Journey Home: San Cristóbal de las Casas

One of the places we knew we wanted to revisit on our drive back north to the U.S. was the Chiapas, Mexico city of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

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Still closer to San Jose, Costa Rica than we are to Austin, Texas. Mexico is big. But we’ve already crossed 4 out of 5 borders, which is the hard part.

It’s a lovely, walkable, Spanish colonial town with a friendly vibe, fresh mountain air and plenty of nooks and crannies to explore. (Click on a photo to see slideshow/full captions.)

You should totally visit, but it is worth checking with your accommodations about whether there are any festivals going on in the neighborhood during your stay. This place likes to party. Which is cool, and we’re generally fairly intrepid travelers who can pop a Tylenol PM, put in our earplugs and fugheddaboutit.

… but our AirBnB was in the middle of Barrio de los Mexicanos, which hosts a festival for the Virgin of the Assumption in August each year, during which revelers set off bottle rockets, ring church bells and play music all night long. Bad timing on our part. The dogs were scared of the fireworks, and for the first couple nights none of us got much sleep. The second morning, a marching band woke us up at 4:30 a.m.

Despite the bombs and the minor sleep deprivation, we did manage to get out and explore the city a bit. I was working during the days, but at night we’d walk along the cobblestone peatones (pedestrian streets) and stop in at one of lots of wonderful restaurants. In which, evidently, Andy takes more photos of me than I do of him. Forgive the food montage.

Andy visited the Museo del los Altos de Chiapas one day, and I did manage to get to a yoga class at Casa Luz. (Yoga in Spanish is a great way to review body-part vocab!) On Saturday the sun came out and we and the dogs hoofed it up to the church at Cerro de Guadelupe, where we got a great view of the city. Afterward we stumbled upon a parade (part of the ongoing festival), with floats, horses, and dancers wearing dresses over innertubes along with terrifying masks. It was an incredible sight.

The next day, we set out early for the 10-hour drive to Oaxaca, where we are now. More on that in the next installment!

Journey Home: Antigua and Huehuetenango

We drove into Antigua from Copan after crossing the border on Sunday, August 7. The descent into this beautiful city encircled by mountains and volcanoes is impressively steep and serves to transport you to its cobblestone colonial paradise. We stayed at a cute and quiet guesthouse in the southwest part of Antigua about a 15-minute walk from the central park.

Unfortunately, our arrival in Antigua coincided with my getting a cold. That put a bit of a damper on city exploring, but we still managed to go out every night and I did a ton of walking to run various errands, including navigating the labyrinthine market. It wasn’t a super eventful week, but we came away with a few souvenirs and memories of some awesome food experiences.

In anticipation of our drive to Mexico, we drove to Huehuetenango, Guatemala on Saturday, August 13. That put us within two hours of the border. We didn’t have a hotel reservation when we rolled into town, but I had found a couple options online. The first one we arrived at, which I had tried to call the day before, was obviously completely booked. There were tons of cars parked behind the hotel, and when I walked in to try to find the reception desk, I came upon a wedding reception instead! We bailed on that one and drove to our next option.

The Hotel Premier, which sounds fancier than it is, had rooms available. However, the receptionist informed us that there was a disco that night from about 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Emily and I discussed it, then opted to book a room anyway. The price was right, and we had earplugs and sleep aids. We actually managed to get some decent rest that night and got up early to make our way to the border.

 

The border crossing into Mexico was relatively uneventful. Nicaragua let us out, and Mexico let us in after a bit of back and forth with the dogs — we missed the agricultural/animal checkpoint and had to backtrack. As soon as we could, we stopped to get tacos (yay, Mexico!). We ended up pulling into San Cristóbal de Las Casas at about 4 p.m. local time.

We’ll be posting updates on our week in San Cristóbal and our subsequent trip to Oaxaca shortly!

Journey Home: Nicaragua and Honduras

On Sunday, July 31st we started our drive back home to Austin. We’re driving mostly on the weekends, since Emily needs to work, so we’ll be taking about six weeks to get home. Our planned arrival date in Austin is September 18.

Day one of the journey started out great. The drive to the border was fairly long, but easy. Exiting Costa Rica was no problem — we ran ahead of the huge group of Tica Bus passengers, presented the appropriate papers for ourselves and the car, and got through the border without incident. It was a rather unceremonious farewell to Costa Rica.

Our entry into Nicaragua was a little trickier. It turns out that the people who are there to help with processing paperwork at the border are authorized, but authorized doesn’t mean free. We did get through the whole process of temporarily importing the car, passing through immigration, and getting a certification from the vet for Penny and Theda to enter the country pretty quickly, but we also got taken for a bit of a ride. That won’t happen again.

We also had a bit of trouble exiting the border area when an agent noticed that we didn’t have a front license plate. That plate was stolen a couple weeks ago, but we played sorta dumb (I’m good at that) and after some conversations with a few officials, we got border boss-level permission to enter Nicaragua with only one license plate. Phew!

Even with all of that messing around, the border crossing took less than two hours, which we count as a major success. We rolled into Granada at about 3:30 p.m. and got settled in our cozy & comfortable room at the Hotel Casa San Francisco. I was familiar with this place because I stayed at a casita owned by the owners of the hotel when I visited Granada earlier this year. The hotel is just a few blocks from Calle La Calzada, which has a few pedestrian-only blocks lined with many restaurants and street performers. We enjoyed the walkability of the city, which led to our car being parked on the street the whole time we were there. Each night, we payed a guard a couple bucks to watch the car, which is common practice in these cities where petty theft is apparently common.

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A park I found in Granada about a kilometer from our hotel. It was an important find, since these walled Spanish colonial cities lack abundant green space for the dogs to relieve themselves. 

On Tuesday, August 2nd, we relocated to León, which put us within two hours of the Honduras border. We found a room on AirBnB at Hostal El Nancite, which is a guesthouse run by John, a talkative expat from NYC and his Nica wife. Emily and I enjoyed being near the center of action – close to the León Cathedral, a great bakery/restaurant called Pan y Paz, and other restaurants and attractions. One of our most enjoyable meals was procured from the ladies grilling various meats and other savory delights behind the cathedral at the edge of the market. Paired with some Costa Rican beer, it was a fairly perfect dinner.

After a few days in León we packed up and proceeded to barrel through Honduras in just two days. We crossed the border on Friday, August 5 after talking to lots of officials, waiting for the customs officials to get back from lunch, and jumping through all the hoops. (Honduras wants so many copies of documents! Where do they all go?) We spent one night in Tegucigalpa at a Hyatt in the equivalent of The Domain in Austin — a fancy-time mall-like area with hip restaurants (and Chili’s) and condos. We had a great night there, including a tasty meal at the nearby wine bar and a cocktail at the hotel’s rooftop bar.

 

We rolled out of Tegucigalpa on Saturday morning. After getting lost in the city a couple times (GPS was having trouble), we made our way to Copán Ruinas. This was one of the two nights on the trip that we didn’t have lodging booked in advance. We stopped by the place we stayed on the way down last year, but they were full. After some hunting around, we found a room at Carrillos Hotel, a small, modestly-priced place on the edge of town. It was also conveniently located around the corner from a restaurant specializing in pupusas, a food we’ve recently come to love.

We woke up bright and early on Sunday, loaded up the car, and rolled over to the ruins to make up for missing them on our trip down to Costa Rica last year (“Don’t miss the ruins,” say all the guidebooks). I’m pretty fascinated by ruins and imagine people living out their lives there — at it’s peak, Copán and the surrounding area was home to about 20,000 Mayans. Emily was more into the adjoining scarlet macaw sanctuary, which was really cool. We’d seen these birds flying in pairs from far away, but up close they’re spectacularly beautiful and loud. We have no intention of becoming birders, but if there is such a thing as a “gateway bird,” the scarlet macaw would seem to fit the profile.

After checking the ruins off of our list, we hopped in the car, crossed the border into Guatemala, and arrived in Antigua. We’ve been here for five awesome nights and will hit the road tomorrow to make our way closer to Mexico before making our penultimate border crossing on Sunday.

Antigua anecdotes coming soon!

 

Goodbye, Costa Rica

I’m writing this post from our room at the Hotel Casa San Francisco in Granada, Nicaragua. We arrived here on Sunday and are about to depart for León. Before I update y’all on the trip here, I wanted to write a bit about what the heck it was we were doing in Atenas, especially over the last month or so.

From previous posts, you know about our various adventures traveling around Costa Rica and the surrounding area. When not traveling, we still kept ourselves pretty busy. Emily was mostly working, which was made somewhat challenging by the preschool next door to us. Their play area was right across our driveway, and it sounded like this pretty much every day of the week:

I spent a lot of time at Su Espacio, which is a language school and cultural center run by a Tico-Italian couple, David and Corinna. I took two Spanish classes a week almost every week from David, who is a fantastic instructor. I highly recommend taking classes from him in-person or via Skype. 

For a few months, I taught an after-school English class to a group of kids ages 7-10 and some one-on-one English classes, and Emily tutored a nine-year-old named Natasha in various subjects for a while. We were both relieved from our teaching/tutoring duties by full-time volunteers for our last two months in Atenas.

I also got the chance to teach some music, which is a bit more in my wheelhouse. David and Corinna’s son, Nicola (Nico), who is well on his way to being fluently trilingual in Spanish, Italian, and English, really wanted to take violin lessons. We tried finding a quarter-size violin in Costa Rica, but it turns out that they’re tough to get. Undeterred, we ended up ordering a violin online and I brought it back from the U.S. after my tour with Silas Lowe in March. After a few months of lessons, Nico is doing great at playing such hits as, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Old Macdonald Had a Farm,” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” He also loves playing scales, which is fairly incredible.

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Nico loves the violin!

Last month, I taught a music appreciation workshop with David to a group of about eight kids (attendance varied from week to week). We introduced various instruments to the kids, talked about types of music, and did some art projects related to music over the course of four classes. It was a super fun experience that culminated in creating found-object percussion instruments and singing “Yellow Submarine.”

 

 

A couple weeks before we left, I participated in a beer brewing workshop at Su Espacio taught by a fellow gringo, Doug, which was super cool. It was fun learning the whole process and picking up some of the brewing vocabulary in Spanish as well as English. The group was mostly Americans and Canadians who live in the area and we had a great time brewing and tasting some of the local craft brews.

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Brewing beer!

 

Emily’s coworker Leah has the honor of being our last visitor in Atenas. Penny did her best to make Leah feel welcome.

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Penny insists on snuggling all of our guests.

I also played my first and last show in Atenas at Etnia, a cool restaurant with the nicest owner ever, Camilo. My friend Norman, a Tico Celtic guitarist, and I worked up a couple sets worth of Celtic tunes and pulled it together in time for the gig. We had a great turnout and it was a fun way to begin our last week in Atenas.

We had an awesome time living in and exploring Costa Rica. It will be good to get back home to the U.S., but we’ll miss the mellow pace of life that we enjoyed for the past year. Of course, more than anything, we’ll miss the friends we made while living there. Here are many of them!

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Us, David & Corinna

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Us with Jonathan, his son Matias, and Cana. Cana is from New York and is a teacher in Atenas. Jonathan, her Tico boyfriend, is a crafting wizard who has a shop at Catuca in town.

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Jorge and his cousin Cecilia, my Spanish/English exchange buddies.

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Xiomara, who cleaned our house for the year. She loves our dogs and they love her!

Goodbye, Costa Rica! We love you forever.