We`re not in Guatemala now Dr Ropata (AKA El Salvador Part 1)

24 – 29 November 2011

El Salvador was not a destination on our original itinerary, but as we travelled south, we met a number of people with only positive things to say about the country, so with a little tweaking we re-jigged our route and caught a bus to Santa Ana.

We arrived after dark and the bus dropped us at a gas station on the outskirts of town. Feeling disorientated, we asked passersby for directions on how to get to town and were given at least four different sets of instructions – each person was adamant they were right and the others were wrong. One even arranged for their son in law’s cousin to come and drive us to town. As we were trying to extricate ourselves from the situation (at this point feeling quite apprehensive about the prospect of taking a ride from a stranger, after dark, in a country with one of the world’s highest homicide rates), along came the immigration cops. Thinking we were about to get harassed for a bribe to get out of the situation, it came as a pleasant surprise when, after a couple of questions, they hailed a cab for us, directed the driver to our hotel and made sure the driver gave us a fair price. Actually I think the whole incident displayed the friendly and helpful nature of the Salvadorenos, of which we were to experience more. If we weren’t worn out from a full day’s travel, we probably would have appreciated it more!

The next day after trying, and failing to see the sights of central Santa Ana (we caught a bus, at least three passengers directed us to where we wanted to go, spoke to the driver on our behalf and told us to sit behind him so he could tell us where to get off, but he forgot and then the bus broke down – so we gave up) we instead took a trip to Lago de Coatepeque. Coatepeque is a volcanic lake around 15km from Santa Ana and home to some very rich Salvadorenos, apparently. We found a lovely restaurant with a jetty out into the lake where we sipped fresh lemonade and swam in the lake, soaking up the beautiful location which we had almost entirely to ourselves. Tourism in El Salvador is undeveloped compared to its neighbours: this meant that we rarely saw other westerners on this leg of the trip, but the downside was that getting around and finding places recommended in the guidebooks was much more of a struggle.

One feature of travelling in El Salvador that never failed to amaze us, despite the regularity of its occurrence, was the procession of traders on the public buses. The buses typically leave from around the town market, but there is no need for you to visit the market itself – it will come to you. When we left Santa Elena, it took us around 20 minutes just to escape the bus terminal. During this time, we had a steady procession through the bus, with traders selling everything you could possibly want and more. The (non-exhaustive) list included fruit, soft drinks (distilled into plastic bags), cakes, bread, vests, biscuits, socks, vegetables, superglue, belts, wallets, padlocks. You name it, we were offered it – and almost everything cost less that a dollar! Then there were the preachers, the beggars and the particularly interesting narco-evangelists (think preachers telling you why its critical that you buy the vitamins/medicines they are hawking and how they will cure all your ills). Its a wonder the buses ever get to their destination!

Our next stop was Juayua, a pretty town set in the mountains and on the much acclaimed Ruta de Flores. The town is famous for its weekly food festival where you can try local delicacies including iguana and guinea pig. We were offered roast snake, but decided to turn it down, instead opting for another culinary delicacy called pupusas. These are similar to tortillas, but filled with beans and cheese, griddled and served with hot sauce – delicious!

While in Juayua, we hired a local guide and went on a tour to los Chorros Waterfalls – a series of three waterfalls interconnected by subterranean tunnels which support a hydro-electric plant a few kilometres out of town. There, we swam in the pools with the local kids and made our way blindly through the tunnels, exiting through the waterfalls – an amazing sensation. That afternoon, it was back on the bus (cue another dozen or two traders peddling their wares) and on to our next destination, the Pacific Coast.


Guatemala: Antigua to Atitlan

After our legs had recovered from all the climbing at Tikal ruins, we put them to work again, this time exploring the streets of Guatemala’s former capital, Antigua. After a devastating earthquake, which destroyed much of the town, the country’s administrative centre was relocated to Guatemala City, but many of Antigua’s residents refused to leave the city – and it’s not hard to see why. The city is made up of quaint pastel coloured houses and churches, set on a grid of cobbled streets and overlooked by three volcanoes. Here for the first time in Guatemala, the people we encountered (especially the women) wore the brightly coloured  hand-woven traditional dress. It’s the perfect city to stroll around, soaking up the atmosphere as well as relaxing in the parque centrale, where much of the city’s action seems to take place.

On our second day in the city, after a fantastic three course lunch for just £1.60 each (thanks Nick for the tip!!), we set off to climb our first volcano, Volcan Pacaya. It was a steep ascent to the top, but well worth the effort. It felt rather like walking on the moon: surrounded by clouds, with black crunchy rocks underfoot, no living plants and smoke rising from craters – very mystical. Of course, what do you do when you get to the top of an active volcano? Toast marshmallows of course – yum!! That and find a crater to climb into for a fully clothed sauna (we were assured this was perfectly safe!!)

After a few days in Antigua, we continued our journey to Lake Atitlan, where we based ourselves at the (slightly Americanised) Panajachel. Atitlan is a volcanic lake, and the deepest in central America. Its a beautiful sight but is sadly pretty polluted so not ideal for swimming. We headed straight off to one of the largest markets in the region at Solola. This market is a local affair, rather than being aimed at tourists, which was nice as it gave us a glimpse into the traditions of the local people, although we came away empty-handed.

We also took a trip across the lake to a much smaller town, San Pedro, which had a laid-back hippy vibe. Despite Lake Atitlan being firmly on the backpacker route, both San Pedro and Pana were surprisingly quiet. November should be the start of high season but we were told that the American embassy was discouraging travel to Guatemala which resulted in tourism numbers being very low this year. It’s sad for a country which relies fairly heavily on tourists pumping money into the economy (everything costs a lot more if you’re a gringo) and yet good for us as well, as it means we get to enjoy a more tranquil experience.

Before leaving Guatemala, I must confess to dragging Neal around every crafts store in the area/country. The vibrant colours and textures of the fabrics really made an impression on me and I was determined to bring home a slice of it. The only problem being that I couldn’t decide which I liked best (they were all very unique) so of course, I needed to assess all my options before making any final choice!



Guatemala: ancient cultures to aquatic adventures

Having left Belize at 8:30am, we finally arrived at our first destination in Guatemala, Flores, just in time to catch the sun setting over the lake as we swang in hammocks on our hotel roof. After spending the last few days in a wooden cabin, it was lovely to have a proper roof over our head again – even if hot showers do seem like a distant memory! Not that we got to enjoy a lie in, as the following morning we were up at 4am and on our way to the ruins at Tikal.

Located around two hours from Flores, at over 16 sq km, the ruins at Tikal are one of the largest Mayan sites in Latin America. They are also quite unique as they are located in the midst of dense jungle. However, only around 15% of the ruins have been excavated so far meaning that you catch vague glimpses of pyramids, completely covered in vegetation, poking out from amongst the trees. We arrived early as we were told that we would have the best chance of spotting some of the animals that live in the area at first light. We were in luck! Our guide, Luis, knew the site like the back of his hand, having worked there since a child. He also knew how to imitate bird and animal calls and spots signs of recent activity. With his help, we spotted howler and spider monkeys, a tarantula, a rare weasel, toucans and lots more. The peak (literally) of the visit was climbing Pyramid 4 , one of the tallest structures of the Mayan world. The views from the top were spectacular – miles and miles of lush green vegetation as far as the eye could see, interspersed here and there with Mayan temples, poking through.

After our time in Flores, we headed south to a tiny village called Semuc Champey that we´d heard a lot about from other travellers. What was meant to be a 6 hour drive turned into a 9 hour saga and the final kilometres of our journey took us along one of the most pot-holed tracks I´ve ever seen (or rather felt, as it was dark by this point). Despite the length of the journey, the scenery we passed through was amazing; dramatic mountains and valleys all covered by leafy vegetation.

Our accommodation this time was the loft of a little wooden cabin on stilts, situated on the bank of a river and surrounded by hills where cows grazed – very idyllic. Despite having another day of terrible rain storms, the next again day we were able to make the excursion we had come for. Semuc Champey is a natural phenomenon comprising a series of pools, waterfalls, natural bridges and caves. Our guide led us between the pools, each a different colour of green, jumping, sliding and climbing through the waterfalls which separated them. Later in the day, we visited a cave close to the waterfalls. We were each given a candle which we held in one hand as we used the other hand to swim around the pitch black caves and natural pools – a fantastic sensory experience and a real highlight for us.

Returning to our hostel after the adventure was an experience in itself. We had travelled there in the back of a pickup truck and were returning the same way. However, this time rather than just being five tourists, we were joined (read crammed like sardines next to) by the locals and their wares. We shared the truck with mothers, children, suitcases, buckets of garlic (too close to my nose), bales of firewood, stems of bananas, cool boxes and I don´t know what else – what a way to get immersed in Guatemalan life and authentic if nothing else!!

From Semuc Champey, it was on to Antigua – but that can wait till another day…

You better Belize it!

11th – 14th November 2011

After our Mayan adventure in Mexico, we headed south to Belize and the next chapter of our adventure. We fancied a few days of R&R so settled for Caye Caulker – a tiny Caribbean island, just off the coast of Belize. We arrived by water taxi just as the sun was setting over the ocean and found ourselves a basic cabin close to the shore. The island is home to only a few hundred people, and instead of cars (there might be a couple), people get around the island by golf cart, bicycle or on foot. English and Creole are the main languages and there is more than a hint of Rastafarian influence in the community.

We had high hopes of spending our stay relaxing on the beach and swimming in the clear waters around the island. Unfortunately, the weather had different ideas and we found ourselves caught in a stormy deluge which looked like it could linger for days. We resorted to doing our relaxing indoors instead of on the beach, keeping our fingers crossed that the sun would come out again soon.

Thankfully, the storm did pass, leaving behind clear skies and beautiful sunshine. Not knowing how long it would hold up, we booked ourselves onto the next snorkelling trip leaving the jetty. Our guide took us to three separate locations: the marine reserve, shark ray alley and the coral gardens. We saw hundreds of different fish in an array of brilliant colours as well as an enormous (and slightly scary, having been told they bite) eel. In shark ray alley, I swam with nurse sharks and stingrays as Neal looked on apprehensively. Despite the assurances that they were effectively tame, I still froze each time one of the rays swam underneath me, trying to tuck up my toes out of the way of their barbs! It was an amazing experience for both of us, marred only by the sunburn on our backs, which made the following days´ travelling a little uncomfortable!

The rest of our time on the island was taken up by wandering around the island – who knew you could get so lost in a place that´s only 5 miles long? (When we realised we were in the middle of the air strip, we knew we´d taken a wrong turn somewhere). We also sampled plenty of the local cuisine – think barbecues set up along the beach serving beautiful Creole chicken, rice and beans and local homemade banana cakes sold off the back of a cart.

We had planned to stay in Caye Caulker longer but, as the weather continued to look unpredictable (we haven´t had much luck so far with the weather on our beach visits), we decided we ought to move on. We caught the water taxi to Belize City followed by a chicken bus to Guatemala. Our journey took us through the country´s capital city, Belmopan – possibly one of the least inspiring capital cities in Latin America. The Lonely Planet sums it up pretty well when it says, “travellers arriving in Belize´s capital are faced with that most basic of all existential questions; ´what am I doing here?´ Thankfully, the town provides a ready answer; changing buses” However, the rest of the country we witnessed was a beautiful combination of green pastures, rolling hills and small communities, each boasting their own church schools.  A pity we couldn´t linger longer in Belize, but Guatemala was calling…

We´re going to e-e-e-lope to Me-e-e-xico

We decided early on in our planning that Mexico was far too vast a country for us to attempt to explore in any depth given the time constraints of our trip, So, alas we simply spent a few days in the Yucatan region before making our way further south. As soon as we stepped off the plane from Cuba we had our first encounter with the illegal touts – did we want to buy bus tickets for 5 times the going rate? Of course they worked for the bus company – the tourist info guys didn´t know what they were talking about! Thankfully we continued past them to find the genuine tickets office 200m down the road. I get the feeling this could be a common theme for the trip!

A few hours later we were in Tulum, our base for our time in the country. We checked into a place which has been our most luxurious so far, four-poster bed, air con, mosquito nets, massive breakfasts and the biggest extravagance – our own bathroom. (I think it will be a while till we get anything like that again). Tulum is a small town on the main highway consisting of a handful of bars, restaurants and hotels. However, it also boasts two key draws – a stunning beach with white sands and turquoise sea and an impressive set of Mayan ruins overlooking said beach.

We borrowed bikes (no gears, brakes, bent handlebars, flat tires etc) and cycled to both on a very hot morning. The ruins were stunning, especially given the backdrop. And the site is guarded by literally hundreds of giant iguanas – they look very majestic as they sit atop the ancient ruins. We spent some time on the beach, chilling out, swimming and watching kite surfers doing flips and turns off the beach.

Tulum is only a couple of hours drive from Chichen Itza – one of the most important Mayan sites in Latin America so we hired a car and made a trip out to the ruins. This time we hired a guide, which made a massive difference and helped us understand much more about Mayan culture, the calendars the people used, the importance of their gods and the sacrificial rites they believed in. The structures were incredible, and understanding how they had been designed heightened our appreciation of the area. The only damper on the excursion was being stopped at a police road check on our way there – they said they´d have to give us a ticket for not having both our passports with us as ID. This would mean us making a trip to the state capital to pay it etc. However, they would help us avoid this inconvenience if we paid them a small “fine” instead. We had little choice but to pay up – only a few dollars as we persuaded them we didn´t have any money on us but frustrating to experience this example of corruption nonetheless. Thankfully, we stopped at an internet cafe to print off copies of our passports for the return trip – just as well as they stopped us again, but this time we were prepared!

We left Mexico the next day to continue on to Belize and Caye Caulker – a fairly brief stop in Mexico but we enjoyed the beautiful scenery, the yummy food (think giant burritos) and the lessons in Mayan history.

Cuba: a tale of two cities

1 – 8 November 2011

First stop on our travels around Latin America: Cuba, and what a place to begin. We split our time on the island between two spots, the heart of the island Havana and the more rural western town of Vinales. Arriving in Havana late in the evening, we took a taxi to our first casa particular where we were greeted by our host, Oscar. He set the mark for what we would come to expect of almost all the Cuban people we encountered; he was incredibly friendly, eager to help us how ever he could and liked to talk to us about his views on the country and its unique situation. The casa we stayed in was a grand though crumbling old building close to Plaza de la Revolucion. And that’s where we started our tour of the city the next morning. A large open square, where Castro and the Pope have previously addressed hundreds of thousands of Cubans, looked over by images of Che Guevara, Cienfuegos and the Jose Marti Memorial. As tourists like us took in the sites, old buicks, cadillacs and pontiacs circled the square. Later we toured the city by bus and on foot, taking in Havana Vieja, its decadent but decaying buildings contrasting with the vibrancy of the people on the streets. Changing some of our tourist convertible pesos into moneda nacional, we indulged in delicious peso pizza for about 30p a slice – a habit we continued for the rest of the trip.

On the following day, we visited the Museo de la Revolucion and saw the Granma, the ship which transported Castro, Che and other revolutionaries back to Cuba from Mexico at the beginning of the revolution. Later, we headed on out to the beach to enjoy the sunshine where we got chatting to a local guy who told us how he had tried to get to Miami on a boat with friends but had been caught and turned back by the US authorities. He explained how difficult life was especially for the youth in Cuba and how much they want change.

After a couple of days in Havana, we headed out to the Cuban countryside to explore the more rural side of life on the island. Vinales is a small town of only a few streets, situated in the Pinar del Rio province. Porch life is a key feature of the town where everybody knows everybody and they all seem to spend half their time sitting on porch rockers and visiting the neighbours. We heard about a garden on the edge of town which we went to check out and were treated to a tour by one of the women who worked there. She showed us bananas, pineapples, starfruits, cocoa, coffee, oranges, grapefruits and more all growing there and which she let us sample. Of course a trip to Cuba wouldn’t be complete without sampling some of the local tipples, so we found a bar to try out some Cuba Libres, Mojitos and Daquiris – mmmm…

Vinales and its surrounds are designated Unesco Heritage sites so we decided to explore the reserve with the help of a guide. He took us hiking through tobacco fields, fruit farms and caves in the Mogotes. We stopped at a campesino’s house to try some freshly ground coffee and see how cigars and produced. A quick puff was necessary but I don’t think I’ll be taking up the habit of so many Cubans! Later that evening we stopped by a bar in town with live salsa music and watched the locals hit the dance floor. Incredible to see the moves, especially to the faster numbers.

Back in Havana, we dedicated our final days to exploring the parts of the city we had so far overlooked. We put down the guidebook and wandered aimlessly around the old city, discovering hidden squares and back streets, salsa bars (and more peso pizza stands). We got soaked by massive waves breaking along the Malecon as we took in the sunset. We took a trip out to the Vedado neighbourhood and, while sheltering from the rain, got chatting to a local woman who told us about an amazing Japanese garden made entirely from shells right on the sea front, accessible through a hotel. A real highlight of the trip and no mention of it in the Lonely Planet.

After a week in what was a charming and incredible country, it was time to move on to our next destination, Mexico. But, just to end it on a high note, our last  (and wonderful) hosts drove us to the airport in their fabulous1950’s Ford Fairlane.