Best of Central America

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After spending an awesome few months travelling the length of Central America, from Cancun in Mexico to San Blas in Panama while taking in as much as I could of each country. I thought I’d run a little summary of my highs, lows and favourite picture from Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

Mexico

Just a small part of the trip due to cheap flights into the resort airport of Cancun. We took in Cancun and Tulum before heading to the border with Belize.

Highs
- An easy introduction into Latin America
- Gorgeous beaches of Cancun and using the pool/bar of the Ritz for free
- Scuba Diving at the Underwater Museum
- Swimming in a cenote (a crystal clear freshwater lagoon) where limestone rock has given way into an underground river
- Delicious sugar cane mojitos with free buffet in Tulum

Lows

- Cycling a very heavy bike in 40 degree heat turned out to be a bigger challenge than expected

Favourite Picture

Converted VW Beetle (an iconic car of Mexico) used to make sugar cane juice for mojitos in Tulum.

Sugar Cane Beetle

Belize

Such a relaxed country that feels so British Caribbean. The people really were the highlight of Belize, you will struggle to meet such friendly and relaxed souls anywhere else in the world.

Highs

- Hearing people shout “You got to Belize it!”, “Unbelizeable”, “Drink but don’t get drunk” and “Woah man, it is hot today”. Really made us laugh!
- Relaxing and reading on the beach in Placencia
- Luckily finding a tubing company to float through caves and appearing on local TV

Lows

- Despite 3 attempts, not being able to dive the Blue Hole due to weather and lack of numbers to make a trip

Favourite Picture

Many a day was spent relaxing in the beach town of Placencia on these colourful sun loungers. Bliss.

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Guatemala

We popped into Guatemala as we travelled south through Belize to see the stunning Mayan ruins at Tikal before returning to the country after we’d visited Honduras. On our second stop we spent much of the time taking a crash course in Spanish, soaking up the town of Antigua and visiting Lake Atitlan.

Highs

- Climbing temples lost in the jungle Tomb Raider style at Tikal
- Cooling off in a bar in Flores watching the sunset
- Learning Spanish and attempting conversations about football with my fantastic tutor Rolando
- Staying in a Guatemalan apartment in Antigua and being able to settle in a place for a couple of weeks

Lows

- Foolishly jumping into a lake with my sunglasses on top of my head only for them to sink to the bottom
- Going from the high of speaking Spanish with my tutor with a clear accent to not being able to understand another person’s accent

Favourite Picture

I’ve chosen this as the view from the tallest temple at Tikal where you can see others poking their heads above the canopy. I also loved Antigua where I became addicted to Instagram.

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Honduras

Honduras was a strange one. It really has the highs and lows of travel. One of the main reasons to visit was Katrina taking her PADI Open Water course while I took the rescue qualification. Sadly while here we had trips to the hospital and police station but still came away having loved the country.

Highs

- Qualifying as a PADI Rescue Diver – just one more step towards Divemaster
- Taking in the La Ceiba carnival, the largest in South America
- Zip lining in the jungle followed by a massage and a dip in natural hot springs
- Climbing underneath a waterfall in the morning and spending the afternoon relaxing at a brewery

Lows

- Katrina being taken ill and going to the hospital for an endoscopy
- My wallet being stolen in La Ceiba

Favourite Picture

I’ve chosen my picture of the amazing Pulapanzak waterfall which you can climb right behind and jump around pools underneath. Great fun!

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El Salvador

Our stay in El Salvador was relatively brief. We came here for a bit of surfing and to see a lesser travelled part of the region. We turned out to be pretty poor surfers but enjoyed the chance to cool off thanks to some less sunny weather. San Salvador gave us a taste of urban metropolis for the first time in a while.

Highs

- Taking in the incredible scenery of the Pacific coast
- Sampling some great food in Juayua
- Making the most of western life in San Salvador’s malls and cinemas

Lows

- Finding out I’m not very good at surfing while getting caught in a riptide

Favourite Picture

I love this shot of a surfer meeting his match on this wave in Playa El Zonte. Watching other people fall off made me feel slightly better about my own performances.

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Nicaragua

A fertile land of volcanoes and lakes would sum up Nicaragua pretty well. We took in Leon, Managua, Masaya, Granada and Ometepe. Despite being bogged down with a mysterious fever like illness I loved my time there, so that must say something for the country.

Highs

- Climbing an active volcano, sliding down in on a sled before climbing another, sleeping on the summit and descending the next day for a refreshing lake swim
- Scuba Diving in a volcanic crater lake
- Playing ‘Quetzalympics’ with a random bunch of people we’d just met
- Getting over my paranoia of horse riding amongst the beautiful scenery of Ometepe

Lows

- Feeling incredibly ill when all I wanted to do was explore
- A strangely high number of incidents of waiters trying to exploit tourists

Favourite Picture

Upon arriving at the peak of the El Hoyo where we to camp for the night we could not see the sunset as the fog rolled in. Thankfully sunrise in the morning made up for it!

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Costa Rica

The jewel in the crown of Central American tourism, Costa Rica is where you will find many holiday makers. We spent just a week here but enjoyed the experience back on the beaten track.

Highs

- White water rafting on Class III & IV rapids near La Fortuna
- Watching all kinds of wildlife like Attenborough in Tortuguero
- Randomly finding a softball game in Puerto Limon being played by some very out of shape players gave us a good laugh

Lows

- Spanking our budget with the highest prices we’ve had so far
- Being a little disappointed by other tourists behaviour when watching turtles lay eggs on the beach

Favourite Picture

I love my photo of this lizard blending into its habitat in Tortuguero. This part of Costa Rica was like a mini Amazon rainforest.

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Panama

Central America saves the best till last. Panama has gone straight into my top 5 favourite countries. We took in Bocas del Toro, David, Santa Catalina as well as longer stays in Panama City and San Blas. A combination of stunning scenery and the buzzing capital city kept us well occupied.

Highs

- ‘Glamping’ on the pristine Red Frog beach in Bocas del Toro
- Scuba Diving with sharks, rays, eels and countless fish in Coiba, part of the same chain of islands as the Galapagos
- Celebrating Katrina’s birthday in the luxurious Trump Hotel in Panama City, the tallest building in Latin America
- Getting stuck in the paradise that is the San Blas islands while waiting to sail to Colombia

Lows

- Going to visit the Baha’i temple outside Panama City to find it closed for renovation work

Favourite Picture

I went a bit photo mental in Panama as I’m sure my Instagtram account will show. However the one I keep looking back on is this incredible island in San Blas. Will I ever see paradise quite like this again?

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Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Backpackers Quest

These last couple of weeks I’ve been getting excited about the journey from Panama to Colombia. This is a border that takes a bit of thought as although 98 years ago man was able to build a canal across Central America, he still has not managed to build a road through the Darien Gap. Nor has a ferry service been able to operate for any significant period of time – despite many attempts.

We decided on taking a sailboat from San Blas in Panama to Cartagena in Colombia. It’s a route that’s been operating for a few years and seemed somewhat well travelled. Despite that, it comes with many warning of unscrupulous captains overfilling sailboats which in the worst case scenario can sink. A nasty reminder in the recent case of Fritz the Cat!

We felt pretty secure in the thought of taking the Sacanagem, a boat with a great many good reviews to be found on the internet. Kinda funny really when you consider the boat is, according to its captain Federico, named after a sex act during an orgy! Nice.

Arriving at the boat on a sunny Saturday morning off the coast of Panama among tropical coconut islands surrounded only by shocks of electric blue water, all seemed well.

As our lancha left us on the yacht to return to the mainland, Federico introduced us excited tourists and travellers to the luxury boat and we all settled in. Even as he told us his engine didn’t work and we wouldn’t be going anywhere till it was fixed. An easy job apparently but we were warned about arriving a day late in Colombia. Do you think I cared from the photo below?

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Two days passed where we enjoyed the sun, sea and generally life. Who can really complain when the clear waters are teeming with fish? Strangely however, we hadn’t eaten any of them but we did have some of Federico’s slightly odd but very tasty spaghetti with papaya. Tastes better than it sounds!

Sadly poor Federico was starting to look a little stressed with his attempts to fix his engine. Not a good sign. Even less so when bad weather set in – especially bad for a sailboat with no engine as it means no power from the solar panels.

The diagnosis was not good. We would have to abandon ship. 4 of our group decided to take a refund and return to Panama City. The remaining 4 took a chance and Federico’s kind offer to leave us on a nearby island while he fixed the boat … for “maybe a week”. Oh dear. The weather didn’t help, somehow the tranquil blue Caribbean had turned into a merciless beast of swell and spray. Silly to say but I was more bothered about keeping my electronics dry – the youth of today!

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However, unlike the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the rum was not all gone so we settled in for the long haul. To be honest I still didn’t care.

2 …maybe 3 days passed where we sat in hammocks, played volleyball, read books, ate fish (at last) and watched Pirates of the Caribbean 3. If Carlsberg did airline delays they’d be this good!

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One day (I’ve genuinely lost count) we were awoken from our hammock slumber by an English accent asking if we knew Federico. This was Alice who had a boat leaving for Cartagena that day with conveninently … 4 spaces! It seemed Federico was still having trouble fixing the engine and had transferred us to Alice’s boat, the Odyssee II.

After 3 more days of island hopping we would set sail for Cartagena. Now when things work out well, they work out well. The Odysee was much more of an old fashioned boat, made of steel with a wooden interior it felt like a proper boat. And for dinner that night? Crab and Lobster. I mean, come on, I am one hell of a lucky sod.

The area itself is governed independently from much of the rest of Panama under the local tribe, the Kuna. The Kuna are a tribe who it is believed fled their homelands in the jungle of Colombia due to incursions by other tribes. They cleared much of the islands of natural mangroves and planted coconut palms to create the idyllic looking islands there today.

Much of their livelihood depends of this as they barter coconuts with passing ships and other Panamanians. Tourists for example are not allowed to touch fallen coconuts. Tourism provides a welcome bonus to the Kuna through a tax levied on entry and relatively high prices of souvenirs etc. From my experiences they are doing relatively well to minimise the impact of tourists on their home, however you can see the incursion of paved roads, new airstrips and US television impacting some of the younger generation.

The Kuna maintain their own law and culture, for example Kuna are not allowed to marry foreigners, minor law breaking is dealt with by their own courts and much of the society is matriarchal. During our (extended) stay in the area we were able to gain a little insight into life here.

Our 3 days on the boat were just incredible, blissful, beautiful, relaxing, the pictures say more than I can put into words. We sailed around the paradise islands of San Blas taking the chance to snorkel, sunbathe, swim and generally just relax.

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With the possible exception of when I took the tiller with a bottle of rum. Arggh me hearties.

Alice and her captain Umberto (it helps to have a Colombian national as captain for entry reasons to Colombia) decided for us to leave for Colombia at sunset, giving us extra time in the islands and helping us get through any seasickness by sleep.

Katrina was especially worried about the crossing as she has felt the onset of seasickness during a couple of boat journeys on this trip. Thankfully, the Caribbean was a great deal tamer than the day of abandoning the Sacanagem and plenty of deck space allowed for fresh air. Nobody chundered.

After our days in the island which on reflection passed by far too quickly, our only full day at sea of the 40 or so hour crossing did drag a little. It’s a bit strange seeing nothing on the horizon all day. My highlight was small pods of dolphins swimming up to the boat, sadly they departed as quickly as they arrived without the chance to take a photo. We did however get an amazing sunset.

After another night on the ocean and with dawn breaking over the southern Caribbean we were greeted with an incredible view of the city of Cartagena and my first glimpse of the South American continent. A perfect way to say hello to a new country and end what has been one the most enjoyable journeys I have ever taken.

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If you’re considering this trip yourself I highly recommend Alice and the Odyssee II. If you decide to take the Sacanagem, then despite the engine trouble it is a very nice boat and Federico is a very friendly and humourous captain. He also has an adorable little Poodle called Reina.

If you decide to take a different boat then read the reviews online. Check you are happy with the boat before you hand over your cash. If you’re fussy over food it may be best to take some of your own as well as any alcohol you may want as it is expensive in the islands.

Further, as we left Panama we heard of a new $100 tax soon to be enforced on all passengers leaving for Colombia. It remains to be see how this will impact the route. I have also heard stories of Colombian authorities looking to take a piece of the action.

The bottom line is this however, if you have the chance to take this trip. Go.

Killing time in Panama City

Having arrived in Panama City just over a week ago, we’ve had quite a bit of time in the city. It started off pretty lazily with time to relax in the luxurious Trump Hotel for Katrina’s birthday and it’s continued as we await our boat that will take us to Colombia via the San Blas Islands.

In my last blog post I mentioned all I really knew of Panama as a country was the canal prior to my visit. Well the same applies for the city, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After 3 months in Central America, plus a couple of weeks in Cuba before that it came as a shock to the system as the bus rolled over the Bridge of the Americas and the city skyline came into view. No other city so far has had buildings like this, nor have we seen anywhere as much construction work as appears to be taking place here.

As part of our stay in the Trump (which is also the tallest building in Latin America – for now), we were lucky enough to be taken to the top floor and shown around the penthouse apartment. 5* Birthday Service and the view wasn’t too bad either!

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I’ll be honest, we didn’t do a whole heap in the Trump with the exception of lazing by their infinity pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean and eating one the best meals ever in their restaurant, Tejas. If you like fish and you’re in Panama City then treat yourself. There’s more about that in Katrina’s blog here.

Following our weekend of luxury, I admit to feeling like it was back to reality with a bump as we left the Trump and found a hostel in the old town, Casco Viejo. It’s a very pretty part of Panama City that in ways resembles bits of Havana. However, at the moment it’s … well … a bit of a building site.

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Despite the workers taking breaks to play football they’re pretty hard working as the noise goes on quite late and starts rather early. That said, you have to appreciate the effort to restoring buildings that are near to collapse and in time I’m sure it will be gracing the cover of the Sunday Times Travel section and so on.

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After all, how many other cities in the world can you see a Sunday afternoon baseball game on the beach?

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Throughout this trip, we’ve been rather laid back when it comes to planning ahead. This kind of showed when it came to looking for a boat to Colombia. Following a trip to the canal I was pretty convinced we’d be able to blag our voyage on a container ship. That turns out to have been a bit optimistic, though I still have hopes of doing so one day.

The way we finally decided on is by sail boat from the reputedly gorgeous San Blas islands for a few days followed by a 2 day open sea crossing to Colombia. The sea sickness pills have been purchased. By being slow to organise this, it left us with several days still in Panama City.

So what to do? Well I’ll be frank here, my clothes smell a bit and it’s really hot and humid. So we went to the mall. Blah blah blah – you’re not seeing the local culture etc. Well there’s lots of malls in this city so there.

One of the things that I liked the most (in my geeky business graduate way) was the targeted advertising many big brands had to their stores in the city. This one for Converse stood out to me as well as another for Hermes featuring an old Red Devil bus (sadly I didn’t have my camera for that one).

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Sadly a few months travelling has made me a cheapskate so half the items I actually bought in Panama City have come from Avenue Central and feel like they’ve fallen off the back of a passing container ship. For example, a $3 bright red digital watch. If it lasts 2 weeks I’ll be stunned.

The mall wasn’t a total waste however, we were able to bask in the gloriously over air conditioned cinema to see The Dictator. If you love crude comedy by Sasha Baron Cohen then I recommend you watch – a bargain here at just $2.50 each. Further, we got to go bowling at the world’s most slippery alley – well that’s my excuse anyway for not scoring over 104.

I’ll return to the more unique aspects of the city shall I? Well following a feeling of guilt from being lazy and gluttonous it seemed a little walk was in order. This took us to Parque Metropolitano on a swelteringly humid day. The park is more of a mini jungle in the middle of the city where there are deer, monkeys, sloths, 250 types of birds and so on. We saw a weird guinea pig type creature, a woodpecker, several butterflies and a grasshoppper (what can I say – I’m not David Attenborough).

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Despite our efforts are nature watching, we were rewarded with an amazing view of the city skyline. Though it seems from the picture I was more interested in the clouds.

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As if to enhance the point about Panama City’s skyline and the nearby Canal, we also went for a walk along the Causeway. A 3km long strip of land reclaimed from the ocean with material from digging out the canal. From here you are provided with another beautiful view of the skyscrapers as well as ships entering and exiting the canal.

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To cool off from wandering around Panama, street vendors have the perfect treat – Raspados. Similar to a snow cone, these cups of shaved ice are flavoured with fruit syrup then topped with condensed milk and/or honey. I’m addicted, so it’s fortunate they’re only 50 cents.

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Our final little exploration in Panama City wasn’t quite so successful. We thought we’d try something a little different a get a taxi up to a temple atop a hill on the outskirts of the city. Panama City is home the Latin American centre for a religion known as Baha’i (I hadn’t heard of it either).

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As you’ll see it’s a rather curious looking building shaped like an egg. Sadly this is as close as we got to the temple as we were told it was closed for renovation work. We did however get to watch a video that made us feel like we were back in Religious Education classes at school – we giggled inappropriately.

And that pretty much brings us to a close with Panama City, a beautiful city (albeit much of it still being built!) that I am sure in years to come will be an even bigger tourism and business destination.

I say Panama, you say Canal!

Before coming to Panama, all I really associated with the entire country was the canal. Now after being here for a couple of weeks of which I’ve spent time on the beach, diving with sharks off an island in the same underwater mountain range as the Galapagos and staying in Latin America’s tallest building for Katrina’s birthday. I now know the country has a lot more to it!

As they say – “when in Rome, do as the Romans” – well in Panama I followed the many tourists to Miraflores Locks close to Panama City to see this amazing 98 year old feat of engineering in action. It was incredible.

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I’m a big kid when it comes to these things. I’m fascinated by big stuff whether it’s buildings – like the Trump Tower I’d earlier be escorted to the top of – or planes, trains and automobiles type things. I wish I could have been an engineer but sadly I’m not really blessed with the mathematical nor scientific skills so it’s the consultants life for me!

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The incredible view from the top of the Trump Tower. The canal has been the catalyst for such huge development.

The canal itself spams the isthmus of the American continent at its narrowest point and is vital to world shipping – without it much of the world would find Chinese manufactured goods more expensive to come by while boats would take the more dangerous and costly trip around Cape Horn or by railway across the States.

As we arrived at the Locks which host a slightly pricey museum ($8 for full entry and $5 to just watch the boats pass through the locks) a ship almost as large as the canal can take was midway through its passage. The canal is actually being expanded to accommodate larger and more lucrative ships – 80% of Panamanians (I think) were in favour, nice to see democracy at work!

The Miraflores locks are the last set of 3 locks from the Atlantic to the Pacific side of the canal. The ship must descend by about 54ft to reach the bottom. I was in awe watching the ship process through. Locomotives are attached the the ship on either side, slowly keeping the vessel in line, something I hasn’t expected but cool to watch especially when they descend like a roller-coaster to meet the level of the ship.

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The spectacle of the boat passing through wasn’t just of interest to the tourists but it seemed much of the crew of the ship turned out to wave and watch as their office squeezed through tight walls of rock.

I’m equally fascinated by the whole organisation of the process. Ships often reserve their slot through the canal over a year in advance with the passage costing an average of $54k. A Disney cruise ship recently paid over $300k to pass through. From Panama City it is possible to see the ships queuing to make the passage. If you miss your slot, you’re I’m trouble. An empty tanker vessel once paid over $200k to skip a 90 ship (3-4 day) queue when typically the trip would have been 20 times less. FYI, the lowest fee paid for the trip through the canal was $0.36 in 1928 by Richard Halliburton, he swam.

C.15,000 ships per year use the canal and this is expected to triple following expansion works making the locks 60% wider and 40% longer. Even at the cost of $5.5bn it’s not a bad investment!

If you ever find yourself in Panama – I strongly recommend you see this.

Acting like Attenborough

So I’ve made it into Costa Rica – the poster child of Central American tourism. It’s an shock to the wallet after months in places like Nicaragua and Honduras which to a northerner like me ain’t good.

However, despite a being swindled by overly bureaucratic immigration officials on the Costa Rican side of the border (more on that in a later blog post) I’ve grown to like the place.

One of the highlights was visiting Tortuguero (literally meaning place of the turtles) to see giant Green Turtles lay eggs on the beach. I actually found the experience to be a bit of an anti-climax, we saw one big turtle give birth but much of the spectacle was spoiled by too many American tourists making noise and jostling for space. I felt sorry for the turtle.

Beforehand, we headed out in a canoe with a guide to look at the local wildlife. I wasn’t expecting too much but I was sold on the idea by the guide and he didn’t disappoint. In just a couple of hours we saw 3 types of monkey, sloths, many beautiful birds, insect, turtles and caymans.

I’m not the best at wildlife photography – getting there slowly – but here are some of the better snaps. Enjoy.

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Talk about camouflage!

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Camera and cayman eyeing each other up.

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Turtles basking in some rare sunshine.

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Sea birds soaring over the jungle.

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Monkeys climbing for fruit.

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Beautiful plumage as a Python once said.

Kinda scary looking fella!

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Swallows – almost like from the movie.

Just hanging out.

If you enjoyed these you’ll find many more awesome Central America photos on my Instagram account here.

Fever Mountain

It’s been a while since I’ve written up something for this blog. Since my last post from Guatemala we’ve headed through El Salvador for surfing (it didn’t go well) and into Nicaragua where I felt low with a mystery illness.

I was recommended to head to Leon in Nicaragua by someone who’d volunteered there with a group called Quetzaltrekkers, they offer trips up volcanos with the profits donated to help street children in Nicaragua. I booked to climb Cerro Negro, Nicaragua’s youngest volcano which we would then slide down on a board before climbing El Hoyo, a mountain with a mysterious hole in it.

A couple of days before the trip we headed to the beach nearby to chill out. It was on the way I realised things were not quite right, I came down with a fever and couldn’t eat and pretty much spent all but a brief period (when I thought I was getting better) feeling sorry for myself.

By the day of the hike I felt I had to do it so loaded up on strong painkillers and went for it. Upon reaching the top on Cerro Negro it seemed so far so good. It wasn’t a particularly steep climb but carrying my ‘volcano board’ up there made it a little harder. The descent is the fun part and I was using a new prototype of board fashioned into ‘skis’ (effectively a 3 pieces of plywood coated in formica). You sit on the board and slide at speed down the side of a mountain on small volcanic pebbles of which many end up in your hair, protective clothing, ears, goggles and teeth – lovely!

Katrina’s turn to slide down Cerro Negro

As you can see in the picture of Katrina’s turn, it’s bloody good fun and gets the adrenaline pumping. Iain 1 Mystery Fever 0. There.

After a short break and some more painkillers we’re getting ready to head up El Hoyo and the fever is biting back. I’m feeling hot and shaky and considering whether this is a stupid idea. Katrina is also feeling ill now with her own mystery illness. Great.

I should mention for this hike you carry a backpack with everything you need for the next 2 days – carrying a tent, sleeping bag, mat and 8 litres of water – not to mention some food and utensils – which is a killer. Couple that with the initial part of the hike being the steepest after you’ve just climbed an adjacent volcano and you probably get the idea.

Katrina is the first to feel the strain. She looks terrible and knows it’s not going to be fun. Sensibly she decides to head back down early and get transport that’s available back to Leon. And like that it’s just me, two other tourists and 3 of the guides from Quetzaltrekkers, one of whom is on his first hike.

It’s tough. Really bloody tough. All the weight on my back, the heat of the midday sun, the fever burning me up and my throat swollen. The strain of the hill is hard but I’m keeping up with the pace and ahead of the other backpackers. Just over half way up the steep part and it’s got to me, my legs just give way when realistically I’ve gone past the point of no return. Katrina’s got more sense than me clearly.

But I keep going, just. And I admit a guide may have helped me with the bag for a few minutes. I’m still thankful – we’ll gloss over the fact it was a girl who also had her own bag OK? Eventually though I recognise the trees thinning out and we must be getting to flatter ground, which means a break and lunch. Having not eaten for several days I’m going to need some energy from somewhere even if I am managing to keep up the pace.

Incredibly, despite a painful throat and the fever reaching the most intense point I gobble up a sandwich before I even realise it’s my first real food in days. Instantly I feel a bit better and a couple more strong painkillers later with the hike flattening out and I’m charging along. All I can think to myself is “Thank god I didn’t quit”.

My mood picks up as the afternoon goes on, there’s more banter and chat with the guides and I’m enjoying myself again. The down of being ill is disappearing and I’m thinking of the view from the top at sunset.

We do reach the top. But (there always has to be a but right?) within seconds of dropping our bags the fog rolls in and nothing is to be seen. Bugger. All that effort for not a lot. Despite this, it still feels worth it to have fought my fever and won. And still, there’s always sunrise right?

Sleep comes soon, we’re all exhausted and are in our tents soon after dark.  It feels strange at the time but sunrise comes early. And it’s incredible! I’m not a morning person but I’m more than happy to be woken for this.

Now that’s a sunrise!

We scramble to the mysterious hole that tops El Hoyo before breakfast, no one really knows how old it is but it is presumed to be a sinkhole, common in these parts, but it gives the volcano its distinctive appearance.

Wild horses and the mysterious hole of El Hoyo

After breakfast it’s all downhill for most of the day to a lake where we can wash off all the sweat of the hike and dust of volcano boarding. Easy right? WRONG! It’s a steep downhill drop at first, with a pack on my back I can feel the weight pushing me down the loose rocks and my toes crushing at the end of my shoes. Who’d have thought downhill could be something to dread?

By mid morning I’m exhausted again and can tell this fever isn’t quite beat but it feels good to be keeping up the pace again. We’re at the lake early and wow it feels good to cool off. Totally refreshing. But it’s not quite the end of a tough couple of days, for we’ve got to get back to Leon and that involves one last uphill stretch to the road. It takes everything I’ve got left but I manage it, wiped out and exhausted I’ve done it!

I can’t recommend the trip enough. Despite feeling frankly terrible it’s a highlight of the trip so far. If you ever end up in Leon in Nicaragua get down to Quetzaltrekkers and hike El Hoyo.

P.S. Here’s a top travel tip. Make sure your camera is charged. Mine was dead when I tried to take a picture so the ones here were taken on a semi broken iPhone with low battery itself, which just doesn’t do the scenery justice.

It’s amazing what you learn in less than 2 weeks

I didn’t decide to go travelling for a bit of a jolly. Though I admit lounging on tropical beaches and climbing volcanoes certainly isn’t without its charms!

Travel has its charms.

Part of the reason for choosing Latin America was to learn Spanish and it’s going relatively well. Less than 2 weeks ago my Spanish was pretty much limited to “Dos cervezas por favor” following spending time in English speaking Belize and the formerly British Bay Islands in Honduras. Now however, I’m relatively confident to attempt a conversation with local Guatemalans about last night’s match vs. the USA as well as the ongoing Euro 2012 tournament while getting a pretty decent hair cut this afternoon!

I’ve not been in the learning mode for a while, probably since University or a few CIMA exams until I decided accountancy wasn’t for me. I expected it to be tough to get back into the discipline of learning but it’s been relatively easy.

I’m currently in Antigua, the former capital of Guatemala, which is a bit of a hub for those wishing to learn Spanish. For $100 a week I’m receiving one on one tuition 8am to noon from Rolando at the Antigüeña Spanish Academy and I couldn’t make a better investment. I can now pretty much converse in the present (and some basic future) tense with a small Spanish vocabulary which is growing with time. By the end of the week I should be able to use the past tense as well.

Time to hit the books.

I’ve long been embarrassed that my foreign language skills have been limited to some basic French and a few words of Mandarin.Following my crash course in Español in Guatemala I’m not only feeling confident about the rest of my trip from here to Chile but also (fingers crossed) utilising what I’ve learnt in the future.

Gracias Guatemala, yo estoy aprendiendo mucho aquí!

Hi, my name is Iain and I think I’m addicted to Instagram

I’m a bit in love with photography at the moment and I’ve gone through phases with Flickr, Snapseed and various other iPhone camera app type things. However, one I’d always avoided was Instagram. Don’t ask me why because I don’t think I have any real or good reason for it. Maybe I’d just heard bad things.

Lately however I’ve got a bit mental with it in Guatemala. And why not? It’s an especially beautiful place in both towns like Antigua, the former capital full of historic ruins and surrounded by volcanos as well as the countryside around Lake Atitlan (though not the lake itself which is really rather dirty).

So this is me admitting I have an addiction – perhaps the first step to weaning myself off of it at the same time as showing some photos of this beautiful country.

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I Forgive You Honduras

I’ve been pretty grumpy a lot of the time in Honduras. It was a long journey by boat and bus to get to La Ceiba from Belize and there were a few attempts to rip me off on the way. The places we’ve stayed in have been pretty crap so I’ve been short of sleep. I’ve been eaten alive by mosquitos to the extent I had 52 bites on one leg in one night. It’s also rained a lot here during the so called ‘dry season’.

But that I can live with. The worst part has been Katrina getting really ill and having to be sedated while an only Spanish speaking doctor shoved an endoscope down her throat. Not fun for her but it wasn’t great for me to worry about either. To top that off, I’ve had my wallet stolen and had to bribe a policeman to get some kinda of report to make an insurance claim.

That’s enough to make me fall out with a country, but Honduras has had a couple of redeeming features. Notably it’s total lack of Health and Safety meaning we’ve been zip lining and climbing around waterfalls. Epic fun!

First the zip lining. This was at Sambo Creek, near La Ceiba and involved taking a bent up pick up truck along a steep mountain track to then clip ourselves to a wire and throw ourselves back down the mountain. Incredible! There were 16 zip lines and with the help of two guides we were launched down them with a clip to hold us on and a pair of gardening gloves for brakes. On one line about 500m long they jumped up and down on the steel rope to make us bounce up and down. Katrina screamed many, many a profanity!

After this excitement the fun wasn’t over. Underneath our monkey antics were hot springs bursting boiling hot water down streams where it would meet cooler tributaries to form bath like pools. Bliss. After a soak in these was a massage and a rub down in sticky orange mud to leave us looking like a cast member of TOWIE. Katrina came away looking like Tony the Tiger. I’m not sure about me, make your own mind up.

Tony the Tiger?

Looking like a right prat!

Then there’s the other ridiculous thing we’ve done here – climbing behind a waterfall nearly has high as Niagara Falls. We’d made our way down to a microbrewery in the middle of Honduras, Kat’s find when researching the trip. Sadly due to her ongoing throat problems she can’t drink the beer, all the more for me (he says quietly). Near said brewery is a waterfall called Pulapanzak (say then when you’re pished) which was frankly, incredible.

Pulapanzak Waterfalls

With the help of a guide, you go through a barbed wire gate and start wading through pools of water beneath the falls. These gradually become deeper and the spray becomes heavier until the point when you can barely see where you’re going. With the guide you climb over a couple more boulders and dive into a cave underneath the falls with the roar of the falls above your head. I’m struggling to describe the noise and feeling of having made it to this point, so here’s a picture.

On the way back is the chance to leap off places you’ve already climbed into pools beneath. Suddenly the enthusiasm for travel that had waned from illness and bad experiences is racing back and you’re ready for the world again.

I’m sorry I held the grudge Honduras, all is forgiven. Cheers!

nihaoxiongmao:

I’m definitely seeing Megabus in a new light on this Central America trip. The buses have already made an impact on Katrina.

Originally posted on DollfaceTravel:

London Bus

Buses in Central America are not like in Britain, you don’t form an orderly queue waiting to pay the driver and then take a seat and the bus tends to leave at a scheduled time, not waiting until it is totally crammed. As anywhere buses can vary greatly, we went on air conditioned coaches which showed movies dubbed in Spanish in Mexico, however, at the other end of the scale we went on colectivos in Guatemala which practically had people sitting on other’s laps. In Belize the buses were mainly old American school buses. These could be a bit of a challenge to get on at times especially with our bags, as we found in Belmopan, the capital. This was our first experience of getting on the bus in the late afternoon as well as on a Sunday and not one I’d like to repeat. In order that others might…

View original 396 more words

Good Luck. Bad Luck.

Sometimes when you’re travelling you just get lucky that things seem to line up and come together and other times you just end up being disappointed something hasn’t met your expectations. That’s what happened to me in Belize.

There’s 2 main things that we’d planned for Belize – tubing and diving the Blue Hole.

First the tubing. We’d tried to organise booking with a company that had been recommended to us but never managed to agree a meeting point. Because of this we’d decided to pop over to Guatemala to visit Tikal first.

However on our way to the bus station in Belize city we came across a great big coach with Cave Tubing written on it. Bingo that’s that all sorted we thought. When we said to the guys there what we wanted to do they said not only would they take us but for half price and would drop us off on the way to the border – brilliant!

A lucky spot!

A little while later we found ourselves waiting further in Belize City having still not set off. It turned out we were waiting for a television producer for the trip was the be shown on TV here in Belize. Being the only foreigners on board (except a delightfully funny woman from the Bronx originally from Belize anyway) we drew quite a bit of attention. I’d love to see the end cut someday.

The tubing itself was great fun, floating through a cave system in the Belizean mountains with just the lights of head torches to see where you’re headed. I highly recommend it! Our guides were excellent and typically Belizean, laid back, friendly, witty as well as informative.

Then comes the bad luck. On our return to Belize our intention was for me to dive the Blue Hole – long regarded as the world’s best dive site. After emailing a few places I thought I’d found a company doing the trip from Placencia. This turned out to be cancelled due to a lack of numbers while two further trips have been cancelled too due to the bad weather – it seems the rainy season has set in here a few weeks earlier than expected. I can’t put into words how disappointed I am!

Anyway, despite my highly anticipated dive being cancelled I still managed a trip out to the barrier reef, second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The diving in the rain was incredible, never have I seen so many Moray Eels, Lionfish and strikingly beautiful soft coral. Nor had I ever dived in the rain before, a slightly strange experience and after the hour long and back breakingly bumpy boat journey to reach the reef along with the 5ft swell, I can fully understand why the longer trip to the Blue Hole had been cancelled. 3 hours there, 3 hours back on a small boat leaping into the air would have made for a rather tough journey.

Sting Ray

There’s a Monty Python lesson in here somewhere – Always Look on the Bright Side of Life!

An Early Morning with the Mayans

Incessant loud beeping from a mobile phone at 4.30am is just about my idea of hell, I’m not a morning person. I’m grouchy, dopey and virtually useless first thing in the morning. So I wasn’t in the best of moods when Katrina woke me by holding the noise to my ears!

Nor am I a particularly good person for travelling. I love going to places and I love different modes of transport but I have an incredibly short attention span so just over an hour on a hot minibus at this hour equally isn’t my idea of a good time. I just feel sorry for Katrina having to put up with me during this trip!

There was a good reason for being up this early however. One of the biggest attractions in Central America are the Mayans, or rather their ancient cities such as Tikal (where we were visiting), Chichen Itza and Copan of which we know comparatively little about. With this being the alleged year of impending doom according to many people predicting the apocalypse, there has been greater coverage in the media of the Mayans too.

By the time we’d arrived at the site the sun was baking down on the Guatemalan rain forest and it was only just after 6 in the morning. Getting used to the heat here is taking me some time – northern boys weren’t made warm weather!

When you arrive at Tikal, there is just a car park, a restaurant and a few stalls selling souvenirs. Apart from that, you can’t see anything else apart for the green of the forest, and before heading in we were introduced to Boris, our guide. I’m not entirely sure we’d booked a guide but Boris was pretty insistent we follow him so we did along with a handful of other tourists from Israel.

Looking back on this I sure am glad we were with him – Tikal is surrounded by dense forest which is navigable via a few pathways with relatively few signs. It’s definitely a good thing in terms of a getting what  feels like a more real experience however we were told of a tourist getting lost for 8 days in here some years ago.

As we walked Boris explained a little about the background to Tikal such as it potentially being home to over 100,000 people in its heyday 1,000 years ago or so as well as the fact all the forest which now surrounds it would not have been seen for miles around with the land used for agriculture. The best guess as to what happened at Tikal are that the people migrated further south into Guatemala due to drought or to flee stronger surrounding kingdoms.

By this time we had come to a ‘small’ pyramid in the jungle which we climbed to the top of, and already we could feel the strain. Curiously, the average Mayan person was only about 5ft 3in and the kings were maybe 5ft 9in – incredible given the steps to the top of these structures are at least 1ft in height each! Add in the fact the king would be draped in gold and jaguar skin (very bling) and I’m not sure they tried to fit into their surroundings.

A further walk through the jungle brought us to an incredibly large structure simply known as Temple IV and immediately we were eager to clamber up the rickety wooden steps to the top of it. Despite being so early in the morning the climb in the heat had both of us sweating and a little short of breath and the view took a little bit more of that away. Looking out from the temple across the expanse of jungle below all you can make out are a couple of other temples peaking over the tree canopy, the odd Macaw flying from tree to tree in the distance and a curious roar of which we did not know the source.

Tikal

I could have stayed at the top of that temple all day and just watched the day go by but there is a great deal more of Tikal to see before the sun becomes unbearably hot and at the same time taking advantage being one of the few people on the site.

Back on the ground I asked Boris what the noise was, to me it sounded like a lion or a dinosaur both of which would take you by surprise in the middle of Guatemala! He simply said it was a howler monkey and we could go find them and within a few minutes of the ever increasing roars there they were, high in the trees, defending their territory against another group of spider monkeys.

I’d heard of howler monkeys before but never realised just how appropriate their name was. They actually used the noise of these creatures to create the sound effects for dinosaurs in the movie Jurassic Park. And while we’re on the subject of movie trivia, Tikal was also the location of a small scene in Star Wars Episode IV.

Moving on through the forest from the monkeys we were coming to the main centre of Tikal where many temples are located and were left to explore on our own after some final information from Boris. Clambering over these kinds of things really does make you feel pretty good about yourself but you can only imagine how the explorers felt re-discovering these ruins amongst the rainforest.

Exploring temples can be exhausting!

A couple of hours of clambering and doing our own little exploration we’d grown tired and sat to reflect on what we had seen. I’ve been lucky enough to visit other ancient cities like Pompeii, Angkor Wat and Borobodur however I still find new ones just as impressive, although by this time I needed a huge drink of water – Lara Croft movies make these things look so much more glamourous!

BUT. The early morning was worth it.

A Quick Blast Through Mexico

Mexico was never really a big part of the travel plan, the reason for coming here was Cancun was the easiest and cheapest place for myself and my girlfriend to meet coming from Canada and Europe. We didn’t intend on doing anything here really.

This changed when I found the Cancun Underwater Museum which looked incredible to someone like me who’s addicted to scuba diving!

It wasn’t possible to dive the museum on day 1 so that fell to going to the beach. And wow what a beach, crystal clear blue sea and white powdery sand.

Sadly, the many hotels that are on the beach try to deny access to non guests and there are limited public access points.Luckily for us, once you are on the beach it can be easy to use some facilities at hotels. Thank you very much Ritz-Carlton, you make a tasty margarita and have a luxurious pool! As silly as it sounds, I’d actually be tempted to book one of their hotels one day now as I know how good they can be while the Melia that denied access I might avoid. Funny how little things like that can influence your opinion!

As for the museum, it felt a bit like a wreck dive with many different cement sculptures. The idea of the museum is that is will eventually become the home to a new coral reef on top of the artwork and help reduce to the pressure on Cancun’s other coral reefs, a very nice idea I think.

Immediately after a short descent to 10 meters we came to an inspired replica of the terracotta warriors. Some of which you can put your regulator up to and purge bubbles through the sculpture so it looks like they are exhaling underwater! The sculptures are already developing plant life on them which perhaps takes away a bit of the drama but is good for the longer term plan.

Later in the first dive we came to a sculpture of a VW Beetle (a car formerly made and still loved in Mexico) as well as a cube of bricks. Both were already becoming home to small fish.

My favourite part of the experience came in the second dive. I didn’t realise the museum was spread over such a large area so when we came to a sculpture of a man at a bar, writing something with a tankard near his hand and a dog asleep by his feet I was really taken aback. It’s nice that for someone who grew up in Lancashire and Yorkshire there is a little part of home sat at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea!

Photo from Brits at their Best

On the way to the border with Belize where this trip was really planned to begin we stopped off at the town of Tulum – known for its Mayan ruins by the sea. However it wasn’t these that we enjoyed the most (especially after a visit to Tikal in Guatemala, but more on that in a later post).

All around the coast in this area are features known as cenotes. This is where the limestone rock collapses due to the vegetation above and to form a hole down into water running below. Near Tulum is the Grand Cenote where you can swim down into the caves with tropical freshwater fish (like you may have in an aquarium at home) as well as with terrapins. It really was a refreshing and well needed experience after the cycle from town in sweltering temperatures.

Cenote

Although a bit touristy, Tulum was a fairly relaxed place with one of my favourite treats of the tropics – sugar cane! And I’m not sure you’ll see a better sugar cane juice vending stand than a converted VW Beetle! It was an especially good addition to a mojito!

Sugar Cane Beetle

P.S. If you’re reading this before you leave Mexico to enter Belize and are using the Lonely Planet guidebook for Central America. There might be a couple of things I can clarify.

1. For a bus to Belize from Chetumal you need to go from the new market, not the bus station in an old American style school bus.

2. When leaving Mexico you may be charged 200 Pesos to leave via land. If you arrived via air be persistent as this tax should be included in the cost of your air ticket and therefore not be valid. If you are reluctant to get your wallet out they should just wave you through.

A Quick Blast Through Mexico

Mexico was never really a big part of the travel plan, the reason for coming here was Cancun was the easiest and cheapest place for myself and my girlfriend to meet coming from Canada and Europe. We didn’t intend on doing anything here really.

This changed when I found the Cancun Underwater Museum which looked incredible to someone like me who’s addicted to scuba diving!

It wasn’t possible to dive the museum on day 1 so that fell to going to the beach. And wow what a beach, crystal clear blue sea and white powdery sand.

Sadly, the many hotels that are on the beach try to deny access to non guests and there are limited public access points.Luckily for us, once you are on the beach it can be easy to use some facilities at hotels. Thank you very much Ritz-Carlton, you make a tasty margarita and have a luxurious pool! As silly as it sounds, I’d actually be tempted to book one of their hotels one day now as I know how good they can be while the Melia that denied access I might avoid. Funny how little things like that can influence your opinion!

As for the museum, it felt a bit like a wreck dive with many different cement sculptures. The idea of the museum is that is will eventually become the home to a new coral reef on top of the artwork and help reduce to the pressure on Cancun’s other coral reefs, a very nice idea I think.

Immediately after a short descent to 10 meters we came to an inspired replica of the terracotta warriors. Some of which you can put your regulator up to and purge bubbles through the sculpture so it looks like they are exhaling underwater! The sculptures are already developing plant life on them which perhaps takes away a bit of the drama but is good for the longer term plan.

Later in the first dive we came to a sculpture of a VW Beetle (a car formerly made and still loved in Mexico) as well as a cube of bricks. Both were already becoming home to small fish.

My favourite part of the experience came in the second dive. I didn’t realise the museum was spread over such a large area so when we came to a sculpture of a man at a bar, writing something with a tankard near his hand and a dog asleep by his feet I was really taken aback. It’s nice that for someone who grew up in Lancashire and Yorkshire there is a little part of home sat at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea!

Photo from Brits at their Best

On the way to the border with Belize where this trip was really planned to begin we stopped off at the town of Tulum – known for its Mayan ruins by the sea. However it wasn’t these that we enjoyed the most (especially after a visit to Tikal in Guatemala, but more on that in a later post).

All around the coast in this area are features known as cenotes. This is where the limestone rock collapses due to the vegetation above and to form a hole down into water running below. Near Tulum is the Grand Cenote where you can swim down into the caves with tropical freshwater fish (like you may have in an aquarium at home) as well as with terrapins. It really was a refreshing and well needed experience after the cycle from town in sweltering temperatures.

Cenote

Although a bit touristy, Tulum was a fairly relaxed place with one of my favourite treats of the tropics – sugar cane! And I’m not sure you’ll see a better sugar cane juice vending stand than a converted VW Beetle! It was an especially good addition to a mojito!

Sugar Cane Beetle

P.S. If you’re reading this before you leave Mexico to enter Belize and are using the Lonely Planet guidebook for Central America. There might be a couple of things I can clarify.

1. For a bus to Belize from Chetumal you need to go from the new market, not the bus station in an old American style school bus.

2. When leaving Mexico you may be charged 200 Pesos to leave via land. If you arrived via air be persistent as this tax should be included in the cost of your air ticket and therefore not be valid. If you are reluctant to get your wallet out they should just wave you through.