Feliz Año Nuevo

Central America trip
December 2016
week 4 of 4

MEXICO | COLOMBIA
Chiapas, Yucatán | Bogotá

by Xavier

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

PalenqueMAP

Palenque

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

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

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

  
        

Mérida

palenquemeridaMAP

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

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

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

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

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

  
          

Bogotá

cancunbogotaMAP

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

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

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

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

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

And then it was time to go home.

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

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👉 HOW WE GOT THERE
The practical details

by Simon

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

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

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

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

note: all details correct at time of traveling.


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

Get the look for less.

WEEK 20

PERÚ
Lima and the south coast.

by Xavier

Map: the coast of Peru

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

in Lima

Convento de San Francisco, Lima

Convento de San Francisco, Lima

Lima skyline

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

Whatever.

Museo de Larco archive, Lima

Museo de Larco collection, Lima

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

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

video: Mario Testino channel, YouTube.

Huaca Pucllana

the gringos in Miraflores

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

Islas Ballestas, Peru

Paracas and Islas Ballestas, Peru

Islas Ballestas, Peru

Islas Ballestas, Peru

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

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

Map: Huacachina, Peru

Huacachina

tour of the bodegas in Huacachina

dune buggy in Huacachina

dune buggies and sandboarding in Huacachina

sandboarding in Huacachina

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

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

Love at first sight.

WEEKS 17 and 18

ECUADOR
Quito and the Andes.

by Xavier

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

Mirador de Bellavista, Quito

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

Map: Ecuador

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

Quito

Iglesia de San Agustín, Quito

Quito

Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, Quito

Casa del Alabado, Quito

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

Foch Yeah!, Quito

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

Baños

La Casa del Árbol, Baños

Baños

Baños

Baños and friends

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

Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca, Ecuador

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

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

Montañita nights

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