We passed back into Guatemala and hopped a van first for Chiquimula, then onto Puerto Barrios. The scenery changed from dry and rocky land to lush rainforests and fertile plains as we descended toward the Caribbean coast. Finally, reaching the town and border station, we got stamped out of the country and headed to the docks. We got a spot on the last run of the day…and we were the only passengers! Probably for the best, because the sea was extremely rough, sometimes lifting and dropping us a couple meters and completely soaking us in the process. Dripping, we entered the Punta Gorda immigration office. I was stamped in without further ado…but the official apparently had not heard that Koreans have had visa-free entrance since December! We sat there, making a puddle around our feet on their floor, while he tried to call his superiors. It took almost 30 minutes, but it finally got sorted and we walked into yet another country. We immediately found a guesthouse along the waterfront street. Changing into dry clothes felt wonderful, and then we commenced a very short exploration of the surrounding village. But mainly, we sat on our guesthouse deck eating spaghetti, drinking local beer, and listening to a reggae guitarist singing in the bar below us.
The next morning, we found a filling breakfast in a teeny streetside canteen and I discovered the vegan friendly joy of fryjacks. Where have they been all my life? With that, we checked out and traipsed down to the bus station where we got on the northbound bus. Like a chicken bus, it was a refitted school bus, but much cleaner and only about half full. All the windows rolled down, and uniformed driver in place, we set off through the riotous green of the jungle clad hills. I had thought to read for the two hour journey, but I could barely take my eyes off the emerald scenery! We alighted at a spot where the dirt road leading to our destination intersected with the highway, where we had to hitch a ride the next five kilometers to the wee town of Hopkins itself. I had made a reservation at the Lebeha Drumming Center, our own thatch hut with a screen porch and hammock, fronting the center’s sand courtyard and just a block from the beach.
On that first evening, we ate a fine feast at the Kismet, a hippie hangout run by an eccentric artist and chef who told anyone who was interested about how she revived Elvis using various herb brews. With fresh baked bread, fresh caught barracuda, and deliciously exotic salads to go with our curry and rice, we were pleasantly stuffed and very entertained by the colorful conversation. On our way back to our hut, we stopped at the local pizza shop, which was hosting a local band playing Garifuna music. With the thrum of the drummers (who train at the center) and the layers of vocals and other instruments in the background as we dug our toes into golden sand and looked up at the dome of stars overhead, the moon making a trail across the sea in front of us, we both were so peaceful we almost fell asleep!
Our days in Hopkins fell into a pattern. Wake with the parrots and monkeys around 8AM, eat a lazy breakfast of soy milk and cornflakes on our porch, lie in the hammock until lunch, walk to one of the nearby cafes, walk back and hang in the hammock while sipping beer and listening in on the afternoon drum lessons, swim in the calm Carib waters, lie around some more, take a walk before indulging in a fabulous dinner of fresh seafood for Sangbyeong and flavorful Garifuna curries for me, and head back to fall asleep by mid-evening. Repeat. We struck up conversations with the drum center owner, other visitors, the Chinese owners of the local supermarket, and the cook at Luba Laruga, our favorite restaurant where we could dine on the best food just a couple meters from the quietly lapping waves. Between the excellent food, the catatonic pace of life, and getting twelve hours of sleep each night, we knew we were using our time here to recharge our batteries for the rest of our Central American adventure.
On the last day of February, we packed up our bags and caught a ride with Sherry, a woman from Eugene, Oregon, who was heading up the Hummingbird Highway and onto the Guatemala border, same as us. We chuckled over our small-world moment that she lives only a few blocks from my brother’s favorite café…they’ve probably walked past each other a hundred times! The gorgeous Hummingbird Highway unfurled before us and provided a gorgeous backdrop to our conversation. Next, we passed through Belmopan, the world’s smallest national capitol, and on toward the border towns to the west. She was stopping for the night in San Ignacio, where we all walked around the market together before we broke off on our own again. We had a quick meal and sat people watching along one of the bustling thoroughfares, marveling at the diversity of Belizeans.
A small, rickety bus took us the remaining few kilometers to the border town of Benque Viejo del Carmen, where we planned to sleep the night. Our airy and clean hostel was entirely empty except for us, which suited us just fine. In town, we wandered along the river and up through the historic area, where we visited the pristine little Catholic church, which was being lavishly decorated for a quinceanera. We needed to reserve the rest of our Belizean dollars for the border fees and taxes, so we made a humble dinner of peanut butter sandwiches and papaya to tide us over.
The next morning, we caught a taxi to the border, where we ran into crowds of Mennonites selling fruit…not what we were expecting to see! For the third time, we entered Guatemala, this time with the plan to actually stay a few nights…or two and a half weeks. A taxi, a collectivo, and another taxi finally brought us to our next destination, Flores…the perfect place to celebrate a full year on the road!!