‘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.

A tale of two cities.

WEEKS 5 & 6

HONG KONG | BANGKOK – yes, again
香港 | กรุงเทพมหานคร

by Xavier

The days seem to fly by lately, and with Christmas, the New Year, and a million other things since the last post, we haven’t had much time (or inclination) to keep up with the blog, so this week it’s two for one!

IMG_0995.JPG

We returned to Hong Kong Island on 21 Dec, with just enough time to settle in before Christmas. Accommodation was a bit tricky to arrange for various reasons: one night at the LBP (which has become our default hotel when in HK), followed by an Airbnb rental nearby, and two more nights at the iclub Sheung Wan, now in my list of the coolest hotels I’ve ever stayed at!

Having already done the main sights in previous visits, and also knowing our way around, it was our chance to explore this amazing city in more depth. We did ask some of our friends who know HK what to do on the days we were there and essentially we got the same answer from each and all of them: go shopping. And so we jumped on the Star Ferry, crossed over to Kowloon, and wandered around the area between Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok, walking along Nathan Road and the streets around it. Imagine London’s Oxford Street on Christmas Eve, then multiply that by several orders of magnitude, and you’ll get an approximate idea. An insane amount of people, crowding the streets and the myriad of shops of all sorts and for all pockets, everywhere. It was both exhilarating and exhausting.

source: Sven Petermann channel, YouTube.

If you have been following the news regarding the protests in HK in recent months you’ll know that while the issues continue, the main sites of Occupy Central have pretty much been cleared by the authorities in the last few weeks (as we mentioned in our first post) and very little remains now; however, the Umbrella Movement is still alive, and good luck to them!

Umbrella Movement poster

Our Airbnb hostess, a journalist I believe, recommended we took a look at the remains of the Lennon Wall in Central, which although had been cleared in the previous days, seemed to be happening again. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to go in the end, but here is a related website.

Political matters aside, Christmas was upon us and I’m glad we chose HK to spend it in. Simon found an English pub in Soho where we had our supper on Christmas Eve, followed by a few festive drinks in a couple of nice bars. Earlier that day we had missed a chance to top up our travel budget, but such is life. Then Christmas Day came, and still with no major plans, we decided to go to the service at St John’s Cathedral, for which we luckily managed to get front row seats. The service was officiated by the cheerfully Scottish Reverend Catherine Graham – who requested enthusiastically throughout the service that everyone looked as happy as we could. It was a lovely service, and we enjoyed ourselves so much that Simon even got congratulated by Reverend Graham at the end for how happy he had looked!

St Johns Cathedral

We then headed off to the shops to pick up some nice food and wine for our Christmas dinner, and were surprised to see hundreds of women (and some men) happily picnicking along the covered but cold pedestrian walkways around Central. We later found out that these women are domestic staff, helpers, mostly from the Philippines, who gather en masse in central HK on their days off because they don’t have enough money to do anything else. This practice has been causing a lot of friction with the residents, yet we also learnt that the treatment of these women by their Hong Kong employers is quite appalling, which beggars belief. The rest of the day was spent in the apartment, eating and drinking as it is customary, watching films, and chatting to our families via FaceTime, which was great as we really missed not being with them.

Merry Christmas

Our London friend Jemai was stopping in HK on his way to Manila and it was really cool to catch up with him on Boxing Day – or rather, St Stephen’s Day, as we ended up drinking pints in an Irish pub just off Nathan Road. We hung out with Jemai right until our last day. He travels frequently to HK and was happy to show us around places that we’d have never found by ourselves, like the amazing clothing shops on Granville Road and Granville Circuit, a very affordable Michelin starred Chinese dim sum restaurant, the stalls where you can grab an iced milk tea with grass jelly to take away (surprisingly nice), and of course some excellent nightlife spots!

Boxing Day at Delaneys

There is one thing I’d really been wanting to do but couldn’t convince Simon to do with me, which was watching the last part of The Hobbit trilogy at the cinema. So off I went by myself on a day when we weren’t doing much else. There was a moment of panic at the cinema when I thought I had booked the Chinese-dubbed version by mistake, but I hadn’t, and I LOVED it.

source: Warner Bros channel, YouTube.

I have to say that HK has made a great impression on both of us; to the point that we can see ourselves living there one day, we liked it that much. Who knows!

Hong Kong skyline

But I digress…

Our original plan to fly to the Philippines on 27 December and spend two weeks traveling around the islands was thwarted over Christmas when we realised that we hadn’t got ourselves organised at all, and while we could easily get to Manila and find somewhere to stay, everywhere else seemed fully booked because of the New Year, and the cost of any internal flights was also already too high. So we had a think and decided to stay two more days in HK and go back to Thailand afterwards. The Philippines (and the Pope) will have to wait.

Map of Thailand

We flew back to Bangkok on 29 December, to stay for one week. On Jemai’s recommendation, we decided to try a new part of Bangkok this time – we had only stayed in the centre before, in Silom – and so we got another Airbnb rental in Chatuchak, a district in the north of the city, quite far from the centre as it turned out. The taxi took an exhausting hour and a half to get there from the airport, after first getting stuck in the horrendous traffic of the evening’s rush hour, and then getting lost altogether – we had to ask the driver to phone for directions, but managed to get to the apartment in the end.

Chatuchak has a famous Weekend Market, a vast arrange of stalls selling all sorts of touristy things, clothing, knock-offs, etc. We arrived in BKK on a Monday and left early on Saturday morning, so we missed it all. Alas, we were rather shopped out after HK, so it wasn’t a great loss. Also, there were a few malls around the apartment (there wasn’t much else, to be honest, just malls and motorways) – so we spent most of our time in BKK hanging out in our new neighbourhood, with a few trips to Silom in the evenings, for food and drinks around the Night Market – the best in South East Asia if you ask me.

I loved the malls by our nearest metro (MRT) station, Phahon Yothin. Very busy with locals (I think I only saw two or three other Westerners in the whole time we were there) and full of cheap, quirky shops and places to eat. We also found a courier desk there, which was a godsend, as I had reached a point where the contents of my backpack had far outgrown its actual capacity, so I’m hoping the parcel I sent to London arrives safely (about today, in fact).

New Year’s Eve was a lot of fun. We made our way to Silom and chose to shun the glitz and pretentiousness of the rooftop bars for the trashy fun and friendliness of the bars at ground level. It was actually one of the best NYE’s I remember, though we did miss the fireworks – here is a video I’ve found online:

source: JackLiu’s channel, YouTube.

The remaining days in BKK were very chilled. The Central Plaza Lad Phrao complex was only a few minutes walk from the apartment and had nice restaurants and a Major Cineplex in it, where we went to see Night at the Museum 3 (yes, I know… but it was the only film in English on offer). It was of course a terrible film, but strangely watchable. It was also very odd to see Robin Williams and Mickey Rooney in what turned out to be their last film. Way to go. More of a shame was to see Ben Kingsley playing a character a few steps down from an amdram panto dame – the man had been Gandhi, for goodness sake! The rest of the cast were perfectly suited for this nonsense, and totally outperformed by a CGI monkey, which sums it all up.

Wat Arun Bangkok

We will be back in BKK for one last night on this trip soon, but as much as we had enjoyed this amazing two-week two-city break (which was a lot) we were rather itching to get back on the road, and have now been traveling in the North of Thailand for the last week – hence the blue dot on the maps. Today we are back in Chiang Mai, where you’ll be pleased to know it has been bucketing down for two days solid – so it looks like another afternoon at the cinema (Simon is reading out loud the reviews of Seventh Son on IMDB, so probably not that one).

Off to the South tomorrow. Oh, and Happy New Year. It hasn’t started terribly well…

je suis Charlie

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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.