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Travel Isn't Always Pretty: My Worst Travel Stories from Central America

Updated: Jan 21, 2023

It's easy to see the glamour of travel when Instagram is overflowing with wanderlusting vagabonds and spectacular landscapes. But we don't usually photograph the bad stuff. Anthony Bourdain put it best:

"Travel isn't always pretty. It isn't always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts. It even

breaks your heart. But that's okay. The journey changes you; it should change you.

It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your

body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind."

There is so much more to traveling than a stunning panorama and the local cuisine. And while some situations really do break your heart, others are more of a lesson learned or "We'll laugh about this later" kind of scenario. After five weeks backpacking Central America, I had my fair share of awkward, uncomfortable, and unnerving incidences. Most of them were just minor annoyances, or in some cases, my own anxiety telling me all the ways this could go wrong (not always a bad thing!). Luckily, I can look back now and say, "Remember that guy at the Nicaragua/El Salvador border in the middle of the night with the massive machete? HAHA!" So I rounded up some of the trials and tribulations from this trip that are forever stuck in my memory. Feel free to laugh, whether it is at me or with me!

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Taxi Woes Part 1

teton backpacking backpack
The backpack I lugged through 6 countries

I don't know why, but there always seems to be a taxi story. My friend and I were fresh off the airplane in San Jose, Costa Rica. Both of us seasoned travelers, we knew the taxi game. Take a marked taxi, negotiate your fare ahead of time, and know what is a reasonable amount for the trip. Airport taxis are generally a safe option, so we start haggling for a decent bid to get to the main bus station downtown. All of the drivers are outside of their cars trying to usher in customers, so when we choose a driver, we are unaware that he is not parked in the queue, but out in the lot. On the way to the car, he chats with the police officers and insists he is a great guy! Red flags one and two.

When we get to his extremely old, beat up Cadillac, he tells us if we want some air, just push the window down. With our hands. So off we go, two girls with all our belongings, into a city of questionable safety. The car makes it into downtown before it starts to backfire. It dies. He starts it up again and tells us not to worry because “it does this.” We round a corner, and it dies again. As the car rolls to a stop, I start scoping out the area, try to nonchalantly grab what is within reach, and get ready to make a run for it. I know this scheme. This is the part where his friends show up and jump us. But the car magically starts up again. We somehow coast into the bus station running on nothing but hopes and good karma. Somewhat in shock, we pay, thank the driver, then laugh in relief as he drives off, wondering how the hell we managed to not get robbed, or at the very least, stuck in the middle of a foreign city in a broken-down taxi.

Lost at Midnight

One thing an experienced traveler knows is that you will never arrive on time. On the same day as the taxi incident, we wasted no time and quickly hopped on a bus and headed straight to our first destination: La Fortuna. This charming little town is nestled in the Costa Rican jungle, and boasts volcanoes, hot springs, waterfalls, and all the adventure you could ask for. We had booked a dorm at a big resort-like hostel with an outdoor bar and lounge area, sparkling pool, palm trees, and hammocks. The only problem was we rolled in several hours later than expected. It was midnight, and the whole town was dead. There was no Google Maps to rely on, and the map we had saved on our phone in preparation for this was not getting us anywhere. We wandered around for a solid hour, in the dark, hauling our 50 liter backpacks, which were feeling quite heavy by now.

Eventually we managed to find a few English-speaking (although not fluent) backpackers hanging out at their own hostels, and tried to get a grasp on where we were. This is when we found out another unfortunate problem: There were multiple hostels with the same name. They literally opened up copycat hostels to trick people into booking them because our hostel was so popular! After some desperate attempts to communicate and a few kind lads that escorted us in the right direction, we finally managed to stumble up to the correct hostel, find someone awake to open the gate for us, and get into our room, completely exhausted from the chaos of what was only day one of a several week trip.

It's no wonder why everyone in town wanted to copy this place! It was absolutely gorgeous, super chill, the staff was amazing, and very affordable. You can find it here on Hostelworld: Arenal Backpackers Resort, La Fortuna, Costa Rica.

Taxi Woes Part 2

Fast forward a few days. We are traveling north to Nicaragua, and the "chicken buses" don't cross the border. With only 45 minutes from the border crossing to the little surfing town of San Juan del Sur, we decided to splurge on a taxi. Again, we start negotiating fares, and after several offers of $25, we find a young man, maybe 20 years old, who is willing to take us for $20. Happy with ourselves, we load our backpacks into the trunk and pile into the backseat. The kid then pulls the wires out from under the steering wheel and begins to HOTWIRE THE CAR. Wide-eyed, we stare at each other, then at the wires, then back at each other. “Uhh este coche es tuyo?” I utter. Yes, the car is his, he insists. And then we all chuckle nervously.

It's a pretty straightforward route to our destination – a straight shot north, then another due west, without much around – no weaving through city streets. I keep an eye on the time, as well as our direction, although I'm actually not feeling too worried. Until we get pulled over. The cops (maybe?) approach the car wielding huge guns and the driver tells us everything is fine as he hands over some paperwork. At this point, we have no idea if this is some sort of checkpoint or if the driver has done something wrong. Is the car stolen? Is he a real taxi driver? Are the cops there to protect us, or do we need to be thinking about bribe money? With all of this racing through my head, the cops give the go-ahead and off we go again! Another crisis diverted. A short drive later and we arrive at our beach-side surf town unscathed, and yet again, very relieved.

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua [What you don't see: Being told not to go to the beach at night due to muggers.]

“Donde Esta El Tunco”

After a week or so without any scares, other than a story or two from fellow travelers about getting robbed, we were due for something to go wrong. We boarded a bus for yet another border. The timing was important because we were picking up a third traveler during a stopover in a specific town for lunch. In order for this to work, we needed to get from point A to point B within a certain time frame (give or take an hour). I was especially concerned because he was flying in at midnight, spoke zero Spanish, and needed to take a taxi for 45 minutes to the meeting point, El Tunco, El Salvador, during a period of particularly troubling civil unrest. I also knew we would have no way of communicating until we got to the location, and could find wi-fi.

Of course, we did not make it during our projected time frame. Not even close. The problem? An accident on the highway. Now, by highway, I mean two lane road that was apparently the only route to get where we were going. So what do we do? Well, the driver turns off the bus, and gets off. Next thing I know, others are getting off the bus as well. I needed to use the bathroom, and was getting pretty hungry, but we were in the middle of nowhere and I was certain as soon as I got off the bus, everyone would pile back on and take off without me.

An hour goes by. Finally, here comes an ambulance. Wow. I hope nobody is severely injured. Another hour goes by. A tow truck shows up. Eventually people start wandering back onto the bus with stories of sipping tea and having snacks with a local woman whose house we were stopped in front of. The driver shows back up. After several hours of waiting, traffic starts moving again.

At this point, I'm certain I will never find our other travel companion. I don't even know if his plane landed or if he made it to El Tunco. And if he did, I'm sure he is worried sick about us. Way behind schedule, we pull into a bustling little community that looks nothing like the rest of El Salvador. Hidden away behind secure concrete walls were hip cafes, surf shops, and people casually strolling the streets. It was an oasis like I'd never seen before. Everyone hops off the bus for a bite to eat and I scramble to find an internet connection. Soon I find out the plane did land. He made it and managed to book himself a hostel. I rush into the hostel courtyard, finding him poolside, beer in hand, making plans with some new friends to head out surfing if we didn't show up soon!

Gunshots on Ometepe

We spent a few days in San Juan del Sur, lounging in infinity pools overlooking the ocean and eating all the ceviche. Then we headed back inland for the volcanic island of Ometepe, which is in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. There were not many hostels on the island, so we chose one that looked reasonable that was within walking distance of the ferry terminal. We booked it in advance so we would be sure to have somewhere to stay.

Ox and cart in ometepe, nicaragua
Roadblock, Nicaruagua style

When we showed up, we couldn't find anyone around. The doors to dorms were open, and the windows leading from the dorms to the streets were open. The hostel wasn't the nicest, and the lack of people staying there was concerning. We took a seat in the courtyard anyway, and waited. After waiting awhile, we started searching for other accommodations using their Wi-Fi, which was fortunately not password-protected. There was a pricier boutique hostel back towards the ferry terminal. It was a bit far to walk in the heat with our backpacks, but it looked homey and pleasant.

Just as we were deciding to leave, we heard what sounded like gunshots. We stayed there frozen for a minute, wondering if that was actually what we heard. Then we heard it again. We gathered our things and headed for the door. On our way out, in comes a young guy who had just pulled up on a scooter. He asks if he can help us and we said we were just leaving. He ushers us back in and says he was just out grabbing some food. We reluctantly stand at the counter while he begins to check us in. Still feeling a bit uneasy, we ask him where the lockers were. We hadn't seen any. He offered to take our passports and valuables and put them in a drawer behind the counter. A drawer that didn't even lock.

Trying not to be rude, we said no thanks, and that we were just going to go somewhere else. He got very upset and began ranting about how we would not get a refund for our 7 dollars, as if that would change our mind. When we left, he followed us down the street on his scooter, still yelling. A half mile later, we arrived at our new hostel, complete with lockers, other travelers, and even scooters for us to rent to take around the island. We were happy with our decision. We also found out that there was a big celebration happening on the island that weekend. And lots of fireworks.

The highlight of Ometepe: Ojo de Agua natural pool

Bedbugs and Belize Time

There were some serious turf wars with the locals. [Not pictured: The tarantula on the ceiling of our bedroom.].

We managed to spend quite a bit of time traveling around Guatemala with barely a hiccup (aside from a treacherous and claustrophobic van ride through some not-so-well-maintained mountain roads). Antigua, Lake Atitlan, and Semuc Champey were definitely some of the highlights of the trip. And then there was Belize. Not much went right in Belize, but the biggest issue, by far, was the boat. The plan was to take a boat from Dangriga, Belize to Puerto Cortes, Honduras in order to catch our flight back to the states. It was faster, simpler, and we thought, available. Boy were we wrong. It turns out, Belize time doesn't just run a few minutes late. Not even a few hours late. I'm talking DAYS. The boat that was supposed to show up wasn't coming for THREE MORE DAYS.

We had a flight to catch that night, so we scrambled to come up with a Plan B. We had actually traveled an hour north just to catch this boat, so now we were even further from the Guatemalan border. And even if we got there, it wasn't possible to cross by land – we would still need to arrange a boat. We grabbed a taxi and headed for the bus station to see what we could come up with. As Belizeans do, our driver tried to help. While we ran inside to see what was available, he called around and managed to find someone to take us by boat to Guatemala. Even though it was a long trip south, we opted to ride with him to the port rather than take the much slower bus. We forked over a hundred bucks, and he bolted towards Punta Gorda, the first of many stops.

Two hours later, we were seamlessly transferred from the cab to a waiting boat, and we took off on the choppy waters still unsure if we would make it across two more borders in time for our flight. Once in Guatemala we did our best to arrange a (not so) private shuttle to take us through the border, and into San Pedro Sula. At this point it was getting late, and we were equally concerned with the setting sun as we were with missing our flight. We clearly told the driver we wanted to go directly to the airport. Of course that is not where he took us. Another passenger needed to go to the bus terminal. He demanded we all get out there, but there was no way I was standing around after dark in the murder capital of the world.

He finally obliged and drove us to the airport. We lugged our soaking wet backpacks (our boat had taken on water) through security, and fell into a chair, safe inside the walls of the airport. It wasn't until I got on the plane that I realized I had also gained some microscopic

stowaways. I had bedbugs. And the only dry clothes I had were the ones I was wearing. Needless to say, I was very ready to go home. And almost ready to swear off travel forever. Almost.

Silk Caye, Belize
And this is what keeps me coming back for more. Silk Caye, Belize

What are some of your most memorable travel mishaps? Let me know in the comments below!


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