Category Archives: Honduras

The Best Hostels in Latin America

Travelling for a year, constantly on the move, rarely staying more than three or four days in one place, where I end up staying makes a huge difference to my my stress levels. End up in a nice hostel, with things like comfy beds, warm showers, free breakfasts, a good location and a nice atmosphere keeps me far more relaxed and happy than when I’ve been unlucky enough to end up in somewhere lacking some or all of those factors.

Luckily, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised to find the vast majority of places I’ve stayed in have been brilliant. Finding the good ones isn’t too hard either – best of all is to get personal recommendations from other travellers, failing that, a quick look on hostelworld or hostelbookers gives a pretty good (and crucially, up to date) steer on where’s good. One of the main reasons to avoid using guide books is that new hostels are opening all the time, and in many places the best hostels have only opened recently.

Seeing as personal recommendations are the best kind, I thought I’d thank some of the best places I’ve stayed in by giving them a bit of a plug here – I make no apologies for the fact this list is entirely subjective (it’s not like I’ve been everywhere in Latin America, and I only ever stayed in one place in each town). But I reckon if you happen to be a budget traveller in any of these places and choose to stay in them, I hope you won’t be disappointed.

1. Casa de Dante, Guanajuato, Mexico

Me on Dante's roof

This one has pretty much everything going for it – Dante is the perfect host, welcoming new arrivals with a beer and a brilliant explanation of everything to do in the fantastic city. His mother is an amazing cook, and the free breakfasts (including fresh fruit, a cooked breakfast, delicious fresh smoothies and coffee) cooked by his mother are the best I had in any hostel by far. Add to that the peaceful roof terrace with views all over the city, and wonderful personal touches like the fact they fly flags on the roof for every nationality staying there on a given night (although let me know what Dante does if you happen to stay there and come from a small country he doesn’t have a flag for) and you have a real home from home.

2. Hostel Lao, Mendoza, Argentina

The Hostel Lao probably had the friendliest atmosphere of any hostel I stayed in. And it definitely had the friendliest (and possibly maddest) dogs too. There’s a huge garden (with a pool) too, and the weekly barbecue is really not to be missed – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that much meat (and the salads are pretty awesome too).

3. Casa Felipe, Taganga, Colombia

There can’t be many backpacker hostels in the world that have a chef who cooks posh restaurant quality food. Casa Felipe is certainly the only one I’ve ever come across. Great breakfasts too, and the rooms are really spread out, each with their own hammock, and with a lovely shaded outdoor seating area for chilling in, this is the perfect place to relax and recover after trekking to the Lost City. This is also one of the few where it’s definitely worth booking ahead – it’s always full.

4. Hostel Patapata, Valparaiso, Chile

Hostel Patapata

Valpo was my favourite city in Latin America, and a not insignificant part of my enjoyment was the wonderful Patapata. It’s in a big old 19th century townhouse on the best of the city’s hills, and is another family run place that really has a proper family feeling. Another place with great breakfasts too.

5. Albergue Churup, Huaraz, Peru

Huaraz sunset from Albergue Churup's balcony

Huaraz is a hikers’ and mountaineer’s town, and if you are either of those, Albergue Churup is the perfect place to stay. It’s really popular with the serious outdoor types, which can help if you’re looking to join up with people for activities. Best of all is the top-floor communal area, with huge windows giving perfect views of the mountains (and even better ones from the outside terrace), and a coal fire to keep you warm on the cold mountain evenings. Really hot showers are also an essential after a big hike, and they don’t disappoint. Yet again (bit of a theme developing here from me) the breakfasts are great (I can highly recommend the banana pancakes before a big day of activity).

6. Altons Dive Shop, Utila, Honduras

Alton's Dock

If you’re diving, this is the best bargain in the Americas I reckon. For a start, you get free accommodation if you’re doing a course. Even when you’ve finished a course, divers get a special rate, which was easily the cheapest I paid anywhere (just over $3!). And for that, you can get a room right on the dock, with beautiful views across Utila harbour. Hammocks on the dock are perfect for chilling too, there’s a bar right on the dock too and a weekly sunset booze cruise (more civilised than it sounds) and barbecue too. In fact if they just did decent Baleadas (yummy Honduran street food) I would barely have needed to leave the place the entire time I was there.

7. Camping Mihinoa, Hanga Roa, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile

It’s in one of the best locations on the island, sitting right on the edge of the ocean facing some of the island’s most dramatic waves. The beds are comfy, the showers are hot, and there are not one but two decent sized kitchens. Marta is the perfect host too. And best of all, it’s the cheapest place to stay on what is a pretty pricey island.

8. Medialuna Art Hostel, Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena is HOT. Ridiculously so. And very humid too. Walking around the city by day is a sweaty and tiring experience. So what you need is a hostel with somewhere to cool down. The Medialuna has two: a pool in the downstairs courtyard, and a nice high roof terrace that frequently gets a breeze that’s missing at street level. Housed in a lovely, whitewashed colonial building, it’s one of the more beautiful hostels I stayed in too. One note of caution – out of all the ones listed here, this is one that can be a bit noisy at night.

9. DN Hostel, Bogota, Colombia

Bogota is COLD. In my first hostel I nearly froze to death, even in my room. The DN, on the other hand, comes with wonderfully warm, thick duvets, atop one of the comfiest bunks I’ve stayed in. It has a really friendly owner too, and is another place that does a great weekly barbecue.

10. Casa Margarita, Creel, Mexico

Margarita’s gets a bit of a knocking sometimes, because the staff can apparently be a bit pushy about tours (although they weren’t to me), and admittedly the rooms aren’t quite up to the standard of most of the rest on this list. But it earns it’s place here for one very good reason – value for money. It was the cheapest hostel I stayed in Mexico, and yet it included not only a two course breakfast, but also a huge three course dinner – unique amongst all the places I stayed in.

That’s it for Latin America now – posts on New Zealand, Australia & Indonesia will be on their way soon as I work through my backlog of posts!

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Highlights of Latin America

I had such an awesome time in Latin America it’s pretty hard to pick out favourite moments. But I’m going to give it a go anyway. Here are the best things I’ve seen and done over the past six and a half months, along with links to what I originally wrote about them.

Favourite City: Valparaiso, Chile

Valparaiso

Runner-up: Guanajuato, Mexico
Hilly cities with lots of colourful houses are clearly the way to keep me happy.

Favourite Capital City: Mexico City

Mexico City Cathedral

Runner-up: Santiago de Chile
Quite a contrast here between enormous, chaotic, slightly crazy Mexico City vs Clean, calm, orderly Santiago. But I could live in ‘em both, I reckon.

 

Favourite Food: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
Best street food in Latin America from the Mexicans, whereas the restaurants were at their finest in Peru.

Best course: Learning Spanish in Guatemala
Runner-up: Learning to Dive in Honduras
Who knew learning could be such fun? Learning Spanish enriched my whole experience in the continent, and diving was way more fun (and way easier) than I ever thought it could be.

Favourite activity: Sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru
Runner-up: Cycling tour of the wineries, Mendoza, Argentina

Favourite Hike: The Huayhuash Circuit, Peru

The Cordillera Huayhuash

Runner-up: The Lost City, Colombia
Again, quite a contrast. The Huayhuash took me to the most stunning mountain scenery I’ve ever come across, and was the toughest walk I’ve ever done. The Lost City was less visually appealling and easier on the legs, but made up for it by being with the best group of people I’ve me on the whole trip.

 

Favourite Natural Wonder: The Copper Canyon, Mexico

The road to Batopilas, Copper Canyon

Runner-up: The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Sorry Colca Canyon, you may be deeper but Mexico’s is way better. It also gave me my favourite journey, along the Copper Canyon railway. Meanwhile, Uyuni was like a trip to another planet.

 

Favourite off the beaten track place: Mexcaltitan

Calle Venezia, Mexcaltitan

I feel like a bad traveller. I was pretty firmly on the gringo trail the entire time. Except in Mexcaltitan, tough to get to, not a lot to see, but one of my favourite stops so far.

 

Best Night out: Sargento Pimientas, Lima, Peru
Runner-up: Mazatlan, Mexico
My last night in Lima was a chance to say goodbye to two good friends I’d been travelling with on and off since Colombia, accompanied by the best music I’ve heard in ages. Mazatlan on the other hand was an entirely random night out with three Mexican women who I was introduced to by a clown.

Favourite Beach: Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Tayrona National Park

Runner-up: Mazunte, Mexico
Sleeping in a hammock on the beach in Colombia was pretty close to paradise. Meanwhile the waves in Mazunte kept me entertained for hours.

 

Favourite Market: San Francisco El Alto, Guatemala
Runner-up: Oaxaca, Mexico
A pretty small hill town in Guatemala with the biggest, most sprawling market I’ve ever seen. Oaxaca was my favourite of the Mexican markets, especially for the crammed, smokey food section.

Favourite weird religious spectacle: Semana Santa in Guanajuato, Mexico

Semana Santa in Guanajuato

Runner-up: Meeting Maximon in Santiago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Catholicism may have its heart in Europe, but the way they do it in Latin America makes our version look pretty tame.

 

Favourite Country: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
I’ve probably bored everyone I’ve met on this trip to death by going on and on about Mexico. But I don’t care. I love it.

Honduras Round-up & Budget

I’m not going to write a long post about my impressions of Honduras like I did for Mexico & Guatemala, as in my brief time in the country I didn’t get to see all that much and it’s hard to get a real feeling for a country based on just a couple of stops.

Sunset over Utila harbour

Sunset over Utila harbour

What I did see though I really liked. I was expecting it to be pretty similar to my previous stops, but it felt like the country had a very different vibe, a much more laid-back, tropical pace of life where no one ever seems to be in a hurry.

My first stop was Copan Ruinas, a little town near the border with Guatemala, most famous for its Mayan ruins, and in particular the intricately carved stelae that are dotted around between the pyramids. I’d love to show you photos, but after walking all the way from time I realised I’d forgotten to put the battery back in my camera after charging it. I won’t be making that mistake again.

Next stop was Utila, and after completing my dive course it was lovely to just spend a few days chilling out on the island. It’s a wonderfully relaxing place, which basically has just two real road on the whole island, and what little traffic there is consists of golf carts and quad bikes. No cruise ships visit the island, which helps preserve the tranquil air, and pretty much everyone on the island is there for one thing, which is pretty cool, as you immediately know you have something in common with everyone you meet, and everyone is always happy to chat about all the cool things they saw on the day’s dives. The island isn’t exactly famous for its beaches (especially compared to most Caribbean islands), but there are a couple of lovely little ones if you want to get away from the diving.

Utila beach

Utila beach

One of my other favourite things about Utila was the Jade Seahorse restaurant. With no guidebook I’d never heard about it before I got to the island, so when one night an English girl told me we had to go there because it’s one of the best bars in the entire world I was sceptical to say the least. Turns out I should learn to drop my natural cynicism from time to time. The whole place is a work of an American who spent eight years creating this little fantasy land out of broken bottles, sea shells, pieces of mirrors and any other junk he can find. The garden is laid out over several different levels, linked together by colourful staircases, little passageways, bridges and tunnels, all covered in a colourful mosaic of rubbish. Around the garden sit a few small similarly decorated cabins you can stay in, and at the top, suspended in the trees, is its bar, Treetanic. The whole place is captivatingly beautiful. It’s a really unique place, and I think the girl may have been right. Definitely one of the best in the world.

Jade Seahorse, Utila

Jade Seahorse, Utila

I definitely want to return to Honduras. I never got to explore the beautiful highlands to the south, which has some wonderful colonial towns and is the heartland of the country’s indigenous culture. The mosquitia (Mosquito Coast) area to the east of the country is supposed to be another highlight, one of the largest wildernesses of Central America.

There was one down side to Honduras though: it was my first budget fail. Diving may be cheaper in Honduras than most other places, but $269 for just four days is still way above budget. Add in the fact that Utila is an island where nothing grows and all the food has to be imported, and it means my food and drink budget ended up the highest yet.

In fact, I didn’t just go a little over, I went quite a bit over – $65.47 per day. Here’s how it broke down:
Transport:
Accommodation: $7.54
Diving & Copan ruins: $3.96
Internet & laundry:$5.47
Food & drink:$24.67

Luckily I was only there for 13 days, so my overall average stayed a fraction under $50 – but with the USA to come next I knew I was destined to end the first leg of my trip over budget.

And now the other numbers:
Taxis 5
Flight 1
Boats 7
Cars 1
Beaches 1
Bed 5
Laundry 1
Postcards 2
Phonecalls 2
Cash withdrawals 3
Islands 1
Museums 1
Pyramids 1
Tuktuks 1
Dives 6

People I dived & drunk with:
British 13 (for some reason Utila had easily the highest concentration of Brits I’ve seen so far)
Canadians 11
Americans 9
Germans 5
Australians 2
Irish 1
Israeli 1
Swiss 1
Dutch 1
Norwegian 1
Ecuadorian 1
Brazilian 1

Learning to Dive

For some reason diving was never something that appealed to me, even though I have friends back home who do it and love it. I suppose I never really gave it all that much thought. It wasn’t until I tried skiing two years ago (another activity that I’d had zero interest in before) and loved it that I started to think that maybe there were other fun things I’d been missing out on that I should try, and that a year of travelling would be the perfect opportunity to give it a go.

The second biggest coral reef system in the world (after the Great Barrier Reef) runs down the Caribbean coasts of Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. Mexico & Belize are probably the most famous places to see it, but the reef is just as good in Honduras, and even better (from a relatively budget traveller point of view) is that it’s one of the cheapest places in the world to learn, especially as all the dive shops include two free fun dives after the course, and free accommodation, in the package.

The diving on Honduras is based around the Bay Islands, just off the north coast, and Utila is the backpackers’ mecca, famous for cheap diving and good partying – so that’s where I headed.

Pointing the way to Altons

Pointing the way to Alton's

One of the great things about travelling like this is you really don’t need a guidebook – just talking to other travellers heading in the opposite direction will normally give you all the advice you need, and so on on arrival I ignored the hoards of people trying to persuade me to come to their dive shop, and headed straight for the people from Alton’s, which had been recommended to me as one of the best places to learn, as well as having a very social atmosphere and rooms right on the waterfront, which sounded like the perfect combination.

I had planned to do the PADI open water course, purely because that’s the most famous organisation worldwide, and figured that I’d probably need that to dive elsewhere. But on the drive from the ferry terminal down to Alton’s, an instructor called Lauren talked me into doing the NAUI open water course, which she’d be teaching, instead.

I’d never heard of NAUI before but it’s another organisation like PADI that offers dive training. Apparently the reason they are much less famous is that the organisation is a not for profit that plows all the money back in to training and environmental programmes, rather on marketing like PADI. But unlike my Spanish lessons I didn’t choose to go with NAUI for right-on reasons – no, I went with NAUI because the time in the classroom is less and the time in water more. With two weeks of intensive classroom time fresh in the memory from Xela, it was an easy sell for me.

It turned out to be a great decision. With PADI you spend the first day watching videos in a classroom. We started out straight away in the shallow water at the end of the dock, first with some simple swimming and floating exercises, and then moving on to using all the diving equipment apart from the regulator (which you breathe through) and oxygen tanks – which are the mask and snorkel, weights (to help you get down to the bottom more easily) and the BC (bouyancy compensator – a jacket which you can fill with air to adjust your bouyancy levels).

After explaining how they all worked, we then went out on the boat to get our first experience of the reef skin diving (i.e. snorkelling but with weights & the BC). The great thing about this way of learning is that you get familiar with everything else first without having to worry about the regulator and tanks, meaning the next day on our first dive, there would be less new stuff to take in. It was also nice to know that while we were already out getting to see the spectacular reef while the PADI students were still stuck back in the classroom.

The nest morning we spent time with Lauren, our instructor, going through all the science bits face to face (explaining how bouyancy works, and the effects of pressure on air and the body), which I much preferred to having to watch a video, and then in the afternoon we got our first experience of diving, again in the shallow water off the dock. This was our first opportunity to try out the skills I was most worried about – taking the regulator out underwater, and most scary, taking the mask off and putting it back on again, and then clearing the mask of water.

I was amazed to find that breathing underwater was far easier and felt far more natural than I’d worried, and I felt comfortable straight away. Taking the regulator out and putting it back in again was similarly easy. Even taking the mask off was much easier than I’d feared – I got a bit panicy at first and managed to inhale a bit of water through my nose, which had me frantically coughing through my regulator, but I soon managed to get a hold of myself and remember everything Lauren had taught me, so I relaxed, slowed my breathing down and soon I was fine (although it did take me several attempts to clear the mask). I must give a lot of credit to Lauren – she is an amazing instructor, explaining everything slowly and clearly, checking at every step of the way that we were OK, and making sure she congratulated us with an underwater fist bump after completing every step. I felt in very safe hands, which makes a huge difference at helping you relax in such an unnatural situation.

With all the skills mastered, the next step would be our first proper dive the following afternoon. I felt pretty confident about it, which is probably why I made the mistake of going out that night. Wednesday night is the biggest party night of the week in Utila, and with such a friendly crowd, before I knew it I’d made it up the Bar in the Bush, the one place that opens really late, playing drinking games with a group of mad French Canadians. Whoops. Staggering home at 3.30am it suddenly hit me that getting way more drunk than I had done on any night since I left England the night before my first dive was not the best idea in the world.

Honduran breakfast

Honduran breakfast

When I woke up the next morning I felt like death. Hangovers are even worse when you haven’t had one for a while, so I spent the morning guzzling gallons of water and coffee, and topping up my sugar levels via several cinnamon buns (which are a bit of an island speciality) and drinking Tropical (a Honduran speciality, a ridiculously sweet, bright yellow banana flavoured fizzy drink). It was touch and go, but by the time the boat left at lunchtime, I was just about feeling human. Thank god I was in the only group in the school that was diving in the afternoon that day, as I think I’d probably have drowned if I’d gone out in the morning.

In the end it all went fantastically – practising the mask removal skills underwater was much easier this time, and then after that we got to swim around marvelling at the reef. It’s absolutely beautiful, and so peaceful down there. Diving itself is actually a very unenergetic activity, once you have your bouyancy levels right you just float around, with minimal effort from the legs, just taking in all the colours and the sights underwater. The different types of coral are stunning, and it’s such an amazing experience to have big schools of fish swimming right round you. Aquariums will never be the same. As well as all the fish and coral, we saw rays, lobsters (looking much happier than they do in tanks in restaurants, funnily enough), crabs, starfish, seahorses and some pretty cool eels. Only major disappointment for me was that we’d just missed the whale shark season, as they are supposed to be pretty spectacular.

Happy diver, cheesy grin

Happy diver, cheesy grin

Four dives and an exam later and we’d passed the course, meaning we
were able to spend our fun dives spending more time seeing the reef, and taking underwater pictures (which turned out to be the toughest of the skills I’d tried – managing to stay totally still to get the best picture takes a bit of practice, especially as your natural tendency is to hold your breath to stop bubbles getting in the way, and holding your breath makes you more bouyant, so before you know it you’re half way to the surface). All in all it was better than I could have hoped, and I definitely plan to do my advanced course when I get to Asia (especially if I can find a NAUI shop there, as you get to dive down to 40m on the NAUI advanced course as opposed to 30m with PADI).