Saturday, June 19, 2010
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.
Saturday, April 3, 2010
Saturday, March 27, 2010
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
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
We spent the afternoon exploring the town of Trujillo. We
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,
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
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
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...
Friday, March 19, 2010
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
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 baño 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.
Even after seeing loads and loads of Mayan sites over the last month, Tikal was still very impressive
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
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
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:
Friday, March 5, 2010
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: