WE’RE ON A ROAD TO NOWHERE
Part one of the trip seemed simple enough. Sell everything, fly to Mexico City, spend twelve weeks travelling down to Colombia.
The planned route was roughly:
Mexico -> Cuba -> Belize -> Guatemala -> Honduras -> El Salvador -> Nicaragua -> Costa Rica -> Panama -> Colombia.
I’d made up a ‘must-do’ list, and was determined to tick off as much as possible:
Dia De Los Muertos In Mexico
I adore festivals, and the opportunity to start our year long adventure at one was too good to turn down. We were having trouble finding out information about where to go. Also, it’s a family event, we weren’t sure if outsiders would even be welcome. It is a family festival after all. We decided to fly to Mexico City and then decide whether to stay there or go to Oaxaca for the festivities.
Isla Holbox – Mexico
My friend Jenny (who has the best of taste and is the most fun ever) lived there a few years ago. She talked of an island paradise with sand roads, no cars, water sports and happy vibes. I couldn’t wait to see it for myself.
I’d always been curious about it, it was a short, inexpensive hop from Cancun, it seemed foolish not to go for a few weeks.
First Interview For The Site
I worked in radio before heading away on this trip and was lucky enough to talk with musicians on a regular basis. I wanted to continue that on Dirt In Your Fries. I’d set up an interview with a prominent Mexican musician before I left Ireland. He kindly agreed to meet with me in Mexico City once he’d returned home from touring in the US. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. The dates didn’t work out, I had to move on before he got back into town. Apart from the dates, I can see now that I needed to take a break, for the first time in my life, and relax. I hope we can catch up again, and that music will become a big part of the site.
Cirque Du Soleil
In Dublin, I spent three to four nights a week, every week, in circus school. There was no way I was missing seeing Cirque’s Mexican production.
I wanted to watch the sunrise over Tikal. I’d heard that you could stay overnight at the ruins, or come early in time to climb the temple in time for the sunrise. I’d heard that it was a great country to kill a few weeks in, and was looking forward to it.
I didn’t know a lot about it. I knew that it is English speaking, expensive, has good diving, and is not like the rest of Central America. Sometimes, it’s fun not to research too much and go with the flow.
I’d heard it was very small, much safer than people think, and that the pupupsas and beaches were out of this world. I wanted to find out why so many people skip it when backpacking in Central America.
Isla Ometepe – An island on a lake with two volcanoes? Yes please. The fact that it was hosting Magma, an electronic music festival in December, helped seal the deal.
Corn Islands – A good contender for Christmas? The plan was to make my way to Big Corn, take a boat to Little Corn, and chill on a tiny Caribbean Island… For a fraction of what it would cost on one of the more well known ones.
Diving on Utila was my main reason for coming to Central America. I had a map up on my wall at home and had been promising myself ‘one day’ about Utila for years. I was nervous it wouldn’t live up to what I’m imagined in my head, but willing to find out.
Bocas Del Toro – Sloth Island. Thats right. They have an island, called Sloth Island, inhabited by sloths. You can go there. To see sloths. Sold.
Sailing the San Blas. An archipelago of 365 paradise islands, where the indigenous Kuna Yala people live. Due to the impenetrable Darien Gap, this is the best way to reach Colombia from Panama. It’s cheaper than flying, plus you get to live on a boat for four days. Jumping in the sea. Swinging in a hammock drinking rum out of coconuts. Padding around tiny islands barefoot in the sun. I had two options. Take a boat to Cartegena that had a two day open water crossing included. Or, a cheaper series of speed boats, which means more island time, but felt a little bit like cheating. Either way, I couldn’t wait.
As anyone who’s ever taken an extended trip will tell you, plans change. Plans are silly. I don’t know why anyone makes plans, ever. I was expecting the original plan to change, but nowhere near as much as it did. But that’s ok. I have one regret, but it’s not the end of the world and I’ll know not to make the same mistake next time.
So, how did we do?
First off, hi there Lonely Planet. Are you actually mental with your 4-6 week itineraries spanning three countries? Have you ever tried to get a bus in Central America? Have you any idea how long EVERYTHING takes to happen here? I arrived in Mexico armed with the latest edition (October 2016) of Lonely Planet’s Central America On A Shoestring. Was it helpful? Well, yes. Was it optimistic about timelines and how long one can expect to stay in each country? Very. It’s not only the time that things take, its the expense. Getting on a bus every second day or so makes your weekly spend shoot up. Plus, its so, so tiring. I lasted half of Mexico travelling at that pace, then had to stop. Moreover, there is a LOT to see and do in Central America so it’s a real shame to rush through.
Speaking of Mexico, I’m surprised I managed to leave at all. After a week getting my bearings and having the best time ever in Mexico City, I headed south to Oaxaca. Honestly, from DF to Merida – every day in Mexico was better than the previous one. It’s a beautiful, vibrant, and very misunderstood place.
I’ll be adding individual stories and guides for each adventure. But for now, here’s how that original itinerary turned out:
A month in Mexico.
Ten CRAZY days in Belize.
A week road tripping around El Salvador.
A month in Honduras.
Three days in Panama City.
Four days in The San Blas.
Two weeks in Colombia.
Like I said, plans change! Here’s where it all went sideways, in the best way.
I got as far as Isla Holbox in Mexico before deciding to cut Cuba. I’d spent longer in Mexico already than planned, and didn’t want to rush through the rest of the country. It was a decent chunk of the budget, plus, I kept meeting people who’d recently been there and hadn’t enjoyed it. It didn’t seem like the right time to go. I’ll give it the time it deserves again when I’m not in a hurry.
Apart from a 24 hour stopover in Guatemala City (long enough to get robbed), I cut out Guatemala. I know, right? Crazy. But, I had to be in Colombia by January. I’d already spent four weeks in Mexico. And I didn’t want to barrel through a few tourist sites for the sake of ticking it off a list. I definitely want to go back to Mexico, so will spend a month in Guatemala another time.
This one, I didn’t see coming. I moved to Utila for a whole month. Yup. Within 30 minutes of stepping off the boat, it was love. I got an apartment, got some DJ gigs, and had a wonderful month diving, relaxing, and making memories. I spent a couple of hard days trying to work out how to get to Colombia in time for the flight. It was doable. But, I’d be barreling through places, scratching the surface, before moving on again. It was going to be tiring and expensive. Option one was to spend Christmas on Water Caye with my Altons family. Option two, exhausted and miserable in a random hostel somewhere. In the end, it was a no brainer. And yes, I’ll be coming back to Alton’s to do my dive master training. I have no regrets, but the decision did mean that that….
I cut out Nicaragua and Costa Rica. It was a tough decision, and I’m definitely going back another time. Flying in Central America is pricey. I could spend €500 on a flight and spend Christmas on Utila where I wanted to be. Or, spend it speeding through countries that I’m likely going to come back to explore anyway. So, I flew from San Pedro Sula straight to Panama City for a few days before sailing through the San Blas.
Colombia was not what I expected at all. I hated Medellin and loved Bogota. I know this doesn’t seem like a big deal but everyone, and I mean everyone, I met felt the opposite. More on that later.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Looking back, the final journey was pretty different from what I’d first thought. I wish I’d had more time, but skipping out on places is the perfect excuse to go back again.
The one regret I mentioned? Booking an onward flight.
It cost me. In time lost, cutting places out to get down to Colombia. And in money, for that expensive flight to Panama City to make the onward flight. Having said that, if I didn’t book it, I could have stayed in Mexico forever. I could have moved to Utila full time and never gone anywhere else. I could have, I could have, I could have….
It bothered me at the time, a lot. I won’t book one again, it’s too restrictive. But, I had a damn good reason to get this flight.
Three days at home, then starting Dirt Road #2 with a music festival on Zanzibar. The best part? I’m picking up some of my best friends in Dublin and taking them with me.