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.

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!

_________________________________________________________

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.

Telling the tale.

WEEK 19

ECUADOR | PERÚ
The Pacific coast.

by Xavier

Map: Montañita and the coast, Ecuador

I don’t think I will ever forget the last week (a bit like Jesus, when you think about it).

Montañita was our last stop in Ecuador as we continue following the Gringo Trail across South America. The guidebook wasn’t too encouraging about it, but it was going to be one of our last chances to relax on the beach so I thought we should give it a go, and convinced Simon to make the journey there just before Easter.

We took an afternoon bus from Cuenca to Guayaquil, where we found that the connecting bus was full so we paid a man US$20 for the pleasure of cramming in a stuffy van with nine other people, plus the driver, and off we went. Beetles are among the most numerous living things on Earth; the bright lights above the pumps of a petrol station where we stopped for a few minutes were attracting a nightmarish number of them, many the size of chestnuts, and not all entirely harmless. They buzzed and crawled all around us, even landed on us. The unfortunate ones got crushed under the moving vehicles or under people’s shoes, with a hideous crunching noise. It was like a scene from a horror movie. Fortunately, none of the creatures got inside the van with us and about three and-a-half uncomfortable hours later we arrived in Montañita.

What I hadn’t quite anticipated is the hot, small, dirty town we encountered. A notorious party beach resort that makes Southend look like St Tropez. There is nothing in Montañita besides hostels (ours was surprisingly good compared to some of the others, which was a relief), countless bars, cheap food outlets (one or two decent ones), and endless shops and stalls selling all kind of merchandise with the name of the town on it, including a place that was selling “I SURVIVED MONTAÑITA” t-shirts – little I knew how prophetic that would turn out to be. The denizens of Montañita are mainly a collection of local tourists, Argentine waiters, beach bums, backpackers, surfers, Israelis celebrating the end of their military service, and peddlers. We spent any amount of time declining continuous offerings of quality sunglasses, hammocks, all sorts of hand made ornaments and, especially, freshly baked brownies and cookies of the kind consumed by adventurous youths – what I took to calling The Great Montañita Bake Off.

Despite all this, we ended up spending four days there – Simon likes to think of it as our own South American version of The Beach – and actually had a really good time, mainly due to coinciding again with Char, Matt, Grace, and Jason, which goes to show how it’s always the people what makes the difference.

Montañita

Montañita nights

We Survived Montañita

It all went rather well until the last day. The sun was up and the beach wasn’t crowded after the hectic weekend. There was some surf but it wasn’t rough, yet only a handful of people were in the water. We had just said goodbye to Grace and Jason, who were moving on, and had made arrangements to meet later in the evening with Char and Matt. Simon settled under an umbrella and I went for a swim – and very nearly didn’t make it back.

To Igor and Conrad, the two surfers that got me out of the water after I got washed away by the current: thank you again; nice one.

That evening was very subdued after the day’s events, but we still managed a couple of nice beers with Char and Matt, who were planning to hang around the area for a bit longer while the rest of us headed to Perú. We wish them all the best and hope to see them again some time, who knows!

And that was Montañita.

The next morning we rode the bus back to Guayaquil and changed to another bus which took us across the border with Perú at Tumbes (apparently the worst land border crossing in South America but on this occasion quite painless except for the mosquitos that came to say hi while we waited to get back on the bus) and on to our next stop. For the second time on this trip (the first was on arrival at Easter Island) my Spanish passport baffled the border control officers, who kept asking if I had Colombian citizenship. Once again I really wanted to say “Do I look Colombian to you?” but of course we all know the answer to that, so I just stood there smiling until they eventually stamped me out of Ecuador and into Perú, much to Simon’s amusement.

Map: Máncora and the coast, Perú

It took us about 13 hours to travel from Montañita to Máncora, another popular beach destination. With Easter Week in full swing (it was already Holy Wednesday) we were expecting to find the place busy, and indeed available accommodation had been scarce by the time we booked our hostel. The usually infallible Lonely Planet describes Máncora as “the place to see and be seen along the Peruvian coast – in the summer months foreigners flock here to rub sunburned shoulders with the frothy cream of the Peruvian jet set. It’s not hard to see why – Peru’s best sandy beach stretches for several kilometers in the sunniest region of the country, while dozens of plush resorts and their budget-conscious brethren offer up rooms within meters of the lapping waves.” – yet this write up differs somewhat from our experience.

hello all...

Besides the initial shock on arrival (“budget-conscious” doesn’t even begin to describe where we stayed, though to be fair the place has glowing reviews on Tripadvisor and the people there seemed alright after we got to talk to them a bit more), the whole place looked very rough. There was hardly anyone or anything on the long barren beach except for the odd fish carcass. It seems the whole coast has been battered by recent bouts of extreme weather, and indeed there are numerous signs that a particularly bad El Niño is already affecting South America this year. Weather notwithstanding, the handful of people that we did see on the stretch of beach closest to the town didn’t look terribly jet-set either, so I guess anyone who had come here to rub their sunburned shoulders was staying put inside the plush resorts, of which we spotted a few. Longingly. We were also warned not to wander around the area outside our hostel as it wasn’t safe, which added another layer of discomfort since the hostel itself had no walls to speak of, or locks on the doors, and we struggled to see how it could be safe inside either. The town itself was pretty charmless, though we found a nice café for lunch. We tried a prawn filled version of a popular Latin-American snack called tequeños, which was very good. That, and a spectacular sunset, were definitely the highlights of the day. We’d only booked two nights in Máncora and it was clear that we weren’t going to stay a third, so we made enquiries about buses to Trujillo, our next stop. With the Easter weekend looming all buses the next day were full, but we were offered instead to leave on the last bus that same night and we jumped at the opportunity. Our Canadian friends Grace and Jason were in Máncora as well – and apparently enjoying it about as much. They were staying in a much better looking hostel just down the road from ours, so we were very glad to meet them there for some reparatory beers before leaving to catch our bus.

Don’t be fooled by these photos…

Máncora

Máncora

The overnight journey between Máncora and Trujillo ended up being ten excruciating hours. A mixup at the bus stop meant that instead of the marginally more comfortable bus we had paid for, we were put on the one they call Económico, and the worst bus ride of this whole trip ensued (Simon later on looked up the bus company El Sol on Google and found that it is regularly mentioned in news reports for crashes, robberies, and fines for breaching safety rules). To cut a long, dreary story short, we arrived in Trujillo early in the morning, feeling and looking the absolute worse for wear but in one piece and with all our belongings. Due to a fortunate foresight from our part we had booked a nice posh hotel for that night so we knew we’d at least get a proper rest after the ordeal. True to our style, we turned up with our dusty backpacks in tow, dishevelled, and in much need of a shave. The staff were very gracious as usual. We did get a few looks from other guests, but we were beyond caring by that point. I spent most of the day sleeping, while Simon somehow managed to drag himself out for lunch.

Trujillo, Peru

Trujillo is actually an OK city. Much recovered by the evening, we ventured out to the old town, which is lined with colonial buildings and had a lively atmosphere. We had an excellent dinner at El Celler de Cler, which I totally recommend to anyone visiting Trujillo. Rested and scrubbed up, we were ready for a spot of sightseeing the next day. The largest Pre-Columbian city in South America lays about five kilometres from Trujillo. Now a vast archaeological site, the ruins of Chan Chan are a must for those travelling in Perú. We shared a local guide with a Spanish couple from Barcelona – apparently both engineers working on the construction of the metro in Lima – and wandered for about an hour around the parts of this extraordinary city that are open to the public. Just as entertaining as the tour itself was witnessing the battle of wills between the very inquisitive Spanish woman and our tour guide, who clearly didn’t appreciate being interrupted. From Chan Chan we drove a short distance to another fascinating Pre-Columbian site, the Huacas de Moche, where we also had a very interesting guided tour, after which we headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags and make our way to nearby Huanchaco, on the coast again, which had been our original planned stop after Máncora.

Chan Chan

Huaca de la Luna

Chan Chan and Huacas de Moche

Huacas de Moche

The best thing I can say about Huanchaco is that it wasn’t as bad as Máncora. The town stretches along the coast for quite a bit. The sea looked quite rough but we saw considerably more people around than we had seen so far. The B&B we had booked was very odd. The common areas looked rather nice but the room definitely wasn’t. The manager, a middle-aged man from Argentina, reminded me a bit of Basil Fawlty but perhaps more helpful. We only stayed one night, so didn’t get a chance to see much, but we did catch a glimpse of the Good Friday celebrations before meeting Grace and Jason, in town once again, for more drinks later that evening. It is remarkable how much more enjoyable some places become when you can share a mojito or two with friends.

Easter in Huanchaco

We headed back to Trujillo in the morning. Our next bus journey – about nine hours – would take us further south, along the road between the coast and the Andes, the Panamericana, all the way to the capital, Lima. No longer trusting agents, Simon booked our bus tickets directly online with Cruz del Sur, the same company we had used to cross the border with. The bus this time was a modern, clean, double decker with huge, fully reclinable seats (three across!) with individual entertainment screens, air con, meal and drinks service… I almost cried when we got on. The views along the way were very impressive. The sea to our right, the Andes to our left, and just sandy desert all around us. At some point we got diverted off the Panamericana and for a while drove on a fresh-looking road carved on the side of massive compacted sand dunes – I called it the Sandes… geddit?… Simon says I may have a career in cracker jokes – and it made for a truly spectacular view.

the road to Lima

It was 2009 when we were in Lima for the last time. We are going to stay here for a few days to chill and get our strength back before carrying on, and have rented a great apartment in Miraflores via Airbnb. Simon is also fighting off a cold, so a few days of rest will hopefully do us a world of good. We hope you all have had a lovely Easter. More news soon!

loving the Ball Chair

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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.

Love at first sight.

WEEKS 17 and 18

ECUADOR
Quito and the Andes.

by Xavier

You see, the first thing we love is a scene. For love at first sight requires the very sign of its suddenness; and of all things, it is the scene which seems to be seen best for the first time: a curtain parts and what had not yet ever been seen is devoured by the eyes…
— Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments.

Mirador de Bellavista, Quito

OK there were some bits of Colombia that I liked a lot: the nights out in Bogotá, the hotel pool in Santa Marta, the friends we made in San Agustín… but I wasn’t bowled over by Colombia, or really got as much from it as Simon did – he loved it. So I worried that South America was not quite going to do it for me this time, and we still had over two months to go. All of this was weighting on my mind as we were making our way into Quito from the border. Another road, another stuffy old bus. Then I looked out of the window and my jaw dropped. We were approaching the town of Ibarra, half way between the border and our destination. I could see it in the distance, small and flat, and framed by an immense volcano shrouded in thick white clouds. It was an incredible scene, and I was mesmerised. It got dark by the time we reached the outskirts of Quito, higher than the sprawling city itself. The view of the city lights from the road was like the view from a plane, which I always find very exciting. At the bus station we said goodbye to our Dutch friends and found a taxi. As we chatted to the driver and took in the views I thought to myself I was going to like this place.

Map: Ecuador

I loved Quito. A lot. We stayed in a great hostel in La Floresta which had amazing views (when the fog permitted; there seems to be a lot of fog in Ecuador), and spent a few days exploring the city, though the weather turned cold and wet (and foggy) so not as much exploring as we would have liked. The old town is a legacy of Quito’s wealthy and deeply religious colonial past. We visited some beautiful churches, like the Iglesia de San Agustín, the Cathedral, and one of Quito’s highlights: the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, a (mainly) baroque extravaganza built by the Jesuits between 1605 and 1765, and decorated with – we were told – about seven tons of gold leaf, which says a lot about the priorities of the Church. There were some museums too. Casa del Alabado is a restored late 1600’s Spanish house that hosts an excellent collection of pre-Columbian art, with some items on display dating from about 4,000 B.C. It was well worth the visit. We also tried some typical food, like fanesca, a hearty soup traditionally eaten during Easter. We hung out in Plaza Foch a few times, did a bit of shopping (I found a small shop in the old town where a group of young designers sell some cool stuff), and wined and dined at a couple of hip restaurants near our hostel.

Quito

Iglesia de San Agustín, Quito

Quito

Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, Quito

Casa del Alabado, Quito

One of the things we wanted to do while in Ecuador was to go to Galápagos Islands. After Easter Island, Galápagos was the main highlight of our penciled itinerary. It was in Quito where we finally decided not to go. Our travel budget is already on the overstretched side, particularly after the time we spent in the South Pacific. Oh well, next time. On the up side, we now had some extra time in our hands, so decided to extend our stay in Quito for two more days before heading south. The rain and the cold spoiled these days a bit but we managed to enjoy ourselves, and I really hope to come back to this wonderful city at some point.

Foch Yeah!, Quito

From Quito we travelled south to Baños de Agua Santa (or just Baños), a small town reminiscing of Vang Vieng in both setting and main activities. The weather was fortunately a lot better than in Quito, which was just as well, because there is nothing to do in Baños other than outdoorsy stuff – well, while Baños is fairly dead midweek, thousands of people descended on it for the weekend, and the centre of town turns into a massive Latin party on Saturday nights, as we found out. Baños offers a wide range of outdoor activities: hiking, paragliding, white water rafting, canyoning, zip lining, mountain biking, swinging off bridges, etc, etc. We chickened out of the most thrill seeking ones (for me a thrill is to sit in the lower rows at the IMAX) but managed to cycle to the Pailón del Diablo (the Devil’s Cauldron), a spectacular waterfall about 20 kilometres from Baños, and a couple of strenuous hikes through the farming land just outside the town – the first hike we did totally disproved the theory of infinite universes where everything is possible because there is just no way there exists a universe where I could have climbed that hill without stopping every couple of meters to catch my breath; the second hike ended up on an unwitting game of Mud Or Shit, with an ever increasing amount of both. Great views though. Simon even tried the thermal pools that give the place its name, but they were apparently crowded and not terribly clean, so he wasn’t very impressed. Our hostel was fairly out of town, good for the views and very tranquil, but a bit of a pain for getting to and from town, which we ended up doing more than anticipated, not least on account of hanging out in the evenings with some of the guys we met in San Agustín, who are travelling a similar route to us and happened to be in Baños over the same few days, which was great fun.

Baños

La Casa del Árbol, Baños

Baños

Baños

Baños and friends

And from Baños we made our way to Cuenca, Ecuador’s most important colonial city after Quito, mainly to break the long journey towards the border with Peru. We only stayed a couple of nights, at a very quiet B&B just outside the old town. Cuenca was very pleasant. Simon, as usual, found an excellent restaurant on the first night, then we spent the next day seeing the sites along Mariscal Sucre and Calle Larga, two of the main streets. We saw some works by Ecuadorian artists at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, and walked the long way to the Museo del Banco Central, touted as Cuenca’s most important museum and so on, but actually very odd. The only thing of some interest that we found was its permanent ethnological exhibition, about the different indigenous Andean peoples of Ecuador, especially the section dedicated to the Shuar culture and its custom of shrinking human heads – tzantzas – and yes, there are a few on display. With not much else to do, we spent the rest of the time in cafés, and looking for a place where to fix my wristwatch, which turns out was never water proof after all.

Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca, Ecuador

After Cuenca, the plan was to head straight for the border. I liked the idea of stopping by the sea first, as we’ll just have one more chance on this trip when we get to Peru, so at my insistence Simon agreed to make a detour from our planned route and hit the coast north-west of Guayaquil – adding eventually about 15 hours of bus journeys, so I hope it’s worth it.

We are now in Montañita, a very popular and, er, lively beach town, where we have to wear a wristband with the details of the hostel, and the ratio of people to dodgy cocktail bars seems to be one to one, as if we have materialised in an episode of Sun, sex, and suspicious parents. Definitely watch this space.

Montañita nights

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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.

There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something.

WEEK 12

NEW ZEALAND
Aotearoa

by Simon

We had to spend one night in Auckland at both the start and end of our trip to the North Island. I’d visited Auckland as part of a post-graduation trip in 1998, and hadn’t exactly loved the place. I was keen to see if this impression was unfair, but a quick stroll along the deserted streets and past the 1960s blocks of the city centre made me think that it wasn’t. In the evening we went out to Auckland’s answer to Shoreditch, Ponsonby Road, which was only marginally less deserted (but who would go out on a Friday night – also the start of the bank holiday weekend for New Zealand Day – after all). We did find a couple of bars on K Road, and on our return through Auckland an excellent restaurant.

John Radford sculpture at Western Park, Auckland photo: John Radford’s sculpture at Western Park.

From Auckland we took the bus to Rotorua. Xavi was very keen to visit the Hobbiton movie set – a bargain at just under £40 each for a two hour tour. This was pretty meaningless to me – I had been unable to stay awake during my one attempt to watch a Lord of the Rings series film, and hadn’t tried again – but it was clearly very, very exciting for a lot of people. The highlight of the tour was the “free” drink at the Green Dragon pub, where we were permitted to linger for about 15 minutes before being loaded back onto our coach and invited to spend yet more money at the souvenir shop, a temptation I found strangely easy to resist. [Note from Xavier: it was actually brilliant.]

at Hobbiton!

Rotorua is also at the centre of an active volcanic zone and we visited a number of geothermal attractions, including the ambitiously named (and even more ambitiously priced) ‘Wai-o-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland‘. This has some moderately interesting geothermal features including boiling mud pools, weird-coloured crater lakes, and numerous strange smells. The alleged highlight is the Lady Knox Geyser, which erupts promptly at 10:15 each day, with help from from a bag of soap. After another night in our rather strange hostel, it was back to Auckland.

at Wai-O-Tapu

Lady Knox geiser

In summary we thought the North Island lacked the breathtaking scenery of the South Island but was even more breathtakingly expensive. Good thing then that our next stop is famously cheap French Polynesia.

Moorea

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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.

Down Under.

WEEKS 9 and 10

AUSTRALIA

by Xavier

Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered from the sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.
— Bill Bryson, Down Under.

map: Oceania

It has been almost seven years since both Simon and I were in Australia at the same time. We were very excited about stopping by as we cross Oceania from West to East, especially since we have some very good friends living there. Sadly, due to the nature of our trip and the fact that Australia is noticeably more expensive these days, we could only allow ourselves a brief stay so we really wanted to make the most of it.

Our first stop was Melbourne, Australia’s second most populous city. It was my first visit too, the third for Simon. We stayed for five nights, in a nice apartment in the middle of Richmond we rented via Airbnb, very well located and easy to get around from – our host, Daniel, was lovely and gave us lots of ideas for things to see and do. Thankfully, the weather wasn’t as hot as we had anticipated (it had reached over 40°C some days back) so we could be out and about in the Melbourne sun.

Melbourne

On the slight (and arguable) downside, any illusion of keeping to the reasonably healthy lifestyle we had acquired in Asia, where wine is not very good and expensive, or good and very expensive, so we mostly abstained, went out of the window practically the moment we touched down in Australia. It didn’t help (or rather it did) to find a superbly stocked bottle shop (sic.) just around the corner from the apartment. No dry January for us!

When not deciding between the Riesling and the Cabernet Sauvignon, we set out to explore some of Melbourne’s more interesting areas, like the exuberant Botanical Gardens, St Kilda and its very lively beach (there was a beach volleyball tournament going on, as well as a lot of kite surfers), and trendy Fitzroy (think a sunnier, more suburban version of London’s Hoxton)

Melbourne: Botanical Gardens

Melbourne: St Kilda

Melbourne: Fitzroy

We also managed to find ourselves in the middle of two of the biggest events in the city’s calendar: the Midsumma festival and – most amazingly – the Australian Open, where we got to see Rafael Nadal play his first match of the tournament (sadly he didn’t make it to the final this time), it was awesome.

Melbourne: Midsumma 2015

Melbourne: Australian Open 2015

Melbourne, in short, was a blast. The days just flew by, and suddenly it was time to move on.

Our next stop, after a short flight, was Sydney. We were kindly hosted by Anthony and Trevor – whose year-long travels around the world some time ago were the inspiration for this trip – in their beautiful house in Randwick, very close to Bondi Junction so we squeezed in quite a few trips to the Westfield shopping centre there… We had seen the boys briefly back in London only a few months ago but it was great to see them again, and their utterly lovely dogs: Emma, Bonnie, and Scooby.

Fortunately, our stay coincided with a three-day weekend because of Australia Day, and we were able to see and catch up with the rest of our friends in Sydney, including our also adventurous housemate Luke, who also happened to be in town by happy coincidence.

Sydney was amazing in many ways, one of which took the shape of a much missed musical fix for me. Having only known the building from the outside, I finally had a chance to go inside and watch a performance at the iconic Opera House and meet some of the cast afterwards, courtesy of my dear friend Alex who runs her own very successful artist management company and had come in support of one of her singers, Hannah Dahlenberg, a remarkable Queen of the Night. It was a wonderful evening.

Sydney Opera: The Magic Flute 2015

Alex was kind enough to show me around the front of House areas during an unusually long interval apparently caused my a mysterious problem backstage (at one point we bumped into the Company Manager, Allana Sheard, who just looked at Alex and exclaimed “I have no idea!“) so I could marvel at the design of the building. We paused briefly just outside the door to the auditorium towards the end of the interval when a man walked past and as he did he said to us: “The Queen of the Night… Only dogs could hear her!” before disappearing inside the auditorium, leaving both Alex and I, who had heard the Queen quite clearly, rather bemused. Alex’s husband Loz met us at the end and we walked over to a very cool pub for dinner and drinks with Simon and the boys.


source: Opera Australia channel, YouTube

I saw Alex and Loz again the following evening after more opera, this time in the park, which I’d come to see with a mutual friend: the gorgeous Lady Ramsden. Simon likes opera as much as he likes Tolkien, so he went to meet his friends instead, missing a collection of opera’s greatest hits which the huge crowd lapped up and with some very impressive singing too. Just as the last note rung out the skies opened (likely unrelated) and it just didn’t stop raining for the rest of our stay.

We also celebrated Simon’s birthday over the weekend, with a traditional barbecue at the house, generously provided by Anthony and Trevor, with Andrew manning the grill, and buddying writer Greg entertaining us all with humorous anecdotes of the kind that cannot be repeated here. Simon was so pleased he even gave a speech (he never does) on how much he was enjoying his birthday this year.

Then Australia Day came and as it was realistically the last chance to see most of our friends before everyone went back to work we decided to brave the rain and try to see as many people as possible, and so we started by heading off to Surry Hills for an indoors picnic at one of Sydney’s top beauty salons (as one does), with its owners Richard and Asim and some of their lovely friends. Richard and Asim are two of the first people I met when I moved to London in 1997 and I hadn’t seen them since I was last in Sydney seven years ago. I was very happy to see them now, but most of all I was bowled over by their amazing five year old twins Azra and Wednesday. It was a real pity that we couldn’t linger as we had to leave for our next engagement. Alex and Loz were giving a barbecue in their lovely home in Manly Vale, where we arrived just in time for some mouth watering lamb. Once again we had to make our excuses far too soon, and hurried to our next and final engagement to meet Andrew and Dean in The Rocks – Dean is a cake designer, which is a much better job title than I will ever have, and runs his own brilliant business in Sydney. We had drinks at the bar of Sydney Theatre, a super cool space on the wharf with amazing views over the harbour, and then moved on for dinner at a trendy Italian nearby, while outside the drizzle turned into a downpour. Those familiar with Sydney will realise just how much of the day we ended up spending going from one place to another, but it was all well worth it.

FRIENDS!

We would have loved to stay longer in Australia – we had even pencilled in a trip to Byron Bay when we were planning our itinerary – however it could not be this time, and we find ourselves currently traveling around some pretty amazing surroundings in New Zealand… More of that on the next update!

Milford Sound

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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.

Been There, Don Det.

WEEK 3

LAOS
ສາທາລະນະລັດ ປະຊາທິປະໄຕ ປະຊາຊົນລາວ

(Lao People’s Democratic Republic)

by Simon

We left Vang Vieng on 8 December and found ourselves in Vientiane, Laos’ largest city, after a relatively painless four hours on a bus. Or rather, we found ourselves somewhere just outside it. Bus stations in Laos always seem to be inexplicably a long way from the city, fortituously guaranteeing an income for the serendipitous tuk tuk drivers about the station who kindly take you the last few kilometres for almost as much as you paid for the original ticket.

Eventually we checked into a guesthouse in the centre which was an improvement on previous lodgings, with forgotten luxuries like a balcony and cable tv. The bed, however, was once again rock hard and the toilet inside the shower, so we knew we were still in Laos.

Vientiane is pleasant enough but very calm and small for an Asian capital. We saw a couple of temples, the rather incongruous Arc de Triomphe replica, and visited the Lao National Museum to learn about how Comrade What’s-his-face of the patriotic Lao People’s Forces Bravely Overthrew The Nasty French Colonialist And Fought The US Imperialist; and here was the chair he sat in, and here the gun he held, and here the pot he drank his tea in, and here a photo of him meeting all sort of oddly-spelt foreign leaders… You get the picture.

What Vientiane does have is a number of good and reasonably priced cafés and restaurants, of which we took full advantage, though we totally missed the riverfront area for some reason.

Pimentón, Vientiane

After a couple of days we headed off on the sleeper bus to the 4000 Islands. We found this video on YouTube, which illustrates very well this part of our trip.

We’d been on sleeper trains before but never a bus. Certainly not a bus like this one.

Sleeper Bus

Not an experience for the claustrophobic, we got to share a barely padded bunk about the width of a single bed but shorter (so you couldn’t quite lie down and stretch your legs), which happened to be positioned just over the back wheels and in front of the engine, so we could feel the full force of every bump (and Lao roads have many). With no space to sit or stand (even in the toilet), being at the back also meant we got covered in the dust from the dirt roads, sucked in through the air vents. The two people on the bunk next to ours (a guy from New Zealand and a young woman from Italy, who didn’t know each other) were at least friendly enough.

Amazingly, we both managed some sleep, and a brisk seventeen hours after leaving our guesthouse in Vientiane we were on a little boat over to the island of Don Det.

We spent four nights on the island, surrounded by the Mekong river and possessing a wealth of flora and fauna. On the first day, whilst Xavi recovered from the sleeper bus, I borrowed a bike from the guesthouse and cycled over to the neighbouring island of Don Khon. During the colonial era, the French built a railway line across these two islands, so that traffic on the Mekong river could be taken around the waterfalls by train, allowing the river to be used for transport between Laos and Cambodia for the first time. The railway is long gone and about the only decent infrastructure on the islands is the bridge that carried it between the two. Unfortunately the chain on my bike came off at the furthest possible point. I managed to fix it but then it happened again, and again, and again, until finally it jammed and could not be fixed. So I had to drag the bike, rear wheel locked, the final three kilometres back, in baking heat, covered in oil and dust. Not an auspicious start to my stay in the islands.

Next day, having slept off the bus journey, we hired some slightly less ropey bikes (for 80p each) and went back, seeing the impressive Li Phi waterfalls and stopping for a Beerlao at a chilled cafe by the beach.

Don Det

In the evening, we bumped into Sam and Harry, a cool couple we had met in Vang Vieng, and joined them and their small group of friends at one of the local backpacker bars where, several beers later, we somehow agreed to go out kayaking with them the next day.

And kayaking we went. As it turned out, the guys were rather fitter and more experienced at this than we were, and so it was quite a struggle to keep up from the start. In order to keep the group going, Xavi had to share the two-man kayak with one of our guides, and I had to share my kayak with the other guide. Shouts of “Come on! Come on!” could be heard at regular intervals from the guy paddling with Xavi, much to the amusement of everyone else. We got to see some more waterfalls, swim in the river, and after waiting on a rock for some time, catch a fleeting and distant glimpse of the rare and shy Irrawaddy river dolphins (though in the distance it was rather hard to distinguish a dolphin from a wave.) Lunch was provided at a very local off-the-road “cafe” – which was probably a bad idea given how violently sick I got later on that night. Some more vigorous kayaking, a brief pause to watch the sunset, and we were back in Don Det just before it got too dark to be on the water.

Don Det

That evening we had dinner with our kayaking group, followed by drinks, Jenga, more drinks, a bonfire on the beach, more drinks…

They say “Been there, Don Det“. We certainly have.

Our next stop: Cambodia’s Phnom Penh.

Watch this space.

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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.