Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Antigua, Guatamala - Who'd of thought it?

Santa Catalina Arch
Antigua is a small colonial city sitting some 1600metres above sea level. The streets are cobbled and narrow. The buildings bright and single storey. Many beautifully restored, others with peeling paint and crumbling plasterwork which equates to rustic charm. The December days that we have been here have been clear and bright – The sun burning into you in the open but leaving the shaded areas pleasant. The combination of height, season, location and ambiance seem to make our skin tingle slightly. It is really quite lovely. Surrounding the city are three volcanoes – Agua, Fuego and Acatenango and these give an interesting backdrop to the town. The night we arrived Fuego was spitting larva from its crater and the orange glow of molten rock lit the top of the mountain above the city. Something that happens pretty often.

Volcan de Agua from Cerro de la Cruzl
Nick, the American guy we met in the last place has traveled with us to Antigua and is hoping to find bar work. But, unlike him, we have only Christmas to worry about so after taking up residence in a little apartment we are renting for a week we go to the supermarket. Here, in the vegetable section, we find ourselves chatting to Casandra and Robert, a retired couple (her Guatemalan and him American) who respond to my cheeky tongue-in-cheek suggestion that they invite us to dinner by asking us over to their house that evening. All literally in under 100 words. The house is beautiful. Big colonial place, heavy double gates set in the walls that open up to a parking area and lovely inner courtyard, festooned with plants and babbling fountain. We get the tour and the story of the renovation. We laugh and joke and after a very pleasant evening wander home through the deserted streets.

Typical Calle in Antigua
Antigua is a bustling place. With lots of churches (some in ruin) and charming streets to wander around. There is a huge market that you get lost in selling everything you can imagine. Many of the locals wearing traditional dress which is just how it is rather than something to impress the tourists. The next day we were at a view point that overlooks the city and the nearest volcano – impressive. Here we talk to two guys – who are having a reunion after 30 years. One was the record holder for the longest run on a treadmill and does extreme running races. Lovely couple of guys who suggest we go have a drink then take us to lunch. Very nice but makes me wonder what sort of vibe we are giving off because we are being treated to so many meals – desperation, pheromones or just good company?

We are spending time getting to know the city and its foibles but the highlight of the next day is a further invite from Casandra and Rob who take us to Angeline. A super swanky restaurant in the city centre. We travel on a budget so this would be way outside our normal level of expenditure. However, they insist it will be their treat so we gladly accept. The matter of paying is (rightly so) put out of mind and our attention turned to the company.

We have been fortunate enough, in our lives, to have enjoyed meals in many exceptional restaurants. Some notable for their clientele, their celebrity chef or their opulence. Others, where the food was simple, the location novel or was served from a stall at the side of the road. This, however, was pretty impressive. Distressed walls in large courtyard setting of a fine colonial property. Impeccable service where we each had our own waiter who collectively placed our respective meals with choreographed timing upon the nod of the ‘Service Manager’. Introductions to the ingredients and cooking styles of our meals, which were exceptional in taste and presentation. Good wine, homemade cocktails of vermouth and champagne and a fine port to finish.

What a treat. Thank you most generous hosts. Perhaps we will trawl around vegetable sections of supermarkets more often in our future travels.

Christmas Eve. Still feeling the effects of the previous evening we start Christmas in a ‘pay it forward’ mood. Since we are having a cooked breakfast we invite a single traveler in another room to join us. Then as we walk through the streets looking at art galleries and interesting buildings, Rachel gives some small monetary offerings to the more needy looking beggars or homeless looking people we come across.

Museo del Hermano Pedro
In Guatemala the Christmas thing tends to centre on Christmas Eve and Christmas day is more for doing little. We had heard that there would be fireworks going off so after a late dinner we walk to the centre and watch some of the evening service in the large and spectacular church of El Merced that was packed to the rafters with the faithful – TV screens around the walls providing video close ups for all. We take a drink in a bar and a few more minutes watching another mass at the Cathedral then wander home to the sound of occasional bangs and hisses of distant fireworks – not worth mentioning we thought!

12.05am Rachel wakes me. We have been asleep for 30 minutes or so. Drawn to our bed through lack of any huge celebrations anywhere. And now it’s almost impossible to hear one another. The city has come to life and everyone is letting off rockets, bangers, Catherine wheels and firecrackers. We drag ourselves to the street in front where our neighbours gambol about among the various incendiaries with gay abandon. The sky around ablaze with bursts of colour. Bah! Too tired to do much more than stand there for a while before, amazingly, falling back to sleep.

Nick, Richard and Chris - Christmas day vodka's
It’s Christmas day. No presents, cards, origami trees or tinsel this year. But we we are cooking Chrismas dinner for Nick (who now has a job, apartment and scatter cushions), Richard , the guy who owns our apartment and is an ex-network producer – Frazier being one of his projects and Mike his sort of employee/companion.  Space is tight in our place so we cook most of it in our apart before Richard drives us up to his place in the mountains. We cook chicken with onions, spices, pigs in blankets, carrots, sprouts and mange tout. There are sweet potatoes cooked with honey and roast potatoes. In addition there are various starters, cheeses and chocolates. The wine and vodka runs freely, conversations are interesting it's a great way to spend the day with views over two volcanoes and the green valleys below.

Volcan Agua and Fuego smoking in background
Our final day in Antigua and we are walking up Pacaya. A volcano about an hour away on a bus. We are doing it with a group because its just easier to get there than the convoluted buses and the cost is only 6.5 pounds anyway. So the walk up is pretty steep on a dusty  slope that winds through trees and is shared by pack pony's taking the less able or inclined up to the top. The route is straightforward so the guide is not really needed but he does come in useful at the end when we needed to find our bus again. Once we cleared the trees and arrive on a flat plain and the clouds that had swathed us in white mist going up are suddenly being whipped away. Tantalising glimpses of peaks and valleys soon become clear vistas of extraordinary beauty. Guatemala has certainly got it going on. From our peak we can see Volcan de Fuego smouldering away and sending smoke up. We can see two or three other volcanoes from our view point and in the other direction Lago Amatitlan glitters blue and lovely below us.

We have bought marshmallows with us to cook over the hot air vents that have opened up in the larva fields around us. Its cool and being as we have a big bag that Nick White was in charge of everyone in our group end up have Marshmallows to eat.

On the Pacaya lava field
After a last look at the magnificent view we head down, catch our bus to Antigua have a curry for lunch and say goodbye to Nic and this lovely city. In conclusion: Antigua is a must see place and another place we would definitely come back to. It can be expensive but we had our own kitchen and if you eat away from the obvious tourist areas it is much cheaper. Well done Antigua!

 



Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Guatemala - A good start


Leaving Punta Gorda at 9.00am we caught the boat to take us down the coast and into Guatemala - 1.5 hours across the Bay of Honduras where the first part of the crossing was like those adrenalin rides you get flying down canyons. The two powerful engines roaring as we flew over the waves and crashed back into the dips and getting soaked with blue sea spray. Well, that's how it started. 30 minutes later one of the engines sputtered, whined and died. Leaving us to chug along with the waves hitting us side on yawing from side to side. Sea sickness quickly set into the 11 passengers. The kids fell foul to the movement first, A family of 5 kids in front taking turns to hurl over the edge whilst the concerned 2 parents patted their backs like circus plate spinners.. Soon after a Guatemalan woman joined in. Then one of her kids projectile vomited all over her. The smell of puke catching in our nostrils until a random wave crashed over the bow and completely drenched her (at least she was clean then huh?). It took another 45 minutes of this joy before a replacement boat managed to get to us. Then, still many miles from the coast, we all had to struggle from one lurching boat to the other, passing the sobbing children and bags over the choppy water between. 

Reaching Guatemala we then had to pass through the immigration office, conveniently placed for any smugglers, a hundred metres from the docks in the high street of the town of Puerto Barrios. We realise we have no Guatemalan money so I set off through the muddy streets all jammed with big lorries, bikes and cars that splatter everyone. None are working but I meet a seedy old sex tourist who showed me one that did. And, whilst telling me about his Belizean and Guatemalan wives (neither knows of the other) started urging me to go to the local whore house with him where I was assured I would find very young Guatemalan girls. You really do meet ‘em on the road. 

Sun Dog Cafe beside the jetty
I escape and we catch a colectivo which travelled through some stunning scenery whilst a young preacher stood between the seats reciting excerpts from the bible before doing a collection for Mr Jesus.  And then we are there. Rio Dulce. A busy little town that abuts a wide river basin and lake. Here bars and restaurants jut out above the water on stilts. Upon the further shores a mixture of locals huts and a large houses are built with hills rising in the distance. Moored around are various sailboats, and fishing boats whilst smaller craft ferry people backwards and forwards over the waters. It’s a lovely scene. Our guest house Casa Perico (reached by a launch) is down one of the estuaries. It's rustic and stands on stilts above mangrove swamp. Wooden walkways connect the various airy buildings and there are canoes we can use to paddle around the river and little inlets. It’s pleasantly cool in the shade and lovely waking up to the sound of birds – Actually we woke to the sound of some other guests farting and stomping about the first night but that soon stopped. It’s different and pretty cool and a great start to our Guatemala adventure.

Casa Perico
The following day the sun is shining and we took the chicken bus to Finca Paraiso where you find the Cascades Caliente. Here a small river flows swiftly over and around rocks to a pool beneath a 10 metre waterfall. Not so big but here’s the thing. The water that drops down on to your head is hot. Its extraordinary. Because of the heated water the rocks around the edge of the pool are hot too. A unique feeling and especially good since there were only a few people – locals, who were lovely and chatted happily to us. A highlight for me was climbing up rocks and vines at the side of the 10m falls and then launching myself off to drop into the pool. Oh it’s so fun to young and carefree!

Agua Caliente
The day ends with us standing at a little bus stop chopped into the side of the jungle with some children who want to sell us coconuts but eventually give up and just chat. Back at the dock heavy sheets of rain fall and a wind whips up the surface of the lake so on our boat ride back we huddle beneath a plastic tarpaulin and look forward to a nice hot cup of tea and somebbiscuits. Oh it’s so nice to old and set in our comfortable ways.

The route to Lanquin is arduous going – 6 hours in a minivan. Leaving Rio Dulce it follows reasonable roads for about 2.5 hours then veers off on mud roads that head up into and over the mountains. The roads become gradually more and more rutted and scattered with increasingly bigger rocks. Everything shakes, judders and swings from side to side. It is definitely one of the worse roads we have traveled on but as we climb higher the air becomes cooler, the vistas bigger and communities more isolated. Every one conforming to the dress style of the mountains. The views from the road are only snapshots but the glimpses we get are of beauty. Valleys of green interspaced with rock faces and sheer drops that start at the edge of the road and fall hundreds of metres so you grip the seat really tight (because that makes it safer right?). We arrive at 7.30pm and go to the first hotel, second, third and final hotel and are told in each there are no rooms. Desperate measures are needed – Rachel brings on the big eyes!!!! Booyah! They make some phone calls to check on whether people are coming and luckily one isn’t. We grab the key before they can change their mind and charge us even more than the overpriced rate they have already stated

Chris and Nick on one of the bridge crossings
Next morning we have arranged to be collected and are going to a hostel in the mountains called Utopia where we are going to finally break our 'shared dorm' cherry. Over 4 years of traveling and not once have we been tempted, desperate enough or inclined to go to such measures but here we are. Update comes tomorrow when I see how we sleep perched on top bunks on the second floor of an open sided building facing the mountains…. Today however, we walked up to a view point with an American guy – Nick (a 36 year old cynical barman with attitude who's actually a sweet guy - and someone we consequently spend quite a bit of time with) – It’s a perfect little hike and everything we would hope for in this lush volcanic landscape. A hike that we topped off with a dip in the fast flowing blue Cahabon river.

View from bunk in Utopia Hostel
So the dorm was OK. Everyone was pretty quiet. The general area below the dorm didn’t sound too loud, no one snored and all in all I would consider doing it again (if we have too) because its so strange not falling alseep holding one another (yeah we do that still!). The bunk beds (Rachel and I both in top bunks) are situated in the top half of huge A frame building open at either end with no screens and we are in the middle of jungle but still there were no mosquitos and waking to misty mountains sheathed in green and mist was quite wonderful. We have an early breakfast and tramp off with Nick to Semuc Champey – a series of pools formed along the length of the blue blue river. It's a one hour walk along paths and bumpy roads that rise and fall with the landscape. All the way we hear distinctive birdsong, grunts of occasional pigs and clicking and buzzing of insects in the bush. There’s a steep climb to the mirador (viewpoint) over rough hewn steps, precarious wooden platforms and tree roots. 

Semuc Champey pools
There’s a misty rain the whole time which makes the mossy surfaces as treacherous as ice and we have to hang on to branches and rock outcrops to stay upright. It's a great hike and amazing overview of the pools which we drop into to cool down. With Nick and Rachel “screaming like two little fannies” as small fish suckered their legs or touched their backs. A great day even though we got thoroughly drenched on the walk home.

Thats it for this one.... An 8.5 hour minibus journey and the city of Antigua awaits.




Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Rice 'n' beans, Belkin beer and Belize



When you leave a country with the intention of crossing borders its always warming to be given parting gifts. Sadly some are a little too bulky to carry whilst others, wrapped in tin foil, a little too illegal. But it's the thought that counts and so we carried those thoughts rather than the gifts on our bus journey across to Belize. A short journey on a packed bus which leaves Mexico, goes through the Free Zone (no tax shopping) and into Belize. The bus is packed (by the way) because Mexico is so much cheaper and the Belizeans can travel back and forth freely on cheap buses.

First stop – Corozal. Twenty minutes into the country and there is almost instantly a different feel – English speaking, different attitudes (Give me your money), architecturally more Caribbean and substantially higher prices for everything.

So. Bus stops and we pass a bar when looking for a guesthouse. 4 good old boy expats are drinking their afternoon away outside and raucously point us to a cheap hotel where we drop our bags and return 10 minutes later to join them for a few hours (hic). They invite us on a short driving tour and to join them and other expats the following day for volleyball in the sea. The next morning before meeting up we mooch around town and along the lagoon. It's a nice enough place. The waters of the lagoon butt up against grassy banks and the town is all block concrete and nothing fancy although there is a pleasant little square, lots of shops and several bars and restaurants. We are collected and spend the afternoon with a great crowd of people flailing about in shallow water whilst trying to get a ball over a net.

The river at Orange Walk
Day three we arrive after another bumpy bus journey in Orange Walk. Where we are directed by various helpful locals to a cheap and fairly shite little hotel in the main street. Small room, noisy fan and scratchy sheets. The town itself is just a small place with nothing in it worth mentioning apart from it being one of the centres for Mennonites. An Amish style community who speak an archaic form of high German, live conservative lives and because of the agreements and tax breaks have grown to collectively provide over 65% of the country’s food requirements.

Orange Walk is the starting point for visiting the Lamanai ruins. The biggest Mayan ruins in Belize, which are reached by taking a fast boat down the jungle lined, brown river for an hour where we saw some wildlife including a half tame spider monkey who hung from the trees above the boat to take food from our hands. 

The Mask Temple at Lamanai
The site was ok. But neither as big, deserted, or magical as ones in Mexico. We wanted to see the Mask Temple with giant face carvings cut out of stone on the outside. But, when we got there we discovered that they were only really painted fiberglass replicas of what they would have looked. Sort of ruined it really. Later we found two other single travelers who had been on the trip so the four of us went to quietly have rum and cokes and tacos in the square. Yum.


One moan here. Many Belizeans are friendly and helpful but many just want your money and try to get it by overcharging, spin long stories or trying it on. It saddens us because we try to treat everyone the same and are sensitive to the have and have not situations. I particularly hate having a long chat and find there is an ulterior motif on their part. I end up saying no then sitting them down and trying to explain why I say no – not sure it helps but it makes me feel better and ultimately bores them away.

Caye Caulker. This is a small island that is reached by boat from Belize City and is a pretty collection of Caribbean style buildings, beach bars and restaurants and tour companies offering diving etc. It’s laid back and has sand roads that have pretty much only golf carts on them.  There are a couple of sandy areas that serve as beaches but these are incidental rather than thought out or naturally occuring. It's a place to get in the water and do stuff and socialize in and nice for a few days. Again though, 50% more expensive for any attractions than in Mexico or what we will find in Guatemala so didn’t get into it fully. In fact we spent a good bit of time viewing the place and properties through the eyes of people looking for a home rather than a holiday place.
Caye Caulker from the jetty
It was here we got meet a real character. Darren is about 55, soft-bellied and sporting a mullet on his largely balding, potato head. He comes from Georgia and bellows his diatribes from behind his out-of-the-way-bar in that thick southern drawl. His beliefs are generally thoroughly loathsome but something in his delivery and twinkling eyes made him very entertaining. Here’s some Darrenisms:

On the subject of entering a bar and asking for a bottle of water: “Ain’t no fucker drinks water in my bar!”. (And to Rachel’s chest) “You wanna nice, big, beer darlin’”.

On the subject of immigration. He flushes red, drool splutters from his snarling mouth and between two raised middle fingers he shouts top of his voice until any other view stops being expressed “Fuck the Muslims. Fuck those fucking fuckers! Fuck them, fuck them etc.

On the subject of foreign trade he interjects with “Fucking Muslims fuck goats and sell ‘em to the next village to eat. Never trust those fuckers. Fucking Mu…….. “. And so it goes on.

Weirdly. Stayed there for three hours drinking heavily and defending just about everyone outside of his world of heavydrinking, zz top listening, narrow minded backwoodsmen world.

Dangriga – The highlight in this small seaside town that is reached by a bus ride along the beautiful Hummingbird Highway (palms, rising hills, think jungle, citrus orchards and mist) was our catching the bus out without a wait the following morning. It's a nothing place on a nothing coastline with no views or interesting buildings/things to do. There was even nothing not to do as their was no where that pleasant not to do it. We stayed in an awful room that I likened to an underground carpark toilet. In reality it had probably been two toilets areas that had been amalgamated. The room still sported white tiled walls and there was no door on the toilet which you could see from the bed…..classy

Rachel at 3.00am in our toilet themed 
room in Dangriga

Placencia: Stayed at Lydia’s -  probably the cheapest (although very nice) accommodation in the fairly pricey village. It’s colourful, quiet, low rise and has nice beaches looking out to the horizon one side and docks on mangrove lined inlets on the other. It is a great little place for a holiday with some swanky resorts just outside the village and all the usual access to sea adventures are available. But, the place all feels like its desperately seeking the dollar and everything is for sale. Hundreds of lots for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It all feels a little hollow for us even though I guess you could make money there. But living is different to having a holiday and nice as it was it was not for us.

Lydia's in Placencia
Punta Gorda is right in the South and was our last stop in Belize. My daughter Holly had done her Elective Medical stint there several years ago so was interested to see it and we found it charming. Real Belezian life in a nice seaside town. No beaches or anything particularly touristy but even so it was lovely to be there and leave Belize feeling a bit better about the place.

Playing hopscotch with a passing school kid on the Jetty. He
beat us both but cheated!
In conclusion. I don’t think we would go back. It’s overpriced for what it offers compared to its neighboring countries and there was something that just didn’t work for us. Still. Can’t win em all but at least we can write it off our list of places to want to be.

Footnote

Just remembered three things I should have added.

The other day a man was biking up the road in Palencia. We exchanged a smile and greeting but as he passed us we realised he had a fairly large snake (about 75mm wide) wrapped around his arm.

Outside the main cell phone provider shops there is a big sign banning weapons in the shop!

Going up the jetty yesterday a man coming in the opposite direction warned us not to touch a box that was just ahead of us as it was full of African bees. Shortly after he got in the little boat and putted away into the blue swatting away escaping bees as he went.

Here in Belize some of the billboards are written in Creole. "Mek mi reech" on a lottery ad.