Forgotten Pieces in the Puzzle

Panama City, Panama
Panama City, Panama

As I sat in the tightly packed minivan, watching it chug desperately up the hill under the weight of its passengers, limbs flailing out of windows, legs propped up on the dashboard, squashed next to the driver picking his teeth as he drove, having had an average of 4 hours of sleep in five consecutive nights, hungover, sweating, aching… I couldn’t help but think about how lucky and grateful I was.

Aqualounge, Bocas del Toro
Aqualounge, Bocas del Toro

I was in Panama, having just left some beautiful people in the even more beautiful Bocas del Toro–the epitome of white sandy beaches, crystal blue seas, palm trees and fresh coconuts. Between fresh happy hour sushi, creamy pesto pasta, and the constant parade of ladies nights, I ate and drank well. The only thing to complain about was the one ATM on the island always ran out of money, sandflies, the sun was too hot, the trampoline wasn’t bouncy enough, and the wifi wouldn’t load videos in HD #stupidtripadvisorreviews.

Panama was the first country this trip I hadn’t treaded on before, and like most other Central American countries, it offered the full flavour of landscapes on its menu. I sampled the classic umbrellas-perched-in-your-cocktails beach holiday in Bocas. I tasted the mountains and fresh air up in the treetops of Lost & Found. A delicious treasure hunt awaits you there; a sweaty and satisfying hike through bearded trees and winding streams holding precious clues to guide you to your next destination. The main course was the full, bursting city experience that is Panama City. Most of our time was spent in the beautiful old colonial quarters of Casco Viejo, it’s weathered low-rise buildings and cobblestoned streets in stark contrast to the collection of grey, rusty skyscrapers and highways stacked just across the bay.

Copan Ruinas, Honduras
Copan Ruinas, Honduras

While technically I had stepped foot in Honduras before 2 years ago, it was merely a necessity passing through between El Salvador and Nicaragua. Like many before us, we had decided to skip it having heard tall tales about the dangers lurking in its corners. This time round, I was determined to wade through its waters. And like Panama, I found Honduras to be a highly underrated piece amongst the Central American puzzle. Copan Ruinas is a tiny town up in the hills, where cows and horses wander around lazily in paddocks, completely peaceful and idyllic. It’s main attraction are these fantastic Mayan ruins, tucked away behind a gas station just out of town. Kat and I literally had the whole place to ourselves, a spread of ancient temples and preserved heiryoglyphics just for our viewing pleasure. We climbed to the top of the highest pyramid and read on stones thousands of years old. Afterwards, we ventured to La Esperanza, a town so off the beaten track, it had no hostels and required taking three different local buses to get there. The journey was nothing but smooth though because there were people willing to help us every step of the way. Of course other people may have had vastly different experiences, but for us, the monsters in the closet were just silhouettes of jacket sleeves. We made our way there for a friend’s house party, adorned with fairy lights, costumes, beer pong, good people, and a kickass dance floor. As it turns out, house parties look the same all over the world.

Home-cooked Meals

Hobbitenango, Guatemala
Hobbitenango, Guatemala

There’s nothing quite like the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed excitement of exploring a new place. Every corner and curve holds possibility, every rock is still unturned. Your belly is empty and grumbles with the smell and promise of fullness.

But discovering new facets of a familiar haunt brings on a different kind of satisfaction. The pleasure of a home-cooked meal–that first bite through warm, golden crust, the anticipation of creamy camembert melting lightly on your tongue.

Continuously and without fail, every road I have re-traversed has managed to surprise me. Unswum springs and waterfalls are now swum; unclimbed mountains and trees climbed. Landscapes shift and move under different lights.

Perhaps most significantly, the people met along the way have changed. A fresh set of faces and dimples fills your scrapbook, and these people bring with them new experiences, ideas, jokes and memories. Depending on the people you’re with, the colours of one place may have faded, while others have been repainted bolder.

Hobbitenango, Guatemala
Hobbitenango, Guatemala

It was my third time in Antigua, with its cobblestoned streets and brightly painted houses, a smear of blue, orange and green across the streets, old arched wooden doors paired with large rusty doorknockers, and twisting metal bars fixed on all its windows. This time round, I ventured up to Hobbitenango, a small secluded slice of The Shire perched up in the mountains overlooking Antigua. Little hobbit holes are burrowed into the side of grassy knoll hills, laid down with stone floors and fire places. They offer some of the most delicious beverages: hot chocolate spiced with tequila, chili and ginger; lime cocktails with slivered avocado. This is coupled with the best sunset you will ever see. The sun bursts through the seams in the clouds, splitting the sky open like a nutcracker to a nut, before settling gently into the horizon, blushing a soft purple. My belly fluttered and rumbled with happiness that day.

Treehouse hostel, Nicaragua
Treehouse hostel, Nicaragua

Nicaragua was hazier in my memories, and different smells and tastes would elicit forgotten flashbacks. In Leon, it was the freshly baked chocolate almond croissants from Pan&Paz, and the off-key cries of a Spanish ballad from karaoke night which stirred familiarity (that being said, our own rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, belted out with heart and soul, seemed to clear out the house). Granada, with its single cobblestoned strip, lined with sellers and buskers. The Treehouse Hostel held the same stunning panoramic views over a sea of lush green canopy, but was a vastly different experience. Last time around, the ten of us that were staying there read in hammocks, played cards, and wove friendship bracelets. This time, there was a live band, a DJ, and dozens of people shuttled in for the night to party. If you haven’t danced among the treetops yet, I would highly recommend it. San Juan del Sur still runs the infamous Sunday Funday, which herds hundreds of young tourists clad in bikinis and leis through beaches and palm trees and pools like a true blue Spring Break straight out of Hollywood. And then there was Ometepe, surrounded by lake, dotted with springs and lined with hammocks, where we finally managed to catch our breath again.

As nice as it is to tick off new cities on your bucket list, don’t underestimate the discovery involved in retracing your footsteps–you can often find delightful crumbs hidden in the nooks and crannies.

Gringolandia

San Pedro, Guatemala
San Pedro, Guatemala

There are two sides to San Pedro: One, is what my Spanish teacher affectionately termed as “Gringolandia”, a strip along the water crammed with restaurants, hostels, bars, blonde hair and tanned skin. The second is just a little way up the hill, crammed with fresh produce, colourful walls, skirts, and religious iconography.

I’m not sure if there is a set amount of time you have to spend in a place to be considered visiting or living there. While I certainly would never claim to have lived in Guatemala, I can comfortably say that by the end of my stay, I knew and would walk down the streets of San Pedro and recognise more places and people than I would back home in Melbourne. Where did the best falafels, the freshest croissants, the cheapest smoothies, the strongest drinks. Bbq days, quiz nights, live music, and after parties. Which pool tables were wonky; who had the strongest wifi; how to sneak free water. The Japanese guy only open for lunch; the tostada lady who catches the last rays of sun; Israeli places that close Saturday days–but open again at night when Orion’s Belt peaks out from the sky.

I learned the right way to pat down tortillas, cooked enough curry over a fire to feed a family, and danced every night. I tried shakshuka for the first time off a stranger’s plate, made pina coladas behind the bar, and accosted people with fliers and free shots in full zombie 90s getup. I watched a man get fed moonshine like a baby bird, partied on a boat, and co-organised a treasure hunt for Katty on her birthday.

It was a wonderful three weeks and made leaving hard. On our last day, we meandered aimlessly through unexplored alleyways and sat under speckled sunlight exchanging knowing glances and indulgent smiles. We danced all night one last time and group hugged all the crazy characters we met along the way, making empty promises to meet again one day in other distant lands. We caught the shuttle the next morning, glancing back sadly one last time at the lake and the volcanoes towering over it, casting long shadows over the day.

Friends of Guatemala

Livingston, Guatemala
Livingston, Guatemala

Guatemala is quietly and unconventionally beautiful. She’s someone who wouldn’t strike your attention immediately when you walk into a room, but who you would only notice after absentmindedly scanning the room during a lull in the conversation. While everyone is busy drinking wine and cocktails and being charmed by France and Thailand, you tentatively approach Guatemala in the corner sipping on a cuba libre. She wears the brightest and most colorful clothes, hand stitched and adorned with flowers. She’s surprisingly witty and you find yourself enraptured in her company. It’s only when the music is switched off and the dim lights brighten that you realize you’ve stayed much longer than you intended to–it’s too easy to get caught up in Guatemala.

She introduces you to some of her friends. Antigua is an older lady aging gracefully with her partner Lorenzo. She has dark features inherited from her Spanish roots, and is wrapped up in multiple scarves that should all clash on your eyes, but somehow don’t. You can always hear her coming because all her bracelets jangle against each other on her wrists. Antigua is very sweet and demure, but possesses a quiet strength. Lorenzo is the opposite. He is big, loud and a complete firecracker. He calls himself an “unsung hero”, “robbed of the Nobel peace prize” and simultaneously, “the most dangerous man on earth” (for his knowledge of over 2,500 species of macadamia). Together in the 70s, they opened a Macadamia farm just outside of town known as Valhalla. It serves the fluffiest pancakes, slathered in creamy macadamia butter and homemade blueberry jam. They are truly, a one-of-a-kind couple, and some of the most interesting characters you’ll ever meet. Amongst weaving tall tales and cracking the dirtiest jokes, Lorenzo will look you dead in the eye and tell you seriously, “if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.”

Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala

San Marcos nods and adds, “Don’t live by anyone else’s rules. Just let go.” San Marcos has long flowing hair with dreads and a flower crown on top. He wears a long, loosefitting top and drawstring linen pants. Glow pois hang around his neck and you catch the crescent moon tattoo carved into his collarbone. He’s also talking to you from Eagle pose. He’s just returned from a life-changing cacau ceremony with Keith the resident Shaman, and offers you some psychic sourdough bread. Before you can answer, he politely excuses himself, as someone in need of some spiritual guidance is trying to FaceTime him.

Panajachel then jumps in to introduce himself and his friend Mike. They’re warm and friendly and love a good pun. Mike likes to crack the classic dad / Christmas cracker jokes that make you chuckle and cringe simultaneously. He owns the beloved Crossroads Cafe, and serves you a great cup of coffee from beans that he picked out himself. As you nurse your cup, you try to get a word out of San Juan, whose been standing with the group silently all along, nibbling on some cheese and wine, but who just smiles and nods politely to your questions.

You’re then gently pulled away and led by the elbow into a quiet room by Livingston. Livingston is very different from Guatemala’s other friends, with clear and deep Caribbean roots. She’s a large woman, jiggling slightly as she slowly sits you down in a chair that’s curiously in front of a large drum. There are lines of wear etched on her face, and you can tell she’s been through some rough times. But she stands proudly before you in her headscarf and you can also see she’s lived some wonderful and lively years. She announces to an empty room that she is a Garifuna artist, and begins beating the drums and crooning to you in your own private show. You’re surprised when other people emerge to join her, dancing to the rhythm of their own drum.

Plasticine

Utopia, Semuc Champey
Utopia, Semuc Champey

It could be a Saturday. It could be a Tuesday. Its completely arbitrary on the road. Time becomes plasticine; its stretched thin in some places and clumped together in others. You feel like days are being snatched away from you, but that you’ve been away forever and seen and done the stars. Because traveling is life on crack. You cram in so many places and people and food and drink and books and photos and beaches and waterfalls so that it can shove into your backpack, and hope that it satiates you till you haul it out again and dust it off for the next trip.

Sometimes, I’m not sure I’m built for traveling. I wish I could be more blasé and flit in and out of places with ease, but anyone who knows me knows I’m much too sentimental, which makes the constant string of goodbyes hard. Julia and I keep saying we’re the worst travelers because we keep getting too attached to places and people and grinding our feet and staying for longer than planned.

El Tunco, El Salvador
El Tunco, El Salvador

El Tunco was two streets long, tucked on the edge of El Salvador, with nothing to do other than eat, drink and surf (of which we managed 2 out of 3) and we lounged around in our flip flops for five days. Longevity does mean you get to know the locals though, who took us to caves where you had to slip your clothes into empty crevices to keep them dry, and waterfalls you could jump from. Other days we would get enchiladas piled high with cabbage and avocado, sit on the beach under pink skies sharing a coconut, and watch the surfers catch their last wave as the sun eased itself under the horizon.

It was the same feeling in Semuc Champey, Guatemala–one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. Because Lainey and Kat missed their connecting flight from Texas to Guatemala City (for a McDonalds ranch salad no less), Julia and I ended up in the fortunate position of being stuck in Utopia. Kitschy but appropriately named, Utopia is a self-proclaimed eco-lodge lonelily nestled deep in the middle of the national park, with nothing but river and forest as far as the eye can see. Days were spent lazily in soft sand gathered on river banks, hiking to canyons, jumping off more waterfalls and tall trees, barbecuing on bonfires, reading, writing, and watching the sunrise from our hammocks. While the sun was often on our side, beating and blazing, Semuc was just as beautiful in the rain. Mist would roll down its hills and tiptoe into the braided rivers below. Exploring Semuc’s labyrinth of caves is dark, deep and insane. You wade through still waters holding up a single candle to guide you, the hot wax dripping on your knuckles a welcome distraction from the freezing waters and the sharp pain on your ankles from kicking stray rocks in the water. You climb ropes up and down waterfalls and fall into black holes not knowing where you’ll end up. I realize now, that a lot of my trip thus far has been spent jumping off tall things. I suppose there’s a heavy handed metaphor in there somewhere (facing your fears, diving headfirst into unknown waters, etc)… I ended my time in Semuc jumping off a very high bridge despite being told by a local that I should only do it if “I wanted to die”. I didn’t, but I wanted to catch my tube which was being dragged along the river ahead of me. And it was worth it; sailing down the river, weaving and ducking rapids, swept up in grand cliff faces and arching trees. It’s hard to imagine anything manmade ever being as beautiful.