Phil and Beth

We are off on a round the world trip, going east to west and documenting our tales here.
  • Day155

    Valladolid

    April 16, 2017 in Mexico

    With a fairly short 2hr 40 minute bus journey we arrived in the much smaller quaint city of Valladolid. Our hotel was thankfully only a 5 minute walk from the bus station, so we went dropped our belongings and got changed into swimwear keen to start the day.
    We'd read and heard about two good cenotes only a few miles out of the city, collectively called the Dzitnup cenotes as they are opposite each other. We jumped in a taxi and shortly arrived.
    Of course these were rather touristy, which seemed to be the case for many cenotes it seems, but this was a new level. A heavy entry price, an insistence of having a professional photo and request to hold a parrot. We hurried through declining and went to the first cenote. This one had stone steps and different viewing platforms on the way down as it was quite deep. But it was impressive. It was very large and almost perfectly round, with nice clear water and a large hole at the top where the light came in. It was quite busy with people but due to the size it didn't seem overly crowded thankfully. We got into the cool waters and swam to the deep end where there was no one else, it had lots of prutruding ledges where you could sit which we enjoyed.
    We went over to the shallow area in the middle and there was a big pile of rock, which is clearly where the above hole had come from. There was a warning sign not to go behind there which was a little unnerving. At times cenotes can feel a little claustrophobic if you think of where you are... especially when there is ever only one entrance/exit. You just have to ignore it, like with any fear I suppose.
    For the first time ever we felt a little chilly in this one as it's the coldest water yet, but still so refreshing in the Mexican heat. After awhile we decided to explore the second cenote. As we came up to the surface we spotted our nemesis...the coach tours pulling up in the car park. Eek no go away! No offence to those people, as of course we also occasionally do coach tours. The issue is they bring so many people at a time which can really ruin the atmosphere of places, especially things like cenotes which can only cope with so many people before it's unpleasant.
    We were hopeful they'd go to the cenote we'd just been in first and we'd miss them!

    Off we hurried to the second. This had a much narrower entrance where you had to duck your head to get through, as we walked down there must have been a power cut as it was pitch black. I froze in my spot as I couldn't see the steps. Thankfully a man almost immediately came down with a large light to guide the way. Before you knew it the cenote opened out and you could see a big pool of turquoise water. As well as lots of stalagmites and stalactites hanging from the ceiling which was very cool. I'd say this was almost more like a cave, but there was a small hole in the ceiling where light came through. We were there at the prime time around noon where the sun shines down in a thick clear beam into the water. That did look amazing.
    Once in the water it was quite dark until you swam into the sun spotlight and it was blinding! You couldn't see anything else around you and the water sparkled beneath you. It was very cool. At one point there was cloud cover which was good, as then I could look up to see the sky which I thought was quite magical.

    Like all cenotes this one was full of blind black catfish. You see them in all cenotes as it's their prime living conditions, but as they are blind they occasionally bump into you or suck you. I found it cute but I think a lot of people would not.
    We enjoyed this cenote in a completely different way than the last, and it's very interesting how different they can all be.

    After awhile we'd had our fix and decided to leave. As we were still wet we decided to get a taxi straight to the final cenote we wanted to try. This one is right in the middle of Valladolid town which makes it very unique. So we figured as we're getting a taxi back why not stop there. On arrival this cenote had the real wow factor. It was almost half a cenote, with one half covered by a huge cave and the rest of the pool open air. Where the rock edge is, water falls over the edge into the pool creating two gentle waterfalls. The water was a perfect aquamarine and the rock sides where covered in fern foliage, making this a very attractive area. Again there was a fair amount of people yet plenty of room, as well as a fun friendly atmosphere. It felt like more of family locals spot that a tourist attraction, and that created a nice vibe. There are several different ledges around the pool which you can jump from, the tallest of which Phil very bravely jumped off. It was at least 10 metres and I'm very proud he did it. He had a lot of encouragement from the crowd and a big cheer as he landed. Truthfully not sure he liked it but all the same fun to try something at least once. We stayed here longer than the rest and enjoyed sitting on the algae covered rock 'seats' by the ledge and floating around in the water.
    Except for our perfect Cuzama cenote, Cenote Zaci there in Valladolid was a lovely find.

    We walked back to our hotel, showered and headed back out for an early dinner having skipped lunch through all our swimming adventures. We ended up in a lovely courtyard garden restaurant next to the main cathedral, and enjoyed one of our last meals listening to the bells ring. Before wandering back we made a complusory stop for a Marquesita and enjoyed the lovely energy every town square seems to hold in Mexico.

    Suddenly it was Sunday and unbelievably our final day of our trip! We got up early, headed to the bus stop and made out way to the famous Chichen Itza Mayan sight. We'd arrived not long after opening time hoping to miss the heat and the crowds. Instantly as you walk in you are greeted by the highlight, the main image of the place, the Castillo (the large pyramid temple). I cannot deny it's beauty and has been heavily restored which gives you that awe factor, as you can see a clearer image of how it would have looked in it's hayday. Also the design is ingenius, the pyramid is a calender. The stairs on each side have 91 steps each; add the top platform and the total is 365, the number of days in a year. On each facade of the pyramid are 52 flat panels which are reminders of the 52 years of the Mayan calender. To top it off, during Spring and Autumn equinoxes, the way the light and shadow falls creates a series of triangles on the side of the north staircase, that mimic the creep of a serpent (there is a serpents head flanking the bottom of the staircase). How amazing would that be to see!?

    From here we went round the rest of the site which we felt had many other impressive buildings that others miss. One area there was hardly any people that housed an observatory and a nunnery. Again with amazing designs, and the nunnery had some of the best preservation of carvings I've seen at any of the Mayan sites. These buildings look fantastic now, but I can't even imagine how incredible all Mayan temple complexes would have looked back then, painted and guilded. On this site was also a large ball court for their favourite game Pok Ta Pok. It's essentially a large court with two stone rings high on each side. Using only their hips or elbows players had to get a ball through it. The game seems impossible to be honest but obviously was do-able. Sadly the winners of the game would be the next human sacrifices (which was a big Mayan obsession). Talking of human sacrifices, next door was a large raised platform covered in carved skulls, again in eerily good condition. Here is where they would put out the decapitated heads from their sacrifices for the gods...nice!
    By now it was creeping up to midday and although clearly busier in the main central plaza not as mad as I expected, although the heat was there and we were satisfied with what we saw. We understand why it's a wonder of the world, although we've also enjoyed other Mayan sites maybe more in different ways.
    Anyway off we went to grab an ice cream and get the bus back to town. Once back we went straight to lunch and had Queso Especial.... a massive plate of melted cheese with some toppings on it. I swear I've must have put on weight in Mexico!
    Once suitably stuffed we went back to the hotel for some much needed downtime. We swam in the pool, napped on a lounger and enjoyed reflecting on our experience.

    We weren't feeling so well later on (too much cheese??) So we didn't bother with dinner, but just had an evening stroll seeing the city lit up at night and enjoying our last night out on the road.

    With a small lie in the next morning, we hoped onto a bus for Cancun, then the airport, ready for a mammoth journey home having to fly via Mexico City.

    By now we can only talk about what an incredable experience this has been, although now at the airport we can safely say we are also excited to go home.

    Beth
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  • Day152

    Merida Part Two

    April 13, 2017 in Mexico

    Following a similar theme as the day before we were starting a busy day with some Mayan ruins, except the day's were much larger and further away from Merida. We arrived at the ruins of Uxmal (Oosh-mal) by mid morning and when we entered the first ruin that we saw is the 37m tall 'Magician's House'. Unusually for Mayan temples or palaces it is rounded, but was topped with a very ornate structure that at one time could have been entered and is quite typical of this type of building with a big difference being that we could see the ornate carvings that covered every bit of the building. As we continued walking through the complex the next part we came to is named The Quadrangle - it is a large parade ground like square surrounded on all sides by long buildings, almost all of which are set about 5m above ground level by solid stone bases. As we entered the square we saw the incredible detailed carvings that reminded us of those at Angkor Wat. The buildings and decorative carvings had clearly been very heavily restored to demonstrate what they would have originally looked like, and wow they were impressive! Every inch of the hundreds and hundreds of metres of stonework was covered in carvings depicting the rain god Chaac (very important to the Mayans in this areas as it's basically a desert for most of the year!), serpents, jaguars and other animals that held power in their culture. We were awed by the square and could see over the nearby jungle to more of the site which we spent another couple of hours exploring. By the time we'd reached the far side and end of our self-guided tour the complex had amazed us with the level of detail and number of restored structures and it was by far the best Mayan site we visited in all of Central America!

    It was now lunchtime so we drove a short distance to a nearby Hacienda that has been converted into an events venue and restaurant. We parked up and walked through the lovely gardens to the main building which now houses the restaurant. We sat surrounded by fountains and a courtyard full of colourful flowers and enjoyed the buffet lunch the restaurant is well-known for. The theme was, of course, Mexican food with lots of Yucatan specialities we'd both tried and been keen to try. The food was really good and we ate plenty, then feeling the need to work some of it off we walked around the rest of the grounds and found both a swimming pool and a cenote...why not have both! 10 minutes up the road from the gorgeous Hacienda is a famous cenote, and having gotten suitably hot and dusty at Uxmal we needed to cool off and relax so we followed the signs that led us down a few miles of bumpy dirt track before we found a few dozen cars parked around a hole in the ground that was starting to become recognisable to us. As fast as we could we changed into our swimming gear and descended the wooden staircase into the cenote. It was similar in size to the first at Cuzama but that was the only similarity really as this one was so full of other tourists it wasn't very relaxing, although it was still very beautiful. One half of the water was shallow enough to stand and the other had a few people bobbing around in it, but mainly the deeper sections were reserved for something else. Half way up the stairs to the entrance was a larger step that, if you climbed through the wooden handrail, was the perfect place to jump 5m into the water. I watched a few people do this before having a go myself, twice! The jumping itself was great fun but climbing through the barrier required me to lean out quite far over the edge to get through the small gap (not so fun!), but it was worth it.

    Back in Merida that evening we had dinner and a marquesita - how could we not, when they're so unique?

    Friday was our final day in Merida and we hadn't planned too much what we wanted to do, however feeling exhausted from the busy week we had a slow start and then headed to one of the closest Mayan sites to Merida, Dzibilchaltun. Another significant site in it's heyday we were hoping for another impressive site and we weren't disappointed. The majority of the structures here were smaller and more like pyramids, including one that was over 100m long. In what would have been the central plaza there was also a more 'modern' looking building, which we found out was the remains of a church that was built in the 16th century by Spaniards using the stones of the ruins that surrounded the building. This was the second time (the first was the monastery at Izamal) we'd seen this in the week in the Yucatan area and that gives an indication of how widescale this practice was in the country.

    The highlight of the Dzibilchaltun site is a large, pyramid shaped structure named 'The Temple of Seven Dolls' (after the seven dolls that were found inside...) that is 10 minutes walk away from the main structures and we reached it by following a long limestone road that had also been excavated at the site and impressively it was in fairly good condition considering what it's made from and how old it is (about 1000 years!). The temple we reached at the end is incredibly popular during the spring and autumn equinoxes when, at the right time of day, the sun can be seen in the centre of the building atop the pyramid. This would've been an incredible sight to have seen, but the building itself was impressive and we imagined what it would have been like during a Mayan festival in all it's grandeur. As we reached the temple it was well into the heat of the day and we realised our mistake in having a lie-in and missing the cool of the morning, so feeling completely exhausted by the heat we made our way back to the car, stopping on the way at the very good museum which contained hundreds of incredibly well preserved and restored artefacts from around the site including a pok ta pok goal-ring and a huge 8ft tall stellae.
    We'd originally hoped to swim in the open-air cenote that can be found in the midst of the Mayan structures however it was closed sadly, but at least we got to see it at it's picture-perfect best! We headed back into Merida for a late lunch where Beth ate a kilo or two (I am NOT exaggerating!) of loaded nachos then fell into a food coma - she did have some help from me too... As it was going to be our last afternoon in Merida we relaxed in the hotel and both enjoyed an incredible massage. That evening we knew that the Mayan game of Pok ta Pok would be recreated in a weekly event in the Main Plaza of the city, but sadly there was really heavy rain that meant it was cancelled so we took a more relaxed approach to the evening and prepared ourselves for one of our last journeys of Mexico and the trip the following day to Valladolid.

    Phil
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  • Day149

    Merida Part One

    April 10, 2017 in Mexico

    We'd thought of having a day or two in Yucatan state's capital of Merida, but after rave reviews from everyone we met whilst travelling we decided we'd be mad not to visit. We arrived on Sunday morning and after dropping our bags at our hotel we walked 10 minutes into the central square of the city. Immediately we realised that this was going to be the largest and busiest of all the places we've stayed in Central America as the city has a population of over 1 million people and every Sunday the square is closed to all traffic so that a craft and food market can take place. The square was alive with the buzz of people enjoying the sunny afternoon and we soon settled at a plastic table, sat on plastic chairs to enjoy a first taste of traditional Yucatacan food. The simple setup was perfect for the meal we were served which was delicious, and as we ate a number of street performers passed and entertained us with singing and music.

    As we walked around the square there were about 10 vendors selling 'Marquesitas' with different fun pictures on their signs and each had a large variety of sweet dessert toppings like strawberry sauce, nuttella, caramel sauce etc. Marquesitas are a thin pancake cooked between two hot irons then fillings are added before it is rolled up and they are a speciality found only in and around Merida so we knew we wanted to try one and had been told about the traditional combo to have, which is nutella and grated edam cheese. Weird as it sounds, it's actually delicious and Beth summed it up well as she tried it "Why is this nice?"!" Eating our marquesita we continued to explore the centre of the city and found dozens of beautiful old buildings as well as dance and music performances, street stalls laden with colourful trinkets and families and groups of friends milling about enjoying themselves, giving us a great introduction to the city.

    The following morning we were up early as our rental car was being dropped off at our hotel before we had breakfast. By 8.30am we were in the car and ready to have our first experience of driving in Mexico. I'm sure there are lots of you reading who think we must be mad for renting a car to explore the area, but as we began driving 2 hours west of the city it became quite easy to relax. The main things to adjust to were the lack of road markings and where they did exist the rule is to simply ignore them and that speed bumps of various shapes and sizes will appear regularly, especially around villages, although getting to a speed where they really serve their purpose is difficult as potholes aren't too hard to find either, which limits your speed a lot. Having said that we found that the roads were in fantastic condition and once out of the traffic of the city (with it's maze of one way streets) the driving became incredibly easy! We arrived at the outskirts of the seaside town of Celestun in the mid morning and grouped with four friendly Mexican holidaymakers, sharing the cost of the boat tour we were about to be taking.

    Having donned life jackets (it seems they're mandatory for any water activity in Mexico...) we climbed into our boat and the captain began whizzing us out into the lagoon. It appeared similar in size to the lagoon at Bacalar and is fringed with mangrove. Running parrallel with the mangrove we jetted along for ten minutes before we caught our first glimpse of the main attraction at the lagoon - wild flamingoes! At first we saw a group of 20 or so, then shortly after we reached the main viewing area where there were over 500 of the bright pink birds standing in the middle of the lagoon in the shallow water chattering to each other and feeding from in the water. Their colour is so vibrant and their sheer numbers was really impressive, especially when small groups began to take off and land, which is something that can only be experienced with wild flamingo as those in zoos have their wings clipped. Just before the boat began to reverse away from the main group of birds they all began to put on a display, walking in a huge group through the water whilst turning their heads every which way - what an experience! Just before the flamingo area in the lagoon is another bird island that we slowly passed, giving us the chance to watch huge pelicans and frigate birds perched in their nests amongst the branches of the mangrove up close.

    The next stop on our tour was a fresh water spring in the middle of the mangrove forest. The boat moored at a wooden jetty and 50 metres along the walkway was a pool of crystal clear water. Just beyond this were a series of other pools where the water could be seen bubbling and moving - the colour was incredible, especially considering the dirty water that normally accompanies any mangroves. We went back to the first pool where we got into the water which was perfectly cool and refreshing, giving us a chance to cool off before we had to go back to the boat to continue. The final part of the tour was to go through a mangrove tunnel and out of nowhere, with the boat continuing at full speed, the captain curves the boat toward the mangrove and into the previously unseen entrance to the tunnel. It was an exhilirating moment and then the speed died off so we could gently float through the rest of the tunnel, with mangrove over 100 years old towering all around us. We could hear the occasional bird call out and a splash in the distance but we couldn't see anything, except when a falcon perched itself on a branch as we passed below it, which was awesome!

    We were taken back to the main pier where we got back in the car and took up the invite of two of the other passengers to join them for lunch on the beach at Celestun. We found a recommended restaurant and sat at a table on the beach with the soft white sand floor and deep blue ocean as a beautiful backdrop to a delicious meal of seafood. We spent the rest of the afternoon chatting, swimming and relaxing before we decided it was time to head back to Merida for the evening.

    For our second day trip we were again up early as we wanted to avoid the midday heat and we knew we had a full day ahead. After a couple of hours drive out of the city we left behind traffic and good roads. Beth had read a blog that included some directions but they ended at the village of Cuzama. The only thing that gave us an idea of being in the right direction was an escort that formed around us of teenagers on their bicycles, waving laminated cards at us, with pictures of the cenotes we wanted to visit on. Our escort stayed with us as we drove out of the village and onto an awful dirt road that was undergoing construction work but after a few miles we arrived in tact and still with our entourage. After parking the young lads pointed us to a group of waiting men, who it turned out were their dads - they would be our guides for a few hours. After paying our fare we were ushered onto a small carriage that sat on train tracks, then a horse was tethered to the front and our guide began to coax the horse forward which pulled our little carriage along. The track had seen better days and as we trundled through a few kilometres of dry scrubland we bounced around in the cart until the track ended, where we were met with a half bike, half tuk-tuk vehicle that whizzed us five minutes down a dirt track until we arrived at yet another train track into the bush. We later learnt that these tracks were originally laid when the land was owned by a hacienda and was used to move henequen about during the production process for sisal, a cotton like material that was widely manufactured in the Yucatan area before cotton superseded it, leaving behind plenty of haciendas and the infrastructure that supported them.

    Anyway, back to our second horse drawn train ride. There would be three stops along the second track, each at a different cenote in the area. As we neared each the guide would slow the horse, release the tether and it would gently walk off to one side to munch on nearby greenery as we rolled to a stop. A hundred metres or so from the track we would find a different and unique cenote, all appearing seemingly out of nowhere below ground level. The first we visited had an entrance a few metres wide with a set of steep, slippery metal stairs descending into the dark. About 15m below the ground is a huge pool of crystal clear but incredibly blue water that disappeared deep out of sight, with thick tree roots growing like vines from the ceiling and down into the water. It was jaw-dropping-ly beautiful and it wasn't long before we jumped into the water for a swim and to wash away the heat and dust from up on the surface. We couldn't believe our luck in finding the perfect cenote on our first go, it was beautiful and so quiet with only a handful of people there. All too soon we had to get out and make the climb back to the waiting cart to continue the tour to the second cenote. It was a short ride on the tracks to get to the furthermost cenote and this one was accessed by a ladder that disappeared into a hole barely large enough for the ladder and climber. From the surface you couldn't see the bottom, and this was too much for Beth to do so I left her above as I climbed down into the darkness. Below was a stone platform that looked out over a pool of beautiful water with the only natural light shooting down in a beam from a half-metre wide hole in the roof of the cenote. I jumped from the platform into the water, not realising it was about 5m high...exhilarating and refreshing at the same time! Because of the small opening in the roof there was much less light here than the previous cenote and the stalagmites and stalactites that surrounded the water's edge were cast in a half light that really added to the mysterious feel of the swimming hole.

    The third and final cenote was back near the beginning of the train track and it's entrance was concealed amongst the roots of a large tree. Once again a ladder worked downwards into the cave and darkness so Beth stayed up top while I climbed down into a cave network lit up with torches and lanterns, as there was no natural light down there. Our guide accompanied me and pointed me to a narrow waterway that curved around a corner and out of sight. As I got into the water it felt incredibly cold so the swimming felt good, and the waterway continued for about 25 metres whilst flanked either side by high, smooth walls. When out of the water I explored more of the cave and saw the thousands of stalactites and stalagmites that formed a natural structure reminiscent of a magnificent cathedral - it was incredibly beautiful!

    Back on the surface a short while later we began the reverse journey to take us back to where we left our car. After the first horse-cart there was no bike waiting for us but thankfully one that had just dropped off it's passengers offered to take us back to the other track. After the short drive we were waiting essentially in the middle of nowhere for a horse and train-car to appear and next to us a young guy began casually sharpening his machete, thankfully not menacingly! A little while later we were on our final horse drawn cart back to the beginning - what an amazing experience it had been!

    Next we drove an hour to the picturesque town of Izamal. As we entered we found street after street of quaint colonial-style buildings all painted in the same mustard-yellow paint, giving the town it's nickname of 'The Yellow City'. We stopped for lunch in the garden of a locally famous restaurant and feeling more rested began exploring the town on foot. As well as a couple of well manicured squares the town also has a large monastery that sits above the town, with great views out over the buildings. The monastery itself is made from stone recovered from Mayan temples that were destroyed to facilitate the construction of the monastery and incredibly a handful of stones with Mayan patterns can be found around the site. We enjoyed walking around the town and sadly missed the opening hours of a local Mayan pyramid that is located right in the middle of the town, which meant we could only look at it from the base rather than climb to the top to see across the whole town. The day had been busy enough anyway so we went back to Merida, arriving in time to have dinner before collapsing into bed.

    After the full days we'd had the previous two days we intended to have a quieter day on Wednesday. Our first stop was Mayapan, one time capital of the Mayan empire. There are only a dozen or so structures excavated and restored but this made the whole site very accessible and easy to explore. What's more despite it's significance, a few times we had the whole site to ourselves! Some of the structures were small yet very impressive, with carved imagery visible in a number of areas. Atop the main pyramid El Castillo there was an incredible panoramic view over the jungle, with only a distant hotel visible above the tree line. Most impressive of all was hidden under a covered pagoda - an original, multicoloured and highly detailed picture depicting a couple of warriors. It was so well preserved considering it's creators died well over 1000 years ago!

    In total we spent a couple of hours at the site before we'd finished and the timing was good as it was now the hottest part of the day, and our plan for the afternoon was to explore a few towns and to search out a cenote or two. We passed through two quaint towns, stopping in the second named Mama in the hope of finding some lunch but the town had such a sleepy feel to it that all we could find was a convenience store where we bought snacks and a cold drink to tide us over.

    We'd read in a tourist magazine about a small town that boasted in it's central plaza a pretty church and a cenote, so giving up on the idea of lunch at a normal hour we made for the town. When we arrived a couple of locals boys raced over to the car and then showed us over to a fenced wall in the middle of the square, behind which was a view down into the cenote! It was bizarre being located in the centre of the village but made it all the better and with how quiet the town seemed we hoped we'd have it to ourselves. The boys showed us into a shop, understanding that they'd be able to unlock the gates for us so we could enter but when inside we found that the reason the gates were locked is because the cenote has dried up and with no water inside they've closed it! The church was also closed up and the other 20 or so buildings we could see were just houses so we left the village disappointed. By now we were really hungry and VERY ready to cool off with a swim so decided to make back towards Merida and to go to a cenote that we'd been told by our Airbnb host was very touristy. When we arrived we gained the positives and negatives of this - it was REALLY busy and underground it was small, meaning the water was crowded with other visitors however the cenote itself was really beautiful, with only a few metres of headroom above the surface of the water, making it the smallest of all that we visited. It was also well lit, highlighting the beautiful rock formations around the edges. Above ground they also had a restaurant where we (finally at 4pm!) had a light lunch of rather average salad and tostadas (a fried tortilla with toppings).

    After relaxing some more in their grounds we headed back to Merida, which was now only a short drive away. We went for dinner a block back from the main plaza and then decided on a walk to find marquesitas which were normally found in the main plaza. When we got there there were no vendors but there was a few hundred seats out facing one of the more ornately decorated buildings on the plaza, so we sat down and waited for the weekly light and sound show to begin. With a commentary in Spanish and English and using projectors they highlighted parts of the building's facade which celebrated 'Merida's Father', a Spaniard called Montejo. Next actors exited the building and acted the story of how he had taken over Merida and built it up during Colonial times, after which a Mayan dance group performed traditional dances to some slightly unusual music. The whole thing was really enjoyable and completely free! It was a great way to round off the day on a high after a bit of a disappointing afternoon and continued to leave us with a great opinion of Merida itself.

    Our final two days in Merida are continued in part two of the post...

    Phil
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  • Day146

    Tulum

    April 7, 2017 in Mexico

    After a luxury ride we arrived in Tulum and walked to our hotel. By now we were very hungry so went and enjoyed a delicious lunch nearby.
    We were staying in the main downtown area which was full of shops, bars and restaurants so definitely a good place to be based. The afternoon was primarily wandering around and exploring the area.

    The next day rather than taking a pre arranged and expensive tour we decided to go DIY and take ourselves to a nearby attraction. The plan for the day was to go to Sian Khan ecological reserve. We got on a locals bus (certainly not as swish as the ADO services but still really not bad! It had air con, can't complain). And after a 20 minute drive or so we jumped off outside a small complex of Mayan ruins. With hardly anyone else there it was great to explore these temple ruins, just off the main road but hidden amongst jungle. Some of them were in great condition with some original motif carvings still in tact and some red paint still visable. After this we circled round the biggest castle temple and saw a sign to the lagoon - the main part of the eco reserve. To get here we followed a raised boardwalk through the jungle. There was an observation tower halfway down with steep ladders to climb the 18 metres or so height to the top. I wasn't so keen on this so waited at the bottom while Phil climbed the ricketey rather rotten steps to the top of the tower. He said the view across the jungle to the lagoon was great, but was a little uneasy seeing all the woodworm marks and the shaking as he climbed. Standard lack of health and safety rules, all part of the fun!
    We continued down until the jungle suddenly opened out onto the beautiful lagoon. Very similar to Bacalar it has stunning turquoise water so we were very keen to get out on it. We got a private boat ride with a local guide and zoomed out across the water. Before long we went down a windy mangrove canal to get to the second lagoon. Here the water was so clear you could see to the bottom.
    Onwards we went, seeing a range of birdlife then suddenly a big turtle with red markings. The driver quickly stopped as we watched it shuffle along the sandy bottom. The guide had a nature book for the area and pointed it out, it was called a Jacatera.They are pretty common but rare to see! And this one was pretty big too. It is a main prey of crocodiles although they can die eating them as their large shells get caught. I think this one might survive with that knowledge.

    We continued on stopping in the middle of mangroves where there was a jetty. Just there off from the jetty was a small piece of land and another small but brilliantly preserved temple. It looked very picturesque on it's small island and we went for a closer look. After this we could see a small channel of water through the mangroves and our guide said we could 'float' down it. He got some life jackets out of the boat and made us step into them like giant nappies. Then we jumped in and he joined us for a 30 minute or so natural lazy river ride. On one side was mangroves, the other tall reeds and you bobbed along in clear blue water to a gentle current. It was awesome! Not only to cool down but to be gliding down through such a natural environment. We even saw a massive bird like a heron right by us as we floated past. It was very peaceful and fun just drifting along. We could have stayed there all day!
    Afterwards we walked on a long boardwalk back through marshland to the boat and sailed back to land.

    From here we made our way back to the main highway ready to catch a bus back to town. We thoroughly enjoyed our experience here and would go back in a heartbeat to do it again.

    That evening we treated ourselves to one of the best restaurants in town (conveniently two houses down from our little hotel) and had the speciality. We ordered the Arrachera steak which is considered the best steak around, and it was cooked to perfection, served with a whole heap of sides and condiments including cactus leaf (not a fan to be honest... it's slimey). Amazingly the whole meal and drinks still cost less than an average steak in a chain pub at home. What a treat. The only thing that was not a treat every evening when we ate our meals was a particular street performer with a eukule. He was without doubt the worst 'singer' I've ever heard, basically just groaning out words and attempting to play the instrument... he kept randomly strumming the strings loudly and out of tune. The worst song he kept doing was Purple Rain by Prince. That was verging on traumatic having to listen to that. I was tempted to pay him to leave every time. Ask Phil to do his impression some time.

    The next day we got up early to go and see the Tulum Mayan ruins by the beach. These are the only Mayan temples on the coastline and are very popular so we had to go see them for ourselves. Thankfully we got there just after 8am when they opened before it was too busy. Still more people than we'd previously seen but not manic. It was already hot but not unbearable so was worth the early alarm. It is not a huge site so was easy to get around and it is definitely unique seeing them perched on clifftops overlooking the sea. Some of the ruins were in great condition which we enjoyed, and these also had so many iguanas living around the site, we played a game of 'how many can you spot' which was fun.
    After we wandered down the beach, but there were warning signs about jellyfish and a lot of seaweed on the sand so decided to not to stay here, and headed back to downtown for lunch and the afternoon. We found a cute restaurant within a glamping site which also had a pool which they let us use. We ended up just spending the afternoon relaxing here, cooling off and eating yummy food.

    Our time here was suddenly finished and although we really liked the vibe of the place we felt we'd done the main things to do, so prepared to leave on a bus to Merida early the following morning.

    Beth
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  • Day145

    Bacalar

    April 6, 2017 in Mexico

    We'd never managed to wake ourselves up for a sunrise on Caye Caulker but as our boat to Mexico was leaving at 7am we were up with the sun. Our journey to Mexico had three parts, the first two being boat rides that were split only by completing the Belizean border formalities on the island neighbouring Caye Caulker. We were aboard a speed boat so the journey went fairly fast and was comfortable enough, leaving us at the Mexican border at the port of Chetumal. Immediately we were greeted by a dozen heavily armed soldiers and our bags were subject to a sniffer dog, all without incident. Next we had to pay an entry fee and complete the entry formalities. We handed over our passports to the clerk behind the counter and were given a receipt for the entry fee which we had been told dozens of times was $25, only to be told that US dollars weren't accepted and we had to pay in pesos, an amount much more than the £10 or so worth that we'd changed in Belize. VERY CONVENIENTLY a lady appears and offers to change our dollars for pesos so we could pay the entry fee, but at an appalling rate of course... so with no choice we dutifully took part in a dodgy transaction before regaining our passports and completing the border crossing. For the third leg of our journey we joined with a lovely Dutch couple in a taxi for the 45 minute drive North to Bacalar.

    The stress and tiredness of the morning dissipated quickly as we dropped our bags at our hotel and bumped into the Dutch couple at a restaurant where we sat in the garden and ate our first Mexican meal (although I've been told since that Chicken Mole is NOT Mexican!). The town of Bacalar sits next a lagoon of turquoise blue water that stretches as far as you can see North and South of the town, and it has earned itself the nickname 'The Lagoon of Seven Colours', as the water appears seven shades of blue.

    Our hotel was a 15 minute walk from the main town centre where we'd eaten lunch and by the time we were back at the hotel we were the hottest we'd felt since being in Sri Lanka. Thankfully we were only one block from a public pier so we rushed to it and jumped into the water which was the perfect, cool temperature. We also had our first experience of the lagoon up close, and the colour is unlike anything we've seen before! The edge is fringed with reeds and mangrove which supports a whole ecosystem and although Bacalar is not a major tourist destination there are also dozens of buildings on the shores all of which have a pier out over the water - how could they not!?

    The rest of the day was spent relaxing before we made for the town square which plays host to a small selection of restaurants. We sat for dinner overlooking the Central Park and enjoyed the atmosphere and thankfully it was much cooler now but still perfect for an ice cream to end the day.

    Our first morning in Bacalar we started slowly, had breakfast in the garden of our hotel and then headed into town to explore the fortress that sits overlooking the lagoon, adjacent to the Central Park. The fortress itself is not massive with four corner bastions, a well, small courtyard and watchtower, surrounded by a deep stone ditch but what is most impressive about it is it's history. Initially it was constructed to defend against pirates who sailed in narrow hulled sloops inland to the lagoon to raid the town and was also used during the Caste wars and by Mayan rebels in the mid 19th century. Despite all the service the fort has seen it is kept in a good condition now and also houses a museum about the history of the fort and the area of Bacalar. It was easy to spend a couple of hours there before we headed back to the hotel to meet with some new friends who we were heading out with for the afternoon.

    Juan, Sam and Luis welcomed us into their rental car and drove us 20 minutes to a place known as Los Rapidos, a small river only a few metres wide that runs from one lake into the Bacalar Lagoon. On the banks a series of huts and gazebos have been built and tables were scattered in the shade of the trees dotted in the garden area there. As we settled for lunch at a table the highlight of the area was right behind us - the river with it's crystal clear water that flowed gently along. We ate delicious seafood (accompanied with a hearty pile of tortillas, of course!) and chatted for a while before the water became too inviting.

    The five of us began to carefully step our way along the slippery rocks that lined the sides of the river until we were about 100m from the far end of the restaurant area. We got into the water and immediately felt the pull of the current taking us down river but this didn't matter, in fact it's a big part of the fun. We started floating down the river, enjoying splashing around and cooling off as we went. The owners have strung thick ropes across the river at a couple of points, that allow you to stop yourself and move out of the current if you wanted but otherwise it was great fun to drift down to where the final rope was and then swim to the bank where a few steps led out. We couldn't not go for a second drift down the river, so made our way back upstream and went again!

    Just to the side of the main river is a pool of water over which there are a couple of hammocks which were perfect for relaxing in without moving too far from the refreshing water - Beth enjoyed it here! We spent the rest of the day there with the amazing location and good company, and arrived back into Bacalar when it was starting to get dark and after dinner we were exhausted so collapsed into bed after an incredible first day in Mexico.

    The following morning we had another brilliant breakfast then headed into town for a couple of jobs, including buying our bus tickets for the next day. "Hablas ingles?" (Do you speak English?) Beth asked the lady behind the ticket counter, receiving a simple "No" in reply. Impressively Beth reeled off a handful of phrases in Spanish, selected our seats on an image and then the tickets were handed over. I was really impressed and she had a big smile on her face - her Spanish is so useful and is improving well here!

    With our jobs complete we hailed a taxi to take us a few kilometres to Cenote Azul, the blue Cenote. Cenotes are sink holes that have formed and filled with water, and Central America is littered with them. We arrived and saw the 50m span of the cenote, fringed with lush green jungle. The deep blue of the water gives it it's name and within minutes of arriving we were swimming out toward the centre. A thick rope was strung across the centre, so we held onto this and bobbed around for a while before returning to the restaurant for lunch with a view over the water, which was incredibly peaceful. Incredibly we saw sat a few tables away the guys we'd enjoyed Los Rapidos with the day before, so we joined together for lunch and spent the rest of the afternoon together again chatting and swimming - super relaxing!

    It got to about 5pm and they decided it was time to head back to Bacalar and really kindly offered us a lift with them. Their car was parked in the car park for the cenote which certainly wasn't quiet, with people coming and going regularly, but it also wasn't locked/guarded etc. Juan had left his wallet in the car glovebox and when in the car realised all of his bank cards and cash were missing! They all sprang to action phoning to cancel all the cards and even at this point they were smiling and joking, despite the horrible situation - it gives you an idea of their characters though and explains why we enjoyed spending time with them, as they're fun! Thankfully the cards were blocked before any illicit use of them, but this was a sharp reminder to us of the possible risks, particularly when we're nearing the end of our travels.

    We enjoyed dinner back in Bacalar at a steak house, before saying our farewells back at the hotel as we were all heading in separate directions the next day. In the mid morning we stood at the roadside outside the bus station as a bright red coach pulled up, it's driver reeling off the destinations that included ours along the way. The coach turned out to be incredibly comfortable, with AC, curtains, VERY squidgy reclining seats, films playing from a few screens (albeit in Spanish) and even power sockets and USB points! After some of our long and uncomfortable journeys this one was really easy, as 3 hours later we arrived into Tulum.

    Phil
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  • Day139

    Caye Caulker

    March 31, 2017 in Belize

    After a relatively short and comfortable journey (6.5 hours yay!) We made our way to our main destination of Belize, an island just off the coast called Caye Caulker.
    As we arrived the water changed colour to a tropical turquoise and we saw palm trees lining the edge of the island. We started walking north up the island on the main road towards the direction of our hotel. There are no vehicles allowed on the island except for golf buggies and bicycles, so we started seeing them everywhere, along with lots of dogs. Everywhere you looked were lots of fun coloured bars, restaurants and hotels, often with swing seating and adverts of happy hour everywhere.
    After dumping our stuff and getting changed we went for a stroll and enjoyed exploring the island. It's not big at all so very easy to get around. We wandered up to the famous 'Split' where the south island is separated by the north after a hurricane divided the two. There was always a small channel for boats but the hurricane made it much wider, although still easy to swim across at roughly only 15 metres wide.
    By now we were very hungry after an early start (5am bus) so had lunch with a sea view and on some hanging swing seats. The food was delicious and we could feel ourselves relaxing and settling into island life! The day flew from here and we went and booked ourselves onto our full day snorkeling tour for the following day. Some of the snorkeling in this area is considered amazing as it's the second largest barrier reef in the world, so we were eager to get out in it. After booking our tour the man we booked it with said to stay with him on the beachside benches and have a beer or two. We ended up staying with Gerald for several hours and had a few rounds and great conversation. He is the brother in law to the owner ' Caveman' (of Caveman tours) and does all the bookings. He used to be a policeman but was medically signed off for a heart condition - which could be operated on but it won't be as it would cost him $10,000 dollars (!) So he just has to take each day as it comes. He also told us his wife was sick too, and she could also 'drop down any moment' because of her condition, a hynea. How incredibly humbling to us to hear conditions that could be treated for free at home are life threatening there. We didn't say of course, we couldn't be so unfair. Anyway it was a great evening and learnt lots about their island life. They also could not believe we don't really have guns in the UK. Culture differences are fascinating sometimes.

    The next day we went on our full day snorkeling tour. We were on the small boat of 8 people. Us and a group of friends from Israel. Firstly we went out to where the manatees graze and within minutes saw one coming up for air. It was so cool to see these large majestic animals. Sadly we couldn't get in with them but we enjoyed seeing one.
    Next we went through some choppy water and went to an area where fisherman clean their catch, because of this it attracts some larger marine animals such as stingrays and turtles. And I can tell you it really does! I jumped in and immediately I saw a giant stingray glide it's way through the sea grass under me, in fact every minute I'd see another large stingray. Amazing! Yet it got better, as I swam up to a fisherman's boat right there was a giant loggerhead turtle, it was huge! And so beautiful. It couldn't care less about me or the other people in the water and kept swimming around so close. At times I had to try and move to get out of it's way. In fact in one moment I had my head out of the water looking for Phil, when I felt very clearly the shell of the turtle touch my stomach...the turtle had swum right under me. I let out a little squeal in surprise and awe. That stop was a real bucket list moment.

    From here we went on to another well known spot called Shark Ray Alley. Similarly this is where fisherman used to come to clean their catch and this attached rays and sharks to the area, to which they rapidly grew and now live there permanently. As we arrived we started to see the tell tale signs of sharks with some fins out of the water. Lucky for me and my fear I had been reassured there are only really nurse sharks here which have no teeth, instead they use some sort of sucking motion to eat their food. One of our deckhands threw in some sardines and they went crazy sliding all over each other for it, then they told us to jump in! So we did it and got fairly close, it was very exciting to see from under the water. As they started to disipate it was quite a thrill having them swim underneath you as they swam away. We swam on to some nearby reef where we were told we'd see them more naturally, asleep on the reef. We found several and every time it would make me jump. Not from fear but surprise, as you'd be exploring coral and then a huge still shape would appear. Another marine creature we've seen wild and up close to tick off the list.

    From here we went straight to the Hol Chan marine reserve which is an area of protected reef to see more underwater life. We stopped on the boat for lunch then shortly after dived back in. Now this area has a channel that leads out to a deeper reef and waves crash close by. This in turn causes a strong rip tide so it was important we stayed with our guide and snorkeled as a group so not to get dragged out there. He did tell us people had drowned out there so they took the risks very seriously (that incident happened with a man who said he was a marine guide but had only ever done land tours... he had no idea what he was doing, very bad). Anyway some of our group were not very confident swimmers or snorkelers and decided to use life jackets. Even then they struggled and one girl had a freak out. At this point the guide said she should probably go back to the boat and she agreed. She was very slow and we were all tredding water waiting for her to be seen safely back. She didn't manage it and thankfully another boat came and picked her up. We were understanding, however she never said she was a poor swimmer when asked at the beginning of the tour, which was frustrating to the guide as it obviously it caused these problems. Finally we got moving and the guide was excellent, constantly diving down to show us things, tell us the names and guide us round. He even 'snake charmed' a moray eel out from it's lair for us to see, awesome!
    We snorkeled for around 45 minutes to an hour and really enjoyed still seeing so many new things.

    From here we went to our final snorkeling spot called Coral Gardens. I was the first one in and practically landed on a nurse shark! Eek. Thankfully it swam quickly away but was very cool to see again. From here only us and another couple got back in and we explored close to the boat. By the now the sea was a little rough so we didn't want to venture far. We still saw new corals and things of interest so it was a nice way to end.

    Finally the tour stopped on the other side of the island to see a seahorse reserve and some Tarpon fish. At the reserve you could look down into the water from a pier, and see both brown and yellow tiny seahorses clinging onto ropes and debris purposely placed in the water. They are adorable and we loved looking at them. Back on the boat just upstream is where Tarpon fish live, huge fish that were about 3 foot long, but can get big enough to be 300 pounds heavy. We had some sardines to feed then and they leap out of the water to snatch it out of your hand. I did it once but it made me scream so let Phil do it several times instead. I think you could easily mistake these fish for small sharks. We also fed some greedy pelicans who stopped by.
    This marked the end of the tour and we returned back to land exhausted but thrilled with the range of wildlife we'd seen that day.

    Over the following days we took the time to wind down and 'go slow' as the Belize people say. We slept, ate and swam the next few days away. Also enjoying meeting up with some fellow travellers we'd meet on route. One evening we found a secret spot of the other side of the island to watch a fabulous sunset. As we were sat with our feet in the water we saw movement. Right there was a small striped stingray gliding around. The water was so clear you could see everything, and not long after the ray we saw more aquatic life including a very large hermit crab (which Phil tried to pick up but chickened out...it did have big claws) and other crabs and fish. It was awesome to have found this spot and have this underwater display all to ourselves.

    On our final day we went kayaking with a lady who'd lived on the island for 20 years and knew all about the mangrove habitat, that Phil was particularly keen to learn more about. We hopped on to our kayaks, including a tag along in the form of her adorable dog who sat on my lap most of the way. Very cute. We learnt about the algae, and even ate some (!) As well as all there is to know about mangroves. Again we saw the Tarpons and looked at the seahorses again. This time seeing many more including some pregnant ones up close. We continued to kayak including crossing the Split, and seeing some of the more wild north island and hearing about how the island has changed.
    Truthfully the island doesn't have the charm it once did years ago and we felt that even when we arrived. We really enjoyed it, but the very high expectations we had were probably more appropriate for some years ago when the island was more quaint. Suddenly big hotels are popping up and the island is growing too fast. Hopefully it won't loose all it's charm in the upcoming years.

    Before long it was 7am one morning and it was time to get the water taxi to Mexicos border and say goodbye to this unique and beautiful island.

    Beth
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  • Day137

    Flores and Tikal

    March 29, 2017 in Guatemala

    After a light breakfast by the river we said goodbye to our gorgeous hostel and boarded the mini bus that would be driving us the '8 hour journey' North to Flores. The journey was largely the same as the others we'd taken so far in Guatemala with one major difference, the first being that all but the first hour of the journey were completed on paved roads - super comfortable after the last couple of journeys!

    An hour South of Flores the van joined a queue facing a river that we would be crossing and while we waited we watched the ferry buzz back and forth a couple of times, each time filled to capacity. Our turn came and along with two lorries, 9 cars/mini-buses and a motorbike it was considered full and then, rather humorously, they used two small outboard motors to propel us across the 40 metres of brown water. Even with the limited power it took less than 5 minutes for us to cross, and then just before 6pm we were pulling into the town of Flores.

    That evening we had dinner in a very rustic restaurant before arranging a tour for the following day and onward transport for the day after that.

    4am and our alarm shocked us awake. We were up so early to travel 90 minutes to the ancient Mayan site of Tikal where we'd be spending the morning. Not surprisingly we both slept the whole way there before exchanging the tickets we bought for wristbands that permit entry to the whole complex.

    At 7am our group of 15 or so were gathered together by Luis, our tour guide for a few hours. Near the entrance there is a scale model of the discovered ruins and this is where we were given an introduction to our first experience of the ancient temples, palaces and cities that dotted Central and South America for many centuries.

    As we left the entry museum behind it took only a few minutes walking along the jungle-lined pathway before Luis stopped us and began pointing into the trees and bush. This moment repeated itself a dozen times more before we'd reached the first Mayan ruin, every time with the whole group fascinated at what he'd spotted for us. The highlights of the wildlife we were experiencing would be the very colourful Quetzal bird that gives it's name to the nation's currency, with a sleeping howler monkey just before this. The monkey wasn't sleeping long as Luis banged the trunk of the tree far beneath where it was resting and as soon as he began we learnt why they have their name - they have such a powerful shout and yet they're so small! Our first animal encounter, however, was probably our best. Coatis are common here and for locals are comparable to a rat, but when a pack of 20 or so were found in a tree next to the path they quickly ran to the ground to curiously sniff around us and each other. They look like foxes in size and colour, and apparently deliver a nasty bite so we carefully enjoyed the lucky, close experience we had of them.

    An hour or so after we'd set off from the museum we arrived at the first Mayan ruins of the day, a 1300 year old sacrificial temple. Luis gathered us around a clearing in front of the temple and after silencing the group he began clapping and this echoed through the clearing and off the temple to create a sound like a bird's call, which was incredible. Equally incredible was the view from the top of the temple, across the jungle canopy to the very top of Temple I that peeked upwards beyond the trees. From there we followed an ancient limestone causeway that, at it's peak, was a few thousand feet long and led to one of the most highly excavated and restored areas of Tikal, the Gran Plaza. Here are two of the larger temples, one of which we climbed using a wooden walkway that hugged the outside of the stone. From the top we had a view over the jungle canopy and down onto the plaza where the North and South Acropolis' could be seen. This series of ancient structures are very well restored, having been dug out of the jungle. This meant the view down was a taste of how the area would have looked during it's peak. We also had a walk around the Acropolis' which, along with the temples, commemorated a great Mayan king named Ah Cacao - a good name, if you remember how valuable cacao beans were!

    We rejoined our tour group at the base of Temple II that we had climbed, and within 30 seconds of starting walking we were in thick jungle and the only thing we could hear was the sound of the forest, although whatever animals were nearby stayed out of sight. It was only a short distance through the forest to Temple IV, the largest of the whole complex which appeared in front of us. We'd seen the very top of it from the previous temple we'd climbed but now we were standing at it's base it's size was really impressive, standing nearly 50m tall. Another staircase had been built onto the side of the structure and thankfully it was largely in the shade, which made the climb up bearable (it was only 10.30am but already was incredibly hot and humid!)

    Once we'd reached the top we sat on the steps that made the final ascent into the inner chamber and looked out across the jungle, which was now much lower than we were. Sadly the inner chamber is closed off because of previous visitor's defacing and graffitiing it, but the climb was still worth it for the view. It was also a view lots of you will recognise, as George Lucas used the spot for filming some scenes for Star Wars! Our tour ended here and although we were given the option of returning to Flores at that point we were far from finished, as the Tikal site is HUGE and we wanted some time to explore ourselves.

    Once we were back at the base of Temple IV we had our lunch under a gazebo - the early morning had thrown our body clocks out completely and we realised it was only 11am! We set off toward a structure we'd seen from our viewpoint. 'The Sloped Temple' is different from almost all the other structures at Tikal as it's a pyramid with a flat top, but as it was built to facilitate star-watching and other astronomical purposes the construction made complete sense. I climbed to the top and found a couple of small roofed buildings made entirely out of stone, a considerable feat for the time. We also learnt that this was the oldest ruin at Tikal. Well, not quite. The inner layer of the pyramid is, and the outer layer that I'd climbed was a more recent addition, at only 800 years old instead of 1400 that the inner is!

    We continued along a path following signs for 'The Lost World' and explored another handful of temples until we reached our main destination, the Plaza of the Seven Temples. The area that this complex covered was much larger than the Gran Plaza and contained more individual buildings, like a three-doored building used to play a Mayan game like football, an acropolis and of course the seven temples. They were all restored incredibly, although this process wasn't complete which meant we could see the work that it takes to make them tourist-ready. Incredibly we'd been told by Luis that every large mound in the whole area of Tikal is in fact a Mayan structure that has simply not been unearthed yet! What we found as incredible though is that, apart from a guard, we were the only people there! During Mayan times the plaza could have held thousands of people for festivals, meetings and sacrifices yet now there were only three enjoying it.

    We were glad we made the 30 minute walk to the plaza and could have continued exploring more of the temples but now it was midday and the heat, combined with the early morning, was getting the better of us so we began making our way back to the main entrance. As the part of the site is less visited the signs weren't so great so we were using a map, and as we walked along what we assumed was a regular path through the jungle we realised we were actually walking along one of the lower levels of a huge acropolis that hadn't been excavated yet. Each level was about 15m high and 100m long, built in levels like a pyramid. The dense jungle all around us showed how nature reclaimed even this enormous building given time and before we arrived back at the entrance we passed another dozen structures that were in a similar state. We'd be so curious to have been at Tikal during the Mayan Era so we could experience the buzz that would have accompanied the city.

    By the early afternoon we were back in Flores and spent a while relaxing in the garden courtyard of our hostel. After sharing a huge platter of nachos fully loaded with salsa, guacamole, cheese and sour cream I had a much needed nap before at dusk we went for a walk around the path that leads around the perimeter of Flores. There were lots of people out enjoying the warm evening and we saw families splashing around in the water and couples canoodling on benches fringed with flowers. We sat on some steps with our feet in the water and watched the sun set beautifully. We'd loved our first taste of Mayan ruins and Flores was a perfect and very beautiful base from which to visit Tikal. It was definitely our favourite place in Guatemala and we could have spent longer there easily, so if you're in that part of the world we can definitely recommend a few days there.

    Phil
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  • Day134

    Lanquin & Semuc Champey

    March 26, 2017 in Guatemala

    The journey from Lake Atitlan to Lanquin was a tough one. We hopped on a private bus and headed off on an incredibly bumpy journey. The trail leads all through the mountains, constantly up and down and around. Sometimes we were so high up we're looking down on other mountains... did I say that these roads were unpaved? As they were, which made the ride bumpy and precarious going round tight bends on the hill side. There were so many times I thought to myself how is this vehicle still running!? As it was pushed hard on all of those terrible roads. Some roads are paved but even then full of potholes and they swerve all over the road avoiding them. Every time I fell asleep I was awoken with a sharp thud as we'd hit the dirt or gravel roads. No sleeping on this journey! Rather hanging on, did I mention there were no seat belts? You get the idea.

    After the journey taking the entire day we arrived in the town, down in the jungle and got to our hostel. The hostel was pretty funky down on the rivers edge and served us a cracking buffet dinner which was much needed by then!

    The next day we joined a tour to go see the famous Semuc Champey (blue limestone pools in a river). Along with approx 12 others we piled into the back of a pickup truck with a bar round the top. We were all standing and packed in like sardines. Off we went for a 45 minute drive down a dirt road that lead up and down deeper into the jungle. You had to hang on and deal with no personal space, what a ride! Everyone found it fun and it felt like you were really exploring.

    Our first stop on the tour was down the beautiful river by the entrance to some water caves. I chose not to do this part so will let Phil tell you how that was:

    Phil: I'd been told I may want to wear shoes as there were lots of rocks submerged in water and the like, but lacking any real option from my backpack I chose to just wear some socks (after a tip that this helps with grip on slippery wet rocks!) So wearing only swimming shorts and socks I joined the group heading into shallow water in the entrance to the tunnel. The guide (who looked about 14...) handed out a 20cm candle to each of us and then painted our faces with 'war paint' - now I was ready. He explained the cave system could be explored for hours and hours but we didn't have enough candles for that so we were going about 45 minutes into it and as we began slowly making our way along I started to stub my toes and bump my head, but thankfully nothing serious! The track we were following led through water I couldn't stand in, up ladders that were held only by ropes tied around ancient stone pillars naturally formed in the cave, and then back down another ladder - at times the up-and-down was about 10m! This in itself wasn't too challenging but what made it so was the pitch black that threatened to close in if our candles became extinguished! After climbing, crawling and swimming our way deep into the cave the water had become cold and pitch black and then ahead of us was a rock face which our guide climbed using some footholds etched into the rock (I don't exaggerate when I say there was about 3inch chunks of stone cut out of a large boulder that formed the 'staircase'). We were given the most detailed safety briefing of the day, in broken English "if you want to, climb up here and jump in the water. Don't jump there, there or there as there are rocks" he said as he pointed at basically the whole pool below him... after a couple of the group had done it I wanted a go. The 4m climb to the 'jumping point' was VERY difficult and had very little to hold onto. At the top the guide made sure I knew where to jump and also pointed out the overhang, so I knew not to hit my head. Was I scared at this point? A bit. Did I do it? Of course! My jump went fine and it was quite a thrill in the dark of the cave, and made a good way to end the cave exploration before the group retraced it's steps to the entrance. Great fun - and my candle only got wet once!

    Meanwhile I had a swim in the water and relaxed, as the only person there it was quite mystical on my own. At one point a young lad, who must have only been 14 came along, and was intensely looking into the water. Quickly I realised he was fishing and would throw out a weighted net then jump in himself to gather up the fish. He had a wire around his waist and would thread the fish alive onto it, still flapping around! It was a live fish belt, pretty cool to see.

    After the water caves the group came out all wet and covered in warrior paint, pumped for the next activity. Along the river was a giant rope swing that could lift you as high as 8-10 metres! Most people did it and went flying into the water. Phil loved it and thankfully no one got hurt (even when one guy fell backwards and unintentially did a back flip).
    From this spot we were each given a rubber tube to go tubing down the river. This was so awesome. The river had a fairly slowly current and it felt great just drifting down the water. Suddenly some local lads with their tubes jumped in and started handing out some beers to buy. Perfect!
    I even had some tropical dragonflies that kept landing on me (potentially mating but hey ho). We felt very lost in nature as we drifted on. We all got out at the same point and the pick up truck was here to pick us up...along with all the tubes. That was hilarious trying to hold them and fit everyone in. At one point i even noticed a small 6 year old child that had snuck on for the free ride. Mad!
    Thankfully it was just as 10 minute drive back.

    There was a large bridge over the river at least 8 metres high. After grabbing our stuff and dropping off the tube rings, before crossing the bridge in the truck they asked if anyone wanted to jump off it. Some brave souls did it and it was such a drop! Not for us though...

    Onwards we went towards the main sight itself Semuc Champey. We decided to do the climb to the viewpoint first, then go down the other side to the pools to swim. The climb was supposed to take 45 minutes but I think may have taken us longer, it was very steep! They had built in some wooden staircases and stone steps so wasn't too challenging, but just going higher and higher so was quite the workout, especially in the heat. However we made it and it was absolutely worth every single step. The view was stunning. You looked down into the valley between the two huge cliffs (one of which we were on) and you see the river cutting through and all the formations of the limestone ledges. See the photo to understand it better! It really felt like you'd stumbled across this incredible natural wonder.

    By now we were desperate to swim and I wanted a good amount of time there before we had to leave. So I was racing ahead down the mountain jumping steps and pacing fast. Suddenly I came across a crowd on the path and typically I was just keen to get by and not to be held up! I walked past the people and saw a lady a few metres ahead facing backwards, I abruptly stopped thinking I was about to walk into a photo of her being taken. Little did I realise the crowd were not taking a photo of the lady... but rather the snake not even a metre from my feet now looking very angry, head up high. Swiftly I backed off back into the crowd. There was a guide amongst the people who said that snake was one of the most poisonous in Guatemala! What! Thanks for the warning people....
    The snake was mad and in the attack position and was not going to move from the path, so the guide said we'd have to climb down the hill side to meet up with the path further down. I was hoping there were no others around. Once we got to the bottom we met up with our guide, who only confirmed the near death experience when shown a photo, and he exclaimed 'shit!' Confirming that you'd have a maximum of 5 hours to live if it got you. Unbelievable.

    Anyway scare over, we throw off our clothes and went to the top pool and fell into the refreshing water. It felt amazing and the surroundings were beautiful. We'd swim around, then go to the next ledge and move down to the next pool, which would require sliding down the very slippery rocks like water slides to fall into the next pool. One of these was unsuccessful for me and I hit a very slippery bit before I was ready. Not only did I land awkwardly and hurt my knee (just a bit) but let's just say in a bikini there isn't a lot of skin protection.. anyone ever had a carpet burn on their bare bum? Let's say no more!
    But it was worth it and we explored each water terrace. This also included getting a 'free' skin refresh by the fish in the water who liked to nibble you, they were quite big so not as enjoyable as the ones you get in feet tanks across Asia, but pretty cool seeing them in the wild I guess.
    Too soon it was time to leave and we walked back to our pick up truck and enjoyed another bumpy ride back through the jungle as the sun was setting. What an amazing day!

    We concluded the evening with another amazing buffet and some great conversation with other travellers until late in the evening.

    Beth
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  • Day132

    Lake Atitlan

    March 24, 2017 in Guatemala

    A two and a half hour bumpy drive from Antigua is Panajachel, one of the main towns that surrounds Lake Atitlan. This lake is actually a giant volanic crater that has since filled with water and is surrounded by other surviving volancos. Around the lake are many towns, many traditional Mayan towns that have been there for hundreds of years. Of course they develop and change, especially to welcome tourists. However they still have a lot of locals who still wear traditional clothing and hold that original lifestyle.
    We arrived in Pana around 4pm and after checking into our hotel went for a walk to the lakes edge to check out the view. Rather misty now but still very impressive. We ended up having a delicious early dinner and booking onto a tour for the following day to go around some of the towns on the lake.

    The following day we were on the water at 8am and enjoying a beautiful clear and still morning. Our first stop was San Marcos. An adorable small town full of yoga, massages, alternative medicine and vegetarian cafes. We loved the vibe. We had a very tasty and healthy breakfast in a secluded garden and enjoyed a wander around. We felt we could have definitely had more time there.

    Our next stop was San Juan, a small steep town full of local artists and handicraft merchants. Safe to say we got a few souvenirs! We loved the vibe here which was friendly and relaxed.

    Next stop was San Pedro, or rather the party town where a lot of backpackers go. Although there was some fun bars and cafes with cracking waterside views there wasn't much else to see in the time we were there, and we found it dramatically more manic in vibe. Maybe with more time we would have found more hidden gems.

    Our next stop was a town called San Atitlan and the biggest on the lake. This also had a steep walk up to the centre which we clambered up. We'd clearly arrived at prime market time and navigated our way through the vibrant street stalls and madness. We heard the sound of drums and appeared out into the main square where there was some sort of performance and lots of families about. It created a pretty fun atmosphere, if a little chaotic. At this point we spotted the church which was recommended to visit. It was incredibly old and had a very close view of the neighbouring volanco so we enjoyed seeing it. By now we stopped for a late lunch and watched the world go by. It was humbling to see people working so hard including a boy who must have been only six years old carrying a huge bunch of firewood up the steep hill and clearly struggling. The desire to help was there, but we also didn't know how that would be perceived as we're foreigners.

    Soon after we left here and jetted across now a rather choppy lake, we were relieved to get back still partly dry!

    We thought about staying longer here as we would have loved to have spent more time in the towns but equally had quite a full plan for the last leg of our trip so booked onto a bus ready for a mammoth journey ahead across the country to a town called Lanquin.

    Beth
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  • Day130

    Antigua

    March 22, 2017 in Guatemala

    On arrival into Guatemala City airport at 5.15am we both agreed that in hindsight doing yet another overnight flight was a mistake. We staggered our way through the customs and immigration process, which after the US seemed a breeze but that's largely due to the fact that every form and check point we went through the officers seemed just as half-asleep as we did! As we climbed into a shuttle bus to take us to Antigua the sun was appearing and as we drove out of the smoggy, traffic clogged roads of Guatemala City we got our first taste of the countryside - it's naturally very beautiful!

    An hour later we arrived into Antigua, a town of approximately 35,000 people with cobbled streets, rows of pastel coloured buildings and more churches, convents, parks and squares than you can shake a tortilla at! Even in the short drive through the town to our hotel we both agreed the town is every bit as beautiful as we'd been told and read about in blogs, guidebooks and tourist magazines. We were excited to explore it, but first we needed sleep!

    Fast forward to midday and still bleary eyed we went for a walk, passing through the cobbled lanes and under Arco de Santa Catalina (an arch that passes over the road, built so the nuns of the convent could cross without being seen by the public!) before we arrived at Parque Central. Here there were dozens of locals chatting on benches in the shade of the blossom-filled trees with the splashing of the fountain in the background. It's a really beautiful place and is ringed with governmental buildings, not that you'd recognise them as such. We took a staircase up to a balcony of the city hall which gave a brilliant view of the square, through the arched walkway.

    Having explored some more of the centre we stopped for lunch in a quaint restaurant that we believe either doubled as a shop, or it was a shop before becoming a restaurant - our Spanish isn't good enough yet to ask or figure it out! We had a good surprise in the menu and couldn't not order the cheese fondue, which it turns out is sold everywhere and is amazing! For dessert we crossed the street to Chocomuseo (no prizes for guessing their specialty) where we had brownie, local coffee and a DIY hot chocolate while sitting in their shaded courtyard. It was a good place to relax and we enjoyed a couple of hours there, before we made for the roof terrace of our hotel to watch the sunset. Sadly it began to rain so the sunset wasn't really to be, and I was feeling very rundown with man flu so we called it a night.

    The following morning after a light breakfast we went back to Chocomuseo for their discovery class. Our tutor, Edwin, began with teaching us the history of cacao, from the Mayan era right up to the 19th century European adaptation that is what we would now recognise as chocolate. This background set us up well for what we'd be doing next, which was to prepare locally grown cacao beans and then to create three drinks from it. First we roasted the beans over fire on a comal, a round clay disk which is more commonly used to cook tortilla. By hand we then removed the husks which is best compared to removing peanuts from their shells - these were then added to boiling water to create a simple cacao tea, which whilst bitter, tasted great and had the aftertaste you get from dark chocolate.

    The second drink we made used the cacao beans which we ground using a mortar and pestle. Edwin gave commentary to the race between our group, and with his expertise his water the smoothest by far although Beth's was also pretty good! A reward for the hard work was a sample of a few of the chocolates their chefs had made - delicious! All of our cacao pastes were added together and rolled into a small log like shape. Edwin explained that when famous conquistador Herman Cortez arrived into Mayan lands he was presented with something similar to what we had just created, as cacao was a very valuable commodity (1 bean = 1 tomato, 3 = 1 small rabbit, 10 = the service of a lady-of-the-night). Cortez refused the gift however, as the cacao looks a lot like an animal's poo! The Mayan's would also add blood to their chocolatey drinks as part of ceremonies - no thanks!

    Anyway this didn't put us off and it was added to hot water, then cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, chilli powder and pepper were added to it to create the drink that all Mayan people enjoyed. Even with all the spices the overriding taste was of chocolate, with a very definite spicy aftertaste. It was very tasty, but the third drink was our favourite as this was simply cacao paste combined with hot milk, water and sugar - European style hot chocolate. An important part of the process for this was to froth it up using a wooden whisk-whisk like instrument that is spun between the palms of your hands, which was good fun.

    Finally we used melted chocolate to create our own chocolates, adding to it caramelised orange peel, Oreo, cacao nibs and other tasty additions. An hour in the fridge and the chocolates were ready, Beth's smiley faces and my pineapple, strawberry and apple shapes. They're all delicious and look professional, of course, although they taste entirely different to European style chocolate as there is very little sugar and milk in it! Interestingly we learnt that white chocolate contains only cocoa butter and no cacao, so technically it's not chocolate at all!

    We spent the afternoon exploring more of the town as even just walking down their 'normal streets' was an experience in itself. We discovered another couple of squares where locals were meeting to relax, chat and enjoy food from carts that set up from the mid-afternoon onwards. Dusk was clear skied so we sat on the roof terrace, with the colourful town feeling very small when we looked out at the volcanoes that ring the town. The sky changed colour through a palette of oranges, reds and purples before the town began to light up welcoming our final night in the town. A short walk from the hotel took us to the courtyard of a restaurant that was lowly lit by lanterns and candles, with hundreds of flowers in thick garlands overhead. The ambience was great, but the food wasn't however. We've learnt very quickly that a strong Spanish vocabulary is needed as English is very limited and this meant the Guatemalan dishes we ordered tasted unusual to us and we're still not entirely certain what it was we ate!

    We'd still enjoyed our final evening in our first Guatemalan town and the next day as our shuttle bus arrived to pick us up we didn't quite feel ready to leave Antigua, but partly that's due to the bumpy journey ahead of us!

    Phil
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