Monday, January 24, 2011

Back to the travel stories - Lake Atitlan, Guatamala

Lake Atitlan
From Antigua we travelled north into the highlands of Guatamala to Lake Atitlan.  The lake is a caldera (collapsed volcanic ring) which is surrounded by three huge volcanoes that loom over a number of small mayan villages that the dot the shores of the lake. We are going to be spending three days in the village of Panajechel (one of these small picturesque villages).

There is a noticeable drop in the temperature and it is time to pull out the jumpers and coats for our evening strolls along the main street of Panajechel as we check out the numerous stalls and shops selling mayan artifacts, handicrafts and clothing.  A few of us found a small quiet pub, and took advantage of happy hour to embibe in some very good dark rum and coke before joining the others at an Argentinian restaurant for a very yummy dinner (sometimes you need a change from tacos!!!).  We spent a couple of very pleasant hours in the restaurant being entertained by a couple of expat american rockers on guitars singing all the old songs from 60s-70's (and a few from the 80's). 

My Last Day in Guadalajara

Wow!! As this is kind of a special day, I am going to make a slight detour from my travel stories and to contemplate my last day in Mexico.  Steve and I are sitting up on the terrace outside our room at Helga's, checking emails and writing last minute good byes.  Our bags are almost packed, just those few last minute things to shove in.  For me it is a very strange feeling, and I can't believe that six months has past. 

This morning we wandered down to our favorite coffee shop (Cioccolato) for a last coffee and to say good by the young couple that have served us regularly.   Over the past 6 months I have spent considerable time, sipping coffee here, reading my research papers, taking spanish conversation classes (very close to the spanish school), writing reports, answering emails and chatting with friends.  Cioccalato also became one of Steve's favorite places and it was here that he would sometimes pass the time while I was attending classes. 

As I write Helga and Feli are very busy downstairs, in the kitchen preparing our final lunch with them.  I am really going to miss them.  I wonder what Mexican delights they are preparing.  We will be summoned at around 2.00pm when it is already, and will eat our way through three courses, with wine or beer and finish off with coffee and Helga's famous german marzipan.  I have been very fortunate to have been able to stay here, it certainly made my settling into and stay in Guadalajara much easier than it could have been.

On reflection the first 4-5 months was a very intense experience and most of the time was fully focused on getting through the work I had to do.  Besides the research project and papers for my degree at UTS, I had 6 hours of Uni on thursdays, which involved reading and summaries of articles (in spanish) every week. Also for most of this time I was attending spanish classes for four hours a day (also with homework, exams and presentations).  I do recall a couple of times when I felt I just wasn't going to get through it all.  I guess the trick is to not look at the big picture and just take it all little by little.

I think one of the most amazing parts of my time here was the opportunity to visit the small villages in the south of Jalisco with the people from CAMPO.  I was lucky enough to visit this area three times, and these visits provided me with most of the data for my masters research project.  It was these visits that helped me understand a lot more about the people of mexico, and to see another side of the lives of the rural mexican people.  Something that you do not experience if you are just staying in the cities.

The second big highlight of my time here was when I had finally finished all the research writing, exams and spanish presentations and I was able to travel with my husband to see and experience other parts of Mexico. If you have been following my blog, you will have read some of these stories.  (there are more to come).

All in all, it has been an amazing learning process and experience, but now though I am a little sad to leave, I have to admit that at the moment, I am ready to be back home and to catch up with family and friends.   Hopefully, in the future I will be able to return and be able to visit some of the other places in Mexico that I didn't have time for on this trip.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Volcanoes and my second tripping episode!!!!

One of the side trips that was offered while we were in Antigua was to climb up to near the summit of one of the local volcanoes.  We had an early morning start, with our guides meeting us with our shuttle bus at the front of our hotel.  Steve was a little amazed to notice that our guide, while directing everyone on to the bus, put on a gun belt (with bullets) and pulled out a sawn off shotgutn from under his seat.  (mmm!!).
The trip to the start of our walk took about an hour.  Once our two small vans had arrived we were offered the option of riding horses for part of the way, which a couple of the group did and a small boy was selling sticks for $1 US to help us on our walk up and up.  One of the group enquired on the reason for the gun, and we were advised by the guide (with a very sly grin), that he was going to do some rabbit shooting.  No actually, over the recent months some tourist groups had been target by local insurgents and robbed!!  Nice to know.

We started our slow ascent up, and up!!! it was quite a walk but the views were really something.  On either side of us we could see volcanoes.  The one that we were climbing, had erupted in March of 2010, and the eruption was so strong that it blew the cone out of the top of the volcano.  Hence, the V shape at the top of the volcano.  The first part of the trip was walking up on sandy ground, however soon we came to the lava fields and walking on this was a different matter.  The scenerey changed from the green farm land to that of a lunar scape.

As you can imagine, I had the camera out snapping away, and as we crossed a section that was  quite flat, I stepped on a chuck dry lava!! yes !! with no style at all!! smash I was on the ground (well the very rough and sharp lava).  Somehow, I managed to hold the camera up and save it from the similar fate that it had experienced in my previous fall. However, I coudln't say the same for my hand and elbow, nice grazes, plus a bump on the head.  (so embarassing!!).  Dr Steve soon same to my rescue and with some good old teatree oil and some bandaids from another member of  the group I was all patched up.  Just in time to see everyone, cooking toast and roasting marshmallows over one of the volcano vents.

In all the trip was very interesting and as one of the guides advised me it was a once in a life time experience.  I made great friends with this guide, and we managed to have a long conversation, which was a mix of spanish and sign language.  He told me stories of the area and previous eruptions and of local old wise men who can predict when the next eruption is going to be.   He was such a cute little man, and I think he was happy to have someone who knew a tiny bit of spanish to chat with.


Wow anyone visiting central america much put this place on their list. Antigua is a beautifuly restored town nestled in a valley and surrounded by three active volcanoes.

For a smallish town, there is a lot of hustle and bustle.  The central focus of the town is the plaza, with its huge fountain in the centre.  The plaza is full of tourists and locals, taking in the sites, selling  their handcrafts, trying to clean tourist shoes etc.

I spend some very restful time on one of the park bench watching the world go by and taking pictures, and of course practicing my "no gracias" as the children and women tried to sell you anything from "pot" to potholders.  As our trip was progressing we were beginning to notice that Steve seemed to be the person targeted for "special sales"!! ( he he).  While sitting on the parkbench, one of the boys who wandered the plaza, cleaning shoes, offered to polish the soles of Steve's Teeva's (sandals).  He certainly must have been having a bad day.

This was also the time when the opportunity to partake of the other "tripping" definition arose.  In the two and a half days we spent in Antigua, wandering the streets, Steve was offered "pot" and "weed" on numerous occasions. (Yes sometimes from the shoeshine boys, who looked all of 10 years old).  Maybe they thought he was an old rocker from the 60's!!!

Antigua was one of my favourite towns on our visit, eventhough it was a bit touristy.  We took lots of photos and managed to spend a little of our savings on some very nice local handicrafts.

In Antigua we also had to say goodbye to a couple of the members of our group, and welcome a couple of new members.  So it was in order to all have a welcome, farewell dinner.  Following the dinner a group of us ventured out to find a local night spot for a couple of drinks.  Acutally we found this quite difficult.  It seems that everything in Antigua closes down quite early.  We eventually found a small restuarant/bar  and had a few quite ones to celebrate our time in a beautiful little town.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

A long night

After a long day of exploring the ruins of Tikal, it was time to return to Flores, pack our bags and wait for our transfer to the overnight bus to Guatamala City.  No cumfy bed tonight!!! Just the fold out bus seat as we make our way across Guatamala to our next stop.  It certainly was a long night, made even longer by the rustling of plastic bags by an elderly couple sitting across from us!!.   We managed a few cat naps along the way and finally arrived into Guatamala city in the early hours of the morning.

 A very bleary eyed group of travellers stumbled off the bus, grabbed thier backpacks and shuffled through the crowds of taxi drivers, hawkers etc to the small shuttle bus that would take us through to Antigua.  The trip was about an hour, so it wasn't too long and we were bumping along the cobbled streets past all the brightly painted house to our hotel in Antigua.  I think I am going to enjoying visiting this town, especially after I have had some breakfast and a bit of a cat nap.

Tikal - Indiana Jones eat your heart out

Today we are off to visit the Mayan site of Tikal.  We had lots of fun climbing up ladders that would make any safety and health officer scratch his head, wandering around and climbing pyramids, sitting on blocks that were once used as chopping blocks (yep, sacrifices, yep human!!!).

  I think today I will let the pictures do the talking. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Guatamala Bound

Our time on the sleepy island of Caye Caulker was over.  Fred was there bright and early to take our bags down to the ferry. As we all strolled along the sandy streets past all the colurful shops and homes, we all commented on how we could have easily spent another couple of days chilling out here.  We were soon crammed onto the ferry with all  the locals going to the mainland for school and work.

Once we arrived back in Belize city we had a couple of hours wait before our bus picked us up for the trip through to Guatamala. Unluckily for some of us as Montazeuma's Revenge was about to hit a number of the tour group (me included).  It seemed that those of us who had shrimp with our lobster dinner at Happy Mick's restaurant the night before were to suffer the consequences.  Luckily the effects were not long lasting!!!

Once on our bus, we headed through the lush country side, and into the jungle and mountains towards Guatamala.  The border crossing here was not quite so easy, as the appropriate corruption money had to be payed before our passports were stamped.  Paulina advised that the amount of corruption money needed fluctuated each time she went through, depending on the whim of the guards at the time.

Once into Guatamala, there was a noticeable change in the scenery, more jungle and mountains, (and rough roads).  We arrived at our destination around 5.00pm.  Our accommodation was in the pituresque, cobblestoned town of Flores.  Our tiny little hotel room, (very neat and clean) had an amazing view out to the sunsetting over Lake Petén Itzá.

We  wandered the circumfrence of the island (only 20 minute walk) before heading into the centre of the village to look at the work of the local Artisians.  I love the fabrics and embriodery, it is going to be very hard to resist purchasing lots of this.  We found the local plaza and church and were lucky enough to see a wedding party lined up in front of the church. The bridemaids were all fussing over the bride befoe she entered the church.

The main form of transport around the island was the tuktuk, they scurried everywhere, carrying people and goods from one place to another.

Swimming with Sharks and Stingrays!!!! (and more chilling out in the Caribbean)

funky shops in the main drag of Caye Caulker
Day two on the laid back caribbean island of Caye Caulker!!  and Yes!! I have been silly enough to book on a snorkling tour, which includes swimming with sharks and stingrays.  We will have to see about that!! The few of us who were venturing out onto the reef met at Mario's dive shop (shack).  Mario, short round man dressed only in a pair of baggy shorts, has to be the islands local comedian, and had a joke for everyone.  We were fitted with flippers and snorkles, and I was lucky enough to be able to get goggles with optical lenses. I was going to be able to see this time!!!

Mario and his helper guided us down to his little boat and helped us aboard and we headed to our first dive spot.  With much trepidation I donned all my gear, and jumped in.  Please let me be able to do it this time!! Amazing, the mask fitted, no water seeping in, and  not only was I able to breath, I could see as well.  Double bonus!!  Mario guided us over the reef, pointing out different fish, stingrays etc.  After about an hour we all clambered back into the boat and headed to the second dive spot.  (the shark and stingray spot).  MMmmm.  I think I will just watch a bit first.

Mario and his helper threw some food in and the stingrays all rushed in hundreds of them milling around the boat.  I watched from the side of the boat as everyone jumped in and all seemed to be having fun.  Well here goes.  In I jumped.  Well I must clarify one point the sharks were only little reef sharks, but still!! well,  the stingrays just swam around us, under us and over the top.  They were all a smoky blue colour and there were so many of them. Unfortunately, I don't have an underwater camera, so no pictures this time. It was a very cool experience.

Main street
Beach house
From here we swam at another reef before heading back to the island for more relaxing, eating and of course another visit to the Lizard Bar in the evening.  I am going to be sad to say good by to this totally chilled out and colourful island.

Caye Caulker (time to swap magaritas for rum and coke!!)

Tom's Hotel
Caye Caulker is a small caribbean island about 33 kms off the coast Belize.  (This area is also the home of the second largest barrier reef in the world).  Our ferry arrived mid afternoon, and we were met by Fred (tall cool caribbean type guy), who managed to balance our bags onto his bike/trolley and headed off to our accommodation.  We first headed up to a narrow dirt road lined with brightly painted housed, palm trees etc, then cut through a small cemetry to the beach, along the beach for another couple of hundred metres to Tom's Hotel.  We were allocated our rooms, some old and some new.  Steve and I had one of the little original wooden cabins, with lots of character (another way of saying need a new paint job).  but no it was fun!!! and very close to eveything.  (actually, anywhere on Caye Caulker is close to everything. It it isn't a big place).

It was time to do some exploring and book into a snorkeling tour for tomorrow.  After finding the local Bank and doing battle with the ATM we headed to Rosa's restaurant to pick out our lobster for the evenings dinner. All the days catch, (fish, lobster etc) is displayed out the front and we all picked out what we would like to have cooked for us that evening.  (a medium size lobster was around $15).

View of sunset from Lazy Lizard
Lazy Lizard
Exploring over, it was time to brush up and don our party gear (well a new pair of shorts, tshirt and dig out the trusty thongs), and head to the local sunset spot.  "The Lazy Lizard".

This bar, is on the end of the island and has the most amazing views of the sun setting over the ocean.  It was time to chill out over some cold beers, and coke and rums at happy hour prices with the tour group and the locals before heading back to Rosa's for our lobster dinner.  Life can be so tough at times!! Tomorrow we are off to do a snorkling tour.  I wonder how I will go!!  As my family knows I am not the best when it comes to snorkelling.

Belize, Border Crossings, Chicken Bus and Caribbean Islands - all in a days travel

Today it was an early start!!!  Bags packed, into cabs and down to the local market for breakfast before climbing on board the "chicken bus" that was to take us across the border into Belize.

Breakfast was at a small stall, in the local market and consisted of a number of different versions of eggs and beans (frijoles). I opted for fruit salad. Our chicken bus was waiting nearby. The driver was a little anxious about the border crossing so he was hassling us to leave early.This meant that some of us ended up having breakfast to go.  It was quite interesting trying to hold coffee and fruit salad, while sitting in a chicken bus!!!!  We stowed all our gear  on top of the bus where it was lashed tightly.  We then climbed on board and found seats with all the local passengers.  I was a little disapointed that there wasn't a single chicken in sight!!!  Though later one of the girls did have a very cute puppy.

The border crossing into Belize was very easy.  The border officials checked out our passports and after quick rustle through our bags and we were back on the chicken bus for the three and a half hour trip through to Belize City.  Along the way we picked up and dropped off the local people.  I loved listening to the local dialect (for the want of a better word) of english.  There was a lot I could understand, but a lot that was very new to me.  Yes, we had a change in language, English is the official language in Belize however, most of the people speak spanish as well.

About mid afternoon we arrived into Belize City, at a very dodgey bus terminal!!! No need to be reminded to hold on to valuables tightly here!  Paulina quickly hustled  us through the milling taxi drivers, hawkers etc, to a a group of drivers with an amazing assortment of "taxis". The van I was in had a smashed windscreen, bits held on with masking tape and a sliding door that didn't quite close properly.  The convoy (well 6 taxis) made it's way through the streets of Belize City to the port where we had a short wait before we caught a ferry to the Caribbean island of Caye Caulker!!  and a complete change in culture and scenery!!!

Tulum and then to the border town of Chetumal


Our second day was free time to check out the sites of Cancun and to get to know the other group members. The majority of the group were going on through Central America to Costa Rica.  Only four of us are leaving the group in Antigua and travelling back through the south of Mexico.  That will be cosy.

On Tuesday morning it was up early, after a short walk, down to the bus stop we were on our way.  Gecko tours use public transport, so our tour involves a number of different transport methods. After a couple of hours on the bus, our first stop of the day is the amazing Mayan ruins of Tulum.  This is quite a small site perched on the cliffs looking out over the ocean.  The brilliant blue colour of the ocean has to be seen to believed.  We were treated to a short and informative tour and then free time to wander, take pictures or swim in the ocean. 

Unfortunately for my arm, hand and our camera this was the site of my first "tripping" event.  We were clambering over rocks up to get a better view, past a sign that said "careful slippery".  Noted I thought.  After taking   a number of pics we started back down and before I could say "help" I was flat on my back, cut hand and camera in a number of pieces!!!.  All I could think of as I was falling was, "Oh no the camera".  Luckily, it was just the battery cover and it all went back together and was still working (with a few additional scratches).
After patching up my hand and elbow (nothing serious), we wandered back to the nearby meeting spot for lunch before we caught another bus for the second part of the day’s travel to the border town of Chetumal.

After a short trip in taxi we we arrived at our hotel, had dinner and a good nights rest for tomorrow's border crossing to Belize and a day trip on a "chicken bus".  So excited about this bit.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

“Tripping” around Belize, Guatemala and Southern Mexico

If you are to look up the definition of “tripping” you will find a number of meanings which include “travelling around”, “falling over” and “the experience of indulging in illicit substances”.  I have to admit that the first two definitions were dominant features of our three weeks journey through Belize, Guatemala and Southern Mexico and if we were so inclined the last definition could have featured as well. For me, “falling over” became a major part of my experience and I have the bruises and scars to prove it!!! (more on this later).

My research paper completed and sent off to my supervisor, last exam at Uni finished and final presentation at Spanish school out of the way!!! I was now finally free to do some travel .

Backpacks in tow, Steve and I headed off on a midmorning flight to Cancun where we were to meet up with our Gecko tour.  A three week trip through Belize, Guatemala and Southern Mexico.

After arriving at hour hotel and settling into a quite comfy room we headed down to the bar for a Margarita and cervesa while we waited for our first meeting with the group and our tour leader.  It was fun watching everyone arrive and trying to guess if they were with the tour and where they were from.  Actually out guesses were pretty spot on, the backpacks and hiking boots were a dead give-away.

Soon all members assembled and our new, bright and bubbly tour leader Paulina gave us a quick run down on the next couple of days before we headed off for our first dinner together, followed by an entertaining session in the local karaoke bar.  (A very good way to break the ice). All in all they seems a pleasant group, mainly Australian with a couple from Canada and a variety of age groups.