Saturday, June 19, 2010

South Guatemala

With just one week left before our flight home we headed back into Guatemala to finish off the southern part of the country. Semana Santa (holly week) was about to start and we heard that Antigua was the place to be for Good Friday - the climax of the event. This is the most popular event of the year and on countless suggestions we headed straight to Antigua to book a room for the following weekend. Our plan was to be in and out but by the time we got into Antigua I had developed a full blown cold and could hardly open my eyes. It took 2 days of full on recuperation before I was well enough to continue. In the mean time, Todd looked high and low for an available room. Most places were charging 4x the original price and after 11 months of hard core budget travel we were just too stubborn to pay up - even for the last weekend of our trip! But luck was on our side. After searching through 20 or so places Todd came across Hotel Arizona, a tiny guesthouse run by a young Mayan family. Not only did the owner have an open room but that sweet sweet man charged us the usual price of $15. After checking 5 times to make sure we understood him correctly we reluctantly left, afraid that he might think we are crazy and change his mind.

With two days lost in Antigua (an amazing place to waste time) we had to choose between Lake Atitlan and Semuc Champey Waterfalls in central Guatemala. We chose the latter. While we love the colorful refurbished school buses from America we decided to take the tourist shuttle instead. We try to avoid these whenever possible but in this case it did save us $10, 4 hours of travel and 4 bus transfers. On the flip side we did endup spending 5 hours listening to handful of 18 year old Americans complain about how they miraculously kept loosing their $300 cameras (dear mom and dad, please send more money). The highlight of our long journey was a stop in Coban for a 20 minute break. As the young Americans downed beer and complained about the heat, we noticed that our driver walked off and settled down on the nearby steps with a beautiful Mayan woman and three young kids. He later explained to us that because of his long days shuttling tourists he only gets to see his family on his 15 minute stops through town. It was really sweet - his wife brought along a standard meal (fried chicken, two small tortillas and salad) and the kids were super excited to spend the short break with their dad. Watching this young traditional family have fun in a dirty parking lot gave me another jab of whats really important in life - you don't need a big house, a fridge full of food or money to enjoy your family. Just being together is whats really important. This family truly cherished the little time they had together. As we piled back into the van and got back on the highway I was in my own little world imagining the sweet days of family life ahead. That is until I heard one of the annoying kids behind me exclaim that he left his camera at parking lot. I couldn't make this up if I tried - when we got back to the parking lot he realized that it was in his backpack all along!


We got into Lanquin, a small village an hour outside of Semuc Champey, in the afternoon and decided to settle in at Zephyr hostel on a recommendation we got from a friend. This was a great choice. The hostel is situated right on a top of a mountain with sweeping views in both directions. We got the very popular dorm bed # 7 - a double bed separated from the rest of the dorm by a stairs and a small wall! This bed had a floor to ceiling window next it with the most amazing views. The fun didn't stop there - the hostel had outdoor showers with hot water. Once the sun got close to the horizon where the mountain range touched the sky I would rush over. Imagine taking a warm shower, feeling the cool breeze and enjoying the wild colors illuminating the untouched valley spread out before you. Zypher lodge could be a destination on its own. Their common room is filled with hammocks and couches. For $20 the owner can fill up your 40 gig ipod with the latest music and movies. The town itself was very quiet and cute with a small market and very sweet traditional Mayan people.


The next day we took a truck to the Semuc Champey waterfalls. The falls were absolutely breathtaking. 7 or so clear turquoise pools surrounded by lush green mountains. The 1 hour hike to the lookout was well worth it and we spent 20 minutes marveling at this little gem. We rewarded ourselves with a nice long swim in the cool refreshing pools and some local bbq - I love the food here! You can get a small plate of carne asada, some chorizo, refried beans, grilled veggies and two tortillas usually for a couple bucks. On our way back we got a small batch of home made chocolate from a local farmer.

Later that night we walked out to the Lanquin caves about half an hour outside of town. We heard that this was the place to be around sunset when thousands of bats fly out of the cave at sundown. We toured the deep cave for about 30 minutes before finding a good sitting spot on the inside of the mouth and waited for the dark to set in. As the sun came down we started to see a few bats flying out here and there. Within half an hour as the last of the light slowly disappeared we saw hundreds of bats flying past us - just marginally missing our heads. It was pitch black inside the cave and we could only see them through the flash of cameras. What an amazing experience.


With time slowly slipping through our fingers Friday rolled around and we found ourselves back in Antigua. Our last and final destination. Semana Santa is quite amazing. Its the ultimate colonial town to visit in Central America and during this special time the churches in town take turns hosting city wide processions four times a day (with the last one at midnight). Before each procession people come out to decorate the cobble stone streets with colored sand and flowers. Thousands of people line up to see these - First hundreds of men in bright purple robes carrying flags and filling the street with smoke from swinging thuribles, then a large statue of Jesus (in various forms - bearing the cross, being laid to rest, rising) on a large platform being carried on the shoulders of 60 or so devoted men and then women, dressed in black and white, follow carrying a large statue of Mary on their shoulders. The procession is followed by a dramatic band with New Orleans funeral type music.


Unfortunately our last few days Todd picked up...anyone?....Giardia. This one was pretty rough and after a few days of little improvement we had to get medicine. The little champion pulled it together for our last day - a hike on Volcano Pacaya. A pretty spectacular attraction a few hours outside of Antigua. Pocaya is still extremely active and approximately 2,000 tourists pay $10 each day to hike up this dangerous volcano to a pool of red hot lava. While this was extremely cool it was a bit nerve wracking. The volcanic rock is very hollow and can easily crack under a wait of a person. No big deal until you look down and see lava flowing 10 feet underneath you through the little cracks between these rocks. After 3 hours of hiking we stopped 5 feet from the flow. The heat was so strong and unbearable that the soles of our shoes started melting. We hiked down in the dark occasionally stopping to look up the volcano that continued to shake and spew 20 feet into the air. While something like this would be highly illegal in US, the Guatemalans have made into quite a profitable venture - the bottom of the volcano is littered with little kids selling hiking sticks, hot dogs and marshmallows for westerners to heat up over the lava pool. Lazy tourists could also get a poor underweight pony to drag them to the lava rock.

The next day we waved goodbye to the kind Mayan family that took such good care of us for the last weekend and got on a shuttle to the airport. I was in good spirits getting on the plane - happy that I got to sneak in a bag of Guatemalan coffee for our friend Troy who was kindly watching our car in San Diego. My happiness was short lived until a mean lady confiscated a jar of coffee jam that I was bringing to my mom in Florida.

whatatrip!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

El Salvador


With all the hype surrounding the security of central american countries, we debated whether to visit El Salvador... for about a minute. One concrete lesson we have learned on this trip is that the best source for current info on any country is from travelers themselves. We first learned this lesson on our very first stop in 2009; we skipped Kenya on the advice of our State Department's website (and a flurry of poor press) and flew through Nairobi to begin our trip in Tanzania instead... and only to then discover there were loads of young European travelers pouring out of Kenya having had a great--and safe--visit. After that, we put a lot more effort toward seeking current travel information from travelers themselves.

The same held true for El Salvador. We were presented
with numerous reasons for not attempting a visit, not least of which was the country's history of armed assault on locals and foreigners alike. Not without grounds, a reputation of this sort should give one a moment of pause, and we did take it into consideration. But instead of scrapping it altogether, we instead decided to gather what information we could from fellow travelers while touring the surrounding countries, and to make the call on the ground. And we're glad we did, because El Salvador ended up being one of--if not THE--best stops in Central America.

El Salvador is small. You could drive across the entire country easily in a day. In recent years, the tourism board has been playing up the beaches, touting them as the new surf mecca of central america. But, in our opinion, the real draw of El Salvador lies in the coffee-rich mountain regions, with their numerous volcanoes, plantations, and exotic flower nurseries. And of course the people! Nicest in central america, if you ask me.

True, in years past the country struggled with a wide
variety of menacing problems: armed assault on locals and foreigners, an aging guerrilla class in need of gainful employment, and an escalating gang problem resulting from the deportation of offenders from Los Angeles neighborhoods. But the country has taken many steps in recent years toward separating these threats (if not eliminating them) from those who venture across its borders --not least of which is the installation of tourist police in key areas. We kept our heads about us, did a bit of planning, and regularly asked locals for updates on the security situation outside towns... and never once felt uncomfortable about exploring this beautiful country.

By the time we got to El Salvador, we only had a few
weeks left before needing to fly home, and we would be finishing up with a week in southern Guatemala. So, a bit pinched, we opted to skip the beaches altogether and focus on the "Ruta de Flores" in the country's western mountains. We kicked this all off with three days in Santa Ana (having breezed through the capital, and wishing we had spent more time exploring there), the country's busy little second city. We lucked out and found accommodation just outside the city center,
at Casa Frolaz, a converted colonial-style home. For $2o a night we enjoyed a spacious room with a private bath and (yes) hot water, and full access to this large house... an enormous kitchen, a lush yard complete with an avocado tree bearing fruit the size of footballs, and a large common room with comfortable couches and lots of DVDs. It was a treat to cook our own food, and we atesalad, pasta, and soup (Tatyana's favorites) every night, washed down with Chilean wine and frosty beers from the local market (which was like a brand new Safeway, and had everything we could hope to find).

Each day we wandered around the town, exploring the
markets, lounging in the central squares and munching on tons of street food. One of the things I love about central american towns (like many European towns) is that they center around public squares, where people gather throughout the day to chat with neighbors and watch the world go by. We spent a lot of time here on park benches, people-watching. The tortas (sandwiches) on the square were a nice break from El Salvador's typical fare -"pupusas", which are like four-inch tortillas stuffed with beans and cheese, and often times other goodies as well. Locals eat pupusas a LOT... often for three meals a day... they are everywhere. For us, the lack of variety was a challenge, so we lapped up alternative fare wherever we found it.

On the third day we hopped on a bus for the range of volcanoes south of the city, and opted for Volcan Izalco, an active but relatively safe volcano about a 90 minute hike from the main road. We joined a group of other tourists (many of them locals) and were assigned a tour guide, which cost $1 each. As this area has struggled with armed assaults in the past, it is now heavily patrolled by the tourist police, and we were escorted by no less than three officers, each heavily armed. It was an easy hike, and we were rewarded with a minefield of scalding steam holes at the top. Fun.

After Santa Ana, we hopped a forty-minute bus (the
shortest travel day we have ever had) for the small town of Juayua, home to an extremely popular weekend food fair. We spent that Sunday eating a lot of food... everything we ordered was $5, but it was enormous. We opted for a bucket of ceviche and loaded plate of barbecue. Very good. There was live entertainment in the square, and we whiled away the afternoon sipping on cold beer and watching a really drunk local guy interfere with all the performers. A puking rally (in which he barfed all over his shirt) was the highlight of our afternoon.

The following day we joined a group for another $1 excursion, this time to a set of waterfalls in the mountains outside town, about 30 minutes away. These were really cool, as the locals had expanded natural tunnels to funnel the water along the mountain for hydroelectric purposes. We spent the afternoon
shooting the currents in the pitch black tunnels, guided only by the shimmering blue-green light of the water ahead of us. We had not done anything like this before, and it was well worth the trip. The local guide was a really nice guy, and kept us from knocking ourselves out on the rocks hanging from the ceiling -the tunnels weren't very big and only allowed about 2 feet of space above the waterline. It was a fun day. We stuck around only one more night, as we discovered that without the food fair, local cuisine consisted of... yeah... more pupusas, and those were beginning to get a bit old.

The next day's bus ride was even shorter... We zipped along the mountain roads, blowing past billowing tufts of brightly colored flowers, pouring over walls, lodged in trees, everywhere. One of the most beautifully scenic drives we've been on. We stopped in the small town of Apaneca, which had been a big deal about ten years ago, but now was pretty sleepy. After checking on the local security situation, we took an hours walk past coffee plantations and into the mountains outside of town to a high crater lake, where we took a cool dip and grabbed a bite of food -pupusas. We spent the rest of the day hanging out in hammocks and reading.

We spent the following night in the town of Concepcion de Ataco, a really cool little up-and-comer, with a great art scene, lots of good coffee (a rarity, as most of the local stuff is shipped out of the country) and the best food of our trip. Right off the bat we found a packed little eatery run by this ancient
woman with a pleasant smile, who hooked us up with loaded plates of local fare and a really amazing fish soup... all to the tune of a couple bucks. We spent the afternoon exploring the town, wandering from church to church, and admiring the endless views of coffee plantations. On a tip, we made plans with a small restaurant to serve us dinner that evening, and toured the local shops for the rest of the day. The art was really unique... Tatyana bought a necklace made of banana seeds, I bought a small bag of cigars. We had coffee and fresh olive bread on the plaza that afternoon, which was the coolest plaza we had seen yet, complete with a three-tier fountain and lush lawns.

Dinner that evening was a real treat. Barbecue, with tons
of sides and really good tortillas. We got stuffed for six bucks, and waddled out the door and back to our hostel. The hostel we stayed at was run by some really great folks, and guarded by a mother-son team of dogs that were just irresistible. The younger dog had been badly injured by a car, and had a funky gimp leg that seemed to be situated backwards. He was the king of the one-pawed hug and was constantly wrapping his good leg around our legs for a semi-squeeze every time we stopped to play. Tatyana was smitten. We
spent the evening reading out in the hammocks, and enjoying another round of hot showers -a real treat. The next morning we accepted an invitation from a local coffee plantation owner to come into the mountains to see her property... What views she had, perched atop a ridge with a view across the mountains to Guatemala. She was in the process of converting her old family home into a guest house, and she treated us to fresh-squeezed lemonade from her trees as she told us about her plans.

We stopped for lunch again at the little eatery in town that we enjoyed so much the day before. The old lady was
so excited to see us again. More loaded plates of food, and an interesting soup--pig lung, I think--that I really enjoyed but Tatyana wasn't too thrilled about. We hopped a bus that afternoon for the town of Ahuachapan, last stop on the route. It took about two seconds to realize we were not in Kansas any more, and that our string of beautiful mountain hamlets was behind us. Ahuachapan was a hole, to speak nicely... The only reasonable accommodation we could find was at a pay-by-the-hour hotel, complete with freshly-used condoms in the wastebasket, ants in the bed, and a giant cockroach holding court in the shower. The crusty old lady who ran the place was really surprised when we made it clear that we were married and wanted the room for the entire night. At least it had a TV with cable, though. We beat feet early the next morning for the border, which was a breeze, and on to the last stop of our trip, southern Guatemala.

See this link for pictures: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2051155&id=1009299883&l=4225ec92d7

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Honduras

Our first day in Honduras--like so many first days--was a test in patience and endurance. We woke early to catch a 5 a.m. collectivo (shared minivan) in the filthy port town of Puerto Barrios (Guatemala), where we had passed a sleepless night fending off a fleet of kamikaze mosquitoes. Tired, and a bit cranky from the start, things looked up quickly as we neared the Honduran border by way of countless thousands of acres of banana fields. I began a mental list of companies I recognized in the signs of each plantation we passed on the highway. Dole, it appeared, was by far the heavy in this region. Fun to know that the bananas we were seeing that morning would likely appear at our local grocer in the near future. We were joined in the van by a crowd of local workers being shuttled to their respective plantations. Crossing the "frontera" (border) was a cinch, as we didn't even have to get out of the van -the driver's assistant grabbed our passports and ran past the border post, collecting stamps and jumping back on board in no time.

The van dropped us off at the Honduran post at the far side of the frontier, just as the sun was thawing the early morning mists and the temperature climbed noticeably. Three bucks in fees at the post had us on our way, hoofing the few hundred meters to the fork in the road where took in plates of typical breakfast (the
ubiquitous tortillas, beans, eggs, chorizo, cheese and cream bit) before hopping a bus headed east. At Puerto Cortez, we switched rides for a bus on to San Pedro Sula (Honduras' industrial workhorse), where I cashed up and Tatyana hunted for food. She surprised me with four slices from Pizza Hut, which by noon was quite welcome. At one o'clock we caught a bus on to La Ceiba, a northern port town with ferry access to the bay islands of Utila and Roatan. But not content to stop there, we made a 5pm bid for a bus to Trujillo, three hours further east, figuring that we would start our trip as far east as we planned to go, and work our way back. Our fifth vehicle of the day arrived in Trujillo shortly after 7. Our sixth was the cab, whose driver we fought tooth and nail with for a decent fare, which carried us the last 8 kilometers out the main road from town and down a dark dirt stretch
to Casa Kiwi. We hauled ourselves in the door, at around 8pm, and plopped down on a couple of stools at the bar, where frosty glasses of Honduran beer appeared out of nowhere. Casa Kiwi, a beach side backpacker oasis run by a motley crew of extremely hospitable New Zealanders, was exactly what we felt we deserved at the end of 15 hours of hard, dusty travel. After more beers and a couple of amazing "Kiwi Burgers", Tatyana retired to the room and I stuck around to drain just a few more brews while chatting up the staff. I followed later, stumbling past the night watchman and into a steaming hot shower, where I found just enough energy to crawl into bed for the big sleep. Tatyana was passed out on top of the bed, fully clothed. Tired girl. It was a great room, 30 meters from the water, with floor to ceiling windows, loads of hot water, and the extremely rare one-two punch of a toilet having both a seat AND the ability to accept paper -all for ten bucks.

We woke in the morning to a chorus of tropical birds, and the tree outside our room housed seven different species of iguana. Following a grand breakfast, we
grabbed some snorkeling gear and walked a few kilometers up the beach to a shipwreck, a couple hundred meters off shore and laying in 3 meters of water. It took about 30 minutes to swim out to it, dodging hoards of jellyfish along the way, but was well worth the effort, with many tropical fish and
some fun "terrain" to navigate as we explored the ship. We fought the current on the way back, again picking our course carefully among the endless supply of pulsating jellyfish. Trujillo, while home to amazing AMAZING sunsets (a geographic rarity, as the town lies on the north-eastern Caribbean coast of Honduras), is also home to a literal plague of mosquitoes and sand flies, and our walk back from the wreck saw us feasted on by the lot of them. Locals use repellent for the skeeters, followed by a thick layer of baby oil, which drowns out the sand flies. Needless to say the next day we were a topographic map of painful bumps.

We spent the afternoon exploring the town of Trujillo. We
lunched at the famous Playa Dorada restaurant, where for 13 bucks we feasted on a bucket of fresh ceviche and a seemingly bottomless bowl of king crab soup. The beautiful little cemetery where the American marauder William Walker (A-hole extraordinaire) is buried happened to be closed that afternoon, so we walked and hitched back to the hostel in time for cocktails and an incredible sunset.

Early the next morning the owner of the hostel drove us into town to catch a 5am bus back toLa Ceiba, where we caught a ferry to the island of Utila,
known for its cheap (if uninspiring) dive scene and the occasional spotting of somewhat elusive whale sharks. We hung out for a few nights, deciding not to dive after making the rounds of the dive shops and concluding that the chances of seeing one of these magnificent beasts were not as good as we had been led to believe. However, if you ever want to get your diving cert on the cheap, there are direct flights to the bay islands from the U.S., and many folks go there for that very reason. The upside to Utila, for us, is that it is a hotspot for the drug trade, given its remote location, a little used airstrip on the far end, and the absence of law enforcement personnel.

We were given a tip by one of the locals (a funny old hippy named James, originally fromTennessee, I think) that a drug plane had missed the runway
a few years back and crash landed in the thick jungle near the airstrip. While the nearest police (from La Ceiba) had "destroyed" (riiiiight) the cargo immediately, the plane was still there to be found--suspended in the trees
--if you poked around long enough. We packed some water and made the long walk to the other coast to check it out. After several hours picking our way through some very dense jungle and finding nothing, we eventually decided against further exploration. It did make for a nice walk, and we found lots of little treasures to enjoy along the way. Interestingly, it is supposed that Utila is also the island of Robinson Crusoe, though I must say I read the book just last year, and, to me, the terrain doesn't match up with the descriptions from the book. Who knows.

From La Ceiba, we made the long haul south to Copan Ruinas, home of Honduras' famous Mayan site. After seeing so many ruins on this trip, the buildings of Copan were a bit disappointing, but people don't go there for the buildings. They go for the carvings, which are among the best preserved
stellae in the Mayan world today. And the carvings were impressive. We got there early, and had the local wildlife and the tranquil ruins to ourselves before the tour groups showed up. Beautiful parrots were in abundance at the site, and we enjoyed them in flight from one branch to the next. Also, there were quite a few Paca around, which are known as Gibnut in Belize -we ate them there, and they were very good.

After Copan, we spent a few nights between the mountain towns of Gracias and Santa Rosa de Copan, before hopping a long-haul bus to San Salvador. Before going to Honduras, we had heard so many negative things about the people and the culture... and the political events of the last year have been portrayed very negatively in the international press. What we found in-country was so different -the people are wonderful, the food generous, the countryside lush and beautiful, and the country is very stable politically. All told, Honduras ranks in the top two of our favorite countries of this trip. My top pick, of course, is El Salvador, which we will write about next. Stay tuned.

For pics, see the following...
Honduras

Friday, March 19, 2010

Border Posts

This provides an excellent opportunity for me to expand on a travel topic that is near and dear to my heart: border fees. When moving overland across borders, travelers are often required to pay some sort of border fee -think of it like the price of admission. These fees manifest in various forms, the most common being the visa fee, which can run anywhere from a few bucks to as much as $100, or even more. Often, countries will apply different amounts to travelers from different countries, depending on the ´normalcy´of their relationship. When traveling in Africa, most countries we entered charged us either nothing, or a very nominal amount for our tourist visas, while our counterparts from the U.K. got royally screwed to the tune of a hundy or more --a lot of folks still pissed off at Europeans over the whole African Colonization thing. In Tanzania, our visa fee (for which we had to apply in advance of our trip) was $100, basically a reciprocation of the amount the U.S. regularly charges foreigners for their visas to visit the states. In place of a visa fee, some countries simply charge a ¨stamp fee¨or ¨entrance fee¨of a few bucks to cover the cost of border operations. These are all quite tolerable, when you can be certain it is the government that you are actually paying.

See, border guards and immigration officers are not paid very well. And like many other beauracrats throughout the world, they often see fit to pad their meager paychecks by lightening the wallets of others. In the case of border officials in far too many countries, this is achieved through the levying of certain fees that have not been sanctioned by their superiors, and when we are out of earshot, we call this ¨corruption¨. This is more of a nuisance than anything else, and surely many travelers opt to simply pay the few dollars that are asked of them in the interest of expediency and, well, their personal safety. But I think every traveler should at least be aware of where their money is going, and distinguishing between official charges and bogus fees is actually quite easy.

When a country´s government establishes fees to be collected by its border officers, it also prints very official-looking signs stating the amount to be paid, as well as at least somewhat-official-looking receipts, cards, or visas (which are actual stamps that are pasted into passports) as proof of payment. Often times one has the ability to check a country´s official websites for the latest on its entry or exit fees, but some times this is not possible and we are left to figure out for ourselves whether the fee being asked of us is legitimate, or if we are simly paying the tab on a night´s boozing at the local watering hole for the border corps. 9 times out of 10 (because there must be an exception out there, though I haven´t seen it myself), the signs and receipts rule applies. If you don´t see an official sign stating clearly the fee expected, and if the border official cannot provide you with some sort of believable receipt, you are being had. And this happens ALL THE TIME.

It is of course up to your discretion how much challenge you want to put up to the guys holding both your passport and all the guns, but patience and cheerful resistance will win the day more times than not. I bring this up now because after bidding a tearful farewell to our good friends at the Belizean border post, the entire staff on the Guatemalan side tried to take us for an expensive ride. Now, we knew ahead of time that they might try a stunt, because eventually enough travelers complain for the folks at the travel book companies to do some research and name the border posts that are particularly problematic. So, when stepping up to the immigration counter the (very professional looking) officer informed us of the fees we would be required to pay, I knew he was full of crap. In the four country region of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua (known as the CA-4 zone), visitors are allowed unrestricted travel within the zone for a period of 90 days, and can only be charge upon their exit from the zone, either by plane, or across a border into an unaffiliated country. This is widely known, so it is really quite audacious for a border officer to pull this sort of thing. But just in case, I fell back to the signs and receipts rule.

I took a look around, noting of course the absence of any sign stating visa fees, and asked the officer where the visas fees were posted, officially. And he of course ceased to understand me altogether, repeating only that I must pay the amount, and could pay in dollars if I did not have enough Belizean or Guatemalan currency. I smiled and explained to him that I had researched the immigration rules of the CA-4 zone, and would be paying my fees when we flew out of Guatemala City at the end of our trip. He shook his head, and did some pointing at his computer screen as proof of the fees that must be paid. I leaned over the counter and followed his finger (which I guess he assumed I would not do) and the best I could gather from his screen was that he had just finished a losing hand of solitaire.

It was really quite hard not to laugh. Raising my eyebrows, I asked once more if he could provide any official documents certifying the collection of fees from an incoming visitor, and he gave up in frustration, passing me on to the border officer on his left. She made us wait a while before kicking off the same twisted conversation. When we refused to pay without seeing some official document, she called over her boss (who was dressed in civilian clothes, a trait I have found common among people who hold enough power to demonstrate it by not confining themselves to standard protocol). For the next few minutes we had a very polite debate, and they talked some gibberish to each other, and they asked a number of questions about how we were traveling that seemed to be aimed at finding a point on which we were not knowledgeable of the immigration laws.

Finally, as we were by this time at the head of a growing line of travelers queing up to get screwed, the big bossman told us to follow him to his office, I supposed to educate us on the law, or sort us out, or shoot us. We followed, a bit reluctantly, but after a few corners found ourselves not in his office, but a courtyard which led out to the road beyond the checkpoint. He asked a final question about whether we were traveling on by bus or taxi (as though it mattered), then simply handed us our passports and told us we were free to go. This really pissed me off. I had half a mind to go around to the front and tell everyone in line that we didn't pay a cent, but I figured we'd pushed our luck far enough for one day and they had all probably seen enough to ask a few questions of their own. Remember, when in doubt, signs and receipts... good luck.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Guatemala - The North


We decided to split Guatemala in two, tackling the northern interests first, then skipping into northern Honduras and later south to El Salvador before crossing back into Guatemala in the south to fill our final days before flying out of the capital. We left San Ignacio (Belize) in the morning, catching a local bus to the nearest town to the Guatemalan border, and walked the final three miles down a quiet road to the frontier. While we weren´t thrilled to pay Belize´s exit fee of around 20 bucks a person, I applaud the immigration officers´professionalism in collecting it, complete with an electronic receipt for our records. And the flow of the proceeds is monitored by an international development organization that makes sure the money gets to the right projects. As we mentioned in the last entry, Belizeans are really poor and need all the help they can get.

After negotiating a particularly corrupt border post on the Guatemalan side of the border, we hopped a collectivo (shared minivan) for the northeast shore of Lake Peten-Itza, reaching it in about 90 minutes. After a bit of searching we found Hostel Hermano Pedro, a quaint little family-run guesthouse with a double room and baƱo privado (private bath) for a very reasonable $12. On this trip, we aren´t holding to as tight a budget as the last and every now and then we`ll pay as much as $20 a night for a really nice spot with hot water. After getting sorted, we hopped a minivan to Santa Elena (the nearest big-town) to cash up at a cajero (ATM) and wander around a bit, before heading back to grab lunch and enjoy a beer in the hammocks at the guesthouse. Later that evening we treated ourselves to local "empanadas" (a name, we discovered, given to a great many different foods in various countries), which were more like loaded tostadas, for a whopping 12 cents a piece. The folks in this little town were really nice and we were just about the only folks around.

The following morning we caught a 5:30 collectivo to the Tikal ruins, where we arrived early enough to enjoy all the jungle wildlife on our way in. At play were hoards of wild turkeys (which had plumed tail feathers
and looked very similar to peacocks), howler monkeys (appropriately named), and a local type of raccoon common to the area. We even got to see a large tarantula up close. There was also a very wide diversity of trees in the protected area, many which we had not seen before. For the next few hours we wandered around Tikal, climbing up and down the steep wooden stairs that flank the original stone steps to the tops of the ruins. Not too long ago one could climb up the original steps, but it only takes one western tourist -as you have heard me complain many many times- taking a gainer to their death for them to close access for good --because western tourists sue.

Even after seeing loads and loads of Mayan sites over the last month, Tikal was still very impressive
and very unique in its own right. Check out the link for pictures. Thanks to our early arrival and the recent downturn in global tourism, we had very little competition that morning, which makes a big difference in the overall experience. Since we were traveling with our packs, the friendly gentleman who looks after the campground took 5 quetzales a piece to hold our stuff. We´re getting pretty spoiled this time around -normally, hefting only 15 pounds around for the day would be a very welcoming proposition.

After the pyramids we spent two nights on the lake island of Flores, a scenic little spot but not much else on offer. We took advantage of the views from the
open roof deck of our hotel, dozing in hammocks to the annoying squawks of a parrot below. We did also enjoy some really great coffee (which is surprisingly rare, as coffee-rich central america ships almost all of its beans--and bananas for that matter--elsewhere. ¨Water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink¨), and a great local breakfast with a very talented little parrot who had taken a liking to coffee and could serve himself up using a spoon.

From Flores we took a bus to the town of Rio Dulce, named for the river, where we were obliged to spend an awkward night in a cheap but dreadful room-one of the worst
in our travels. So bad in fact, that we shunned the private bath altogether, saving showers for the next stop. We should have taken cue when on entering we saw the words ¨don´t stay here¨scratched into the wall. The town is a major crossroads for intranational shipping, and its pretty seedy, so we dozed to the sweet sounds of semis and all-night mayhem. The one, and only, saving grace was a one-two combo of awesome typico dinner and breakfast. The next morning we hopped a launch for a very scenic two hour ride downriver to the Caribbean coast and the Garifuna town of Livingston. It has been fun for us
to come across these Garifuna villages, populated mainly by black caribs long ago forgotten by the trade in manual labor. Unique food and music are always on offer; here we enjoyed a seafood soup called ´tapado´, filled to the brim with king crab and veggies in a coconut milk stock... Very good. We spent a day and a night watching the street action from a couple of hammocks on the upstairs veranda of our hotel, taking several trips out to wander and, of course, eat. We also finally had the opportunity to try a potent local liquor called ´guifiti´, made from rum and a number of unattractive ingredients from the swamps -including roots and bark and, I´m pretty sure, dirt. But, mixed into a freshly shorn coconut, it packs a delightful punch.

The following morning (which morning, exactly, we can´t really tell you anymore, as we have lost most sense of time and date and even day by now) we took a launch one hour back up river to a nice little spot in the mangrove jungle called Finca Tatin, one of those rare do-it-all backpacker joints that does a really good job of it. For the next few days we explored the mangrove channels in kayaks, hiked around to local villages and schools, drank quite a bit, ate really big family-style dinners, and worked constantly on all the rope swing feats we had left unmastered in our youth. In the evenings we gathered out on the dock to swap stories with an eclectic mix of backpackers while watching the sky light ablaze with stars. Lots of hammocks, of course, for dozing, and the place even had a really good sauna, made in traditional local fashion from rocks and stuff, where we hung out and spoofed on the one German guy who insisted on taking his steam butt-naked. Couldn´t quite work up the nerve to join him, in mixed and plentiful company, but I think I may be on the verge of a breakthrough in this area. Europeans really are therapeutic for the troubled and inhibited American psyche.

Out of cash and itching to move (we are cursed), we said goodbye to our new friends and caught a launch back down-river to Livingston, then on to Puerto Barrios (hole!) near the Honduran border. Another uncomfortable night of dive-bombing mosquitoes saw us cracking early at 5am the next morning to get the hell out of town. An amazing collectivo ride through miles and miles of banana plantations brought us to the border, where we caught a nice breakfast, changed currencies, and hopped a bus for the Honduran northern coast.

See this link for pictures from Northern Guatemala:
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2049738&id=1009299883&l=69e46d6702

Friday, March 5, 2010

Belize

For such a tiny country Belize has a ton of character and feels more like an island in the Caribbean then a central American country. The Diversity here rivals US with the country made up mostly of immigrants from around the world. The Mayans here only make up 10% of the population and the majority is a combination of Creoles (mixed descendants of African slaves and British), Mestizos (mix of European and Indigenous), Garifuna (Caribbean Blacks), Europeans, Americans, Indians, Chinese and even Mennonites (they look and live like Amish, are incredibly successful farmers and speak a form of German)! With the country so diverse it is no wonder that their national language is English – apart from being an ex colony and still bearing the image of the queen on their dinero. All of these groups are still very well defined - they look different, speak different languages, practice different religions and yet they live in perfect harmony. Belize is insanely laid back, the going here is slow and the whole country pretty much shuts down after noon on Sundays for Siesta.

There are so many different people that you hardly speak or hear Spanish here; the majority of people (the Creoles) speak a form of English that is nearly impossible to understand. It drove me crazy at first – the feeling I get when I´m listening to Ukranians talk. The Creole sounds just like English with a Caribbean Accent yet you can´t make out what the conversation is about.

With so many different people you would expect a great diverse set of foods. Sorry. The food in Belize is a mixture of world favorites – fried rice, tacos, pizza, burgers, pasta, with Rice & Beans with Chicken, Beef

or Fish topping every menu. One new food we got to try here is gibnut – a guinea pig like animal the size of a Rabbit. We had a chance to try it at a favorite local spot (Myrtle´s) in Placencia in South Belize. The meat was lean and surprisingly tasted good (not at all gamey). In this town we probably had the best food during our time in the country, complete with

conch fritters and delicious jerked chicken from a jolly sweet woman named Brenda who set up a grill and a table at the end of the main street by the old pier after her restaurant was destroyed a few years back by a hurricane. No matter what kind of meal you land in this country, even the simple rice & beans can be transformed into a tasty plate with Marie Sharp´s habenero sauce. Marie is a legend here and you will find at least one bottle with her name on it in any restaurant. The locals breathe it and she continues to pop out different varieties from her factory near Dangriga – we saw at least 20 at the store!

We started out our trip in Orange Walk, a small town up north and a starting point for a boat trip to the Lamanai ruins. Unfortunately the trip to the ruins was going to cost us 100 big ones and we figured that its probably not worth it – given that we have already done at least 10 sites and still had another 10 to go. Like in Asia with the temples and in Europe with the Churches the Mayan ruins start to look the same and you can´t help but develop the snobish ¨seen that, what else you got¨attitude. Our trip here wasn´t a waste as the folks in town were really nice and our first day we ended up meeting a guy from Texas whose parents moved down here with what sounded like 20 other familias and set up a little community out in the bush where they still live today with no electricity and a lot of crocs. Like I said its a colorful country!

From Orange Walk we caught a series of buses down to Hopkins, a small Garifuna fishing village south of Dangriga. The buses change drastically at the Mexican border town from nice Greyhound types to old school

buses. Some still have school bus rules printed in the front and most are at least 20 years old. The town has two major roads and the Garifuna people are very welcoming and are known for reggae style music which we still have yet to hear live. The folks here are kind, very laid back and lazy (in a great way). The unpaved main road is filled with people on bicycles riding by and greetings are quick and common. From here we decided to check out Placencia, a caye connected to the main land by a road, an hour south of the town. We started the trip with a 4 mile walk along a dirt track back to the main junction where we caught a bus and were out on the Placencia beach by lunch time. This town had a great feel despite the large community of American retirees that have settled down here and we spent the day eating good food, lounging in hammocks and getting toasted on cheap rum drinks during happy hour. Todd stuck to the famous ¨panty ripper¨, coconut rum mixed with pineapple juice.

Although the government here is stable (a novelty for Central America) a third of the people still live below the poverty line. Not a surprise to us as the food prices are on par with those in the US (a simple meal is at least $4) yet the salaries compare to those of their neighbors. Despite this the attitude here is amazing....and the people here seem to have a nice lifestyle proportionally mixed with work and hammock time! We´ll definitely be back some day for some diving off the cayes and more beach time. But for now, we´re off to Guatemala. Next stop, the ruins at Tikal.

See the following link for pics of Belize:
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2048673&id=1009299883&l=b282f9c882