Pura Vida

It’s been way too long since I updated this thing but I’m going to try to capture some highlights of the last couple of weeks as we’ve traveled through Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Crossing the border into Honduras, we learned that we had in fact been illegal immigrants in Guatemala for the last two weeks. When we had passed the border at Belize, our passports were stamped on that side, but on the other side there didn’t seem to be anything else we needed to do, so we bumbled back onto the bus. What we hadn’t realized was that we were supposed to go to a second checkpoint and have our passports stamped on arrival. Oopsy. It sounds more dramatic than it actually was… all we needed to do was pay a $25 fine and everything was OK.Thankfully we had enough cash with us or things might have got a bit more interesting.

Our main reasons for visiting Honduras were to a) see the ruins in Copan and b) get to Nicaragua, and this seemed to be the case with many people we met. The town of Copan has dusty cobble stone streets full of men wearing cowboy hats and young shirtless boys playing pool in dimly lit rooms. It feels quite unlike Guatemala and indeed, physically people look quite different – they are noticeably darker and taller- which is surprising given it is close proximity to the border. We arrived quite accidentally in the midst of their annual festival and whilst we were a bit too tired to go and see the rodeo, we did happen upon a brass band, with the biggest tuba I’ve ever seen, playing just around the corner from our hotel (and bizarrely, on our second and final morning there, we were woken at 5:30am by a loud brass band, presumably the same one, playing right outside our window. Why they were doing their thing at such an ungodly hour is anyone’s guess). We saw lots of signs warning people not to carry guns, and when we crossed the border everyone was searched for weapons. We also saw a flock of vultures (and a dog) chowing down on a dog’s carcass. Honduras is is a hard ass town.

The ruins are of course the main attraction and we set out on our second day to walk the short distance across town and down a short road to see them in all their Mayan glory. Copan ruins aren’t as big as Tikal, or as grand as Chichen Itza, but their collection of stelae (large carved stone monoliths) are particularly impressive, as is huge hieroglyphic staircase which outlines the history of the settlement. We spent several pleasant hours there and chose not to engage the services of a guide since this was our seventh Mayan site and we felt like we’d seen enough to understand the gist of what we were seeing.

Rather than break the journey up by traveling east to the Bay Islands, we instead opted to traverse the entire country southwards and head straight to Nicaragua. This meant an overnight stopover in the capital, Tegucigalpa, via San Pedro Sula, apparently the world’s most dangerous city, so understandably we weren’t looking forward to this leg of the journey. We only saw Tegucigalpa in the dark, arriving at around 8pm and leaving the next morning at 5:30am, but I don’t think we missed out on anything other than lots of cars, concrete and the prospect of getting knifed. On arrival, we toyed with the idea of venturing out for dinner, but when our hostess, Olimpia, looked slightly concerned and advised us to take nothing with us, we decided to curl up and watch a bit of bad telly and eat oranges. Plus, when you’re staring down the barrel of a 4am start, the appeal of a Wendy’s burger is pretty limited.

After two fairly long days of travel, we arrived in the wonderful colonial town of Granada where we rendezvoused with none other than Ahmad Abas, who had flown all the way from Perth to join us on the last leg of the journey. We were all a bit tired and groggy, but that was soon forgotten once we were nursing cold beers and sipping on the bottle of 8 year old mescal we’d bought in Mexico and had been saving for this very occasion. We stayed in a wonderful converted colonial home with two enormous courtyards – one of which had a pool – each surrounded by wide, high ceilinged balconies which were ideal for us to socialize both amongst ourselves and the other guests.

Granada is such a lovely city and it’s definitely one of my favourites of this trip. It has the typical grid pattern of many mexican and central American towns but it really has a character all of it’s own. It’s quite dilapidated and noticeably poorer than many places we’ve seen; in a strange way, it looked more like we had expected Havana would look than Havana itself. I was struck by the vibrancy of the colours… a typical palette might be scarlet, ochre, lilac and green, all alongside each other and somehow managing to look fabulous. The streets are full of horse drawn buggies (some for tourists, some for trade) which provide a constant and atmospheric clop-clop-clop, not to mention a very ‘authentic’ aroma. The main square, Parque Central, is really the heart of the city. A beautifully ornate rotunda takes pride of place in the centre, around which local Nicas gather to sell souvenirs and snacks, the most famous of which is ‘vigoron’, an indulgent trio of pork crackling, mashed yuca and coleslaw. Around Parque Central are some wonderfully grand buildings with intricately patterned mosaic floors and the ubiquitous high ceilinged verandahs, perfect for escaping the afternoon heat and enjoying a cool drink. We spent four nights in the city and it completely charmed me. More than ever before, I felt like I was a character in a Marquez novel.

Whilst we managed to get a feel for the city, we also embraced wholeheartedly the many day trips and activities easily accessible from Granada. No trip to Nicaragua is complete without a trip to a volcano, so we all took an evening tour up to Masaya, where we could stare into its gaping, smoking mouth (whilst wearing gas masks because the fumes are so toxic) and catch a glimpse of glowing embers once it was dark. As a (so-called) added bonus, we also got to see a cave that houses thousands of bats and feel the air from their wings as they flew around us in the dark.

Dotted around the Granada peninsula are hundreds of small (and I mean really small) islands called ‘Las Isletas,’ many of which are privately owned and house wealthy Nicas’ holiday mansions. We took a lovely boat ride which meandered slowly around the islands, taking in the fabulous houses, as well as some beautiful bird life and even a couple of friendly monkeys (which we suspect had been planted there for tourists). The boat stopped off at one of the smaller islands where we enjoyed a great lunch of whole fish covered in tasty salsa.

We were also keen to check out nearby Lake Apoyo and some of the surrounding villages so one morning we hopped on one of the fabulously garish ‘chicken buses’ ( the somewhat pejorative term for local transport) and headed out to a little village called ‘Caterina,’ one of the famed Pueblos Blancos towns (although we didn’t see too many white houses). The town itself was quite pretty, the usual small square and white stucco church, and gave us a nice view of the lake, which made us even keener to swim in it. After a bit of haggling, the three of us jammed ourselves in a tuk tuk which slowly but surely wound its way down the mountain to the base of the lake. Truth be told, it didn’t look that fantastic once we got there, but we’d come this far, and were determined to get wet (even when we spotted a dead bird at the water’s edge) so Ahmad and I had a quick swim whilst Marty held the fort (ie: had a beer). From there our tuk tuk capitano zipped us over to the nearby town of Masaya, where we saw a very disappointing artisan market but did manage to eat some good ceviche whilst sitting in brightly painted, wacky 2m high chairs in the middle of the square.

The next day, armed with snacks I’d procured from the local market and a bottle of really quite decent rum, we set off to catch our afternoon bus to Liberia in Costa Rica, where we would be spending the night en route to the mountains. It seems the further south we’ve gone, the more chaotic things have became, and when we got to the bus station we learned that there had been ‘problems’ and the bus would be two, maybe three hours late. When I say bus station, the Nicaraguan version is a small unairconditioned room with about four chairs… not a great place to spend any more time than you need to, so we did the only thing we could – jump in a cab and head to a shady verandah for beer drinking. Finally, the bus arrived (about three hours late) and we were on our way to Costa Rica.

Liberia was a necessary stopover to get to Monteverde and we didn’t have high expectations but we also didn’t expect it to be quite as much of a shit hole as we found it to be. For those of you who have visited Kalgoorlie (which I like to call ‘the armpit of Australia’), you will possibly understand what I mean when I say Liberia could be its sister city. Hot, dusty, almost entirely lacking in charm (I say almost because there were maybe three nice enough colonial buildings) it seems to have been designed as a launching pad for nicer, more interesting places. It’s only redeeming feature was the amazing shower in our hotel, which was without question the best one I’ve had on the entire trip. The bus out of there didn’t leave til three in the afternoon and boy was I ready for it. This is definitely a place I’ll never be visiting again unless I really, really have to.

The drive to Monteverde was long and remarkably bumpy, but was possibly one of the most picturesque yet, and there’s been a fair bit of competition. As we snaked through the mountains, it almost felt like we were in the English countryside, with farms dotted prettily and neatly across the hills. Costa Rica is a country of micro-climates and this becomes very apparent as you watch the landscape change right before your eyes. Quaint hillside farms morph into dense forrest and then another bend in the road reveals a dryer, slightly scrubby terrain.

Our little cottage in Monteverde, El Sol, was a big winner and it wasn’t really little at all, in fact, it felt quite decadent having it just for three of us. The house has been lovingly and thoughtfully designed by a German woman and her ex-husband, and is made almost entirely of wood which gives it a beautiful, warm smell. Even the door handles and window shutters have been hand made, and it’s all peppered with vibrant local fabrics and brightly coloured plates and bowls.The property is about 15 minutes from the town, and you can’t really go anywhere without a car, but when we weren’t out and about, it was a wonderful to place to kick back. The house also had one of the loveliest infinity pools I’ve ever seen, with uninterrupted views of the mountains surrounding you whilst you float around and wash away the heat of the day. The owner’s son, Javier, a strapping young man if ever I saw one, was incredibly helpful and managed to sort out a transport conundrum we’d been mulling over for a few days which meant we could stay there an extra night and avoid an unwanted stopover in San Jose.

And there are plenty of reasons to be out and about in Monteverde because there are so many activities to choose from! For some strange reason, I thought that I’d find zip lining less scary than some of the other things I’ve done recently, like scaling waterfalls and swimming through dark underground caves. I don’t really fear heights, so I figured I’d be fine, careening along metal cables in the jungle, suspended by a harness and a few metal widgets. As it turned out, I felt fine being suspended 150 metres or more above the jungle floor, but what really scared me, was the feeling of hurtling along at what felt to me like break-neck, out of control speeds. Before you get on one of these things, they explain how to sit (lean back, legs out front and crossed) and to use your strong arm as a brake by pulling the wire down behind you. At each stretch of zip line, they’d tell you how hard to brake, or whether you shouldn’t brake at all, and whilst on a rational level I knew it was safe enough, my fight or flight mechanism was screaming otherwise. And I literally did scream a few times as I hurtled at some insane speed to a platform on the other side. After about six of these I would have happily stopped, but the only way out is across (and down) and there are fourteen lines to get through, so I had to toughen up and soldier on. The final one was 200m above the ground and 1km long and thank god I was able to do it as a tandem ride with Marty or I may have had a breakdown. With someone else I could hang on to, someone who could control the speed, I really quite enjoyed it, and by the end, I actually felt vaguely confident and may have even said that I’d do it again, but that could have been delirium and relief speaking. Some lunatics actually chose to do a 143 metre bungee jump after the zip lines, and watching a few leap off from the observation platform, I can assure you that 143m is very, very, very high. I don’t think it will surprise any of you to learn that I singlehandedly drank a bottle of wine that night as fast as a fat kid on a zip line.

When your adventure mojo falls off the horse, so to speak, the best thing to do is get right back on again and that’s literally what we did the next day. Poor Marty was a bit out of action with a funny tummy, but Ahmad and I slid into our blue jeans and went horse riding for half a day. The plan was to ride down into a valley to a waterfall, where we would have lunch, and our guide, Sandro, was a bona fide cowboy, who seldom spoke unless it was to the horses, a beautiful trio of palomino mixed with quarterback. It was a slow ride, but not exactly easy as we had to climb down some very steep and rocky paths to get to the waterfall. I’m not much of a rider, but I managed to not fall off (which was lucky because one of the rocks would likely have split my head open like a melon) and by the end of the day I actually felt like I sort of knew what I was doing and had bonded with my horse, Lucero. Ahmad’s horse was called ‘Conejo’, which means rabbit, and together they were a very manly and rugged duo.

The nature trail continued later that day with a twilight outing to a place called ‘the hidden forrest’ where we went to see the daytime animals go to sleep and the night time animals come out to play. Javier is also a nature guide, and a very knowledgeable one at that, so we spent a few hours with him pointing flashlights into bushes and tree trunks in the hope of seeing wildlife. I didn’t have particularly high hopes as these sorts of things tend to be a bit anticlimactic, but we actually saw a lot of animals – motmots (birds), raccoon and badger type critters, a sloth, a couple of porcupines (which we got really close to by sticking our head into a huge hollowed out tree trunk), click beetles which glow in the dark and a big hairy tarantula. All rather impressive considering it’s a reserve and not a zoo.

We were genuinely sad to leave El Sol, but we had one final destination – Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast. When Ahmad had confirmed he was coming, I’d booked a deluxe designer treehouse where we could all kick back and enjoy a few days of laid back jungle living. After a long drive of about eight hours (there’s always a long drive) we eventually found our place, which was no mean feat as it is tucked right in the jungle, about 1km from the main road. It was a cool house (unfortunately not literally), but El Sol was a tough act to follow, so I think we were all a little underwhelmed. I mean, it did have a jacuzzi which overlooked the jungle, but it just could have been a better jacuzzi. Whilst the house itself didn’t blow our minds, the location was phenomenal. We were right in the midst of the jungle, really dense jungle with enormous tall trees and thick Tarzan vines, and we got to see (and hear!) howler monkeys from our balcony as well as toucans, butterflies and spiders. It wasn’t quite the seaside idyll I’d envisaged, especially since it poured with rain for at least a full day, and it wasn’t exactly a hop skip and a jump to the town, but we did manage a nice swim on our last day and we also ate some damn fine jerk chicken which was served from a BBQ smoker the size of a large fridge.

After some final day confusion – our transport back to the city didn’t arrive to pick us up (they’d made a mistake) so we were an hour or so behind schedule, and then our substitute driver couldn’t find the hotel we needed to get to – we eventually landed at a very pleasant backpackers that Ahmad had spotted, sitting on a rooftop bar in Alajuera (close to San Jose), reflecting on what a great trip we’ve had so far, and indeed, how much we’d managed to see and do with Ahmad in a relatively short space of time.

I’m quietly impressed with the collection of experiences Marty and I have managed to amass… seven Mayan sites, snorkeling on the world’s second largest barrier reef, swimming with nurse sharks, zip lining in the jungle, swimming through underground caves, tubing down a river in the middle of the forrest, climbing up a volcano, climbing up and down waterfalls, horse riding through steep and rocky ravines, snorkeling in ancient cenotes, climbing up so many steep things I’ve lost count, searching for critters in the night (and finding lots of them)… We’ve ridden in buses, planes, horses, tuk tuks, horse drawn buggies, bicycles and all kinds of boats. We’ve eaten grasshoppers, cactus, pork rind and we’ve met some great people along the way.

It’s time to say goodbye to Central America and head into the home stretch… Hello New York, I think I’m ready for a manicure and a vodka gimlet.

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Lady of the Lake

In a trip that’s been full of stand-out moments, our five day stint on Lake Atitlan has definitely been a real highlight. The lake is about three hours bus ride from Antigua and is surrounded by volcanoes with numerous villages scattered around its shores. It’s widely considered to be the most beautiful lake in Central America and it’s well deserving of this reputation. Aldous Huxley once famously said (to paraphrase) that it reminded him of Italy’s Lake Como, but the presence of volcanoes made it even more memorable. Neither of us have been to Lake Como, but we both suspect he knew what he was on about when he said that.

Like nearly everyone, we accessed the lake by land via the little town of Panajachel, but apart from the jetty, we really didn’t see much of this place as we hopped straight onto a little boat which would ferry us to our first stop in Jaibolito. We decided to leave the bulk of our luggage in Antigua (at the hotel we’d stayed in would be returning to) and this proved to be a very sensible decision since it would have been a nightmare getting everything in and out of the little boats, not to mention lugging it all up the sixty steep stone steps we would soon be faced with upon arriving at our hotel. The lake is serviced by a handful of public water taxis which run in both directions, stopping to pick people up at each jetty, shouting out their destinations and cramming in more people than they should.

The lake is utterly spectacular and it really is something to see the light dancing on the water whilst looking across at 2000 metre volcanoes. For the next five days we would have at least one daily boat trip, each one a unique encounter, but always with the thrill of being surrounded by an extraordinary landscape.

Jaibolito is a minuscule town, blink and you’ll miss it, but for us the main attraction was a hotel we’d read about some six months previously when we were reading up on places to visit. It was a truly great feeling when our boat approached a pier and I looked up in wonder and marveled, “look at that,” only to realise within moments that ‘that’ was where we were staying for the next few nights. Casa del Mundo is probably the most remarkable place I’ve ever stayed. It’s built on an incredibly steep hillside, and stretches a long way up, starting with a sun deck near the pier, with stone steps and terraces which lead to the restaurant and various guest rooms. Lush gardens encompass everything and as you ascend you truly feel like you’re in some kind of fairy tale land. It’s been built over 20 years and is an extraordinary feat of architecture that manages to somehow blend into the mountain quite unobtrusively. When we arrived, we were fortunate to find that a late cancellation meant that we could have a room with a forward (rather than a side) facing view, and when we entered, both our jaws hit the floor. The bed was placed opposite a big window which looked right across to the lake and volcanoes. It was breathtaking to say the least.

There is not much else in the town, so most people opt to have dinner in the restaurant each night, which is served at 6:30pm on communal tables. We enjoyed this style of dining as it was a fun way to meet people and chat about different places we’d visited and things we’d seen, and the meals were all delicious. Chocolate mousse made from rich, dark Guatemalan cocoa was a big hit with both of us.

On our second day, after wandering along a narrow, rocky path to check out the town and then after seeing everything in less than ten minutes, we headed homewards along the waterfront and discovered another hotel with a bar right on the water. As luck would have it, the clock had just struck twelve so we felt we were entirely justified in having a cocktail (or several). Sitting on a patio, alongside an infinity pool, next to a lake, looking over at volcanoes whilst drinking hibiscus infused mojitos, is an entirely pleasant way to spend a couple of hours (just in case anyone has any doubts). After sinking a fair few of these, we bumbled along the path back to our hotel where it was time for a swim in the lake and an amusing photo shoot of each of us jumping off the pier.

We’d heard some talk of a big market in nearby Chichicastenango (usually referred to simply as ‘Chichi’ and since it only took place on Sundays and Thursdays we decided we should catch it whilst we could. An early morning boat trip into Panajachel and a minibus ride later, we arrived in Chichi at about 10am. The market is HUGE, apparently it’s the biggest in Guatemala and one of the biggest in Central America, and at each intersection it’s hard to decide which way to turn. This is truly handicraft heaven and I could have gone completely mad were it not for the fact we need to carry everything, but it’s also quite a fun challenge to be really selective and seek out the pieces you simply cannot live without. I settled for two brightly colored and striped pieces of fabric and a faaaaabulous wooden virgin with little flames coming out of her. The people watching is just as satisfying as the shopping as there are loads of food stands and constant activity. Everywhere you look someone is busily at work, and always there’s the slap, slap, slap of tortillas being hand made and thrown into a hot pan. Although the locals can speak and understand Spanish, their first language tends to be one of the Mayan dialects, which is interesting to listen to, (albeit completely impenetrable) with its throaty sounds and tongue clucking noises.

Sadly, we had to say goodbye to the lovely Casa del Mundo, but we were both excited about our next stop on the lake, San Marcos. We had been told that this was quite a full-on hippy town, but I don’t think either of us expected to be quite as fruity as we found it to be. My friend DD once made the memorable comment that he’d happily turn gay “if it weren’t for balls.” I recalled this when we arrived in San Marcos, which seems to be largely populated by a motley crew of international ex-pats and travelers, and pondered whether I could ever embrace this sort of lifestyle, where everyone really did seem to be pretty chilled out and happy. Maybe… if it didn’t mean participating in things like ‘a festival of consciousness.’ And if I didn’t have to wear those appalling cloth pants. And if I didn’t have to talk about ‘energy’ and ‘challenging healing sessions’. OK… so the chances of me adopting this sort of lifestyle are pretty close to nil, and in all truthfulness, we found the town a bit annoying and not quite our kind of place. I kid you not, the first night we went out for dinner, there was a couple facing each other, palms outstretched, but not quite touching, and they stayed in this position for at least one drink’s worth of time. I mean, COME ON. If this is a hippy’s version of foreplay, I’ll happily stick to drinking a bottle of wine, falling into bed and having my boob squeezed.

Again, we’d chosen this town because of a hotel we’d seen and loved. The Aaculax is another fantastic property which has been built over many years and boasts amazing lake views. We had carefully chosen our room when we’d booked last month and loved the fact that it was built around the rock face and had a big stone wall in the room that was actually part of the mountain. The room was definitely pretty amazing, but I think it’s perhaps testament to the fact we have stayed in some incredible places, and we had just been somewhere that blew our minds, that we were a little disappointed with it. Whilst gorgeous, it was a bit on the impractical side. The sun streamed across the bed at first sunlight, which made us too warm, but there was no fan, and we couldn’t open the windows because of the bugs, and there was no mosquito net. And the roosters…. Jesus Christ… they almost broke me. Guatemalan roosters don’t seem to have received the memo that they’re not supposed to crow until dawn and ours started up at around 2am, one calling out to another in the distance… I don’t speak fluent rooster, but here is a rough translation…

Rooster 1: hi, I’m awake.
Rooster 2: hi, I’m also awake
Pause.
Rooster 1: what are you doing?
Rooster 2: nothing, just crowing.
Pause.
Rooster 1: yep, me too. Crowing’s great.
Rooster 2: yeah, I love to crow.
Pause.
Pause.
Rooster 1: cool. How about we just crow for a while.
Rooster 2: that sounds awesome.
(crowing continues for much of the night)

After a fairly sleepless night, with the roosters and mosquitoes working in tandem, and then being woken by the blazing sun, I wasn’t in the best of moods when we went up to the patio for breakfast, but I figured coffee would sort me out. Sadly, not only was it weak, but it had been abused by the addition of cardamom. The owner, who was quite lovely, could see I was on the edge, so made us some espresso, which definitely helped avert a full code red crisis situation, but there wasn’t much she could do about the roosters. Or the sun. Lots of people really love this place, and it is gorgeous in a lot of ways, but I think it was all just a bit too natural and earthy for our sensibilities.

Thankfully, we discovered nearby San Pedro, a somewhat larger town with distractions that ran more to our tastes, in particular, a lovely bar on the water that served great food and drinks and had powerful wifi. We spent a couple of very relaxing afternoons here, lying on the outdoor sofas, reading, chatting, mingling… It’s probably where we’d stay should we ever be lucky enough to visit this part of the world again.

On our last full day, after walking up to a beautiful look out on the side of San Marco, we jumped on a boat to the neighboring town of San Juan, a smallish village that’s known for its many women’s weaving collectives. It’s also home to a German/Guatemalan who specializes in cheese. We’d heard about his little outfit from some folks we met in Belize, and we were keen to sample his wares. Sitting out in a courtyard, which I think was also his backyard, we were served the most incredible platter that included 16 different varieties of cheese and a proliferation of carefully chosen accompaniments, whilst we drank chilled white wine and listened to operatic arias. We really were out in the middle of nowhere so to be sitting looking at the mountains whilst eating artisanal cheeses felt pretty special. The next morning, as we were waiting in a cafe for our bus back to Antigua, someone asked me what the highlight of my trip to the lake had been, and the first thing that popped into my head was the cheese!

Later that day, we traveled by tuk from San Juan to San Pedro where we managed to lose track of time and miss the last boat at 7pm. This meant we had to get back via tuk tuk, not so easy after dark. We managed to find someone who’d drive us home and it was a very hairy 30 minute ride along a deeply pot-holed dirt road in the dead of night to get back to San Marcos. Luckily, we had enough alcohol in our systems to view this as fun rather than dangerous.

Apart, from cheese and cocktails, we did actually manage to see and do quite a lot on the lake, and for anyone who’s ever contemplated going to Guatemala, especially those of you in the States who have such ready access, my advice is to stop reading this and buy a ticket immediately. It’s simply one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen and I feel very lucky I had the chance to. Today, back in Perth, my friend Jaye died after a struggle with cancer. She was two weeks short of her 36th birthday. It’s a terrible thing and a reminder that life is very short indeed.

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Food for thought in Antigua

After our epic day of negotiating cascading water pools and swimming in underwater caves, we were a little bit tired and sore, mostly in our shoulders, which we attributed to having to grip the rails of the truck so tightly as we traveled there and back. Before we’d gone to bed, we’d had a fantastic wood fired pizza at our hostel, and a couple of well-earned drinks. We’d met a couple on the bus into Lanquin, an Irish gal and her New Zealand boyfriend who’d been living in in Ireland and were heading back to live in NZ, and we hung out with them over dinner until the guy, having drunk a few too many ‘gallos’ (the local beer) made one too many cracks about how crap Australia was compared to NZ. Don’t misunderstand me, he may well be right, and in all honesty, I don’t really care, but it was becoming obvious that he had something of a chip on his shoulder and his constant jibes became really tiresome, so it gave us a good excuse to take our leave and get to bed at a reasonable hour.

Our next destination was Antigua, a city I’d been looking forward to seeing since we’d started planning the trip, so I was fairly perky when we boarded the bus at 8am. As I’ve mentioned before, the buses in Guatemala are tiny and this one was no exception. Sitting in front of us was a girl I’d chatted to very briefly when we were out at Semuc Champey, and we compared our feats of bravery, as well as our cuts and bruises. Her boyfriend, Jonathan, owns a stately home in Savannah, Georgia, and rents a few rooms out to tourists via airbnb, and when I told him I’d been there three times back in the 90s when I was living in Florida, he was quite surprised, and even more so when I told him I’d had a couple of boat rides on the okefenokee swamp. He and I talked up a storm for most of the journey, which helped it pass quickly, and when we arrived in Antigua at around 3pm, we’d already made plans to have dinner that night.

Jonathan had based his trip in Guatemala around some major dental work he needed. As strange as it sounds, Guatemala is one of the world’s most popular spots for ‘dental tourism’. He was spending about $4500 on what would have cost around $35,000 back in the States, and by all accounts the quality of the work was high. For some time Marty has had a dead molar which needs to come out. When we were in Melbourne at Xmas it had given him some trouble, but lack of time and the fact that the pain seemed to abate after a day or so, meant that he hadn’t done anything about it before we left, but it was only a matter of time until it would flare up again. So, with our newly acquired insider info, we decided to use our initial three days there to seek out some dental treatment, not exactly fun-filled holiday activity, but when opportunity knocks you gotta answer the door.

The dentist, Dr Victoria, was very professional and bore a disarming resemblance to Selma Hayak, which Marty didn’t fail to notice. After some X-rays a few streets down, for the princely sum of about $12, he was scheduled in for an extraction and an implant with titanium rods, which was quoted at $650. Unfortunately, when they took the tooth out, the infection underneath was quite nasty, so they couldn’t insert the implant, but $100 got rid of the tooth which was a decent second best. Now we have a good excuse to go to Bali to get the rest done.

Many people seem to be a bit ambivalent about Antigua and see it as a bit of a tourist town. This may well be the case, but we found it impossible not to like, not just because it’s full of great restaurants, wine bars and day spas (although all three of these get a big tick from me), but also because of its postcard perfect streets, laid out in a typically Spanish colonial grid, all lined with buildings painted in ochre, pale blue and terracotta, many with huge studded wooden doors and somewhat Moorish windows which are carved into the plaster. The streets are cobblestoned which make the wearing if high heels near impossible, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped some extremely enthusiastic young women who I saw teetering around precariously. It’s also surrounded by volcanoes on all sides which makes for stunning scenery whichever way you turn, not to mention plenty of photographic opportunities (to which my Facebook albums can attest). Like many cities in Mexico and central America it was colonized in the 1500s and this is reflected in the architecture, but in the early 1700s, a huge earthquake destroyed much of the town. This resulted in the establishment of nearby Guatemala City, a place you’d only visit if you had to, and the almost total destruction of many of the city’s churches. For whatever reason, presumably lack of funds, most of them have only been partially restored, so as you walk around you see crumbling facades, many of which contain piles of rubble.

We have spent a total of five nights in Antigua (with five days on Lake Atitlan in between) and most of our time has been spent wandering around, people watching and enjoying the excellent food and drink. I’d been about two weeks without wine prior to Antigua as it’s just not readily available in a lot of places, so the proliferation of wine bottles on display in the plentiful bars were a welcome sight. We spent a great evening in a lovely place called, ‘El Sabor del Tiempo’ (the taste of time), which has been a wine store since 1903, and has a floor to ceiling wall of wine and liquor and also sells chocolate and cigars. Marty had an amazing pasta dish and I had a braised rabbit with rosemary and we drank a bottle of feisty Argentinian red. Another evening, after sipping mojitos on a rooftop bar with panoramic views of the city and volcanoes, we stumbled across a little bar that was serving 60c vodka drinks which we partook of somewhat too readily. Last night we discovered a real gem, a little restaurant called ‘Hectors’ with only a handful of tables accommodating at most 30 people, that offered absolutely world -class bistro food. I had peppered duck breast served with caramelised grapes (still on the bunch) and a potato and carrot gratin. So delicious. Sitting up at the bar, we could see the three women at work in a tiny kitchen, juggling pans over one six burner stove and no dishwasher, doing a phenomenally good job of getting food out to punters on time and looking beautiful.

It’s easy to forget, when you’re swilling a nice red and contemplating the relative merits of duck versus venison, that you’re in a very poor country where most people aren’t doing very well at all, but there are frequent occurrences which serve to remind me where I am. A few nights back, we were enjoying a nice dinner in a garden restaurant, when we were approached by two little boys wanting to shine our shoes. I rarely give money to kids on the street, as I think it encourages them to hustle rather than go to school, but I made an exception in this instance because it was the evening, they weren’t pan-handling and they were very sweet. I asked them their names and ages and they told me they were eight and seven respectively. The older of the two did the shoe shining whilst the younger looked on. After I’d given them my dollar, they asked if I had any spare food, and since Marty had eaten as much as he could of his large plate of grilled meat and veges and nipped out to the shop, we certainly had plenty to go around. I made them each a little tortilla with some beans and meat which they bolted down in a flash, telling me it was delicious. There was still plenty left over, so I got them both to sit at the table, divided everything into two portions, gave them each a fork and let them at it. They really attacked the food… these little boys were hungry. They were also very sweet and very polite, asking me if I had some water they could drink whilst they ate, and even making dinner table conversation. When Marty came back they’d already left and, as I was telling him what had happened, I had a sudden fit of the sads… I couldn’t help thinking about how young they were and imagined what it would be like if any of my friends’ kids were compelled to walk around the streets at night eating leftovers from strangers’ tables.

It’s certainly a contradictory experience being here, and it’s a good thing there are plenty of people in Guatemala working hard as volunteers, trying to help communities become more self-sufficient, so the country isn’t just full of people like us, eating extravagant meals and sharing our scraps with street kids.

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Walk! Climb! Swim! Jump!

We’ve now been in Guatemala for about a week and it has been quite an adventure. From Caye Caulker we caught a 7:30am ferry to Belize City where we transferred onto a bus which would take us to Flores. We are both really loving the bus pass we bought in Australia which has made all of our travel arrangements very simple. The iPad is also a complete god send since every place we’ve stayed has wifi which makes it very easy to communicate with the travel company which books our tickets. Having this taken care of removes much of the hassle associated with getting from A to B.

The trip to Flores was fairly uneventful and we arrived mid afternoon, quite tired and ready for a rest. Our hotel was nothing special, but it was cheap, air conditioned and had a majestic view of the lake. Flores is a tiny island, 600m wide, connected to the mainland by a short stretch of road, so most places seem to have a fairly picturesque outlook. The city is generally not a destination in itself as most people use it as a base from which to visit the ancient ruins of Tikal. This is exactly what we did and we had to brace ourselves for a 4:30am pick-up which aimed to have us in Tikal in time to see the sunrise. From memory, it was a bumpy but attractive ride, however I was so groggy and tired my recollection of it is a bit sketchy. I do recall, however, that it was quite chilly and I was rugged up in a cardy throughout the morning.

We drove deep into the jungle which was covered in a thick blanket of mist. It’s very atmospheric, especially when all you can hear is the deep growls of howler monkeys (which sound more like lions than monkeys). Arriving at around 6:30, it became apparent that because the mist was quite heavy we weren’t going to see a sunrise, which was a little disappointing given we’d had to get up at 4am, but thems the breaks. We grabbed a snack from the cafe and then set off into the jungle on foot, following our guide, Cesar, who claimed to have been taking groups out for 20 years. The ruins were discovered around 1860 and they are the biggest in all of Central America. Much of them have yet to be excavated, but the main acropolis and pyramids are extremely impressive. By around 9am the sun had come out and the temperature had risen dramatically, so after traipsing around for a while and clambering over things, we sat in the shade and took it all in. Back at the entrance we had some delicious icy cold watermelon juice before we climbed back in the minivan for the ride back to town. Marty and I were crammed in the front seat which was hot and uncomfortable but in spite of this I managed to sleep for pretty much the entire journey. I was so tired I think I could have slept even if I was strapped to the roof rack.

The next day we set out for Lanquin, a small town deep in the mountains which is popular with travelers due to its proximity to Semuc Champey, a beautiful village which is home to a series of rock pools and underground caves. Quite a few people had told us it was an amazing trip so we were keen to head over there, even though it’s a bit out of the way. The mini bus picked us up at 9am and once again we were all jammed inside. The buses here are noticeably and uncomfortably smaller than in Mexico, possibly because the Guatemalans are really, really small. Most of the men are shorter than me, and I’m far from Amazonian in stature. The women are even smaller and resemble little dolls, especially when they’re dressed in colorful skirts and shawls. Transport just isn’t designed for Europeans, and it’s especially challenging for the 6ft plus lads who have to fold themselves into the tiny seats.

We were lucky that this bus only had eight passengers, or so we thought, until we realized we were trapped inside with a couple of obnoxious French Canadians for the rest of the day. They were two big, hairy, smelly boys and they started drinking almost as soon as we were on the road, slugging from a bottle of local fire water. By lunchtime they were completely hammered… talking loudly, burping, stumbling around like idiots. They won no friends on the trip. By the time we arrived in Lanquin I was well and truly over them and ready to tell them in no uncertain terms that they were neither funny nor clever. Oh yes, my friends, I was cross.

I was also anxious and annoyed that we were staying at the same hostel as them and feared that they would ruin our idyllic stay in the mountains, so when we made our first stop at a different hostel, one which I’d actually being trying to contact unsuccessfully, and they told us they had a spare private room (with bathroom!), we made an on the spot executive decision to stay there thus eliminating the two Canadians from our lives. It turned out to be an incredibly serendipitous decision. The Zephyr hostel is one of the most beautiful places we’ve stayed. It’s tucked deep within the mountains and has spectacular 360 degree views. It’s a true traveller Mecca and as soon as we arrived and headed out to the back patio, which serves as a bar, restaurant and chill out area, we were greeted by a host of people from all around the world. The fact that we could get a private room so easily is testament to the budget consciousness of the residents. Most of them are living on next to nothing, and the $20 price tag was out of their range, whereas for us, it’s about as cheap as we’ve had so far.

Literally, within moments, we were drinking a cold beer, hooking up to wifi and chatting with other travelers. The system at zephyr is great – you register your names and leave your passport with them and all the costs you incur for food, drink, lodgings and tours goes on a tab which you pay when you check out. We saw one woman who’d been there 6 days and when they printed out her tab it was an impressive 1.5M long. Everyone who goes there takes to trip to Semuc Champey and there were a host of people excited and eager to talk about their experience. We had been told that it was a pretty crazy day and as I started to talk to people who’d already done it, people whose day jobs were things like leading tour groups through the Alaskan wilderness or training people how to carry out an avalanche rescues, I began to wonder if I had bitten off more than I could chew…

The next day we wandered down the road to find our transport out to Semuc Champey, expecting the ubiquitous miniature mini bus. But not this time. We were instead faced with a truck, a ‘troupie’ as we’d call it back home, where we all piled in the back and hung on for dear life whilst it negotiated the perilous mountain road. It was only a 10km trip but it took nearly an hour because the road is little more than a gravel track with very sharp bends. It required frequent ducking to avoid being whacked in the head by branches. It was certainly an exciting, albeit a slightly uncomfortable start.

When we arrived, after stopping to pick up a group of over enthusiastic Japanese tourists (who will feature more prominently in this tale at a later stage), we were met by our guide, Todo, a typically diminutive Guatemalan with a loose grasp of English. He showed us a few nice flowers, let us smell fresh cardamom and smeared our faces with a natural dye – a pointer perhaps to the fact that our day would soon turn into something akin to an episode of ‘Survivor’ – but a gentle start to the day.

The first physical challenge was a 1.2km hike up the mountain. The sign said ‘dificil’ and it wasn’t joking. It was a tough, steep climb, made more so by the fact it was quite slippery, but the landscape was incredible. Dense jungle, huge trees with sprawling roots and a myriad tree ferns. By the time we reached the top we were hot and sweaty but the view of the rock pools below, nestled in a lush valley were quite extraordinary and well and truly worth the effort. Then we had to climb down, which wasn’t as physically taxing but was equally as perilous because of the slipperiness. The climb up and back down probably took about an hour and a half, but that was just for starters.

Once we were at the bottom, Todo attempted to explain what was next, but all we could understand was that it involved the water pools and that it was optional. Not wanting to be ‘voted off the island’ (so to speak) so early in the game, we both decided we were in. Six of us, plus Todo, trudged down to the water wearing only our bathers, and soon the reality of what lay ahead became apparent. Our task was to swim/slide/scramble/crawl down the layers of the pools. The swimming part was easy, but then we’d reach the end of one pool and would have to make it down to the next. Not so easy. At our first serious junction, I somehow found myself going first, and Todo, who had a real boot camp style of delivery, shouted at me to go slow. Easier said than done. I found myself sliding/bouncing down the rocks completely out of control before I landed with a splash in the next one. A few more of these descents ensued and I tried to be much more careful, wanting to avoid as best I could, tearing myself a new asshole.

After some time (I really don’t know how long anything took because my fight or flight instincts were in overdrive) we came to a smallish waterfall, not too steep, and maybe about 5m from top to bottom. Pretty. Then we had to slide down it. I am generally quite a scaredy cat, so this was not all that appealing, but in for a penny, in for a pound. If you’ve come this far there’s no going back. Each of us had to sit at the base, legs stretched out in front and arms crossed over our chests, and then Todo gave us a hearty shove and down we went. As I went down, I somehow managed to swing out to the right, so I flew into the water at a weird 45 degree angle. It was exhilarating and frightening, and extremely amusing for those already at the bottom who could see the look of abject terror on my face. After a bit more swimming, and a bit more scrambling, we had to swim underwater through a small rock cave. There were pockets where there was no air, and if you came up too suddenly, you’d clonk your head, but good old Todo, supportive as ever, was there to guide us, frantically screaming “up! up! up!” and pulling us up by the hair when it was time to surface. This exercise definitely gets filed under ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ (but probably don’t do it again).

After making our way down the water pools, it was time to go back the way we came. Not being the most sure-footed or physically adept of girls, I found this harder than most and often opted to slide around on my backside, like some kind of awkward dog with a worm problem. (I tells ya, there’s no place for vanity when you’re doing this kind of thing). Once we were safely on dry land, we walked up to the main road and headed to the restaurant where we were told to order our lunch, but rather than wait around for it to be cooked, we all had to grab rubber tubes and take them back down to the river. At the water’s edge we wedged ourselves into the tubes and spent about 20 minutes gently floating along and drifting with the current. It was a soothing ride and, apart from having to avoid colliding with a couple of rocks, it required little effort and was very peaceful.

It all sounds like an exhilarating and eventful day, yes? Well, the real action was still to come.

We were told to strip back down to our bathers and slip on our thongs. “We do walk, climb, swim, jump,” explained Todo. I repeated this sequence over and over… walk, climb, swim, jump… walk, climb, swim, jump… I feared that getting the order wrong might lead to disaster. walk, climb, swim, jump… walk, climb, swim, jump…

And so we walked along a dirt road, a weird group of Europeans with a crazy band of middle-aged Japanese, all dressed in our bathers and thongs. The two 20-something German girls didn’t have thongs, so they trudged along in bikinis and hiking boots. Todo unashamedly took photos of them from behind which he claimed to be posting on Facebook. And then we climbed up a series of stone steps along the side of a hill until we got to a small hut – the entrance to the famous caves of Semuc Champey.

Having spoken to other travelers, we had some idea of what was in store… we knew we’d being walking through some amazing caves, we knew it would be by candlelight, but I don’t think either of us realized what lay ahead. Each of us was given a candle which we lit at the cave mouth and once it was lit we gingerly started walking inside. There were small pools of water, and we walked across smooth pebble stones for a few minutes before it became very dark. The ceiling was dripping with stalactites and the cave roof was full of bats. This may have been unnerving had we had time to contemplate it, but no sooner had we seen them, we were wading in waist deep water which rapidly became deeper which meant we had to swim. Swim in dark caves. Swim in dark caves with candles. And bats. Clearly, we were not in Kansas anymore.

The group of Japanese travelers (remember them?) were forging ahead and we could see their candles in the distance, slowly spiraling down. One of the women was bundled up in a life jacket with a towel wrapped around her head, as if to protect her blow dry. We scrambled down rocks with our candles, splashing ourselves with wax, desperately trying to see where to put our feet and where to grab so we wouldn’t slip and fall. It was hard and scary. And then we came to a waterfall with a rope which we had to use to pull ourselves up. Seriously. A waterfall and a rope. I watched people do it and it looked terrible, so I opted for the adjacent ladder, which sounds easy, but it was slippery, and in some places the rungs were flush with the rock face, so it was kind of terrifying. And the whole time I did this, the guide was making chicken noises. I’m not kidding. It was like the worst ever primary school sport incident but with the teacher taking the piss. At that moment I just wanted to get to the top without falling off, so I resisted the urge to tell him to shut the hell up.

Having made it to the top, we swam and scrambled some more, until we came to a dark cavern, with a rock face, perhaps 3-4m high, which the guide proceeded to climb and leap from, landing in a small pool of water. Now this might not sound very high, but when you can’t really see, and you have to scale a slippery rock wall and jump into a dark pool, it is terrifying. Around half of the group opted to do it, but Marty and I both felt that we’d spent all of our bravery chips, and there was no way in hell we were going to do anything that crazy. After everyone with a death wish had climbed and jumped, the guide scurried up and did a crazy back flip into the water. Everyone whooped and waited expectantly for him to surface. A few moments passed… but no guide. People began to get twitchy… where was he? How would we all get out without him? I was sitting towards the back of the group and just to my right I noticed a head pop out from within the rocks. It was our guide, who looked at me and gestured ‘shhhhh!’ he had jumped into the pool and swum underneath the rock bed, surfacing through a small hole behind the group. After 30 seconds or so, people were becoming really anxious and leaning into the water trying to catch a glimpse of him. He waited maybe another 20 seconds before he tapped someone on the shoulder and greeted them with a cheeky, sheepish grin.

Then we had to make our way back, which meant doing all of the physical challenges in reverse, but didn’t mean they were any less challenging. I felt most comfortable with the swimming part, and managed to do a pretty good job of keeping my candle lit the whole time. This didn’t help me much when it came to the Japanese group, who all swam like maniacs and kept mobbing me to light their candles. If we’d really been in ‘survivor’, I would have kicked their asses off the island as soon as I could. At a certain point, after swimming, scrambling, climbing and more swimming, we had to slide down a vertical rock chute, and this was where I had my little freak out. Thus far, I’d managed to internalise most of my anxieties, but the chute almost broke me. It involved swiveling your body over a gap, trying to grip slippery rock with your hands and feet. My main issues were that I couldn’t see and I needed someone to explain exactly what I needed to do and to explain it in supportive terms, ie: that’s great Jude, you’re doing really well, just move your right foot and swivel your body a bit to the left. Instead, what I got was sit here! Sit here! Slide! I believe it was around this time I screamed something like, I can’t! I can’t! I don’t understand! But at some point I must have managed to get in the right position and he kind of of pulled? pushed? me down into the water.

We limped our way out of the caves, all a bit stunned by what we’d undertaken for the last two hours. It was by far the most intrepid, dangerous, exciting and challenging thing I’ve ever done. There is NO WAY you could ever do something like this in Australia, the public liability insurance would be astronomical, and we all marveled, in our slightly dazed state, at our death defying day of adventure.

It was 5pm when we got back to the restaurant and we were all wet, cold and ready to go home and have a hot shower. We waited for our driver, and waited, and waited. And waited. Finally at 7pm he arrived to drive us the hour back to Lanquin. No explanation, no apology, but we were all so relieved to be going home it didn’t matter. Normally, an hour long drive on a dirt road in the dead of night would elicit in me some level of anxiety, but when you’ve swum in dark caves with candles, slid down waterfalls and slid down rock chutes, it’s all pretty run of the mill.

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Sea, Sun and Snorkeling (and a very lucky chicken incident)

We are now in Guatemala and I attempted to write this whilst jammed inside a mini van en route from Flores to Lanquin which was a stupid idea given the van was tiny and it was possibly one of the bumpiest trips I’ve ever experienced, but I’m now safely ensconced in a little inn in the mountains which is far more conducive to typing away on an iPad.

But let’s leave Guatemala for now and I’ll tell you a little about the last ten days or so.

(At this point I feel it’s only fair to issue the following disclaimer: the following post may provoke feelings of distress and, in some cases, physical illness, amongst anyone who has been experiencing consistently inclement weather (ie: all of Sydney) and those who may be experiencing any form of job stress. It contains references to idyllic beaches, snorkeling in caves and barrier reefs and long days of complete relaxation).

We left Merida bound for Tulum a bit under two weeks ago. Tulum is in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo which neighbors the Yucatan (the latter being most famous for the party town Cancun, popular with a certain breed of american tourist, which we wisely avoided. En route to Tulum we stopped at the Chichen Itza ruins, one of mexico’s biggest guns in the world of archaeological sites. We had been warned that it was incredibly crowded so the hordes didn’t come as a shock, but we were pleasantly surprised by our excellent guide and ended up having a much better time there than we’d expected. Whilst it is a bit of a tourist circus, you can’t fail to be impressed by the sheer scale of the place, not to mention the ingenious design techniques that those clever Mayans employed. Looking at a huge pyramid, the mind boggles at how they managed to physically build such a gargantuan structure, but when you realise it’s also a calendar (different levels represent different months/seasons and on each equinox the sun aligns perfectly with a serpent’s head at the base) you have to wonder how they hell they knew all this stuff. Possibly even more remarkable is when you stand directly in front of one of the sides and clap, the pyrmid’s acoustics create a sound which mirrors exactly that of a quetzal (a native bird). How on earth they knew how to achieve this effect is anyone’s guess. It’s not as if they could spend a century building it and after trying it out say, oh well, that’s not quite right, it sounds more like a toucan than a quetzal, let’s start again. I guess it’s something we’ll never fully understand. Spooky.

We arrived in Tulum late afternoon and made our way to our guest house, Las Palmas Maya, which I had spent some serious effort trying to secure. Tulum is a very sexy town right on the beach which means that prices are high, especially if you want to stay on the beach rather than in the town ( which is a good 5-6km away). I worked out if I booked a place on the beach road but on the non beach side we would pay around half as much. Most of the places on the beach aren’t actually ON the beach, so by my reasoning it didn’t make that much difference. I must have emailed about 20 places whilst we were in Mazunte trying to find something affordable and and I think we hit the jackpot with LPM. It has five small cabanas, all on stilts and made from local wood, and whilst we couldn’t see the beach, we only had to cross the road to be there within 30 seconds. An added bonus, which we appreciated more once we got to Tulum and realized all the food on the beach was stupidly expensive and that it was too hard to ride into town each night for tasty bargains, was the semi-outdoor kitchen which had a stove and BBQ. The day after we arrived, we cycled to the huge supermarket and bought enough groceries to last us for the next five days. Having the option to prepare your own food is a real treat when you’ve not been able to for six weeks and what’s not to love about avocados for $2 per kilo?

The cabanas are managed by a 20-something Floridian named Tom, who whilst initially coming across as being a bit too all American, turned out to be a pretty cool guy. Marty and I tended to hang out there of an evening and became quite friendly with Tom… we cooked him a few dinners, he made us very delicious coca coladas ( rum and coconut cream) and one night he set up a movie screen on the patio and we watched ‘No Country for Old Men’. Weirdly, there were three Australian couples staying there and two Lithuanian couples. And even more weirdly, one of the Australians there was a guy who’d done internal photography for the opening of IKEA Tempe, so I’d indirectly employed him via my PR agency. It is indeed a small world.

Tulum is famous for its beautiful Mayan ruins on the beach. It was a fortress town and its relics have become one of mexico’s most popular archaeological sites. We had been told to get there early and we probably should have heeded this advice a bit more strongly, as when we arrived, very hot and sweaty after a solid 30-minute bike ride, the tour buses had well and truly landed. It’s easy to see why Tulum is such a crowd puller. The combination of temple relics, spectacular cliffs and brilliant turquoise waters are a winning combination, and it’s no wonder this site continued to be inhabited by Mayans well into the 1500s and some time after the Spanish invasion. If I owned real estate like that I would definitely need some convincing (and a strong dose of cholera/syphilis/etc…) to get me to move along. Despite the fact we are there by 9:30am, the crowds were really quite overwhelming, so after about an hour (which included a swim in a very beautiful but overcrowded beach) we decided to call it a morning. We did however manage to see a lot of big iguanas cavorting about. Embarrassingly, when I exclaimed that I could see some lizards fighting, an American woman politely told me that they were in fact mating. You’d think that all the episodes of ‘V’ I watched in the 80s would have taught me this already but clearly not.

The beach in Tulum is about as picture perfect as it comes. Palm trees sway gently in the breeze, the water is about a hundred shades of blue, green and turquoise and the sand is extraordinarily silky. Most days, we managed to devote a few hours to admiring its loveliness from the comfort of a deck chair. It was dreamy laziness at its best.

As sublime as the beach was, the real highlight in Tulum for both of us was snorkeling in cenotes. ‘Cenote’ is the Mayan word for ‘holy well’ but in English it is known by the less exotic term, ‘sink hole.’ Essentially, they are fresh water springs which tend to house an underground cave system and make for some pretty spectacular viewing. The first spot we visited was an open air cenote, surrounded by mangrove vegetation and all manner of bird life. We even managed to spot a family of badger like creatures scurrying about. The water was a truly remarkable shade of aquamarine and we snorkeled there for about 45 minutes, sighting plenty of fish and some beautiful underwater cave formations. Next we went to one of the bigger sites, ‘dos ojos’ (two eyes), a pair of underwater caves, filled with stalactites and stalagmites, in which people snorkel and dive. It was a really remarkable experience to swim through these caves, where at times the rock formations join to become like underwater pillars. There were no fish to be seen, and it felt as though we were swimming through a lunar landscape. The cave system is very intricate and whilst it’s only the divers who get to explore its nooks and crannies, we both felt very content (and safe) floating on the surface. Without a doubt it was one of the hi lights of our trip to date.

We planned to spend our last day in Tulum on the beach, but unfortunately it bucketed with rain for nearly the entire day, and we were pretty much trapped inside the entire time (probably when I should have written this actually, but I’m sure there was a perfect,y good reason I chose not to). Thankfully the day was not a complete loss as we ended up spending a very pleasant evening with our American friend, Mandy (who we met in San Cristobal) and her friend, Dayna. It was here that I had a drunken idea for developing a website/app for travelers that’s a combination of Grindr and a few other sites. I am hoping this will turn me into a millionaire sooner rather than later, so I’ll keep you posted.

After five nights in Tulum, it was not only time to move on to our next destination, but time to go to an entirely new country. We were sad to be leaving Mexico… we spent five weeks there and could have easily stayed longer in most of the places we saw, but it’s hard to be melancholy about anything when you’re on your way to Belize!

From Tulum, we traveled about three hours by bus to Chetumal, where we killed a couple of hours eating ceviche and fish burritos in a little seaside restaurant, before boarding a small ferry which would take us to the island of Caye Caulker (pronounced ‘quay corker’).

The principal language of Belize is English (they have a very young looking QE11 on their money) but the unofficial language is a Caribbean patois, much like what you’d hear in Jamaica. It is a delicious sounding language, albeit a little tricky to understand if you ask me (but Marty seems to have a better ear for it than I do). Before arriving in CC, we stopped in San Pedro (as in, “last night I dreamt of San Pedro” – Madonna’s ‘la isla bonita’) to clear customs and immigration. Neither of us had ever seen an immigration office quite like this one… it was essentially a small shack on the jetty with a hand painted sign and they had reggae playing in the background. It didn’t have quite the intimidation factor of airports like LAX.

There are no cars on Caye Caulker so most people get around on bicycles or simply choose to walk because the island is so small. There are also a handful of electric golf cart type vehicles so when we arrived we piled our luggage onto one of those which took us the short distance to our hotel, Barefoot Beach, a two storey building painted in typical Caribbean colours of green, yellow and pink. We had a quick bite to eat that night and the next morning I woke up with uncomfortable stomach pains and nausea so after a brief stroll, throughout which I (literally) moaned and groaned, we headed back to the hotel where I slept for most of the day. It was a fairly average start to our time there but we’ve both been so lucky with our health thus far we were probably overdue for a dose of something.

Thankfully, by the following day I was back in business and ready to embrace island life. Caye Caulker is only 6km long and 600 metres wide, so it’s really very tiny. The town is in the southern end and the main attraction during the day is ‘the split,’ a small strip of beach which was formed when the island literally split into two pieces during a hurricane in 1961. The beach is quite small and the water is an extraordinarily vivid shade of turquoise so it’s not surprising that this is where most people, including Marty and myself, choose to while away the days… getting a massage under the shade of a palm tree, paddling around in the water or sipping on a cocktail or several at the infamous ‘Lazy Lizard’ bar. The Lizard is a weatherboard shack that serves drinks and snacks in the ultimate alfresco style – tables are right on the beach and some are even partially submerged in the water. It is very easy to lose a lot of hours here, especially when you’re enjoying happy hour ‘panty rippas’ – a rum, pineapple and coconut concoction (unfortunately named, but very quaffable).

It’s also very easy to socialise and we got chatting to loads of different people, many of whom we kept bumping into whilst we were there, simply because of the island’s size. After a solid effort at happy hour and a very tasty meal of BBQ chicken at Fran’s on the beach, we headed over to one of the town’s handful of bars. We chose this place quite deliberately for its outstanding entertainment. Twice each week they stage a competition known as a ‘chicken drop’ where a live chicken is placed on a board with squares randomly numbered from one to a hundred. Punters buy tickets by reaching into a big glass jar and then the chicken is placed on the board. The number on which the chicken decides to poo is the winning number and as luck would have it, the chicken pooped straight onto number 31 which was one of mine! I had employed a pub meat tray strategy and bought ten tickets (its a numbers game, you see) so I was in with a good chance, but it was still a very fortuitous win. I was handed some toilet paper and after I’d scooped up the poop I claimed my $100 prize, the most money I’ve made in about three months!

Snorkeling in Caye Caulker is very popular since it is home to the world’s second largest barrier reef and we were both very keen to get out there. We booked ourselves on a small tour and headed out in a little boat to the Hol Chan marine reserve (http://www.holchanbelize.org), a 30-minute ride from the island. Before we’d even got in the water we started to see some amazing creatures… beautiful sea birds and a huge school of tarpons, but once we donned our snorkels and jumped in, we were able to appreciate how spectacular it was. For the first hour, we followed our guide, Marph, a fun and fast-talking local lad who really knew his way around the ocean floor. It was the aquatic equivalent of a mardi gras parade and we must have seen at least 40 different types of fish. Morph swam with a cache of bait which he used to coax out the shyer fish, and we saw some remarkable creatures… eels jumping out of their caves, turtles, stingrays and more fish than I could count. Next stop was the coral gardens, and you just know with a name like that, it’s going to be good. Sure enough, it was an underwater wonderland with sprawling masses of exquisite coral formations. I swam with a big turtle for a while and then I tagged along for about ten minutes with a school of around 300 blue tang fish, which are around 20cm long, with a dark purple body rimmed with electric blue. It was a magical afternoon and I loved it so much that the next day I went out on another trip to check out some of the other spots (Marty opted to hang out on the beach instead). There were more beautiful fish to be seen and we also swam with dozens of stingrays and nurse sharks which our guide fed from the boat. We’d been assured that it was completely safe, but it was still terrifying to get into the water with them, but once I realized they were very tame (and less interested in me than in the fish they were being fed) I relaxed into swimming with them. I even stroked a nurse shark’s belly! There were only three of us in the group and we were the only ones there so it felt like we had a private audience. I could literally have gone snorkeling day after day after day… it’s just impossible to tire of something so beautiful and endlessly changing.

In case you’ve not picked up on it, this has been an incredibly idyllic and utterly sublime leg of our journey and one which we’ll likely remember longingly when we eventually have to get back to reality, but thankfully that’s still a little while away.

Next stop Guatemala!

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Merida – where culture meets corporate

On Sunday we boarded a bus for the eight hour journey to Merida. Under normal circumstances, the idea of an 8am start on a Sunday morning would instill in me deep feelings of dread, but weekends have ceased to hold any real meaning for us, so we began and ended the trip fairly cheerfully. We didn’t know much about Merida other than it was a pretty colonial town and the gateway to the Yucatan region, so we had few expectations about what we’d be seeing and doing.

We arrived at our posada, a beautifully painted building with a shiny red door. Once we were buzzed in, we were greeted by a stunning central courtyard, full of lush plants and the gentle trickle of a fountain. Our room was huge and had a 5m high ceiling – very useful to mitigate the intense heat. The back patio, surrounded by walls painted in a deep shade of ochre with smatterings of vivid azure, had a perfect kidney shaped pool in its centre, and a tiled kitchen to one side. Once again, we felt very pleased with our choice of accommodation. Later we would meet Nelson, the Uruguayan owner, a rakish raconteur who reminded me quite a bit of Pietro, my long ago boyfriend in Miami (who a couple of you – Mum and Pearl – met way back in the day). He had the same ability to be simultaneously charming, amusing and uncannily incisive. Both Marty and I enjoyed his company, albeit fleetingly, but we did manage to get the story of the building which now housed his hotel.

Whilst the current structure was built around 100 years ago, the property itself dates to 1560, around the time the Spanish landed in the city. A wealthy citizen built two houses next door to each other and when he died he bequeathed one to each of his sons. One house was sold almost immediately, but the other remained in the family for many, many generations until the last remaining relative died in the 1970s. With no children (and presumably no relatives) to leave it to, he chose to give it to the local priest. This priest must have been something of a character, as somewhere along the way he’d managed to find himself a girlfriend and a child. Clearly this didn’t go down too well with the church and at some point he was excommunicated, so one can only imagine that inheriting a large colonial mansion must have seemed like just the windfall he needed. Apparently, despite his indiscretions, he was quite popular with the locals, and they rallied around him and encouraged him to stay in the house. For many years he sold antiques there until he finally died around 2000 and the house was put on the market, paving the way for Nelson to transform it into the gorgeous hotel Medio Mundo – an undertaking which took some 16 months. (Nelson, if you’re reading this and would like to correct my re-telling of the story, please feel free to comment!)


As luck would have it, we arrived right in the midst of the Merida Carnevale, a week long celebration which featured fairly constant festivities. We had no idea this was happening until we arrived and wondered aloud what all the racket was, and we were happily surprised to realize we’d landed in the midst of a big party. Having arrived late in the day, we decided to bypass the carnivale and instead head straight for dinner. Marty found a gorgeous restaurant, another converted colonial home, where I enjoyed a sensational pulled pork dish, and he attempted to eat the world’s biggest pizza which was covered in avocado, cheese, mushrooms and meat. He adopted a ‘Becky Brownjohn strategy’ ie: eating the topping and leaving most of the crust. It was admirable south beach diet behaviour and I was much amused.

Leaving the restaurant, we stumbled upon a two storey textile shop and I was like the proverbial moth to the flame. It was here that I discovered the most extraordinary quilt, a series of heavily embroidered silk squares, sewn together to form an exquisite piece of patchwork. It was love at first sight, and after a little bit of haggling, she was mine. It weighs a tonne, but I care not (especially since it’s safely ensconced in Marty’s backpack).

The next day we set out to explore the city, with a vague plan of visiting the markets in search of more lovely things. The markets didn’t yield too much in the way of fabulous-things-I-simply-must-have, but there were plenty of other goodies to keep me busy. As those of you who have kept abreast of my photos have possibly realized, I have a fascination with meat markets (in the literal sense) and the pig trotter with strange nail polish like markings that I stumbled across was a real highlight. Merida was hot and sticky that day (and possibly every day) and after a few hours we were badly in need of refreshment, so we stopped at one of the many food stands, all of which had saucy Mexican wenches hawking for business, for a sopa de lima (tasty lime based chicken soup) and a refresco. When we went to leave, I amused the waitress with my poor Spanish; instead of offering to pay for everything, I volunteered to pay for everyone. Oopsy.

After a pleasant late afternoon sojourn by the pool, we ventured back into town, a short 10 minute walk, to secure ourselves a good position for the parade. Being somewhat vertically challenged, I was very keen on landing a prime spot in the grandstand, so,we arrived at 5:30 on the nose, just as people were starting to gather. As planned, we secured best seats in the house for the princely sum of 30 pesos (around $2). Can you imagine getting ANYTHING at mardi gras in Sydney for $2?? Seated on the third row at the far end of a bank of metal bleachers, we watched the crowd slowly start to build, and snacked on ‘marquesitas’ – wafer thin waffles, cooked in a skillet over an open flame, filled with cheese and rolled into a long cigar shape. They tasted delicious and the smell was even better. These – as well as the people watching – helped us happily pass three hour wait until the parade started.

Monday was the penultimate day of the carnivale, and was the day dedicated to cultural groups, so there was less tinsel and tits and more flowers and folk dancing. Each ethnic group in the Yucatan was represented by at least a hundred performers who all skipped about in beautiful costumes. It was a blur of colour and pageantry, which the crowd seemed mildly impressed by, but it wasn’t until the big floats started coming past that people really started to get excited. The floats were big, way bigger and glitzier than anything I’ve seen in Sydney, so when we saw one round the corner, we were pretty excited about what was in store. And who do you think would be responsible for such a display of sparkle and light? Why, that’d be Coke, of course. And KFC. And Sol (beer). And Ciel (water). And Bimbo – yes, Bimbo (biscuits). The crowd went nuts every time one of these floats went by, probably because of the free stuff which was being hurled at them, to the point I needed to clutch Marty to stop myself from being toppled over. I’m a marketer, so I do get the need on both sides for corporate involvement in parades like these, but it was so weirdly incongruous seeing big groups of people flanked by monstrous machines fueled by big business.

It was a fleeting visit to Merida, just two nights, and whilst we would have happily stayed longer, the lure the Caribbean sea was strong, so it was back on a bus, destination Tulum, for five days of complete relaxation (cos even travelers need a rest sometimes).

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You can lead a girl to culture (but she still likes a drink)

Saying goodbye to Mazunte was a little difficult as we had both very quickly adapted to the languor of living in a hippy beach town, but we were also excited about heading to Chiapas where we knew we’d be seeing some really incredible archaeological sites and natural wonders. Once again, we had to take an overnight bus, this time from Pochutla to San Cristobal de las Casas (known locally as ‘San Cristobal) which would take eleven hours. Thankfully, I have the ability to sleep in nearly any type of moving vehicle, and I put this skill to good use throughout this journey, waking occasionally, but sleeping well for most of the trip. I did learn one thing however, and that is never to attempt to use the bus toilet eight hours into the trip. I suspect there was a malfunction of some sort, but I have never, ever, EVER seen anything quite this bad. Luckily there were regular stops along the way so I only had to suffer a mere fleeting glimpse of the world’s most appalling latrine (but it has been burnt into my retinas for eternity).


San Cristobal is in the heart of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost State, and our plan was to use it as a base / launch pad for exploring the region, which includes some of the really ‘big ticket’ historical sites, as well as some spectacular scenery. It’s often described as being one of the prettiest towns in the region, so we were both looking forward to spending our three days there. 

We arrived at our B&B mid-morning and were very pleased to find that our room was ready for us. It’s owner, Bela, a Los Angeles native, has lived in the area for 20 years and little by little, has converted her home into a guest house with four rooms. In typical Spanish style, the house is built around a central courtyard, which Bela has turned into a wonderful garden. She comes across as being slightly eccentric – she seemed to spend a lot of time lounging on her bed surrounded by her four fluffy white dogs, Chiapas, Apollo, Lou-Lou and Fifi – and it’s possible this is the reason we enjoyed being there so much. 

San Cristibal oozes charm, and with it’s quaint buildings and cobblestone streets, it’s easy to see why it’s so well loved by travelers. Whilst it doesn’t have the postcard perfect streets of Oaxaca, it has a certain ‘edge’ to it, that I found even more appealing. It’s also the centre of the Zapatistas, the leftist guerrilla movement which launched in the early 1990s with the aim of protecting the rights of local indigenous communities. There are 4.3 million people living in Chiapas and around a quarter of them are indigenous, that is, with no Spanish ancestry. Walking around San Cristobal, you see a lot of people in traditional outfits, and my first thought was that they must be all dressed up for the tourists, but it’s genuinely what they wear. Apparently, you can tell where someone is from from their outfit. Handy.

A couple of people had told us that we should head out the the nearby village of San Juan Chamula where they have some quite unique religious practices that make for an interesting visit. Bela encouraged us to go with a local guide, Cesar, who would find us if we headed down to the main square at 9:30am and waited for him by the big wooden cross. And sure enough, as soon as we got there, a guy called Raoul approached and said he would be driving us the 10km to San Chamula. It was a slightly strange ride as once we got in the van, the driver didn’t say a word about exactly where we were going and what was happening, but when we arrived after about 20 minutes, we met the famous Cesar who gathered us opposite the cemetery and explained what lay ahead.

Cesar was a small man with warm and intelligent brown eyes and he explained to us that he was born in San Cristobal and that whilst he was a ‘mestizo’ his grandmother had roots in the San Chamula community so he had grown up with an understanding of their culture. He turned out to be an unbelievably good guide and for the next five hours we all hung onto his every word. 

Although they have not technically seceded from Mexico, San Chumalans are semi autonomous. They are extremely strict about photography, believing that it steals their spirit and also not wanting outsiders to cash in on their culture. For this reason, I have very few photos of the area which is a shame since I saw some extraordinary images, but I’ll try to describe some of what I saw as best I can.

There are around 80,000 San Chamulans and they identify as ‘catholic traditionalists,’ but their church functions outside of the Vatican. (the reasons for this become very clear once you go inside the church and see what they’re doing with chickens). They are direct descendants of the Maya, part of the Tzotzile tribe, and they speak a language completely different to Spanish. I took a few photos of some signs and the words are completely unrecognizable. The women are easily identifiable from their dress – a thick, black wool skirt, bound around the waist and brightly colored shawls in solid colours, and the men dress according to their function. A ‘spiritual leader,’ for example, wears a white robe. 

Daily life seems to focus heavily around religious rituals. Each year, around 120 ‘spiritual leaders’ are appointed and their sole purpose is to manage a hectic schedule of rituals and ceremonies. Despite there being no financial remuneration for taking on this role (in fact they have to fork out around $20,000 of their own money over the course of the year to pay all the costs associated with the rituals) there is fierce competition amongst the villagers to be be selected. Apparently, some men have had to wait 25 years to be chosen, but once you’re in, you’re in, gaining respect and honour amongst the community and a special burial when you die. I got the impression that there’s always a lot of religious activity in San Chamula, but we were quite lucky that our visit coincided with the final week of preparations for the biggest event in their religious calendar, kind of like Mayan new year, so things were in overdrive. 

As any ritual worth half its salt well knows, it’s not the real deal unless you’ve slaughtered a couple of beasties. As we were lead through the village we saw that the San Chamulans were well aware of this as they had done a fine job of killing several bulls, which we could see carved up and hanging in all their gory glory for all to see. One had been killed just the day before, and the pavement was still smeared with blood and chunks of flesh (which the local dogs were certainly appreciating). Surrounding each carcass was a hive of activity… women burning incense, wood cutting, and at one home an entire band was playing alongside the house. We had been told at the outset that it was strictly forbidden to take photos and, just in case we’d forgotten, a couple of the villagers approached and sternly reminded us this was the case.

We walked through the streets, Cesar stopping every now and then to tell us facts of interest, like the leafy archways outsides homes which are used to signify that it is the home of a spiritual leader, and then on we went to the church, a large white stucco structure which is the focal point of the town. Entering the church, you realise instantly that you’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s very dimly lit, the only light coming from hundreds of candles resting on alters around the perimeter and in clusters on the floor. There are no pews and the floor is strewn with a thick layer of pine needles which, along with the candles, incense and tonnes of fresh flowers (mainly gladioli, chrysanthemums and roses) makes for a pretty atmospheric aroma. It’s common for Mexican Catholics to place a lot of emphasis on the saints, and the San Chamulans have really taken this to an extreme. Whilst Jesus and Mary are in their usual spots on the front alter, it’s the saints who really steal the show. Each of the side walls have around a dozen elaborate wooden boxes and each contains a saint draped in mirrors, strewn with flowers and surrounded by candles. 

Whilst we were there, there were several shamans performing rituals. These often centre around curing some physical ailment and, as we witnessed several times, the killing of a live chicken by quickly breaking its neck. Eggs also feature prominently, as do soft drinks. The latter inclusion struck us as a particularly quirky, however Cesar explained that their use was in fact connected to Mayan practices. Traditionally, the Mayans used four different colors to represent north, east, south and west – red, white, yellow and black – which reflected the four colours of corn, the key ingredient of their diet and core focus of everyday life. The soft drinks – coke (black), strawberry (red), lemon (yellow) and lemonade (white) – represent the different colored corn. In times past, the shamans would have concocted their own drinks, but apparently they think the sodas do a very good job, and the bubbles provide the added bonus of inducing burping which is a good way of forcing evil spirits to exit the body. I love this particular element, not just because it’s slightly bizarre, but also because it’s such a great example of how the San Chamulans have merged their Mayan traditions with Catholicism and produced their own hybrid religion. You’ve got to hand it to a community that has so steadfastly hung on to their traditions, whilst adapting them a little along the way. Unlike the Amish, the San Chamulans don’t shun contact with the modern world, they’re just really committed to keeping their own way of life alive. Cesar spoke strongly against the Christian fundamentalists who are trying to convert the San Chamulans. Apparently they are quite aggressive in their efforts and he was gently but firmly disparaging.

The last couple of days have also been full of natural wonders. We took a 90 minute trip through Sumidero Canyon which was beautiful. Some of the rock faces are 1km high! The waters are not suitable for swimming as they’re filled with crocodiles… we saw a couple of big ones sunning themselves on the water’s edge. We also saw two amazing waterfalls, Agua Azul and Misol-Ha. Agua Azul (which means ‘blue water’) is a series of cascades which flow over smooth rocks and, due to the high mineral content, have the appearance of being vivid blue. There’s an area at the mouth of the falls where swimming is allowed and even though the water was a bit chilly, neither of us were going to miss a chance to swim in those waters. Next was Misol-Ha, a 40 metre cascade which is completely breathtaking. The water thunders down with incredible force which you can fully appreciate when you walk behind the wall of water. Those with a slightly intrepid nature can choose to continue on and climb to a small cave, and whilst Marty forged ahead, I declared it too slippery and too wet and remained safely ensconced behind the waterfall. Waiting for Marty to finish the climb, I noticed a woman coming down from the cave who had a false leg that didn’t even bend at the knee. If I was feeling like a girly wuss before, this certainly compounded it.

I can also possibly blame my cowardice on the fact that I was slightly hungover on this day trip. The previous afternoon, when we’d got back from the canyon, we had to walk to the post office to post home the box of goodies I’ve collected over the last few weeks and just as we left it decided to pour with rain, so by the time we got to the post office, we were both nicely soggy. As any of you who have had to post a box from overseas will know, it’s not as easy as you think it will be, just finding a box is an effort, and when we learned at the post office the box had to be wrapped in paper, it prompted a whole new wave of faffing about. Finally, it was ready to go and I had handed over my $100 (yes, that’s right, $100 to send home a not huge box of stuff), I was well and truly ready for a drink. We’d stumbled across a wine bar the night before which we both liked but it was overflowing with people, so we agreed to head back when it was likely to be less crowded. Sure enough, there were only a few people there so we were able relax and thoroughly enjoy a few glasses of temperanillo along with the couple of snacks (bread and various toppings) which come with every glass. The Italian owner claims the snacks stop people from getting too drunk and encourages them to keep drinking, and he definitely seems to be on to something. When we got the bill at around 10pm (we had a 6am start the next day, otherwise who knows when we would have left) we had downed an impressive tally. During the course of the night, we found ourselves hanging out with a couple of Americans (who weren’t a couple) that were both living in San Cristobal. John, a former air traffic controller and now part-time photographer and full-time traveler, and Mandy who does SEO type marketing from a base in San Cristobal. As luck would have it, Mandy and some of her friends are headed to Tulum the same time as Marty and I, so we’ve arranged to meet for dinner on Tuesday and probably do some excursions as well. Plus, they have a house with a pool, so when we get sick of the beach, we have a back-up plan.

On the same day we visited the waterfalls (best hangover cure ever, i might add) we also went to the ruins of Palenque, one of the most significant Mayan sites in Mexico. Officially, the historians say it dates back to about 300AD, but some say it has origins as far back as 3000BC. It’s definitely a spectacular site, and with a little imagination, you can guess at how imposing it must have looked when all of the buildings were covered in stucco and painted in bright red, yellow and blue. We employed the services of an english speaking guide, Victor, a strangely pale and slightly mole-like fellow, to show us around the site. He was a very nice chap, but spent much of the two hours telling us how wrong all the historians were and how he knew the “real story.” According to him, what we know as Mayan culture is in fact an amalgam of many other cultures including Egyptian, Indian and Chinese, as he alleges that all of these peoples (and more) sailed to Mexico’s shores nearly 2000 years ago. He spent an inordinately long time explaining the powerful symbolism of the number 7. I strongly suspect he may have been some sort of conspiracy theorist, and when he started telling us that Tutankhamen had visited Palenque, my patience with his rumblings started to wear a bit thin.

We stayed in the town of Palenque for three nights. It’s widely considered to be a complete shit hole, but we found a place on the edge of town with lovely air conditioned rooms, a swimming pool and a great seafood restaurant across the road. There was also a huge group of students from Madrid staying there, who of an evening liked to raucously splash about in the pool,  so Marty had plenty of opportunity to marvel at pneumatic 18 year old Spanish breasts. After several days of fairly hectic sightseeing, we gave ourselves a day off to sleep in and lie by the pool, which we both thoroughly enjoyed. As I’m sure you know, traveling around, seeing amazing things and having a great time, can really take it out of you. 

Our last day in Palenque was a big ‘un – a 14 hour round trip to see some less accessible Mayan sites which we’d heard were not to be missed – Yaxchilan and Bonampak. To reach Yaxchilan, we traveled about three hours in a mini van and then had to travel by boat for a further 45 minutes. The landscape was gorgeous – rolling hills and dense, lush jungle – which made yet another 6am start somewhat tolerable. Yaxchilan is quite extraordinary as it really is in the heart of the jungle and is enveloped in knotted trees and thick vegetation. The site dates to around 700AD, and to access the main area we had to climb through a series of tunnels which also housed bats and spiders, which meant we were finally able to break out our travel torch (although I possibly would have preferred not to see the spiders). It was all very Indiana Jones. We did a fairly strenuous climb up to what the call ‘the acropolis’ and then negotiated a jungle path back down to the bottom. It was all very hot and sweaty but very amazing. 

Then it was back on the boat, back on the mini van, and a two hour drive to Bonampak. The temples here are of a similar era to Yaxchilan, and architecturally less spectacular, but they have some of the best preserved temple paintings in Mexico. They really are something quite special as they are phenomenally well preserved and suggest how it must have looked in its hey day, when rulers like ‘Lady Yax Rabbit’ and ‘Lord Shield Jaguar III’ were swanning about. (And yes, Marty and I have of course assumed these names as our own). It was a long and exhausting day, and I could barely drag myself out for a margarita and prawn ceviche, but a girl needs to maintain her strength.

That’s about it for Chiapas… I feel like I’ve left a lot out as we took so much in over the week, but hopefully this gives you a snapshot of what we saw and did. 

We are now in Merida, spending two nights here before we head to the beautiful seaside town of Tulum where the adventure will continue!

(We are also very happy  because today Ahmad confirmed that he’s meeting us in Nicaragua on the 19th March to join us for the last two weeks of our travels in Central America. Very excited indeed!)