Travel Sustainably at The Ranch in Nicaragua

Did you know that The Republic of Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America? The beautiful country is sandwiched between Honduras and Costa Rica. Unfortunately, political unrests and negative press impacted tourism in Nicaragua for several years. But if you do go there, you will find that the reality is very different. Nicaragua is actually a very safe country for tourists where you can travel sustainably. The people are polite and welcoming. The scenery is stunning! And best of all, it is an affordable travel destination.

Rancho Santana Nicaragua

Getting There

Fly into Managua, the capital and drive up north to be in the coffee plantations and cooler mountains, or west to get to Pacific Beaches and east to the Atlantic. You can also fly to Liberia airport in Costa Rica and be at the border within minutes. Whichever direction you choose to go, on your drive expect to see lots of banana plantations, cattle ranches, wooded forests and open fields. Keep an eye for towering cone shaped volcanoes against the skyline. There are 17 volcanoes in Nicaragua, though none are active.

pink beach Rancho Santana Nicaragua

San Juan Del Sur

Lately, Nicaragua has become a popular beach resort destination among immigrants and vacationers from USA and Canada. The town of San Juan Del Sur is a quintessential example of this. You will see lots of high risers and surf shops. I would suggest going there for a day, if you must, but head north to one of my favorite spots in the country.

private beach Rancho Santana Nicaragua

Private Resort in Tola

When you arrive at Rancho Santana in Tola, it may appear like an upscale resort in Southern California. Picture terra cotta roofs and beige stucco against the blue ocean and white sand in the background. “The Ranch,” is a sprawling, sustainable private resort and residential community located on 2,700 acres of Nicaragua’s pristine Emerald Coast. It is must visit if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle and be in a peaceful, undisturbed atmosphere. The Ranch is so spread out that you may feel you are one of the handful guests here, but that is by design. I stayed at The Inn, a charming boutique hotel that is the focal point of The Ranch.

surfing Rancho Santana Nicaragua

Make Your Own Retreat

While surfing is the main reason to come to this part of Nicaragua, there are tons of activities right at The Ranch. Start your day with guided morning yoga at the pavilion overlooking the coast. Spend a couple of hours at the 6,000-square-foot treetop retreat The Spa in El Bosque. In the afternoon, take a swim and relax at resort’s five beaches (there’s a pink one too!) or three pools.

horseback riding Rancho Santana Nicaragua

Guided Activities

The Ranch has a very knowledgeable staff with tour guides who offer everything from sandboarding down coastal dunes, hiking in the pristine woods, birdwatching and monkey spotting too. You can take a nature tour or horseback ride along the beach without ever having to leave Rancho Santana. 

Eat Local

Farm to table is not a concept but the norm at this resort in Nicaragua. The Ranch grows about 2,500 pounds of fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs each month. Take a tour of the farm just outside the Inn and you’ll spot greens, cherry tomatoes, colorful peppers, sweet corn, a variety of succulent citrus, and habanero chilis (a favorite). All of the ingredients are used at the property’s four restaurants and the tienda (farm store). If you are staying longer at one of the condos, you can pick up fresh produce, breads, meat and cook your own food.

If you are looking to eat healthy and organic during your vacation, you will like the options at Rancho Santana. I enjoyed a bowl of fresh fruit, homemade granola and yogurt each morning. There were plenty of vegetarian options too, my favorite being the veggie bowl with falafel, sweet plantains, greens, cashew curry, avocado and radish at La Finca y el Mar-Bar. All of the menus have a Nicaraguan flair helmed by local chefs. From fresh catch fish burgers to coffee rubbed pork chops with sweet plantains, everything is farm sourced and offers authentic flavors.

cooking class Rancho Santana Nicaragua

Make sure to also take a cooking class with Chef Carmen and learn to make gallo pinto – the national dish of Nicaragua.

health clinic Rancho Santana Nicaragua

Give Back

By staying at Rancho Santana, you also help uplift the community around. Take the new Conectando Corazones tour to learn about all the charitable programs that Rancho Santana supports in the area. Many of the guests and residents created the nonprofits using their own skills and resources. Some of these you can visit include Fun Lemon (where the gym is also located), a vocational school and after school program for learning English, computer skills, plumbing and housekeeping. Many of the graduates are hired to work at The Ranch.

Roberto Clemente is a fully functional health clinic where you can also volunteer your medical, nursing or dental abilities. Besides providing a lab and pharmacy, they also do workshops to educate people on how to eat healthy, grow their own food and ward off diseases.

The Blue Water program purifies the undrinkable well water and sells it in jars to schools and households at 1/10th the cost of name brands.

Lastly, CREA is an educational resource center where kids can get help with homework, after-school lessons, reading and activities.

sustainable resort


One thing you will find distinct at Rancho Santana is that all of the staff is from Nicaragua. They are truly passionate about their culture and community, always eager to offer tips on where to go and which dishes to try.

The Ranch employs over 600 people from the neighboring villages and offers job training, security and healthcare. From farming, to woodworking and iron welding, everything is done on the property itself, creating a sustainable self-sufficient enterprise in this magical corner of Nicaragua.

~ All photos credit to Frederick Choi on behalf of Go Eat Give.

Best Local Experiences in Nosara, Costa Rica

Not many people have heard of Nosara, a small village on the western coast of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. This quaint town is in the Blue Zone, which is one of the rare places in the world that supports longevity and good health. People who live in the Blue Zone often live over the age of 100. There are lots of yoga centers, outdoor activities, local restaurants, quiet beaches, and places to relax on a long vacation in Nosara. Away from the hustle of the capital and touristy beach towns, Nosara offers a chance to live the “pure vida” or the good life. It is no wonder that Nosara is not only an upcoming vacation spot, but one of the best places in the world to retire and work remotely.

Here are some of the best local experiences you can have in Nosara…

Nosara views
Tranquil views of Nosara from Tierra Magnifica resort.

Drive To Nosara

The fastest way to get to Nosara is to fly into Liberia airport. You can then rent a car and drive 2.5 hours to Nosara or book a shuttle transfer. Another option is to drive from the capital of San Jose, which takes about 5 hours. Roads in Costa Rica are mostly very good (100x times better than the first time I drove there in 2007). There are a few bumps and dirt road on the last half-hour stretch, but overall, it is an easy drive into Nosara. I recommend renting with a reliable local company such as Adobe Rent A Car, and paying for car rental insurance, to avoid any stresses later on.

Nosara has windy hilly roads and lots of unpaved areas, so many tourists prefer to rent an ATV to get around. If you go this route, make sure to rent helmets and be very careful driving on the sharp turns. Most tour companies also offer transfers, but it is more convenient to have your own vehicle while in Nosara. That way you can check out some of the local beaches and restaurants on your own.

local hotel in Nosara
Tierra Magnifica feels like a luxurious treehouse setting.

Stay at a Chic Boutique Hotel

There are lots of hostels, small hotels, and home rentals in Nosara. The most luxurious of them is family-owned and run Tierra Magnifica Resort. Nestled on top of a hill, in a quiet residential area, the expansive resort has some of the most stunning views of the bay and surrounding jungle. I stayed at the newly unveiled decadent 1,500 sq. ft. master suite, with a living room, separate bedroom, 1.5 baths, and a huge balcony overlooking the resort and the coastline ahead. In the afternoons, I could see howler monkeys right outside the room swinging from the mango trees.

The architecture of the resort is minimalistic, yet elegant, blending in with the natural environment. There’s a restaurant on the property that is very popular even among locals. It has exquisite food, an extensive wine list, and a tropical backdrop that is worth stopping for.

locally sourced fruit pancakes
You will want to order these delicious pancakes over and over again!

Nourish Your Body and Soul

Each morning, my husband and I would walk pass the swimming pool, down to the yoga barn located a few steps away from our room, and practice self guided yoga surrounded by chirping birds. You can also book a lesson with one of the resort’s instructors (the owner’s son). Then, we would walk down trough steep staircases to a waterfall on the property and get our exercise for the day. We would then nourish ourselves with a huge brunch at the resort’s Huacas Restaurant. Breakfast is a big meal in Costa Rica and choices included fresh fruits, homemade granola, smoothie, purple corn pupusas, avocado toast, breakfast burrito and many vegan options. My favorite were the fluffy Huacas pancakes topped with red berry and hibiscus sauce. Most ingredients are sourced locally, which is why they taste fresh and wholesome.

meet locals at Tierra Magnifica
Hob nob with locals from Nosara at Tierra Magnifica’s July 4th BBQ party!

We returned to Huacas for dinner on many of the evening, for a chef tasting with Chef Paulo Valerios, and to celebrate Fourth of July with the owner’s family and other friendly Americans who live in Nosara. There was a BBQ party and live music that evening, but you can find themed nights (sushi, taco, etc.), wine paired events, and other festivities at Tierra Magnifica through the year.

Swim and Surf in The Pacific

Nosara is an emerging surfing capital in Costa Rica. It is common to see dozens of surf shops and surfing schools around town. Many travelers book a week-long trip to Nosara with the sole purpose of learning to surf. Probably the best part about surfing in Nosara is the long stretch of beaches with consistent waves and few crowds. There are no umbrellas and beach chairs here. You will need to walk through shrubs and sand to go for a swim or surf in the sea. This helps preserve the natural beauty of the place and doesn’t disturb the flora and fauna as much.

Guests at Tierra Magnifica Resort enjoy unlimited complimentary access to the posh Beach Club at The Gilded Iguana. Here you can get lockers, towels, and showers. There’s also games, TV’s and an open air cafe where you can enjoy coffee and snacks after your surf.

local beach in Nosara
Must watch the sunset at Playa Paladas.

The most popular beaches are Playa Pelada and Guiones, though the best kept local secret is Nosara beach. The most pristine beach was Playa Garza. It has blue water, white sand, and a handful of village homes. Sunset at Playa Pelada is a must! This is where most locals gather with their families, friends and dogs in the evenings.

zip line Costa Rica
Fly through the world’s longest canopies.

Zip Line The Highest and Longest Canopies

I have been zip lining all over the world, but the zip lining adventure in Nosara is the most unique. Miss Sky is the longest Canopy Tour in the world traversing over 11 km or 7 miles. You definitely feel how long the lines are and there are 21 of them! Also, they are situated in a way that you don’t have to climb trees or ladders. The lines are located on ground. But you will be taken on a military vehicle to the top of the forest. Then you will need to hike for a short time, but it’s worth the effort. Zip lining above lush green valleys, rivers, and waterfalls felt like I was flying in the sky. The guides do a great job of guiding you through and even taking photos for you.

The the zip lining in Nosara is an adrenaline junkies dream come true. But it is safe and enjoyable for all ages. I saw kids as young as 5 years old having a great time doing it!

nesting turtles costa rica
This is the closest you will get to see turtles in the wild.

Watch Nesting Sea Turtles

If you happen to be in Nosara right before a new moon, make sure to watch one of the largest turtle nesting and hatchings in the world. Thousands of Olive Ridley turtles lay their eggs at Ostional Beach each year. You can book a tour with a local guide to see them at daybreak or sunset. We did an evening tour where we walked on the beach in pitch darkness, with only an infrared torch. We saw giant turtles swim up from the sea, dig holes in the sand, and lay 100 eggs at a time. The mother turtles covered the nests with sand and returned back to the Pacific Ocean, to never see their hatchlings again. Only a fraction of the eggs survive. It is a surreal experience to see these magnificent creature out in the wild!

The local tour guides from Ostional Wildlife Refuge escort people in small groups, and educate them about the turtles. Most of the turtles that come to nest near Nosara are the Olive Ridley sea turtles, but you can also see leatherback and pacific green turtles during certain months. There may be up to 500,000 turtles covering the entire beach, allowing no room for humans to walk.

water sports with locals
Paddle board with locals from Experience Nosara.

Kayak Responsibly

There are lots of outdoor activities in Nosara. You can horseback ride, paddle board, bird watch, sport fish, scuba dive, and mountain bike.

Book the tours through independent local operators. Costa Rican (or Ticos) generally pride themselves in taking care of the land, while giving visitors a good experience. We did a kayaking tour with Rio from Experience Nosara. His family has lived in Nosara for over 300 years. Many of his family members lived up to be centurions. Rio says that the secret to their longevity is staying active, being outdoors, eating local, and having a good social life.

Like many local businesses, Experience Nosara promotes ecotourism by organizing guided activities in a responsible way. You can enjoy a day kayaking or paddle boarding on the rivers and oceans of Nosara, but make sure to respect the environment as well. Some of things visitors can do are – pick up trash, not touch the trees/ branches (as they may have delicate nests), and not interact (feed, touch, take selfies) with wildlife.

What To Expect While On Dental Tourism in Costa Rica

Getting your tooth pulled or having oral surgery while on vacation is something that you may have not ever thought about. But with increased costs of quality healthcare, more Americans are traveling abroad for dental tourism. In the past few months, I needed some very expensive dental procedures, which sent me researching for the best places in the world for dental work.

After looking at Croatia (best quality) and Mexico (cheapest), I settled on Costa Rica. I spoke to several friends from the U.S. who had traveled to Costa Rica for dental tourism about the experiences they had. They gave me referrals to dental groups in the capital of San Jose, and I consulted with the dentists virtually.

Read my piece on Costa Rica in TIME Magazine

Dental tourism has become commonplace lately, though not everyone is comfortable with the idea, or knows how to navigate the process. Here are some personal accounts and tips so you will know what to expect while on dental tourism in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica central valley
Take a road trip around Costa Rica with Adobe Rent a Car

Why Go Abroad for Dental?

There are several advantages to getting your dental procedures done outside the U.S. The first and most obvious one is – cost. Dentists in the U.S. charge three times those in Costa Rica, and five times those in Croatia. Moreover, the best dental insurance is usually capped at $2,000 per person annually. This means if you have healthy teeth and require nothing more than twice a year cleaning, check up, x-rays and an occasional filling, the rest of the charges will come out of your own pocket. In my case, I needed 2 implants and 5 crowns, which would have costed over $20,000 in Atlanta. That’s the price of a new car!

When you go to a dentist in Costa Rica, they also help you file your dental insurance claim, so you can still your U.S. insurance money towards a more affordable treatment.

Secondly, the dental clinics in Costa Rica are set up in a way that all the specialists are located in one physical office. This means, you don’t have to run across different parts of town to meet with endodontics, oral surgeons, general dentistry, lab folks, etc. There are 12 kinds of dental specialists and I have been to practically all of them at some point! In my experience, the hassle of obtaining referrals, scheduling appointments, driving, waiting and transferring results (that are never actually discussed between the different specialists), causes intensified toothache.

Thirdly, the level of care and attention you get abroad is far superior to that in the U.S. When I visit my general dentist at home, she sees me for hardly 2 minutes, if at all. It is usually the assistants who do the initial consultation with the patient and reports to the dentist. But in Costa Rica, my dentist spent 3 whole hours with me on my first consultative day. He took 3D scans and x-rays, brought in his counterparts, discussed all possible options, and wrote out a plan for the next 6 months. The staff was not rushing out to see their next patient. During each visit, they always waited for me to think of questions, feel my bite, and be comfortable before walking out of the office.

dental clinic costa rica
Sunset view from my dental chair in Costa Rica

Cost vs Benefit

Yes there are additional costs involved in traveling abroad. You need to pay for flights, hotel room, food, sightseeing, etc. My dental office in Costa Rica partnered with local hotels and apart-hotels (with kitchens), offering discounted price to their patients. They also provided free airport transfers and a private car with driver for daily transport to and from the clinic. All in all, even after accounting for the travel expenses, my dental procedures came out to be less than what I would have spent at home. And I honestly enjoyed not having to drive myself back home after having surgery.

Before making a decision to travel abroad for dental tourism, you will need to consider your personal situation. How much work do you need to have done? Can you combine several pending procedures in 1-2 visits, that justify the additional travel expense?

How Long Do Dental Implants Take

For implants, you would need to travel to Costa Rica twice. Your first trip should last about 5 business days where you will have consultation, surgery and placing of the implants. After 6 months, you will need to go back for implant reveal and permanent teeth replacement. Though the procedure is less invasive during the second visit, you will need to be in the country for around 10 days, allowing a few free days in between for lab work.

The dentists in Atlanta do extraction and implant surgery only under general anesthesia, but the ones in Costa Rica do not recommend this unless you really want it. This makes recovery time faster and less painful. I had no pain during my hour long implant surgery and the only discomfort was from the medications (anti inflammation, antibiotics).

coffee farm
Relaxing at Hacienda Alsacia Starbucks Coffee Farm

What About Travel and Recovery?

Some people are concerned about being far from the comforts of home, while they may be undergoing pain and discomfort. You may not have your friends or family members to check in on while you are experiencing dental tourism in Costa Rica. The grocery stores abroad may not have your favorite soups or ice cream flavors. And language may also be a barrier. But, not having to clean your room or do your dishes is also nice.

I did take these points into consideration when booking my trip to Costa Rica and planned my two visits in a certain way, that I had the right environment and food to recover.

dental tourism
Goodness Dental clinic in Costa Rica

Find a Really Good Dental Clinic

After consulting with a couple of dentists in Costa Rica, I decided to go with Goodness Dental. Their customer service was spot on right from the start. The patient coordinator, Dr. Carlos Fiorito called me back right away and even answered calls on Sundays. He answered all my questions regarding materials, equipment, insurance paperwork, accommodations, timeline, etc. He looked at my reports via emails and assured me that the experts at the clinic would provide the best possible health plan.

The clinic was located away from downtown San Jose, in a more upscale residential area. It was very clean, the equipment was modern and the staff friendly.

Each day, the receptionist would send me a text via WhatsApp to remind me of my appointment time and send a driver to pick me up from the hotel. Before I entered the clinic, I was asked to wash my hands and wear a face mask. My temperature was also checked daily.

In the lobby, 99% of the patients were young and old Americans and Canadians. We all shared stories about why we came to Costa Rica, what to expect post surgery, and travel tips around the country. The office provided free WiFi, soft drinks, made to order cappuccino and even ice cream! Medications and ice packs were delivered right to the office, so you didn’t even have to stop by the pharmacy.

hotel alta
Garden restaurant at Hotel Alta Las Palomas

Stay at a Peaceful Place

Though San Jose is a busy city, there are residential neighborhoods that are very quiet and scenic. I stayed at boutique Hotel Alta Las Palomas, nestled in the hills of Santa Ana. The spacious corner suite had a separate living room, master bedroom, bathroom, walk in closet, and a balcony with a stunning view. Because of its elevated location, the area is much cooler than the rest of Costa Rica. I visited in December and July. During both months, it was pleasant to sit outside any time of the day, while listening to tropical birds chirping.

There were lots of cozy spaces around the hotel to sit and read – including a library, garden with water feature and swimming pool surrounded by mango trees. The Spanish style architecture and photographs of coffee farmers are also worth checking out.

dining in costa rica
La Luz dining room

The food at Hotel Alta was some of the best I had in Costa Rica. Their award-winning restaurant – La Luz, served a huge a la carte breakfast (included with stay) of fresh fruits, juice, coffee, and entree. My favorite was the typico with scrambled eggs, rice, beans, plantains and tacos. They accommodated my dietary requests with a friendly smile (for the days I was on soft foods). My schedule included eating a hearty breakfast overlooking the gardens and valley. Then I was driven to the dental clinic, where I spent a few hours. In the afternoon, I rested and read, and in the evening, I went out for a stroll and dinner.

Animal Refuge in San Jose

Relax Near The City

During my first dental visit to Costa Rica, I had implant surgery and needed to rest. So, I did not plan for any big exertions for a few days. Toward the end of the week, I walked through Refugio Animal de Costa Rica, a wildlife sanctuary, located next door to Hotel Alta. There, I enjoyed learning about Costa Rica’s native capuchin monkeys, toucans and crocodiles. Those cute faces make you smile!

Nearby, I visited Multiplex (largest mall in central America), and the urban mixed use Avenida Escazú, with upscale restaurants, cinema and a park. In San Jose, I took a guided walking tour of the city, to explore the many markets, French neighborhoods, Spanish squares and architectural sites. In my downtown, I learned about the country’s history, economy and food culture.

waterfall gardens
La Paz Waterfall and Gardens

For a fun day trip, visit Poás volcano, Peace lodge garden and la Paz waterfall, and Hacienda Alsacia Starbucks Coffee in the Central Valley. This is a beautiful area of Costa Rica located only an hour from the city. You can book a private car with guide and driver directly through the hotel.

Take a Break in Costa Rica

If you are comfortable driving in Costa Rica, rent a car through locally owned and operated, Adobe Rent a Car. Driving allows you the flexibility of exploring the countryside and stopping at local highway restaurants, known as sodas. They have the largest fleet of car rentals in Costa Rica at very affordable prices. Their friendly representative delivered an automatic four-wheel drive to me, right at my hotel and picked it up too. The car was clean, serviced, and all the paperwork (including insurance coverage) well accounted for.

nosara beach
Sunset at Playa Peladas in Nosara

During the lab waiting period (around 4-5 days), we drove from San Jose to Nosara for a beach and jungle getaway. Located in the northwest part of the country, in the Blue Zone, Nosara has recently emerged as an expat destination. You will find million dollar homes, yoga studios, international restaurants, as well as local beaches and rustic jungles. More on that in my next post.

If you would like to experience dental tourism in Costa Rica, Go Eat Give can arrange your trip. Feel free to reach out to me: info at goeatgive dot com.

Sleep Well, Do Good at This Sustainable Hotel in Antigua

When I first learned about The Good Hotel in Antigua, Guatemala, I thought, what a neat idea! This socially responsible business thrives on reinvesting 100% of their profits into the local community. Started by Amsterdam born, Marten Dresen, The Good Hotel came about from a personal backpacking trip through Guatemala which led to opening schools for low income children in the country. Now the Good Group trains unemployed and single women to work in the hospitality sector, and hires them to run their properties. Also, they invest in the education of kids from low income families, and source local products for use by guests.

The Good Hotel is located on a relatively quiet residential street in Old Town Antigua. The city is a charming colonial UNESCO World Heritage site with cobblestone streets and colorful bohemian buildings. One can walk along the streets lined with bougevvilla trees to get to the Parque Central (main square) in about 10 minutes.

As soon as I arrive at The Good Hotel, I can see the Scandinavian influences in the construction and decor. Though the building was a colonial private home, it has been renovated to look like a modern log cabin with high ceilings, farm style wooden sliding doors, white walls and contemporary chandeliers. The rooms are located along a long hallway surrounded by a garden with tropical foliage. They are minimalistic, yet functional. I stay at the Patio Room, which is the second highest category. Being in a corner, it has more privacy and a private patio with an outdoor shower. The Pila Rooms are about half the size and open up to the corridor, which gives a hostel like feel. These can get noisy as you can hear people passing through. There were no fans or air conditioners in the rooms so you have to keep the windows open.

On my pillow is a worry doll, a traditional handmade doll that according to local legend, takes away your sorrows, fears and worries. It is generally used to help kids overcome their problems and help them sleep through the night.

The common spaces at the hotel are inviting to grab a drink, catch up on emails and chat with other travelers. At the entrance, you can read about all the hotel’s projects and how your stay leaves a positive footprint in the community. The Living Room is modern with sofas, kitchen counters, a TV and garden tables. Each morning, I grab breakfast of freshly baked croissants and locally sourced cappuccino coffee. At night, I return for a glass of wine or a scoop of gelato. All the produce is locally sourced, fresh, organic and home-made by their team.

The friendly staff is always there to give advice on the best restaurants, attractions and how to get around. Because they are young and sustainable, I tend to take their recommendation and eat at Cactus Taco Bar (the best taco I’ve ever had),  in Antigua. There is also free WiFi throughout the hotel which works rather well, so you can stream movies or research your next destination.

The Good Group also has hotels in Guatemala and London, and plans to open in Amsterdam, Madrid, New York, Guatemala City and Rio over the next three years.

Welcome to The Iguana Station

During my freshman year of college, I spent Spring Break in Utila, Honduras. Utila is one of the Bay Islands located in the Caribbean. It is so small that there is no real airport on the island. Instead, I flew to the nearby island of Roatan. Before I left, an overeager escalator chomped at the airport through the sole of my right sandal. I arrived in Roatan with only a few straps and a bit of rubber under my heel.

volunteer in Honduras

The moment I landed, I knew I was in a completely different place. The airport was small and open, for the breeze to flow through. Flowers and plants were everywhere I looked. I took a bus to the nearby docks to board a catamaran for the trip to Utila along with the other students. Like Roatan, Utila was bright and lively. I soaked in the beauty as we made the short walk from the pier in Utila to the small apartment where we would be staying. After settling in, we were defintely ready for bed.

wishy willy

The next morning, I met the other volunteers at the Iguana Station. We were given a run-down of the daily routine we would follow for the week. In the mornings, we rose early and had breakfast. We then slathered our bodies with a cocktail of baby oil, bug spray, and sunblock to combat the sand flies, mosquitoes and sunburn. When every inch of exposed skin was coated, we walked up the hill to the station. The volunteers split up for volunteer duties, such as cleaning, feeding the iguanas, and running the tour.

Iguana station

The main concern of the station is the endangerment of the swamper iguanas, a rare breed found only on the island. Many locals hunt and eat the iguanas. To combat this, the station workers rescue and breed them. On special field trips, lessons are taught to local schoolchildren about preservation. I was lucky enough to teach this lesson; however, the PowerPoint was in Spanish. Most of the children on the island are bilingual, so I frequently had to ask them to translate the words. I still get a laugh remembering the first time I did this.

I gestured to the screen.
“Can you read what that says out loud for me?”
They dutifully rattled off the words.
Feeling foolish, I amended my request, “Can you read that out loud in English for me?
They giggled but repeated the words, this time in English.

cleaning up Utila

Teaching the lessons was my favorite part of working at the station. Afterwards, I spoke with the children about their lives on the island. They were cheerful and inquisitive, and amused by my constant need for translation and my complaints about the heat, which they said was “not even hot yet.”

At feeding time, I went to the marshes to gather small crabs to feed the iguanas. This was a messy, tedious process which involved kneeling in the mud and poking sticks into the crab holes. When they scrambled out, we would grab them and drop them into buckets. We also chopped up hibiscus flowers to create a “salad” for the iguanas. The iguanas may have preferred the crabs, but I was not a fan.

Iguana lunch

Every evening, after our work was through, we explored the tiny town of Utila. We bought groceries (consisting mostly of beans and rice) and cooked occasionally, often eating out. The local food was plentiful, and there were “imported” restaurants as well. At The Pizza Nut, the owner made pizzas to order. They took a long time to cook, but were delicious. One night, I fell asleep while waiting for my meal. Accustomed to the fast pace of American restaurants, it was strange to wait for over an hour for a meal to arrive. However, every meal I ate in Utila was worth it.

The experiences were worthwhile as well. We climbed a mountain to watch dozens of bats fly out from their cave at dusk. They were so many of them that we had to duck or they would fly into us or get caught in our hair. Somehow, unlike the crabs, I did not mind the bats. During breaks, we also went snorkeling, swimming, and hiking across the island.

beach in Utila


The last night in Utila, all of the volunteers went to a local bar to celebrate. I spent most of the night beating the others at the game of Checkers painted onto the bar and trying not to think about having to leave the island.

As the catamaran took us back to Roatan to catch a flight home, a storm rocked the small boat. I was rolled in a tarp (to keep off the pouring rain) under a bench for the entire four hours. When I arrived home many hours later, I was still faintly green. Despite the ruined shoe and seasickness, that week was one of the best experiences of my life. I would recommend Utila to anyone looking for volunteer opportunities, or just a unique vacation spot.

 ~ Anna Sandy is a creative writing major at the University of Memphis. She traveled to Utila in March of 2011 with the College of Charleston’s Alternative Spring Break program. Her passions are books, travel, and any sort of dark chocolate-covered fruit. 

Where is the longest zip line course in Central America?

The longest zip line course in Central America is 2,300 feet long and located at Mayflower Bocawina National Forest near Silk Grass Village on the Southern Highway in Belize. Nestled amidst 7,000 acres of pristine lowland broadleaf forest in the saw-toothed Maya Mountains, the adventure center offers day and night time zip lining, waterfall rappelling and hiking.

1.5 miles of zip lines stretches across 12 platforms, starting with short easy zips that get longer, faster and steeper. The last one is the longest, lasting over 30 seconds. There is also a surprise rappel built into the course. Make sure to keep an eye out for waterfalls!

After a thrilling adventure, enjoy a lunch of fresh juice, fried fish, and rice and beans at The Wild Fig Restaurant with a great view of the park. Nestled in the heart of this beautiful National Park is Mama Noots Eco Resort; a spacious jungle lodge operated entirely on solar and hydro energy.

Stay overnight at a Canopy Hut and experience the stillness of the jungle at night. This is also a great place to wake up early morning and do some bird watching. Over 193 species of birds and a few tribes of howler monkeys are residents of Bocawina.

Flying Over The Great Blue Hole in Belize

The Blue Hole located off the coast of Belize in Central America is the largest ocean sinkhole in the world, created by a collapsed underground cavern, hence giving the appearance of a dark blue circle amidst the turquoise sea. The Blue Hole measures 1,000 ft in diameter and 412 feet in depth. It is located approximately 60 miles east from Belize City and in March of 1996 it was declared a World Heritage Site and later declared a National Monument in February of 1999.

aerial view of great blue hole Belize

Although cruises and snorkeling boats circle the Blue Hole daily, the best way to see it is from the air. Only an aerial view does justice to the vast magnitude and deep colors that make this one of the wonders of the world.

aerial view of Belize City

Astrum Helicopters offers tours and adventures over the Blue Hole and other destinations in Belize. My adventure began once we boarded a private helicopter near Hopkins, a small fishing village. Most of their tours meet at the Cisco Base Heliport in Belize City, but hotel pick ups are also available. Starting at the 3 atolls in Belize which are part of the largest Barrier Reef system in the Western Hemisphere, stretching for more than 185 miles along the coast of Belize, we headed southeast of Belize City and enjoyed magnificent views of the blue-green coral reefs. Even from the height of the chopper, water underneath looked crystal clear as if we were snorkeling just above the surface.  The view was simply breathtaking and photos don’t do enough justice!

chopper ride over the blue hole in Belize

We flew over Turneffe Islands, Island at Snake Pt. and the Northern Bogue, covering a few atolls, 200 mangrove covered cayas, and a diverse exotic aquatic life. We gently moved into the open tranquil Caribbean Sea under sunny skies, heading towards the Lighthouse Reef Atoll, beyond the barrier en route to the Great Blue Hole.

view from chopper over the blue hole in Belize

The Blue Hole soared under us surrounded by hard corals that borders it with only two small channels. The dazzling colors of the ocean ranged in every shade of blue. Our experienced pilot circled over the impressive phenomenon a few times, but this was one spectacle I couldn’t take my eyes off.

view from chopper over the blue hole in Belize

A smooth ride back took us over a few more islands surrounded by white sandy beach, over Belize City and to the airport. The hour and a half long tour is perhaps one of the most memorable experiences of my lifetime. If you visit Belize and have to pick only one thing to do, my recommendation is to get abroad Astrum Helicopters and tour the Great Blue Hole.

El Salvadorian Pupusa

Pupusa is a traditional El Salvadorian dish made with a thick corn tortilla stuffed with fillings of pork (chicharrón) , mashed refried beans, cheese (queso), onions, mushrooms or chillies. The two most commonly found pupusas are the pupusa de queso (cheese) and more popular pupusa revuelta with mixed ingredients of cheese, beans, and chicharrón. Pupusas are served hot off the griddle with curtido, a pickled salad of shredded carrots, onion and cabbage, and homemade tomato sauce. Continue reading “El Salvadorian Pupusa”

Roatan restaurant guide

I have been getting many requests on restaurant recommendations in Roatan, so here you are. The food served at most restaurants in Roatan tends to have both Western and Caribbean influences, catering more to the tourists visiting from North America and Europe. They charge in USD at comparable US prices. However, if you venture out to shacks, street food and some fast food places, the cuisine is more local and priced for the natives too.

Also, being on the island, ingredients are harder to source and therefore everything is more expensive. For 2 lunch entrees, a juice and a dessert at San Pedro Sula, I paid about $5. In Roatan, no meal was under $50 for two people.

Honduras is famous for rum so a safer bet is to order cocktails rather than wine. Even the local beer is quite popular and available for $2-3 at most places.

Udurau Restaurant located at the Turquoise Bay Dive and Beach Resort is a charming British-Caribbean style establishment. Udaurau meaning fish in Garafuna language. The menu reflect this rich cultural heritage and offers fried snapper in spicy coconut sauce with rice and boiled vegetable. Every piece of fish is fresh, flaky and cooked to perfection.

Beachfront Restaurant at Mayan Princess Beach and Dive Resort – Beautiful patios with excellent beach views. The lunch buffet is a good mix of local dishes (salads, fish, rice) as well as western (pasta, pizza, burgers) and elaborate banana, cheery and chocolate desserts. Everything tastes fresh and the servers are very friendly. The adjacent bar is also very fun and they have live entertainment on weekends. Try the Monchilala cocktail, made with coconut milk and a combination of different liqueurs, drizzled with chocolate sauce.

Geo’s at French Harbor – You will need to drive out to this family run Italian-Caribbean restaurant. They offer large plates of seafood including crabs, lobsters, shrimp and clams. Get a picnic style table on the patio with the backdrop of the water. The Mojitos here are really good. It’s a bit on the pricey side.

Street shack (random ladies at West End) – Best Baleadas and tacos can be found on the street carts and random shacks. Baleadas are typical wheat flour tortillas stuffed with meat or eggs, cheese and salad. The ladies will make them to order and charge you $1-2.

The Mayan at West Bay – Upscale and romantic date night restaurant located midst of high end resorts, where you can get the best ceviche on the island. The mixed ceviche causes a delightful salsa in your mouth with chunks of lobster, conch and shrimp flirting with lemon juice, onions and chili peppers. They also have ample steak and seafood preparations. Save this for a special evening.

Thongs Thai restaurant at West End – Known for the best food on the island, Thongs is a small family run establishment overlooking the water that serves authentic dishes with some island flavor. No one has left unsatisfied walking out of here.

The Blue Marlin at West End  – the place to be on Thursday nights. Locals and expats flock here for live karaoke by the harbor. The bar is packed and you will hear many languages being spoken late into the night.

Mucho Bueno at West End – Located next to Thongs Thai, Mucho Bueno (or very good in Spanish) offers live reggae music on the weekend. It is also located by the water in the bustling night life area of West End. Generally, there is no cover charge at any of the bars and clubs. You can also carry your drinks around bar hopping as long as they are in platic containers.