dealings with Dollar in the U.S., which is why I’m shocked and disappointed that Dollar would ignore this problem, and by doing so essentially be complicit in potential alleged fraud that could be committed against their own customers.
If Dollar runs their business like a solid citizen in the U.S., why allow potential scam artists apparent free rein and risk customer good will just because the location is abroad? Something doesn’t smell right.
I wonder if they might change their mind come next spring when the Honduras episode hits the airwaves and this smelly business is out in the open for all to see? I guess we’ll find out won’t we.
EMAIL FROM DOLLAR RENT A CAR JULY 27th, 2013
Hi Robert, Thank you for contacting us. I have forwarded your message to the location’s management to review and address. I’m sorry but we do not comment on behalf of our franchisees, who are independently-owned and operated businesses. Anna B. / Manager, Corporate Communications
MY RESPONSE TO DOLLAR RENTAL CAR ON JULY 28th
Thank you for finally replying to my concerns. However, I must admit I’m pretty taken aback by your response. I want to make sure I understand it accurately. Are you saying it is acceptable for your independently owned franchisees to attempt fraud while operating under Dollar’s franchise agreements?
Are there any steps made by Dollar to protect consumers in locations like Honduras where the consumers are led to believe they are dealing with a reputable U.S. company when in fact, they are dealing with independent operators with which, assuming your statement is accurate, you have little to no control, even in cases of potential criminal activity?
Why would Dollar give the rights to your name, logo and branding if you cannot insure consumers are protected against potentially criminal behavior?
Are you comfortable with your statement going public in our Honduras episode of Raw Travel? (The episode is currently scheduled to air in March 2014).
We crossed the border from Guatemala to Honduras at the small town of Copan Ruins and even before we arrived into town I began to notice the old timers with cowboy hats & boots. This was cowboy country. But people don’t come here to look at cowboys. They come here for the Mayan ruins that the town derives its name from, the incredible Copan Ruins.
Unlike sites in Mexico, we received nothing but cooperation and help from the local tourism office located at the site of the ruins. They gave us written permission to film and hooked us up with an excellent, English speaking guide for our tour. The ruins are huge (still only about 20% uncovered) and feature the most complete and amazing hieroglyphics found in the Americas.
The town itself is lovely, and except for the security guards armed with sawed off shotguns at every bank, ATM or government building, has a mostly tranquil air to it. Locals and tourists mix seamlessly and you can easily get around the cobblestone streets by catching a cheap ride on one of the countless tri-moto taxis buzzing around.
San Pedro Sula
From there we headed to San Pedro Sula where we met up with 2 local friends, Miriam and Etel, who graciously guided us around town. We visited the local market where we had Baleadas, which many Hondurans have for breakfast. Except for waaay too much butter on mine (I don’t generally eat raw butter) it was delicious.
Later we visited a really cool, company named Techos Verde (Green Roofs), an award winning and forward thinking company spearheading the “green” architecture movement in Central America. They combine the practical with the environmental. This isn’t pie in the sky, utopian thinking, this is real stuff happening now. It makes so much sense (economically and environmentally) that I can’t foresee that buildings and homes will be built via any other way within 20 years. What they are able to make from old metal shipping containers is absolutely amazing and could be a game changer for broad based, energy efficient and economical housing in Latin America.
The highlight of SPS was perhaps the moment Etel’s car overheated on a busy freeway creating some very tense minutes. I ended up flagging down and warning high speed drivers to please slow down as there was no shoulder for us to completely get off the road safely. The SPS police passed by a couple of times and whistled and laughed at us. Lovely… very civic minded fellas those guys.
Finally a small truckload of 4 Honduran National Military Soldiers rolled up and offered to tow us to a gas station in town with a chain they happened to have in the bed of their 4WD truck. We spent the next ½ hour or so being towed at a slow speed by this truckload of good Samaritan Honduran soldiers who were nice, polite and eager to be of service. My hats off and another round of thanks to these good guys who put the local SPS Police to shame.
From San Pedro Sula it was off to the coastal town of Telaon the way to La Ceiba.Tela is a small beach town where Honduran’s have been vacationing for years. It’s a perfect day trip from either San Pedro Sula or La Ceiba. The beaches aren’t particularly lovely and you have a feeling the town is a little past its heyday. But the people are very nice and we serendipitously ran into one of the local musicians who made his living playing local Honduran music on the beach. He treated us to his original rendition of the appropriate song “Tela”.
Rightly so, Tela has a reputation for being dangerous these days. While I didn’t experience it personally (I ran on the desolate beach and city streets at night and nary a problem), one of the old timers we ran into on the straight put it this way, “This used to be paradise, but now it is a hell”. The local director of tourism for Tela, Ferdinand, offered to us that some banks and the government had pledged some pretty big bucks to fix Tela up and restore it to its former glory, so time will tell if maybe paradise can come yet again.
La Ceiba & Sambo Creek
Most people visit La Ceibaeither to visit one of the nearby Garifuna communities or more likely to catch a ferry to the diving hotspot island of Roatan. We would do both.
First it was off to Sambo Creek, a beautiful Garifuna fishing village just a few kilometers outside of La Ceiba. We headed straight to the beautiful, natural beach to capture some b-roll & photos as we waited for the President (essentially the mayor) of the village to show up. We were immediately greeted by 4 or 5 of the happiest (and completely naked) little kids I’ve ever seen. They had been happily bathing in the warm sea water. The boys, too young to care about their complete nakedness, came bouncing up to us shouting “hola” and extending their hands for handshakes like somber young men to welcome us and then it was all smiles as they began breaking into singing and dancing.
Their enthusiasm was contagious and for a moment I was jealous of their freedom (but not enough to shed my clothes).
We spent the next few minutes entertaining each other. We’d teach them a few basic words in English and video tape them and then playing back their images to their utter delight.
The cool ocean breeze, the swaying palm trees and these cute, innocent and completely happy kids put me in a great almost euphoric mood. I was suddenly very happy to be doing what I was doing and finally stopped worrying about producing the show and started enjoying the moment. Kids are truly a tonic and I am amazed at the happiness of the poorest of them if they are simply provided the basics of food, health and love. However, I then noticed a couple of f them had distended bellies, which can be a sign of a lack of protein and I was brought back down to the harsh reality these kids are dealing with.
Sambo Creek has television and access to internet, but it is a bit off the beaten path and many people live pretty basic. A small but burgeoning travel & tourism industry has helped provide some much needed income to some of the villagers.
We finally hooked up with Omar, the President of the village, who was a very likable and intelligent man who looked to be in his 30s. Omar had spent some time in the U.S. and had returned home to give back to his community. Like any leader of a small town, he knew everyone and everyone knew him.
After a brief tour of Sambo Creek where he filled us in on the villages history, he then guided us to a family on the outskirts of town that did not have access to the potable drinking water. The rest of the town has been getting clean drinking water for the last 5 or so years thanks to an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) from Spain who helped the town install a water tower and filtration system.
I had been toting around a couple of water filtration devices form Sawyer Products,an excellent water filtration, insect repellent and sunscreen company, that has helped thousands of families all over the world get access to clean, drinkable water thanks to their cutting edge water filtration technology.
All we needed was a bucket, and to follow the filtration installation instructions Sawyerprovides via video, and within 20 minutes or so we were able to help this family get access to drinkable water like most of the rest of their town. Installation was a success and the crew and I all breathed a big sigh of relief.
We all have our different talents, but putting things together is not one of them. Luckily the video instructions provided by Sawyer are pretty much dummy proof and if you can put together a bookshelf from Ikea then you can put together this water filtration system, which is also very affordable by U.S. standards.
I invite other travelers to think about carrying a water filtration kit when they travel, either for personal use (to cut down on plastic bottle consumption) and/or as a gift to a family that may live in an area without potable water.
Then it was off by ferry to the island of Roatan. Roatan is gorgeous and has some of the best and most economical scuba diving in the Americas, which is why it’s jam-packed full of travelers. Most of them English speakers.
We spent almost all our time on the West End which is where most of the action occurs. I’m not a diver but we did talk to plenty, including the famous dive shop Coconut Tree Divers. They filled us in on the growth of Roatan,which was evident in the 3 or so years since I’d last visited.
I was able to finally do something I’d been longing to do for some time, stand up paddle-board, which surprisingly and for a change, is actually easier than it looks. Steve at Steve’s Paddle Shackwas right when he guaranteed I’d be upright and paddling within 10 minutes. I think I was upright within 3 minutes and the entire time I didn’t even get wet! It was a great work out and was so tranquil out on the water. I’m afraid I’m hooked for life.
Another way to enjoy Roatan’s West End without getting wet is to hook up with Captain Karl Stanley at Stanley Submarine. I really enjoyed chatting with Karl and getting to know his story. Karl is an ex-pat from New Jersey but has been on the island for a while. He is a genius, semi-celebrity and pioneer in submarine building, having built his first one when he was just a teen.
This particular submarine was completely hand built by Karl and regularly takes tourists onboard and the occasional professional marine biologists or (as was the case while we were there) documentary film crew, which sadly for us, meant we couldn’t go down. I’m not sure that I would have wanted to, because while Karl obviously knows his stuff and has been on hundreds of successful dives, he has had a few hairy moments during his submarine career which he regaled us with.
When you consider what can happen (your eyes pop out and your head basically explodes from the pressure) if the submarine’s integrity were to go… it is a sobering thought. Yet every day tourists from all over the world pay the $400-$500 to go down and have one of the most unique experiences in the world. Judging from the footage & photos Karl shared with us I can understand why.
As much as I fully enjoyed paddle-boarding, chatting with Captain Karl and the coolest dive shop on the planet at Coconut Tree Divers, my favorite moment while visiting Roatan was definitely stumbling upon the Rusty Fish – founded and run by Adam Hunt a U.K. ex-pat, artist, designer and all around good guy.
Before Adam founded Rusty Fish the souvenirs in Roatan were all manufactured elsewhere. Adam wanted to create jobs for local families in Roatan by simply recycling everyday items picked from the local garbage dump to create locally made souvenirs. The Rusty Fish’s slogan is “Recycled With Love” and after visiting both the workshop and the dump where Adam is well known and received enthusiastically, I 100% believe it. The guy has a heart a mile wide and who wouldn’t be touched by the way the garbage pickers reacted when he showed up.
The stench at the dump was overwhelming, yet all day, every day, dozens of poor Hondurans with no other source of income risks their health to find things of value that the rest of the island has thrown away or discarded. In addition to the poor souls scraping a living by scouring the dump, Rusty Fish’s workshop employs almost a dozen other families and they also sell artwork made by other Honduran artisans.
Dive if you like, but if you visit Roatan, you absolutely must pass by the Rusty Fish and grab an authentic souvenir “recycled with love” and authentically made in Roatan (not China, Taiwan or the U.S.) where your money will go directly to support local artisans who depend on the shop for a living.
After all this positive energy, I was saddened that when we returned our rental car to the Dollar Rental Car office we were almost the victims of an attempted scam. Had we not been producing a travel show, chances are we would have had to pay a fee to “fix” things. After this attempted
We crossed the border by boat from Punta Gordo, Belize into Livingston, Guatemala and could immediately feel the difference, not in the weather (still unbearably hot), or the mosquitoes (still out for fresh blood) but in the culture and the way things immediately went smoother for us. Buses& boats ran on time, no more hassles about a camera and we felt completely safe and at ease.
Livingston is not a typical Guatemalan town by a long shot as it is largely shaped by the mixture of Garifunas, indigenous Mayan natives and tourists. But don’t get it wrong. Livingston is not throngs and throngs of tourists, more like a smattering of backpackers and adventurers who are used to hitting obscure destinations. The town is peaceful and tranquil with a good energy.
After over-nighting in Livingston we headed up the incredibly beautiful Rio Dulce River to Casa Guatemala, an orphanage that began to help the many orphaned kids from the decades long, brutal Guatemalan Civil War. The orphanage, originally founded by a Canadian Couple who had established similar outposts in other war torn areas in Southeast Asia, is well known in the area and overlooks the beautiful Rio Dulce River. If you didn’t know better it could easily be mistaken as an eco-touristic resort from the distance on the water. But it’s no resort. The work they do is heart-breakingly serious.
Over the years, the orphanage has evolved into a home and school for orphaned, disadvantaged and abused children as adoption laws have changed. They’ve expanded beyond their founding mission to also help care for and educate kids from the neighboring communities. Many of these families have fished or farmed in the area for centuries.
Some of these kids commute can include a combination bus, hiking and /or canoe over miles of terrain and water. The kids that have to travel 3 hours or so usually stay on site for free and only go home every 6 weeks or so. The kids that live in the adjacent villages come back and forth every day.
The orphanage, school and medical clinic, like many non-profits, depend largely on donations and grants (no government money) but they are also doing their best to ride out the inevitable rough spots by being as self-sustainable as possible. I don’t know what impressed me more, the very organized but loving way they ran the place or the way they used their resources to attempt 100% self-sustainability.
The kids catch and clean the fish they catch for dinner in the river. They have a farm where they raise animals and crops to eat or sell in their nearby Hotel Backpacker’s hostel and accompanying store. The kids all have chores and they range in ages from very young up to 17 or so. It’s an equal mix of boys and girls which is notable because in much of Central America (as in many parts of the world) school is so expensive for the family that all too often only the boys will get fully educated.
All in all they care for anywhere from 250-300 kids at a time and volunteering travelers are key to the orphanage’s long running success. We met travelers from all over the world including Spain, The UK and San Diego California (shout out to Nate, whom we’d later serendipitously run into in Roatan).
They guys were cool enough to let us eat lunch with the kids (it was a long weekend so only the full time resident kids were around). Even though we were there only a few hours, I felt a connection to this place and especially the kids who were not shy at all with giving out hugs and making conversation. I don’t have a lot of kids in my life on a daily basis so I was really touched and overjoyed to be there and enjoyed every hug, every conversation, every chance to interact with these precious, happy souls.
Long term volunteers typically pay around $300 U.S. for a minimum 3 month volunteer program which covers their food and very sparse lodgings. Shorter term volun-tour stays are also available which is where their Hotel Backpackers hostel comes in handy. I can tell you that unlike too many so called “Voluntour” organizations, there seems to be very little administrative and other fat at Casa Guatemlala with the $ going directly to help the kids.
It was an incredible experience and we didn’t want to leave but we had a date in Guatemala City so Heather, our contact, and her crew took us in their boat to the neighboring town of Rio Dulce where we caught a bus to Guatemala City.
We arrived in Guatemala City at night which I’ll admit made me nervous. I had traveled to Guatemala City back in 2009 and even back then had been told time and time again how dangerous it was to wander around downtown Guatemala City at night.
Our hotel was in the middle of downtown, a lovely hotel called “Posado Belen Museo Inn” which I think may be the most unique and lovely little hotels I’ve ever stayed in. The owner, Francesca, was so sweet and even drove us to a local restaurant to have a late dinner. Posado Belen Museo Inn is somewhat famous for their hospitality, getting rave reviews on Trip Advisor and other sites and I understand why.
After 3 days at the Posado (Bed & Breakfast) and traveling around central Guate (as the locals call Guatemala City) I was no longer afraid to step out the door. Guate admittedly has a bad reputation. perhaps because the buildings are so old they are historical status and the owners are not allowed to tear them down but instead required to restore, which means lots of $ typically. Since many building owners don’t have the kind of $ needed to restore, many buildings remain in disrepair and look abandoned giving parts of downtown Guate a bit of a ghost town feel.
However, just beyond the abandonment are actual businesses, and some of them, like the Posado Belen Museo Inn and the gym down the street I was able to visit a couple of times, are very nice.
We spent a lot of time in nearby Ave. Sexta (6th Avenue) which is a completely redone pedestrian street downtown with great restaurants and nightlife. On the weekends it’s packed with families and tourists enjoying downtown Guatemala City. I won’t say yet that Ave. Sexta rivals the upscale nightlife zone of Zona Vive, the upscale suburb on the outskirts of the city, but it’s a great addition.
I’ve stayed in Zona Viva and it is indeed nice and gives travelers a sense of security they perhaps don’t have downtown but after this experience in downtown Guate, I’ll return there again and again. It’s more authentic and just more my style.
The highlight of the trip for me was drinking goats milk directly from the live goats parked in the middle of downtown Guate. Warm and good.. what an ingenious, entrepreneurial idea.
Another highlight while in Guate was when we covered a punk show with some old friends of mine from an initial trip I’d made in 2009. They were cool enough to put on a show in honor of Raw Travel and my return. It was a full day of music with 10 or so bands playing. It was good seeing old friends while making new ones. The show was pretty much over just before dark as many of the kids and bands had to return home to their neighborhoods on the outskirts of town.
Earlier in the day we hit the downtown market and it was clear we weren’t in Belize or Mexico City anymore. People were eager to show us Guatemala City culture and they almost even hammed it up for us with incredible hospitality.
It hit home what a friendly place Guatemala can be when a grandma in the market would not take my money insisting instead on giving me fruit from her stall for our journey. Free fruit at the market?
Perhaps this was the point I began to realize I was falling in love with Guatemala. This would be a feeling I’d encounter over and over in my travels throughout Guatemala.
There was a somber side as well. On the Sunday of our arrival at the town square we noticed a group of Guatemalans, mostly women, who were demonstrating to commemorate the ghastly array of war crimes committed against women during the Guatemalan Civil War (one of the main perpetrators and so called political leaders of that era had been convicted of war crimes recently but was so old would likely never serve time).
We also came across posters of some of the “Disappeared” plastered on the walls. It was a reminder of how much misery and pain engulfed this place not so long ago.
Perhaps that is why people were so friendly. I’ve noticed in my travels that places that have recently emerged from tragedy and loss (i.e. Colombia, Serbia) that people seem to really enjoy living life and are gracious, friendly and outgoing towards visitors. It’s just a theory but I remember thinking as Francesca from the hotel hugged me goodbye as we were heading to the beautiful city of Antiqua nearby, how many hugs I was getting in this country and how good it felt to be in Guatemala.
It’s a fact, Antigua is crawling with tourists and travelers but for good reason. This is one of the most beautiful and historic cities in all of the Americas. They readily welcome travelers with accommodations and restaurants that fit almost any budget and desire. You can’t walk a block in downtown Antiqua without your mouth falling open in awe at the beautiful historic architecture and parks. It doesn’t hurt that the town is surrounded on all sides by 3 awe inspiring volcanoes (one active). Yes, it’s full of tourists, but for good reason and after a while on the road, you crave some “pampering”.
PANAJACHEL & LAGO ATITALN
Speaking of awe inspiring, a trip to Panajachel and the incredible Lago Atitlan should be on any Guatemala traveler’s agenda. In the 1970s hippies from all over the world discovered the village of Panajachel and the lake and many of them never left.
Another sign that I was not in Mexico or Belize anymore was the quick response we received from the Guatemalan Tourism Bureau when we reached out to them. Within a day we were offered an English speaking guide, transportation and set up with one of the fine travel companies in the region Viva Atitlan. As the name suggests, Viva Atitlan specializes in helping visitors get in touch with the several unique and different cultures in the surrounding villages at the lake and they know their stuff. Marlon from Viva Atitlan picked us up at our hotel and made all the arrangements for us when we arrived.
Perhaps the best thing Viva Atitlan did was connect us with Delores. Delores is a native of one of the villages surrounding Lago Atitlan. She ended up marrying one of those hippies from the 1970s (who ended up becoming a successful author). She subsequently lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico for over a dozen years. Delores perfectly straddles three cultures, Indigenous, Latin and U.S.
Now living back home, Delores was very well known among all the villages as she guided us from well-known local painters to village Shamans conducting ancient spiritual ceremonies to a cooperative of women artisans who dye and sell their textiles directly to tourists. Delores even tried to teach me how to carry a bundle on my head like the indigenous ladies of Guatemala do so effortlessly. Not as easy as it looks I assure you.
Delores was a gentle, calm spirit and I really enjoyed filming with her and learning about her culture and can’t wait for these segments to air so others can be turned on to her expertise and energy. Many thanks Casa Guatemala, Guatemalan tourism board, Posado Belen Museo Inn, Guatemala city Punks, Viva Atitlan, Delores and most importantly, all the friendly helpful people of Guatemala. I hope we can do you all proud.
For our Belize shoot we decided upon a slightly different strategy. Belize is small so our rough plan was to bus from Playa del Carmen, Mexico, enter the country via the Mexico / Belize border in the north and bus all the way down South before heading to Guatemala by boat from Punta Gorda. We decided to have as loose of an agenda as possible to allow for things to happen serendipitously.
My personal expectations for Belize were shaped almost solely by tourism brochures, magazine and TV ads, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at the poverty so apparent in Belize (we were told that over 40% of Belize’s residents have incomes of below $1,500 per year).
But against this very 3rd world backdrop with little infrastructure, what surprised me most were the high prices relative to the rest of Central America. Belize is the most expensive destination in Central America and one of the most expensive I’ve ever visited in all of Latin America (Chile or Argentina perhaps are exceptions). The reefs, beaches, rainforests and landscape are all indeed beautiful, but the infrastructure is still very third world in most places. The roads are a mess in places like Dangriga and even Belize City which has a dangerous reputation and sub-par hotels there command well over $150 U.S. per night and a rental car is $100+ a day.
Something just does not add up. Yet Americans flock here. I have a hunch it is because they are able to speak English or they, like me, saw the slick tourism brochures and were swayed.
THE NORTH – LAMANAI RUINS
We began our journey at Orange Walk in the northern part of the country arriving by bus from Playa at a surreal 5:30AM. We promptly made our way to the St. Christopher Hotel and proceeded to nap like the dead a couple of hours.
Upon waking, we skipped breakfast and split into teams to make the most of the day. Renzo (Director/Editor) & I (Ex. Producer / Host) headed up river for a river tour of Monkey Island and the incredible Lamanai Ruins while Moses (Camera / Editor) stayed in town to shoot B-roll of the town of Orange Walk.
Except for our local guide, the boat was full of Americans including a nice, young couple from Los Angeles, two college guys from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!) that we ended up interviewing and another older couple from Odessa, TX.
On the way up the river our boat stopped at an island to feed the ONE resident monkey who survived the last big hurricane and then made our way to the Lamanai Ruins which are truly amazing. Appropriately enough the elusive jaguar’s roar could be heard reverberated through the jungle just as we began touring the site. Now THAT was cool… and surreal.
Our guide was first rate and he filled us in on the fascinating history of the Maya in Belize. I climbed the very, very steep pyramid for an amazing view and I thought to myself “this is why people come to Belize”. It was so remote. With a population of just 300,000 you feel as if you have the place to yourself.
Other than proximity to the ruins, Orange Walk doesn’t have much to offer other than hospitality so we bolted the next day and headed to Belize City where we promptly caught a ferry to Caye Ambergis and the town of San Pedro, an extremely touristy and, if you ask me, overpriced and over trafficked island that does at least provide access to world class scuba diving and snorkeling. I’m not scuba certified but I did take part in some snorkeling and it was some of the best snorkeling sites I’ve ever seen. There was so much coral and fish that even though I was having a tough time navigating with the underwater camera (I had to forget my pride and ask for a life jacket) I still couldn’t help but get some amazing shots.
The big draw are giant stingrays and “toothless” brown sharks that gather in swarms. You can get up close and personal with both stingrays and sharks, who aren’t actually toothless but have their teeth so far back in their throat as to be mostly harmless to humans.
Snorkelers were once allowed to pet the sharks but apparently not anymore. I was definitely within touching distance to a huge swarm that gathered to eat the chum thrown out by our boat captain and I’d love to say I captured some incredible footage with our underwater camera but alas, the thing malfunctioned and my attempts to fix it in water resulted in a fogging up of the lens at that very moment. Had it not been for the life jacket I would have definitely drowned messing with the damned thing (One Go Pro is now on its way to us as a result).
I did capture some good shots of the sharks feeding frenzy from the surface and some quick shots in water finally. Nearby Blue Hole reef is pretty incredible I hear but since it would have been $300 to find out, we passed.
While in San Pedro we stayed at “Pedro’s” hotel which was nice enough for our standards (which are pretty low at this point) but the blatant angling for a big tip at check out (apparently in exchange for giving us advice and letting us use the phone) by the ex-patriot desk clerk was distasteful. With so many poor Belizians suffering this guy from the developed world wants me to spend my hard earned money on what is essentially a beach bum from the U.S. or U.K. (Couldn’t tell). Am I in South Beach?
I hear that If you want to save some $ and have a more laid back experience then nearby Caye Walker is the spot and I wish we’d skipped San Pedro and tried Caye Caulker first.
We quickly realized Belize was not going to be a budget buster. So what’s a production crew producing an authentic travel show on a semi-tight budget to do? We gritted our teeth and tried and show the real Belize, warts and all. But that also includes showcasing the incredible and I do mean incredible natural beauty and incredible and I do mean incredibly nice people.
But first we went from frying pan to fire when we escaped San Pedro for Belize City by boat. We rented a car so we could get around ($100) and secured a relatively inexpensive (by Belizian standards at least) hotel on the outskirts of town. Our plan was to hit the Belize Zoo and then the Baboon (Howler Monkey) Sanctuary the next day.
Belize Zoo, is a poorly marketed travel destination (no signage, a recently disconnected phone number and they apparently don’t return email inquiries to the press) halfway between Belize City and the capital city of Belmopan. We don’t do zoos normally but this one reportedly works with conserving endangered animals native to Belize and we thought it might be a good fit for the show. However, when we arrived they demanded a fee in exchange for shooting. It is against my policy of giving worldwide, free publicity and paying for the privilege to do so. I didn’t even find out all how much they wanted as we hastily made our way to more enticing finds. Tip to the Belize Zoo.. Get a phone #, return your emails, put up some signage and say “yes” to publicity and your attendance will most likely rise.
Not too far down the road from the zoo is a remarkable story, the Community Baboon Reserve (Howler Monkey Sanctuary… but the local’s call them “Baboons”). The work this organization has accomplished since the 1970s is simply amazing. They are the perfect example of tourism working hand in hand with ecology while helping locals develop sustainable tourism income.
Since the reserve came on the scene in the 1970’s the Howler monkey population in Belize has recovered from less than 800 to over 8,000 today. The reserve is run by a community board of female leaders from nearby villages and many of the locals make their living at the reserve serving as tour guides and workers. The reserve is technically several locally owned farms where the land owners pledged to farm in a way that will insure the Howler Monkey’s continued survival (i.e. when clearing land, keeping rows of tall trees in tact so the monkeys have a “highway” to get from place to place). The Howler Monkey is not a pest to crops so farmers and best I can tell pretty much everyone wants to keep them around.
And why not, the monkeys are adorable. It was incredibly entertaining to go to the Howler Monkey’s habitat and visit them and get them to howl. Our guide (also named Robert) is a local and has been guiding visitors for over a decade. He showed me how to call and get the alpha male to howl back. Howler males rarely resort to physical violence, instead they have a “howl off” with the loser graciously heading to another pack. I couldn’t help but think that humans could learn something from this technique?
When leaving the sanctuary, be sure to stop by Ecolution and speak to our buddy Shane and his family about their participation in preserving the Howler Monkeys. Ecolution is independently owned and operated and Shane is trying to grow it little by little by utilizing everything he learned in the U.S. when attending college. Ecolution has some cool howler monkeys on site as well as some handmade artisan crafts and Shane is slowly but surely putting a hotel and restaurant together. You can find Ecolution when heading back to Belize City on the way from the Howler Sanctuary and you can’t miss the “This is it!” signs and Shane’s brother working to pull passing cars over. Don’t be afraid and don’t miss out on these guys’ infections energy and attitude. In my opinion, Belize could use more independent tourism entrepreneurs like Shane.
DANGRIGA AND THE SOUTH
Despite trying to find SOME redeeming quality, we couldn’t and as mentioned, Belize City has little to offer travelers other than sparse or overpriced accommodations, food and reportedly some serious danger, so we made our way to Dangriga which, is a sizable (for Belize) but isolated village suffering from lack of decent roads and infrastructure but full of incredibly hospitable and nice people.
Most are of Garifuna descent so we paid a visit to the Garifuna Museumto learn more about their culture which extends from the Caribbean all the way into pockets in Guatemala and Honduras. Garifunas are very different from Creole (they were never slaves and are a mixture of indigenous and African) and have a fascinating story and distinct culture and language.
In Daringa we serendipitously ran into Geoffrey Dillon, an educator from the University of San Francisco and founder of Project Learn Belize,a non-profit organization helping Dangriga’s impoverished young students. Like much of Central America, high school in Belize requires a tuition of approximately $500 yearly plus supplies and many, many families struggle to meet this costs.
In addition to bringing volunteer teachers and nurses from the U.S., Geoffrey also brings in school supplies (he has to sneak them in because the Belize government has their hand out for “duties” valuing things like old computers as “new”) and other vital resources. Project Learn Belize is also beginning to offer paid scholarships to promising students as well. After just a few minutes of chatting with Geoffrey it was clear his heart was in the right place and that he was doing all he could to help Belizian youth despite the many obstacles. Geoff’s story was so inspiring we decided to do an impromptu feature on Project Learn Belize. Learn more about Project Learn Belize and how you can help HERE.
Before checking out of Dangriga we checked in on local drum making legend, Austin Rodriguez who creates authentic, one of a kind Garifuna drums using a chainsaw. Mr. Rodriguez has been featured on CNN and his daughter is also in on the craft as well. Mr. Rodriguez’s fee for allowing us to shoot? A bottle of water. The Belizian Zoo could learn a thing or two from Mr. Rodriguez.
After Dangriga we made our way down to a place that has a bit more infrastructure and thus tourists, Placencia, a small lovely beach town in Southern Belize that I have to say was my favorite of all the Belizian destinations. The bus ride from Dangriga to Placencia provided further evidence that Southern Belize is where much of the beauty of this small country lies with lush rainforests, big mountains and valleys on each side of the bus.
Before entering town I was surprised by the large houses, McMansions really, nestled on the outskirts of town. It was such a contrasting picture of Belize to what we had been witnessing where most people live in tin shacks or half-finished homes. Where is that $ coming from? More importantly, where is it going?
Once inside Placencia, it’s a little more humble and like a really nice beach village. There are plenty of accommodations right on the beach and the sidewalk that runs through town somewhat guides the travelers to the very friendly and very eager to help locals, creating an interesting and cool relationship between travelers and locals.
We had no hotel reservations and a lovely local Belizian family gave us the 411 on where to stay, where to eat, etc. right away. Placencia is one of those spots I wished we had been able to spend a bit more time.
But we had a date in Punta Gorda for one of the few planned events on our agenda and that was working with the fine folks from Sustainable Harvest International. Sustainable Harvest has locations in several Central American countries and their main goal is to work with impoverished, independent farmers on developing sustainable agriculture methods for improved yield and an improved environment.
We took a short boat ride from Placencia to Independence where Nana and Estevan from SHI picked us up in their donated 4WD pickup truck. We’d need a 4wd as we made our way to tour some of the SHI assisted farms. I was the only idiot to show up in shorts and I hadn’t put on mosquito repellent so within 15 minutes my legs were a decimated, mosquito ravaged mess. I quickly got the message and changed into some jeans right in the back of the pickup truck in between shoots, but it was too late. My legs were toasts and I’d need a good week to recover as my ankles swelled so large I could hardly put on my sneakers.
But the eventual pain was worth it. We toured small community farms in the area surrounded by big corporate banana and fruit plantations. SHI works with local farmers to get away from the mono-culture (one crop) that plagues the big corporate farms. Thanks to SHI, local farmers now grow a wider variety of crops from corn to pineapples and as a result have more dependable year round income streams and are less at risk when the inevitable bad weather strikes.
SHI also shows farmers how they can use all natural fertilizer (chicken and even human waste, nothing goes to waste) and all natural insecticides (Yes, as the Maya knew, they have existed for centuries), and are working to move farmers from “Slash & Burn” to “Slash and Mulch” culture.
I grew up on a farm but am now a full-fledged city boy (as evidenced by my mosquito ravaged legs) but I must tell you I found the work SHI is doing fascinating. It was way more information than my pea brained citiefied brain could absorb at times (good thing cameras rolled), but I was able to see 1st hand the work SHI does and the difference it is making in the lives of local Belizian families like the farms we saw of Francis and Leticia. SHI Belize has a large, dedicated staff and they work with almost 300 impacting thousands of Belizians. Working with SHI was a highlight of the trip. Thanks guys!
You may wonder after reading this post if I enjoyed Belize. I have friends that swear by Belize. At first, I couldn’t see the attraction and the distraction of all those tourism dollars seeming to evaporate in thin air is off putting. The Belizian government in their infinite wisdom charged $250 for the privilege of covering their country and that too was off putting. The Belizian Zoo demanded a shooting fee and yes, that was off putting as well, and when I compare Belize to that of neighboring Guatemala, as you’ll see when I discuss Guatemala next, it’s a HUGE difference.
So love it or hate it or somewhere in between well, I won’t say just yet. I need some space, some time to consider things. But when it comes to the Belizian people, then that is a no brainer. It’s nothing but L-O-V-E, respect and admiration.