Part IX: Guatemala – Top, middle or bottom?

From the Peten district in Northern Guatemala, we headed south to Lanquin. This was our first taste of Guatemalan shuttles…the minivans that service the routes so bumpy that a normal bus would baulk at the mere idea of it. It is eight hours south, and not entirely paved…charged iPods and open minds at the ready.

Around half way, we are stopped by a local blockade created by teachers protesting for fairer pay and benefits. Not knowing how long we’ll be waylaid for, we are forced into a roadside cafe while one of the locals tries to argue our case saying that we should be allowed through since we pay additional tourist taxes. The emphatic response is “Si intenta pasar, nos prendió fuego.” Basically, they threaten to set themselves on fire if anyone dares pass…not on my watch thanks.

A little over an hour later, the police arrive and the blockade is removed both peacefully and quickly. Not wishing to get stuck again, the driver of our shuttle sets off before we have even got back on. We all leap into the moving vehicle like poorly qualified stunt doubles.

We arrive at Lanquin and check into Zephyr Lodge, a hostel uniquely set right on the hillside nearby the Cahabon river. The setting is stunning, here is the view from my room.

20130416-114736.jpg

Very welcome rains come along as we arrive, breaking the intense tropical heat of the previous days. The hostel is somewhat unprepared though, and as I meet a few other weary travellers, their tales are of soaked mattresses and dormitory leaks. Thankfully, no such travesty has befallen me.

Unfortunately, during the journey, it has become clear that a rather nasty head cold is hellbent on consuming me, so after a tactical chicken curry, I am fit for nothing but flopping into my thankfully dry bed.

Hibernation is the name of the game the next day as I desperately try to shake off the infection with extreme sleeping and movie watching.

Most backpackers who frequent Lanquin are magnetically drawn by the pull of Semuc Champey. Widely lauded as the most beautiful place in Guatemala, Semuc is a natural monument of a 300m limestone bridge under which the river gurgles and gushes. Sitting atop is a series of natural stepped pools joined by rocks smoothed by the flux created by centuries of current.

So, as soon as I have gathered enough strength, I head out there with a group from the hostel including the very lovely South African David and Sonia, English rose Suzanne, Dutch Chris and Clarissa and a handful of incredibly hungover Australians. We are loaded into this cattle cart for the punishing one hour drive.

20130416-120253.jpg

There is something brilliant though about being so close to the hills are you bounce down the road, knowing that health and safety would restrict you from ever being in this situation in your homeland.

20130416-120501.jpg

First, we visit the nearby Kam’ba caves where, armed only with a lit candle, we swim through the myriad of underground tunnels and paths against the current. This will serve to be an absolute Guatemalan highlight for me. We climb up slick rocks through torrential waterfalls, crawl through minute spaces to drop into the pitch black abyss below and reverse down rickety ladders avoiding the attack of sharp stalactites all the while dodging bat shit from the caves’ eaves.

With every step, there is the threat of a trip-altering slip, the limited lighting only adding to the adrenaline levels. It is absolutely brilliant fun though, a really unique experience. No photos I’m afraid due to significant lack of waterproof pouch for the Lumix (take note Santa…)

Afterwards, we wander along the water’s edge to a huge rope swing which delivers it’s powerless contents from a great height into the River Cahabon below.

20130416-121915.jpg

Some are braver than others, and as bravado builds we a treated to a visual display of human peacocking as each tattooed traveller tries to outdo the last with backflips and somersaults. Brave Suzanne is one of the only lasses who steps up to the mark, but due to missed footing from launch, we helplessly watch as she careers at top speed into the metal posts and is catapulted face first into the rocky shore below. It is a miracle that this fall doesn’t kill her. Her cuts and bruises are all treatable with the rudimentary first aid kit that the tour guide is carrying…luckily for him

There is more thrill seeking, although obviously not by Suzanne, as we walk towards Semuc. There is a bridge over the river with a 15m drop which is good for diving. Notably, far fewer take up this opportunity…

20130416-122644.jpg

20130416-122652.jpg

We trek up the steep path in the relentless afternoon heat to the mirador looking out over Semuc. The reward is worth the 90 minute hardship.

20130416-122942.jpg

20130416-122949.jpg

We are more than ready to cool down with a dip, so it is down down down to the pools.

20130416-123124.jpg

20130416-123140.jpg

20130416-123155.jpg

Once in the pools, over friendly fish nibble at our feet. The guide then takes us exploring the pools, each is connected by rocks either so smooth you can slide down them, or so sculpted you can dive from them. Some of the slides are of significant height and accompanied by a powerful rush of a waterfall’s deposit. Whilst the latter lubricates the way for you, for want of a much better word, it also reduces your control as you descend. It’s not long before another member of the group plunges into me forcing a quickened pace across the sharp rocks and a number of deeper-than-you’d-like war wounds. Here is the scariest one…

20130416-124050.jpg

20130416-124107.jpg

Afterwards, we all pile breathlessly into the cattle carts, and head back to the hostel to celebrate survival with a few beers. David and Sonia have exquisite taste in music, so we end up debating the virtues of albums until well after the witching hour with new pals Alice and brother Andrew. I gratefully use my cold as an excuse to avoid the beer bongs the Australians bring back into play.

The next day, it is back into shuttle mode as it is time to head for Lago de Atitlan in the south west of the country. I connect at Antigua, the former capital, and make for Panajachel on the eastern side of the lake so I can meet up with Kim (off of both Peru and Panama chapters) as she is currently traversing the glorious triumvirate of Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize with G Adventures. I intercept at Panajachel to catch up on her news over shrimp fajitas and copious Gallo beers.

After her departure (don’t worry – she will show her face again in Vegas) I head into town and settle into the Pana Rock Cafe to watch the final Manchester derby of the season. The league has all but been clinched by Manchester United, so in this game we are going for glory only.

The bar is a little too red for my tastes…

20130416-125158.jpg

…but the scoreline of 2-1 is blue through and through! Another corker from Aguero too.

Lake Atitlan is a volcanic endorheic lake, surrounded by three volcanoes and flanked with an array of villages to visit. Following recommendations, I have decided to stay in San Marcos on the northern shore, so I wander down to the port on a street fringed with colourful market stalls aimed squarely at the high percentage of passing tourists and hop into a roofed skiff to head out on the lake’s choppy waters.

20130416-125907.jpg

Forty five minutes later, I arrive at San Marcos and check into Aaculaax where I am greeted with the loveliest Latin American abode to date. It’s more apartment than room, with a stunning view out over the lake. I even have my own kitchen.

20130416-130304.jpg

20130416-130326.jpg

20130416-130340.jpg

Atitlan translates in the local dialect as ‘on the water’ and it is incredibly tranquil. San Marcos particularly, has come to be a place of great spiritual significance to many, Mayans and travellers alike, so the village is awash with yoga classes, meditation groups and emotional therapies. This will be a great place to take some time to recuperate from my cold, and get centred before I take my leave from Latin America and dive back into the commercial cut and thrust of the US. So I sign up for daily morning yoga, evening meditation and a few shiatsu massages in between. With a kitchen, I can also cook for myself for the first time this year (cooking classes aside), so I nip to the local mercado to stock up the larder. You can’t beat a trip to the local supermarket for entertainment value.

It is a beautifully calm few days, and with such serene surroundings I am soon back to full health.

20130416-131242.jpg

20130416-131308.jpg

20130416-131255.jpg

20130416-131329.jpg

A local shaman gave me the items on the left, and a local pharmacist gave me the items on the left. I will leave you to decide which you think got me back to rude health…

20130416-131531.jpg

The nearby market at Chichicastenango sounds like it could be a bountiful day trip, and I’m unwilling to leave Central America without a hammock, so I head due north west for market day. The market has been the most important trading centre for the Mayan world since Pre-Hispanic times.

20130416-132003.jpg

Three chicken buses and 10 quetzales later (about 80p) I arrive in the town known locally as ChiChi. The Spanish amongst you will know just how humorous this translates locally…

Stalls for the locals bear stunningly colourful fruit, homeware and clothing. For the tourists, tropically bright textiles, hand stitched tapestries, glistening jade jewellery and whittled wooden trinkets. Tamales grills smoke invitingly at every turn. I always find markets very intoxicating on the senses. However, past this, the idea of the wares are usually more inviting than the reality. It is not as fruitful a trip as I imagine, but I do manage to find a few toys and musical instruments for my nieces and nephew.

The 400 year-old Santo Tomas church is one of the two which watch over the bustling market streets. Locals perform Mayan rituals at its door, and burn incense and chickens as offering for their gods on one of its 18 steps, one for each of the months in the Mayan calendar.

20130416-132911.jpg

20130416-132924.jpg

20130416-132938.jpg

The market is a vibrant way to spend the day, but make sure you have brought enough Spanish to haggle (those of you who work with me will know how much I enjoyed that part) and arm yourself with a thick skin to deflect the constant barrage of hard selling.

20130416-133324.jpg

20130416-133343.jpg

20130416-133401.jpgcent

20130416-133354.jpg

Then it is back on the chicken bus via Encuentros, Solola and Panajachel, bouncing to the rhythm of the driver’s merengue and the road’s potholes. The driver, as with every Guatemalan, wears his religion on his rear view mirror.

20130416-133702.jpg

But the stall of the day award has to go to this guy…

20130416-133748.jpg

…yes, he is actually selling rocks.

My spiritual time at the lake comes to an end when I shuttle onwards to Antigua, Guatemala’s former capital and jewel in their colonial crown. Here I am meeting fellow intrepid traveller Tree. We went to university together and back in 2009 I joined her for the Argentinian leg of her sabbatical, so it is payback time. She has recently moved to Miami, so it is only a hop skip and a jump over to Guatemala City.

We spend the first day getting to know the beautiful little town. There is music everywhere here. A brass band welcomes us into the town’s Parque Central which is lush and verdant despite the heat.

20130416-172913.jpg

20130416-172903.jpg

Locals dance together in the park as the majestic cathedral looks on.

20130416-173048.jpg

20130416-173101.jpg

Tuc tuc drivers and fruit vendors line the cobbled streets.

20130416-173306.jpg

20130416-173330.jpg
And the streets follow the Central American format I have come to love, with all of the buildings painted different colours.

20130416-173547.jpg

20130416-173555.jpg

We’re staying at The Terrace which, to quote my brother Paul, will be great…when it’s finished. Between the painting and the drilling, we check into our room and head upstairs to survey their roof terrace.

20130416-173811.jpg

It is a cracking bar with a view out toward the active volcano Fuego. I reckon this terrace sees a lot of action after dark with the happy hour backpacker crowd…

We even have our own personal hammock outside our room. This’ll do nicely.

20130416-174024.jpg

20130416-174037.jpg

Once settled, we head out to the Choco Museum and sign up for a chocolate making class from bean to bar. Antigueno Alex takes us through Guatemala’s place in the global chocolate making market, then shows us how it was made when first discovered and enjoyed in Mayan times.

20130416-174350.jpg

20130416-174550.jpg

We roast, peel, grind and mix to our heart’s content.

20130416-174655.jpg

20130416-174939.jpg

First, we make tea with the husks…

20130416-175137.jpg

…then we make traditional Mayan hot chocolate with water, cardamom and chile which used to be drunk before Sir Hans Sloane had the dandy idea to use milk instead of water.

20130416-175337.jpg

Then it is down to business…time to create our own.

20130416-175531.jpg

20130416-175540.jpg

20130416-175708.jpg

20130416-175718.jpg

It is a ridiculous amount of fun, and we giggle all the way home on our chocolate high. When we finally get our appetites back, we head out to dinner with our neighbours, the delectable Elaine and Dan who I met back in Flores.

20130416-180012.jpg

Glad rags on, they take us to a hidden gem of a restaurant called ¿Por Qué No?

20130416-180135.jpg

20130416-180145.jpg

With only three tables in the upstairs eatery, we’re grateful Elaine and Dan had the foresight to book as we climb up the steep stairs clinging onto the rope for dear life.

20130416-180407.jpg

20130416-180419.jpg

Once there, we are given a marker pen to make a contribution to the grafitti. We are surrounded by inspiring travel mantras scribbled on the table, walls and even lampshade. I settle for the opening lines of Max Ehrmann’s ‘Desiderata’ and a shameless plug for this here blog.

A stunning steak with red wine jus and a stealthy Malbec later, we head to La Palma to watch the locals (and Tree) cut some serious Salsa rug.

20130416-180757.jpg

20130416-180817.jpg

The next day, we are up stupidly early and in the pub by 9am. Today, City take on Chelsea in the FA Cup semi final and this is a fixture I could not miss. It is a nail biter of a game with solid performances on both sides, marred only by an unnecessary Aguero challenge on David Luiz. Nevertheless, City are victors at 2-1 and it is off to Wembley for us for the final on 11th May.

20130416-181131.jpg

We celebrate by roasting chestnuts on an open fire…no wait, hang on, that should be toasting marshmallows on an open active volcano…

We head out to see Pacaya, the most accessible of Antigua’s active volcanoes with only an hour drive and a 90 minute uphill trek. The guide shows us the flora and fauna along the way, and shows us how the Mayans use them…apparently.

20130416-181400.jpg

When we reach the summit, we can feel the heat coursing from the rock below.

20130416-181550.jpg

20130416-181607.jpg

20130416-181629.jpg

When we, and the local dogs, have had our fill of marshmallows…

20130416-181801.jpg

20130416-181842.jpg

…there are even boiling volcanic rock caves for us to climb into, testing our claustrophobia levels once and for all.

20130416-182130.jpg

It’s good to get out of town and get some fresh air in our lungs, but next time I have set my sights on Fuego, the perennially fiery big brother of Pacaya.

The rest of our time is spent shopping in the markets and eating Guatemalan delicacies.

20130416-182519.jpg

20130416-182540.jpg

I finally find that hammock I have been looking for, and a bag, and a jade necklace, and…oh dear. Tree kindly carts my wares back to Miami, which will be my last stop on the world tour. And so I have one last night to enjoy Central America! But just how to do it?

My friend Angie’s brother in law Justin lives nearby Antigua, and I meet him and a couple of his pals for a milkshake in the afternoon. Julia, a fellow Scot from Pitlochry, and Helen, her pal from Uni, are great fun so we head out for dinner together to super flash Bistro Cinq.

Julia runs an amazing community project in El Paredon called La Choza Chula which reaches out to local children. It is basically a creative workshop, social enterprise and shop that encourages the kids to get creative. The work they are doing is stunning, they are definitely worth a follow on Choza Chula

Speaking of getting creative, this restaurant also supplies pencils and encourages you to create a limited edition artwork on your tablecloth with the best ones framed and mounted on the restaurants walls. Julia wastes no time on her entry…

20130416-183647.jpg

20130416-183655.jpg

And so, the sun finally sets on my time in Latin America.

20130416-183753.jpg

After three wondrous months, it feels exceptionally sad to be leaving it behind. I know that untold adventures, ventures and misadventures await me, both home and away. But I still weep all the way to the airport…

And the soundtrack was:
Foals ‘Holy Fire’
Yeah Yeah Yeahs ‘Mosquito’
Yeasayer ‘Fragrant World’
The Lumineers ‘The Lumineers’
Vampire Weekend ‘Diane Young’
Charlie XCX ‘Stay Away’
Jurassic 5 ‘Quality Control’
We Are Scientists ‘With Love And Squalor’
Phoenix ‘Entertainment’

Advertisements

Part IX: Guatemala – From Caribbean coast to the north

So, onward to Guatemala then. Fortunately I don’t have to rip myself from the Caribbean just yet as the first stop, Livingston (nicknamed Buga), is right on the coastline at the mouth of the Rio Dulce. It’s also Easter (Semana Santa in Spanish) which is kind of a bid deal in these parts and means two things…1) accommodation is booked out and 2) a whole lotta Jebus lovin’.

Due to the former, and the fact that I have neglected to forward plan due to rum consumption in Belize, the hostels are booked out. So I find myself in a charming little bungalow in Vecchia Toscana right on the beach. It’s a swell place to spend Easter…

20130413-161926.jpg

20130413-162103.jpg

Livingston is, like much of Guatemala, set against the backdrop of stunning mountains and has a vibrant market too.

20130413-162214.jpg

20130413-162250.jpg

20130413-162526.jpg

20130413-162516.jpg

As far as outings go, the must-see go-sees are Siete Altares (Seven Altars) which is a network of waterfalls flowing from the higher ground into the sea.

20130413-162953.jpg

20130413-163001.jpg
Note extreme absence of water actually falling…dry season innit. Of course they don’t tell you that before the half hour hike.

Playa Blanca offers the last beach I will see until Hawaii next month so I am keen to soak up as much sun as possible before moving inland. Coconuts with straws, coarse golden sand and shallow tepid waters. Thankfully, it is everything you would expect from a Caribbean beach.

20130413-163337.jpg

20130413-163401.jpg

20130413-163407.jpg

Chief amongst the highlights here though is the food. There is a strong Garifuna culture here, as with the coast of Belize and Honduras, and the local specialities reflect this.

First up I try Tapado which is a Garifuna seafood stew and is a traditional dish served like a soup on the Caribbean coast. It has everything from crab, shrimp, snapper, conch and even shark served up completely whole in a mildly spiced broth. It is delicious…but I didn’t expect the crabs to greet me quite as they did…

20130413-163809.jpg

I want to immerse myself in the culinary culture here so I sign up for a Garifuna cooking class at Rasta Mesa (meaning Rasta Table), a cafe and cultural centre in the northern part of town. Roaming from hostel to hostel, I haven’t really cooked for myself since 2012…so I am keen to get the apron on and whip up a Garifuna storm in the kitchen. On the menu this evening? Plantain fritters with coconut rice and salsa. According to the Belizean born Rasmega and his American wife Amanda who own and run Rasta Mesa, this is what you would prepare for a special occasion like a family wedding or anniversary…it’s the luxury end of the Garifuna spectrum.

To kick things off, I crack open a coconut with a machete for the first time ever (oh the power) and proceed to excavate its flesh for the coconut rice. The utensils are a little more basic than I’d usually be used to. I am going straight to John Lewis when I get back to London to find one of these machines. Cookware klaxon!

20130413-164434.jpg

20130413-164445.jpg

Then, just like Dinosaur Jr’s 1993 command, it’s time to ‘start choppin.’ We also grate the unripened plantains to make a paste.

20130413-164732.jpg

20130413-164739.jpg

Before you know it, we’re quite literally cooking with gas, and it is not long before we serve up the goods and eat it with Rasmega and his family.

20130413-165134.jpg

Semana Santa fully kicks in and a procession takes place on Good Friday through the town, decorated by these beautiful sand carpets depicting religious scenes and messages. The kids in the town spend the morning working hard in the unforgiving sun to make this happen.

20130413-165443.jpg

The celebration is completed with a re-enactment of the crucifixon (of course), and drinking on a par with UK bank holidays.

I take my leave when the town starts to feel like Manchester the day after a Rangers UEFA Cup Final and head along the beautiful Rio Dulce to the town of the same name. The journey is well worth the two hour wait at the port as we snake through the slender and curvacious waterway dwarfed by rock formations either side.

One hour and a mild soaking later, we arrive at Rio Dulce town also known as Fronteras, a hangover from it being the last stop before the tricky northward road to Peten in the highlands. There is little to see in Rio Dulce town apart from the river itself, so I water taxi out to the Hotel Kangaroo, an Australian-run backpacker’s joint over the way from the bustling town.

20130413-170612.jpg

20130413-170637.jpg

20130413-170658.jpg

20130413-170708.jpg

Here I get into a little bank holiday drinking to celebrate Cristo’s revival with a great bunch including Gabby and Sarah from England, Shahar from Israel and a Spaniard called Albert (certainly Scottish in a past life.) I’m not sure what the Spanish for honesty bar…but I do know that they had one…peligroso.

In and around the surrounds, en route to nearby town El Estor, there are a couple of well hidden haunts to visit. The route there includes taking a 15 quetzales collectivo, kind of like a clapped out mini-van that shuttles you onwards once full. They are usually hectic affairs, with a game conductor hanging out of the speeding vehicle shouting their destination as you reach top speed. To complete the hilariousness, the Guatemalans will stare at you the whole way, principally because they have never seen anyone (in their own words) as ‘long’ as you before.

If you survive that, you make it to Finca el Paraiso which is the world’s only naturally hot waterfall. It’s a stunning sight, busy with Guatemalan holidaymakers but splashing around in its pools is a lovely way to spend a morning.

20130413-171458.jpg

Under the lip of the rock, the hot spring water creates a natural sauna to get your detox on post-Easter celebrations.

20130413-171548.jpg

20130413-171610.jpg

The visit is peppered with business-minded young Guatemelans swarming round you demanding that you buy their wares ‘Comprar cocos.’

20130413-171748.jpg

On the banks of the river, there is no Easter rest for the local women who wash their clothes in the tepid waters.

20130413-171853.jpg

Ten minutes further along the road in a collectivo, unless of course Tourism Policeman Roberto gives you an escort in his van, you’ll find El Boqueron. Here, a couple of kids will take out for a trip along the water in their boy-powered lanchas to enjoy this stunning view that is straight out of a Rambo movie.

20130413-172110.jpg

20130413-172142.jpg

20130413-172150.jpg

This is a very spiritual place for Mayans and it is here each year on the 21st December, the last day of the Mayan calendar, they perform Mayan rituals.

20130413-172311.jpg

And the Mayan gods reward them with amusingly shaped rocks along the river. Looky look, a crocodile!

20130413-172457.jpg

The 15 quetzales journey (approx £1.25) is big business for the kids around here. Some of the lanchas are full to the point of mild sinkage…

20130413-172606.jpg

The north beckons eventually, and it is time to leave the colourful port of Rio Dulce after one last shrimp ceviche, a central and South American speciality, my last in the continent.

20130413-172731.jpg

20130413-172745.jpg

Again, due to extreme lounging, I have neglected to book the bus from Rio Dulce town to Flores. However, the driver let’s me sit in the aisle next to him for the hysterical four hour trip.

20130413-172947.jpg

All recommendations had pointed to Los Amigos hostel in Flores, a beautiful little island in the middle of Lago Peten Itza. And I can see why. I settle into this little treehouse for a few nights.

20130413-173242.jpg

20130413-173328.jpg

The town is awfully bonny, with rocky flagstone roads and colourful buildings.

20130413-173543.jpg

20130413-173552.jpg

20130413-173624.jpg

The key draw here in Flores is its proximity to Tikal, the Mayan ruins set deep within the nearby jungle. So, armed with Uruguayan Roberto, Irish Elaine and American boyfriend Dan, we head to the site for a guided tour with a 4.30am kick off.

So, I am no stranger to Mayan ruins, having treaded the well worn path to Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula back in 2011. The unique selling point here that really sets Tikal apart is its jungle destination, which means your tour is accompanied by howler monkeys swinging through the canopy, brightly coloured parrots and toucans heralding your arrival with their squawks and pisotes wandering around at your feet hoping you’ll ignore the signs about feeding the animals.

The former were kind of elusive when we got there, but here are the pisotes en masse with their antennae-like tails held high.

20130413-175928.jpg

The Mayans settled here in 700 BC, but Tikal’s downfall was part of the mysterious general collapse of the lowland Mayan civilisation in 900 AD. However, it wasn’t until 1848 that the Guatemalan government decided to send out an expedition to the site, and now just 20% of its expanse has been uncovered and restored for our pleasure.

The temples, towering to as much as 44 metres, are a key attraction here, numbered unimaginatively as they are. We trek through Templo I to VI in the sunshine.

20130413-182547.jpg

20130413-182625.jpg

20130413-182707.jpg

It would appear that the Guatemalan Mayans are much more relaxed than their Mexican counterparts, and you are allowed to scamper up and down these temples to take in the views across the jungle’s vast expansive canopy

20130413-182842.jpg
Cue team photo…

20130413-183052.jpg

All the way round we’re reminded what NOT to do at Tikal…

20130413-183421.jpg
…however if you were determined to flout convention, some of these signs could give you ideas.

20130413-183523.jpg

Inside the temples, we can see some of the rooms in the complex and get an idea of Mayan life. I can see that they were not turntablist fans…

20130413-183706.jpg

There is beautiful wildlife along the way like this Montezuma Oropendula bird, a yellow tailed tropical bird, whose nest hangs from the tree…leading to rather obvious and unflattering nicknames.

20130413-184218.jpg

It’s a place for spiritual connection for some…

20130414-065853.jpg

…and shameless tourist box-ticking for others.

20130414-065944.jpg

We reward ourselves with dinner at La Luna.

20130414-070133.jpg

The trek has inspired us for adventure, so we head out horseriding round Parque Ixpanpajul the next day. Roberto has a wild stallion who is bucking and rearing all over the place, whereas Dan’s horse seems to be on a Belizean go slow and is the complete opposite of the spectrum. My horse, Arbe, is somewhere in the middle but it is more of a gentle plod than a rapid canter.

20130414-070600.jpg

20130414-070613.jpg

20130414-070632.jpg

20130414-070649.jpg

Afterwards, we take to the skies for a zip line across the park’s dense canopy on six lines of varying height and length. Not quite to Costa Rican standards, but exhilarating nonetheless.

20130414-070841.jpg

20130414-070857.jpg

20130414-070909.jpg

Game Elaine even goes for the ‘superwoman’

20130414-071001.jpg

A steak dinner accompanied by mojitos completes our last adrenaline-packed day in Flores.

20130414-071105.jpg

Elaine and Dan are headed for Rio Dulce while Roberto and I head south for Lanquin and chapter two of the Guatemalan adventure. The great news is our paths will cross again in Antigua next week! (I do love it when that happens on planet backpack)

Stay tuned for the next instalment…

20130415-070950.jpg

20130415-070937.jpg

Part VIII: Belize – Coastline Hugging

The original plan for Belize had been to head inland after the Cayes to visit some of the wildlife reserves in the west before going south to catch a boat to Guatemala. But once I got into the swing of island life, I was loathe to leave the beaches and turquoise blue waters behind. So I decided to stick close to the coast as I headed south.

Nowhere has ‘Belize time’ felt quite as evident as when I arrive at Belize City bus station to catch a bus to Hopkins. There is no schedule, or indeed stop for the James Line service which connects to Hopkins via Dangriga. Upon enquiry, I’m told, “The bus is orange, you’ll see it when it gets here.” Right.

The buses are hysterical old bluebird buses that US schools used to use, all painted bright colours with reggae, chosen by the driver, pumping out of the speakers throughout. The conductors wear their caps, emblazoned with US basketball teams, back to front, their jeans low and their smiles wide. The passengers are rather entertaining too…
20130410-121557.jpg
For £3, it’s quite a ride.

I land in Hopkins after a punishingly long wait for a connecting bus to find a small, pretty fishing village made up of two long dirt tracks. It’s a sleepy wee place with a strong Garifuna influence. Without the strong sea breeze as at the Cayes, and of course the air con, the heat is stifling
20130410-121955.jpg20130410-122015.jpg

This is a one-hostel town, and the lack of competition is evident in the Funky Dodo hostel. It could be a cracking place with a few little touches here and there. But the owner keeps telling everyone how tired he is and how hard he works, so no request, large or small, is met!
20130410-122139.jpg20130410-122153.jpg

He’s arranged an all-you-can-eat BBQ for the following night which has tired the poor lamb right out. It is for about ten people mind, so I amuse myself at picturing how he’d get on running a busy press tent at a music festival or awards show! Then he imposes a voucher system on the BBQ whereby the food stops when you run out of vouchers. Small point Will, that is not all-you-can-eat mate. The clue is quite literally in the title…

My neighbours are the lovely, and recently engaged, Alice and Ollie who live in London. We decide to embrace the local culture by heading north to the music school for a lesson in Garifuna drumming. We meet Jabar, the teacher, and later Amol, his star pupil. Their version of a cockney accent leaves a lot to be desired, but their drumming is mind-bogglingly good.
20130410-123045.jpg

We make our way through traditional Garifuna rhythms such as the paranda, punta and watina and it is flippin’ brilliant fun. Jabar and Amol add the lyrics, the icing on the cake, while we stick to the basic rhythms and we actually start to sound like a plausible band. Potential band names on a postcard please. Good to finally get some value from those drumming modules I laboured over at school.

20130410-124553.jpg

20130410-124622.jpg

20130410-124635.jpg

We reward ourselves with dinner at Love On The Rocks where the seafood and catch of the day snapper fillets are served on hot rocks for you to cook to your tastes.

20130410-124806.jpg

The next day, I’m looking for adventure…and find this little tour company. Handy…

20130410-124935.jpg
I sign up for a night tour of the nearby Sittee River, and simultaneously meet Emma who later that week offers me a job in Hopkins! I politely decline as I’m not sure how many bands make it here on their world tours…

So, as the sun sets I head out to the beautiful marina to hop in a boat with Captain Levi and head out on the river. As with most Central American towns and cities, the marina is a real demonstration of the ‘haves’ precariously placed next to extreme poverty of the ‘have-nots.’ The boats are absurd, and the accents are American.

20130410-125530.jpg

20130410-125554.jpg

We spot wildlife along the way, starting with iguanas and egrets as the sun sets, then crocodiles once night has fallen.

20130410-125738.jpg

20130410-125828.jpg

The flora and fauna is stunning too. One of the trees produces a banana-like pod which looks like this when it opens up to flower.

20130410-125930.jpg

On a non-wildlife tip, I also find my most favourite name for a boat…like, ever. Presenting… ‘Nautical By Nature’

20130410-130033.jpg

We snack on Malay apples along the way, taking our digestive system’s life into our own hands

20130410-130644.jpg

At nightfall, aka croc o’clock, we get the flashlights out (sorry…TORCHES…I’m surrounded by Americans) and scan the riverbanks. Three pairs of eyes glint back at us, and as we get closer we see they’re up to 2 metres long. They’re shy though, and don’t hang around for long.

Captain Levi takes us to see a baby croc that he keeps as a pet at the water’s edge at the end of his garden. He gives us the chance to hold it, but he’ll have to tape it’s mouth up…not on my watch thanks.

We head back along the banks of the river toward the Anderson Lagoon.

20130410-131417.jpg

Named after the Sailor who created this convenient water way, this is a lagoon where the salt water from the Caribbean meets the fresh water of the Sittee River. At certain times of the year I’m told, the algae that this creates glows phosphorescent. It is quite a sight to behold, each time you disturb the water’s surface, you create a glow. Fish darting round inadvertently create tracer-like wakes behind them and you can virtually sign your name with your finger. It’s one of the most amazing things I have ever seem, and it is impossible not to trail your fingers through the water as we cruise back to the marina.

There is time left for a little light hammock-lounging (well it’d be rude not to) and to capitalise on Belize’s first language by catching up with the newspapers.

20130410-131918.jpg

Then it is onwards to Placencia, a little over two hours down the coast. It is famed for being the only Caye you can drive to, as it has beautiful beaches but finds itself at the end of a peninsula giving it an island feel. It is less authentic than Hopkins, but the beach is beautiful so it’s worth a stop. In the town, everything is connected by a network of boardwalks…

20130410-132943.jpg
…taking you on a tour of the town’s excellent restaurants. So, as has become the true rhythm of Belizean life, I spend my time either lounging on the beach reading this (yes people, this is finally happening!)

20130410-133149.jpg
or eating. Highlights include the snapper with banana and rum at Rumfish, and my first taste of Lion fish at Omar’s

20130410-133353.jpg

But the Belizean chapter ends here. It is time to rid myself of the inertia that has creeped unwittingly into daily life, and get back out on the road to discovery. Next stop Guatemala…by boat!

We hop over the lagoon to Independence

20130410-133615.jpg
…skip down to Punta Gorda by bluebird bus, then jump onto a boat bound for Guatemalan town of Livingston.

20130410-133825.jpg

20130410-133833.jpg

Woops, better put my camera away…this is immigration after all. Belize, you’ve been proppah like a snappah, aarait! Don’t worry, I’m scribbling you down on the ‘countries I’ll return to’ list as we speak. At the same time, I’m rebooting my Spanish speaking software! Adios Belize. Gud maanin Guatemala…

20130410-134759.jpg

And the soundtrack was:
Snow Patrol ‘Eyes Open’
Liars ‘Wixiw’
People Under The Stairs ‘The Next Step’
Foals ‘Holy Fire’
Yeasayer ‘Fragrant World’
Cold War Kids ‘Mine Is Yours’
The Cure ‘Disintegration’
Flight Of The Conchords ‘Hurt Feelings’
Bob Marley Various
Crystal Castles ft Robert Smith ‘Not In Love’
The Cribs ‘Men’s Needs Women’s Needs’
Holy Fuck ‘Latin’

Part VIII: Belize – Songs in the Caye of (Island) Life

Okay, anyone remember these guys?

20130409-123730.jpg
The astute amongst you will recognise Norwegians Magnus and Robert from my Peruvian chapter. We did the gruelling Inca Trail together, an experience that is sure to cement good friendships, and they are definitely high on the ‘travel pals I’d like to hang out with again’ list.

So, on the way to Belize, I am excited for a number of reasons. Firstly, I am to be reunited with them on Caye Caulker, a backpackers Mecca slap bang in the middle of the Caribbean. Shit’s about to get Creole…

Secondly, I get to shelve my woeful efforts at Spanish and speak my first language once more, thanks to Belize having once been part of the British Empire. The Queen still adorns their Belizean dollars, and God Save The Queen is their national anthem. If it wasn’t that, it would likely be Marley’s ‘No Woman No Cry’ judging by the number of times we heard it…

It is a country of small population, approximately 320,000, and it is a really diverse mix of cultures from Creole, Mestizo and Mayan all the way through to Garifuna. When I land at Belize City’s tiny international airport, I immediately warm to the people and the place. Their unofficial motto is ‘Go Slow’ and I can feel myself immediately dropping down a gear as though a pre-requisite for the rubber stamping of my tourist visa.

I have lost count of the number of wide eyed ex-nomads who have recommended Caye Caulker to me. One of Belize’s selling points is its reef, the second largest in the world, which in turn means a wealth of cayes to visit, but Caye Caulker is the budget traveller’s choice. It’s a beautiful limestone coral sand-covered island, around 20 miles east off the coast from Belize City which I journey in a nippy wee water taxi.

It’s a breeze to navigate the island as it’s so small. Basically everything you need is on one street, Front Street, which runs the length of the island…or the much shorter street that runs parallel behind it, the imaginatively named Back Street. As a result of its meagre breadth, its azure waters glimmer beckoningly at you bookending each street that connects the two.

20130409-142331.jpg

20130409-142504.jpg

20130409-142605.jpg

20130409-142653.jpg
In 1961, Hurricane Hattie split the island in two and the locals then dug this split out to widen it thus creating a convenient waterway from the east to the west of the island. It is at this spot, nicknamed The Split, where most people swim and lounge around on the sand.

20130409-142934.jpg

20130409-142957.jpg

20130409-143007.jpg
Here on the caye, I decide to cross the line from fan assisted oven to air conditioning in my room, opting to trade up from usual hostel standards to a beautiful cabana with its own private dock. Of course, once you have crossed this line, there is no going back (as I will later learn in the stifling heat of Hopkins.)

The Tropical Paradise Hotel (or Club Tropicana as I like to call it) will be my home for the next seven days.

20130409-143411.jpg

20130409-143453.jpg

20130409-143508.jpg

To complete the convenience of this place, it even has a ridiculously tiny airstrip. Coconut airways anyone?

20130409-143930.jpg

20130409-143944.jpg

Once reunited with Norway, we settle well into island life. This is the kind of place where all your action plans melt away, and you can make rather a good effort of doing absolutely nothing. It is bliss. If this place came with an instruction manual, it would mainly read like this…

1. Make sure you catch the sun set as it drops into the Caribbean at least once…but take beer

20130409-144411.jpg

20130409-144425.jpg

20130409-144459.jpg

2. Get a golf cart and slip into such extreme inertia that you refuse to walk anywhere

20130409-144758.jpg

20130409-144809.jpg

3. Fill aforementioned golf cart with beer

20130409-144903.jpg

4. Go snorkelling to Shark Ray Alley on a reggae sail boat, and inadvertently star in your own personal hip hip video (y’know chicks in bikinis, Shaggy pumping from the in board stereo with a rap-a-long from the horizontally laid back captain)

20130409-145256.jpg

20130409-145316.jpg
I like this shot a lot, mostly because of the limelight grabbing Frigate bird in the background

20130409-162626.jpg

5. Fill your hotel fridge full of enough rum and beer to do you the week, then accidentally have to replenish supplies the very next day…and again the next

6. SEASONAL: Make new friends with random backpackers on St Patrick’s Day, but try to ignore their ridiculous tattoos (yes that is indeed a six pack…what a tosser)

20130409-163156.jpg

20130409-163212.jpg

7. Get to know the neighbours

20130409-163312.jpg

8. Drink rum cocktails…on docks

20130409-164614.jpg
…in bars…

20130409-164715.jpg
…and on boats…

20130409-164745.jpg

9. Match the sound bleed of the countless reggae bars by operating a Bring Your Own Disco…cue dancing at all times of the day

20130409-201515.jpg

10. Become a local in the I and I reggae bar and Oceanside nightclub, virtually shouting “the usual” on entry…and having your own table

11. Indulge in a ridiculous amount of seafood including ceviche, shrimp coconut curries and rum and ginger snapper fillets

20130409-202525.jpg

12. Spend time surveying the locals and their customs. For example, the man who just walks around shouting ‘sweeeeeeeeeeeeet’ every two minutes, that guy who is out on his bike 24/7 and The Cake Man who sells the most unBelizable banana bread you will ever taste

20130409-202928.jpg

13. Go slow…that’s an order

20130409-203005.jpg

14. LOL your little heart out with good friends

20130409-203103.jpg

20130409-203119.jpg

20130409-203147.jpg

20130409-203215.jpg

20130409-203306.jpg

All too soon it was time to leave our island paradise, and it was with the heaviest of hearts. With plans afoot for our next hang time at T in the Park, we bid Caye Caulker adieu.

Taxi!

20130409-203454.jpg

20130409-203603.jpg

20130409-203656.jpg

And the soundtrack was:
Woodkid ‘The Golden Age’
Shaggy ‘Sugar Cane’ (you heard)
The Black Kids ‘I’m Not Going To Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You’
Bob Marley Various
M83 ‘Midnight City’
The True Vaults ‘No Goodbyes’
Beastie Boys ‘Make Some Noise’
Thumpers ‘Dancing’s Done’
Haim ‘Don’t Save Me’
Mos Def Various
Elton John ‘Tony Danza’
The Pixies ‘Where Is My Mind’
Friendly Fires ‘Friendly Fires’
Flight of the Conchords ‘Business Time’
Elbow ‘Open Arms’
Charli XCX ‘Stay Away’
LCD Soundsystem ‘New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down’