‘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.

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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.

Telling the tale.

WEEK 19

ECUADOR | PERÚ
The Pacific coast.

by Xavier

Map: Montañita and the coast, Ecuador

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

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

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

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

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

Montañita

Montañita nights

We Survived Montañita

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

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

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

And that was Montañita.

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

Map: Máncora and the coast, Perú

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

hello all...

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

Don’t be fooled by these photos…

Máncora

Máncora

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

Trujillo, Peru

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

Chan Chan

Huaca de la Luna

Chan Chan and Huacas de Moche

Huacas de Moche

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

Easter in Huanchaco

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

the road to Lima

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

loving the Ball Chair

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

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.