Thursday, April 30, 2009

Liz and Adrian versus the volcano.

Antigua was an easy place to do nothing. There were no ruins to rush out to see first thing in the morning. There were plenty of cheap places to eat and drink. And there lots of people to keep you company while you did that whole lot of nothing. So on our second day we embraced the culture of nothing, except I cheated by spending the day catching up on the blog using wifi I found in a restaurant while Adrian watched the Man United v. Arsenal football game on the tv. We stayed there until it was dark and by then the lightening storm started over one of the three volcanoes that surrounded the city (photo above). It was a productive day but not in a particularly remarkable way. So on the next day we decided to make up for it by visiting one of those local landmarks – Pacaya, an active volcano where lava flows freely and you’re invited to roast marshmallows.

Booking the trip was easy – the Yellow House had an in-house travel agency. And just like ATM once we handed over our money we were given a list of things to bring and a brief description of the trip. 1 hour drive. 1.5 hour hike. 1 hour on the volcano. 1 hour back down. 1 hour trip home. It sounded fine except for the 1.5 hour hike up the volcano. The woman at the desk told me it was easy. We’ll see.

As we were fixing lunch I chatted with a Quebecois couple who were thinking about doing the hike. However she was pregnant and wasn’t sure she was up for the challenge. I told them I’d let them know how it was when we got back that evening. Inside I was beginning to doubt whether we’d make it to the top. But it was too late to back out.

We waited outside the hostel for the mini van to arrive, quickly popping into the bakery across the street to pick up some snacks for the long journey. We were joined by two other couples from the hostel: the first was a girl from Victoria and her American boyfriend, the second a girl from Barrie and her Germany boyfriend. I guess Canadian girls have a thing for foreign men.

The mini van pulled up and we jumped in amongst a bunch of frat boys from Vanderbilt U. They were on an 8-day rush trip through Guatemala – it was supposed to be Cancun but swine flu had thrown a wrench in their plans. They were relatively well behaved for frat boys as the van took us through crazy curvy roads, through small towns then up a rocky road to volcano entrance. By now my bladder was going to burst and as soon as the door to the van opened I ran to the use the washroom but glad I had a stash of toilet paper in my purse (don’t leave home without it). Back outside I was pounced upon by dozen of kids trying to sell me walking sticks they’d made from tree branches. And then men trying to rent me a horse for the walk up the mountain. I shooed them away – really how hard can it be to get up the path?

Our guide gathered us all together and told us our group was call Panteras and that we had to always follow her and listen to her instructions. We walked around the corner and started walking. Straight up. Uh-oh. After 10 minutes of climbing, my lungs were aching and my legs were like jelly. I asked the guide how much longer. “una hora y media,” she replied. There was no way I was going to make it another 20 minutes let alone another 90 minutes. Just then two men with horses appeared. And I didn’t even bargain when they said $12 each for the ride. But once on the horse I wasn’t feeling much better.

We pulled ahead of the group and now the path was very steep and very narrow and very uneven and seemed far more dangerous than trying to crawl up. As I leaned backwards and forwards to stay on the horse, I kept picturing the horse losing its footing and sending me hurtling down the mountain to die a horrible death. Of course, that didn’t happen. And soon we were in dense clouds so I couldn’t see the path or what was on either side which helped to distract me from any impending doom. Behind me I could hear Adrian once again trying to communicate to someone who spoke no English. “Football. Yes? Dallas Cowboys. Denver Broncos. Football good.” When he didn’t get a response, he moved on to improving his Spanish vocabulary. “Rojo. Azul. Negro. Amarillo.” I guess he was pointing to things and repeating the colours his guide was saying. This went on for the rest of ride up. It amazed me that Adrian continues to attempt these long one-sided conversations. I have to give him credit for persevering. But also felt a bit sorry for the guide.

Eventually we got above the clouds, revealing a lunar landscape of loose black volcanic rock and the smoking peak ahead. At this point I got of the horse joined a few minutes later by Adrian. We took in the sight and waited for the rest of the Panteras to appear. 10 minutes later they came through the clouds, sweaty and panting after the climb. And then it was up the path to the lava flow.

Although just a short walk, the rocks were razor sharp and they were not completely stable making it hard to keep your balance without a place to put your hands unless you wanted to them shredded on the rocks. Ahead of us another group of guys had decided to up the ante and roast not just marshmallows but a whole chicken over the lava. I didn’t think it was possible until I got within 5 metres of the flow. The heat was unbearable, like standing in front of a blast furnace. Unfortunately we never got to find out if it was possible to roast a chicken as their stick gave way under the weight of the bird sending it rolling down where it was pounced upon and devoured by a couple of stray dogs.

I wanted to continue up the path but at that moment another tour group made up of more of those loud rude travelers stormed the lava flow pushing their way past our group. They blocked the path and refused to move to let people up or down. As I balanced on my tiptoes in the small square I still had, I felt my legs begins to buckle. I though for sure I was going to tumble backwards on the rocks so I pleaded with them to move - one said where. I motioned back down the path two steps but they ignored me and refused to budge. When I realized I was either going to end up fried in the lava or cut to shreds on the rock I decided to retaliate by pushing them back and out of my way. After all that effort to get up the mountain (well, the horses effort) I now just wanted to get back down and away from this group. I started to walk back down the path well away from the crowd and was soon I was joined by some of the others from my group who couldn’t take the pushy crowd anymore either.

Rather than hang around up at the top, Adrian and I continued walking down to get a head start on the rest of the group. We may have been heading down the mountain but I knew there was a whole lot of up along the way too. And the men with the horses knew this too and followed us like vultures waiting for us to call upon their services once again. But in actuality the climbing up part of the trip down proved to be less of a problem than gravity. It was pulling me down the hill almost faster than my legs could keep up and occasionally I had to run over to a tree and hang on just to stop my descent and catch my breath and stretch my legs.

The man with the horse asked me again if I wanted the horse, for free, he said, honestly concerned for me. No, I replied, I want to do it myself. He walked with us and lit the path with his flashlight as it began to get dark, pointing out tree roots and rocks so we wouldn’t trip over them. Finally we made it down safely and the man with the horse congratulated me. Okay, so I didn’t make it up the mountain and I didn’t get to enjoy much lava. But making it down the mountain was a victory I cherished just as much.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Hello out there... out there... out there... out there. Just testing the echo.

We're in Antigua Guatemala and have access to regular internet - notice I didn't use the word fast. I've just changed the dates on all the posts to reflect the dates they were written on. I don't know if these means they'll be re-sent to email subscribers or re-posted to the rss feed. Apologies if this happens. You'll also now be able to tell exactly how far behind I actually am. Gulp. I hope to fix this over the next week. Feel free to harass me. Or leave any sort of comment. If I know people are reading this, it will help get my motivation up. 

But enough of that. Just wanted to let you know we are alive and well and that new posts are coming.

(Apologies for all the spelling and grammar errors and typos. I'm going for quantity not quality at the moment.) 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It’s like we’ve died and gone to backpacker heaven.

In the morning, Yellow House continued to live up to its promise from the night before. After a week in the heat, Antigua had been cool enough for us to get a good night’s sleep. The spotless showers had plenty of hot water (a luxury) and breakfast was a big spread of not just fruit and toast but eggs and beans and... spaghetti? (for the vegans, I guess). It was easy to understand why so many of the guests had been there for weeks and sometimes months. Some were studying Spanish, some were working in pubs but most were just hanging out. Like the two Italians who checked in just behind us last night after doing a visa run to Mexico since they’d already been in Antigua for 30 days.

The only negative things about the Yellow House? Their wifi didn’t work and the two free computers were limited to 10 minutes of use when there was a line, which was all the time. Nonetheless, we decided to stay and switched to a now free private room. It wasn’t much different than the three-bed dorm except it had a tv with 100 channels and was further away from the noisy street.

Eventually, it was time to escape the backpacker heaven. Not to explore the city but to get rid of some of the library we’d, well actually Adrian had been carrying around for the last month – and the reason his was so heavy. We consulted the Lonely Planet for the list of used book stores and headed to the first. Unfortunately, Lonely Planet got it wrong and this place only sold new books. So we headed to the other end of the city to the second one listed. They wouldn’t exchange our books but they would buy our old ones for a pittance – barely enough to buy two new ones. Adrian was unhappy until I reminded him that we’d actually picked up one of the books for free so we didn’t lose any money. But it was a good lesson that we should keep an eye out for book exchanges rather than used book stores.

The book store was attached to a cheap but tasty café so we stopped for lunch. Then it was off to retrace our steps back through the city only this time we’d actually take it in. Because Antigua deserved our full attention. It was one of the prettiest if not the prettiest towns on our trip so far. Every street was cobblestones and all the buildings, old colonial ones. It was like something off a movie set.

And that comparison was especially true in the plaza mayor. On one side was the city hall and on the other the beautiful old cathedral which we decided to explore only to discover that it was just a façade (photo above ) – just like a movie set. The original cathedral had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1773, leaving the interior exposed to the elements but still cool to explore.

Across was the museum in the old university but it was closed for renovations so we headed back to the square. The vibe was backpacker-friendly without being too touristy, thanks to a healthy local population who lived and worked in the city. It kept the number of tacky souvenir stores to a minimum but it also made the street vendors a bit more aggressive in their pitches. However they were still easy enough to get rid of. And it was even easier to shake them by slipping into one of the museums around the square. We passed on the old book museum and popped into the Palacio del Capitanos instead. It was a disappointment for the price and just a collection of old maps, weapons and other old things related to the history of the local government.

That was enough sightseeing for day one so we decided to do what all good backpackers do – call home. And being in a backpacker friendly town, it was easy. For the first time on the road, we saw numerous places advertising cheap overseas phone calls. So Adrian phoned his parents and I phoned mine. After 6 weeks on the road we figured they were due for a check in and we were due to hear the sound of some friendly voices.

Afterwards we decided to add a taste of home to our day by heading to the grocery store to get some stuff for dinner. Although believe me, I tried to find something else to cook. But without a decent spice section or collection of President Choice Memories of Wherever Sauces or an even an oven back at the hostel, it was hard to figure out what else to make. However, when in backpacker heaven one should do and eat what backpackers do.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Four towns, one very long day.

I have mixed feelings about travel days. On one hand they are exciting – they signify a new destination and new possibilities. But on the other hand, they’re usually long and often full of frustration, especially when they require more than one mode of transportation. Today was going to be one of those days so my only hope was that we’d get to Antigua before dark since the lack of internet over the last four days meant we had no reservations lined up.

We started out at 7am by grabbing breakfast and hiking down to the ferry dock. We got the last two seats up at the front with all the luggage and hoped that the front would mean a smoother drier ride than our trip from Rio Dulce. The trip took us past the Caribbean coast, dotted with large luxury homes, a shock considering the modest farms we’d seen on along the river. Then it was out to the open sea but it was a relatively smooth ride. We rounded a small peninsula into Puerto Barrios (photo above), Guatemala’s largest shipping port which was filled with huge transatlantic tankers from all over the globe.

When we got off the boat I looked at the time and realized that we only had 15 minutes to make our 10am bus to Guatemala City. This meant we were at the mercy of the taxi drivers who were all too aware of the bus schedules and our urgency. I managed to negotiate a bit of money off the price they were initially asking but not enough to feel good. But when we started driving away I realized that the bus station was a lot further than I thought and the price wasn’t that bad after all.

The bus was sitting there fully loaded when we pulled up. I left Adrian to deal with the driver while I ran in to buy our tickets. Or so I thought. I was just about to jump on the bus when the taxi driver came running up to me – apparently Adrian had taken off and hadn’t paid the driver. Grr… where was he? Oh right having a cigarette. I yanked him on the bus that was waiting for us. But instead of the air-conditioned luxury we were greeting by a wall of hot and humid air. The air conditioning was broken so we sweated for the 6-hour ride to Guatemala City, stopping once at a roadside bus station/restaurant for cool drinks.

We pulled into Guatemala City catching small glimpses through the dusty tinted window. It didn’t look as bad as I thought. However, the bus station appeared to be in a sketchy part of town. Now we had a choice: we could either take a taxi to another bus station across town to catch an Antigua chicken bus or wait 2 hours for the luxury coach from our current location. If we waited we’d be getting into Antigua after dark. But if we took the chicken bus there was, um, well, let’s just say a certain amount of danger involved. Recently the news had been full of stories of drivers and ayudantes of local buses being gunned down in the streets of Guatemala City. And it was serious enough that these stories had been picked up internationally. Now, these were probably routes running through bad parts of town but I had no idea if those parts were en route to the other station or part of the Antigua route. You can call us whimps but erring on the side of caution, we decided to stay put. Plus, there was the promise of another comfy bus perhaps, this time with real air conditioning.

Of course when it came time to leave, it wasn’t a bus but a cramped mini van already full of very loud travelers speaking another language (that shall remain nameless) who refused to change their seats so that Adrian and I could sit together. They continued to yell over us for the entire 1.5 hour uncomfortable ride to Antigua. It should have been half as long but rush hour traffic slowed us down.

Just after dark we got into Antigua. I couldn’t see the town but I knew that it was all cobbled streets because my butt felt every one of them. The driver stopped in the main square and told us he’d drive us all to our hostels for another 5Q each. That seemed like a good idea, except we didn’t have a reservation. I consulted Lonely Planet and picked the favourite and hoped that it still existed and had a room for us.

All the other passengers got off before us and when we arrived at the Yellow House hostel, we discovered that one of them had taken Adrian’s pack instead of their own. Adrian went off with the driver to track down his pack while I went in to arrange a place to stay. The hostel only had a three -bed dorm available so I took all the beds in it. Meanwhile one of the loud girls arrived by tuktuk and said you have my bag – notice she didn’t say she’d taken the wrong bag nor did she apologize. And of course, she didn’t bring Adrian’s bag because “it was too heavy”. So not only was she loud she was stupid and rude too. I told her that Adrian had gone with the driver to look for his bag and asked her perhaps she’d like to wait until he returned. She waited silently and I could feel her glaring at me – even though it was her fault. Wow. And when Adrian arrived with his bag, she left without saying thank you or offering extra money to pay the driver who had driver Adrian around in search of her and the bag. I hope there is such a thing as travel karma because it needs to bite her in the ass.

Thankfully the Yellow House was clean and comfy and around the corner from a café where we could get forget about her over dinner and a drink. Then it was time to collapse in bed after 12 hours, 4 towns, 1 boat, 1 taxi, 1 bus, 1 minivan, 1 lost bag and zero air conditioning.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sleeping with Bjork

Our last morning at Hotelito Perdido and we were in no rush to leave. The new guests were all going on a hike and visit to the clinic on the other side of the river. So we said goodbye to them and once again it was hugs all around and we’d only known them for 12 hours. (Told you Hotelito Perdido was like that.) That gave us an hour to pack up our stuff and pay our bill. When Chris returned from dropping the others off it was our turn to get in the boat. We said goodbye to Bernie & Bali and of course Aska, forcing her to pose for an Adrian Was Here photo before heading off to Livingston.

The boat ride was much more enjoyable than the one on the way in. Chris took us down the river through the river canyon with its limestone walls and more great views of the rio before pulling out of the mouth of the river to the Caribbean. Around the bend we got our first glimpse of Livingston.

Chris docked the boat at Casa Rosada which he and Aska recommended as their favourite place to stay in town. We said goodbye to Chris thanking him and Aska for their awesome hospitality. He posed for a photo with Adrian imitating Adrian’s signature thumbs up pose. We were really sad to have to move on but now began the next leg of our journey.

The Casa Rosada consisted of the pink main house where the owners lived and ten huts on the grounds facing the sea. We picked the hut next to the immaculate shared bathroom – there were towels and bath mats and flowers in it. What luxury. Then I began the process of signing in. As I entered my info into the guest registry I glanced over the names and nationalities above ours. The one just above mine stopped me – Björk Gudmundsdottir, Islandia. How many Björk’s are there in Iceland? Was it the Björk staying here at this simple $20/night place? I showed Adrian and immediately he turned into a groupie, asking the desk clerk a million questions about Björk. Yes it was really her. She had been staying there for the last week. Unfortunately we had just missed her as she had checked out only an hour ago. Adrian started inquiring about seeing her cabana but I reminded him that not only was that creepy it was kinda unnecessary since they were all alike – two single beds and a ceiling fan. Still the clerk humoured him and answered all his questions – What did she eat? Who was with her? – while I settled us in our room. It was clean and comfy but still basic and definitely not the fanciest place in the small town. Hard to believe Björk stayed here and had stayed here quite a few time over the last couple of years.

Adrian was still hoping to run into Björk as we headed out to check out the town. I was hoping to check out the Garifuna Museum. Yes, Livingston was another Garifuna town with another Garifuna museum, supposedly. But once again the museum no longer existed. In fact, there wasn’t much in Livingston, and much to Adrian’s displeasure there was no Björk. There were some weird murals that seemed Bjork-like (picture above) but mostly it was tiny guesthouses, and small shops. So we walked down to the thin strip of beach and watched the wind whip the waves before heading back to Casa Rosada to escape the scorching sun.

The power went out and the hotel clerk told us it was out in all of Guatemala, so we couldn’t escape to a nice air conditioned internet café. Instead we just pulled up a comfy chair overlooking the dock and read. The power came on in time for dinner and we treated ourselves to delicious a seafood stew, supposedly Björk’s favourite, before heading to bed. We slept where she slept. We ate what she ate. We walked where she walked but her signature was as close as we got to Björk in Livingston, Guatemala.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Delaying reality

When we first arrived at Hotelito Perdido unannounced, the owners Aska and Chris had warned us that due to upcoming reservations, we’d only have two nights to stay with them. So this morning we expected to leave with Douglas. But when I asked Aska what time Chris would be leaving for town, she let me know the good news. She’d asked their arriving guests if they wouldn’t mind switching rooms and they agreed so it freed up the bungalow for us. Woohoo another day chilling on the Rio Dulce. But boo, because we had to say goodbye to Douglas who had already extended his two nights at Hotelito Perdido into five but now had to move on to make his flight back to Seattle in the next couple of days. As he got on the boat, we hugged and wished each other happy travels. Yes we’d only known each other for two days. But that’s what Hotelito Perdido does to people. You feel like you’ve known each other a lot longer than you actually have and you get sentimental when you have to say goodbye.

With our extra unplanned day in paradise, we didn’t know what to do. So we did nothing. Good thing too because the weather had turned and it was rainy heavily and so humid our soaked kayaking clothes were still soaked. So we decided to just chill and read. And when we were tired of that, we talked to Aska about her and Chris’s little slice of paradise. It’s really amazing what they built – by hand! out in the middle of the jungle. They had a photo album of before and after pictures that really told the story. When they bought the land, it had been cleared by the farmers who burned everything down to keep the snakes and other animals away. But Chris built all the buildings and Aska replanted the land and now it’s a lush jungle getaway complete with really pretty bugs . They’re planning to build another cabana in the next year since more people keep showing up on their dock unannounced (teehee whoops). But they don’t want it bigger than they can personally handle, after all it’s their home.

When Chris arrived with the next batch of guests, they were equally impressed. And we welcomed them as the resident old timers (after only three days there). The new guests were two girls from Germany, whose room we stole, and an older couple from Seattle and their 20 year old son. We repeated the process of getting to know each other over dinner and drinks. It felt kinda like passing the torch to the new guests because unfortunately tomorrow we would have to leave and continue our journey across Guatemala.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The end of the honeymoon.

Travelling together with your partner is a real way to test your relationship. Luckily Adrian and I have been married for more than 10 years so we have a pretty good idea of our best and worst. Even still, 24 hours a day with one person is a lot. Today was the day we would test this togetherness by going kayaking in search of some nearby waterfalls.

Understand first of all, that Adrian has never kayaked and I hadn’t canoed since I was in high school and I wasn’t very good at it then. But it started out well, thanks to Douglas who helped us get the kayak in the water and Aska who made sure we had a packed lunch, plenty of water and a map of where we were going that she drew for us. But once we got into the water, the day became very long. We couldn’t figure out how to keep the kayak going in a straight line and instead went from one side of the river to the other, running into some low hanging trees more than a couple of times and managing to fill up the kayak with water. But thankfully never sinking it. 

As the sun got hotter and higher in the sky, our tempers got equally heated until we passed a field full of dozens of cows. I don’t know whether it was our arguing or diagonal paddling, but the cows all stopped chewing their cud to just watch us until we passed. It was like an episode of the Twilight Zone. No scratch that. It was like that episode of South Park. And it would have been spooky until I remembered that Douglas had mentioned passing them on his way to the waterfalls. So seeing them ,we were relieved – at least we knew we were heading in the right direction but it was taking us a lot longer than the hour everyone said it would. Perhaps because we were traveling twice as far as we continued to go from one bank to the other although less than we had at the beginning.

Eventually, we got to the end of the river. We pulled the kayak up on the bank and ate our lunch and guzzled some water before beginning our hike along the path to the water falls. Armed with the map Aska had drawn for us, we followed the path certain we’d reach our destination which would make up for the horrible kayaking. Unfortunately, and I’m not blaming here just observing, I wasn’t with Adrian when Aska drew up and explained the map so I wasn’t sure what certain things meant and Adrian couldn’t remember. He did remember that if we took the wrong turn we would be walking for 3 hours and never get anywhere. Well, after an hour and a half of walking we got to little bridge. Not seeing this mentioned anywhere on the map or remembering it from any descriptions, I told Adrian we should give up. He decided to walk ahead for a bit “just to see”. And in 10 minutes he was back. I could hear him before I could see him. Adrian was speaking very loud emphatic English trying to communicate with someone who obviously only spoke Spanish. “Water. Fall.” “Shhhhhh.Water.” This was followed by a rapid response in Spanish and some laughter. As Adrian came around the bend I saw that he was accompanied by a young guy who was trying to explain something to Adrian. I decided to step in with my limited Spanish and learned that we couldn’t get to the waterfalls the way we were going. In fact we couldn’t get anywhere the way we were going. The kid had met Adrian on his way back to school after looking after some cows.

“Where are the cows?” I asked.

The lad motioned violently with his walking stick and I realized he had been slaughtering them on his lunch break. I was in shock by his non-chalance but he didn't notice. He was relieved that I understood him. Especially since Adrian continued to try to jump into the conversation with repeted “Water. Fall. Shhhh” while waterfall gestures with his hands.

“Su esposo no entiende nada.”
“Nada” I repeated for emphasis.

The lad walked us back to our river bank and then asked if he could get a lift. But when I pointed to the kayak he realized that wasn’t going to work. And he wouldn’t have asked if he’d seen us paddling in.

Now time for the trip back and it seems any skills Adrian and I had acquired on our way out to the waterfalls we’d lost during the hike. Our arguing was worse than before and only resolved when I stopped paddling and let know-it-all Adrian do all the work. It worked in that we no longer fought but didn’t work because his shoulders were exhausted by the time we got back to Hotelito Perdido. Douglas was there to welcome us back and help put the kayak back on the rack. He was getting ready to go out and search for us since we’d been gone about twice as long as we should have been. When he saw our scowls, he tried to lighten our moods by changing the subject.

“So how were the falls?” he asked.

It was then that we had to admit despite all our effort, we hadn’t found them. When I mentioned that we turned back when we got to the bridge. He, Chris and Aska, were all confused – none of them knew what bridge we were talking about. Oops, we’d obviously taken a very wrong turn. Over another delicious dinner, Aska told us that she and Chris call kayaks, honeymoon boats, because using them ends many honeymoons. How true. But no need to worry we were laughing about it by the time the dishes were cleared.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Unannounced visitors – namely, us.

The reason for coming to this part of Guatemala was to visit a jungle eco lodge on the Rio Dulce. But contacting one to set up arrangements was proving to be a little more difficult than we had hoped – the wireless at the hostel didn’t work so sending out emails relied on getting online for the public (free) computers. I’d found a couple of places in my research during the last year. One was a big established one and the other a smaller place that looked pretty fancy on their website yet completely reasonable in price. I found some pretty awesome reviews on trip advisor for the small one and not so good ones for the big one which helped make up my mind. However, my email inquiry to the small one, Hotelito Perdido, was immediately replied to with an automatic “we only check email once a week. You should phone with any urgent inquiries” but I hate the telephone and using a phone in a country where you don’t speak the language was a challenge I wasn’t up for. I decided we’d chance it and just show up on the dock of the lodge.

We booked the boat at the desk of the hostel and the boat would pick us up from the hostel dock which meant no need to go into town or over the bridge. The boat even arrived early and we were the only people on it (picture above). I was hopeful but when I asked the captain just laughed and shook his head and then headed to the dock on the other side of the river where dozens of people were waiting so many that the group was split into two half full boats. But all the space was filled up as the boat pulled into other hotels, guest houses and lodges to fill out the empty spaces. Soon the boat was full and the luggage was piled high. We continued with the trip getting a tour of the Lago de Izabel and Rio Dulce, including the old fort, small creeks. It was a tour we hadn’t really wanted when the water got really rough once we pulled out of the city. The captain pulled out tarps for us to sit under, too late for some of the passengers – the guys behind us were sopping wet.

We traveled from the Rio to the Golfete passing indigenous folks fishing from small boats. They were Mayans who don’t like getting their picture. Unfortunately, the French couple in front of us didn’t get the message even when every Mayan kept shielding their faces when they pulled the camera out. Thankfully, the French women was soon distracted by the numerous birds in the trees. She was trying to use a super zoom on the very bumpy boat ride while her husband kept pointing out other ones. I’m sure their shots consisted of a lot of waves and sky maybe even a few thumbs but few birds.

We were only on the boat for an hour but it already felt like a full day. Thankfully, the Hotelito Perdido was halfway along the boat route (leaving the rest of the folks having to sit for another hour to Livingstone). And we pulled up to small dock where a Captain Jack lookalike and bearded tall man sat. As Adrian got out two dogs appeared to happily licked my face as I got off the boat. The dogs were followed by a petite woman who greeted us.

“Hi, we hope you have room because we’d like to stay here tonight. Surprise.” I announced once I was on the dock.

Luckily they did. They were Captain Jack, I mean, Chris, a guy from East London. And the woman, Aska his girfriend from Poland. The dogs – Bernie and Bali. Together they ran Hotelito Perdido. And it really was a Hotelito. Only 4 rooms/cabins. And two were already taken – one by Douglas, the tall man from the dock. I know realized that I should have phoned ahead. Gulp. But Chris and Aska were super nice and accommodating. And the accommodations were as great as the pictures. Unfortunately, they had people coming in a few days so our stay would be limited to two nights. Oh well. Some time better than no time.

The Hotelito was more like Chris and Aska’s cottage and dinner was not at in a restaurant but at a big communal table served and made by Aska. Joining us at dinner were Douglas, and two Spanish girls, Belen and Elena, that I recognized from our shuttle to and from Tikal, and volunteers from the clinic across the river, Jessie from the US, and Anna and Brem from belgium. Dinner was delicious and vegetarian but so good that Adrian said “I don’t even miss the meat.” (his ultimate culinary compliment) I’m surprised our systems didn’t go into shock or at least cry from the blessed sight of vegetables.

Dinner was awesome not just because of the food but because of the company. Despite arriving unannounced, we immediately felt welcome and part of the small group. We learned a lot about politics in the country. Basically, the war has never ended in Guatemala. Only 14 families still own all of Guatemala (including the government, the banks, and business) and run it like the mafia. These 14 families are proud of their Spanish blood and don’t mix with the largely indigenous population of the country. In fact they are still actively working to repress the Mayan population. There are still some revolutionary forces in action. Recently some agitators nearby burnt some villages in protest and so we were advised to stay away from the manatee reserve until Chris and Aska could figure out if it was safe for tourists or at least arrange for a local guide. They assured us we were never in danger (both the government and the revolutionaries want tourism in the country – for different reasons) but they didn’t want us to stumble into the middle of any local trouble if they could avoid it. As I’d been beginning to suspect, my images of shiny happy Guatemala was a bit of an illusion.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The only mean person in Guatemala.

So far everyone we’d met in Guatemala was super nice. I was afraid to mention it to Adrian for fear that we’d jinx it. Especially today which was a big travel day. We had to get from Tikal way up in the north to Rio Dulce out in the west. Looking at the map, there appeared to be a big ol’ lake/river in the way which required us to go east before we could go west and south. It also required us to take a couple of forms of transportation. But first our free breakfast made and served by the super nice woman at the Hermano Pedro. It included coffee, juice, fruit and pancakes. Just what we needed as we headed out. We grabbed our bags and headed to the road for leg one of our journey - a collectivo heading to Flores/Santa Elena. We stood there for about 20 minutes and watched five go in the opposite direction. That’s good, I told myself, eventually they’ll have to come back this way, right? But before I could get antsy, a mini van pulled up. It was Humberto!

He asked us where we were going and when I told him Flores, he told us to hop in. He and his family were going there for the day and he’d charge us the same as the collectivo. But unlike the collectivo he didn’t pick anyone else up. So it was just Humberto, his wife, (2?3? year old) daughter and us for most of the way. Wow, the people in Guatemala really are super nice.

The ride was fast and uneventful except for the moment when we got to Santa Elena and Humberto’s daughter saw the sign for Pizza Hut. Dad had told her they were going there but forgot to let her know that first he had to drop us off. So as we zipped past the sign she burst into tears and was almost unconsolable – just like kids back home (Andrea, I’m thinking of you and McDonald’s all those years ago). He tried to explain to her but she was too young to understand. All she knew was she had been promised Pizza Hut and we had just driven past it. Thankfully, the bus station was just down the street so we jumped out paid Humberto and let him and his wife fullfil their promise to their little girl.

Humberto had told us there were two bus lines going to Rio Dulce and still trying to recover from the Belizean dent in our budget, we opted for the cheaper one. As we approached the Fuente Del Norte office, a nice man in the bus company uniform let us know that one was leaving in 20 minutes and that it cost 70Q. We got on the bus carrying our luggage and although it still wasn’t a chicken bus it was a grubby non-ac coach.

As we pulled out of the station, the nice man starts collecting fares. Another man approaches us and asks for the fare without smiling. I don’t have 140 just 200. With an unhappy look he took it and turned away without saying anything. The next thing I know he’s off the bus. I’m confused and started wondering if maybe the mean second guy was just a stranger asking me for money. I call after him politely, with only a slight hint of panic, and run up the aisle wishing I’d taken more Spanish lessons. When I got to the front, the nice man stopped me and told me that the mean guy is with the bus company and something else I don’t catch as he motioned me back to my seat. It’s only then that I noticed the mean guy is helping an old lady get her luggage from underneath the bus.

As I waited for the mean guy to return with my change, I began to feel stupid for overreacting. But as more people get on and pay, my suspicion returns. I still don’t have my change. Before charging up the aisle again, I decided to wait for our first pit stop. However, we pulled away from the stop and nothing. At this time I also noticed that everyone else received a ticket when they paid but we hadn’t – so we didn’t even have proof payment if the mean guy decided to be really mean. After 2 hours we arrived at fairly large town for another, longer pit stop in front of a bus office. I decided to make my move – after using the disgusting bathroom (tip: if you ever need toilet paper, small 5Q notes can come in quite handy). Bladder empty I approached the two bus guys and nicely asked them for my change. The mean man looked at the nice man and said something. The nice man replied by motioning him to give me the money. It seemed like an eternity before he pulled out the money and pealed off 40Q in change. However, I needed 60Q back and I think the mean guy was hoping my math was as bad as my Spanish. But I waited with my hand outstretched and a big super polite smile until he reluctantly pealed off another 20Q. Well at least I’d gotten my change. Sitting on the bus I couldn’t shake the feeling that the bus was really expensive but without a ticket receipt I still don’t know what the price really was.

Unfortunately, the nice man didn’t get back on the bus and now was just the evil man. He kept coming back and eyeing Adrian and I – particularly sleeping Adrian and his bag which made me even more nervous and I just want to get off the bus as soon as possible. It appears I have met the one shifty, unsmiling guy in all of Guatemala. I guess just thinking how nice everyone was, was enough to jinx it.

Another 3 hours and we finally get dumped in Rio Dulce. Of course the guide book says ask the bus to let you off on the other side of the 1km bridge to get to the hostel but I just wanted to get off and away from evil man. So we hopped in a cab. Good thing it would have been a long walk in the sun and I don’t think we would have found the hostel since there was no map in our guide book.

We picked the Backpackers Hostel because it was cheap and it looked its price – a ramshackle boathouse on the edge of the water. The private room was only $10 but you get what you pay for so I pulled out the silk sleep sheets once again to avoid any unwanted guests. But it was decent enough for one night. It also had a great deck restaurant. As we had some lupper (too late for lunch and too early for supper), we could hear music coming from other side of bridge and what looked like some sort of festival. So we decided to hike over the bridge to find out what was going on.

The bridge was indeed huge and offered great views of the lake and river but it also feels dodgy and dangerous with slim sidewalk and speeding trucks zooming by a foot from our heads so we didn’t stop for pictures. And once we got to the other side, the music has stopped but there’s a giant fair with lots of stalls selling treats, appliances(?!) and tempting us to try our hands at carny games as well as a few crappy rides near the stage under the bridge. The stage was still set up for a band so we decided to hang out and wait for the next act. It gave us a chance to check out the surroundings. The local beauty queens were lined up on one side and when the music they danced in a roped off area in front of stage that’s off limits to the rest of us. I couldn’t figure out why until about 40 guys in weird Viking costumes slowly danced in. They were wearing women’s wigs and mannequin face masks and it was creepy but the locals seemed to love it. Although the band was good the dancers were rather distracting. I tried to figure out what this was in honour of - the banner above the stage said something about sweet name of Jesus but couldn’t figure out what the beauty queens and dancing Vikings had to do with the sweet name of Jesus. It all ended with a local politician doing a 20-minute speech or rather, ode of thanks to everyone who performed which signaled our turn to leave.

We’d traveled across the country but thanks to a mean bus ayudante and dancing Vikings it felt like we’d traveled to another universe.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tikal your fancy.

Sorry for the pun but the alarm went off at 4:30 am. That’s an hour no one should be up at. But ruins were waiting and so are better blog entry titles. As I shook a very grumpy Adrian awake, it occurred to me that exactly a month before we’d been at Teotihuacan – the big ruins in Mexico. Oooo. Then it occurred to me we’d been at ruins at least once a week so it really wasn’t anything special. Nevermind

The minivan was there at exactly 5:30 am. Our driver was a friendly man named Humberto. We were first and then we made three more stops to pick up more people before heading through the early morning mist to Tikal. Tikal is located in the middle of a giant national park which much like Angkor Wat in Cambodia comprises many different sites. Too many to do in one day – but unlike Angkor Wat the majority are all centrally located in one area so one day is plenty to do the bulk of it.

Humberto made such good time that we had to wait at the park entrance for it to open and then drive another another 20 minutes through the jungle to get to the entrance of the park. Along the way we passed many yellow “warning; animal crossing” signs – jaguar, weird birds, monkeys, and coatis, but I think they were more a tease than a warning.

Finally we were at the entrance to the ruins. But before we went in we stopped for breakfast at one of comidors which strange peacock-like turkeys strutted in front of. The food was surprisingly affordable for the remote location. Once the tummies were full we started walking. We occasionally followed one of the many tour groups saving ourselves $40, teehee. One great guide called to howler monkeys and some birds and they came over. We also heard him tell everyone to watch out for the monkeys who like to pee on tourists and good thing because they did send a stream or two down just missing a few folks.

The scale of the site is covers a huge area. We were lucky that not only did we get there in the early morning before the sun was blazing but that the day was overcast. Even then we took our time so we didn’t get too tired. Once we broke from the tour groups we didn’t see many other people as we passed lots of smaller temples (both excavated and unexcavated), steleas (carved stone pillars) and altars as well as modern day altars still used by Mayans who worship at the site.

The path soon became steep and riddled with roots that acted as steps. We’d been walking for an hour now and Adrian and I decided that we both needed to water some plants. Not advisable but desperate times call for desperate measures - thank goodness for the stash of tp in the purse. Of course when we arrived at the next temple group at the top of the hill there was a restaurant and toilets. But there aren’t many on the ground. However, this was Templo IV, the tallest structures and the highest vantage point. So we climbed the huge wooden staircase (slowly) to the top. The view was well worth it – way above the jungle to the distant temples. We sat up there for a good 30 minutes taking it all in then made our way back down, giving the thumbs up and encouragement to the others now making their way up to the top.

As we got to the next group, it started to pour. We were lucky that there was a tree to stand under that kept us dry, and doubly lucky that the next tree over was full of spider monkeys to keep us entertained until the downpour passed.

The next group we hit was El Mundo Perdido where all the buildings were aligned with each other and with the sun in some sort of way to make astronomical observations. Not that we could figure it out. It blended in with another plaza (plaza de los siete templos) and then the south acropolis before thinning out.

Around another bend, the second largest temple loomed – Templo V. To get to the top of this one required scaling 7 wooden ladders (not stairs, ladders) and I hadn’t yet mentally recovered from ATM. So I stayed on terra firma while Adrian went up. He was fine until he got to the top and looked down at me to start snapping pictures of him and then something snapped and the next thing I knew he backed right up against the wall and was all but hugging it. He started hugging the wall at the top. Eventually he started making his way down but not before being passed by two ladies twice his age, and a couple of kids. As he crawled back down the ladders I swear I could see his legs shaking. He did get to the bottom sweating profusely out of fear not any physical exertion. It scared the crap out him.

Thankfully the last group of temples was less frightening. It was the Gran Plaza (photo up above)– the most photographed and therefore recognizable complex in Tikal. After everything we’d seen it was almost underwhelming, probably because we’d been walking around for almost 6 hours. So we decided to skip the last one templo de los inscripciones and head back to the car park to chill out until it was time to go. Well, we actually meant to visit the two museums, but since they each wanted a separate entrance fee for them we passed and decided to chill out instead.

Got back to the parking lot one of the people from the shuttle was there with a badly sprained ankle. Not from falling off a temple but from tripping on one of the roots on the jungle path. Humberto helped the gentleman into the van and I heard him and his wife talking about getting some aspirin when they got back to town. Since they were staying over at Don David across the road, I offered to drop off some extra-strength Advil which they gratefully accepted.

I hopped off at our place grabbed the Advil from our room then ran across the road and gave them a handful. I told them I was doing it in the name of travel karma. When we saw each other at dinner a few hours later (yes we went to Don David yet again), the man was much improved and able to hobble around which was good. Since we were taking off for another leg of our journey the next morning, we could use a little good karma.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A run, erm a slow walk, for the border.

Trying to get out of bed the next morning was a chore. Every muscle in our bodies ached and bruises were starting to appear on our arms and legs. So we kept movement to a minimum by spending the day researching the next leg of our journey at another internet café (this one was air conditioned).

Our next stop was Tikal Guatemala – so first search how to get across the border and then where were we going. There were three choices. One stay at the Park. Of course this was the most expensive but it meant we wouldn’t have to travel to get to the park when it opened at 6am. The next choice was El Remate only 45 minutes from Tikal on the shores of the lake. It was the cheapest option but the con was that it wasn’t much of town. The third choice was Flores an hour and half from Tikal. It’s the popular choice because it’s a pretty little town on an island in the lake. But it meant getting up earlier to and spending even more to get to Tikal. I was torn the pros were good pros and the cons were good cons so I chickened out and let Adrian make the choice. For him it was all about money talks so we were headed to El Remate. I found a place for under $25 sent an email, looked up bus, collectivo and taxi prices and routes. Doesn’t sound like much of a day but figuring out accommodation and transit stuff takes up 25% of our time on a good day and sometimes it’s all we do. And it’s enough to be pretty exhausting. So it was early to bed after dinner and packing.

Next morning we checked out remembering to get our towel deposit and after breakfast at Eva’s it was time to make a run for the border – make that more of a walk. We were still sore from ATM afterall. As we approached the collectivo area, a taxi driver offered to take us directly to the border for $15. Since bus only goes to the nearest town we’d still have to take a taxi or collectivo to the border crossing. We weighed our sore muscles versus the convenience then bargained him down to $10. It was such a good deal that we didn’t mind when he picked up a mother and two kids along the way to share the cab.

In 30 minutes we got to the border and entered Belizean immigration where we paid the ridiculous exit fee of $18.75 US. Sure a small portion of it went to the national park ministry but not enough to make me feel good about paying it.

Then it was time to get through the the Guatemalan border where the official money changers descended upon us. Their rate from Belizean dollars to Guatemalan quetzals was spot on so we gladly changed that over. But their rate for Mexican Pesos was less than half of what it should be. We only had 120 pesos ($12), which was pretty useless in our wallet, so we changed that too.Once the transactions were complete it was time for the taxi drivers to descend. One guy offered to drive us to El Remate for $25. After spending so much money in Belize we really wanted Guatemala to be cheaper and were intent on taking the collectivo or chicken bus and tried to refuse but the taxi driver was quick to remind us that we’d have to transfer to another bus at the city of El Cruce because there was no direct collectivo form the border to El Remate.

He dropped his rate to $20 and said he’d wait for us to go through immigration which gave us time to think about his offer. It also gave us time to realize that the Guatemalan police like their guns as much as, if not more than, the Mexicans do. The guard was holding a very large shotgun. But he was smiling. Actually everyone on the Guatemalan side was smiling. It made me realize that in the past month we hadn’t seen much smiling – I'm not saying that the Mexicans or Belizeans were miserable, just that the Guatemalans seems a whole lot happier. I hoped this meant good things for Guatemala They even smiled when they asked for a 10Q entrance fee despite there being no entrance fee for Guatemala. Such official skimming is so bizarre. But since it was less than $2 didn’t care and compared to Belize’s official fees it was nothing. With that we got our our third country stamped in our passports. Bienvenidos a Guatemala. And just as promised, the taxi driver was waiting for us as soon as we turned around. Adrian and I decided that $20 for an hour+ taxi ride directly to our hotel wasn’t that bad. So we told the driver okay which made him smile even more.

Not only was there more smiling in Guatemala but there was also more English after a month of Spanish and Creole. Our driver was fluent which meant Adrian began pestering him about the temples of Tikal being in Star Wars. The first half of the ride was along a dirt road that was so dusty that the leaves and grass to the side were white. Then we hit a new paved road that took us to the town of El Remate. It was really just a road that ran along the lake lined with little tiendas and hotels. Our driver didn’t know where Hostal Hermano Pedro was but kept asking people until he got the exact directions. Now that’s service.

The hostel was good. The room was basic but had a fan, a private bathroom and wireless. The owner didn’t speak any English but she spoke slowly and didn’t laugh at my crappy Spanish making it surprisingly easy to communicate. Okay so there wasn’t going to be fluent English anywhere but I was understanding the Spanish being spoken to me which was a huge improvement from our first three weeks in Mexico.

The wireless was slow so I left the photos to upload while we went for lunch at the fancier Casa de Don David just over the road. Afterwards we walked around the town, consisting of walking down the street and back again, then took in the sights, consisting of horses mating along the lake, before deciding to just flake out at the Hermano Pedro. While Adrian lounged in the hammock and I tried to arrange the advertised shuttle to Tikal but the owner wasn’t around. And her teenage daughter and didn’t quite know what I was trying to ask for. Instead, she was trying to sell me a private guided tour and I just wanted the shuttle for the price on the poster. There had to be a cheaper way so when we went back to Don David for dinner (what can I say the food was good and the servers were super nice) I asked at their front desk. They had the shuttle we wanted for the price we wanted and even at the time we wanted (5am, gulp). He was super nice and helpful just like everyone else we’d met in the country. It was beginning to feel a bit like Pleasantville. I hoped when we woke up it would still be that way.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

No one here gets out alive. Just kidding, sort of.

0800 hours: arrival at Mayan Walk Tours complete
0801 hours: team debriefing.
0806 hours: rations distributed.
0811 hours: awaiting transportation to embarkation point.

Today was really not about fun. Our guides, Martin and Patrick, were not smiling and it had nothing to do with the early hour. Nope caving was serious business and as they handed out the safety equipment – hard hats and head lamps – they made sure we understood this.

Uh-Oh. I was starting to get worried. This sounded like hard work and not being the most physically fit person I wasn’t sure I’d be up for it. I had plenty of time to get rethink our plan during the hour-long ride to the base camp in Tapir Mountain Reserve that started off on a highway and ended on a dirt path.

There was even more time to reconsider during the 45 minute hike through the jungle that had us crossing a river three times. The guides pointed out different types of plants and their uses but I just wanted to get to the cave. By the time we arrived at the base camp, we were sweaty, dirty and wet and we had barely started. But the hike hadn’t been that hard so I figured maybe I was overreacting.

Although it was only 10:30 we were advised to eat some of our food. Adrian and I had a big breakfast before leaving but picked at our hearty portion of chicken and rice ‘n’ beans. We stowed our backpacks and Patrick packed up our cameras and socks in his dry bag before giving us our final instructions.

Then it was off to the cave. The cave opening was a deep pool of water (above) that we had to swim across. It was refreshing after the hike but soon I realized why we had the hard hats and head lamps. There was no light in the cave and as we walked further in it was soon pitch black which made climbing over the rocks even more difficult.

Patrick paused while I put my shoes on tight. And good thing because the rocks were sharp, slippery and required good footing to get over. They also required a lot of work to climb with Patrick being incredibly patient and a great teacher to a neophyte rock climber like me.

“Get small. Stand tall. Get on that booty God gave you.” These were the instructions he gave to me. And I was thankful that Adrian and I were in the small group with just two other guys and the guide. It meant there was no stress about hurrying or crowding in some of the small rock ledges. It was not just physically stressful but mentally as we had to constantly be aware of where are feet and hands needed to go so we wouldn’t go crashing to the sharp rocks below.

There were a couple of times when I thought I’d have to be left behind. But with determination and Patrick’s help I got through.

“Now it’s the easy part,” Patrick promised. Thank god. And it was a relatively flat section that gave us a chance to take in the amazing limestone ceilings and walls. Adrian thought they looked like stuff from a science fiction movie. The water had dripped down in waves that were called curtains or formed lumpy piles of crystal and rock that appeared in front of us. Sometime we saw bats hidden in crevices. Then we all turned off our headlamps and sat in the complete darkness of the cave. It was creepy and calming at the same time.

Then it was off again for another 45 minute hike. And the second half was not easy. We had climb up to a rock ledge that was 20 feet off the ground. And another one. Not high but when nothing but jagged rocks are down below and there’s no stairs, it’s plenty scary. I’m not sure if I was shaking because of exertion or because of fear. But I made it up.

Once up, Patrick announced that it was time to take off our shoes and put on our socks. I looked around at the rock floor. No shoes? This was going to be painful.

“Just think of it like reflexology on your feet.” Patrick suggested. Sure it’s like a massage, if the person giving it was muscle-bound sadistic torture artist with razors for fingers. Thankfully, I was distracted by the first Mayan remains.

There were ceremonial pots lying on the rock floor left there during the last thousand years as an offering to the gods. We could see soot marks left by ancient fires as well as crystals caused by cave environment. All Adrian and I could think of was how did they get here. Patrick pointed out where to walk so that we wouldn’t damage anything. Those Mayans must have been pretty determined or had an awesome guide like Patrick.

But there weren’t just pots. There were skulls of human sacrifices, crystallized like the post making it even spookier. At the back of the large cavern, there was a 12-foot ladder precariously leaning against the rock wall.

“Now we go up,” Patrick insisted.

It was terrifying but at least there were solid and smooth steps. The ladder led to another smaller cavern at the end of which lay a complete skeleton.

This was the end of the trip and my heart started racing. Not because the skeleton was scary but because I knew that we’d have to get back out of the cave. I was tired and not sure I’d be able to make it. But I did thanks to the patience and guidance of Patrick and Adrian’s knee which I required to get over some of the rocks that my short legs couldn’t reach.

I have to admit I was happier to jump into the pool at the mouth of the cave than I was to see the skeleton because it meant we were through with the cave.

“I’m really proud of you Liz,” Patrick said to me. “You did it. Congratulations. You should be proud” I guess he couldn’t see the anxiety in my eyes nor my shakey hands as I chain smoked back at the base camp. I was so stressed that I couldn’t finish the rest of my lunch and I gave it to Adrian.

Now I just wanted to get out of there. But hoped I had enough energy left for the hike back to the truck. On the way back, there was a reminder of what could have happened. We passed a group of rescue workers carrying a stretcher towards the cave. They were doing training exercises, not an actual rescue. It just reinforced the danger and increased my anxiety.

Once back at the truck. I couldn’t be bothered to change into my clothes and collapsed in my seat trying to relax after the hike. Some of the other hikers from Martin’s group talked about getting a drink afterwards but when we got off at the tour office, Adrian and I headed across the street to our room for a hot shower, clean clothes and a celebratory nap.

We’d survived ATM. I think.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Iguana see some ruins.

The weird thing about our time in Belize so far was that we’d talked with very few Belizeans with the exception of Belize City and that’s because the expats are too scared to go there. Expats were everywhere, understandable I guess considering that only 25 years ago Belize was still a British colony so not only is there plenty of sun and sand it’s relatively stable politically AND they speak English. In San Ignacio, I thought it might be a bit different. It’s located far from the beach, up in the jungle near the Guatemalan border. But during our first day we’d only encountered expats: our hotel was owned by a Brit, the travel agency/tour company next door was owned by another Brit; even the server in Café del Sol was a Brit who came here with his Belizean wife 20 years ago but she went back to the UK and he stayed. What this meant for Adrian was a chance to get a proper English breakfast. He was momentarily disappointed by the lack of black pudding until he spied the steaming pile of baked beans. “Luvely”, he proclaimed.

Being surrounded by expats also meant that we were able to get more great tips on what to do and see in San Ignacio. And there were many things as long as you wanted to see either ruins or caves. We decided to start off with what we knew and also what was closest and headed to the ruins of Cahal Pech.

We didn’t want or expect much. After all we were now a little rusty at sightseeing. Cahal Pech was perfect. There was a little museum to start with which explained the history of the Mayans and included some of the stuff that had been excavated from the site. And the ruins were nice too. We had the whole place to ourselves so Indiana Barret was free to run around, climb over walls and explore while demanding that I take a picture of him every two minutes. Not only were there no other visitors, there was no gauntlet of souvenir sellers to navigate which made it a very relaxing and fun experience.

On our walk back to town we stopped in at the most exclusive hotel in town. Not to see how the other half lives, nor to check out the royal suite where Queen Liz stayed a few years back. No we were there to see some iguanas.

The San Ignacio Resort Hotel was also home to an iguana preservation project. And after we notified the concierge about our intentions, we were given a private tour of it, for a donation. Our guide David led us past the people lounging by the swimming pool and the tennis courts, through the perfectly landscaped forest which was actually a medicinal garden. David pulled two round fruit off one tree.

“Do you know what there are?” David asked.
“No.” Adrian and I replied.
“Well what do they look like?” he continued.
“Um they bare a resemblance to er um a certain…” I stumbled for the polite words.
“Balls,” blurted out Adrian.
David smiled and nodded in agreement. “We call them cahones de mono. You can’t eat them but the sap makes a glue which is good for bot fly bites.”
“Bot fly bites?” Adrian had to ask.
“Yes, the flies that lay their eggs in your skin. To get the maggots out you put this sap over the bite and it kills them so you can get them out.”
“Baby?!?” hypochondriac Adrian paniced.
“Let’s see some iguanas” I jumped in hoping to distract him another ailment he would soon be convinced he had.

David took us to the iguana enclosure and explained the program. Essentially iguanas are threatened thanks to their use as jungle chicken by locals. The program educates kids about the iguanas’ importance to the environment and most importantly why they shouldn’t eat them. It is also trying to increase the iguana population by gathering eggs in the wild then hatching and raising the iguanas until they are big enough to have a chance to survive. David then threw open the doors and brought us inside.

All around us were dozens of foot long iguanas. David introduced us to two long-term residents Gomez and Pedro. Both were too tame to release back into the wild although they weren’t tame with each other. When the two were brought close to each other, they put up their spikes and made weird noise. But once apart they were tame enough that we could pet them.

In the second enclosure, the young iguanas were kept and there were hundreds of tiny bright green ones everywhere. David placed one on our hands and them kept piling them on us until we had iguanas on our heads, shoulders, and arms. I tried to pat one of the little ones but he whipped his tail at me. The iguana may have been small but he was feisty.

“Oh that’s their defense mechanism” David informed me.

Thanks for the warning David. That stung. But David redeemed himself by making sure we didn’t step in any of the numerous piles of iguana shit that looked remarkably like dog turds for easy identification. It was a great experience made better by David’s obvious passion and care for the iguanas.

It was only mid-afternoon so we returned to the internet café for a bit before we went to one of the tour offices to see what we could do the next day. We ruled out more ruins (we still had to save something for Tikal) which left caving. Did we want cave tubing? Cave swimming? Cave walking? Or cave horseback riding? In the end we opted for the one that offered cave skeletons – Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM for short – because caves are spooky and cool and so are skeletons. Together they’d be even spookier and cooler. Of course the spooky/cool factor was slightly diminished when after handing over $150US we were handed a one-page packing list - backpack, 1 litre of water minimum, a change of clothes, sturdy shoes, swimsuit with shorts – and a brief itinerary. 1 hour hike, 25 metre swim, and 2 hour cave climb. Scary. And also exciting. Today had been fun but tomorrow we were in for an adventure.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

All good things come to an end.

Thanks to Santa Semana our impression of Belize before Tobacco Caye had not been good. Nothing to do. Nothing to see. And occasionally, nothing to eat. If it weren’t for the tourist hotspots of Caye Calker and Tobacco Caye we would have left Belize after our first 48 hours. We had originally planned to head south through Belize to Guatemala but Craig and Andrew had promised us great things in San Ignacio on the western border with Guatemala. So a detour and reworking of our itinerary was in order. At 9am we left Craig and Barbara on the dock as we took the boat back to Dangriga.

This time the ride was smooth. Supposedly any boat ride is better in the morning – good to know. And even Dangriga was better the second time around. There were people on the street and shops were open – there was life there after all. But not enough to make us stick around. Within 20 minutes we were on a bus to boring Belmopan (still as boring) where we had to transfer to the San Ignacio bus.

We were glad for a little break so we could get the circulation back to our butt cheeks and we deliberately missed the first San Ignacio bus to prolong our break. The second bus was just as full as the first and sped along the Western Highway testing its limits every 10km when someone on the curb waved it down. But that wasn’t the most exciting thing. That would happen just outside of San Ignacio.

There were a few rowdies sitting at the back of the bus – it seemed in keeping with the school bus décor. One guy in particular was hassling the driver and the ticket guy. Now hassling the ticket guy I can understand. They’re usually tiny little guys which is great for squeezing between the packed seats. But hassling the driver is brave. Everyone I’d seen looked like the love child of a drill sergeant and linebacker. Since the conversations were in a mixture of Criol and Garifuni, Adrian and I weren’t sure of the details. But imagined it went something like this.
“You drive like my mother.”
“Watch what you say about my mother.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t say anything worse than what’s written about her in the bathroom stalls.”
Or something like that.

Since no one else on the bus seemed bothered by the exchange we blocked it out. But when the loud mouth got off the bus he must have said something particularly bad because the next thing we knew, the supposed bad boy was running scared through the bushes as the wiry ticket boy waved a machete at him and the hulking driver yelled something at him from the bus. It was a tense moment until the entire bus broke out into laughter at the bad boys expense. Apparently he was all talk and figuratively wet himself when given a bit in return.

Arriving in San Ignacio was a bit anticlimactic after that. Even when we had to hit up 4 places before we found a room, our stress levels barely tweaked. We eventually found a cheap room with a shared bathroom in the Tropicool which sounds much more happening than it was. In reality just 5 rooms and two bathrooms on the bottom floor of the house. But it was clean, quiet and cool. The last point being the most important since we’d traveled inland leaving the cool sea breezes behind.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

There is no internet on tiny islands but there are good people.

Tobacco Caye was turning into my favourite stop so far. Not because of the accommodations (good but not the best we’d had). Nor the scenery (the island was tiny and easily seen in about 10 minutes). But because of the hominess. It allowed us to get to know the other people staying on the island. Sure we’d met folks in Mexico but the nature of different travel plans, schedules and meant we were lucky to get people’s names. But stuck 15 kilometres offshore on a 5-acre island without internet and only 4 hours of power a day, we spent quality time with others because frankly there wasn’t much else to do.

It was nice not just for sharing tips but for new human contact. Travelling as a couple is great because you have a built in buddy but it’s also nice to have someone new to talk to about new things. We were lucky enough that our neighbour Craig was willing to put up with us. The communal dining set up helped us get over the awkward initial introductions and chat about life the universe and everything.

So we spent our last full day alternating between talking, reading, writing, snoozing and hanging out with new friends. There was Craig as well as one of the islands dogs and a cat who adopted us. As we watched Che on the laptop that night, drinking rum that Craig was generous enough to share with us, the cat curled up between us on the bed.

It’s the kind of experience that you can’t take pictures of and stick in a photo album but they make some of the best memories.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish

As the tourist brochures proudly proclaim, the second largest coral reef in the world (and growing) lies off the coast of Belize. So watch out Australia. It was now within a stone’s throw from our cabin porch tempting us from the moment we arrived on Tobacco Caye.

After our communal breakfast, we all headed out with Blinkie to explore it. Joining us on the tour were two more Canadians (this was getting ridiculous) from Vancouver Island. Adrian stared hesitantly at the boat, remembering yesterday’s rough ride. But the seats today actually had backs and cushions and the sea was calm. So he was convinced to get in. Well, that and the snorkeling.

Our first stop was the manatee reserve to look for these large so-ugly-they’re-cute water mammals affectionately known as sea cows. It was mating and birthing season so we were told we couldn’t snorkel but we had a 90% chance of seeing one from the boat. However, seeing was a misnomer. Manatees only pop up for air for a moment or two before going back underwater. Plus they hate boats. Propellers are the number one killer of manatees – I’d hate them too. In an hour we spotted two lumps and trusted they were manatees. Hopefully our sea life spotting odds would improve while snorkeling.

On the way to the reef, we passed by Man o’ War Caye known locally as Bird Island. It was roughly the same size as Tobacco Caye but covered in thousands of birds instead of Canadians, making me feel like I was Tippi Hedren in a Hitchcock movie. But we didn’t have to worry about bird attacks as they were too busy mating and babysitting. We did have to worry about one thing.

“This is the only place in Belize that it snows,” Blinkie said with a smile. Immediately we all pulled our arms in under the boat’s awning.

Unscathed we headed to a spot on the reef, geared up and jumped in the water. Adrian was a little unnerved about jumping into deep water so far from shore so Blinkie lead him to a shallow in the reef. I followed him. Good thing because my snorkel did not fit well so every third breath I was getting a mouth full of sea water which kinda defeats the purpose of a snorkel. Adrian and I switched. That fixed the problem and soon we were both feeling comfortable enough to join the rest of the group.

It was great floating around the sea, looking down on schools of fish in a rainbow of colours. Blinkie pointed out three different types of rays hiding amongst the coral and under the sand. He even swam down and coaxed them out. They swam, erm flapped, um glided away. Even when the fishes thinned out the coral was spectacular, big round brain corals, purple stuff like trees and the rocky main reef. I was so entranced that I didn’t notice a wave pushing me over the coral cutting my thigh. Good thing we hadn’t spotted any sharks nearby.

We spent an hour and a half floating around before heading back to the boat. Getting in everyone grimaced at the blood coming out of my cut – it looked worse than it was. So I pressed my hat up against the cut to stop the bleeding while we headed back to the Caye only 2 minutes away, just in time for the lunch bell.

At $25 US the tour was a bit pricey but well worth it. We signed out the gear until the next day and spent the afternoon exploring the reef around the Caye. The fishes and coral weren’t as spectacular but there was enough to make it worthwhile. It was about this time that I realized that I’d missed putting sun screen on the back of my thighs – there’s always one spot I miss. So I went to hide under some shade and left Adrian. While I caught up on my journal (the blog would have to wait until we had internet access again), Adrian attempted to swim around the entire Caye. He had to give up when it got to shallow on the east side.

Over dinner we compared our list of underwater spottings. Apparently, I’d missed puffer fish, barracudas and starfish. But since we had barracuda for dinner, I’d say I only missed two out of the three.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Don’t pay the ferryman ‘til he gets you to the other side.

I knew little about Tobacco Caye. Our Lonely Planet was woefully out of date (at least 5 years) and had only a passing mention. But thanks to a friend’s reco and some quick internet searching, I’d managed to piece together that it was a tiny key about 30 minutes offshore right on the barrier reef, great for snorkeling and diving and very chill. I expected it to be like Caye Calker but the minute we got to the dock I knew just how off the comparison was. This was no terminal. There was no ticket desk. There was just a guy named Bernard and a boat. A small boat.

We agreed on a price. But before we got onboard, Adrian needed breakfast. Or rather lunch. Because the only thing open was a small shack selling chicken, rice and beans. This time we mixed it up and got the beans and rice. Not quite a full English but after two days of gas station and convenience store cuisine it was delicious and cheap too. With full stomachs it was time to get on the boat. It was just three benches and Bernard soon filled them up. Meaning I ended up sitting in the middle which started out uncomfortable but became excruciating as soon as we pulled out of Dangriga. The boat should have planed smoothly over the water but a combination of a full load and lots of waves had us slamming down as if the water was concrete. Not only was my butt getting bruised but my lower back killing me.

With nothing but sea in sight, I had nothing to distract me from the pain made worse by that stupid song kept playing in my head on repeat. “Don’t pay the ferryman don’t even say the price. Don’t pay the ferryman until he gets you to the other side.” Finally, a strip of land dotted with cabanas and deluxe huts came into view on the horizon. Yay we’re here. But as we got close to it, the boat turned away to a break in the caye and kept going further out towards a tiny spec that didn’t get much bigger as we headed towards it. This was Tobacco Caye, five square acres of land on the edge of the Central American barrier reef.

We pulled up to a dock. We had made it to the other side (barely) so I paid our ferryman. But our journey wasn’t over. We still didn’t have a place to stay. And without a map or roads to follow we just started walking. Tobacco Caye was a bump in the ocean scattered with guest houses and cabanas. We weaved through them getting a little bit lost until I recognized some of the cabanas from the pictures Andrew had sent me.

“Excuse me?” I asked a guy lying in a hammock, “Where’s the office?”
“Don’t know. I was met at the dock,” he replied, “but try over there by the restaurant”
As I rounded the corner, I ran into a woman.
“Are you Elaine?” she asked me.
“No. Elizabeth. Are you Karen?”
“No Barbara.”
Oh maybe this wasn’t the place from the photographs. But it looked nice and I was sick of carrying our backpacks. 
“Oh. Do you have room for two?”

She did. And as Adrian painstakingly assessed and compared the two available cabins, she and I continued talking. Soon realized we were indeed the people we had been looking, we were just both bad with names. She was Barbara, friend of Andrew and transplanted Canadian who’d arrived a year ago on the Caye and hadn’t looked back. And this was the Tobacco Caye Lodge I’d seen in the photos.

We settled into our lime green cabana with a big comfy bed, a private bathroom and three square meals a day. This was luxury. Finally we’d discovered what Belize had to offer. Beach. Sun. And chilling.

Next door to us was another Canadian, Craig (Hi Craig). He was traveling from Cancun through Belize but had bypassed the north and Belize City in favour of San Ignacio. He liked it so much that he stayed there for 10 days – a strong second recommendation for a town we originally weren’t going to get to. Then the dinner bell rang and we continued our conversation in the communal dining room. The other guests, two Swiss gentlemen were already there. Blinkie, the lodge’s guide, told us he was doing a snorkeling tour the next day and we all signed.

Night had fallen suddenly while we were eating and when we were done it was pitch black outside except for the bazillions of stars. It didn’t leave much to do so Adrian and I went back to the cabin and watched more episodes of Dexter. Outside we heard drumming and singing so we turned off the computer and headed towards the music. At the tiny beach bar a bunch of Garifuna guys were playing a bunch of unique percussion instruments (marimbas, turtle shells, etc) while a bunch of people from the Raggamuffin tour boat drank and danced around them. The tour group was on Tobacco Caye for the night as they sailed from Caye Calker to Placencia stopping at small islands like this on the way – a much better boat ride to Tobacco Caye than ours.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Decision time in Dangriga

“So where are you going?” Norma asked as she poured out the coffee.
“well, ,were going to head to Dangriga to see if we can catch the Garifuna festival,” I replied.
“Hmph” Norma’s lack of reaction didn’t bode well.
In desperation I added, “Maybe we’ll head to Tobacco Caye.”
“Oh, good. It’s nice there.”

Actually, Adrian and I hadn’t decided. Belize was depressing us only because we couldn’t do anything. We’d already walked around and seen all there was to see. And we’d done the day trip to Caye Calker. But until everything reopened on Tuesday that was all there was. Our decisions were made worse by the lack of internet cafes with their access to bus schedules and accommodations.

However, the tourist brochure in the hotel promised the rich Garifuna culture of Dangriga so we thought we’d head there. The Garifuna are a descendants of African slaves and the Caribe people; they have there own language and music that links then more with the Caribbean than with Latin America. Dangriga was home to the Garifuna museum and a festival. Plus it’s also the place where you can catch a boat to Tobacco Caye or a bus to the beach town of Placencia if we found ourselves still searching for life in Belize.

Loaded up with our big backpacks on our backs, day packs on our front and bags over our shoulders we walked to the bus station which didn’t look any better than the day we arrived. An employee near the entrance, let us know that unfortunately we’d just missed the bus to Dangriga. Our hearts sank.
“When’s the next one?” I crossed my fingers and hoped it was less than four hours.
“18 minutes,” he replied. Yay!
And in exactly 18 minutes a school bus pulled up and we got on. It was full until the police pulled off 3 guys sitting at the back. Don’t know why but they were taken to the police truck and thoroughly searched while the bus pulled out of the station.

The bus drove directly to the capital city of Belmopan. And I’m glad we didn’t go there. There was nothing there. And I mean nothing. So thank you Andrew for warning us. Then it was another hour to Dangriga.

If we thought Corozal had been in a coma, well it looked like they’d pulled the plug on Dangriga. Once again every window and door was shuttered in the rundown little town. We headed towards the shore where there was a group of cabanas, hotels and b&bs and started inquiring. No vacancy. No vacancy. Too expensive. No vacancy. Finally we found a place. At first they offered us a room for $50US but then mentioned that they had basic rooms for $14US including free wifi. Woohoo! We’ll take it. How basic could it be? Very basic. It was a bed and fan and a shared cold water shower that looked like it belonged in a camp ground. So for the first time I pulled out my silk sleep sheet just to make sure that I wasn’t sharing my bed with any 6-legged friends.

I took advantage of the internet access to upload photos and send out some email inquiries (it didn’t look like we’d be staying in Dangriga) while Adrian went out in search of food. He came back with the best in gas station cuisine – chips, ice cream, bread and cheese. Oh well. At least it wasn’t mystery meat again.

As we ate our sandwiches, a French couple arrived and took the room next to ours. They had just returned from Tobacco Caye where they had to spend $75US for one night (the only room available) and then rent a tent for their last night. Not a good sign. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that we were not enjoying Belize and perhaps it was time to just pay the high price. Maybe then we’d start having a good time.

Ronan and Celine assured us we’d have more accommodation choices on Tobacco Caye now that Easter was coming to an end. My friend Andrew had recommended a place where he knew the manager so at the very least we’d be assured of a friendly face. Plus the accommodations there included food which meant we might finally eat real food again. Anything was better than our dingy cabin and gas station menu. I hoped.