BLOG 11: Bolivia and Argentina

We back-tracked along the “Son of the World’s Most Dangerous Road” to La Paz; however, this time on the bus we were sitting on the side opposite to the precipitous drop. We were tired after our rainforest adventure and both nursing various mosquito and insect bites and so we were hoping to get some sleep. Unfortunately, the seats on the bus were covered with shiny plastic (to hide the grubby fabric underneath) and despite various attempts to stay put I kept sliding off and didn’t sleep a wink. So we returned to the capital feeling exhausted. We checked into the Adventure Brew Hostal, recommended by a rare fellow English traveller we met on a hilltop in Copacabana and crashed. Unfortunately, Tim was unwell during the night but we still bought our tickets for the next journey as we were determined to stick to our now-tight schedule. Thank goodness for Immodium AD – we were able make the overnighter to Uyuni!
I awoke once again at dawn: the bus was bumping around dramatically.I looked out of the window and was astonished by what I can only describe as a surreal lunar-like landscape. Here the salt flats dominate and with no obvious road to follow, the bus driver was picking his own course across the treeless terrain. Tim was still feeling rough. Fortunately, despite it being very early in the morning, we were able to secure a room in a decent hotel, run by an American from Boston and Tim was able to rest. I ventured out into the small town to investigate a salt-flats/laguna tour. After an unsuccessful afternoon trying to negotiate with various tour companies something to fit our schedule, I returned to find Tim still unwell: antibiotic time. We abandoned our original tour-plan, sensibly deciding to have a couple of days rest in this comfortable hotel, which also happens to have the best pizza restuarant in town!  

 

Uyuni Grand Central Station

We had heard from Ben and Vicky. They were only a day or so behind us, with Ben having bravely scaled a 20,000ft mountain peak. We had hoped to meet up with them at the pizza restaurant on our final evening in Uyuni but they weren’t arriving until later that night and we had the night train to catch down towards the Argentinian border. As it turned out we had a brief reunion with them on the old-fashioned station platform – they arrived on the train we were leaving on – it was a bit like a scene from an old British black-and-white movie!

I really enjoyed our comfortable overnight sleeper journey from Uyuni to Villazon; we were in the “salon ejecutivo” carrriage, having earlier in the day secured the last two tickets, much to the consternation of an Irish chap in-line behind us. We were settled down by the attendant who gave us warm blankets and pillows. After some up and down bumping around as the train picked its way through a canyon we slept and awoke in the morning to be told that our breakfast in the dining carriage awaited (back-packing eh – it’s a tough life)! This set us up nicely for “border day”, and we had no problem crossing into Argentina and were soon on a bus heading for Salta.

We didn’t escape so lightly afterall. Our bus was stopped a few miles down the road by the police and all passengers were ordered off and we joined the long queue for what looked to be an intensive bag-search. Fortunately, by the time the police got to us, they were bored and clearly not interested in opening our backpacks and waved us through! I wouldn’t have minded if they had chosen mine for a search as after almost four months on the road I am now an expert packer! We continued on our way and enjoyed the wonderful landscape as the road to Salta snakes through the beautiful Quebrada de Humahuaca, a painter’s palette of colour on dramatic hills. We stayed just one night in colonial Salta (where, incidently, I discovered a blood-bloated tick attached to my right leg) and the following day left for Cafayate.

One Glass Too Many

Set at the entrance to the Quebrada de Cafayate, 1600m above sea level and surrounded by some of Argentina’s best vineyards, Cafayate seemed to us to be good place to kick-back for a few days and explore the fabulous coutryside and sample the local wine. Which we did!

Gill 'Lance' Armstrong

But we also hired bikes and ventured up the hillside, tough-going still at this altitiude and after throwing a bit of a wobbler (because Tim said I was going too slowly), I was relieved to make it to a farmer’s goat enclosure where we left the bikes and followed a river upstream to a small waterfall and secluded pool. It was gorgeous: the rocks sparkling with silvery minerals and the thorn-trees in bloom. We didn’t want to leave this beautiful place.

Rio Colorado, Cafayete

After a brief afternoon stop in Tucuman (where Argentina’s Declaration of Independence from Spain was signed exactly 200 years ago), next on our agenda was Cordoba, Argentina’s second city. It didn’t disappoint! It’s a city of culture, manageable in size and a real mixture of architectural styles – although mainly colonial.

We explored on foot, visiting the cathedral, biblioteca and Cordoba Zoo. Whilst reading and doing some writing in the biblioteca, Tim was approached by a librarian who noticed the book he was reading: “The Black Dahlia” by James Ellroy. He told Tim that the biblioteca’s director was a writer himself and a great admirer of James Ellroy’s works and was keen to introduce Tim to him! As it turned out, the director was otherwise engaged and we had to move on…. I didn’t want to miss visiting the zoo!

And so now this is our final week of the big adventure; we’ve had our final long overnight bus journey to reach Buenos Aires. We had half -hoped to hop over to Uruguay but we are, frankly, tired and our bodies are telling us to chill out before flying home on Friday. After weighing up the pros and cons in an American sports bar whilst catching up with the Chicago Bear’s latest excellent result, we have decided to stay put in B.A. We plan to meet up with Ben and Vicky who arrive here tomorrow for a final night’s celebration of the trip.

Docklands, Buenos Aires

It has been an incredible journey…..a real eye-opener for me and, for a while at least, suspect that I will miss my life on the road. But my family and friends back home await me (in the snow!) and I can’t wait to see them. Thanks everyone for all the encouraging messages, I hope very much that you have enjoyed reading my Blog and that you have gained a sense of the magic of fabulous Latin America. Who knows, me and Tim may have another big trip in the future and if any of you do the same, I highly recommend keeping a Blog!

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BLOG 10: Bolivia

We were tired and our legs ached after the climb down the mountain at Machu Picchu and even though it was likely to be a “crisps and biscuits day”, we were looking forward to our bus journey to Puno, on the Peruvian side of Lago Titicaca. It was only going to be a one-night only stop-over but we had planned (Tim’s request) a quick visit to see the “Yavari”, the oldest boat on the lake; English-built and when still lake-worthy, sometimes powered by dried llama dung if the coal ran out! From there it is just a short distance to the border crossing and then on to Copacabana, Bolivia. The day started well with Tim bargaining a good price for our bus tickets at Cuzco bus station and we headed for the Peruvain altiplano that flanks the towering snow-capped Andes. The air looks magically clear at these heights and the landscape stretches for mile- upon- mile with unusual flora: especially the black horn-like plants we have yet to identify. The people up here are mainly farmers and tend their flocks of llamas, alpacas and vicunas and plough their fields with wooden ploughs pulled by oxen – it seems that life has not changed much on the altiplano for centuries. We had passed through the town of Juliaca, the sun was beginning to set and I was just reflecting on all of this beauty when the bus came suddenly to a halt: we had hit a traffic jam – in the Andes! At the same time, I noticed a strong smell of burning coming through the windows, looked out and was shocked to see that the boulders on the roadside appeared to be smoking! The locals on the bus were obviously alarmed and were getting off to join the chaos that was by now all around us. People were abandoning their vehicles on both sides of the road. Our bus driver had disappeared and the conductor was at a loss to explain what was happening or what we should do. A scary situation was developing and was obviously stressful for many, especially some of the older folks on the many tourist buses who had no idea how they were going to reach their destinations. Many of the locals were also transporting huge paniers containing all sorts of produce and by this time it was getting dark and we were in very thin smoke-filled air. Tim and I decided that we had no choice but to retrieve our backpacks and start picking our way uphill through the vehicles and throngs of people. We could now see that the road ahead was strewn with boulders and glass as we pressed ahead in the direction of Puno (about 15km away, we were told by a German tourist walking beside us who had just started with an altitude induced nose-bleed). Soon we could see a burning barricade ahead and deduced that it was a protest of some sort and the organisers of it had blocked the pass – we could see and hear them in the distance. My adrenaline was pumping hard and I couldn’t believe how fast we were walking at this altitude with all our gear. A piece of smouldering rock landed in my hair. On top of that I hate walking through traffic at the best of times… but once Tim had assessed the situation and made the decision to go for it and head for town, I knew he was right: it would have been just as dangerous to stay on the bus overnight in the middle of a political protest. Once we reached the top of the pass where most of the protesters were congregated, we were able to just walk around them. A taxi magically appeared from the other side and stopped right in front of us; we jumped in and made our escape. We had been very lucky…. and we still have yet to find out what it was all about! That night in Puno there were riot police all around the city centre and the air was electric with anticipation so Tim and I decided we weren’t going to hang around and booked tickets for the first bus to the border leaving early next morning. Tim never got to see his boat but at least we got out of a dodgy situation unscathed. The travel gods were smiling down on us the following day when we crossed the border into Bolivia. Copacabana is nestled between two hills and perched on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, the largest high-altitude lake in the world. It is a beautiful sight.

The Blessing of the Automobiles

We arrived just in time for a local tradition of the” blessing the cars”: a procession of flower-decked cars heading up from the lake with people following in traditional dress, a marching band and firecrackers exploding into the air. A fine welcome to Bolivia.

Copacabana and Lake Titicaca

We had a great time in this area, hiking and climbing ancient Inca sites. We also took a boat out onto the lake to the Isla del Sol, the legendary Inca creation site and birthplace of the sun in Inca mythology. The island reminded us very much of the Greek islands but surrounded by the sapphire- coloured lake instead of an ocean, and the snow-capped Andes in the distance.

Isla del Sol

It was to La Paz we were heading next, but only to pass through on this occasion for we had felt the call of the Amazonias! For us backpackers this meant an 18 hour bus journey to Rurrenabaque in the Amazon Basin, travelling along the high moutain pass between La Paz and Coroico. The “World’s Most Dangerous Road” (WMDR) between La Paz and Coroico, a gravel road just over 3.2m wide above precipitous cliffs with a 600m drop into a canyon has been retired After many accidents and deaths, a new road replaced the WMDR in 2007. Almost as high (and certainly as scary looking) as the original, it has already suffered from several landslides and there is room only for one vehicle to pass along it at a time; Tim and I very quickly named this new road “Son of the World’s Most Dangerous Road” and as we had seats overlooking the drop, I must admit there were several instances when I felt the bus back wheels catching the eroding edge, taking my breath away: scary but exhilarating at the same time. Even the locals were animated! We made it though and after a beautiful dawn, arrived into Rurrenabaque to a very different world.

Serere Reserve, Amazon Basin

The next two days were, for me, the most fabulous of the trip so far. Rurrenabaque is situated on the banks of the Rio Beni, which eventually drains into the mighty Amazon. It was on this muddy- coloured river that we set off for on our Amazonian adventure in a small motor boat, accompanied by our friendly tour guides Airam, Elsa and, LPZ friends please note, a shy but curious baby spider monkey wrapped securely in a basket (orphaned and rescued from the rainforest, being cared for by Elsa and to be rehabiltated back into the forest).

Spot the Monkey!

This beautiful little spider monkey immediately took a great interest in Tim and after some time gathered the confidence to reach out his spidery little hands to touch Tim’s much larger ones! After three hours we disembarked at the edge of Serere Reserve and hiked to our cabin deep in the rainforest. It was a magical place and we spent the time available to us exploring the forest and nearby lake with our local guide, Choco. We saw all sorts of wonderful creatures such as red howler monkeys, white-fronted capuchins, squirrel monkeys…

Alligator Eyes

… black caimans, aligators, a green mamba snake (!) and a lot of birds, including scarlet macaws and the magnificent and tropical-looking Serere bird (Hoatzin, after which the park is named). The trees in the rainforest are astonishing and magnificent, some are ancient with huge buttresses and lianas. Sleeping in our simple cabin in the Amazon forest was an amazing experience: we heard the sounds of many creatures – it was awesome and such a privilege. I didn’t want to leave but of course we had to – our wonderful journey will soon end and we must press on to our destination.

Serere Reserve - Casa Grande

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BLOG 9: Ecuador and Peru

Heading towards Ecuador the Panamericana climbs up into the foothills of the Andes, with stunning panoramic views and we had a gorgeous day for it. We were travelling this stretch with Ben and Vicky and decided to break the long distance we had to cover with a stopover in Pasto. We celebrated Vicky’s birthday that evening in this busy, noisy city that, like many others in this region, seem to appear suddenly amongst the mountains and volcanoes. The four of us were a united front and, with Ben’s ability to understand Spanish, ready to face up to anything that was coming at the border. As it turned out, it was a very hassle-free border crossing: no awkward forms and the only question the immigration officer asked me was where in my passport I would like my Ecuadorian entry stamp. Space in it is being used up pretty quickly these days! Trouble came in the form of a taxi driver. We later realised that we had made a wrong turn out of the Ecuadorian immigration building and instead of getting a collectivo, we were descended upon by a group of cab drivers and negotiated a price with one of them to take us away from the dusty border area to the local town’s bus station. As we sped off, we quickly realised that we hadn’t chosen well. The driver started saying that the price was per person and not as we’d agreed but we quickly disabused him of that notion! He dropped us outside the bus station and skulked off! We also had to negotiate three police checkpoints in quick succession but this time our bags were not searched. Otavalo is a fabulous town in an Andean valley, (elevation 8,300ft) famous for its Saturday craft market; the largest in South America, where traditionally dressed tribesfolk sell their wares. The men wear long pigtails, ponchos and dark felt hats. The women are very striking, with beautifully embroidered blouses, long black skirts, shawls and interesting folded headcloths. We were fortunate that our first day in Otavalo was a Saturday and meant that we were able to experience this incredible spectacle.

Otavalo Market

That afternoon we said goodbye once again to our travelling friends, who were hoping to fly to Galapagos the following day and Tim and I climbed up from the valley to see some magnificent Andean condors and other birds of prey at a bird rehabilitation centre on the flanks of Volcan Cotacachi. We planned to travel to the Pacific coast of Ecuador ourselves the following day, but this didn’t happen. Poor Tim had a nasty stomach upset that lasted two days and was confined to bed; this meant that I got to know the Plaza Simon Bolivar in Otavalo and the surrounding streets quite well! It became apparent that it was an Ecuadorian holiday week (All Souls, Independence Day etc) so lots more parades and marches. As a result we were also having trouble finding anywhere to stay on the coast so we changed our plans and decided to make a push towards Peru instead. We headed high into the Andes to Quito, then hopped quickly onto a bus destined for Guayaquil which was soon packed to the gills with holidaying Ecuadorians celebrating the Day of the Dead, having earlier danced and picnic-ed on family graves.We climbed and dipped our way southwards. We arrived quite late at night into Ecuador’s 2nd city and were fortunate that our first choice hotel was clean and comfortable. Tim was beginning to feel a lot better. We were up early the following morning: border day again and mucho miles to go! I like bus travel, which is just as well on this trip, though I have a tendency to nod off at the drop of a hat, especially when the view is just mile- upon- mile of banana plantations! Actually, on this occasion, we were keeping a very close eye on the bus storage locker where our backpacks were stashed… .the bus conductor looked as if he might be up to a bit of a scam or two and we were stopping frequently to load/unload sacks of produce such as potatoes (of which there are hundreds of varieties in these parts) and sugar cane (also a major crop).The conductor and his crew also knew all the good jugo stalls and panaderias between Guayaquil and the border at Tumbes! I am fascinated by the role and skills of bus conductors over here: it seems to me that the main ones are: being able to hang out of the doorway when the bus is speeding along ready to spot any potential passengers; to be very fit for running after the bus when the driver loses his patience and decides to move off; an expert whistler (am still working out what each whistle means) and have a very loud voice. Some of them look to be about age 14 and take their responsibilities very seriously! Finally at the border, the official at the Peruvian side was really laid-back and we got our entry stamps within minutes and were soon speeding in a taxi to the first town, Tumbes, where we did a quick bank stop to get some Soles. As Tumbes didn’t seem to be a place to hang around in we dashed across town in a tuktuk to another bus station where we were fortunate to be just in time for an over-nighter to Trujillo. It was a very comfortable journey on the biggest double-decker of the journey so far and we were even served a decent evening dinner, after which I reclined my seat and watched a movie, the excellent “Life is Beautiful” – Italian, dubbed into Spanish, in Peru. Just to let you know in case you were thinking “this is backpacking?… it’s just that these plush buses are the safest and fastest way to travel long distances in this part of the world. I awoke just as the sun was rising over the Peruvian Andes flanked by the Atacama desert….other-worldly and so beautiful. This area was inhabited by the Moche culture around AD 700-1300 and as we rumbled along in the bus we could see some tantilising evidence left by them in the forms of ancient mounds. Tim and I became interested in the Moches of Peru when we were enthralled by examples of their beautiful ceramics held in the Art Institute, Chicago.

Moche Ceramics

We were very excited to actually be visiting some of their ancient sites. The colonial city of Trujillo was founded in 1534 by Francisco Pizarro who named the place after his Spanish home town. It has a wonderful large plaza with buildings of all colours on all sides and as usual we arrived just as a parade was beginning! It was whilst we were sitting in Plaza de Armas, watching marching bands of children, that we found ourselves talking to Tom Cruise, or rather David, the Peruvian version! Tim noticed straight away that David was wearing, amazingly enough, a “Nottingham” cap and so it turned out that he is married to an English girl who is from Nottingham! David, (also known as King David or Robin Hood!) being in the tourist industry himself and keen to make sure we were going to be joining his tours, joined us for the afternoon, took us to his nearby home town by the sea (Huanchaca) and told us his life story! Our few days in Trujillo and the surrounding Moche and Chimu archaeological sites were outstanding. I would recommend anyone interested in finding out more about these cultures to look up the excellent website (see http://www.fundacionwiese.com/in/arqueologia/lasradecao.html), which tells all about the most recent discovery of Senora de Cau – and an excellent on-going archaeological dig, from which there will no doubt be more excellent finds as time goes by.

Senora de Cao Burial Chamber

Our overnight bus journey along the desert coastline from Trujillo via Lima to Pisco went smoothly. Awoke once again at dawn and noticed that the temperature felt much chillier: Brrr….I now know why Paddington Bear wore a duffle coat and was glad that I had purchased a poncho in Otavalo! Pisco was our base from where we planned to see the abundant birdlife of the Isla Ballestas (also nicknamed “the poor man’s Galapagos”!), the dramatic cliffs of Peninsula de Paracas and the Atacama Desert. Eighty percent of the city of Pisco was destroyed in 2007’s 8.0 earthquake – hundreds died inside the cathedral when the buiding collapsed during a service. Reconstruction has obviously been slow going with many buildings still damaged; Tim and I felt that the place needs support from visiting tourists and we found a lovely place to stay on a dusty street and felt very welcome. Our “poor man’s Galapagos” trip out to the Isla de Ballestas didn’t disappoint! Our guide, Luis, was enthusiastic too and keen to impart his ornithological knowledge and gave a bi-lingual running commentary from the start; the funniest moment of the day for me was when he very excitedly started gesticualting towards a particular rock formation shouting “face of Christ…you see for four seconds only”! Tim didn’t quite get the “face of Christ” rock but I did! From our boat we also saw the famous “Candelabra”: a giant Nasca figure etched into the sandy cliffs. Sealions lazed on the warm rocks and thousands of seabirds were dipping and diving – we thought it was beautiful.

Islas de Ballestas

And Tim was finally able to pick out the “face of Christ” on the way back! Our final excursion in this area was to the oasis of Huacachina which is surrounded by mountainous sand dunes – monsters; of course Tim decided we would climb up the highest one. Halfway up this dune, which had sheer drops on both sides and a striding edge on the top, I thought my vertigo was going to get the better of me and we had the usual discussion which goes like this:

Me: “Actually, I can’t do this-it’s too high and I feel exposed. It’s too much for me. You go on without me and I’ll meet you at the bottom”.

Tim: “Don’t be ridiculous! We’re nearly at the top now; its too late to turn around. You can do it.”

Huacachina Dune Dilemma

I then had to give myself a “calm down, girl” talking-to, focus on my feet and look neither up nor down, and continue the climb. After this moment of crisis and coupled by the fact that we were overtaken by a German couple, I got a grip and finally made it to the top of the dune! It was so worth it: the views across to the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Andes on the other was spectacular. The striding edge didn’t faze me at all in the end so we sat on it and watched the sun go down – a great final night on the south coast of Peru. Onwards over the Andes to Cuzco….we were heading into thin air. It is hard to describe the magnificence of the Andes – I was mesmerised by the huge peaks, glaciers, valleys, rivers, flamingoes, flora, simple farming folk, women in traditional dress sitting on their steps chatting and knitting, babies slung across their backs and herds of alpacas, llamas and vicunas across the plains. Cuzco flies high at 11,000ft and is steeped in Inca history and myth. We looked down onto the brown terracotta roofs of the city from the Inca fort of Saqsaywaman (pronounced “sexy woman!”) and reflected on how it was once the Inca empire’s foremost stronghold. Tim and I planned a DIY excursion along the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu. Our train journey through the valley on the Peru Rail Vistadome service was wonderful with dramatic views and we stayed overnight in Aguas Calientes (mad touristy town but unavoidable and bearable for one night). We were up at 4.30a.m. the following morning…..so very excited: Machu Picchu day! We joined a throng of other eager people heading for the first buses of the day with the same idea of getting up the mountain as early as possible. We made it for 6a.m. and as we climbed the final steps of the Inca Trail the magnificent Inca city was revealed just as the sun rose over the mountains.

Machupicchu - Magnificent!

Totally breathtaking. We spent five hours exploring the abandoned city, which included a walk along a narrow cliff-clinging trail to the amazing Inca drawbridge….I didn’t even have to give myself a talking to on this occasion! The crowds started to arrive by midday by which time we were ready to descend the mountain and so we walked down the original Inca steps back into the valley and caught the train back to Ollantaytambo. I will never forget this incredible day. We were just about to catch a collectivo back to Cuzco, when who should we see walking towards us but Ben and Vicky, just back from Galapagos and on their way to Machu Picchu! We hope to catch up with them in Copacabana, Bolivia where we have just arrived today, after a very dramatic journey across the altoplano….about which I will tell you next time! Bolivia is our tenth country and the trip is going by too quickly!

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BLOG 8: Cartegena, Medellin and San Agustin (Colombia)

Tim and I were mentally prepared for all eventualities at the Colombian border. As it turned out, we had our smoothest passage through immigration and customs so far on the trip. So it was, with a no questions asked- half-smile from the official, who incorrectly stamped our passports with the day before’s date (my birthday!), and a green light through customs control, we were in no time at all zipping in a cab along the ocean front of Cartagena de Indias on our way to the old part of this historic city, founded by the Spanish in 1533. We had a bit of a laugh with our cab driver who pointed out that the city was beseiged by Francis Drake in 1586! In response, the Spaniards made Cartagena an impregnable port and constructed thick walls and forts; very little has changed in the old part of the town to this day. It is gorgeous with many beautiful squares and flower-bedecked balconies- a great place in which to wander for a few days and soak up some shared history.

With Ben and Vicky in Cartagena

It was whilst we were wandering around the historic city one morning, I noticed ahead of us a familiar couple consulting a Lonely Planet guidebook just like ours: it was Ben and Vicky! They told us of their fabulous boat journey via the San Blas Islands to reach Cartagena, and they were lodging in a hostel just a few doors down from our hotel.It was great to see them and we shared our various travelling experiences since we last saw them on Ometepe (Nicaragua) whllst sitting in the sunshine of Plaza de Bolivar and drinking a refreshing citrus juice purchased from a small cart near the plaza entrance.

Plaza Trinidad, Cartagena

That evening we all met up for dinner: an Indian curry followed by a few bottles of local beer whilst sitting on the wall of lovely Trinidad Square (our favourite) and watched some local people gathering, with many of them bringing along, oddly enough, broom handles! Intrigued, we hung around to see what use these handles were going to be put to, but after an hour or so with no obvious answer we travellers were yawning and it was time to say “au revoir” to Ben and Vicky once again. They were heading to Bogota the following day; to press on with our schedule, Tim and I were journeying on the 13 hour overnight bus to the city of Medellin.

After snatching a few hours of sleep on this bus with its comfortable reclining seats and, for once, well-controlled air-con, i.e. not set at Chicago winter temperatures, I awoke at dawn to see a beautiful sunrise over mountainous northwest Colombia with its fertile volcanic soil that blooms with flowers, verdant coffee farms and ethereal cloud forests. As the effects of my travel-sickness tablet was beginning to wear off, I was relieved when eventually we arrived in Medellin early afternoon. In the 1990s, Medellin was known worldwide for its cocaine trade and cartels and the city was a no-go zone for foreigners until the drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar, was gunned down on a city rooftop in 1993. In contrast to those dangerous times, the economic engines of this cosmopolitan city today are mainly cut flowers, coffee and textiles. It also has Colombia’s only metro system, which we found to be extremely efficient and sparklingly clean. As Medellin is surrounded by mountainous terrain and spills down a narrow valley, the poorer and once most dangerous areas, known as barrios have been built high up on the mountain sides. Tim and I took a ride on the newly-installed metrocable that sweeps up and over the barrios and into the cloud forest – breathtaking! The artists amongst you might be interested to know that we visited the Museo de Antioquia which, along with other Hispanic and modern art works, features many of the works of local artist Fernando Botero. Many of his large bronze sculptures have been placed outside this wonderful museum, in the Plazoleta de las Esculturas – they are very striking.

Medellin

From Medellin we had another long bus journey to Popayan and then a 6 hour minibus journey up over very different moutainous terrain to San Agustin. This time, our bus was stopped by the policia and our bags searched. My bag they searched without me being present and I later discovered that one of them had taken a pack of playing cards that me, Tim and Alex had bought years ago in Jordan. I was quite upset and annoyed and Tim had to put the theft into perspective: it was a minor thing in the scheme of things. I could feel a cold coming on.

We were sat squished up on the back seats of a very beaten-up minibus for the journey to San Agustin at an altitude of 10,000ft. I knew immediately it was going to be an interesting journey when I saw that the old lady in front of me had a small dog in a shopping basket on her knee and the man on the other side had a chicken tied up which was clucking in protest from time-to time! We ran out of paved road very shortly into the journey and from then on, until we almost reached San Agustin, bumbed and jolted our way over the mountains, where the flora on top is unique to this region with some very strange looking plants that look a bit like a cross between a cacti and an upside down pineapple. We were about four hours along this track when I knew that I really was wanting to go to the loo pretty badly and one look at Tim, so did he! We were just contemplating asking the driver if he would stop so we could hop off for a minute, and most likely be the laughing stock of the minibus, when, thankfully, we pulled into a mountain-top “restaurant”. It was bitterly cold and after the usual queue for me at the women’s banos, Tim and I decided that the “stew” on offer was not for us on this occasion and instead had a lunch of crisps and biscuits (as we do from time to time when feeling a bit fragile on these adventures!). Actually, Tim is more adventurous than me in these roadside eating places but I am getting better and these days often tuck in to a “comida corriente”: i.e. chicken, rice, beans and plantain and often find myself choosing it when I don’t have to!

San Agustin was a trip highlight despite the minibus ordeal to reach this remote place and my having a bad cold. The countryside around this small Colombian town is beautiful, with waterfalls, rivers and canyons and we found a fabulous place to stay in a bamboo cabin with a gorgeous garden and million-dollar views overlooking the Rio Magdalena and the canyon.

House of the Rising Sun, San Agustin

But it wasn’t just the spectacular views we had come for. Long before Europeans came to the Americas, the rolling hills around San Agustin were ruled by a mysterious group of people who buried their dead and honoured them with magnificent statues carved from volcanic rock. Those of you who know Tim will appreciate that he was very keen to explore the ancient sites!

Sugar Mama!

We decided to book on a tour of the area by jeep and our guide was the Colombian version of my Dad! Raphael was in his 70s, fit as a fiddle, very knowledgeable about the area and its history and seemed to be known by many of the locals. He didn’t speak English but we were fortunate to have on our tour a German girl who could speak perfect English and very good Spanish and so with our self-appointed translator, Rafa tooks us to visit his sugar-farming friend and family. It was amazing to observe this family at work boiling down the sugar cane in various stages to produce the fudgy blocks of caramel-coloured vanillary sugar. Not one part of the sugar cane was wasted as the husk were used to fire up the bubbling cauldrons of sugar.

Los Idolos

Our day spent in the sunshine on the hills of San Agustin with Rafa learning about the anthromorphic figures, waterfalls, rivers, canyons and the process of making sugar was fantastic….a day I will always remember.

The minibus journey back to Popayan was much easier (newer vehicle and we knew what to expect!). Once back in civiisation I checked my emails at the hostal to see a message from Ben and Vicky saying that they also were in Popayan. After a few messages we discovered they were in fact staying in the same hostal as us and their room was just across the corridor from ours! We hooked up the following day, also Vicky’s 30th birthday, for the onward journey towards Ecuador…..another long one, not without its moments …!

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BLOG 7: Republica de Panama

Regarding border crossings: one expects the worst but hopes for the best. The crossing at Sixaola over the rickety wooden planks across the river to the Republica de Panama was going well… we were just thinking that this one might be a breeze when we found ourselves surrounded by “border guides”, i.e. men who like to think of themselves as being your personal thorn in the side at moments when all you want to do is get your passport stamped with the correct date and find the quickest and cheapest mode of transport onwards as quickly as possible. You just want to avoid scams, bag searches and and generally being wound up. The border people here were of the worst kind; insisting that we purchase a return bus ticket back into Costa Rica before letting us into Panama. We protested – too strongly for their liking and, along with another European backpacker, we were taken aside into a stifling customs office and given the third degree. The Spaniard had to open up his main backpack for a thorough search (exposing I must admit very neatly organised contents) and I was really praying to the border gods that I was not going to have to do the same! Tim would have been OK though as his bag is invariably very well-packed! As it turned out, after Tim’s reluctance to fill in their ridiculous forms they were tiring of us and after a quick fumble through our day bags to save face we got our entry stamps and on the bus to Bocas! Phew! 

 

Bocas del Toro on Isla Colon is an hour’s boat ride from the mainland of Panama….a supposed Caribbean paradise. Actually, I think Bocas is a bit tired  with way too many tourists and a very scruffy beach. Many people cross over to the smaller nearby island of Bastimentos but we found a top floor room at Casa Max with a fine balcony and fab view across the ocean and a pebble’s throw from an excellent tapas restaurant and a bar on a shrimp boat called “Rip Tide”! One day we got a small motor boat and bounced across the waves to Bastimentos where there are no roads and walked through the forest across the island to Wizard Beach: uninhabited, remote and where the surf is lively.

Wizard Beach

 

We lingered for a few days enjoying our balcony on Bocas planning our next move.

Tim in Bocas

 

We crossed the country from the Caribbean to the Pacific: a breathtaking 7 hour bus journey over the high pine- forested mountains of Chiriqui to David, the state capital and cattle centre. Just a rainy overnighter in David and onwards next day to Panama City. We had business to attend to on the ishtmus of Panama.

After congratulating ourselves for managing to flag down a “Ruta 2” bus amongst the thousands at the bus terminal, we settled into our third choice hotel in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Casco Viejo – the ‘Old Compound’. We enjoyed our days spent amongst the wonderful old buildings of Casco Viejo: some have been restored and some are almost ruins but it is evocative of a bygone era with its walls of fortification and charming iglesias and plazas. The president’s palace was just around the corner from us and the Special Police kindly let us through the security gate to peak in through the front door at the white herons who are allowed to roam the lower floors.

Panama Canal - Miraflores Locks

Of course, we couldn’t miss a visit to the Panama Canal and the locks at Miraflores and did so on the morning of my birthday and watched some mighty container ships make their way slowly through the canal. An amazing sight.

Panama City

That evening, after a glorious sunset over Panama Bay, we celebrated not only my birthday (splurged again on steak and a good bottle of Chilean red) but also that we had managed to book a flight onward to Colombia. Expensive true, but we had attended to our business in Panama! We said goodbye to Central America and flew over the San Blas islands for our last look at the Caribbean, bound for Cartegena.

South America here we come!

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BLOG 6: Isla de Ometepe (Nicaragua) and Costa Rica

We awoke to a vision of flowers, birds and butterflies with the lake at the bottom of the garden and two majestic volcanoes on either side of us.
 
Ometepe is the sort of place that belongs in fairytales; unspoilt and is great for hiking and exploring.The local people get around the island mainly on horseback, pushbike, pickup and rickety bus. As Tim is not a horse-rider and is not about to become one, and it’s been a while since I was, we rashly decided to borrow the two pushbikes offered to us by the folk at Little Morgan’s. I must just tell you that Little Morgan’s is owned by a small, bald, passionate Irishman called Morgan, who dotes on his small son (half Nicaraguan) also called Morgan…..so hence “Little Morgan’s”! He is in partnership with two Australians and they are all helped out by an American and another Australian! Really, all you need to know is that this was a very friendly and welcoming team. They also cook fantastic meals and have a good supply of chilled beer. We knew from the start that our tricky journey to reach this beautiful place was most definitely worth it!

Garden at Little Morgan's

 
Me and Tim decided that the 12 hour hike up Volcan Concepcion was not for us and left that one for our fellow backpackers: Ben and Vicky (about twenty years younger than us). Instead, we set out on bikes to explore around the island.The bikes had seen better days and the gears had rusted up. Even before we had pushed them up the hill from our lovely, simple casita towards the main highway (remember:unpaved and rutted track) I knew that this was not going to be plain cycling. Once on the road I had a little practice, hit a rock and almost fell off! Tim seemed a bit more confident so took the lead, sped determindly off and I attempted to follow in his tracks. The views of the two volcanoes were stunning and we eventually got used to the uneven terrain. We had in mind a leisurely cycle to a restaurant mentioned in our guidebook on the other side of Volcan Concepcion, have lunch and then cycle back. We hadn’t taken into account the really steep hills and this combined with the rough terrain, roadside lava flows and the hot sun beating down made for an exhausting day. It didn’t help that the restaurant was closed for lunch and the nearest village with a shop was a couple of hours away back up the steepest hill……ever! I have never been so thankful for a chilled bottle of lemon-flavoured Gatorade in my life! Tim just emptied a whole bottle of cold water over his head to try and cool down! We rewarded ourselves with a refreshing dip in a natural volcanic pool on the way back and handed the bikes in just as the sun was going down. I must admit I was relieved to have made it back before the darkness descended. Later that evening I counted 18 bites on my right arm and hand: a combination of ants and mosquitoes which constantly reminded me of our biking adventure for over a week!.

Road flooded at Balgue

The last night in our casita at Little Morgan’s was very spooky. Our bathroom was an outside enclosure: basic but functional and it always seems luxurious when you don’t have to share it with anyone else (except for gheckos, spiders, bugs and mozzies et al)! Having said that, in the middle of this last night I had just returned from the bathroom and Tim was taking his turn and was just about to come back into our bedroom when suddenly a strange ghostly, plaintive high-pitched female voice called out from the darkness surrounding us: “Can I have your torch?” Well, I shot up out of bed, and almost hit the palapas roof and Tim dropped like a stone to the wooden bug-strewn floor…it took us a few seconds before we came to our senses and rationalised that it probably wasn’t a ghost but most likely Morgan’s drunk and druggy girlfriend, who we had seen in the communal restaurant/bar area earlier that day! My head torch is one of my most prized possessions just now and I was very reluctant to give it up so after a few shocked whispers between me and Tim he called back into the dark night: “No, sorry, you can’t have our torch”! I felt a bit mean. Presumably, the ghost went on its way in the night as we heard no more.
The following morning we awoke at dawn just as the birds were starting to call. We planned to catch an early bus at the top of Little Morgan’s lane end and had been told to be there at least 25 minutes early as the island buses are pretty erratic. This proved to be the case – we waited two and half hours! In my old life, I would have been a bit hacked off by this but am now on “Central American time” which means that things will happen just not usually when you expect them to! So we settled on roadside boulders to read our books and watch the clouds of bright yellow butterflies. Once on the bus, our rucksacks joined the usual medley of items at the back: huge branches of bananas and plantains, rusty old bikes, peppers and all sorts of “stuff”. About five minutes after we set off the bus got stuck in a deep rut in the road and shortly after that we had to wait for a local farmer to tie up and hoist one of his pigs up onto the bus roof! It wasn’t a happy pig; in fact at first we thought they must actually be slaughtering it on the side of the road! Eventually we made it to the ferry and onwards across Lake Nicaragua to the border at Penas Blancas to Costa Rica, where the currency is colones and where things seem VERY different to Guatemala and Nicaragua.

The rodeo town of Liberia was our first stopping point in Costa Rica. During evening dinner people-watching, we had a good vantage point from the restuarant terrace down onto the local town square and park where the locals were up to all sorts; there was a fair bit of excitement when the police suddenly turned up on motorbikes and zipped into the park backed up by colleagues in squad cars. The kids that were skateboarding around the cathedral steps very quickly dispersed. A few minutes later two policemen emerged from the park escorting out a man in handcuffs who they whisked away in the back of a patrol car. We suspected that it was a drug-related arrest. Immediately after the police left, the skateboarders reappeared and normal activities resumed!

One of the good things about back-packing is the interaction with fellow travellers and the passing on of useful information. It amazes me that often these encounters and conversations occur just as one is trying to work out a route or overcome a puzzle. It is particularly fortuitous when someone is doing the journey the opposite way round to you, as was the case when we met Auveen, a girl from Dublin. She had just come from El Castillo on the flanks of Volcan Arenal, Costa Rica’s most active volcano, (producing ash columns almost daily) who tantalizingly told us of a beautiful and remote place to stay with the most amazing views of the volcano. Tim and I just knew we had to go there, but as we just had a few snippets of information about this place called “Essence Arenal” with transport to it very unreliable, we knew it wasn’t going to be straight forward. But, as you know, me and Tim like a challenge! We had no problems getting a bus from Liberia to Canas, arriving mid-afternoon at this sleepy little place in Costa Rica’s Central Valley but no more buses that day onwards to the closest town to Volcan Arenal: La Fortuna. We were just wondering if we should maybe try and find a place to stay in town when we noticed two French-Canadian backpackers, just about ready to share the cost of a cab a bit closer to our destination! We were dropped off at a lane end in the middle of the countryside contemplating how to find Essence Arenal, our only information being that it was just a short distnace from the butterfly farm. At that moment, a small car came around the corner and turned into the lane and stopped. To our rescue came Larry and Gloria, an elderly American couple from Georgia – they were fantastic: a real comedy act! Larry was very much a Walther Matthau-like character and Gloria just talked for America! Whilst Larry very,very slowly drove up the steeply winding track towards the volcano towering above us, we got their amazing stories of a lifetime of adventures! Needless to say, they were not staying at our hostal but the very posh-looking hotel a way below us. We got them to drop us at their junction and continued to climb….darkness was fast-approaching and still Essence Arenal eluded us and our backpacks were feeling weighty. We eventually made it though and, it was so worth it. Our few days exploring around Volcan Arenal was fantastic…a truly special, breathtaking place. On our way back from eating homemade calzone and coconut icecream at Pizza John’s one glorious day we glanced up at Arenal’s mighty cone to witness a small eruption sending a blue wreath of smoke and ash high into the sky. Thrilling!

Arenal Burps!

Later in the week in the capital San Jose, we also experienced our first earthquake of the trip whilst in our hotel lobby checking e-mail …. about 20 seconds of vibrations, bangs and rattles. Apparently it is a fairly regular occurence in these parts! From San Jose we bussed through the lush green landscape of eastern Costa Rica and on to the village of Cahuita and the rolling Caribbean surf.

Cahuita National Park

We were there to visit the Parque Nacional Cahuita, a rainforest on the edge of the sea where the deserted beaches are the most beautiful we have seen so far. It was early one morning when walking in the deep forest that we were so fortunate to see not only our first three-toed sloth but also white-throated capuchin monkeys: mother and baby who were as astonished to see us as we were to see them! The mother monkey climbed carefully down a palm tree branch and stared straight into my eyes….an extraordinary moment.

Capuchin Monkey

Incy Wincy Spider!

 

We didn’t yet know it but there was trouble brewing at the Panamanian border…..

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BLOG 5: Leon and Granada (Nicaragua)

Our ‘King Quality’ executive bus journey from Teguciglapa to Leon was not the straight forward and hassle-free journey we had expected, although it started well enough.. After the ususal security checks before boarding, we set off from the bus station in Tegucigalpa on time and discovered that we had been assigned the two very front seats of the coach, which meant that as well as panoramic views of the beautiful Honduran countryside, I felt as if I was about to fall out through the front window and down the steep-sided banks every time we hurtled around a the steep mountain bends! Also, we both had colds and I was feeling a bit fragile. We were expecting to arrive in Leon mid evening. It was late afternoon and raining hard when we pulled into what looked like a deserted car park in the middle of nowhere. Our connection turned out to be almost three hours late with no explanation given and no staff on hand to consult! Eventually our bus arrived, and after a smooth border crossing at La Guasaule we entered Nicaragua and a few hours later arrived in Leon, breaking our rule about not arriving late at night to a strange city. To illustrate this point, our first-choice hostel was hosting a festival party with no room at the inn and as the streets were dark we gingerly dodged the pavement potholes with our rucksacks trying to find somewhere else. Our second choice hotel was locked up for the night and the appealing hotel opposite had no vacancies. I had visions of waiting til dawn at the bus station when the night manager at the hotel with no room made a phone call and before I knew it we were installed into the lovely Hotel San Juan D’Leon opposite a square with an old church close by. We crashed!

Leon in the Rain

It rained hard every day we were in Leon but that didn’t stop us from exploring this wonderful colonial city in northwestern Nicaragua, which is the most volcanic region in Central America. It’s situated near the foot of Volcan Momotombo and used to be the country’s capital from the colonial period until Managua took over. It saw a lot of political turmoil during the revolution and evidence of the troubles are still evident around the place with various slogans and graffit.The rain meant that the city was quiet and we found a nice restuarant from which to admire the wonderful 16th century cathedral which is guarded by stone lions that reminded us of those outside Chicago’s Art Institute. Anything that reminds of Chicago gives me a thrill. It really made us smile the way local folk can ride a bike and hold up an umbrella at the same time whilst maintaining an air of sophistication! The boys in the square made the most of a break in the rain to first of all play handball to avoid the puddles and then as the clouds started to clear the game changed to football – which is a very popular sport in these parts.Talking about football: I sensed that Tim was quite pleased when we awoke to rain once again the following day as it so happened that Fox Soccer channel was showing the Manchester Utd game; I watched a religious parade of children, bands and colourful floats around our little church square – it certainly rained on their parade!

Leon de Leon!

We left Leon for Granada. On the bus this time were the couple from Liverpool we had met briefly in Lago de Yojoa. They had a story to tell us about their bird-watching trip onto the lake with Malcolm (who I mentioned in BLOG 4). Their day had started promisingly, with Malcolm on fine form and determined to spot as many birds around the lake as possible. Ben and Vicky had expressed that they are particularly interested in nature watching and as Ben had some confusion over the difference between a black vulture and a turkey vulture, Malcolm was keen to put him right. Off they went out onto the lake, with Orlando rowing as usual. All was going well with many birds spotted and identified, when suddenly a bee flew into and got stuck in Malcolm’s rather wild hair. He panicked and started swatting wildly at it. This was a huge mistake as the pheromones produced by Malcolm’s desperate swatting attracted the whole swarm of bees that began attacking and stinging all four of them in the boat. Malcolm shrieked for them to jump immediately into the lake, which they did, submerging in their panic not only their heads but binoculars and camera as well. The heavy walking boots they were wearing weighed them down in the water but the bees eventually flew away from them. All of them were quite badly stung and very shocked but poor Malcolm especially so and they had to take him home for a stiff drink.This incident would normally have made me very wary of buzzing insects but as I now encounter them and all sorts of other buzzing, biting, slithering and crawling creatures on a daily basis I can’t afford to be too fussy!

Granada Museum

Granada was very similar to Leon: colonial but with a very good museum displaying some ancient petroglyphs found on local islands. After a couple of days there we caught a ferry across the largest lake in Central America: Lago Nicaragua to Isla de Ometepe, which has two impressive volcanoes: Volcan Concepcion and Volcan Maderas. We were fortunate that the rain had finally stopped and the sunset during the crossing was fabulous, highlighting the massive volcanoes as we approached the island.

Arrival at Ometepe

We arrived in the dark. Again. We had booked a casita (small round hut) in the middle of nowhere (as we do!) and were told by the usual throng of persistant cab drivers at the dock that the roads on the island were currently impassible. We were having none of it as we were determined to make it to our destination and persisted. Eventually a guy agreed to take us to “Little Morgan’s”. We were still travelling with Ben and Vicky and so with Tim and Ben standing up in the back of the delapidated pick-up and me and Vicky squashed in the front we set off in pitch darkness. We immediately realised that this was going to be a memorable journey. Isala de Ometepe only has a few kilometers of paved roads, the rest being rutted tracks, and because of all the recent rain: a whole lot of mud. We bumped, slipped and slithered along in the pickup, which didn’t have very strong lights and the driver kept putting on a torch to help him see his way! His two friends had come along and they kept leaping off the truck to give advice on how to get across the deep holes in the road. We got stuck several times and I had visions of us being stranded in the middle of a volcanic island in pitch darkness waiting for dawn! But this didn’t happen and after a couple of hours of incredible driving our man got us to our destination. We arrived at Little Morgan’s just as they had a power cut and we stumbled in the darkness to our little earthy casita. Was it all worth it?

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BLOG 4: Copan Ruinas, Roatan and Lago de Yojoa (Honduras)

The Mayan ruins at Copan were guarded by several noisy and brightly coloured scarlet mccaws. These spectacular birds were revered by the Mayans, known for their exquisite stone carvings – especially at Copan. We saw several fine carvings of these birds around the ballcourt which were used as game markers. As this is the fourth Mayan site on this adventure, Tim and I now know about all that there is to know about the Mayan ballcourts, which is not really very much except that the Mayans played a ball game in these special areas after which human sacrifices were often made! Once again, we had a gorgeous day for our exploring with very few other people around; just the groundsmen who spent the morning cutting the grass around the pyramids. Beautiful orange butterflies fluttered about. It was a very tranquil place, surrounded by forests and hills.

Copan Ballcourt

 

Honduran drummer boy

We really liked the village of Copan Ruinas too and were fortunate enough to be there for Honduran Independence Day, when the children parade around the cobbled streets dressed in national costume and playing musical instuments, especially the marimba (national instrument!) and drums. Later into the trip we shared a cab with an Australian girl who was living and teaching at a school in the hills around Copan; she told us that the children take their music lessons very seriously and even the very poor children would make a special effort to attend the practices for the parade.

We left Copan on a posh first class bus for the long journey back north to the coastal ferry port of La Ceiba. We are pretty lazy backpackers, me and Tim, as we are not really into getting up at 4a.m. to get the local second class buses which are much cheaper in price and make lots of stops and take hours to reach their destination! Consequently, we seem to be splurging a lot of our limperas on transport! Sometimes, you do in fact get what you pay for. This particular first class bus company takes the safety of its passengers very seriously. When we arrived at the bus depot at the more civilised time of 9a.m. our bags were taken immediately for scanning (like an airport process!) and before boarding the bus each passenger had their photograph taken. Once on board we were offered refreshements and the usual shoot-em-up movie! We arrived at La Ceiba (named after the magnificent Ceiba tree) in the dark. It’s never a good idea to arrive in a strange city after dark when you are tired. The hostel we had in mind to stay at turned out to be very run down and had no running water! We eventually found somewhere else but it was a wake-up call that we need to be more organised with our planning so will from now on try to be one step ahead of the game!

Half Moon Bay, Roatan

We were very excited about our forthcoming stay on the Bay Island of Roatan; an island owned by Honduras in the Caribbean, with a coral reef second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef. The island was beautiful and we based ourselves in a gem of a hotel overlooking Gibson Bay. Argentinian-owned, it has a great deck and private jetty from which we swam. We decided to stay a while! The reef was fantastic and the snorkelling spectacular and we saw some very beautiful tropical fish and corals. We ate one night at the very nice Argentianian restaurant and watched the sun go down from a little beach bar, aptly called Sundowners.

Happy Hour at Sundowners

Our stay coincided with the annual Roatan fishing competition for which people from the island and surrounding islands gathered for the festivities. English is mainly spoken on the island, which was once British-owned, but with a broad Caribbean accent, and we were amazed to see the local teenagers maypole dancing to Caribbean music. I was just marvelling at this spectacle when across the spectators I spotted someone I recognised……the British couple that we had met a few weeks earlier on the bus to Copan! It was great to see them and we found out that they are divers and were also thoroughly enjoying the coral reef.Oh, and we learned that there are crocodiles in Gibson Bay!

We could have stayed on Roatan for weeks! But we needed to move on and caught the Galaxy Wave ferry back to mainland Honduras and got a bus south through beautiful pine forests to Lago de Yojoa in the mountains, where we had it in mind to do some bird watching. We had pre-booked a cabin in lush gardens at the D&D Bed and Breakfast and Micro-Brewery! Oh, and we didn’t have to close our mouths when showering – the water was purified due to the brewing process!

Twitching on Lago de Yojoa

Our bird watching trip onto the lake was wonderful – the Lago de Yojoa is surrounded by misty mountains and jungle: a very special place. Our guide was a British chap called Malcolm, in his 60s, who has spent a lifetime wandering the globe ending up as a bird specialist in deepest Honduras! He has long white hair and an even longer white beard and lives very simply. We spotted some fabulous birds with Malcolm in a small boat rowed by his young assistant Orlando. Malcolm was a very interesting guy who has really found a niche for himself in this part of the world. That evening when we were having dinner in the restaurant we heard a Liverpudlian accent; another British couple had arrived for their bird-watching experience with Malcolm!

The next day, we caught a collectivo to La Guama and then a bus to Tegucigalpa, the sprawling capital of Honduras. It is situated in a valley surrounded by a ring of mountains. The streets were snarled with fume-belching traffic but no worries: we were soon on a ‘King Quality’ executive class bus headed for the Nicaraguan border and onwards to the historic colonial city of Leon in Nicaragua, the land of volcanoes. Our fourth country awaits!

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BLOG 3: Flores and Rio Dulce

It was immediately apparent to us that we had entered a new country. Guatemala is a magical place and I was immediately captivated by how beautiful and green the jungle looked as we bumped along in the bus towards Flores, an island situated on Lago de Peten. We found a cheap, basic hotel but with a fabulous view out over the lake, just in time to watch the sun go down. I slept better than I had expected as the fan in our room only had one speed: manically fast and it sounded like a helicopter taking off so we had the thing on and off at various points during the night as it was extremely hot in our room. We were loathe to open any windows though: we didn’t want a mozzie invasion!
 

Sunset over Lake Peten

The following morning we were up early to swim in the warm and beautiful lake. We watched the local people starting their day and we were impressed by a young boy very calmly and competently rowing an even younger girl from one side of the lake to the other in a small wooden boat. After about 20 minutes they arrived at our side of the lake, the boy jumped out of the boat and with his school books tucked under his arm went on his way. He turned and waved goodbye to the small girl, who looked to be about age 7, who then took up the single oar and rowed herself slowly back to the other side of the lake. We felt obliged to keep an eye on her progress and apart from a bit of girly messing about in the middle of the lake she eventually disappeared from view into the reeds at the far side, where I hoped her mother would be waiting! I could never have imagined letting my 7 year old row herself across a very deep lake! We watched these children do the same each morning we were in Flores.

One of the first things I learned about Guatemala is that the currency is named after a rare and exotic bird: the Quetzal,one of the bird species we hope to be lucky enough to spot somewhere along the journey! The main reason for coming to this part of Guatemala is that the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal are a couple of hours away by bus, up in the mountains where towering pyramids poke above the jungle’s green canopy. The bus we had booked to take us to Tikal was almost an hour late in picking us up but we figured better late than never! Once again, we were fortunate to feel that we had the place to ourselves and after we had walked past a huge ceiba tree towards the ruins we saw some large birds coming out of the forest; we whipped out our binoculars and saw that these were in fact ocellated turkeys: large and colourful birds that stalk gracefully along in small groups and are in fact a rare sight. The pyramids at Tikal are very steep-sided, rising to more than 61m.

Tikal Temple II

A few years ago when Tim and I visited the magnificent ruins at Teotihuacan in central Mexico, I had a lot of trouble with vertigo and was really challenged when climbing up and down these pyramids. I was determined not to let my fear overcome me too much on this trip and so I agreed to accompany Tim climbing up the towering Temple 2. I thought I had cracked it as I did not look down and reached the top without too much trouble but I realised that going up was the easy part and going down was going to be the tester! Ironic really as I had indeed got my first jippy tummy of the trip! Tim’s words: “Gill scared shitless climbing Temple 2!” Oh, we later realised that we had not altered our clocks to Guatemalan time – hence the time confusion earlier in the day! Duh!

We splashed out on a first class bus for the next onward journey to Rio Dulce at the east end of Lago de Izabal, where we had in mind to stay on the edge of a rainforest at the beautiful Hacienda Tijax. We rented a little wooden cabin amongst the mangroves with a very nice swimming pool and restaurant.

Hacienda Tijax - our cabin

Footbridge over rainforest

 

We booked for three nights.Whilst at Tijax we had a fabulous private tour into the rainforest by an interesting old chap called Emilio, who’s passion for his country and its fuana and flora was compelling. We learned a lot about seeds, trees, plants, birds and more as we walked over high swing bridges over the tree canopy. I felt like I was in a David Attenborough documentary – so fantastic. Emilio asked us to spread the word about how important it is that we do not destroy the beautiful rainforests and if interested please check out his website: www.elhormigo.inriodulce.com.

Sunset over rainforest

We were told when checking out from Hacienda Tijax that the bridge on the road towards the port to the Bay Islands was closed and that we had missed the only other bus option of the day. So it was think again time! Took a water taxi to the local bus station to find out our options. Once there we found another British couple (the first we’ve come across!) in the same predicament. We found out that there was bus shortly going south to El Florido and the Honduran border and Copan Ruinas, where we had planned to visit after the island. So we were on it! It turned out to be a fantastic bus journey on a second class bus – the best yet, over high passes, fast-flowing rivers, bustling market towns and all locals on the bus (including a man who brought on his sword) except for 4 Brits (3 of which were from North Yorkshire!) After a delay in Chiquimula where the bus got jammed whilst manouvering through a market, we arrived late afternoon at the border crossing, with just a bit of confusion over passport stamps! In fact, the Guatemalan Customs officer was asleep beyond her window and I had to tap on the window to wake her! She stamped the date as being “April” instead of September, so that was interesting. So we’ll see how that goes! Got a collectivo to the beautiful little town of Copan Ruinas and checked into cozy Viavia hotel and actually caught the last two sets of the men’s tennis final postponed from Sunday!

Copan Ruinas, Honduras

So we are now in Honduras and gone from quetzals to limperas and the capital city is Tegulcigalpa (pronounced Te-goosey-galpa, so now you know)!

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Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

We travelled the 9 hour journey from Vallalodid to Palenque on a very fine ADO bus and I suspect it’ll be the last luxurious bus we travel on for some time! The Dutch couple were also on board and it seems like we are already friends! It was an interesting journey through Mexico’s southern most and poorest state of Chiapas – a wonderland of ruins, jungle, waterfalls and mountains.  
Palenque: Falls

Chiapas has the most rainfall of any state in Mexico which meant that many of the rivers were dramatically flooded – ideal conditions for wallowing water buffalo. Cattle egrets were flying around.There are a lot of cattle ranches in this area and we saw a couple of really huge bulls in a field – biggest ones I have ever seen! We arrived mid-afternoon in Palenque town and checked in to the not quite finished Hotel Chablis along a jungly road where we had a very comfortable room in which to plan our visit to the Mayan ruins a few kilometers up the road Our room had cable TV so I was able to watch a bit of tennis later on! 

The following morning we were up at the crack of dawn to hitch a ride on a “collectivo” – a sort of mini-van. On board was a mix of tourists and locals all on their way to the ancient Mayan site in the jungle on the edge of some misty mountains. We decided not to have a guided tour on this occasion and go at our own pace. Unlike Chichen Itza, people are allowed to climb on, around and up the ruined temples. So Tim was our guide and I was in charge of the flip movie camera! 

Palenque: Palacio

Mayan Art in the Museo

  

The ruins of Palenque are fabulous and some of them have been restored so it is possible to imagine how this city looked at its prime time in the 7th century. To visit these ruins has long been an ambition for us and we weren’t disappointed. As it is not really tourist season in these parts there were not many other people around (apart from our Dutch friends) and so we spent two days exploring around it. The jungle around the city is fantastic also, with waterfalls, black howler monkeys calling in the distance, lizards, dragonflies and exquisite butterflies – so atmospheric. What a fantastic time! We hitched a lift back to town in the back of some American archaeologists’ pick-up truck. These archaeologists told us that they were from the University of Pennsylvania and were off to ask a local farmer for his permission to dig in his field and I just know that Tim was very tempted to ask if he could join them! He didn’t however, as we wanted to find a post office and book transport for the next part of the journey. After a bit of wandering around Palenque town in the heat, we sat in the zocalo and people-watched whilst munching on some yummy cakes we had bought from a bakery. We eventually found a post office for stamps. Tim had a large envelope to post to the UK and consequently had a lot of stamps to lick so we thought it best that he did it in stages to avoid glue-tongue! 

We decided to go and eat and went to a bar that we had previously spotted offering a good deal on beer with the restaurant being on the top level. This seemed like a good place to write postcards and stamp up Tim’s envelope. The beer was good but the food not so and we were just thinking about moving on when suddenly it got darker outside. Then the storm started and it was massive! The restaurant had no glass in the windows which went all around the place and so very quickly there was a lot of water on the floor and we had to move to the middle of the restaurant. The wind was so strong that it blew off some panels of polystyrene ceiling tiles which were landing all around us. Table clothes were flapping about and our waiter was doing his best to continue as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening! After about an hour of all this we were just thinking that it would just be our luck to be taken out by a hurricane so early on into our trip when things started to calm down so we made a run for it back up to the post office and finally got Tim’s letter posted! We arrived back at our hotel in the evening to be greeted by the bell-boy brandishing various items of our clothing that had blown off our room veranda and into the garden below during the storm! Note to self whilst back-packing: don’t go out and leave out almost dry laundry out on balconies! (Claire, I knew I should have bagged those pegs you offered!)
Up at 5am the following morning to begin another all-day journey over the border and into Guatemala. Goodbye smart and comfy air-con bus, hello bouncing unsprung mini-van! We stopped at a village where the local Lacandon women produced a good traditional breakfast of something with eggs and plantain – great Chiapas coffee though. Saw my first humming-bird and a parrot in the garden which was extremely muddy after all the rain and so wished very much that I had worn my walking boots instead of my sandals (am still learning about this back-packing thing which is very different from the usual holiday experience)!
 
Guatemalan Border!

We crossed a river in a small boat and stumbled up the muddy bank at the other side with rucksack to the border crossing. Our Mexican guide left us and we waited to see what was going to happen next. While we waited we saw black howler monkeys swinging in the trees near the river! A very run-down bus with a Guatemalan guide eventually arrived and we hit the road. This road was a second-class unpaved one and so we bounced and bone-crunched to the border. As it turned out, we didn’t need the official exit form that had taken us ages to sort out and pay for in Cancun but we did meet an unofficial demand by customs officers for “a few dollars more …”. 

Guatemala - made it!

Have a nice trip!?

 

 

Our passports were duly stamped and we entered our second country. We really are back-packing now!

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