This is our travel blog from our 2 months spent in Central America starting in Belize on March 27th 2009 (after Argentine, Chile & Brazil, then a detour home for Niamh's wedding) and travelling down though Guatemala, El Salvador, nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, before heading back into South America again.
30/05/2009 - Panama City
Yep, our usual procrastination and suddenly it has been almost 6 weeks since our last update. We've been busy, honest!
So, our last transmission was from Xela, Guatemala where we spent a fantastic week learning Spanish (most of which we have forgotten by now and are back to expressing everything in present tense). After that it was back to Antigua which we had to pass through on the way to El Salvador. We knew our volcano luck was starting to turn a bit, when on the drive to Antigua, the active volcano Fuego had an eruption, just a few seconds after we had stopped and were taking some pictures of it, beautiful site especially as it does not happen frequently. We stayed an extra night in Antigua to give the Pacaya Volcano another shot after seeing so many pictures other travellers had of the lava they had seen there, seems we were extremely unlucky not to have seen lava the first time we climbed it. Well it was definitely worth the second chance, this time the lava came out to play and what a show it put on. We were about a metre away from a molten lava river (health and safety doesn't seem to be a priority here, there was nobody there to marshall people away from the lava and about 40 of us arrived at the lava flow at the same time, all clambering to see it, poke it with a stick, throw stones at it etc, lucky nobody fell in, although a few of us fell on the lava that had flown the day before and was now a sharp rocky surface, apparently most days somebody comes away needing stitches!) It was fairly amazing though to be so close, we could smell the rubber on the bottom of our shoes melting, hairs on your legs in eoin's case starting to burn and you could really feel the heat from the rocks underneath. A nice ending to our Guatemalan adventure, probaby our favourite country in central America, although a few of the other contries push it close.
El Salvador - Imposible? Nada es Imposible
Next stop, a national park in the north of El Salvador, was Parc El Imposible, well, with a name like that how could Team Focus resist the challenge?! We stayed in a little village Tacuba in the north of the park, in a place called Hostal Mama & Papa which had the best/biggest meat burritos yet, which we later found out were sourced from a nice old lady down the road, a really nice place run by a sweet old couple and their son who was un poco loco, a little bit mad, I suppose when you spent your live living with your parents till your nearly 40, jumping off really high waterfalls daily, mountain biking down really steep rocky roads your going to be a little bit different. He took us into the Parc Nacional El Imposible for a day on the back of his pick-up truck (which, on the way out of the park was loaded to the top with firewood so we perched precariously on top of the wood and acquired a few bruises where the sun don't shine). His tour basically consisted of making our way down a river which went through the national park, and every time there was a waterfall or drop of any kind we would jump from the top of the waterfall or some rock-face into the river below. A "sport" which we later learned is called canyoning. It was great fun all the same, some of the jumps were up to 13metres, a leap of faith for sure, cos the guy running the tour had a sore neck so couldn't do any jumping, so we had to throw ourselves off to his reassurance (yes, the slightly crazy man) that the pool awaiting our belly flop was deep enough. Seems throwing ourselves off waterfalls and the like is all part of the travelling experience, cos we have done more of it in the last 8 months than ever before! A really great day out, and a great adrenalin rush though, and the river and forest trail were stunning.
It was a bit strange in El Salvador as they adopted the US currency a number of years back, so it was strange not having to divide prices by 10 or 200 or 2000 to get back to the $1, this puts in perspective how cheap it is to get around central america as we were pulling out 75cents or $1 for 1-3hr bus jounreys while here, in the old run down US & Canadian school buses which they pimp up with funky art or in some cases really bad art.
A short surfing career, better stick to food fairs and the like
After El Imposible we headed up to the mountains in El Salvador, to a small village called Juayua (pronounced Why-you-a) famous for for their weekend food fair. Again, another title that us two couldn't resist. The journey there was gorgeous, the road is called Ruta los Flores, the road of flowers, and the scenery was spectacular. The food fair was pretty cool, lots of unusual stuff like grilled frog (the whole kermit in typical frog pose thrown on a BBQ, his eyes looking back at you), snake, rabbit and god knows what else we ate, we didn't have our dictionary with us which might have been a blessing in some respects. The chocolate covered frozen bananas were a pretty safe bet though, really tasty and easy to make treat. We did have a fairly funny and embarassing moment at the food fair, there was a fella singing to a massive crowd and given that there was no tourists to be seen, same could be said for nearly all of el Salvador, you guessed it, he picked us out of the crowd and tried to interview us in spanish, then dedicted a song to us. I wish we had a picture of him, great singer, but with what looked like a wig on his head, blue jeans & a t-shirt both about 10 sizes to big, he looked weird.
We really liked the El Salvadoreans, met some really friendly people. There weren't many gringos at all there, a lot of hostels we stayed in we were the only people there, so it was a nice chance to get to know the locals and get off the backpacker trail a bit, seeing as most travellers go through Honduras rather than going down the western side and El Salvador. A lot of people say El Salvador is really dangerous, and we heard that there are 10 murders a day in the country (which is only about a third the size of Ireland), but we felt very safe there, although didn't venture out too much while in San Salvador the capital where most of the violence between the gangs takes place.
We then headed to the Pacific side of Central America for some of their renowned surf action. El Salvador has some of the most famous waves in the world, not quite sure why we ever equated that fact with the decision to learn surfing there. We should have guessed that they weren't famous for their gentle breaks and beginner-friendly waves. Anyway, we headed to a great hostel, El Roble, at a beach just south of La Liberdad not too far from San salvador, with the best licuados (fruit drinks) in central america. Our first morning there we packed our school-bags, made lunch and at 7am headed to Playa Sunzal, a "famous" (there's that word again) surf spot. We booked an hours lesson and planned to spend the rest of the day applying our newfound skills, catching waves and talking the surf talk. Hmmmm... We hadn't bargained for 6 foot waves which were breaking about 50 painstaking matres from the shore, watching other surfers trying to make it back to the beach with their broken boards was another daunting sight and the thought of crashing onto dangerous rocks if you steered the board the wrong direction made it an interesting our. In the hours lesson, Eoin stood up on the board his first few waves, but then got his confidence knocked out of him in a tumble-dryer moment. Grainne spent most of the time trying to paddle back out to the break, managing to stand up only once and even struggling with just body-boarding on the wave, which would throw her over the handlebars before tossing her around like a rag doll. After our hours lesson we handed back the boards and admitted surrender. Our dreams of being surf dudes when we grow up dashed, we left for San Salvador the following day, then took a 12 hour bus to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, just passing through Honduras on the way, a country we decided to skip cos we were running out of time (on a 16-month trip - I ask how is this possible?!), one fairly shameful fact of central america is the rubbish, people have no values in central america when it comes to rubbish, it was strewn all over the sides of the roads, with the exception of Costa Rica & Panama.
Lucky 13, Nicaragua
Country number 13 on our trip: Nicaragua (not counting Honduras & US cos we just passed through them: Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, Kenya, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador) We left the fairly unspectacular capital, Managua, as soon as we got there and took a chicken-bus to Granada, the nicer lake-side town about an hour away. We liked Granada a lot, spent 2 or 3 days here. Found a nice hostel with a kitchen (somewhat of a treat in Central America) so it was nice to be able to cook and get some fruit and veg and not be subject rice, fried chicken and beans AGAIN. We spent a day wandering the town which has loads of great architecture and churches and some westernised coffee-shops and stuff. Another day we went to the market town of Masaya, which is famour for its craft-market where tourists can buy hammocks, pottery and the usual junk, but we preferred the local market which was like a maze but a great hustle and bustle atmosphere. We also visited Lago Apoyo, a lake formed in the crater of a volcano, which was OK, but nothing worth writing home about, which is exactly what I'm doing now I suppose!
Boarding down a volcano and White Water Rafting ... without a raft or life jacket or helmut
Next stop was Leon, another really nice colonial town a few hours north of Granada, a little less polished that the more touristly Granada which added to its charm. Lots of nice churches and a nice city to just wander round. There's also plenty to do here. What really brought us here was a company called QuetzalTrekkers, who we trekked with in Xela, they have another outfit here in Leon and one of their treks which we really wanted to do goes every fortnight, so we timed our trip here to coincide with this. QuetzalTrekkers is an NGO that gets volunteers to lead treks and all profits go to schools and orphanages in the area.
First, as a warm-up to the Quetzaltrekking adventure, we signed up to throw ourselves off the side of a volcano on a plank of wood. As you do. A company in Leon organises volcano boarding trips so of course we were there. We climbed about an hour up the side of a volcano with our "snowboard" (a plank of wood) and all our "gear" (a pair of goggles like we had to wear using the bunsen burner in school, and a bright orange jumpsuit, presumably so they can keep an eye on you if you fall off the board and head over heels it down the volcano). Our instructions were to sit on the board, hold on to a piece of wood sticking out of the middle of the plank which was there to avoid putting your hands on the ground, and to brake if you felt out of control by digging your heels into the ground. Technical. We had an image of boarding down nice sandy volcanic ash, but the surface was actually lots of little stones and pebbles which would fly in your face as you slid down the volcano. Some guy tried to set the world record for downhill biking here a few years ago, and nearly made it to the bottom at 170kph before his bike broke and he ended up in hospital for 9 months with ever type of broken bone imaginable, only to jump straight back on the bike as soon as he was discharged and proceeded to break the record anyway (see this youtube clip)** Eoin had his day-pack on his back when he was boarding down, and when he got to the bottom the entire bottom of the bag was burnt away, and the water bottle in his bag had the plastic friction-burnt away! Aaah, so that's why you have the piece of wood to hold on to to stop you from putting out your hands on the way down! It was great fun, looked a lot scarier than it actually was, although Eoin fairly tore it down the slope (literally), Grainne applied a bit too much "brake" and lost that race. One of these things where you wish you could have a second chance at after figuring out how to do it the first time. Next morning we met up at the QuetzalTrekkers office at 4:30 to head out on their Sommoto Canyon trip. This was the trip that brought us to Leon in the first place... http://www.quetzaltrekkers.com/nicsomoto.html, we heard about it from some people in Guatemala, sounded like a great adventure. Basically the idea is to hike, camp, swim and float through a canyon in the north of Nicaragua. Is meant to be one of the most fun treks in the area and we definitely got our moneys worth of adventure. The trek normally stops in the wet season cos the river gets too high, so the week we did it was to be the last for the year... maybe a week too late! After all the rain the previous week in the northern part of the country, the river level had risen quite a bit but the trekking company didn't realise this. Our guides were nearly as new to all this as us, which added to the adventure! The lead guide was a 19 year old canadian guy who had been in the canyon once before when the water level was much lower, and the other 2 guides were on the trek for the first time!
The first day after a dose of chicken buses we waded through the river for about an hour and came to our campsite, a cave on the side of the river. Was a gorgeous location, great swimming area and at night we made a bonfire, sipped from a bottle of rum and had good banter around the fire and watched the fireflys. We had an excellent group of people, which really made the tour. There was a thunder and lightening storm during the night so we were very glad of the cave for shelter cos we didn't have any tents or anything, even if it did mean some bat-company!
The second day after about 90 minutes of trekking and wading through the river, we got to the deeper part, so it was time to waterproof our bags, inflate our rafts and get wet. the aim was to get us and our backpacks through a fast flowing river with rocks at the bottom and rapids every 20 metres. We got these inflatable rings, threw our rucksacks into a black plastic bag, put them on top of the tube and tried to get everything down the river in one piece, including ourselves. Not easy. Normally the river level is low enough that you can get out and walk around the rapids with your bag and raft, then get in the water for the gentle floating down the river bits. The water level was too high for this however, the river was right into the walls of the canyon by now, so we had to stay in the river and ride the rapids. On the first rapid we pretty much all lost our bags and luckily found them washed up on shore a bit down river. Also some of us got sucked into a whirlpool, whacked our backs, shins, bums off the rocks underneath, Eoin had to swim back and rescue poor Rosie, one of our guides who got stuck in the whirlpool. So after that the technique we found worked best was to send one or two of the guys down first with their rucksacks on their backs, they would then act as sweepers as we sent our bags off before us down the rapid, then we would launch ourselves into the rapid, get tossed about like rag dolls and just hope we come out the other side alive. No lifejackets, helmets or any safety equipment at all, but we had to keep going, cos there was no option to turn back: after coming through the first rapid, the only way out of the canyon was the same direction as the river! Grainne had a nice bruise on her back, and our shins were black and blue, but to be honest we were just glad we survived it! That night we camped in a spot without any shelter (and we hadn´t brought any tents) so we were soo lucky it didn´t rain, although all our stuff was soaked anyway. Pure stupidity, but a class adventure now that we´ve survived to tell the tale!
Little Corn Island: In need of a holiday after all that adrenalin
We figured we were due some beach-time, seeing as we hadn't really seen any of this Caribbean beach that Central America seems to be famous for. Corn Islands are off the coast of Nicaragua, fairly low-profile and really awkward to get to, so nice and peaceful. We decided to skip to 2-3 day journey to get there by bus, canoe, bus and boat, and flew instead from Managua. As soon as we got on the little plane to take us there, we felt the vibe of the island. All the islanders and the 4 of us tourists chatting to each other on the flight, everyone so laid back and the locals with that infectious carribean accent (think Lilt ad). The flight landed in Big Corn (Correct. The bigger of the 2 Corn islands) and then we got a boat for about an hour across to Little Corn (you guessed it). Little Corn was about a mile long and maybe 300m across, no cars or roads, about 1000 inhabitants, a few cabins on the beach, no big hotels, about 30 other tourists there while we were there. It was one of our favourite places we have visited. Beautiful unspoilt white sand beaches, palm trees, turquise water, coral reef... paradise. Comparing it to Zanzibar, it was MUCH less developed, the people were friendlier and mixing with the tourists, the caribbean pace of life was slower and it was way easier to just wander round the island. Although the actual beaches in Zanzibar still take the number one spot I think.
We spent an idyllic week there and could easily have spent two. by the time we left it seemed like our days were really busy which of course is just nonsense, but I think we had slowed to island pace of life and just doing everything in slow motion. We would get up in the morning and maybe go for a swim to check out the nurse sharks which swam in the reef right outside our cabin. Then head into town for some coconut bread, back to our cabin for coconut bread and coffee for breakfast. Then maybe some reading, or exploring the island (bearing in mind the size of the place, not exactly a mammoth trek!), stopping for a chat with any of the other tourists we meet along the way cos we all knew each other after a fwe days. Then we would hang around the house of the old lady who baked the coconut bread for her 2:15 batch (2:15 island time, which was invariably after 3). More coconut bread for lunch, or maybe ginger-bread if there was a boat that day to bring her the ingredients. Then maybe another swim or a wander around the island looking for fruit on the trees (we found mangoes, sweet limes, coconuts, and some under-ripe avocados). Then take out the torch and go out for dinner, normally fish in Miss Brigitte's house/restaurant, one night we brought her some fish we had caught that day and she gutted and cooked it up foor us, another night we had lobster fresh from the sea a few hours before, only costing us $7. Did we mention how cheap Nicaragua was, although the island was a bit more expensive than the rest of the country. We met some really nice people there, Mark, Marty & Megan from Canada and Dave & Kathleen from North Carolina. Our week on the island flew and we really didn't want to leave but we thought we better keep moving or we could have stayed there for months before realising it.
From one island to another, next we headed to Ometepe, a very different island. Ometepe is a figure of 8 shaped island in the middle off a lake, with two big volcanoes on each circle of land, joined by a little strip of land. I'm sure there's a more technical explanation for its formation. As seemed to be the theme in Nicaragua, we met a really nice group of people on the boat across to the island and formed a posse with another Irish couple, Dave & Noreen, an English couple, Paul & Rebecca and a fella from San Diego, Scott. We decided we had one more volcano in us, so early on our first morning on the island the group of us met a guide and headed for Volcan Maderas, the smaller of the 2 volcanoes, which the Lonely Planet described as a "muddy scramble" and mentioned how your guide should need a rope to lower us down into the crater of the volcano. We were there. On meeting our guide though, the first clue of a miscommunication was when he looked at us funny when we kept asking him if he had a rope. The jeans and fancy shoes were the second clue. Turns out he thought we were doing some gentle walk to a waterfall, and our meeting time of 8 o'clock he figured way too late to start climbing the volcano. We weren't put off that easily though, and insisted we wanted to climb the volcano. Turns out we had plenty time really to do the climb before dark. We were very disappointed that no ropes were required after all, although we did get the muddy scramble promised. A nice climb, but mainly due to good banter and a good group, more so that spectacular views cos when we got to the top you are inside the crater so can't see back over the other volcano, the lake etc. Keeping up our spurt of activity after a weeks inactivity on Corn Island, we hired bikes the second day and explored some of the island. After that it was back to mainland Nicaragua and a 9 hour bus ride to San Jose, Costa Rica.
Costa Rica, in search of the turtles
Seeing as Costa Rica is more expensive than the rest of Central America and a little overrun with American tourists, we decided to just pick a few spots here and make our way fairly quickly through. Famous for its beaches and wildlife, we figured we were spoilt enough on the Corn Islands for beaches and hadn't seen too much wildlife yet so decided to concentrate on the latter.
First stop, Tortuguero. The trip there was spectacular enough as it was. First a bus through goorgeous hilly landscape, much greener, more lush and cleaner than any other country we visited in Central America. Then a boat through rivers and estuaries to get to Tortuguero village which is on a strip of land about 70m wide between the sea and a river parallel to the coast. The place is famous (hence the name: tortuga is a turtle en espanol) for 1 to 1.2m turtles coming ashore on the beach to nest. Not really the season to spot them, they are more commonly spotted in June, July and August when the green turtles are nesting, but in April & May they sometimes have leatherbacks nesting. They come up to the sand aftter dark, dig a hole, drop in about 80 eggs, then cover the hole and go back to sea. 60 days later the eggs hatch and only 2% of them live to adulthood. They lay eggs every 3 years and always come back to the spot they were born to lay their eggs. We walked the beach for a few hours one night but had no luck in spotting them. Next morning we got up at 5am to head out on canoes on the river. We saw loads of cool birds, toucans, parrots and lots of monkeys, even some monkeys "doing like they do on the discovery channel".
I'm a celebrity, get me out of here
Corcovado National Park, on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica was the 2nd spot we decided to head for in Costa Rica, a long days travel from Tortuguero, a boat, then 13 hours on mainly bad buses. We first read about this place on Lonely Planet, which classed it as the best "Off the beaten track adventuer" in Costa Rica, which, by definition, if it has made this list, is now very much on the beaten track, when you consider 9 out of 10 cats prefer the Lonely Planet and almost all hostel inmates can be seen thumbing through a copy. Then a Canadian guy, Mark, who we met on the Corn Islands was raving about it too, and a few people we met in San Jose gave rave reviews. We stayed the first night in Puerto Jiminez, about 2 hours drive (although only 25km!) from the park entrance. Most of the wildlife is found in the heart of the park, near a ranger station and campsite called Sirena. The only way to get there is by trekking the 20km in through the park from the entrance, or by taking a boat from the other side of the park, about 5 hours by bus away. The trek sounded more of an adventure anyway. So next day we spent the morning buying pasta and porridge, bagging and double-bagging all our clothes to stay dry (it is known to be one of the wettest places in the world, with 9 months of rain a year), rounding up a gas stove, tent, other camping gear. Just like the good ole days in Patagonia. In the afternoon we got a bus to Carate, near the park entrance, and trekked the first 4km to the first campsite. Most people start the trek in the morning so they walk past this early stop, we were the only ones camping there and seems like we were the first to overnight there in a while. It was a gorgeous campsite, right on a wild beach backed onto by primary rainforest and palm trees, 4km from the nearest civilisation, parrots, scarlet macaws, toucans and monkeys overhead. An amazing place. Sometimes the big turtles come onto the beach there to nest too, but not the time of year for it right now, also there are plenty dolphins swimming in the sea offshore, and every month except May (go figure!) whales swim past too.
Next day we got up with the sun at our usual time of 4:30, actually to be more precise we were woken at 4 by the howler monkeys, if you've ever heard a howler monkey shouting, you'll know what we mean when we say we nearly jumped through the roof of our tent with the fright. they sound like the soundtrack for the Blair Witch Project or something, a frightening shout that carries for a few kilometres. We set off for our 16km hike to Sirena Ranger Station. It was a gorgeous hike, we only met 3 other people along the way coming the opposite direction, other than that it was just us, the sea, the jungle and the wildlife. A highlight had to be stopping for a swim on a gorgeous beach, and seeing 2 scarlet macaws (those beautiful red parrot-like birds with blue & yellow wings) in the palm trees on the beach. The campsite was strange, deep in the middle of the jungle, 20km in any direction from civilisation, this beautiful building with a platform to put your tent on, an area for getting up your gas stove and cooking, picnic tables to eat off, and some bunkbeds and a kitchen for those not camping. The first night we stayed there, there were about 15 others staying too. We went for a small trek around the station in the afternoon but got a bit lost. Saw some monkeys, coatis which look like racoons, some other mammals I don't remember the name of and birds. Next morning we set off at 5:30 to try catch the animals when they're at their most lively. Then in the afternoon we did another long trek around the ranger station, and saw a toucan up close, some macaws "mating", a frog woth bright red eyes, some very fast-moving mammal, we convinced ourselves it was a puma who are often seen around Sirena, more monkeys, then down to the beach for a lovely sunset. Next day we trekked the 20km back through the park to leave. We spotted lots of snakes on the way, and 2 huge families of coatis. Saw the massive paw print of the elusive tapir and tried following it but never found it. Grainne spotted a ripe banana on one of the trees on the way out of the park and tried to pull it off, but instead pulled the whole tree out of the ground. Oops. Got back to Puerto Jiminez that evening and treated ourselves to a non-pasta, non-porridge meal. An amazing adventure into Corcovado national park, a Central America highlight for sure.
Left the Osa Peninsula by boat, and bussed it across the border to Panama, to a town in the mountains called Boquete. After the heat, humidity and insects of Costa Rica, Boquete was a welcome relief. What a treat to need a blanket at night! We found a realltt lovely hostel there with a shared kitchen and double room for $5 each a night. Almost a record price - cheapest so far was $4 each for a double in Guatemala. A lovely Dutch couple, Bart & Julia, who we first met coming from Lanquin in Guatemala, then a few weeks later we met them again to climb Tajamulco then we bumped into them again in Corcadova, they travelled to Boquete with us. Our first day there Bart jioned us for a trek called Sendero de Quetzales, a really nice trail through the mountains and cloud forests. Didn't see the elusive quetzal bird although we did hear it! The scenery around Boquete is stunning, beautiful rolling hills, really green, nice rivers. The trek was 12km out along the ridge, some climbing and scrambling and 12km back, which we nearly ran cos the boys wanted to get back to see the Champions League final. We spent 2 more days in Boquete, did a coffee tour which was interesting, on a small local coffee farm, it was all in Spanish, so we had a chance to learn some new vocab, e.g. the word for the machine which takes the skins off the coffee beans. No doubt it'll come in handy. We got to try some of his coffee which was like rocket fuel, and we got a party bag to take away with us too, which is helping with all these 5am starts we seem to be having at the moment! Visited some hotsprings with Bart & Julia too, which were lovely, just natural hotsprings on someone's farm. When we got there first, Eoin & Bart went into this stream which was just a little bit warm, really shallow, had chickens and other animals wandering round. We were thinking this was a bit of a let-down, until the farmer camee out and showed us where the real hotsprings were, about 20 yards away, nice deep pools of really hot water. A bit too hot as we spent most of the time sitting on the rocks alongside the pools. The rest of our time in Boquete we spent mainly relaxing and getting used to the slow pace of life here: it has become a very popular place for Americans to retire to after some Old Fogies magazine in the states named it number one retirement location a few years ago. The Panamanians we met there were really lovaly though, from our taxi driver, Victor, who acted like a tour guide, to the guy who showed us around his coffee farm. They speak really slowly too which helps!
Got an overnight bus from David (where we went to the cinema for the first time in about a year!) to Panama City but got only about an hours sleep each, the bus was arctic temperature and had drops of cold water dripping from the ceiling. Oh, to be back on the Argentinian buses! Panama City is really nice, our first big city in ages. We are staying in Casco Viejo, the old town, which is really nice, a bit rough around the edges in places, but looks like they are starting to restore lots of the old buildings and I reckon this place will be really touristy and snazzy in a few years time. Been shopping and catching up on stuff (including this procrastinated reoprt!) and took a visit to see the Panama Canal, which was really interesting. Saw a few huge boats go through the locks.
Tomorrow we get the boat from Panama to Colombia. 4 days on the water, apparently seasickness is almost inevitable in the last 2 days when the sea gets choppy. The first 2 days though we sail through some gorgeou Carribbean islands though, the San Blas islands. Looking forward to Colombia, everyone we've met who is heading in the opposite direction to us has been raving about it.
20/04/2009 - Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala. In our Guatemalan family house
When we hit easter Sunday recently we thought back to the start of lent and it dawned on us again just how lucky we have been (and how we, OK, Grainne, can't live without chocolate for very long!) It definitely wasn't the typical 40 days of lent for us, we started off in the north east of Argentina in Humahuaca for carnaval celebrations, then across the border at Iguazu Falls to Brazil, along the coast of Brazil to the beautiful & fun Rio de Janeiro, up to New York to catch up with some of Grainne's family briefly, then London for Paddies day for a session with the London crew, Killarney for Niamh & Gilly's wedding, Cork for Eoin's mum's 60th birthday party, then back to London, on to New York, Miami, Belize and finishing in Guatemala in La Antingua for Easter Sunday. And talk about finishing in style, Holy Week or "Semana Santa" in La Antigua was definitely one of the highlights of our travels so far.
Since the last update in Miami Airport when we were fairly sleep deprived and a tiny bit cranky, we have had a brilliant four or so weeks in central america.
Our second leg of the round the world journey offically started when we landed in this tiny country of Belize. First impressions were funny, we were speaking our bit of espanol to the immigration fellas & bargaining for a taxi to the city in our best spanglish but they were totally ignoring us... not the friendly welcome we had hoped for, until we realised that Belize is actually an English speaking country :-) Once we figured this out, we started the usual painful negiotatiions with the wan$ers outside airports, yup we are talking about you, airport taxi drivers... these guys were definitely the worst yet. We tried to round up some additional troops to split the costs of the US$25, 10 minute ride which should usually cost less than $2, but we were told we couldn't befriend people at the airport for the purposes of sharing taxis. In them exact words!! They refused to take us with our new "friends", saying they had to charge us double for 2 groups going to the same place!
Anyway, first impressions of Belizeans wasn't a true representation, we grew to really like these laid-back folk with the coolest Carribean accent and a great outlook on life ("Go Slow"). We made peace with the taxi-drivers eventually and got our lift to the the boat service to Caye Caulker.
The boat ride out to Caye Caulker cheered these 2 travel-weary souls up no end. This is one of a number of small beautiful islands off the coast of Belize that resides next to the second biggest barrier reef in the world. Beautiful clear water, palm trees, excellent snorkelling... we soon settled back into this tough life of a backpacker!
We chilled out on Caye Caulker for 4 days in total and really loved it there, the pace of life was so slow. they even have a sign up when you land saying "GO SLOW", people either walk slowly around here, sit in the sun watching the people go by, or drive caddy cars and compulsory that all these "activities" accompanied by rum punch! Only complaint was there was no really decent beach on the island and you had to swim for about 1km before reaching the reef i.e. so you had to rent a boat, although you could swim off a peir at one end of the island where there was a little beach and some small coloured fish.
While there we did the most amazing snorkel trip ever, to the marine reserve called Hol Chan on the barrier reef. Here we did 3 separate swims all of about 1hr+ each. The highlight was shark & sting ray alley, seriously amazing, we even got to rub a 5 foot nurse shark. We saw lots of eagle & sting rays, lobster, parrot fish, snapper, turtles (Grainne's new best animal), baracuda and so much more, it was like swimming around in a giant aquarium. Apart from that, we loved just chilling on the island, taking the odd trot from one side of the island to the other, which was about 20 minutes in total and totally baffled the locals ("but WHY you go so quickly man, where to?", bear in mind "quickly" was a very relative term, after way too much booze and biscuit cake at home), swimming, drinking rum and generally following the island rules and going slow.
New Food & Drink Favourities from Belize including:
- Burritos on the streets
- Tomales mashed up maize with anything from Chicken to "Meat" to vegetables, accompanied by the compulsary salsa picante!
- Banana Bread. Yum. And note it is called bread, not cake, therefore MUST be good for you
- Mangos everywhere, definitely our favourite fruit on the travels, think we would be happy just following the mango harvest as they rippen throughout the world: we just got the start of the season in Africa, picked up the mango trail again in Northern Argentina and Brasil, and now it seems we are just in time for mango season in Central America. A coincidence, we swear.
Flores & Tikal:
After our short stint in beautiful Belize we jumped on the busto Flores in Guatemala. Flores is this little pretty lakeside town, actually a tiny island on a lake connected to the mainland by bridge, with cobbled streets, bars & restaurants. A really nice place in it's own right, but mainly used as a stopover for tourists on their way to see the famous Tikal Mayan ruins which are about an hours drive away.
We liked Flores quite a lot, between watching the sun setting over the lake from our hammocks on roof top terrace, to swimming in the lake, to drinking $0.50 cent Brahva beers and eating out for $2-3 each, Guatemala was shaping up quite nicely.
First impressions of Guatemala was that the place was quite similar in scenery to some parts of Rwanda & Uganda with volcanos and rolling green hills. The people here are so nice, quite shy in some respects but really good-humoured when you get chatting to them. It's refreshing not to be hassled at all trying to sell us stuff etc, but at the same time when they see us wandering around the place, upside-down map in hand, they are right over to help us get our bearings. They are all questions about why we're here, where we're from, what our country is like, and delighted when we have some spanish to answer them back.
From Flores we took an early morning bus up to Tikal to see the ruins. We had heard mixed reviews on the place from people, I suppose you either like ruins or you don't. For us, we quite enjoyed it, (having said that, think we're done with the numerous Mayan ruins that are scattered throughout Central America), as much for the jungle as anything else. We went really early in the morning, got there for about 6, and the wild-life was out and about early... howler monkeys, hundreds of species of birds, and lots of noise from the trees. This place is massive and covers some ridiculous amount of km SQ, we really enjoyed scaling the temples there and generally exploring the place. We had some banter with the locals too when we stumbled across a temple outside of the tourist grounds which is still being excavated. The workers found a tarantula and put him on Eoin's arm, thinking it would be hilarious to watch a grown gringo cry. He held it together pretty well at the start even with the tarantula taking a dump on his arm, but then the tarantula started moving really quickly, like a spider with a purpose, around Eoin's back and the locals got their moneys worth!!
After overloading on culture in Tikal, we headed south to Rio Dulce. Not much to the town itself a few stalls selling fruits & bits and bobs (like vegetable peelers and combs, the necessities of market places all over the world it seems), plus a great little dirty old caff which makes the best fresh burritos con frijoles (mushed black beans) and licuados, (fresh fruit smoothies with melons, pineapples and strawberries). The main attraction in Rio Dulce is the river which is beautiful. All the hostels are about 5-10 minute boat ride away hidden in tiny little estuaries off the main river. The place we stayed in here was lovely, down a small estuary with jungles on either side of the river, getting more swmapy as the river narrowed. The bugs were a problem at times though, along with the heat, in the mid 30's even at night with a fair bit of humidity. To cool off though, we used to take the hostel's canoes and row out to the wider part of the river (where crocs seemed att least less likely) to a diving platform for a swim.
While in Rio Dulce with did a couple of trips, one being a long boat ride to Livingston, which is on the coast where Rio Dulce meets the Caribbeen sea. This was a gorgeous trip, jungle on both sides of the river, sometimes rising up straight from the water to a hill above, water lilies, storks and even a stop for some hot springs coming out of one of the hills... jumping into 50 degree water was the last thing on our mind in that heat! Also it was great watching the locals go about their daily life on the river, rowing their little boats cut straight out of a tree, fishing, washing clothes etc. Livingston us a Garifuna town, a traditional settlement of the slaves who come over from Africa, and I think there was something to do with piracy in their history too (of the "hook for an arm, eye-patch" variety, not dodgy DVDs) There we tried the local fish stew dish, a big bowl of coconut milk, full of surprises, including a full fish (eyes looking back at us and all) and a giant crab (usually lobster but they were not in season at the time).
The other day trip we did was to a place called Finca el Paraiso "Paradise", more hot springs, this place was a bit differentthough, there was the cold river working it's way down from the mountains and to the side, this waterfall, which was spewing roasting hot water from the sulphur holes above, the little caves under the waterfall were like a hot sauna inside.
Lanquin & Semuc Champey
Next stop on the trip was to a national park called Semuc Champey and the lovely little quiet village of Lanquin. We chilled out here for about 4 nights in total, staying in a lovely hostel by the river, with some bizarre rules for happy hour, e.g. no happy hour deals for boys who aren't wearing a dress, so Eoin had to oblige for the budget's sake!
Sure it wouldn't be a proper trip for the 2 of us without a bit of transport drama and we got that on the way from Rio Dulce to Lanquin, where half-way up a fairly steep hill, we got a flat tyre, we ended up waiting in this tiny, not too sure you could even call it a village, basically a place with a shop, for about an hour until the truck was fixed thankfully. The locals had a good laugh at us though, since we hadn't eaten since breakfast, and between us and a dutch couple also on the truck, we ate about 12 bags of crisps in the shop! Think they were half-afraid, half-curious of these white crisp-eating giants (most women here are about 4'10", average man is about 5'4")
The hostel in Lanquin was perfect, we had a little hut with a hammock in the "porch" and then when we got too warm, it was time to jump into the really cold river. On our second evening here we decided to take a day trip to the local caves. We headed there about 5pm, wandered inside for a while exploring these pretty amazing caves, then after the sun set we waited at the mouth of the caves as thousands of bats started to make their way out to feed, it was an amazing feeling standing in the middle of thousands upon thousands of bats and they flew all over the place.. at least their sonar seemed to be programmed correctly as there were no collisions and no bats in hair, although we were attacked by the odd sh!t bomb from above.
The day trip to the nearby Semuc Champey was the highlight of our time in Lanquin though. First we stopped off at more caves, but these ones were a bit different, 11km of underground chaannels and most of the caves have rivers in the tunnels, where it gets really deep. We ended up having to swim, jump, climb and squeeze ourselves through cracks while we explored the caves for about an hor and a half, holding candles in our hands and mouths. A great adventure!
Semuc Champey itself was amazing too, this natural formation of swimming pools on different levels and below them a massive cave structure, where the Rio Cahaban flows really fast. We enjoyed chilling out here for the day and a hike up to a stunning mirador of the pools & river below. As seems to have become the norm on the travels so far, we did another high water jump, we climbed up the side of a waterfall, and jumped from about 20 feet into the rushing river below. A great rush, although I think one of us is starting to get a bit too old for these jumps. A brilliant day out, like being in a natural water park for the day!
La Antigua for Semana Santa ("Holy Week")
| || |
One of the most amazing experiences of our lives, these people put so much time, effort and prayer into Semana Santa it is humbling. For about 6 days here, we were blown away by the celebrations for Easter Week that happened before us. It was lovely seeing everyone involved from young to old, processions all day long at all hours, some starting at 4am and lasting over 12 hrs, where they carry these massive platforms with statues of Christ and various images from the Stations of the Cross. The colours were a spectacle, red gladiators, Roman Chariots, black, white, purple robes ...... and the most beautiful of all, the alfombras: the people would stay up all night creating these carpets on the streets (and in the churches) out of coloured sawdust using stencils and sometimes with fruits, vegetables and flowers, as an Easter offering to the procession, only to be trampled on a few hours later by the procession, at which point the people would start the alfombras again for the next procession. Highlights for us, included the re-enactment of the cruxifiction of Christ in front of the masses outside the main cathedral, staying awake until 5.30am on Good Friday, as we helped the old man who lived next door to the hostel with his alfombra, then wandered the streets mesmerised by the beautiful carpets, hundreds of locals were putting the finishig touches to their carpets before the processions trampled them, thousands others were sleeping on the streets or praying with candles, and then at 4am, the huge La Merced Church opened and we poured in along with thousands of locals for a really powerful experiece, the music, the praying, the colours, the people, all there to witness the Good Friday Procession setting off at 5am (although admittedly Grainne did manage to fall asleep near the end!)
Outside of the processions, Antigua is a beautiful town, cobbled streets, cafes, restaurants, old buildings, and it is surrounded by volcanoes, a couple of which are active. We climbed up to the top of one called Pacaya, which constantly spits out lava and generally you are guaranteed to see a lava stream coming out the top. early in the week we had heard there were restrictions when we and so we decided to wait a few days for the restrictions to be lifted, not really thinking about it, if we had, we would have realised a restriction is perfect conditionsas it means danger and heaps of lava. By the time we visited, the eruptions had calmed down so we didn't see much lava close up, but did manage to see the volcano spitting out lava when we had just left the crater. The heat above the dried lava fields around the base was immense as well, like walking over a giant sauna.
This is where we are now and leave tomorrow. We have been here now for nearly 10 days, and it has become a real home. We are very tempted to stay for a while more, but given what we have left to do on the travels, we decided to push on, also, this is a place where, if we stayed one more week, we could very easily end up getting trapped here, there's loads to do, some volunteering opportunities, and enough gringo comforts to make it too easy to stay. And just today Eoin spotted a few lads with a rugby ball in the sports ground in Xela and was chatting away to them, one lad with a Leinster shirt on, who was American. It seems the game is starting to take off here as well, 3 news clubs set-up in 2 years in Xela... if there was ever a reason to stay around, to join the Guatemala rugby XV...
First up when we arrived in Xela was the 2 day hike up Volcano Tajumulco, this is the highest point in central america at 4,200+ metres. It was a great trek, the first day we hiked to about 200m below the summit, an easy enough hike but with all our gear on our backs made it more difficult. We had some great banter around the fire that night, getting to know the rest of the group, bonding over the card game, asshole, just as well that we bonded, with the 6 of us squeezing into a tent to sleep that night, twas nice and cosy.
The next morning we climed to the summit at 4:30. The views at the top reminded us a bit of Mt Meru in Tanzania, we could see tips of volcanos in the distance, including Tacana volcano on the Mexican border, and a few of the various volcanoes around Xela. As usual with our hikes up volcanos, we didn't get the clear skys, but we got some clouds and another lovely sunrise. On a clear day up this volcano you can see Mexico, el Salvador and the Pacific, plus all the surrounding volcanoes in the region many of which are conctantly active.
Back to school time... outside of the trekking the other main reason we came to Xela was to get involved in spanish school and get a glimpse of daily Guatemalan life, so we have been living with a local family which includes bean an ti, Mama Gladis; the hilarious doting uncle, Tio Lionel; los ninos (the 2 babies) and a whole bunch of other relatives. It's been seriously great fun eating all our meals with the family, learning spanish for 4 hours every morning and just seeing how they live. Meal-time is sacred here, there is no TV to be seen, the meal generally lasts at least 1 hour if not more, and it is great banter and story telling (en espanol, if we are caught speaking english, bean an ti goes mad and we have to wash the 25 plates after the dinner in the basin with only a drop of cold water!). We are seriously tempted to stay longer but can't, we would recommend this experience to anyone, brilliant, and we got really lucky with a great family and brilliant teacher.
More treks !! As we had no school on the weekend, we decided to do another day trek up one of the other volcanoes in Xela, this one is called Santa Maria. We went with a company called Quetzaltrekkers, an NGO whose profits go to an orphanage in town here. Rick was our guide a retired CEO of a successful herbs and spices business in the US, who had great craic with all day! The trek was really nice, about 3 hours to the top where we encountered about 60 peolple on religious retreat praying out loud at over 3,700 metres, some of whom had been up there for days, with about 3 tents between the lot of them. This volcano seems to be very special for religious groups, but also for trekkers, as from the top you can look directly down on an active volcano called Santiaguito, which erupts at least once every hour. But, you guessed it we got clouds, but we did see a really cool eruption while we were there, where the flat cloubs below us, suddenly broke open in the middle as the clouds of smoke from the eruption worked their way through.
| || |
After our trek on the saturday, we heard there was a football game on up the road between Xelaju and Los Cremas from Guatemala city, so we decided to pop along for a look. The game ended up being a cracker for a number of reasons.. 3-2 to Xelaju, with them winning by a last minute penalty which had to be retaken, fans from both sides going loco "crazy" for most of the match, 3 red cards, the away fans were locked in cages, which they scaled at regular times during the game like wild animals, and the fans were letting off firewords thoughout the whole, plus the poor referee had to be escorted off by riot police even though there was fencing and barbed wire all around the pitch, a good old game of Guatemalan football!
Our last Sunday in Xela involved chilling out in these hot springs in a place called Fuentes Georginas up in the mountains and clouds. A lovely place to spend the afternoon after our exertions up volcanoes and the like. The water was piping hot, hard to stay in it for more then a few mintutes at a time. Then back to the casa on Sunday evening to do our homework, leaving it all til Sunday night of course!
Next up, we head south to El Salvador for some more trekking and about a week of surfing on the beach. that's the loose plan anyway!
New Food & Drink Favourities from Guatemala including some manky local dishes:
- Hot cross buns in the bakery in Antigua
- Mangos eveywhere, about $1 for 5 huge mangos you can't beat that, plus 1lb of strawberries for $0.40 unreal.
- Frijoles, you can't come to Guatemala without experiencing these black beans, either as a puree or on their own, with Tortillas, made of maize which tastes a bit different to the ones we are used to in Tescos ;-)