A Travellerspoint blog

Back in London!

Conclusion of our Latin American journey

rain 9 °C

Here we go, back in London and guess what? It is raining...

After 11 months on the road, we both agree that we have spent enough time out there for now and that it is time to get back to normal life and live out of a wardrobe again, instead of a rucksack...

We know that, for some of our friends who followed this closely, this blog was like a virtual holiday and its end will inevitably leave a little bit of a gap but.. hey, we have run out of money!!Well, we hope that the blog has been informative as well as entertaining for all of those who have come across it. For us, it has been a great way to keep all our friends and family informed of our whereabouts as well as providing us with a written record of our amazing trip for years to come. A right pain to write up at times, but well worth the effort, especially in a few years when memory will start to fade... it has already started!!!!!

We do realise that we have been very priviledged to do this, and also very lucky once we were on the road – we have never had any real problems, never any losses or theft, never any real illnesses along the way - life has been really good to us! Yes, we would do this all again, yes it was the right thing to do and we are very happy we have done it. Of course, not all of our objectives were met, but many were. The two of us had many in common and others not quite, though generally we converged on the most important ones. That of travelling and see the Latin American continent was well met – we covered a lot of miles and saw most of the highlights in every country, even though at times time was tight and not enough for really getting to see it all. We both got to learn and practice Spanish, though of course it is not perfect for neither of us and we would like to do more. We got to spend more time together, in fact almost too much time, and this has meant many things. We certainly have come to know each other much better, good and bad sides. We have had a couple of major crisis along the way, but it seems that we have been able to overcome them, since we have decided to get married!! No timeframe yet, but we are hoping to have a nice wedding party at some point in the future. We got to meet A LOT of nice and interesting people, travellers and locals, however the friends we will keep contact with will be only a bunch - in effect, we did not really stay anywhere long enough to build endless life-long friendships... but a few we have! We have met extremely few horrible ones. Gregory has played a major role in meeting the people, both because of his nature but also because somehow he worked like a magnet out there, with people naturally being attracted to him and approaching him to start a conversation. There are not a lot of black people in Latin America, even less with strange hair and even in Colombia they could tell he was not a local... So, exactly like back home, he was doing all the chatting and entertaining and I was getting the stuff done, like organising the route and the details.
We did not practice any salsa at all, in fact we went dancing TWICE (!!) in the whole year!! We will have to leave this one for another holiday, or even home.

Out of interest, here are some STATS:

Length of travel: 11 months
Number of Countries visited: 20, of which 5 crossed only
Number of flights: 6
Number of boat rides: 20 or so
Number of buses taken: over 100

Costs per day per person:

Bolivia $26
Ecuador $30
Colombia $33
Nicaragua $36
Guatemala $37.5
Peru $38
Chile $45
Mexico $55
Costa Rica $61
Belize $76
Barbados $85
Rio de Janeiro at Carnival $85
Exodus trip $98 !!!!
Galapagos $360 !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

These costs include absolutely everything on a comfortable backpackers budget – we almost always had private rooms with bathroom, almost never cooked and we have always taken the maximum number of excursions available in any area, moving around pretty quickly, which always adds costs. Surprisingly, Exodus turned out to be one of the most expensive parts of our holiday, particularly if we think that we had to get up at ridiculous times most of the time and we had to shop and cook and clean the truck while planting and sleeping in tents at night!!!! With regards to Galapagos, we ended up choosing one of the most expensive cruises there – it can be done a little cheaper, not much - but we enjoyed it.


BESTS

Best Countries: really cannot say!!

Best Cities: Rio, Buenos Aires, Cartagena, Mexico City, Panama City

Best Activities and Experiences:

-Rio Carnival
-Fitz Roy National Park trek
-Jeep tour from Chile to Uyuni in Bolivia
-Inca trail
-Galapagos
-animal-spotting in Costa Rica

Best Hostals (not in order of preference):

Hostal Sonchek – San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Casa Viena – Cartagena, Colombia
Auberge Inn – Quito, Ecuador
Turistas del Mundo, Cuenca Ecuador
Emville Guesthouse – Barbados
Llanganuco Lodge – Cordillera Blanca, Peru
Sleepers Sleep Cheaper – Monteverde, Costa Rica
Hostal Bambu – Canoa, Ecuador
Oasis – Granada, Nicaragua
El Hostal – Antigua, Guatemala

Best Foods:

Beef, king crab and wine in Argentina
Quinoa soups in Bolivia
Ceviche, fish and aji’ in Peru
Patacones in Ecuador
Zapote milkshake in Colombia
Pepperpot in Guyana
Lobster omelette in Belize
Chicken fajitas, tacos and spicy sauce in Mexico

WORSTS

Worst experience: having Kim Booth as trip leader on the Exodus truck

Worst food: cuy (guinea pig) in Ecuador

Worst Hostals:

La Casona in Caraz, Peru
Nuestro Hotel, Caracas
Tower Bridge Hostel, Puerto Escondido Mexico

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Any regrets? Not really. Possibly, if we had the chance to do it again, we would not book two months on a overland tour – far too tiring and expensive. In Belize, we would not take a Raggmuffin tour down to Placencia, but rather day snorkelling trips. We also would not pay loads of money to spend New Year’s in Puerto Escondido, in fact we would not go there at all!! Other than that, we had a bloody great time and things went really smoothly.

Finally, we would like to thank first of all Mark, Gregory’s boss, for letting him take a year out, which has meant that we felt much more comfortable with doing this before we actually booked it, and during the journey itself, knowing that we were coming back to some sort of routine and income.
We would also like to thank Sarah and Matt for renting our house and keeping Grace with them the whole time without locking her in the shed, like they probably felt like doing at times... Having the house and cat in good hands has also contributed to our general peace of mind while we were out there.

Our very last picture..

Back home with our parcels...
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Posted by Flav-Greg 14.01.2008 03:47 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (5)

Mexico City

The final frontier.....

sunny

Mexico City is massive with large concrete expanses and buildings blackened by the pollution, at least in the very centre. There are 20 million people living here, without the feeling of being squashed in when you are walking on the street, but there is always a volume of people moving around, where ever you go. When we got here from Oaxaca (7hours) we decided to take the usual taxi to the hotel we were staying at since it usually cost 25-30 pesos in all the other cities in Mexico we visited. At the bus terminal we decided to ask the price at the “secure taxi” office and was told it was 60 pesos. We thought this too expensive and thought it would be cheaper outside of the station. Outside the station there were lots of taxis and the two drivers we asked quoted 150 pesos!! With this information we quickly back tracked into the terminal at the “secure taxi office”, bought our tickets and queue up with all the locals (always a good sign anyways). The good news about the secure taxi office is that once you have bought your fare (by zone) you do not have to spend any extra money, only if you want to leave a tip or if you have excess baggage. Everyone else is a shark! Also, apparently you have to be quite careful with street taxis as a lot of robberies do occur. So we picked right in the end and got to our chosen hotel, Hotel Isabel, very smoothly. Hotel Isabel is three blocks from the zocalo and quite a strange place. It is colonial with high ceilings and very gloomy rooms, but very clean, comfortable and inexpensive.

Ice rink view from the Grand Hotel, Mexico City
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Herbie Taxi... lots like it in the City
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El Palacio de Bellas Artes
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On Sunday we treated ourselves to a buffet breakfast in the Grand Hotel of Mexico City, up on the terrace overlooking the central square. We pigged out so much that we did not eat for the rest of the day!! We then walked around for hours between the shops, which is probably the main activity we will do here until we leave on Wednesday. The central area feels a little bit like Hong Kong (well, never been there, but that’s how it feels) with shops selling massive quantities of stuff, either detail or wholesale, including artesania and wonderful patisseries. It is a little sad to see all this hats and nice crafts piled up in heaps like industrial products – nothing like seeing it at the market with the local lot trying to make a few pennies. We discovered a very good place where to eat which seems like the local chain restaurant – it produced gourmet dishes at fair prices and still very traditional fair is served – only problem is that last night we found out it belongs to Wal Mart!!! That is so sad, to really like a place and then find out that the biggest American food company owns it! Almost wanted to cry from the disappointment.
On January 6th Mexicans celebrate the Epiphany it’s a big deal here with more gifts for children, heavy shopping and a special round cake called “Rosca de Reyes”. All the main shops close early so there is nothing open for tourists, by late evening.

Yesterday we went to Teotihuacan about 50km outside of Mexico City , which had the biggest pre-hispanic civilization . The original site was about 20 sq Km, the existing site is about 2km including the pyramid of the sun (3rd biggest pyramid in the world at 70 meters high and a huge base) and the pyramid of the moon. The Aztecs nobles used to spend time there because they believed that the spirits of the gods were there. To get there its best to take the trolley-bus (2 pesos) to central north terminal, then there is a bus going there every 15 minutes for another 35 pesos (single ticket). The journey from central north takes about 1 hour.

Pyramid of the sun
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Pyramid of the moon
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Quetzalpoptl
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view of Greg at the bottom of the Pyramid of the sun
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view of Flavia at the Top of the Pyramid of the sun
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view in the museum
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For our last day and a half in Mexico and our whole trip, we will be going out to dinner with Pablo and Regina (local Mexico City residents) this evening.
Tomorrow we will take the City Turibus tour in the morning, then get back in time to go to the airport - destination London arriving on January 10th. We are going to stay with Yvonne (Gregory's mum) till the 20th, then go to Italy until February 1st, when we are getting our house back.

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Posted by Flav-Greg 08.01.2008 13:30 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Oaxaca City and around

sunny 25 °C

As we entered Oaxaca City into the 2nd class bus terminal with a 1st class bus (it is not so simple as we thought: in 2nd class you will find that there are buses actually categorised as 1st class - these still cost sometimes half of the 1st class buses you take from 1st class terminals and are still very good quality) we were not impressed at all: Oaxaca looked like a horrible huge rubbish dump. Fortunately, after walking a few streets into the city centre, the whole picture changed and we found ourselves in a very nice, colonial and vibrant city. Very different from San Cristobal, with much bigger churches and higher buildings, but still very pleasant, if maybe a little too trafficked.

We spent my birthday walking around town and enjoying the festive atmosphere, closing with a nice dinner at La Olla. Oaxaca is well known for its interesting and varied cuisine and many cooking courses are given here, including at La Olla - we wanted to take one for a few hours, but it is still high season and it was fully booked.

Some pics of Oaxaca:

Santo Domingo church
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Chapulinas - grasshoppers - they are eaten on their own spiced with chilly and lemon, or added to local dishes...
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HIERVE EL AGUA TOUR

The day before yesterday we went on one of those all-inclusive tours that take you to a number of places all in one tour: we left at 10 in the morning and managed to get back at 8 in the evening, tired but quite happy. They took us first to see El Tule, which is the widest tree in the world, though not the tallest. It has a circumference of 58 meters and needs 5,000 litres of water a day!!! Its age is unknown with estimates ranging between 1,200 and 3,000 years. Here below is a very poor picture of it, it is quite difficult to take because it does not fit into the camera view and the church yard where it stands is gated...

El Tule
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We then went to Teotitlan del Valle, a famous weaving village where beautiful woolen blankets and rugs are produced. We were shown how the wool is produced and how the local ancient knowledge of basic chemistry provides hundreds of shades of dyes, using nut shells and the bugs that live in cactuses, amongst others, as the ingredients to make the colours, combining them with lemon and herbs etc to change the shades.

Out third stop was at Hierve El Agua, one of the most unusual "waterfalls" in the world. Hierve el Agua is a petrified waterfall of calcium carbonate and magnesium. Contrary to its name, which means "the water boils", it is actually a natural warm spring where escaping air effervesces through the mineral deposits, creating the illusion of boiling water. The result of thousands of years of this mineralized water flowing over the cliff has produced a spectacular fall that seems frozen in time. Around the site a couple of pools have been carved out of the mineral rock.

The pictures are spectacular but in effect the place is really small and not really inviting for a swim (pretty cold):

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From Hierve El Agua we went to visit the Mitla ruins, which date mostly from two to three centuries before the Spanish conquest. Mitla was one of the most important Zapotec religious centres, again with priests removing hearts in human sacrifices like the Aztecs. Thankfully we saw nothing illustrating this terrible habit, instead mainly nice "mosaics" of carved stone at the top of their temples:

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Finally, we went to visit a mezcal factory and seller.

Mezcal is considered by many people as the most authentic of all the Mexican distilled spirits because, unlike Tequila, which is often exported in bulk, Mezcal can only be exported in bottle and never in bulk, so it’s always properly controlled and authentic. Mezcal is made from the maguey plant - Agave family of succulents, not to be confused with the cactus family, which looks like a pineapple plant. While tequila is distilled in the northern state of Jalisco from the blue agave plant, Mezcal is distilled in the South near the Gulf of Mexico, in and around the state of Oaxaca.
As an interesting side-note, in some species of Maguey plant an ‘innoque worm’ makes its home. The worm known as the ‘gusano’ is really a grub or larva of the ‘night-butterfly’ which originates from a small egg left by the butterfly on a Maguey leaf. The larvas are put into some of the bottles of Mezcal and people chew them while drinking the alcohol! Yakk! This red worm is collected from June to September from the heart of the Agave plant. The collecting is very hard and difficult as the worm must not be damaged in any way, otherwise the Mezcal would become cloudy. The worms sell from 20 to 40 US cents per worm! so, with anything up to a normal 200 - 500 per affected plant, it’s easy to see how lucrative worm collecting is. Actually, there is a shortage of worms (much prized also in the local restaurants for cooking in Oaxaqueno recipes), since the ‘infecting’ of the Agave is a natural process which cannot be artificially enhanced. While in the past the bottles of mezcal were full of worms, nowadays they only contain 2 or 3 at the most.

Here are the cut plant cores

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Gregory eating his first gusano
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MONTE ALBAN RUINS

Yesterday we went up to visit the Monte Alban ruins, which are only 20 mins away from Oaxaca. Monte Alban was a Zapotec capital. The site is very neat and compact. We only stayed less than an hour though, possibly we have had enough of ruins for a while now...!!

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Today we are off to Mexico City, the last 7 hours on a bus for a while.

5 days left!!!!

Posted by Flav-Greg 04.01.2008 17:42 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

New Year in Puerto Escondido

Happy 2008 to all!

sunny 30 °C

Puerto Escondido, like Gregory said at one point, should have remained escondido (hidden)...!!
Frankly, we did not like it that much. Surely the accomodation we got did not help in this regard, but objectively from the point of view of the place itself, well, we have seen much better places in our travels, enough not to have chosen to go there, had we known beforehand.
The town is a common seaside Mexican town, hot and humid, while the beach is just not worth it, unless you surf. There are a few beaches around town, all with dark sand like it is the norm on the Pacific side of things, and pretty mediocre to say it nicely. The town beach is inside the port and full of boats, while the surfers beach, Playa Zicatela, is a long stretch of beach with strong undertows and a perennial red flag which warns non-surfers that entering the water means risking their lives. Along it, lots of hotels and restaurants and, when we were there, masses of people. There is also another small beach called Playa Carrizalillo, which is found inside of a bay and is therefore ok for swimming. Playa Carrizalillo was about 20 mins walk away from our hostel; we went there on the 31st for the last dip of the year and it was fairly nice, though the water near the shore was covered with some floating white matter as well as the oil from the many boats that go up and down taking people for rides.

For New Years Eve we took a taxi down to the Zicatela beach and had a nice dinner in the sand at candle light. We then bought a cheap horrible fizzy bottle of something very sweet and had a toast on the beach, with the fireworks going off and bonfires around us. Then someone set fire to an abandoned straw hut and the fire brigade was called... We finally ended up in a beach bar for a decent drink and there we met a nice couple from Mexico City, Mario and Regina, whom we will visit in a couple of days. At the same time, a really weird American girl started talking to us. She soon introduced us to her dad, an even weirder person who looked like he had just come out of one of those American movies, with a leather hat and funny clothing.. well, in no time this guy was behind Gregory and somehow hugged him and passed a knife around his neck, only with the blade around the other way. That was scary, but we both kept cool and sneaked off into a taxi as quickly as we could.

In Puerto Escondido we did not actually do much. The whole idea was to spend some relaxing time in the hostel which, when we booked it, looked like a nice place with lots of entertainment available, including swimming-pool, pool table, table tennis and lots of leafy vegetation to make it really nice and cosy. Kitchen was available too, with me dreaming of cooking some nice fish.... This is the website for the Tower Hill Hostel - never go there:

http://www.puertobungalows.com/

This is NOT what we got!!! The overall layout of the place is indeed really nice, however we never got any of the bungalows shown in the website. We got a unit with a bedroom with incorporated bathroom and no walls separating them, and a small lounge with a sofa and TV. The kitchen was outside and honestly, not fit to cook anything in it but hot water for coffee, preferably served in your own cup. The guy that owns and runs it is a British fellow with clearly no sense of cleanliness whatsoever. The place was dirty, the swimming-pool was not fit for swimming in and things were so deteriorated and run down that I was in tears for the disappointment!!! The worse part was that we had paid for all of the nights in advance - since it is so high season etc - and there was no way we could back out of it. It must be said that the atmosphere was good, despite everything. The same filthy guy, Steve, was also quite friendly and easy -going, really, so we had some fun playing pool and enjoying the music with the others. Not that we could have done much else...
Eventually we decided to leave a day early, despite having paid for it, as I did not have any intention of waking up in that place on the day of my birthday!! So we checked out on the 1st of January and took a bus to Oaxaca, 7 hours straight. In Oaxaca we checked into a nice place, Hotel Catarina, which was of a high standard for our budget, but a must as we needed to recover from the Tower Bridge.

A view of nicely packed Playa Principal:

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Playa Zicatela

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Posted by Flav-Greg 04.01.2008 16:03 Archived in Mexico Comments (1)

San Cristobal de las Casas and around

S. Juan Chamula, Cañon del Sumidero, El Chiflon and Lagos de Montebello

sunny 15 °C

San Cristobal is a gorgeous colonial city - we dare say better than Antigua, which is quite a thing.

We stayed at Hotel Jovel
[/ihttp://www.mundochiapas.com/hotelposadajovel/] in the nice part of the building, which costs more than the hostel part but is much much better, with a lovely colonial garden and room furniture. The family owners there were really nice and welcoming, and invited us to join them for food and drinks many times. S Cristobal is set at 2,100 m above see level, which makes the nights quite cold. Fortunately we had a good hotel bed with blankets and duvet and we also had Gregory's trekking water bottle, which is termic, so we had a hot water bottle to warm the bed up and make the whole experience of going to bed bearable... The cold made it feel like it even more like Xmas. The town was nicely decorated with Xmas lights and trees etc, packed with people and in real holiday mood. Xmas obviously did not stop business in any way, as we found out that all travel agencies were open and you could book trips every day, including Xmas day!! The supermarket was open on Xmas day too, which is quite strange for a Catholic country. We decided to take the 25th "off" anyways, i. e. stay in town, not go on any excursion and enjoy the day in tranquillity. We had in fact a great Xmas day, wandering around the streets and the churches and checking out the artesania markets.

On the 24th we went on a half day trip to the local villages, Zicantan and S Juan Chamula. S Cristobal is in Chiapas, the most indigenous part of Mexico - as a matter of fact, it looks and feels more like Guatemala than Mexico. These villages were very very indigenous, particularly S Juan Chamula, which is self-governed and where they even have their own police. The people there don´t want to be photographed at all and Gregory got thrown tomatoes and even stones on two separate occasions for trying to take a panoramic shot of the town and the market!! They have a special church in the village and photography is prohibited inside: if you are caught taking a picture, the fine is of $500!!!! Despite the temptation, we didn't try to take any in there...

The mighty church
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Cemetery-coloured crosses signify occupant of grave

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These ladies were good friends of our guide, crazy Carlito, and possibly the only two souls in town not to be bothered about photography...
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My mighty zoom comes in handy once again...
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Chillies on sale at the local market... notice the woman in the background on the left, she is throwing a tomato at Gregory..!!!
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This is a link to an interesting report about S Juan Chamula, quite accurate - the part about the Coca Cola is all true by the way:

http://www.forteantimes.com/features/fortean_traveller/253/san_juan_chamula_mexico_a_church_out_of_time.html

On the 26th we went to the Cañon del Sumidero, which is a deep canyon where a river flows for some 43 km. You take a boat and they travel you up and down the canyon, pointing out crocodiles and monkeys and other points of interest like rock formations. At the highest point, its cliffs are 900 meters above sea level, which looked quite impressive from the little boat we were on.

Cañon del Sumidero
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They call this one the Xmas tree, in perfect season..
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The Xmas tree from below
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On the 27th we took a longer trip to the Lagos de Montebello, which lasted almost 12 hours and included a stop at the Cuevas de San Cristobal and the waterfalls of El Chiflon.
The caves were not very interesting or special, and even less when, at entering them, we were accompanied by a young children who were put to work there as guides and whom could not be understood at all, due to their far too young voices and the subsequent echo in the cave. The lakes were nice, though we had to visit them in a bit of the rush. There are 59 of them, all with different colors and shapes, and the trip included a visit to 6. They are located on the border with Guatemala, so perhaps 200+ km away from San Cristobal, which makes it a fairly long journey from where we started.

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Finally, we went to El Chiflon waterfall, which is a gorgeous waterfall which flows into a light emerald green river where it is possible to bathe, though the current is extremely strong. We got there fairly late and had no time to bathe nowhere, but it was fine.

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When we got back from the Montebello trip, we had about one hour and then we hopped on a night bus to Puerto Escondido, our next stop for New Year's. It took 12 hours and at 10 am we were checked in at our most expensive accomodation yet, and disappointed.
To cut the story short, Puerto Escondido is on the Pacific and quite popular at New Year's. Since we had decided not to leave it to chance to get there and not find somewhere nice to stay, we decided to book ahead. We emailed a lot of places and everybody was full, apart from one place where they had one last "bungalow" left, at the Tower Bridge Hostel. At $100 a night (5 times the normal price, due to highest season...), we thought about it for a bit and then decided that it was worth the money, given the website and the circumstances. Well well... will leave the moan for the next time!!

Posted by Flav-Greg 29.12.2007 18:26 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Happy Christmas everybody! Feliz Navidad!

From San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

snow

Hello all

Flavia and Gregory wish you all a Happy Xmas and a Happy new year from San Cristobal, Mexico. We will be here till the 27th and it is bloody cold!!!! like Europe

Buon Natale a tutti

Feliz Navidad a todos

Flavia Y Gregory

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A truly zapatista nativity set (nevermind Gregory thinking they were ninjas warriors....)
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Posted by Flav-Greg 24.12.2007 06:38 Archived in Mexico Comments (4)

Palenque

semi-overcast

The night bus from Merida to Villahermosa went all ok. Once in Villahermosa, we hopped onto a second class bus to Palenque and we were checked into our Palenque accomodation by 2 pm. In Mexico there are two bus systems: first class, comfortable, incredibly expensive and prone to hibernate the passengers, and second class, consisting of buses of medium-low standard which tend to make more stops and do not send people into hibernation. Second class buses tend to cost much much less than the others, sometimes half the price or less, and, as far as we are concerned, they are perfectly fine for short journeys say under 7 hours.

In Palenque we decided to stay in El Panchan, a cluster of accomodation and restaurants a couple of kilometers from the ruins. According to the Lonely Planet, El Panchan is the epicentre of Palenque's alternative scene and home to a Bohemian bunch of Mexicans and foreigners including a number of archaeologists and anthropologists. Well, it is all true. The place is really nice, in fact, with different places offering cabana-style accomodation all situated around a centre area with tables and chairs where people can choose from a couple of restaurants. We picked Margarita & Ed, a really nice and clean place. The 'bohemian' residents are well visible and there is live music every night, as well as drums and fire dancing. Also a few travel agencies and an Internet cafe', making it practically perfect for any traveller. Last night the place was so packed that there were no tables left. We ended up sharing the table with two innocent-looking older American ladies and soon after with a strange fellow from Norway as well, who simply turned up and started to speak to Gregory. People do this quite often, to just look at Gregory and start talking to him. It turned out that the strange fellow was indeed strange - Gregory and he spoke about astronomy for a good half an hour, till we gathered from here and there that he was some sort of acupuncturist with a business in San Marco La Laguna in Guatemala, and into scientology and other strange things. Then, when the restaurant we were in just stopped making pizzas (it was 11 pm) and after having been sitting there for a good couple of hours, he left us to go to the other restaurant to eat pizza. Doh?? Soon after he left, the two ladies started complaining to the waiter that their cocktails contained no alcohol and were given a complimentary drink: by then they had started a heavy discussion around the Maya, with one stating that the Maya kings were all about power and were using their knowledge for their own personal power, and the other lady insisting that it was not the case whatsoever, they really all believed in all the gods and the sun and they were out for the people etc. When we asked one of them if she was an archeologist or astronomer or what, she replied that she was into 'Maya studies', specifically 'archeoastronomy'.... The restaurant shut and we were practically thrown out, so the discussion came to a quiet end.

The ancient Maya city of Palenque, with its jungle setting and many well-preserved temples, is one of the best ever. We went in at opening time again, 8 am, however, unlike Chichen Itza, most guided tours here start at this time, so we did not gain much advantage in terms of crowds. Overall, however, there were no real crowds and people were well distributed around the site without making it feel too packed. It was a fairly clouded day, which apparently was a very good thing, since the sun here is very strong and the place hot and humid. We heard the howler monkeys all around us, but saw none. In total we managed to spend another four hours of wandering time here, going up and down the temple staircases and finally visiting the nearby museum, which stocks finds from the site including an incredible, huge stone sarcophagus belonging to Pakal, the most important ruler of Palenque. Pakal lived to the then-incredible age of 80!
Palenque flourished during what is known as the Classic period (about AD 250 to 900) and was abandoned in 900 AD, after which time it was quickly overgrown by the jungle and discovered again in 1746. In 1831 the European Count of Waldeck went and lived up in one of the temples for two years!! The ruins are still very much in place, but the humid environment of the jungle is a real issue around their conservation, with much of the marginal temples covered in green moss and mould.
Just like Chichen Itza, though less spectacularly, like our American friend explained to us last night, all the Palenque temples are aligned around solstices and equinoxes and the stars in general. We did not take a guide here or in Chichen Itza and so maybe we have missed some bits and pieces. Generally, we have gone into the ruins wandering around and enjoying the place, taking pictures according to estethics and not other important astronomic or so factors.... But we have done a bit of basic reading in the guide and we now know a little more than before. For example, the Maya were not so gruesome like it appeared back in Chichen Itza. They certainly did not practice a lot of sacrifices during the Classical period, when they were flourishing, but they did so in the post-Classical one, when they were declining and were being taken over by other civilizations. Chichen Itza in particular was the product of both the Maya and the Toltec people, where lots more human sacrifices took place (nothing much noticed in Palenque to this respect) and where the feathered serpent god - Kukulcan - was introduced by the Toltecs, who were really bloody. From there it went even worse, with the Aztecs taking over power in Mexico in the 14th century and sacrificing their prisoners right left and centre, where they had warrior gods who 'demanded' a diet of hearts of the sacrificed captives. The Aztecs believed that they lived in the fifth world, whose four predecessors had been destroyed by the death of the sun and humanity. So their human sacrifices were designed to keep the sun alive!!! Apocalypto by Mel Gibson is meant to describe the Aztec, not the Maya.
What is interesting is that the most credible theory about their disappearance says that they declined due to over-population and a general over-exploitation of their resources, as well as a prolonged draught...

Here are some of our favourite pics.

All this architecture was carried out without the use of the wheel, metal tools or pack animals. The temples were originally painted red with blue and yellow stucco details.

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Today we took a day trip to some spectacular water attractions: Misol-ha, a 35 meter waterfall which frankly did not impress us; Aguas de Santa Clara, a beautiful turquoise river with a suicidal swing bridge which is crumbling apart and which Gregory refused to pass, fearing that the wood would give way under his weight; and finally Agua Azul, an amazing site of white waterfalls thundering into turquoise pools a little bit like in Semuc Champey, but with much more force. The current is quite strong and it is not possible to bathe in all the pools or in all areas of the pools - nevertheless bathing is really pleasant, especially given the strength of the sun and the outside temperature in a jungle setting.

Aguas de Santa Clara Photos

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Agua Azul, almost more spectacular than Semuc!

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Posted by Flav-Greg 23.12.2007 17:01 Archived in Mexico Comments (2)

Chichen Itza'

More Maya ruins...

sunny 25 °C

We left Tulum yesterday morning with a bit of tight nerves. The previous night we went to burn a couple of DVDs in order to back up our recent music and photos. It was a lot of stuff and it took Gregory some 4 hours to copy everything across to the shop´s computer and then it was taking time to burn, so we agreed with the guy that we would go away and come back at midnight to pick up the DVDs. When Gregory went back, 10 minutes before the agreed time and after the guy positively said that he would wait for us as he was closing at 1 am, the guy had closed up the shop and disappeared!!! We had asked what time he opened the shop in the morning and he said 8 am, so then we were not too concerned because our bus was at 8:36... Well, the nice chap did not come to open the shop at 8. Since we knew we were running this risk, at 8 I went to the bus station to have our tickets refunded anyways - you can have them refunded up to 30 minutes before the departure time. I stand there in the queue for a good few minutes while this cashier woman plays with her mobile and chatting to her colleague, till I decide that maybe she is actually working and meant to serve clients, so I approach the window and ask for my refund. She looks at me and tells me that it is 8:07 and that therefore I cannot have the ticket refunded!!!!! I mentioned that she was playing with her mobile for the past 5 minutes and she replied that I was not right in front of her!!! Another person that I would have loved to smack, it must be a place? Unfortunately, I accepted it angrily, then walked back to insult her, and then went off as red as a tomato. I should have just stood there and made a right scene to make sure her boss came out to find out what the fuss was all about, but I was too angry to reason, obviously. And the guy still hadn't turned up!!!!! Finally just before 9 his relatives came to open the shop, lucky him, so we had a moan at them and took our DVDs and then went back to the bus station, where I resisted the temptation, for a whole hour while waiting for our new bus, to approach the woman and tell her where she should stick our unrefunded ticket . But I resisted, aren't I good. We finally bought another ticket for Chichen Itza' and from there on it was all happy sailing again.

We got to Chichen Itza in the afternoon in time for the evening Light and Sound Show, the plan being to go to the show and then get into the ruins at opening time in the morning before the crowds arrive.
Chichen Itza is one of the most impressive archaeological areas of the world and is now one of the new seven wonders of the world, like Macchu Picchu. Since we saw what happens to Macchu Picchu after 10 am, we planned to be at the entrance first thing, and that was such a smart move! There was hardly anybody there, three cars in the car park, and no scorching sun! Chichen Itza is truly beautiful, we really enjoyed it and ended up spending over 4 hours wandering around. Unfortunately it is not possible to climb any of the temples, but once you see the number of people that trod the grounds every the day, you must admit it is an essential measure to safeguard the temple existence.
The site contains many fine stone buildings in various states of preservation; the buildings were formerly used as temples, palaces, stages, markets, baths, and ballcourts. Dominating the center of Chichén is the Temple of Kukulcan, often referred to as "El Castillo" (the castle). This step pyramid is a reflection of the Maya calendar: four stairways, each with 91 steps and a platform at the top, making a total of 365, equivalent to the number of days in a calendar year. There are snake heads at the bottoms of the main stair set, as the wind god was part snake, part bird. On the two equinoxes, the sides of the pyramid cast shadows along those stairs and it looks like a snake is slowly climbing down from heaven to earth. Thousands of people visit the site each equinox to watch this - at the Light and Sound show they reproduce the effect and it really looks like the snakes is descending!!
The Maya were quite smart, really. It was the Maya that elaborated the concept of zero. They were great mathematicians and astronomers. One of the Mayan's greatest achievements is their incredibly precise calendar, which was the most precise known to mankind until NASA worked on one in the 20th century!! The Mayans built their structures to align precisely with the sky, and they realized that on August 13, 3114 BC, there had been a perfect alignment in the sky of the milky way, Orion's belt, and the Pleides, whatever that is. They therefore fixed that precise date as the origin of human life, and many buildings align with the sky as it was back then. It was only recently that modern day astronomers realized why the buildings are aligned the way they are, which is just crazy, is it not??!
They were also very bloody people. They used to sacrifice human life like nothing, they even beheaded the losers of their ball games!! Can you imagine the pressure of playing a game knowing that, if you lose, they are going to behead you??

A few good pics here >

Temple of Kukulcan, it is only us here, urrah!!!
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The Platform of Skulls was dedicated to the glory of military conquest and ritual sacrifice. It was here that prisoners heads as well as those of other sacrificial victims were displayed for all the inhabitants to view. The decoration served as a reminder of the aggression of the military chiefs and as a terrifying warning to anyone who might attack the city.

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Coinciding with the arrival of the crowds, the paths of Chichen Itza transform themselves into a massive artesania stall market with beautiful arts and crafts. We managed to only buy a couple of magnets, aren't we good!!!

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Once we came back from the ruins, we took a bus to Merida, in the north-west Yucatan, with the idea of spending the night here and then continue to Palenque in the morning. Except that when we got to Merida we found out that all buses to Palenque are fully booked! OOpps. So we have booked ourselves onto a night bus to Villahermosa, 2 hours away from Palenque, where we should be able to get at some point tomorrow.

Posted by Flav-Greg 19.12.2007 17:35 Archived in Mexico Comments (1)

Tulum

Beaches, cenotes and Maya ruins

sunny 25 °C

Tulum is a very nice place.
We recently changed our plans and decided to spend a few days here instead of travelling up to Cozumel and Playa del Carmen, which are known to be a lot more developed and expensive. Cozumel apparently offers the best diving in the Caribbeans, but since we are not diving, we decided to avoid the mass US tourism found up north and the subsequent sky-high prices that go with it. The beach in Tulum is just as stunning as the one in Playa del Carmen, if not better, and without the high rise hotels and annexed infrastructure. In fact, Tulum, while being a very touristy place due to its Maya ruins, is not that built up at all, especially on the beach. Things of course are bound to change but, for the time being, you can walk the long beach and find lots of wild stretches with no facilities at all, while the hotels that exist are generally cabaña style or very low buildings. The water is a fantastic blue turquoise and the sand like talc. Really delightful! Of course, the Riviera Maya does not come cheap, not even in Tulum, where the most basic cabaña will cost you almost $40 without bathroom or breakfast. We landed at Zanzil Kin, nowadays the first 'hotel' south of the ruins, where we were given a very poor round cabaña with a face more or less saying "you either take this one or you can piss off, we are the cheapest here and there is a queue of tourists like you waiting out there". We still took it, of course, resisting the temptation to punch the male receptionist, and the cabaña was indeed very basic and the bed unconfortable, but the bathrooms were clean and the setting really nice, with a number of cabañas scattered amongst the sand dunes, 100 meters of so from the beach. Some of them actually look quite nice, we just got a particularly poor one - still very pretty from the outside. We spent two nights there and then it started to rain. We thought that Olga was finally coming - remember the hurricane we mentioned back in Mahagual, on its way to Mexico after flooding Puerto Rico? - so we did not enjoy the beach much, but the evenings at Zanzil Kin were good, with a good happy hour and pool table. On the last night, after showing off our great skill at billiard when I, me, Flavia, beated 3 male players (!!!) we were challenged by the barmen to play for a cocktail, and we won! That was really good fun, certainly my first time playing for something - I had been playing quite badly the second night but by the time a drink was at stake, I suddenly got a lot better...

Anyways. While exploring the beach, we came across a nice Italian place called La vita e' bella. Essentially a posh expensive place that however offers three cabañas in the back yard with shared bathroom at the bargain price of $42. I had a moan about the current cabaña we had and the owner, Silvia, offered us one of the cheap rooms for the same price at Zanzil Kin - so the next day we moved over to the new accomodation. It was different - the restaurant completely different style, very different prices, no billiard, very quiet, hardly any people around, and sunbeds on the beach!! We spent a day and a half swimming (Gregory) and floating (Flavia) in the turquoise swimming-pool-like gorgeous sea before us and had a really nice time - Olga apparently dissolved up in the skies and the sun came out in full the day we moved. Inbetween we also walked up to visit the Tulum Maya ruins, which are famous for their stunning setting on the sea. There were quite a lot of tourists, but it was nice to walk around nevertheless.

Today we came back into town (3 km inland from the beach) and, after checking out four overpriced places, we checked into Hotel Cocos2000, at $27 with bathroom, a/c and TV! What a jump in comfort! We actually do not need the a/c, the nights have been quite chilly and tonight we are spending most of the evening at the Internet Caf, so we won't need the TV either, but hey, we have it all! In the afternoon we booked a tour with Cenotes Control to the local cenote called Dos Ojos, apparently one of the most popular. It was the cheapest deal we could find, at $30, with prices varying between $30 and $50 for essentially the same tour. Prices here are so crazy that you really have to shop around hard - even for burning DVDs you have places charging $7 and then nextdoor someone else will charge you $3. And, generally speaking, the approach is quite rough - the people do not seem to care a great deal about your custom, you often get semi-cold below-average food, etc. But the natural beauty of this place is something else!
Anyways, back to the cenote. A cenote is a type of freshwater-filled sinkhole typically found in the Yucatán Peninsula and some nearby Caribbean islands. Cenote water is often very clear, as the water comes from rain water infiltrating slowly through the ground, and therefore contains very little suspended matter. The groundwater flow rate within a cenote is usually very slow at velocities ranging from 1 to 1000 meters per year. In many cases, cenotes are collapsed sections of roof over an underlying cave system. Around the Riviera Maya there are hundreds of cenotes, all attracting large numbers of cave divers and, the few that can be snorkelled, snorkellers. Cenote Dos Ojos can be snorkelled as well as dived, and this is where we went. We got a wet suit included in the deal, which turned out really useful, since the water was quite cold and we spent a good hour in there. Essentially, you swim through an open cave and you see lots of rock formations below and above you, plus the divers at the bottom of the cave - the divers can enter parts that snorkellers cannot, clearly. But you still see quite a lot from up above, including the bat cave, which you reach by snorkelling through a very low ceiling of less than half a meter. We took a lot of pictures with our new super underwater camera, however the environment is quite dark, so very few came out. This is a link to the website of our tour company, which offers a few pics to give the idea of what we are talking about:

http://www.cenotes-control.com/es/galerie/cenotes-uw

And these are our fab pics for Tulum....

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Our cabaña
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La vita e' bella
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Tulum ruins
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Cenote Dos Ojos
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Tomorrow we are heading for Chichen Itza and then a quick stop in Merida for one night. After that, we have 3 nights in Palenque (more ruins) and then San Cristobal de las Casas for Christmas. Then it will be Puerto Escondido for New Year and then a precipitating way up to Mexico City for the end of our travels.

Posted by Flav-Greg 17.12.2007 18:25 Archived in Mexico Comments (3)

Into Mexico: first stop Mahahual

sunny

In Placencia we desembarked the Raggamuffin boat and checked into the Yellow House guesthouse. The original idea was that of going back to Caye Caulker in the boat, sailing all night, however due to the condition of the boat, we decided to stay in Placencia and then take a bus all the way up north again. The first impression of Placencia was not great and we felt quite unsure about whether to stay or not, actually, but the thought of 12 hours at sea appealed to us even less, so we set off looking for a nice place and found it. The room was $25 a night, on the high end for us but very reasonable for Belize. It was quiet, secure and really comfy, and we soon found a newly open place called Purple Monkey where they had wi-fi and decent food. So we ended up spending most of our time there, given that it was raining more often than not and the beach was a no-go area. Placencia is meant to have the best beaches in Belize...my god!!! Ok, it had been raining and there was a bit of wind etc, but that beach was really bad, covered in algae and murky as hell.
Anyways, we stayed a couple of nights and then we set off to Mexico. We were not really sad to leave Belize, all considered. I personally always thought of Belize as a really nice place, expensive and beautiful and with the most stunning coral reef, but this is not what we experienced, apart from the expensive part!!!! The change in the standard of living when we came in from Guatemala was very visible - the houses were nice and pretty, Caribbean style with bright colours, drying laundry nicely hung up in line on actual laundry lines - in Guatemala and many other countries we have visited people tend to hang their washing on the bushes and rocks surrounding their houses, for some strange reason. So the laundry was very promising. Then we got to Belize City and we got a shock! Houses falling apart everywhere, filthy waters, in fact much much worse than Georgetown. Georgetown in Guyana was a gem in comparison, though at the time I perceived it as dirty and messy. Hadn't seen Belize City yet! Caye Caulker was ok, though it had no beaches, and then Placencia, which was supposed to be the beach place and it wasn't. Maybe it was the weather, maybe they took us to the wrong snorkelling spots, maybe we should have dived, maybe we only saw a couple of places and the most touristy and expensive, maybe we missed the nice jungle because we already had seen a lot of animals elsewhere - not sure, but we were not impressed. Overall it was ok and Gregory enjoyed it more than I did, but I would say that we are not in a rush to go back to Belize again.

These are a couple of pics of Placencia and its pretty painted houses

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This was a meter-long barracuda, they call barracudas the 'dogs of the sea', look at those teeth!
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We departed Belize from Placencia on a 14 hour, 3 bus jaunt up the road to Mexico. We decided to visit the picturesque village of Mahahual on the Yucatán Peninsula which, according to the lonely planet, is less touristy than say Cancun. Mahahual is described as the Caribean Mexico with lovely sandy beaches, where many of the big cruisers frequent with loads of tourists due to its beautiful coral reefs (extending from Belize) and turquoise waters.
That was until 4 months ago, when Hurricane Dean visited the village.
When we arrived 8 o'clock at night looking for a place to stay, we got the the idea that there was lots of construction going on, but did not think much of it at the time. There were giant artificial sand dunes on the way into town and many signs in Spanish that said "men working - sorry for the disturbance” but, when we got off the bus in the dark, we did not really get a sense of what was happening. In the morning now, when we walked up on the roof of our hotel to meet the morning sun and looked out, in the distance all we could see was destruction of the mangroves with bits of houses and cars in between it!! You did think that the locals were doing a bad job of keeping the area tidy until you heard what happened.

Hurricane Dean visited the village at force 5.5, with 300 kph winds for a couple of hours back in August. Fortunately, the locals were given 5 days notice and all vacated the area before the hurricane hit, so no-one was killed, but the wind and the subsequent sea action eroded 2 meters of coastline and killed the mangroves for miles around a good half a kilometer in and all the sand from the local area and beaches disappeared. The local workmen were collecting the sand from the neighbourhood and were stocking it in the sand dunes in order to rebuild the beach. The government is restoring the aqueducts, electricity and power infrastructure, but the locals ( 8000) are responsible for all the rest. What you can see in village is the people that made enough money from tourism in the past re-constructing their businesses, and the people with little money and no insurance against disaster, living in tents or makeshift debris from the aftermath.

4 months on, the locals seemed to quite leisurly accept what has happened to them and are trying to rebuild a better Mahahual than before and count themselves lucky. In the local newspapers at the moment there is talk of the possibility of Hurricane Olga (late in the season) visiting in 4 days time , but is unlikely. We are moving up the road to Tulum, which was not affected by the hurricane in any way. Tulum will be the new base for a few days in order to visit a couple of places in Mexico.

In Mahahual we stayed in “El Profe” hotel, which is in the centre of town and the cheapest at $27 a night. There is another finished place in town at the moment, Posada Pachamama, which is slightly more expensive at $36 a night and very nice and down to the fine details. Other than that, at the moment in the current rebuilding you will have to walk pretty far (1 to 3km) to look at the rest of the open other places. Curiously, we took a taxi down the road and saw a sign for the Luna de Plata that said 'open', except that there was nothing standing apart from the sign!!!!

The peace and tranquity that is Mahahual
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The view inland, turning 180 degrees...
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Destruction 1
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Destruction 2 - view from our hotel
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Destruction 3
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Posted by Flav-Greg 14.12.2007 11:12 Archived in Mexico Comments (1)

Raggamuffin Belize

Caye Caulker to Placencia by sailboat

rain

From Flores we got to Caye Caulker pretty smoothly, 8 hours in total including the boat crossing. At the border, the Guatemalan officers tried to charge us 10 quetzales (only $1.5, but still!) which is a spontaneous decision of theirs and which go directly into their private pockets. We were warned about this so we insisted on demanding an official receipt or no money, so after a few minutes of discussion they backed down and let us through without making a penny out of us.
We got to Caye Caulker on time for our 5pm brief meeting about the next day sailing trip down to Placencia, in the south of Belize. A couple of people had recommended this Ragamuffin island hopping trip back in Guatemala, so we decided to invest the money and do it. At $275 each for 2 nights camping and 3 days sailing it was quite expensive, but as usual we are only here once, so we decided to go. At the meeting there were another 6 young couples in addition to us, with a good variety of nationality representation including Australian, US, Swedish, Swiss, Dutch and German. Let's see if we remember all the names: Dave and Emily, Magnus and Eve, Renke and Dennis (who we later found out were not a couple), Tico and Jasmin (whom we did not speak to for the duration of the trip, not sure why), Christian and Ilka, Justin and Meredyth. Hey! The trip was all inclusive, meaning that all food and drinks were included in the deal. So we set off at 8:30 the next morning, after a nice breakfast of lobster omelette. The first day was great: the weather was good and the first island, Rendezvous, was a tiny strip of sand with a few coconut trees and absolutely nothing else. No toilet either.. We put up the tents and then started on the rum punch in front of the fire and by possibly 10 pm we were all in bed drunk. The next day, however, the rain started just after lunch and by the time we got to Tabacco Caye, we were all wet and cold. Tobacco Caye is a small inhabited island with some accomodation, so the captain decided not to aggravate our misery and checked us all into private rooms with bathroom, instead of camping, which was exactly what we needed after the cold ocean shower in the open boat. We did not have the chance to snorkel here, which is meant to be one of the best spots of the reef. We made an attempt to wake up early and go snorkelling then, but the wind and clouds at 7 am were too much for our weak good will, so we missed it. On the last day we pretty much sailed all day till we got to Placencia on time at 4pm, with only half an hour snorkelling on the way, on this marine park place called Water Salt Caye, which was nothing special.

Overall, we found that the trip was definitely overpriced for the value it offered, no doubt about it. The boat was old and dirty, the drinks and snack choice on board very limited, and the snorkelling opportunities somehow shrank to less than one hour per day, which is not really what we went on the tour for. And perhaps worse of all, the coral reef was not as good as we had imagined it to be!!! It was not that colourful and there was not that much fish either, unbelievable!!!!! The famous Belize coral reef!! The Australians were particularly disappointed, clearly. We managed to take some pics of the underwater world - though we also bulk deleted a whole bunch by mistake, probably the best ones...

The reef underneath
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The reef from the boat
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Rendezvous Caye
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Patrick, our spearfisher specialist crew
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The big shell is called conch and is currently in season, like lobster
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Kevin, one of our 3 crew members
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Posted by Flav-Greg 09.12.2007 19:34 Archived in Belize Comments (1)

Maya ruins: Tikal

sunny 25 °C

From Lanquin we took a comfortable gringo shuttle straight to Flores, near Tikal. As we were ahead of schedule, we stayed in Flores one night to catch up with our reservation at the Jaguar Inn in Tikal itself - this hotel is one of three located inside of the Tikal National Park and it is pretty expensive! So we decided to stay back in Flores for one night to rest and be ready the next day to take full advantage of our posh night, arriving early and leaving late. We went with the flow and got taken to the current flavour of the month hostel in Flores, Los Amigos, where the rest of the people on the shuttle wanted to go. It was a good choice: the hostel is pleasant, offers all possible facilities that backpackers need including lockable charging units for mobiles and ipods, and all the usual tours and connections and cheap accomodation. We ended up cancelling our second night in the Jaguar Inn and sleeping in a dorm again in Los Amigos the last night, since it cost a fifth.

Tikal is the largest of the ancient ruined cities of the Maya civilization. It is located in the El Petén department of Guatemala, in the north of the country, in the jungle.
History:
Tikal was one of the major cultural and population centers of the Maya civilization. Though monumental architecture at the site dates to the 4th century BC, Tikal reached its apogee during the Classic Period, ca. 200 AD to 850 AD, during which time the site dominated the Maya region politically, economically, and militarily while interacting with areas throughout Mesoamerica, such as central Mexican center of Teotihuacan - which we are visiting as our very last spot of our journey, sigh sigh... Following the end of the Late Classic Period, no new major monuments were built at Tikal and there is evidence that elite palaces were burned. These events were coupled with a gradual population decline, culminating with the site’s abandonment by the end of the 10th century. It is not really known how it all ended, theories mention either some major social upheaval or maybe an earthquake.
The ruins lie on lowland rainforest. Conspicuous trees at the Tikal park include gigantic ceiba, the sacred tree of the Maya, tropical cedar and mahogany. Regarding the fauna, agouti, coatis, gray fox, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, Harpy Eagles, toucans and green parrots can be seen there regularly, and in fact we saw them all apart from the harpy eagle, which is a pretty rare bird these days. Lots of monkeys everywhere, really nice. I was here before and cannot recollect seeing or hearing a single monkey, which is pretty strange. Is it the memory or I just did not take any notice?

We went into the park in the afternoon and then again at 6 in the morning, when a coat of fog wrapped everything. So we went back to bed for a couple of hours and then into the park again - minus Gregory, who was not feeling too well and stayed back at the hotel playing chess...mmm...

Here are some pics:

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Tomorrow we are off to Belize. We are going straight to Caye Caulker, the backpackers spot, from where we should be boarding a Raggamuffin snorkelling cruise of about three days.

Posted by Flav-Greg 05.12.2007 17:58 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Semuc Champey

Wicked place!

sunny 25 °C

We left Antigua on Saturday morning and travelled practically all day up north to Lanquin, in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala, where the climate starts to become tropical. After many phone calls trying to trace the reservation lady at El Retiro, we finally managed to reserve two beds in this recommended place, just before hopping on the bus in Antigua.
The name El Retiro is not really the most suitable name for this backpackers spot, which certainly does not look like a retreat whatsoever. When we got there at 7:15 pm - the communal dinner had just started - the party was in full swing and there were hardly any seats to be found. Our arrival was quite traumatic, actually: we got there in heavy rain, got assigned the two top beds in a small cramped bunked dorm, got down to the packed restaurant only to find someone giving a nasty look to Gregory, who got upset and decided that he hated the place and refused to have dinner. We would have left if it wasn't that we had already paid for our dorm beds - payment is taken as soon as you step in there. The next day, however, things improved dramatically. First of all the couple that we were sharing the dorm with were very nice, which helped us accept the new accomodation style which we are not really used to and which we had to accept as the only way we could get ourselves into this popular place. Secondly, breakfast time in the restaurant was much less crowded and thirdly and more importantly, in the restaurant there was a chess board. All sorted! We even got a fantastic sunny day and managed to get ourselves onto the 10:30 trip to Semuc Champey and the caves and book the bus up to Tikal for the next day, all perfectly syncronised and a day ahead of schedule.

Semuc Champey is a truly fantastic place. It is basically a set of limestone pools positioned in staircase fashion with a river running below them underground: the pools are filled with mountain spring water and vary between emerald green and turquoise. A swimmers paradise! The wis hhole area is very beautiful and the journey to the pools alone is worth doing in itself. There are various caves around here and the typical trip, organised by the hostel, includes a visit to the water-filled K’ANBA caves, a quick tubing session down the river, an 8-meter jump from a bridge, and finally a walk up to the mirador for a panoramic view of the pools and then a splash inside them. This is exactly what we did, except that I skipped all the parts that involved jumping off from any sort of high point into the water. I had done a similar trip into water-filled caves here in Guatemala the last time, near Poptun. Very challenging and adrenaline-filled, the last trip still brings dark memories of when I had to jump into the water in the dark while trying to avoid underlying rocks. So this time I decided that there was absolutely no need to put myself under any kind of similar pressure and that I could enjoy the whole thing quite successfully without jumping anywhere. Gregory, to compensate, did all the jumps that he could possibly do.

This is the site official website, which provides some more pictures of the area:

http://www.semucchampey.com/index.html

El Retiro Hostel
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Semuc Champey from above
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Semuc Champey from below
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Someone is having hesitations about jumping...

Posted by Flav-Greg 03.12.2007 16:56 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Lake Atitlan

sunny 24 °C

After spending a full week in expensive Antigua, we have finally made it to Lake Atitlan, where we are staying for a few days.
Antigua was good - I finally calmed down after the first two days of incessable walking around, revisiting the old places I knew and checking out the new ones. Antigua is like a Restobar-Disneyland, there are venues of all sorts and taste. Most businesses are unfortunately foreign, and in effect foregneirs are buying our the city leaving the locals with a very high cost of living and low salaries. But the place is vibrant and the city beautiful and still worth a few days, despite not being anything like the real Guatemala. So, while Gregory spent his entire week going swimming in the morning and taking Spanish lessons with Teresa in the afternoon, I spent my time looking around and planning our last month in Mexico. We now have a fairly detailed itinerary for Mexico, though we still dont know if we will be able to spend any time on the coast for New Years, since everything seems to be booked out.
In Antigua we indulged in some reall nice restaurants, the best experience being a jazz brunch at Panza Verde, the top restaurant for refined cuisine as well as a beautiful colonial hotel. We also managed to go dancing at the Villa Antigua with Teresa and Janet like in the old days - meeting at Janet's for drinks before getting to the venue, where drinks are expensive.

On Sunday we took the shuttle to Lake Atitlan. Prices for shuttles have come down from the time I was here, or the price of the public buses have gone up - one of the two - so it does not make a lot of economic sense to travel on Guatemala's famous chicken buses. Chicken buses are beautifully colourful, noisy, vibrant buses, and people transport all sort stuff on them, including small animals - from there their name. They are not as elaborate as the ones in Panama City, but they are still exceptionally beautiful. Once on the lake we took the lancha to S Pedro La Laguna, where Adi was waiting for us. We checked in at his hotel - Hotel Tepepul Kaan - a really nice little hostel incredibly quiet for the location in the very centre of S Pedro.

S Pedro is quite a peculiar place. It is the hippie capital of Guatemala - and maybe of the whole of Latin America - you see the weirdest people walking around, most with long, uncombed hair and very few teeth in their mouth. Not really pretty sights to be honest, and quite effective to put you off drugs forever... Nevertheless, the place is pleasant, there are lots of nice cosy venues where to have excellent cheap food and enjoy life.
We didnt really do much there apart from eating and drinking - food is about half price than back in Antigua. The town is full of places that will show movies for free, plus facilities to download music and films, so you can keep quite busy just doing that. The best places we found were D-Noz and their super nachos dish, by the jetty, Buddha, a moldy place that dishes out fantastic thai food and where on Mondays a really good blues band plays live, and Shanti Shanti, another little rudimentary restaurant with very good breakfasts and falafels.
Apart from pigging out, one day we managed to go hiking on a section of the lake, walking along the path that joins the villages from Santa Cruz to San Marcos. That took a few hours and was enjoyable and worthwhile.

Today we are back in Antigua for one night, in the morning we are off to Lanquin to see the famous Semuc Champeys limestone pools and caves, which is about 8 hours north of here, on the way to Tikal. Tikal will be our last stop in Guatemala.

Here it is, the most typical Atitlan pic..
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The path and views from Santa Cruz to San Marco
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Mural in S Juan
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Posted by Flav-Greg 28.11.2007 09:43 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

La Antigua Guatemala

sunny 23 °C

The journey from Granada to Antigua went really smoothly. In the queue at the Ticabus station we bumped into a couple of familiar faces again: Lone and Lars, who stayed at Elsas on Little Corn, and Ade, whom we crossed back in Granada after first meeting him in Ecuador. Lone and Lars were working on taking their friends car from Nicaragua to Canada and had offered us a lift, however things went wrong and they couldnt leave on time. So Lone went to take the bus all the way to Mexico while Lars remained in the country to see if he could succeed to get the car out eventually. So we had some nice company all the way to Guatemala. The first day it was about 11 hours to San Salvador, where we had to stop overnight. On Sunday we had another early start and by 11:30 am we were in Guatemala City. We shared a taxi directly to Antigua and got there a lot earlier than expected, urrah.

I couldnt wait to get to Antigua, this is where I have first learnt Spanish and have a lot of nice memories. I had lost contact with Teresa, my teacher, a good while back, so I was really full of hope to go and see if I could find her again. And I did!! She was there, exactly the same, and her mum and 4 sons. I was almost in tears from the joy! The funny thing that happened was that we reserved a hostel online before getting to Antigua, El Hostal. When we got there, I realised this hostel was in the same road as my old school. So we are walking down the road looking for the hostel, when I spot the school building from a few steps away: I am just there telling Gregory how that was my old school, when I realise that the school IS the hostel we have booked!!! The school relocated across the road and the building got adapted into a hostel. WOW, did not expect that. But actually an excellent choice, we have now been here for almost a week and have really enjoyed it. It is really quiet, super clean and we have, Wi-fi in our room, which means access to the Internet as we please, from our bed. This is a luxury we have not had for a long time.

Beautiful Antigua
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Gregory having Spanish lessons with my old teacher in my old school... in our hostel!!!
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El Hostal
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The other day I managed to convince Gregory to go and see Volcan Pacaya, which I climbed the last time I was here. Things have changed quite a lot since then though... four years ago we went all the way to the smoking crater, it was really hard because the last 100 meters or so you climb the cone and the cone is made of soft dark sand. This time, things were completely different. Pacaya is one of Guatemalas three active volcanos and is pretty active, so active that it was like climbing a different volcano altogether! We walked uphill for about one hour until we got to a viewpoint from where we could see the lower crater spewing lava and a black dry lava field underneath us, very similar to the one we had seen on Santiago island in Galapagos - EXCEPT that things here were a lot more live than in Galapagos. We walked down to the lava field and crossed it to get at the very feet of the hot lava, walking on a lava bed that, while it looks dry and old, it is actually very recent and still hot and glowing just a meter or so below. We had to hop from one lava rock to the other for 300-400 meters to the point where the current lava river flows. In fact, we did not go all the way, we starting feeling rather uncomfortable with the heat coming to us from ahead and below and felt that we did not actually need to get all the way right up to the flowing lava. Most people did, but frankly it looked INSANE. We only had one guide for about 30 people and no guidelines were given as to how close you could get, people were all over the place and on top of it all you only had one hour to get there and back before it got pitch black. The lava rock is very sharp and uneven, all you need is to jump badly and there you are. You could even fall into a glowing crack and catch fire... It was an awesome experience but potentially quite hazardous, and we are obviously chickens.

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Yesterday we went to Chichicastenango market, the most famous market in Guatemala, some 2.5 long hours from Antigua. It was a nice day and we manged to only spend a handful of dollars on a hammoc and a couple of other trinkets, which will cost an arm and a leg to send from here, as usual. This time it seemed that the indigenas were less bothered about being photographed and we could get quite a few shots, especially Gregory seems to have no problems at all.

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Tortillas...yummm!
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Posted by Flav-Greg 23.11.2007 13:13 Archived in Guatemala Comments (1)

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