Feliz Año Nuevo

Central America trip
December 2016
week 4 of 4

MEXICO | COLOMBIA
Chiapas, Yucatán | Bogotá

by Xavier

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

PalenqueMAP

Palenque

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

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

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

  
        

Mérida

palenquemeridaMAP

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

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

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

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

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

  
          

Bogotá

cancunbogotaMAP

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

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

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

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

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

And then it was time to go home.

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

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👉 HOW WE GOT THERE
The practical details

by Simon

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

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

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

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

note: all details correct at time of traveling.


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

‘Tis the season to be jolly, after all.

Central America trip
December 2016
week 3 of 4

GUATEMALA | MEXICO
The Highlands | Chiapas

by Xavier and Simon

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


photo: on the long road to Antigua, still smiling at this point…

Antigua Guatemala

After Semuc Champey, our next stop was Antigua Guatemala. We had planned to leave from Lanquín at 6am, which had seemed a good idea at the time, but it meant being picked up from the hostel at 5am so we could make the shuttle.  A pickup truck turned up outside the hostel a few minutes after 5am, Latin music blaring over the stereo. As we bumped along the awful road, thankfully inside the truck this time, we saw many locals heading out early to work; some hailed a lift, as this is the only form of public transport in this remote area. Once at Lanquín, we paid the driver 25 quetzales for the journey, swapped vehicles, and braced ourselves for a tiring eight hour drive – nearly a very memorable journey, as Xavier found himself engaged in a battle of wills with a sudden stomach bug about two hours away from our destination, inside a packed minibus and with no toilet in sight… Fortunately for all, Xavier’s will prevailed as we finally arrived in Antigua, a small city that was the capital of the Spanish colonies in Central America until 1773, when it was seriously damaged by an earthquake and the Spanish Crown moved the capital to what is now Guatemala City.


Our stay in Antigua was actually very pleasant. We had booked three nights at Chez Daniel, a nice and comfortable B&B just outside the touristy centre, and spent a few days exploring the city, with its cobbled streets and quaint old buildings, while admiring the view of the surrounding volcanoes that tower over it all: Volcán de Agua (Hunahpú, in Mayan), Acatenango, and Volcán de Fuego (which gives off a cute puff of ash and smoke every few minutes). It reminded us of the city of Arequipa, in Perú, which we visited just under two years ago.

Craving a cultural fix, we set out to visit some of the museums in Antigua, for which we chose to do the Paseo de los Museos (Museums Walk), the entrance of which is through Casa Santo Domingo, one of the poshest hotels in Antigua.  Inside, historical buildings and courtyards are the location of various museums, mostly small but well worth a look (entry  was ticketed except for hotel guests).

There isn’t much else to do in Antigua itself.  The rest of our time there was mostly spent out and about the cafés, bars and restaurants. Just to name a few, and at risk of sounding like a guide book, here are some of the places we liked: the Rainbow Café (excellent breakfast), Cactus (a tiny, very popular place that serves cheap but pretty decent Mexican food and has live music in the evening), Travel Menu (very chilled and run by an expat, it has a definitive western vibes), McDonald’s (kid you not – it’s huge and inside a historical building, which has an amazing courtyard), Pumping Drinks (bubble tea!), The Snug (a fun, super small “Irish” pub which we liked a lot – the other Irish-flavoured bar, Reilly’s, is much larger and better kitted out, but was pretty dead the only night we walked in, and didn’t linger). On our last night we went to Fridas, a cool Mexican restaurant, after reading about it in a copy of Historias Culinarias de la Antigua Guatemala (Culinary Stories of Antigua Guatemala) that was lying around our B&B – a great book for foodies but sadly only on sale at selected bookstores in Antigua.

Of course this was also the run up to Christmas and the locals were stepping up the religious celebrations, and stepping out into the streets for rather lovely evening processions.









And that is very much all of our time in Antigua.  There are some outdoors activities on offer in the surrounding area, one of which is the almost compulsory climb to one of the many active volcanoes – which Simon decided to do one day.  Here is his account of his climb to Pacaya:

As a rare concession to Guatemalan health and safety you cannot quite climb all the way to the crater. The tour started with another minibus journey, which got held up in a small town which had decided to hold a festival (complete with Disney-esque costumes, dancing and loud music) in the main road, blocking all traffic. By the time we got through this, it was getting late, and some people in the bus wanted to turn back; an American man complained at length about how the company must have known, this wouldn’t happen in his country, and he wanted his money back (fat chance – this is Latin America after all). Everyone else did their best to ignore the man, and we pushed on.

The climb was quite hard work, as the path was steep and in places deep in volcanic ash (which is slippery). Local children walked alongside offering horses, for a modest fee, to carry people up; a few opted for this but most of us persevered on foot. Once at the top, we were rewarded with spectacular views over the volcano, as the sun set in the background. We then part-walked, part-slid, down to a lava field, where holes had been dug down to where the lava is still hot, for us to toast marshmallows.

The obvious problem with watching the sun set was that we would need to get down the steep and slippery path in the dark, which didn’t appear to bother our guide but, as it got later and later, was clearly beginning to worry several people in the group. I asked the guide if he had a torch; he assured me he did, but if that was true he never felt the need to use it. Fortunately, I and others had enough power left on our mobile phones, and used these to light our way down.





Lake Atitlán

The deepest lake in Central America and one of the largest, Lake Atitlán fills up a vast volcanic caldera, and its shores are peppered with small villages inhabited mainly by people of Maya culture. One of these villages is San Pedro La Laguna (laguna being Spanish for lake), where we travelled to from Antigua.


Of the numerous villages around the lake, only a handful seem to be deemed safe enough for visitors, San Pedro among them. It attracts an eclectic crowd of visitors, including hippies and “Woodstock” hipsters, who form an incongruous mix with the local population. We arrived in the centre of San Pedro after a mere four hour drive, and once we retrieved our backpacks we walked to our B&B, Luna Azul, on the outskirts of the village. It was a peculiar place, somewhat reminiscing of Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens, not least because of its wonderfully eccentric manager, Erin, who looked after us amazingly well. We loved staying there, especially since we seemed to be the only guests for the entire time we were there, so we really had the place to ourselves – resident spiders and scorpions notwithstanding.

San Pedro is a busy village during the day; it has steep and narrow streets and amazing views of the lake and the towering sides of this ancient caldera. On Erin’s recommendation we had a surprisingly good and very cheap steak dinner on our first night at the Wild Rover, an “Irish” themed pub formerly known as the Buddha, which is more like a backpackers bar with live music.  It turned out to be the place to be in San Pedro. We didn’t find a fuller place on any of the evenings we were there. Great fun.


video: Annie Lennox had a very sore throat.

The next day we set out on a tour of the area, first hiking to nearby San Juan where we were hoping to get a boat that would take us to one of the other villages. In hindsight, we should have taken a local tuk tuk – the main means of transportation by land – as the hike wasn’t particularly nice. After walking around San Juan for a bit and stopping for coffee, we headed to the pier; however, the day was very windy and there were no boats from this side of the lake, so we got on a tuk tuk  back to San Pedro and from its main pier it was easy to get on a boat across the lake to the picturesque village of San Marcos, where we finished our little tour with a nice lunch in a vegetarian (!) restaurant called Il Giardino before getting the boat back to San Pedro. That night, and also on Erin’s recommendation, we ate quite possibly one of the best Italian meals we have ever had, at a very unassuming restaurant near the main pier called Pequeños Pecados (Small Sins), run by a family from northern Italy who clearly love making delicious food. One of the dishes we ordered wasn’t available so they improvised a plate of exquisite balanzoni with gorgonzola that wasn’t even on the menu. A really nice dinner, which we repeated on our last night in San Pedro. It’s amazing how you can sometimes get such great food in the most unpromising looking places.

Looking for more things to do, and rather unexpectedly, Simon agreed to go horse-riding on another of our days there. It is, unfortunately, not safe for foreigners to venture  unaccompanied along the edge of the lake, so we went to Maya Travel and hired a guide and two not terribly healthy looking horses to ride a few kilometres along the lake and around the base of Volcán San Pedro for more spectacular views, a bit of knowledge of the area, and an insightful chat with our guide about the local economy and politics. Simon had not ridden a horse before and managed not to fall off it so this mini adventure was also ticking another activity off the list.

Walking around the higher parts of San Pedro, away from the shore, we got to see some interesting things like the fantastic day market, which is an assault to the senses, and the lighting on the facade of the church of San Pedro La Laguna, which looked amazing at night (a little caution is advisable if walking around the higher parts of San Pedro at night, but we didn’t have any problems).

On our last night, the main ATM by the pier was out of order and what could have been a tricky situation (we needed enough cash to pay for dinner and the 5am boat out of San Pedro) was saved by a young and entrepreneurial tuk tuk driver, who took a chance on us and drove us to the other ATM in San Pedro right at the top of the village without the assurance of payment if this machine was also out of order, which fortunately it wasn’t so he got a nice tip on top of the fare.

We absolutely loved Guatemala, not so much its roads, but it definitely surpassed all of our expectations. We would have happily stayed longer had it not been because  Christmas was upon us and we had decided to spend it back over the border in Mexico.


San Cristóbal de las Casas

Getting up at 5am to catch the boat out of San Pedro wasn’t precisely appealing. We grabbed our backpacks and walked to the pier under a cold starry night, the village eerily deserted. But the early morning ride across the water, just as the sun was rising  over the surrounding volcanoes, was breathtakingly beautiful and a fitting last impression of Lake Atitlán.

Once in Panajachel we got on the shuttle to Mexico just after 7am, and another lengthy journey and a particularly chaotic border crossing later we reached San Cristóbal. One of the travel websites that Simon used to plan the trip, and which he would generally recommend: travelindependent.info, dismisses San Cristóbal as being “to backpackers what Cancún is to package tourists“, but in fact it felt the reverse. Possibly because Mexico is rich enough to have its own domestic tourism industry, and it was holiday season, it felt like we were stepping off the Gringo Trail and, from this point on, we no longer saw familiar faces at every turn. At any rate, we welcomed the nicely surfaced roads this side of the border.

In San Cristóbal we stayed at Casa Selah, a beautiful and homely hotel in the centre, which worked out really well in the end. Like in Antigua (but with better paving), we spent the days walking around the city, popping in and out its many churches, historical buildings, and public squares, as well as the cafés, bars and restaurants (won’t reel off another list, worry not). We also hiked to the top of the two hills (cerros) on either side of the centre, the Cerro de San Cristóbal and Cerro de Guadalupe, both of which have big churches on their summits as well as great views over the city. Cerro de Guadalupe is by far the most interesting of the two, the church at its top is definitely worth the steep climb, and the surrounding neighbourhood feels much safer and nicer than by Cerro de San Cristóbal, especially at night. 


Simon also took himself on a tour of the Sumidero Canyon, about an hour’s drive from San Cristóbal. It then took him about two hours by boat to see this spectacular canyon, in some ways reminiscent of Milford Sound in New Zealand, but with better weather; the boat also stopped for the group to get a good look at the canyon’s wildlife, which includes crocodiles!.


It eventually got to the day before Christmas Eve and we still hadn’t made any plans for the two days ahead. We hastily did some research and, after some difficulties with the hotel’s staff, Xavier managed to sort things out at this very short notice. For our dinner on Christmas Eve we secured a table at El Secreto, apparently one of the best restaurants in the city according to the reviews, which was offering a special festive menu at what would have been a fairly hefty price even by London standards. Mexican food, despite our different levels of enthusiasm, had generally been very good during our trip so our expectations were high. They certainly weren’t met at El Secreto. This was by and large the worst meal we had in Mexico, as well as being multiples of the price of any other. Five courses, which varied from dull to borderline inedible, were served in quick and awkward succession, and we left within 90 minutes, worse off and very disappointed. Fortunately, Christmas Day was much better.  Having walked up to the Cathedral for Christmas Day Mass, we then headed off to lunch with some trepidation but our faith in Mexican cuisine was fully and duly restored at LUM, the restaurant at super cool b¨o hotel, where we had an excellent meal, and much cheaper!

After such emotional roller coaster it was again time to think about our travel schedule. We had planned to stop in Palenque next, to look at even more ruins. This should have been a five hour drive; unfortunately, southeast Mexico is still a bit unstable partly as a legacy from the Zapatista rebellion in the 1990s when San Cristóbal was briefly taken over by the rebels (the Mexican army regained control within a few days). Some people in the region have now taken to blockading roads and sometimes attacking buses and as a result we found out that of the two bus companies one wasn’t operating at all and the other was taking a less direct route to avoid problems, over a whopping nine hours via Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Cárdenas and Ciudad del Carmen – look it up.

So, on Boxing Day, when many people back at home were slowly starting to bring themselves back from the brink of alcoholism and diabetes, we embarked on another long bus journey. Yay.

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👉 HOW WE GOT THERE
The practical details

by Simon

Lanquín to Antigua: depending on the company this may leave at either 6am or 8am with hostel pickup up to an hour before. Buy in advance, if possible before arriving at your hostel as this seemed to be cheaper. We paid 100 quetzales compared to 175 offered at our hostel in Semuc;  however, we also had to pay 25 for the journey from the hostel back to Lanquín. You can book this at a travel agent in Flores; we bought from an agent on board the shuttle from Flores. Journey time: 8 hours including two stops.

Antigua to San Pedro La Laguna:  there are several daily tourist shuttles, taking about four hours including stops. Buy from a travel agency or hostel in Antigua. The best price we could find was 80 quetzales.

San Pedro to San Cristobal de las Casas: there is a daily shuttle from Panajachel to San Cristóbal, leaving at 7am and arriving around 4pm. From anywhere else on the lake it’s necessary to get an early boat to Panajachel. From San Pedro we took what is theoretically a 6am boat, but which left 10 minutes early (fortunately we were warned in advance). All agents in San Pedro seemed to be selling the shuttle for 160 quetzales, plus we had to pay 25 for the boat. There is a switch of minibuses at the border; the vehicle, road and driving on the Mexican side were all notably better than in Guatemala.

note: all details correct at time of publishing.


All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device.