Feliz Año Nuevo

Central America trip
December 2016
week 4 of 4

MEXICO | COLOMBIA
Chiapas, Yucatán | Bogotá

by Xavier

note: for practical details on transport, fares, travel times, etc check out Simon’s HOW WE GOT THERE section further down.

PalenqueMAP

Palenque

A slight misunderstanding when booking our hostel over the internet caused a humorous moment on arrival. Well, I say humorous. It had not been easy to find accommodation at the height of the festive season, and by the time we started looking in earnest all we could get was this very basic hostel, but we were only stopping for one night so we decided to book and hope for the best.  Despite having Simon’s name on her reservations list, the good woman on duty the evening of our arrival would not let us check in until the owner was called in, and we could not make any sense of the reason why – despite the fact that we were all talking to each other in Spanish (which both of us speak).  After waiting for the owner for absolute ages, it eventually transpired that we had somehow managed to book a family room for eight people, but we were only two people and therefore Simon was clearly a different Simon although they only had one Simon on the list. Oh how we laughed. Once the confusion was cleared, we dropped the bags in our palatial lodgings and went out to grab some dinner.

I should think the only reason to visit this unremarkable town is to explore the nearby ruins of what nowadays is one of the most important archaeological sites in Central America.  Like in Tikal, but on a much smaller scale, only part of what it used to be a great Maya city state has been rescued from the jungle and can be visited.  We spent most of our day wandering around the ruins, really worth the visit – especially to the site’s Museum.

With Palenque ticked-off the list, we continued our northbound journey and took a bus to the airport in Villahermosa, to catch a flight to the capital of the state of Yucatán (with one of those exotic airlines that Simon likes so much).

  
        

Mérida

palenquemeridaMAP

Much can be said about the time of the Spanish Empire in the Americas, but one thing for sure is that many beautiful cities remain from that time, and Mérida is no exception.  Expressions such as “steeped in history” and “colonial” glow in imaginary neon letters above Mérida’s streets and plazas, it really is a very pleasant city.

For our last few days in Mexico, in the run up to New Year, Simon chose an excellent B&B which we liked very much once we got used to the bunch of tiny crazy dogs that live in the property. That, and the fact that the owners, Dave and Patrick, went out of their way to make us feel welcome, really helped us relax after three pretty intense weeks.

During one of our walks around the centre of town, Simon fancied trying the local cuisine and once we hit lunch time we made a beeline to the stunning Casona branch of La Chaya Maya, one of Mérida’s most popular eateries, where you just give your name at the door and wait until a table becomes available.  Typical dishes, nicely prepared and served in the large rooms and courtyard of a grand colonial house, and at very reasonable prices!; definitely worth the wait.  Another great spot for lunch was Apoala,  on Parque de Santa Lucía.

A last cultural fix was provided by a visit to the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya. We were impressed by the building itself – no expense spared – and the quality of its exhibits. A very educational experience.  On our way back from the museum I caught a glimpse through the window of our Uber (ridiculously cheap in Mexico) of a Donal Trump piñata outside a shop, and I really wanted to stop but then I saw myself having to carry the thing all the way to London and thought better of it.

A couple of lazy evenings hanging out by the pool with Dave and Patrick, and whatever other guests were around that night, rounded up our stay in Mexico.  Our return flight was going to be from Colombia because why not, and after saying goodbye to everyone we took the bus to Cancún airport and got on our flight to Bogotá (with a sensible airline this time).

  
          

Bogotá

cancunbogotaMAP

Having spent Christmas in Mexico, we would see the New Year in Colombia. We did stay in Bogotá during our round-the-world trip and we liked it a lot, so we thought it’d be fun to end this trip coming back to this big modern capital city.  Hold on to that thought.  We would barely have a day and a half in Bogotá so, for the sake of convenience, we booked ourselves into the same hotel as on the previous time.  It was good to be back.

The one thing I really wanted to do in Bogotá, and had been looking forward to, was to browse the old religious shops on the streets around the Cathedral, where they sell the most extraordinary things. However, having trekked all the way there in the afternoon of New Year’s Eve we found that only one or two of the less interesting shops were open.  We then realised that there were hardly any other people around, when this area had been positively heaving the previous time.  And then it started to rain.  An attempt to visit a nearby museum that Simon suggested was equally fruitless, and thus defeated we headed back to the hotel, right next to the Zona Rosa and its hugely popular bars and restaurants, so we thought we’d wander over there to grab an early dinner and have something to drink before the big night.  Ha.  What we hadn’t anticipated, perhaps naively, is to find a city of eight million practically deserted as most Colombians spend this time in family, and therefore most places are closed since Christmas and about the only people on the streets are other confused visitors like us.

With the entire Zona Rosa shut – shock horror – we hurried back to the hotel to make a desperate attempt at finding somewhere, anywhere, where we could have dinner and discovered that everywhere was either closed or fully booked – or like our hotel, just wouldn’t have any food at all after 7pm (it was well past 8pm by this point).  This complicated things to the point where we were about to give up on the whole New Year’s Eve thing but then I had a momentous epiphany, and a few minutes later we were tucking in after the amazing staff at one of the hotels next door took pity on us and let us eat in their small restaurant, which was about to close. There were other people dining there and we actually had a very nice and festive meal, all the while being extremely conscious of the time as we didn’t want to make anyone late for their family gatherings after they’d been so kind to us!.

It was Simon’s idea to see out the year clubbing in Bogotá.  I hadn’t been crazy about it to start with and the days’ events didn’t help overcome my reluctance but having avoided a disaster over dinner hugely improved my mood and, after a suitable rest in the hotel, we dolled up and got an Uber to THEATRON,  Bogotá’s gargantuan club, the biggest in Latin America, with 14 different themed spaces over several floors, both indoors and outdoors.  If anyone was partying in town that evening, they were partying there.

The entrance ticket (which cost nothing compared to London clubs) came with a hard plastic cup and bottomless refills of house spirits plus mixers from any of the bars – if you wanted beer you had to buy it separately at the bar of one of the smaller rooms.  The music was different from one space to the other:  house, latin, pop…  It all felt as if made by Punchdrunk, but in 1996.  Amazing.  The crowd was mostly Colombian, hundreds of them; but we managed to bump into some Brits that Simon knew through work (what were the chances) and we all hung out on the rooftop (by far the best part of the club) for the rest of the night.  At some point close to midnight, the club staff handed out plastic flutes with what looked like sparkling wine but tasted like lemonade and perfume, mmm, and the fireworks display that followed wasn’t precisely spectacular but oh who cared.  It turned out to be a great night.  Happy new year indeed!

And then it was time to go home.

Everything we have seen and done in these past four weeks has made a huge impression on us and we are definitely coming back for more.  Hasta la vista!

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👉 HOW WE GOT THERE
The practical details

by Simon

San Cristóbal de las Casas to Palenque:  although this is less than five hours drive on route 199, the main bus company ADO wasn’t using this route at the time due to roadblocks and attacks on buses, and the alternative route via Villahermosa took nine hours.  The cost of the ticket was around 300 pesos each.  We found that it’s possible to take a colectivo or tour bus via the more direct route, but there had been multiple reports of robberies.

Palenque to Mérida:  ADO buses take around nine hours.  There was only one daytime bus, leaving at 8am, plus others overnight. The bus didn’t fit our schedule so we took the frequent shuttle bus from Palenque to Villahermosa airport (2 hours) and then a short flight with Aeromar, which cost us around US$70 each.

Mérida to Bogotá:  direct ADO buses to Cancún airport run about five times per day, and take around four hours.  We then flew to Bogotá with LATAM, but lots of airlines fly this route.

Bogotá to London:  again, there is a lot of choice; we flew Iberia via Madrid.

note: all details correct at time of traveling.


All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited.
All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, after all.

Central America trip
December 2016
week 3 of 4

GUATEMALA | MEXICO
The Highlands | Chiapas

by Xavier and Simon

note: for practical details on transport, fares, travel times, etc check out Simon’s HOW WE GOT THERE section further down.


photo: on the long road to Antigua, still smiling at this point…

Antigua Guatemala

After Semuc Champey, our next stop was Antigua Guatemala. We had planned to leave from Lanquín at 6am, which had seemed a good idea at the time, but it meant being picked up from the hostel at 5am so we could make the shuttle.  A pickup truck turned up outside the hostel a few minutes after 5am, Latin music blaring over the stereo. As we bumped along the awful road, thankfully inside the truck this time, we saw many locals heading out early to work; some hailed a lift, as this is the only form of public transport in this remote area. Once at Lanquín, we paid the driver 25 quetzales for the journey, swapped vehicles, and braced ourselves for a tiring eight hour drive – nearly a very memorable journey, as Xavier found himself engaged in a battle of wills with a sudden stomach bug about two hours away from our destination, inside a packed minibus and with no toilet in sight… Fortunately for all, Xavier’s will prevailed as we finally arrived in Antigua, a small city that was the capital of the Spanish colonies in Central America until 1773, when it was seriously damaged by an earthquake and the Spanish Crown moved the capital to what is now Guatemala City.


Our stay in Antigua was actually very pleasant. We had booked three nights at Chez Daniel, a nice and comfortable B&B just outside the touristy centre, and spent a few days exploring the city, with its cobbled streets and quaint old buildings, while admiring the view of the surrounding volcanoes that tower over it all: Volcán de Agua (Hunahpú, in Mayan), Acatenango, and Volcán de Fuego (which gives off a cute puff of ash and smoke every few minutes). It reminded us of the city of Arequipa, in Perú, which we visited just under two years ago.

Craving a cultural fix, we set out to visit some of the museums in Antigua, for which we chose to do the Paseo de los Museos (Museums Walk), the entrance of which is through Casa Santo Domingo, one of the poshest hotels in Antigua.  Inside, historical buildings and courtyards are the location of various museums, mostly small but well worth a look (entry  was ticketed except for hotel guests).

There isn’t much else to do in Antigua itself.  The rest of our time there was mostly spent out and about the cafés, bars and restaurants. Just to name a few, and at risk of sounding like a guide book, here are some of the places we liked: the Rainbow Café (excellent breakfast), Cactus (a tiny, very popular place that serves cheap but pretty decent Mexican food and has live music in the evening), Travel Menu (very chilled and run by an expat, it has a definitive western vibes), McDonald’s (kid you not – it’s huge and inside a historical building, which has an amazing courtyard), Pumping Drinks (bubble tea!), The Snug (a fun, super small “Irish” pub which we liked a lot – the other Irish-flavoured bar, Reilly’s, is much larger and better kitted out, but was pretty dead the only night we walked in, and didn’t linger). On our last night we went to Fridas, a cool Mexican restaurant, after reading about it in a copy of Historias Culinarias de la Antigua Guatemala (Culinary Stories of Antigua Guatemala) that was lying around our B&B – a great book for foodies but sadly only on sale at selected bookstores in Antigua.

Of course this was also the run up to Christmas and the locals were stepping up the religious celebrations, and stepping out into the streets for rather lovely evening processions.









And that is very much all of our time in Antigua.  There are some outdoors activities on offer in the surrounding area, one of which is the almost compulsory climb to one of the many active volcanoes – which Simon decided to do one day.  Here is his account of his climb to Pacaya:

As a rare concession to Guatemalan health and safety you cannot quite climb all the way to the crater. The tour started with another minibus journey, which got held up in a small town which had decided to hold a festival (complete with Disney-esque costumes, dancing and loud music) in the main road, blocking all traffic. By the time we got through this, it was getting late, and some people in the bus wanted to turn back; an American man complained at length about how the company must have known, this wouldn’t happen in his country, and he wanted his money back (fat chance – this is Latin America after all). Everyone else did their best to ignore the man, and we pushed on.

The climb was quite hard work, as the path was steep and in places deep in volcanic ash (which is slippery). Local children walked alongside offering horses, for a modest fee, to carry people up; a few opted for this but most of us persevered on foot. Once at the top, we were rewarded with spectacular views over the volcano, as the sun set in the background. We then part-walked, part-slid, down to a lava field, where holes had been dug down to where the lava is still hot, for us to toast marshmallows.

The obvious problem with watching the sun set was that we would need to get down the steep and slippery path in the dark, which didn’t appear to bother our guide but, as it got later and later, was clearly beginning to worry several people in the group. I asked the guide if he had a torch; he assured me he did, but if that was true he never felt the need to use it. Fortunately, I and others had enough power left on our mobile phones, and used these to light our way down.





Lake Atitlán

The deepest lake in Central America and one of the largest, Lake Atitlán fills up a vast volcanic caldera, and its shores are peppered with small villages inhabited mainly by people of Maya culture. One of these villages is San Pedro La Laguna (laguna being Spanish for lake), where we travelled to from Antigua.


Of the numerous villages around the lake, only a handful seem to be deemed safe enough for visitors, San Pedro among them. It attracts an eclectic crowd of visitors, including hippies and “Woodstock” hipsters, who form an incongruous mix with the local population. We arrived in the centre of San Pedro after a mere four hour drive, and once we retrieved our backpacks we walked to our B&B, Luna Azul, on the outskirts of the village. It was a peculiar place, somewhat reminiscing of Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens, not least because of its wonderfully eccentric manager, Erin, who looked after us amazingly well. We loved staying there, especially since we seemed to be the only guests for the entire time we were there, so we really had the place to ourselves – resident spiders and scorpions notwithstanding.

San Pedro is a busy village during the day; it has steep and narrow streets and amazing views of the lake and the towering sides of this ancient caldera. On Erin’s recommendation we had a surprisingly good and very cheap steak dinner on our first night at the Wild Rover, an “Irish” themed pub formerly known as the Buddha, which is more like a backpackers bar with live music.  It turned out to be the place to be in San Pedro. We didn’t find a fuller place on any of the evenings we were there. Great fun.


video: Annie Lennox had a very sore throat.

The next day we set out on a tour of the area, first hiking to nearby San Juan where we were hoping to get a boat that would take us to one of the other villages. In hindsight, we should have taken a local tuk tuk – the main means of transportation by land – as the hike wasn’t particularly nice. After walking around San Juan for a bit and stopping for coffee, we headed to the pier; however, the day was very windy and there were no boats from this side of the lake, so we got on a tuk tuk  back to San Pedro and from its main pier it was easy to get on a boat across the lake to the picturesque village of San Marcos, where we finished our little tour with a nice lunch in a vegetarian (!) restaurant called Il Giardino before getting the boat back to San Pedro. That night, and also on Erin’s recommendation, we ate quite possibly one of the best Italian meals we have ever had, at a very unassuming restaurant near the main pier called Pequeños Pecados (Small Sins), run by a family from northern Italy who clearly love making delicious food. One of the dishes we ordered wasn’t available so they improvised a plate of exquisite balanzoni with gorgonzola that wasn’t even on the menu. A really nice dinner, which we repeated on our last night in San Pedro. It’s amazing how you can sometimes get such great food in the most unpromising looking places.

Looking for more things to do, and rather unexpectedly, Simon agreed to go horse-riding on another of our days there. It is, unfortunately, not safe for foreigners to venture  unaccompanied along the edge of the lake, so we went to Maya Travel and hired a guide and two not terribly healthy looking horses to ride a few kilometres along the lake and around the base of Volcán San Pedro for more spectacular views, a bit of knowledge of the area, and an insightful chat with our guide about the local economy and politics. Simon had not ridden a horse before and managed not to fall off it so this mini adventure was also ticking another activity off the list.

Walking around the higher parts of San Pedro, away from the shore, we got to see some interesting things like the fantastic day market, which is an assault to the senses, and the lighting on the facade of the church of San Pedro La Laguna, which looked amazing at night (a little caution is advisable if walking around the higher parts of San Pedro at night, but we didn’t have any problems).

On our last night, the main ATM by the pier was out of order and what could have been a tricky situation (we needed enough cash to pay for dinner and the 5am boat out of San Pedro) was saved by a young and entrepreneurial tuk tuk driver, who took a chance on us and drove us to the other ATM in San Pedro right at the top of the village without the assurance of payment if this machine was also out of order, which fortunately it wasn’t so he got a nice tip on top of the fare.

We absolutely loved Guatemala, not so much its roads, but it definitely surpassed all of our expectations. We would have happily stayed longer had it not been because  Christmas was upon us and we had decided to spend it back over the border in Mexico.


San Cristóbal de las Casas

Getting up at 5am to catch the boat out of San Pedro wasn’t precisely appealing. We grabbed our backpacks and walked to the pier under a cold starry night, the village eerily deserted. But the early morning ride across the water, just as the sun was rising  over the surrounding volcanoes, was breathtakingly beautiful and a fitting last impression of Lake Atitlán.

Once in Panajachel we got on the shuttle to Mexico just after 7am, and another lengthy journey and a particularly chaotic border crossing later we reached San Cristóbal. One of the travel websites that Simon used to plan the trip, and which he would generally recommend: travelindependent.info, dismisses San Cristóbal as being “to backpackers what Cancún is to package tourists“, but in fact it felt the reverse. Possibly because Mexico is rich enough to have its own domestic tourism industry, and it was holiday season, it felt like we were stepping off the Gringo Trail and, from this point on, we no longer saw familiar faces at every turn. At any rate, we welcomed the nicely surfaced roads this side of the border.

In San Cristóbal we stayed at Casa Selah, a beautiful and homely hotel in the centre, which worked out really well in the end. Like in Antigua (but with better paving), we spent the days walking around the city, popping in and out its many churches, historical buildings, and public squares, as well as the cafés, bars and restaurants (won’t reel off another list, worry not). We also hiked to the top of the two hills (cerros) on either side of the centre, the Cerro de San Cristóbal and Cerro de Guadalupe, both of which have big churches on their summits as well as great views over the city. Cerro de Guadalupe is by far the most interesting of the two, the church at its top is definitely worth the steep climb, and the surrounding neighbourhood feels much safer and nicer than by Cerro de San Cristóbal, especially at night. 


Simon also took himself on a tour of the Sumidero Canyon, about an hour’s drive from San Cristóbal. It then took him about two hours by boat to see this spectacular canyon, in some ways reminiscent of Milford Sound in New Zealand, but with better weather; the boat also stopped for the group to get a good look at the canyon’s wildlife, which includes crocodiles!.


It eventually got to the day before Christmas Eve and we still hadn’t made any plans for the two days ahead. We hastily did some research and, after some difficulties with the hotel’s staff, Xavier managed to sort things out at this very short notice. For our dinner on Christmas Eve we secured a table at El Secreto, apparently one of the best restaurants in the city according to the reviews, which was offering a special festive menu at what would have been a fairly hefty price even by London standards. Mexican food, despite our different levels of enthusiasm, had generally been very good during our trip so our expectations were high. They certainly weren’t met at El Secreto. This was by and large the worst meal we had in Mexico, as well as being multiples of the price of any other. Five courses, which varied from dull to borderline inedible, were served in quick and awkward succession, and we left within 90 minutes, worse off and very disappointed. Fortunately, Christmas Day was much better.  Having walked up to the Cathedral for Christmas Day Mass, we then headed off to lunch with some trepidation but our faith in Mexican cuisine was fully and duly restored at LUM, the restaurant at super cool b¨o hotel, where we had an excellent meal, and much cheaper!

After such emotional roller coaster it was again time to think about our travel schedule. We had planned to stop in Palenque next, to look at even more ruins. This should have been a five hour drive; unfortunately, southeast Mexico is still a bit unstable partly as a legacy from the Zapatista rebellion in the 1990s when San Cristóbal was briefly taken over by the rebels (the Mexican army regained control within a few days). Some people in the region have now taken to blockading roads and sometimes attacking buses and as a result we found out that of the two bus companies one wasn’t operating at all and the other was taking a less direct route to avoid problems, over a whopping nine hours via Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Cárdenas and Ciudad del Carmen – look it up.

So, on Boxing Day, when many people back at home were slowly starting to bring themselves back from the brink of alcoholism and diabetes, we embarked on another long bus journey. Yay.

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👉 HOW WE GOT THERE
The practical details

by Simon

Lanquín to Antigua: depending on the company this may leave at either 6am or 8am with hostel pickup up to an hour before. Buy in advance, if possible before arriving at your hostel as this seemed to be cheaper. We paid 100 quetzales compared to 175 offered at our hostel in Semuc;  however, we also had to pay 25 for the journey from the hostel back to Lanquín. You can book this at a travel agent in Flores; we bought from an agent on board the shuttle from Flores. Journey time: 8 hours including two stops.

Antigua to San Pedro La Laguna:  there are several daily tourist shuttles, taking about four hours including stops. Buy from a travel agency or hostel in Antigua. The best price we could find was 80 quetzales.

San Pedro to San Cristobal de las Casas: there is a daily shuttle from Panajachel to San Cristóbal, leaving at 7am and arriving around 4pm. From anywhere else on the lake it’s necessary to get an early boat to Panajachel. From San Pedro we took what is theoretically a 6am boat, but which left 10 minutes early (fortunately we were warned in advance). All agents in San Pedro seemed to be selling the shuttle for 160 quetzales, plus we had to pay 25 for the boat. There is a switch of minibuses at the border; the vehicle, road and driving on the Mexican side were all notably better than in Guatemala.

note: all details correct at time of publishing.


All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device.

Chéen kuxtal (pure life)

Central America trip
December 2016
week 2 of 4

GUATEMALA

The North

by Xavier and Simon

I’ve been traveling in Guatemala in the rainforest, and here all these houses are made of sticks. It seems so easy to make one.

— Björk

photo: mural in San Marco La Laguna.

note: for practical details on transport, fares, travel times, etc check out Simon’s HOW WE GOT THERE section further down.

Guatemala was a great country to visit but has its share of problems, including a fairly high crime rate, poor health and education (we saw lots of very young children working, having learnt enough English to sell cans of beer to backpackers), weak government, and severe corruption. Its recent political history had been traumatic. In a bizarre episode in 2011, the wife of the then President Álvaro Colom filed for divorce in order to get around the provision in the Constitution which limits Presidents to one term, and bans their close family from running for office. The Supreme Court nonetheless rejected her as a candidate, and Otto Pérez Molina was elected President on a platform of cracking down on crime. He, and several of his cabinet, are now in prison after a UN-sponsored anti-impunity commission revealed evidence of their involvement in a large corruption scandal. There was then a further scandal about the allegedly luxurious conditions in which they were incarcerated. In response to all this, Guatemala elected a political outsider, evangelical Christian and former comedian Jimmy Morales, who ran under the slogan ‘Ni corrupto ni ladrón‘ (‘Not corrupt or a thief’), which we saw plastered on billboards around the country. In turn, he has been accused of nepotism and links to dubious right wing ex-military leaders who have committed human rights abuses.

photo from servindi.org

Politics aside, the first stage of our journey into Guatemala was a 9am water taxi from Caye Caulker back to Belize City, en route to Flores. The person who sold us the bus ticket from Belize to Flores said that it left at 10:30am, but the bus company website said 10am… as our boat pulled in late at just after 10am, Simon rushed off to find the bus whilst our backpacks were offloaded, though it turned out the bus was not due for another hour. When the bus did eventually turn up, it resembled a motorised tin can, but by 11:15am we were happily rattling westwards across Belize towards the Guatemalan border.

The border crossing was fairly straightforward, and we made friends with John from Ohio, who was travelling on our bus by himself and had quite an accent on him, but was nice to chat to. Once officially stamped in, the three of us shared a minibus to the centre of Flores, where we said goodbye to John and headed, aptly, to Hotel Isla de Flores, to stay for a couple of nights, with one night in Tikal in between.

Flores

Flores is a small man made island on Lake Petén Itzá, across a short causeway from the much larger town of Santa Elena. It is essentially a quaint and pleasant stopover on the way to Tikal, the site of some of the most famous pre-Colombian ruins in the continent, and far more appealing to visitors than Santa Elena, not least because of safety concerns. Santa Elena, however, has the nearest working ATMs if the only one in Flores (inside a convenience store) is out of order, which it was every time we tried – Simon had to hop twice on a tuk tuk to Santa Elena…

Having sorted out our transport for Tikal the following day (we just asked around a couple of agencies near the hotel), we went for a walk around the tiny island and stopped for happy hour at the Sky Bar before popping next door for dinner at La Villa del Chef, which has great views over the lake, is run by a very friendly and welcoming German chap, and where, as well as having a great meal (so good we repeated a couple of nights later), we learned about the muñequitas quitapenas (‘worry dolls‘), a great local custom!

Tikal

Once the capital of one of the most important kingdoms in the Mayan empire, between 200 and 900 AD, this vast citadel – covering over 500 square kilometres – was abandoned at the end of the 10th century. For comparison, mysterious Machu Picchu dates from the 15th century, and the even more mysterious people of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) were still making their famous moai in the 17th century.

Tikal‘s ruins, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, are surrounded by dense jungle, which makes it near impossible to get a sense of the scale – the whole area had previously turned to desert when the Mayans cut most of the vegetation as they built their city, but the jungle grew back over time after the site was abandoned.

https://youtu.be/JmhHaJZuJI0

video: 1960 fieldwork film by Penn Museum.

On leaving Flores, we chose to join a 3pm guided tour as proposed to us by the agency man who was traveling in our minibus. The fee (200 quetzales per person, about £20 each) would allow us to enter the site again the next day without having to pay again. Once inside Tikal, we dropped our bags at our on-site accommodation for that night, the Jungle Lodge (nice facilities, disappointing service for the price), and joined the group. Our guide, a cool guy Xavier chatted to a lot in Spanish, then took us on a whistle-stop tour of the ruins. As well as admiring the ruins, we took in the wildlife that live at the site: coatis (a type of raccoon) and ocellated turkeys (described by our guide as ‘royal turkeys’ – a literal translation of the Spanish pavo real, which actually means ‘peacock’), several species of toucans and parrots, an orange-breasted falcon (we just saw the one), and so on. We also caught glimpses of, but mostly just heard, howler monkeys, whose impressively loud howls sounded like something out of Jurassic Park – a bit of trivia: these sounds were indeed used in the film, and Tikal itself was used as the location for some well known scenes in another very famous film.

Just before dusk, our group and quite a few other people climbed up one of the tallest temples, over a ‘DANGER – NO ENTRY’ sign, and balanced somewhat precariously on some crude scaffolding on the side of the temple, from where we could just about see the sun set over the jungle. We were then treated to a spectacular scene when the moon – almost full – shone over the most picturesque part of the site, after which we all hiked back to the entrance with the help of torches, stopping briefly every now and then to admire the big spiders that had come out to hunt and were scurrying across the path – our guide even picked up a small tarantula and let it sit on his arm for everyone to take photos and for Xavier to have a mild panic attack.

The tour took about three hours and in hindsight would probably had been enough for us, but we had booked to stay overnight in Tikal to enable us to visit again for sunrise. Our tour guide had told us that it is often cloudy in the mornings and the chances of actually seeing the sunrise are much lower than seeing the sunset, and lo and behold the morning turned out to be cloudy, which somewhat defeated the point of getting up at 5am and trekking all the way to the farthest temple, and then up it. However, this did at least give us the chance to explore the site on our own early in the morning when it is both emptier of tourists and free from the suffocating afternoon heat. Our stay in Tikal got further extended because our transport back to Flores decided not to show up as promised – we had been told there would be pickups at 12:30pm and 3pm, so we planned our day to return on the 12:30pm, which didn’t turn up, so we found ourselves having to wait for the 3pm – or pay for another vehicle to drive us back to Flores. A spot of lunch at one of the other lodges made the wait a bit more bearable – Xavier thinks that the businesses in the area are missing out big time by not offering ‘Chicken Tikal’ in their menus; he also thinks he’s not the first to make this joke – and eventually we were on our way back to Flores. Apparently we are not unique in having had problems with San Juan tours, but all is well that ends well, and a few hours later we were enjoying another great dinner by the lake at La Villa del Chef.

Semuc Champey

Arguably the most famous symbol of Guatemala, at least for travelers, is the ‘chicken bus’, former US school buses heavily decorated and adapted for cheap public transport. They seem to have no limit on the number of people that can be squeezed inside, and perhaps for that very reason don’t appeal much to tourists, so there is a parallel network of minibus shuttles run by travel agencies which link the most visited places.

We set off on one of these shuttles the next morning – along some familiar faces, including our cheerful friend from Nottingham – for a mammoth 10 hour journey to Lanquín, where we had to change vehicles to get to our hostel in Semuc Champey.

a chicken bus – we didn’t have the pleasure.

In the course of our travels we have been on some pretty bad roads – the Trampolín de la Muerte in Colombia springs to mind (pun intended) – but nothing has come close to the road from Lanquín to Semuc Champey: 11 kilometres of steep (both up and down), winding, bumpy, rocky track peppered with potholes which we did standing up on the back of a shaky pickup truck for about 45 minutes, with six other travelers and some locals, hanging on to a metal frame for dear life… a bit like these happy people in the photo, but less happy, more cramped, and in the dark.

photo from Guatemala, Through My Eyes

However, the (literal) pain of the journey melted away pretty quickly when we arrived at the aptly named Utopia hostel (they call themselves an ‘Eco Hotel’, but it’s really a hostel, albeit a really good one), deep in the jungle about a kilometre from Semuc Champey itself. A wonderful place to relax for a few days, run by great staff (here’s looking at you, Meghan). We didn’t mind the bugs – ok Xavier minded the big scary spiders quite a bit – the lack of wifi, or the exclusively vegetarian food. We definitely didn’t mind the stunning views, the great company, and the drinks at £1 – ‘happy hour’ indeed!.

In the morning, just after breakfast, we headed out on the obligatory tour, which we booked directly at the hostel. The first part of the tour, after a short drive, was a candlelit visit of the Kan’ba caves, which really wasn’t as quaint as it sounds. The caves are narrow, very narrow in parts, water runs through them, and it’s pitch black inside. We all first had to strip down to our swimming shorts, no phones or cameras lest they got damaged or lost entirely in the caves; no glasses either, for the same reason – after obvious protestations, Simon had to get his glasses on a makeshift string before going in; and no helmets or torches. The only concession to health and safety – clearly not top of the agenda – was that our guide, a young local man called Elder, recommended that we kept our shoes on. Once inside the caves we waded, swam, climbed and crawled our way through, often holding on to ropes attached to the side walls or hanging above the water over deep pools, going up and down narrow ladders, each of us carrying a candle to light our way – and half expecting to bump into Gollum at every turn (at least Xavier was). After a kilometre or so, we reached a cavern where our guide encouraged us to climb the side wall and then jump from a ledge into the watery darkness below. While we both declined the invitation, as we are determined to be able to withdraw our pensions one day, the other four members of our group, three young Germans and a young Canadian, did take the plunge, literally, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but they seemed elated by the experience. The journey back to the entrance involved a shorter but terrifying plunge, sliding in a corkscrew fashion through an impossibly narrow gap in the rock and dropping into the darkness below. Risk assessment notwithstanding, it was an amazing experience – here is what others thought of it.

video from Tarik Lebaddi’s YouTube channel – we didn’t take our cameras or phones with us.

Once out of the caves, and as if there hadn’t been enough death-defying thrills for one morning, the next exhilarating adventure on offer was to hop on a very long rope swing and jump off it into the main river from a considerable height, the trick part being to have the presesence of mind to let go of the swing at its highest point to avoid swinging back at speed towards the rocky shore… Surprisingly, not all the young ones felt like it, but even more surprisingly (and likely overtaken by a sudden desire not to be outdone by a bunch of carefree twentysomethings) Xavier was swinging away and head-diving into the thankfully deep river before anyone could shout ‘travel insurance!’. Sadly, there is no evidence of this feat as Simon had a senior moment caused by the worry and forgot how to operate an iPhone, and there was no encore, so you’ll just have to take our word for it – but here is somebody else’s video of it:

video from nursekassandra’s YouTube channel.

After a well earned lunch, our next stop was Semuc Champey itself. This strange formation is, in effect, a natural 300 metre wide, 50 metre long limestone bridge over a river, on which have formed a stepped series of turquoise pools. We first made an exhausting and very sweaty hike up a mountain, all the way to El Mirador, a viewpoint high above the site, and then clambered down and spent some time swimming in and jumping between the pools, which was really cool – except for the fish in the pool, which would swim up and take a nibble when they thought they could get away with it.

The final stage to the day, just after some jumping off a bridge, why not (only the Canadian girl and her German friend did this), was to float down the river, back to our hostel, on rubber tubes – which was billed as ‘extreme tubing’ and not one but two guides were accompanying the group. Thinking about it afterwards, we probably should have skipped this. The sky had clouded over by the time we got in the cold river and we were pretty tired after the intense day, so it wasn’t great. For most of the time river flow was really slow and everyone was getting cold. At one point, looking at the ten or so shivering people floating down with us, it was reminiscing of the scenes towards the end of Titanic.

Just as we were wondering why they called this ‘extreme’, we hit some lively rapids and we all certainly perked up (during a particularly bumpy bit Simon lost his sunglasses) and though we were in the water for just over an hour of mostly drifting down gently, it was a good idea to keep up with the guides and heed their warnings.

After an action packed day, followed by quite a few drinks at the hostel and some card games with a really lovely Dutch couple we met, we spent the next day as far from adventures as possible. Simon went on a ‘chocolate tour’ within the hostel grounds, where he made chocolates from the cocoa beans that grew there, whilst Xavier just sit in the sun reading a book and watching out for big spiders. It was a great few days, and, as usual, we would have stayed longer had we had more time, but we didn’t, so at 5am the next day (seriously) we set off for our next stop: Antigua.

👉🏻 HOW WE GOT THERE

The practical details

by Simon

Belize City to Flores: there is a daily direct bus operated by Fuente del Norte, which leaves at 11am from the water taxi pier; journey time 5 hours; fare US$25. The ticket can be bought either at the water taxi pier in Caye Caulker or from one of the travel agents on the island. We took the 9am water taxi from Caye Caulker to connect with the bus. We then had to pay US$20 each to leave Belize. We were then transferred to a minibus for the final ride into Flores. The guy on the minibus talked to us about where to buy the tickets for whatever our next tour or transfer, and indeed the minibus drove us to a tour agent in Flores, rather than to our hotel, as we had expected. The prices quoted were much higher than what we found out later on browsing around other agents, so our advice would be don’t buy anything from the first travel agent you are taken to, they will try to rip you off.

Flores to Lanquín for Semuc Champey: a tourist minibus shuttle leaves daily at 8am. We bought our tickets in advance from a travel agent in Flores after shopping around, different agents were quoting between 90 and 200 quetzales, but looks like regardless of the agent everyone ends up on the same vehicle, so may as well pay the lowest price. Our ticket included hotel pickup in Flores, the shuttle then took 10 hours to get to Lanquín, stopping a few times. On arrival in Lanquín we got a transfer to our hostel by pickup truck, which in our case took almost an extra hour as the road was so rough.

note: all details correct at time of publishing.


All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device.

Down Mexico Way

Central America trip
December 2016
week 1 of 4

MEXICO | BELIZE
The Caribbean coast

by Xavier

Despite of our love for and extensive traveling across the Americas, there are still quite a few countries between Alaska and Tierra de Fuego that we haven’t visited, most notably in Central America, so the time had come to make a long overdue trip. Luckily, and thanks to our very understanding employers, both Simon and I managed to secure four weeks off from the start of December to the start of January, to loop around – mostly by land – yet another gringo trail across southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, with a very brief stop in Colombia on the way back home. And just as temperatures in London dropped to unacceptably cold, we grabbed our backpacks and hopped on a plane to Cancún, on the Caribbean coast of Mexico.

The itinerary

week 1: London – Cancún – Playa del Carmen – Tulum – Caye Caulker
week 2: Flores – Tikal – Flores – Semuc Champey – Antigua Guatemala
week 3: San Pedro La Laguna – San Cristobal de las Casas
week 4: Palenque – Mérida – Cancún – Bogotá – London

For practical details on how we got from one place to the next (what means of transportation, fares, travel times, etc) check out Simon’s HOW WE GOT THERE section at the end of each blog post.

img_0717-2
map source: Great Circle Mapper


Playa del Carmen, Mexico

From the airport at Cancún we headed straight to Playa del Carmen for a couple of days of doing as little as we possibly could.

The bus journey to Playa was most unremarkable, except perhaps for this documentary we watched on the way – which in hindsight was a lot more entertaining dubbed in Latin-American Spanish.

A local taxi took us from the bus terminus to Be Playa, a hip boutique hotel with a rooftop pool and a very popular sushi restaurant on the ground floor – and seemingly staffed and populated entirely by people half our age, which added a certain “down with the cool kids” element to the start of our trip.

Our time in Playa was mainly spent between the rooftop pool or the beach and the numerous cafés, bars, restaurants and shops around town (a couple of favourite places were Almirante Pech and Chez Celine), very much soaking up the weather, settling into full holiday mood, and gearing up for the days and weeks ahead – and musing on the fact that almost everyone working in Playa del Carmen seems to be from Argentina.



Tulum, Mexico

With the proverbial batteries fully recharged, we made the short road journey from Playa to Tulum, passing a number of exclusive residential resorts along the coast (screaming of “time share”), and checked in at Mama’s Home, a great backpackers hostel in the centre of town, right by the main area of tourist-aimed restaurants and bars, with super helpful staff, and hands down the best hostel breakfast we have ever had – unsurprisingly, the reviews online are glowing.

Tulum or not Tulum, that is the question – the ubiquitous calaveras

On our first day we went to see Tulum’s world famous Mayan ruins, perched on a cliff over a beautiful beach. Not without encountering some resistance, I managed to convince Simon to take a taxi for the short ride, and a few minutes later we arrived at the entrance to the site, where they charge a fee to get in. The site was actually much larger than what I had imagined from looking at photos, and also rather manicured to the point of resembling a themed golf course, with roaming groups of American tourists, assorted locals, and very photogenic iguanas. Still, a beautiful archaeological site and totally worth the visit – do check out the reviews!



This part of Mexico, and indeed the whole of the Yucatán Peninsula, is known for the abundance of cenotes, amazing geological formations where people go swimming, snorkelling and/or diving – and so did we. Staff at the hostel recommended going to the Jardín del Edén (Garden of Eden) cenote by midday at the latest, as it would get very busy later on the day. This particular cenote is just under 40km from the centre of town, towards Playa del Carmen, and not far from Akumal beach, which we decided to check out on our way back.

Before setting off, we hired a pair of snorkels at the nearby Iguana Bike Shop, also on the recommendation from the hostel. The shop guy asked us for a deposit and to retain one ID document – mine in this case – until we returned the equipment, before 6pm on the day, which I thought was a tiny bit ridiculous. We went back the following day to hire a couple of bikes and they asked us for one ID per bike, plus the deposit, which I thought was even more ridiculous, though I appreciate they probably have to deal with unruly backpackers all the time and just need to protect their business, but still.

To get there, Simon was keen on taking a colectivo, a type of people-carrier van that acts as local bus between Tulum and Playa del Carmen – and a colectivo we took (once we worked out how, it’s not immediately obvious), and it dropped us, eventually, at the entrance to the park where the cenote is. A small entrance fee is paid at the gate and there are places where to leave bags etc near the water – though no such thing as lockers, so one must keep an eye out and trust that nobody is going to pinch anything.

There were very few people around at that time, which was great, and the water wasn’t too cold, which was even greater. It was amazing to swim about such clear water, very deep in places, and being able to look at the abundant fish (some of the buggers will peck at you if you stay still for more than a few seconds, much to my surprise) and observe the divers in full gear near the bottom. After a couple of hours we headed back to the main road and hailed a passing colectivo that dropped us at Akumal, where we stopped for lunch and a spot of lying on the white sand under a palm tree before returning to Tulum – also by colectivo.  Not a bad day.


The following day Simon suggested checking out El Paraíso, a beach club and hotel very close to the ruins, where you can rent sun loungers and towels for the day and have reasonably priced food and drinks brought to you while you sunbathe on the gorgeous beach – which I thought was a smashing plan. To get there, and also on Simon’s suggestion (Deus dedit, Deus abstulit…) we hired a couple of old bikes (see earlier comments) and pedalled in the punishing sun for some minutes until arriving at the hotel grounds. Fortunately, the hotel staff didn’t seem to mind us turning up on rusty bikes and looking rather sweaty and disheveled, and advised us that parking was free if we consumed food or drink – for which they give you a parking token that you have to hand at the entrance gate on exiting. I must say it was a great day and totally recommended if you just want to chill out on the beach with a certain degree of comfort!

We spent the evenings mostly out and about the few but very popular bars and restaurant along Calle Centauro Sur, a couple of blocks away from the hostel: Le Bistro, La Malquerida, El Bocado, Batey
All in all a really nice few days in Tulum, but then it was time to move on.

By the way, a shoutout to the girls at the Burbu Clean lavandería (next door to the bike rental shop), who drew a big smiley face and wrote “have an excellent day” on my fresh laundry bag – it did put a spring on my step!

Caye Caulker, Belize

Belize is different from the rest of Central America, being English speaking (officially, though most people speak Spanish as well), culturally more part of the Caribbean, and a former British colony complete with a very young looking Queen on its banknotes. In the UK it is mostly known as the business playground of Lord Ashcroft, a billionaire former Tory party treasurer whose net worth has been described by Belize’s Prime Minister as equal to the country’s entire GDP and who briefly served as the country’s UN ambassador.

Caye Caulker (pronounced ‘quay’ or ‘key’, but most definitely not ‘kaye’) is a bit of a party island and very much the next stop on this particular gringo trail, and most travellers heading that way would do so via a well known boat trip from Chetumal. I am not a big fan of boats, and was very pleased when Simon said he had found an alternative bus ride to Belize City, which also cost us half as much. Of course.

And so we left Tulum on the 10am bus to Belize City – a very sensible and recently introduced service which not many people seemed to have cottoned on, so we practically had the bus to ourselves the whole way – and the worst thing I can say about the journey is that the choice of film was mind numbing.

The process of leaving Mexico and entering Belize was relatively smooth – except for the slight mental adjustment at having to switch from Spanish to English, and the sour female officer at Belizean customs… honey, if you want people to understand the words that are coming out of your scowling mouth do speak up and enounce, for God’s sake – of course I didn’t say this to her face because I wanted to be allowed to cross the border, but I hope she read it in my eyes.

Once in Belize City (not an attractive place, or somewhere to stop) a local taxi took us, and a fellow traveler from Nottingham that we met on the bus, to the dock, where the last boat of the day to Caye Caulker was leaving in an hour, in time for a spectacular sunset crossing, so the three of us checked in our backpacks and had a couple of Belizean beers while we waited.

Public transport in Caye Caulker seems to consist of, effectively, old golf buggies that will drive you around the island very cheaply, though it’s easy enough to walk everywhere, it’s not a big island. One of these buggies took us to our chosen B&B once our bags were offloaded and we said goodbye to our Nottingham friend (called Nick, and with whom we kept bumping into along the trip, to the point it stopped being a surprise even in the most random places)

Off the back of online reviews, I booked us in what turned out to be a somewhat expensive and a little way off ‘downtown’ but great B&B called OASI, run by a fantastic lady called Luciana, who really looked after us during our short stay.

Out of the many aquatic activities that the island has to offer, we chose to do a half day snorkelling tour on the reef about 20 minute boat ride off the coast of the island on one of the two days we spent on Caye, which was both great fun and a little unnerving for me (read this and this) – but, have to say, we really enjoyed it, even though I got a reef cut on my knee that it’s proving rather tricky to heal. I am also pleased to say that all my effort at the gym before this trip meant I was able to jump in the water off the side of the boat without causing a tsunami that would have devastated the coast of Belize. So kudos me.

Jokes (ahem) aside, the rest of the time on the island we spent chilling out by the pool, or going out to the various cafes, bars and restaurants there: Amor y Café, Roses, Habanero’s, the Sports Bar





We really liked Caye Caulker, more than we had anticipated, and regretted spending just 48 hours there – when Luciana saw us out on our last morning she asked us “Are you ready to leave?” and we said “No!”, but leave we had to, so she gave us a big hug (bless!) and we jumped on a buggie to catch the boat back to the dock at Belize City, and from there the bus to the town of Flores, in Guatemala.

And all that was just the first week of our trip!  More on the next post.

👉 HOW WE GOT THERE

by Simon

BA flight from London to Cancún, then bus from the airport to Playa del Carmen. Buses operated by ADO run about every 30 minutes from outside the terminal. Journey time 1 hour; fare at the time of travelling was 170 pesos; buy just outside the bus before boarding, no need to book in advance.

Playa del Carmen to Tulum: buses operated by ADO run frequently from the ADO terminal on Calle 12 (note there are two ADO terminals in Playa; this is the main long distance terminal, not the Centro terminal where the airport bus arrives). Journey time 1 hour; fare 70 pesos; again, buy there before boarding.

Tulum to Belize City: buses operated by ADO run through the border crossing all the way to Belize City, twice daily at 10:00 and 00:45 from the ADO terminal; journey time is around 7 hours; the fare is 700 pesos; buy tickets in advance at the ADO terminal. Remember you may need to pay a fee to leave Mexico (we paid 390 pesos each). If connecting on to Caye Caulker, you could walk from Belize City bus station to the pier, but Belize City is a bit sketchy; a taxi was US$7.50.

Belize City to Caye Caulker: there are various operators, we used San Pedro Belize Express which seems to be the main one. It runs about every hour with the last departure at 17:30 (Belize is 1 hour behind eastern Mexico so the daytime ADO bus should arrive around 16:00 allowing you to make this connection fairly safely); journey time is about 1 hour; fare is US$15 single or US$25 return; buy at the dock, no need to book in advance.

note: all details correct at time of publishing.


All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device.

It’s a wrap!

Around the World trip: FINAL THOUGHTS

by Xavier

It’s been a little over a week since we returned to the UK, and have rejoined the working masses already – though I am currently in Spain for a few days visiting my folks – and the last six months are quickly becoming a distant memory.

Map: trip's itinerary

map source: GPS Visualizer.

Back in early March we started the blog with a summary of the journey so far. By last Thursday, when we arrived home, we had clocked a grand total of – give or take – 66,000 kilometres (41,000 miles) over 24 weeks – roughly twice as long as it took Phileas Fogg, though of course he was in a hurry – having done about a fifth of that distance by land (Simon reckons that we have probably spent a good 200 hours just on buses alone).

On this trip we have been to 14 countries in South East Asia, Oceania, and South America; starting in Hong Kong and then travelling through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, France (French Polynesia), Chile (Easter Island), Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and finally Argentina.

Much to Simon’s credit and despite my very best efforts, we have managed to complete the whole trip under budget – which in hindsight means that we could have gone to Galápagos after all so it’s a mixed triumph – and with the exception of some nasty stomach bugs, a fair amount of sunburn, compulsory insect bites, and nearly drowning in the ocean (just me), we have come out of it all reasonably unscathed, if perhaps a little thinner.

Si emociona pensarlo, imagínate hacerlo.

If thinking about it is exciting, imagine doing it.” | photo: Acción Poética.

Travelling has always been my greatest passion, and one I share with Simon. After years of living and working in London, the thought of taking a long break from the latter to fully enjoy the former did eventually become a real possibility, and this trip has been the direct result of several years of planning and a very stressful final push to make it all happen. Simon – to give more credit where it’s due – spent a formidable amount of his time thinking up a plausible itinerary, reading guidebooks and travel blogs, working out routes and timetables, and coming up with a workable budget for which he built an Excel spreadsheet worthy of the Fields Medal. My contribution was far more modest in comparison, but there is just no one like Simon when planning a complex trip, let alone of such scale as this one. I have to say, the feeling when our first plane took off from Heathrow in November was the best thing in the world.

During the course of the last six months we have gone back to some of our favourite places and have discovered plenty more; we have seen many of our distant friends and have made a few more along the way, and I have spent some long overdue time with my family in Argentina. We have swum in the sea, and have stood at 5,000 metres – altitude is a bitch by the way. We have seen the sun rise and set in places where people live such different lives to ours that it makes things like a bad day at work here in London pretty meaningless in comparison – though ask me in a couple of weeks and I may give you a different answer. We have carried our lives on our backs from country to country – not the best look but does wonders for the legs – and when listening to our own music we have listened almost exclusively to The Killers, because the last weeks before leaving London were rather hectic and we just didn’t find the time to put much else in our various devices.

Best bit? Easter Island. We really hope to visit again one day.

And on the subject of backpacking, yes it is a great way of seeing the world if you are willing to step out of your comfort zone occasionally; but…

… HOSTELS OF THE WORLD (especially those in cities): it’s 2015, people; there is just no excuse for crap wifi and ratty 1970s bed linen (come on, how much does a pillow case cost) – and how can some of you charge extra for a private bathroom and only have cold water coming out of the tap?, seriously.

If this blog contributes somehow to encourage people – you? – to raise two fingers to the rat race and go see the world then that would be wonderful. After all these things that we have seen and done, my only regret is not having gone sooner, and for much longer.

What can I say. It has been amazing.

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

video: stelakoul channel, YouTube.

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device.

All good things…

Around the World trip: WEEKS 23 and 24

ARGENTINA
Jujuy province to Buenos Aires – and the journey home.

by Xavier (and Simon)

Well, we have now completed our journey across South America, from the Caribbean coast of Colombia all the way to the capital of Argentina. This is also the end of the third and last leg of our trip around the world; it’s amazing how these six months have just flown by.

Crossing the border between Bolivia and Argentina was quite uneventful. Our bus from Tupiza dropped us at Villazón and we just walked to the immigration control and into La Quiaca, in the northern province of Jujuy, where we got on another bus to Tilcara – a journey we had already done once before, in 2009. It was great to be back in Argentina.

Map: Northern and Central Argentina

Villazón-La Quiaca border crossing

Argentina is a very special place for me. My great-grandfather took his wife and their numerous children across the Atlantic from Spain to Buenos Aires via Montevideo in the early 1900s, and settled there for some years before returning to Europe. All of his children, mostly grownups by then, remained in Argentina except for his youngest daughter – my formidable grandmother – and as a result, I have an extensive collection of relatives in Buenos Aires and other cities in Central Argentina, that probably account for at least half the family. It was only ten years ago when I travelled to Argentina for the first time. I fell hopelessly in love with it and I have been fortunate to visit many times since. But I digress…

Tilcara

Tilcara is lovely, perfect for enjoying the great outdoors. As we had been before, we had planned to stay only two days but ended up staying five, making good use of our walking boots whilst getting to know the area more. Simon visited the Pucará, an archeological site just outside Tilcara, on a day when I was happy to just sit in the sun; we both hiked around Purmamarca, and through the Red Canyon at Quebrada de las Señoritas, in nearby Uquía – driving on the way past the highest vineyards in the world, Viñas del Perchel, at over 2,600 metres; they produce a small amount of fine altitude wine every year. Of course we took full advantage of the excellent food and wine on offer in Tilcara – compared to Bolivia we had died and gone to Heaven here. The very first restaurant we tried on our previous visit is still open and probably the best place to eat for miles; totally recommended. We were also really well looked after at the great B&B we stayed at – if you are reading this, thank you Mara (and Tomás) for the hospitality, we wish you all the best!

Tilcara

Quebrada de las Señoritas, Uquía

Quebrada de las Señoritas, Uquía

Pucará de Tilcara

on the road, Tilcara

Purmamarca, Jujui

We were sad to leave Tilcara but it was at this point when it downed on us that we didn’t have much time before we had to reach Buenos Aires, so we pressed on and headed to Salta on our way to Cafayate, a place we’d wanted to visit for a long time. Not entirely coincidentally, some of the best wine in Argentina is produced there.

Salta hadn’t changed much since we were there last four years ago. We just stopped for one night to break the journey and change money. We stayed in a very cheap and highly praised hostel a short walk from the centre of town, which I guess was ok – hostels in cities are seldom brilliant – but our room made the underside of a bridge look like a suite at Le Méridien so I was glad we didn’t stay longer. Alas, such are the joys of backpacking.

Cafayate turned out to be a very pleasant little town. The countryside around it is ideal for the production of Torrontés (white) and Tannat (red) wines – though other varieties are also produced. The vineyards are planted at over 2,000 metres, so the wine produced is known as “altitude wine” – vino de altura. We only stayed a couple of days, in a rather nice hostel and spent our time visiting various wineries, where we learnt about the local wine making process, and got to sample different wines and take some with us too – which presented us with the challenge of finding space in our already overstuffed backpacks (we managed).

vineyards in Cafayate

Domingo Molina winery, Cafayate

Cafayate

Cafayate loot

Argentinians are a funny bunch…

image: Yahoo Sports, Tumblr.

It is impossible to spend any time in Argentina without being fascinated by the people, their accent, the way they go about life. Conversations invariably turn to the country’s political and economic woes – the scale of which makes most similar issues in Europe pale in comparison.

Argentina is a relatively rich, developed country but has a long history of really, really awful governments. This dates back to at least the 1970s and early 1980s, when the CIA installed murderous military dictatorships in most Latin American countries – applying the expression “Better dead than red” literally. But Argentina’s brutal dictatorship managed to go further than the rest by murdering far more people (a particularly heinous killing method was to throw perceived “enemies” off military aircraft over the sea or inside volcanic craters, alive; thousands died this way), as well as collapsing the economy and starting a war. Successive governments after the dictatorship have been content with stealing from the people rather than killing them – although that is now being debated – but the tradition of collapsing the economy continues. Which brings us to the currency issues we have had here.

100 pesos

As Argentinians have learnt not to trust their government with their money, they prefer to hold US dollars. This has generally been accepted but the current government has tried to maintain an artificially high exchange rate in order to combat the high inflation that in parallel it forges national statistics to show does not exist. Officially, the exchange rate is around 8.5 pesos to the US dollar – the dólar oficial – and that is what we would pay if we took pesos out of an ATM with our foreign cards. But it is not possible to buy dollars at that price, except perhaps if you are very well connected. Argentinians are allowed to save a bit in dollars under conditions, for a 20% surcharge (the dólar ahorro), and they can use credit or debit cards abroad, for a 30% surcharge (the dólar turista). Otherwise, if they need dollars (which they often do – many transactions including property are set in dollars), they turn to the black market (the dólar blue): the exchange rate is usually between 12.5 and 14, and is published each day in the newspapers – despite being technically illegal.

This is economic lunacy. It means Argentina’s exporters are crippled, foreign investment is deterred, and imports are artificially cheap. In turn, the government has sought to limit imports by imposing largely arbitrary restrictions, but this means Argentinian industrial plants have closed because they are not allowed to import spare parts from abroad, and many foreign companies have quit the country. It should also mean that Argentina is a relatively expensive country to visit, deterring tourism. Except, of course, that no half-sensible tourist pays the official exchange rate. Tourists bring enough dollars in cash to cover their entire stay in the country – we crossed the border from Bolivia with US$2,000 distributed about our backpacks. The fact that everyone does this would seem to make people crossing the border an obvious target for robbers, but this doesn’t seem to happen. Changing money on the black market is easy – it’s advertised everywhere. In Salta the traders stood outside the official bureau de change on the main square, undeterred by the presence of copious numbers of police, who clearly didn’t care about it – or the large “Legalise cannabis” demonstration we saw, where many of the participants were openly smoking it. We have spent a lot of time here checking and comparing exchange rates, and although we rarely got a rate as a good as the “official” black market rate published in the newspapers, this has allowed our budget to go a lot further than it otherwise would have done.

After Cafayate we had a good 20 hour bus journey to Rosario via Tucumán, where we stopped briefly to grab a bite before getting on an overnight freezer, sorry, bus. The last time we were in Rosario we also stopped for one night only and stayed in a fantastic hotel way beyond the budget for this trip, but still managed to find a very decent alternative in the centre. We needed to change more money but failed to spot any street traders – the Police cracks down every now and then. The helpful concierge at our hotel (one of the girls if you ask me) pointed us to a local pub a short walk away where we had no problem with the transaction. Later that evening we met my cousin Rodolfo and his partner Emilia, who had driven from nearby San Nicolás to see us. They gave us a tour of the city and then invited us to a lovely dinner, which was extremely kind of them. Both of them are chartered accountants, it was very interesting to hear their views on the economy, politics, and the rampant corruption that affects all levels of public administration in Argentina.

steak fest in Rosario

Buenos Aires has always felt like a second home for us. It is very much a grand European city in the heart of South America – also a city of stark contrasts: the bus from Rosario dropped us off at Retiro station, next to which we were shocked to see a growing shanty town, known in Buenos Aires as La Villa, which wasn’t there four years ago. We heard that Argentina is having a serious, increasing problem with drugs and everything that comes with them, which we found terribly sad.

Social commentary apart, we wanted to end this trip on a high note so said no more hostels and rented instead a really cool apartment in Palermo via Airbnb. Some years ago most of Palermo was a practically derelict, sprawling working class neighbourhood with high levels of crime. Today, one can find more and more restored buildings, modern apartments, trendy hotels and restaurants, upmarket shops, cafés, and a younger, more middle class crowd.

Our five days in Buenos Aires were very chilled. We mainly hung out with my cousin Christian and his family – we always have a great time with them – and visited my “aunt” Lucía (her father was one of my grandmother’s brothers but she was more like a sister to my mother – feel free to read that again) and her husband Basilio, whom I love dearly, as well as their many children and grandchildren.

We also treated ourselves to more steak and wine, obviously, though that’s practically all we have eaten since we arrived in Argentina and we are both seriously craving greens and fresh fruit!

Palermo apartment

wine had been consumed

with Lucía and Basilio

And suddenly it was time to pack and head to the airport to catch our plane home – where we arrived today after an overnight flight to Madrid and a connecting flight to Heathrow, both courtesy of Iberia (“your cabin crew will ensure that no comprehensible English is spoken on this flight“).

It was nice to encounter rain and severe delays on the Piccadilly Line on arrival at Heathrow – it’s as if we’d never left. We should now enjoy a quiet weekend before returning to the daily grind next week. We’ll try to post one more entry to the blog over the weekend. A final round-up of the trip, as it were.

In the meantime, we’re home!

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.

A matter of perspective.

Around the World trip: WEEK 22

BOLIVIA
La Paz and Salar de Uyuni.

by Xavier

Map: Bolivia

There is an English pub (take this appellation with a pinch of salt) in La Paz called Oliver’s Travels; on one of its walls it reads: “IF WE CAN’T REACH YOUR STANDARDS, LOWER YOUR STANDARDS.” – which could very well be a slogan from the Bolivian Tourist Board. This is by no means a criticism. Yes, Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and that is obvious to any visitor, but at the same time it is still one of the most fascinating destinations.

This part of our trip echoed two previous visits to South America; one in 2009 when we travelled around Perú, and another one in 2011, when we travelled by land from Bolivia to Argentina for the first time and almost exactly to the date. Puno didn’t seem to have changed much in the six years since our last visit, which is a shame, but we were only stopping for one night to break the journey into Bolivia, so it didn’t matter. People mainly come to Puno to visit Lake Titicaca and its attractions, and/or on their way to Bolivia – like us on this occasion. One of the guys with whom we did the tour of the Colca Canyon had also travelled to Puno with us and we met briefly for pizza and beer in the evening, after we’d left our backpacks in the rather forgettable hotel we’d booked for the night. And that’s about it. We were off to La Paz in the morning, stopping in Copacabana to change buses after crossing the border with Bolivia. The bus from Copacabana dropped us in the centre of La Paz about three hours later, having spent a fair bit of that time driving through El Alto

video: Global Nomads Group channel, YouTube.

La Paz was just as crazy as we remembered. The same chaotic traffic, the multitude of street vendors, the long steep streets that, with the altitude, really put one’s lung capacity to the test. I loved it. The city sprawls over a vast canyon, with its poorer suburbs – El Alto – at over 4,000 metres, and its much wealthier neighbourhoods about 1,000 metres below. We found a nice looking hostel in the historical centre, which is more or less half way up, and where most travellers stay. We didn’t really do much while in La Paz, as we had already seen most of the more interesting sites before, so we mainly concentrated in finding nice places to eat and drink, which in La Paz can be a bit of a challenge.

These days the city boasts a growing shiny cable car network – the Teleférico – that connects far-flung neighbourhoods, and the chance to check it out proved of course irresistible for Simon. It is certainly a great way to get a measure of the size and shape of La Paz. One of the lines takes you from Sopocachi, a very trendy neighbourhood, down to a newly built area at the bottom of the canyon where you can find the rather incongruous Megacenter; a huge modern shopping mall that would rival the average Westfield – though in size only – but which on the day we went had only a tiny handful of people in it, with most shops totally void of customers, as if we were in the Latin American equivalent of Pyongyang. Very odd.

On the cable car, La Paz

Always in search of the next death defying thrill, Simon had been very keen from the start of the trip to get to La Paz. One of the main attractions for visitors to La Paz is the cycle ride down the road to Coroico, in the jungle nearly 3,000 metres below the city. Universally known as The Death Road, it was labelled the world’s most dangerous in 1995 when it was still the main route for traffic down from the city – in one infamous incident a bus drove off the edge killing over a hundred people. A new paved road opened in 2007 and the old road is now used as a tourist attraction. Insurance is required – not surprisingly – but our insurer, Columbus, wanted a whopping £140 to add a day’s mountain biking to our travel insurance, requiring us to retrospectively buy it for the full five months we have already been travelling for. So we didn’t go – thanks guys, we’ll use a different insurer next time. Alas, it might be worth pointing out that mishaps are not uncommon every year so, to be honest, I wasn’t entirely disappointed that we didn’t do it. This item on the BBC website expands a little on the subject.

As we looked for other interesting things to do or see in La Paz we came across Cholita wrestling, an extraordinary thing indeed which we also missed on this occasion, but which I have penciled in for the next time we come to La Paz.

video: Vice magazine channel, YouTube.

Going back to our hostel, it was rather nice and in a great location, and the staff were terrific, especially the lady who runs it; but our room was tiny, had no ventilation other than a window into the hallway, and was so bitterly cold that we had no option but to move out after the second night, and seek refuge for the next – and last – two nights in La Paz in the hotel where we stayed during our previous visit; which happened to be nearby, available, and totally over budget – but well worth it if you ask me.

And without further ado, we continued our journey towards Argentina and travelled the 730 kilometres (450 miles) from La Paz to the world famous Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world, spread over 12,000 square kilometres – which is noticeably larger than Qatar and only slightly smaller than Vanuatu.

Salar de Uyuni

Bolivia has some of South America’s few remaining long distance trains. Despite being slow, they remain useful because many of the parallel roads are in a terrible condition. The first stage of our journey south from La Paz was a bus ride to Oruro, three and a half hours away along a smooth, wide, direct road – in fact remarkably un-Bolivian. The bus, however, was very Bolivian. It appeared not to have been cleaned in many years and, not to put too fine a point, it stank. In Oruro we boarded the train to Uyuni after a short break. The rather misnamed Expreso del Sur – the South Express – took nearly seven hours for little over 300 kilometres, but it was at least clean and fairly comfortable, and for £5 each we had steak with chips and a large beer in the restaurant car.

Expreso del Sur, Oruro, Bolivia

Once in Uyuni, we stayed at the same place as the previous time. When we first visited in 2011 we did a three-day tour of the salt flat plus the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve on a battered 4×4. On that occasion much of the salt flat was flooded and we couldn’t get to it, so here was our second chance. The town doesn’t really have much in it other than tour agencies and cheap places to eat, and it’s almost exclusively the main base from where to visit the salt flat and surrounding area – though to be fair it has also hosted all the off-road races of the legendary Dakar rally in 2014 and 2015, and it will do so again in 2016, so kudos Uyuni.

Opportunist tour agents pounce on the travellers that arrive on the evening train from Oruro in the hope of selling overpriced (more often than not) tours the following day. Most tours depart from Uyuni around 11:30am and there are plenty of agencies around town which offer similar services at not too dissimilar prices (except for Red Planet, who charge double than the rest because they provide English speaking guides, we were told) so it’s very advisable to browse before booking a tour. Also, space in the 4×4’s is not very generous. Seven people including the driver is the absolute acceptable maximum in our experience, even for the one-day tours. We also think a guide is unnecessary unless you don’t speak a word of Spanish, but even so; the more people in the car, the worse. There is, however, no safe bet when booking a tour. All cars are the same (they only last about five years) and if one is not filled with a group from the same agency they will fill it with people from other agencies. Different people seem to have very varied experiences regardless of the tour company, especially for the multi-day tours (you just need to read the reviews online, or check out what other bloggers have to say about it, like this one) so there is a certain amount of pot luck involved. The first time in Uyuni we booked our three-day tour with Licancabur Tours and yes we had some glitches but overall it was great. On this occasion we ended up booking a one-day tour (about eight hours) of the salar with Andrea Tours, for which we paid £15 each, including lunch, sharing a 4×4 with four other guys plus the driver. Everyone had booked with different tour agencies. There was one more passenger at first but he didn’t come with us in the end and we really welcomed the extra room.

The salar is just the most extraordinary place. Imagine standing on a slightly surreal flat white surface that goes on as far as the eye can see, all around you, and the whole of it turns into a mirror when covered in water. Our cheery driver, Roly, made a decent effort to keep us all entertained and make sure we could take home some awesome photos of the day, which we did. The other guys that came with us were also great fun, so we really enjoyed ourselves and were very glad to have come to Uyuni again.

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

From Uyuni we needed to head to Tupiza, on our way to the border with Argentina, but there was no train running on the day we needed to travel, and the only buses south leave Uyuni at 6am or 8pm – neither of which were ideal. Fortunately, Simon found out that some vehicles from tour operators in Tupiza, which also offer tours of the salt flats etc, finish in Uyuni around lunch time and return empty to Tupiza, so it is possible to hang around the street that passes for Uyuni’s bus terminal and find a Tupiza driver willing to take passengers on his way back. Indeed, we found a driver who agreed to give us a lift for £10 each for the roughly five hour drive. On the way, we were shocked to see that both the road and the local buses were in a much worse state than we’d anticipated, and realised what a nightmare it would have been to attempt the journey by bus – we’re still reeling from our experience in northern Perú. On the up side, the landscape between Uyuni and Tupiza is quite something and after a couple of brief stops on the way we arrived without any problems for our overnight stop. Having been there twice now, we still don’t have much to say about Tupiza, other than it is not too far from the border, which we reached the next morning.

All in all we only spent one week in Bolivia but it was an excellent one. We are now chilling out in northern Argentina, where some of the finest wine in the country is produced – and currently consumed by yours truly. Slowly but inexorably – to use a cliché – we are making our way towards the final stop of our six-month trip around the world, and hands down one of my favourite cities: Buenos Aires.

 

 

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.

Nepal earthquake.

by Xavier

Nepal earthquake - photo by Omar Havana/Getty Images

photo: Omar Havana / Getty Images

As we try to get the next blog update ready in the next few days, it feels a little awkward to be writing about our travels and in our usual lighthearted way when so many are going through the worst – and that’s the lucky ones.

Our thoughts are with the people of Nepal and with everyone who has been affected by this new disaster. If you are interested in helping, please read these articles published in The Guardian on 27 April and today 29 April:

Don’t rush to Nepal to help. Read this first.

Nepal earthquake: how to donate.

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.

El cóndor pasa.

Around the World trip: WEEK 21

PERÚ
The South

by Simon

Map: Nazca, Peru

There is really only one reason tourists visit Nazca, and that is to see the Nazca Lines, a series of lines, geometrical shapes and animal and plant figures etched on the desert by the Nazca people some 2,000 years ago. The lines cover a large area and some of the individual figures are over 100 meters across. They may have represented constellations, or heavenly figures, or have been fertility symbols; nobody really knows. German archeologist Maria Reiche dedicated much of her life to the study of the lines and is commemorated throughout the town (although some murals of her made her look like Harry Potter or a gorilla, so not entirely flattering).

The lines are best viewed from the air early in the morning, when there is better visibility and less turbulence; therefore we were at Maria Reiche Aerodrome shortly after 7am for our short flight with AeroParacas, which we were told has a better safety record than some of the other operators (which doesn’t say much). The pilots didn’t exactly go out of their way to explain what we should be seeing, and the sound system on the plane was so unclear we could hardly hear them anyhow. However, we did see a range of shapes including a condor, monkey, whale, hummingbird, spider, and some hands – although I only really know this by comparing my photos with the diagram the airline provided telling us what we should have seen.

Nazca desert and the Panamericana

Nazca Lines

above: the Hummingbird (bottom left), and the Whale (bottom right); below: the Spider (top left), the Hands – or the Frog – and the Tree (top right), and the Condor (bottom right)

Nazca Lines

We were back in our guesthouse by 9am, where owner Nancy had breakfast waiting for us. At this point Xavier went back to bed, and I joined Grace and Jason for a quick tour of Nazca’s other sites. This included other lines that can be seen from hills, and an underground aqueduct system built by the Nazca but still used today, which brings water down from the Andes to the desert below, enabling some of the area around the town to be used for agriculture.

Cantalloc Aqueduct, Nazca

And that was Nazca. 24 hours after arriving, we were already on the bus out. After our unfortunate experience with the económico bus between Máncora and Trujillo, we had tried to stick with the largest bus company, Cruz del Sur, but they were full this time and so we used their competitor, Oltursa, for what should have been a nine hour trip to our next stop, Arequipa – it’s amazing how 9-12 hour bus trips, a prospect which would horrify most people in the UK, have now become routine for us. This company also provided a modern, comfortable bus – we could even turn off the speaker above our heads so we didn’t have to be deafened by the dubbed versions of Son of Rambow and other equivalently exciting films they played on the video. Unfortunately, Peruvian bus schedules seem to express hope more than expectation, and it was past 1am when we pulled into Arequipa. Apologies to the manager of our lovely hostel for keeping her up until we arrived.

Arequipa

Arequipa is the third-largest city in Perú, but only a tenth the size of Lima. It is a well preserved colonial city with more impressive churches and museums. There is a free walking tour every day at 3pm from Plaza de Armas, the city’s main square, which we joined with Grace and Jason. It took us about three hours to walk around the historical city centre, stopping at various points to learn about the history and culture of the city and its people. Thoroughly recommended. We also visited the Monasterio / Convento de Santa Catalina, which resembles more a walled city complete with streets, squares, fountains and houses (apparently the nuns had to buy their living accommodation), and beautifully decorated courtyards. We also visited the Museo Santuarios Andinos, which displays amongst other items the recovered bodies of children ritually sacrificed by the Incas on the summit of the Ampato mountain. The bodies were buried so high that they froze and have been found relatively well-preserved 500 years later.

walking tour of Arequipa

Monasterio y Convento de Santa Catalina, Arequipa

We intended to stay only one day in Arequipa and then join Grace and Jason for a two-day tour of the Colca Canyon, the deepest in the world and the main highlight of the region. However, we were both struck down with another stomach bug and had to make an unplanned extension to our stay. It was sad to say goodbye after over a month following the Gringo Trail together – perhaps we’ll see them when we go to Canada in September.

a farewell drink

Later than planned, we headed out towards the Colca Canyon in a Colca Trek minibus with three other travellers, a guide, and a driver. On the first morning, we hiked around some extraordinary rock formations, and then drove high into the Andes, at one point reaching nearly 5,000 meters – perhaps not coincidentally, everyone in the minibus seemed to get semi-comatose at this point. As well as seeing the various volcanoes which surround Arequipa (some of them still active), we saw a selection of Andean fauna including llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and viscachas – we now know how to tell the difference between a llama and an alpaca. After tucking into some of these at lunch, we toured the local market in Chivay and sampled some strange Andean fruits, including a kind of prickly cactus pear – I don’t think any of them will be Peru’s next export success though. We then followed a spectacular valley carved with thousands of terraces towards the canyon. Next day, we were up early for the second part of the tour. This started with an alarmingly rapid cycle ride down (and in places, more challengingly, up) a road along the edge of the canyon. We then stopped at the Cruz del Cóndor, a point overlooking a section of the canyon where it is possible to see condors as they fly out of their nests every morning. Condors are some of the biggest birds in the world, with a wingspan of over three meters. It was amazing to see these birds circling just a few meters above our heads.

Throughout this trip, I’ve been mentally ticking activities off a list. So far, I’ve swum under a waterfall, ridden an elephant, gone “tubing”, kayaking, trekking, snorkelling, mountain biking, sandboarding, and on dune buggies. One of the other activities which people had been trying to sell us since the start of the trip, and we hadn’t quite yet had the courage to do, was zip lining, where you zip across a valley suspended by a harness from a cable. As this could have been our last chance, we finally tried it here and it was a lot of fun, at least once you got over the initial panic induced by hanging 100 meters above a rocky river.

After the tour, it was another bumpy six hours on a bus to Puno, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, where we stayed the night before crossing into Bolivia.

Patahuasi, Peru

tip: click on the photos to view them full size.

Bosque de Piedra, Patahuasi, Peru

Colca Canyon tour

Colca Canyon tour

Colca Canyon tour

Cruz del Cóndor, Colca Canyon

zip lining in the Colca Canyon

zip lining in the Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon tour group

in Bolivia

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.

Get the look for less.

WEEK 20

PERÚ
Lima and the south coast.

by Xavier

Map: the coast of Peru

As predicted, Lima was a godsend. We were more than a little exhausted after the previous week, so we really needed a few days to recharge. The apartment we rented via Airbnb was very nice and comfortable, and in a great location in the heart of Miraflores too, which was an added bonus. Despite the sunny weather I was very happy to stay indoors, but extracted myself from the comfort of the apartment for a spot of sightseeing mainly to stop Simon from going up the walls. We did a walking tour of the old town, the highlight of which was the Convento de Santo Domingo (among other things the original site of the longest continuously operating university in the American continent – a bit of trivia right there for you), where we had a guided tour and then went up the bell tower for great views over the city.

in Lima

Convento de San Francisco, Lima

Convento de San Francisco, Lima

Lima skyline

On Simon’s suggestion we also visited the excellent Museo Larco, home to a private collection of thousands of Pre-Columbian artefacts, including unique ceramics from the Moche culture (100-800 AD), which the museum is happy for visitors to photograph at leisure, in stark contrast to the Museo de Moche near Trujillo, where I was made to delete all the photos I took of the handful of objects they have on display, on the ludicrous pretext that my photos could be used to make copies of the ceramics in order to sell them as originals, then saw photographs of said objects displayed in other parts of the site, as well as plastered all over the internet.

Whatever.

Museo de Larco archive, Lima

Museo de Larco collection, Lima

Another museum I wanted to visit but we sadly missed on this occasion is MATE, a beautifully restored 19th century building that hosts a permanent collection of the work of Mario Testino, who was born in Lima, plus temporary exhibitions. Maybe next time!

What we didn’t miss was a chance to catch up with our Canadian friends in the bars around Miraflores, and go to some nice cafés and restaurants. Lima is not only the largest city in Perú, the world’s second driest after Cairo (more trivia), and the location of some of the oldest civilisations in human history, but it is also a foodies paradise, with two of its restaurants currently among the top 20 in the world. In a surprising “budget?, what budget?” kind of moment, Simon announced that it would be a shame not to try one of them while we were here, so I dutifully called Central in the hope that they could find a table for us that same evening. The nice man who answered the phone managed to inform me without laughing that he was dreadfully sorry but they were fully booked until the end of May. Of course. We did, however, succeed at getting a table at the eponymous restaurant on the grounds of the Huaca Pucllana (pronounced poo-kee-ana – an important archeological site in the heart of Lima). We discovered this restaurant almost by accident during our previous visit six years ago; it was just as good as we remembered, and not too budget-busting!

video: Mario Testino channel, YouTube.

Huaca Pucllana

the gringos in Miraflores

With our batteries fully charged and the travel bug nibbling at our feet, we were ready to get back on the Gringo Trail and left Lima for the coastal town of Paracas, where the main (only) attraction is a boat tour of nearby Islas Ballestas – also known as “the poor man’s Galápagos”. Indeed, the two-hour boat ride, which we booked through our hostel, was just less than 1% of the cost of going to Galápagos, but turned out to be really good. We cruised around these small, uninhabited islands which lay a few kilometres off the coast and host an amazing wealth of marine wildlife, including sea lions and dolphins, but most notably various species of seabirds like rare Humboldt penguins, Peruvian boobies, pelicans, and cormorants. Some of these birds number in the thousands; the extraordinary accumulation of guano (bird poo) on the islands is exploited commercially by a state-owned fertiliser company. About a hundred men descend on these barren islands every few years and stay on them for five to six months, mining by hand several thousand tons of pungent guano which is then shipped out for use in agriculture. I shall bear this in mind next time I think I’m having a tough day at work, once I have returned to my desk job in London.

Islas Ballestas, Peru

Paracas and Islas Ballestas, Peru

Islas Ballestas, Peru

Islas Ballestas, Peru

From Paracas we headed further south and slightly inland, and stopped in Huacachina for a few days. Huacachina is a desert oasis some distance off the coast, created around a natural lagoon just outside the city of Ica (birthplace of Don José de la Torre Ugarte y Alarcón, one of the original signatories of the Peruvian independence in 1821, who also wrote the lyrics to the Peruvian national anthem – another bit of trivia, you’re welcome), and surrounded by sand dunes tens of metres high. By the end of the 19th century Huacachina was practically uninhabited, until the Italian Angela Perotti rediscovered the medical properties of the water in the lagoon, specially for the treatment of skin and rheumatism illnesses. With the years it has become a very popular holiday spot among locals and young travellers from Europe (lots of Germans), North America, Japan, Australia, etc, who come here for two reasons: hurtling up, down, and all around the enormous sand dunes on funky tubular vehicles called “dune buggies”, to then slide down said enormous dunes on snowboard-like boards, or “sandboarding” – which Simon has taken to like a duck to water. On our first day here we (and about everyone else in our hostel) jumped on one of several dune buggies parked outside our hostel and off we went into the desert. Our 82 year old driver (I kid you not) could have given The Stig a run for his money. A white knuckle ride later we stopped at a certain spot on the dunes and that’s when the boards came out. One by one, people launched themselves enthusiastically down the side of the high and steep dunes, with various degrees of skill and indeed grace, one dune at a time. This went on for a couple of hours after which we all got back on the buggies and were driven back in time to see the oasis from the top of the dunes as the sun set over the desert. Not bad.

There are other things to do in Huacachina too. A certain amount of sweet red wine (Peruvians like their wine the sweeter the better) and the ubiquitous pisco (a clear, high-proof brandy-like spirit made from the distillation of grape wine) is made in the area. Grace and Jason, who arrived from Paracas a day after us, joined us in an informative, entertaining, and very generous tasting tour of two of the main local wineries – bodegas – from which it took us all a little while to recover.

Map: Huacachina, Peru

Huacachina

tour of the bodegas in Huacachina

dune buggy in Huacachina

dune buggies and sandboarding in Huacachina

sandboarding in Huacachina

I’m very glad that things have picked up in the last ten days or so. Trujillo and Lima were great, as was the boat around the Islas Ballesta; and Huacachina (including the hostel we stayed at, which we liked a lot) is one of the most fun places we’ve been to on this trip. We really didn’t want to leave, but leave we did, and headed to our next, very exciting stop in Perú: Nazca.

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