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.

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.

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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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.

Shake, shake, shake, Señora.

WEEK 16 into 17

COLOMBIA
Bogotá and the South

by Simon

on the road again

From Medellín we undertook a delightful ten hour bus journey to the capital, Bogotá. We stayed in a small, modern hotel in the business area right by the Zona Rosa (the dedicated nightlife district, filled with restaurants and bars and heavily policed; every Colombian city seems to have one). Bogotá is a great city to eat and go out, and we did a lot of both, as well as some compulsory sightseeing. I also particularly enjoyed getting around on the Transmilenio, the city’s main public transport system. A cross between a bus network and a metro, it was actually designed by my soon-to-be-former employer, and it featured in nearly every company brochure.

We visited the Museo de Santa Clara, a beautifully decorated church in which there was an exhibition of 18th century portraits of dead nuns who had lived and died in the adjacent convent. The spectacular Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) has an extraordinary collection of pre-Columbian gold artefacts – the biggest in the world. After what we had heard in the north about the Spanish conquest it seemed surprising that Colombia has so much gold left.

Bogotá

Santa Clara

Museo de Santa Clara

Museo del Oro

Museo del Oro

We took a trip to the nearby town of Zipaquira; here we visited the Catedral de Sal, an enormous underground Catholic church carved inside a salt mine. We spent several hours wandering through the network of tunnels, which only occupy a small corner of the salt mine. Given how huge the cathedral was, the full scale of the mine was almost impossible to imagine.

Zipaquira

Catedral de Sal

video: Discovery Latinoamérica channel, YouTube.

Whilst we were in Bogotá an earthquake struck to the north of the city. The city itself didn’t suffer much damage, but it was a very strange experience. First I thought I was having a sudden attack of dizziness, then I realised that the building was actually shaking. The streets were eerily quiet that night.

video: Tanatos channel, YouTube.

From Bogotá we took another ten hour ride, this time in a hot minibus, to the town of San Agustín. To make the journey more memorable, someone vomited at the back halfway through and it was unaccountably left to fester for the duration. San Agustin’s main pull for visitors is a series of pre-Columbian statues scattered in the surrounding countryside, some of which are over 2000 years old. A huge number of these were made and many are superbly detailed. It’s not entirely clear why they were built as little is known of the culture of the time; there are no written records. The statues were not for display but were buried in huge tombs with the dead leaders. Lucky people got to be sacrificed so they could join them – apparently considered a great honour at the time. Both the statues and the surrounding countryside were very impressive. We had a very relaxed few days here, staying just out of town, at a wonderful hostel where we made some friends (fellow travellers as well as the cutest dogs and cats). San Agustín deserves to get more visitors than it does – we were almost alone much of the time at the archaeological sites. Many people seem to be put off by the inaccessibility of the area and the (now well past) history of guerrilla activity.

San Agustín

San Agustín

San Agustín

From San Agustín our intention was to head straight for the border with Ecuador. As the crow flies this isn’t far – only about 200 kilometres (120 miles). By land, however, it is rather more difficult – bad roads winding through beautiful but not entirely safe areas, where you are told not to travel after dark due to the risk of attack by armed bandits. We opted for the more direct of the two available options, via a road reassuringly named the Trampoline of Death, which runs 80 kilometres (50 miles) between the towns of Mocoa and San Francisco. Harry, the hostel manager, assured us that it was a long time since there had been fatal bus crash on this route, but a quick Google news search showed that there had still been a few. Therefore it was with some trepidation that we took our motion sickness pills and headed off on the first day of the journey, to the city of Pasto where we would pass the night before heading on to the border.

The first few hours of the journey, to the grim and remote town of Mocoa, were uneventful enough. This is where the ‘trampoline’ begins: the road became a narrow dirt track which climbed high into the mountains, with vertical cliffs on one side and a sheer drop on the other, sometimes with a crash barrier but more often with just some yellow tape to mark where the edge was. The scenery was stunning, when we could see it through the clouds that shrouded the road; sometimes we could barely see out of the front of the minibus to the next bend and vertical drop. It was probably a good thing we couldn’t see, as in some places apparently the drop is 1,000 metres – though I hoped the driver could still see where to go. Fortunately, the fearsome reputation of this route inspired uncharacteristic diligence in Colombian drivers (trucks even pulled over to let us pass, which hasn’t happened anywhere else). It took three hours to cover the 80 kilometres to San Francisco. After another couple of hours, and over ten hours after leaving our hostel in San Agustín, we were in Pasto.

Trampolin of Death

Trampolin of Death

survived the Trampolin of Death

Pasto is a city travellers generally visit for one night en route to or from the border, and it didn’t seem like a place to linger, so early the next day we took our last Colombian bus, through more beautiful scenery, to the even grimmer border town of Ipiales. Here we made a short detour to the stunning Santuario de las Lajas, a church built on a bridge into the side of a mountain, where someone at some point had had a vision of the Virgin Mary. Whatever one thinks about religion, it has inspired some fantastic architecture.

We then crammed into a colectivo (shared vehicle) with ten other people for the remaining few kilometres to the border. Immigration was swift and customs control was non-existent, so we were through the border in no time. We shared a taxi to the Ecuadorian border town of Tulcan with a couple of Dutch travellers we’d met, and we didn’t even make it into the bus terminal before we were spotted by the bus company’s touts and loaded into a bus for Quito, another five hours away.

Las Lajas

Las Lajas

Welcome to Ecuador

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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.