Monday, 30 January 2017

What was that? Oh, that was El Salvador that was.

El Salvadore is small. It takes three hours to cross the entire country on the central highway but, weirdly, it takes 2 hours to get 10km once you are off that road. We travelled by shuttle from Guatemala which made the whole thing pretty easy. Pulling up at Border control on the Guatemalan side we were beset by hoards of men waving inches-thick bundles of Dollars and Quetzals (literally thousands of dollars) in our faces and shouting “Dollar! Dollar! Dollar!” Meet the pedestrianized bureau de change locals. No offices, no safety bars, no calculators just quick wits and the ability to have the right amount of currency ready before you even open your wallet.

On the El Salvador side  we were met by friendly officials who conducted most of the business with us sitting in the shuttle. Although we did have to get out to have our temperatures taken with a high tech laser thingy whilst all standing on the side of the road in the blazing sun. No explanation – just smiles.

The final part of the journey was an exercise in sphincter control as we seemingly careered along the high dodging oncoming overtaking juggernauts, suicidal donkeys and wandering pedestrians selling  stuff from the central white lines.

We are staying in El Tunco for a day or two before heading on to Nicaragua (love saying that word). It’s a seaside town that has lots of surfers wandering about looking all Adonis like – pecks, pumped biceps and 6 packs – Poor Rachel had to endure all of that youthful firmness with only me to discuss it with.

There’s not a lot to say about El Tunco really. The waves were too big and the angle of the beach to steep to allow me to try surfing without being smashed into unforgiving sand so declined to try. The beach itself is black volcanic sand and effectively heats up to skin blistering temperatures so wandering along the coast needs sensible footwear or fast feet.  There was no shade on the beach so laying in the full dazzle of the sun was not great. I also had the pleasure of finding a poisonous sea snake on the beach who looked confused and overheated so, using my flip flops like oven gloves, I picked him up and threw him back in the water. Whereupon a wave then threw him straight back towards me. Taking Rachel’s insistent screaming advice I quickly ran for the shore just in time to see a particularly keen wave wash up the beach and over my kindle. Not an easy device to replace in Central Amercia. Even so it was a pleasant enough place to spend two days and we were able to try the local dish of Pupusa – a sort of fat tortilla stuffed with pork, cheese and beans. This however was not enough to detain two aging adventurers such as us. And so after two days in the country, and still in possession of our wallets and lives, we skedaddled off. This time on a 10 hour bus ride through El Salvador, right across Honduras (stopping only to piss and eat service station food) and into the lovely Land of Nicaragua.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Dirty nipples and noisy neighbours of Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan is blue- really blue like someone has been splashing quantities of toilet cleaner in it. Actually they probably have since I hear it’s suffering from pollution. It’s also suffering from lack of drainage and consequently the deepest lake in Central America is getting deeper. Something of a problem for those foreigner owned lakeside villas which are now partially submerged and worthless. Not, however, for the rich-through-waterside-house-sale Mayans who are giggling from their new condos high on the hillsides

The lake sits placidly amongst mountain ridges and volcanoes and has various villages dotted upon its banks. All of which have a different personality and feel to them. Notably: Panajachel is the business village with a big town feel in a little town setting. San Juan is quiet. A few foreigners wander about but its essentially the Guatemalans Village. San Pedro is the party village (although parties have to finish at 11.00pm to stop the locals clubbing the clubbers to death after late night and noisy revelry). Lots of bars, food stalls, hotels and tourists who say awesome a lot and whoop a little too loudly. And, San Marcos which is the hippy hangout and is full of grubby looking people who wear tie dye, baggy Indian style clothes , carry cloth bags and are ever so slightly stinky.  That said - each village offers the visitor lovely views of the rippling water and misty backdrops dotted with a diminishing line of volcanoes.

We chose San Pedro as our base but stayed off the main strip in an incredibly cheap charity run place called Rising Minds that cost 30 quid for the week (80 for a month) and, considering it was so cheap was pretty good with good sized private room, shared kitchen and big roof terrace. The only down side being a deaf Italian neighbour who played music really loud between 9.00am and 8.00pm that matched his moods and ran from industrial metal on Mondays to Kylie Minogue on Thursdays.

We were there for a week and had thought we might do more Spanish but couldn’t get motivated so mooched about and also followed up on some business opportunities – one being some land that was for sale but after trekking through jungle for 20 minutes with an elderly Quebecian to the site we decided it was not really a goer. The second op. was a 9 bed guest house we were considering renting for a year. Great place but no financial paperwork and it was set amongst the cheapskate hippies of San Marcos (I’m too old for all that bollocks).

We attempted the lengthy walk up the Nariz de Indio, a big rock formation on the crest of the surrounding hills that resembles (if using a forged artistic license) an Indian’s head looking towards the sky. …The power of suggestion is a wonderful thing.  I say attempted because a bush fire stopped us a little short of the final ascent and we had no desire to be roasted alive. A few days later we climbed Volcan San Pedro – a 2.5 hour hike to a collection of rocks on the top where we basked in the sun and ate sandwiches whilst looking down through clouds to the lake below.

Finally we met up with our newly acquired friends Randy and Liz a few times for food in restaurants, saunters around villages and a nice meal at their place high above San Pedro – marred only by noisy buses from the road below and a distant beat of music from a hostel a good mile away. There’s always something! Still we had enjoyable times putting the world to rights and being mildly cynical but i thing we will finally shake them as we are off to El Salvadore tomorrow. Goodbye everyone from Guatemala – You have been entertaining and lovely.

Thursday, 19 January 2017


Quetzaltenango (possibly one of the most pleasingly named towns in Guatemala) is usually referred to as Xela (shaylah), which makes everything pretty confusing for the traveller and is possibly why it’s often overlooked. It’s Guatemala’s 2nd biggest city and only has a small amount of westerners here and these are generally seen in the streets around the central park area where the language schools and hotels are found. The town has carved out something of a niche for itself in the language department and one can find 20 hours of one to one lessons coupled with a homestay that provides three meals a day for about $160 a week.  Something we signed up for and I will cover later.

We arrived here on 28th Dec. Evidence of the Christmas Season were still glittering and sparkling everywhere. The main thing about Christmas in Guatemala, however, are the fireworks. All day and most of the night there are fire crackers or rockets going up somewhere. Just when you relax your guard BANG! One goes off near you and you soil another pair of pants. It's a spread out town and as soon as we move away from the downtown we are the only white faces in a sea of generally friendly, smiling and amicable people – love it!

We lose ourselves in a monumentally huge market, we check out Catholicism at its best in the many churches, we take in a mall that is closed because of the holidays (no frenzied bargain buying here to ruin the break), clamber up ‘Cerro el Baul’, a big hill in the middle of the town from where you get a good 360 degree view and can watch children trying to slide down a very long slide on the hillside made of rough concrete – It’s the thought that counts.

View over Xela
One of the highlights (apart the cakes from Xelapan that greedy Rachel wanted me to mention) was a spectacular cemetery. This enormous home for the dead was packed with multi-coloured and shaped tombs, lovely statues and strange filing cabinet arrangements for the less aesthetically aware corpses. As with most cemeteries this was a place of quiet, a place to contemplate and, uniquely, a place to purchase peanuts, drinks and candy floss at a reasonable price from various graveside vendors.

Xela Cemetery - worth a visit
We spend New Years Eve having a meal in town and then walk through the backstreets up to a restaurant called Panorama that sits way up on a hillside and has a spectacular view over the city. We buy a couple of litre jugs of hot mulled wine, wrap ourselves in provided woollen blankets and watch the astonishing array of pyrotechnics sent up by every family in the city.

We have made friends with an American couple in another of the apartments in our block (although theirs is palatial compared to ours). Interesting people called Randy and Liz who live in a fantastic sounding ecologically and morally focused community in North Carolina and are travelling for a few months in Guatemala. We hook up a few times and will continue to do so as we bump into them in other places.

There were a couple of earthquakes whilst we were in Xela. Both noticeable but one fairly wobbled our block and was made even more exciting when an hour after the quake, as we laid in bed reading, two rows of large floor tiles sprung from their fixings with resounding cracks to form a ridge along the centre of our room. We were just a little concerned.

Week two was spent trekking in the highlands as per the account already given previously but week three was working our brains for a change. We signed up for the language school and for 4 hours a day sat in conversation with our respective teachers. We then wandered in a second language daze back to our lodgings where we put in a couple more hours of homework and had to converse with our host in Spanish. A real immersion process that has galvanized us to get back to our studies and given us the confidence to try to speak Spanish more.

Language school students - Hiroto, Martina and Rachel
It's a full time job – all this learning so apart from a couple of meals with Randy and Liz we do little else. It's a great way to learn and once we have rested the brains for a little while I think we may do it again.

Next stop lake Atitlan.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Guatemala at it's best

Walking from Nebaj to Todos Santos in the Western Highlands of Guatemala has quite possibly been our best trek yet. This extraordinary tramp takes in volcanoes, pine forests, dusty roads, quaint rural villages, alto planos (high plains), towering rock faces, breath taking views, amazing sun rises, picturesque meadows and exceedingly mundane food.

We decided to use a proper trekking company for our latest foray and settled upon Quetzaltrekkers in Quetzaltenango. This unique outfit donates all of its profits to the support of a school and currently provides 81% of the running cost. Both guides and operating staff are all volunteers and run the place through collective agreement working within established guidelines. All are essentially equal and committed to the cause. Consequently there is a real sense of fellowship which permeates through to the treks themselves. As Rachel put it to me, “It feels like trekking with your mates rather than with guides”.

The overall event was 5.5 days of which 4 days were actually trekking the 65km up and down mountains. The last being El Torre – a whopping 3816m (12,419ft) high peak that is the highest non volcanic point in Central America.

So after a several hour long bus ride to our start point we are able to rest for the evening at Popi’s in Nebaj. A small hostel come hotel that served food in somewhat random format with some people receiving deserts first, part meals, no meals at all or two meals.. All quite jolly and accompanied by a kids choir singing in various languages then followed by a years-old version of Trivial Pursuits, which, possibly because it was years old, I won.

The following day we are up at 7.00 and on the trail by 8.00. Each carrying their own supplies, water, clothes, sleeping bags and goodies, with an average weight of about 13 kilos. It’s an easy start this first day. The sun is out, the sky is blue and we follow easy paths over moderate terrain. The sounds of traffic, shop music and bustling city life falling behind us . Soon all that can be heard are birds, breeze and the chatter of fellow walkers. The area we are in is all relatively high so although the sun is strong the cooler air moderates the heat a little and moving is very pleasant.  Eventually we come to the village of Acul, where we are told of the atrocities that befell the place during the civil war that only ended in the 90’s. As with all wars people here were subjected to torture and imaginative deaths. Some people were steadfast, others ran, some betrayed or bullied, more just suffered but essentially all for nothing. Little changed here apart from the loss of many lives.

Lunch this day and most others is a combination of chopped carrots, peppers, onions, Doritos, a roll and refried beans. Simple, tasty and filling. Later this is supplemented by a hunk of cheese from a cheese farm called Mil Amores. Where we spend a little time resting and watching country life amble on, donkeys carrying pitchfork piled hay, cows chewing the cud, dogs wandering about and various farm hands performing their tasks. We continue walking after lunch with pine trees providing a little shade until we reach the rest stop for the night. A school hall which has no heating, lighting, only one toilet and a stand pipe for washing. The majority of our group elect to try a Temascal. A sort of Guatemalan sauna cum shower where you sit in a dark, sooty lean to made for dwarves and sweat a bit before washing and drying yourself whilst squatting over a dirt floor. We didn’t see the attraction and took their proclamations of how lovely it all was with a pinch of salt.  Instead we secured some wood so that either side of dinner we could all gather around a fire and stare into the flames. A pleasant thing to do especially since no one whipped out a guitar and led the group into a chorus of Kumbayah. It's a cold night with never ending stars lighting the heavens over our hall in which we are all snuggled down on a nice comfy, cold concrete floor or creaking pallet. Praise the lord for the def metal german rock anthem that woke us at 3.30 am for our traipse up to see the sunrise on the nearby peak.

I’m not a great fan of sunrise hikes. You don’t sleep well the night before, you have to exert yourself far more than you feel capable of, you’re half asleep and 50% of the time there are clouds, mist, rain or a combination of them all. It was, therefore, a wonderful surprise when after hiking up an exhausting steep slope of dirt and broken rock for about 100 switchbacks that we eventually reached a viewpoint. At the time all was black with just a hint of light cresting the hill. However, soon after a eating a campfire breakfast of hot chocolate and porridge oats, turned into one of the  most magnificent and humbling vistas we have seen. The chilled skies slowly lightened. Stars dissolved and were replaced by faint yellows, bursts of orange and pink wisps of cloud on an increasingly blue backdrop. The shadows in the valleys disappeared to reveal a blanket of clouds beneath. Pierced here and there with mountain summits or tops of volcanoes. Then suddenly the sun tops a distant ridge and brilliance reigns down on us. We bask in the heat and light. I catch one of our group on camera looking with reverence (I later discover his religious beliefs but just seeing his face you could see him greeting his god.). All pretty moving!

We continue climbing and finally reach the Alto Plano. A vast area of scorched grass scattered with jagged rocks . We take pictures, jump on rocks and drink in the early morning air still sharp in the nose but tinged with warmth. Walking along through pine forests you can hear the wind blowing through the branches. You can smell the wood as it heats and feel heat radiating off the rocks. It is a sublime place. Rich greens, and white stone, blue skies and occasional huts with rusting warped corrugated, brown and silver tin roofs. We rest on what appears to be an island rising out of the plain and sleep in the sun after lunch. The sun warming us and the air cooling our feet and hands – wonderful.

That night we sleep in another hall. We get served some more food – probably tamales or tortillas and something – I dunno its generally brown or white and not much fun to eat. In fact more fun is derived watching the young testosterone driven ones trying to eat them without a drink. We huddle in the room. Some of us in beds, others on the floor (we are lucky enough to have a bed) and cold as it is it’s kinda nice to all settle down with one another’s snores and shuffling in the background.

Rise and shine, the day is fine, the sun will scorch your balls off! We’re up and at ‘em nice and early and clamber down a few hundred metres to a river where we cook our breakfast, drink our coffee and generally shiver a lot in preparation for a long hike up the opposite side of the valley. This is quite a clamber up and our legs are screaming by the time we crest the ridge.

This is all so lovely. Our hearts are lifted as in every direction there is something to catch the eye. We tramp through juniper bushes, over grasses, along dirt tracks, up hills, down hills, over rocks and under trees . Every second. Even the ones spent hauling ourselves up slopes swearing about the stupidity of our actions is cherished. This has and continues to be an exceptional walk that we will always cherish.

The company for these days have been an excellent group of people. We had decided to feign stomach aches and cry off the trek had they all been exuberant young Americans  who were likely to be whooping and screaming “Awesome”. However when we met for the pre trek talk they all looked pretty good. Ages range from 26 to me. There are Americans, Germans, Israelis, Spanish, Dutch and us Brits. Conversations are honest, interesting, funny, lewd and entertaining. There are no distinct groups and people settle into chats with whoever is next to them along the way. We even had some newlyweds with us… Hell of a way to spend your honeymoon! Our lead guide turns out to be only 18. So grown up, confident, good looking to boot. Rachel freaked him a bit by referring to him as eye candy – I think he was worried she would cougar him. If any of you fellow trekkers are reading this, thank you so much for your company. We enjoyed you all and hope to keep in touch with many of you – obviously not you Rebekah!

The last day of trekking is stupendous . We trek to and up El Torre and can see for miles over the clouds. It's a long hike and tiring but worth the effort. From there we start to head down through the pine forest. Stunning! The smells of damp wood, flowing shrubs and my feet are a joy. We walk past 100metre rock faces that rise out and above the redwood canopy. The trails lead up and down and over and around bushes, rock outcrops and fallen tress. The sense of being in Jurassic park continues and nature in its most sublime form is everywhere.

Eventually after dropping down over a 1000 metres we meet our first proper road in 5 days and leave the conservation area. We bus into the town of Todos Santos which is bustling and filled with people dressed in magnificent local costumes. It’s just the way it is and has been for many years. Both men and women wearing the traditional woven cloth of red, yellow and black. Men in canvas shirts and straw boaters, women with shawls and flowery skirts. Its wonderful that their culture has remained so strong. We spend a night in a small hotel and for the first time in five nights I get to cuddle up to my lovely wife under clean, laundered and warm sheets in a private room. Heaven is found not only in trees and mountains….

We rise at 5am the next morning to catch the first bus back to Xela. Tired, satisfied and satiated with all we have seen, smelt, heard and touched. A great trek and one we would highly recommend.