Mexico´s Yucatan Peninsula, and the dreaded Cancun.

The first thing we noticed about Mexico was how much longer the distances were between each place and how much more bus tranportation costs. We knew as soon as we jumped on that first bus from Chetumal to Tulum, that those chicken buses which we had grown so fond of, in a funny kind of way, were going to be a thing of the past! On boarding the ¨second class bus¨, with air-con, plush seats and no chickens, I intrinsically knew that we were now be travelling in a differnt kind of way!

The famed Mayan ruins of Tulum, sit atop a rocky prominence, rising majestically over a Caribbean sea that can only be described as breathtakingly spectacular! I mean, how many shades of Caribbean turquoise can one see and describe? Having been privileged to see so many, describing the diferent nuances and shades is becoming increasingly more difficult.

The site itself, apart from swarming with people (I have not seen this many tourists since the USA! And yes, more than Guatemala) is not that large, and the ruins are not the most awe inspiring I have seen either , but its position certainly commands much oo-ing and ah-ing, and thus certainly makes it worth the visit. And, once you tire of the ruins, you only need to walk down to the beach, which lies immediately infront, and immerse yourself in that tantalising turquoise sea, which needless to say, we did!

Lots of other things are different in Mexico too! Lots of skimpy clad people in shorts and bikinis; I mean it IS the Yucatan, which is definitely the most visited place in Central America and Mexico. There is also a lot more variety in the supermarkets. I actually saw….keep our voice down..tampons! There is a holy grail after all! There is also much more variety in the way of food and vegetarian options, not only in the supermarkets but in the street stalls as well. I must say, Mexican food has thus far been my favourite! There are so many different things with a multitude of flavours and hot salsas, or sauces, which love.

We stayed in a place called Hostal Tulum, where we soon learnt that accommodation was much more expensive as well. It was an interesting place with an austere lady working the morning shift. I complained ( I had not realised that I was the fourth in line!) that the water was cold, that there were no shower curtains and that the shower drains were filthy. I certainly was the receiver of an evil stare, but to everyone´s surprise the problem was rectified by mid afternoon! It really is those of us who open their mouths that make the diference. I am shy, I know! Seriously, dirt does not cut it, and I am always vocal on that point. Breakfast was included, if you can get excited over crackers, a banana, and coffee with creamer (yuk!), and getting into the building late at night was not always easy…….one night (after midnight) we found ourselves outside with a couple of others, unable to unlock the front door. We tried and tried to no avail, finally resorting to throwing stones at the windows, hoping to get someone´s attention, which we finally did, but it was a couple of policemen coming down the street in their car, not anybody in the hotel! Needless to say, they managed to open the door, whereas none of us had been able to.

It was in Hostal Tulum that we met Angel, a guy from Spain. He was a very spiritual person with such good and calm energy. The three of us soon forged a bond. We chatted about lots of different things, and I even partook in an equinox ceremony with him on the 21st of March. It was simple, and it was about thanking the universe for what it had given us, and also for what it was about to! When we eventually hugged goodbye, he had tears in his eyes. No doubt, another life long friendship formed. Hopefully, we will see him in Spain.

Whilst in Tulum, we also went diving (Ombi) and snorkelling (Alex) at the ¨Dos Ojos´(two eyes) cenotes, or sink holes. During the ice age, most of the underground cave systems in this area of the Yucatan dried up and the water that dripped through the porous limestone created the most extraordinary rock formations. When the underground rivers began flowing again, parts of the limestone eroded, weakened and eventually collapsed, forming a series of sinkholes. The Maya called them ¨cenotes¨, and considered them to be the entrance to the spiritual underworld. Take a look at this link: http://www.locogringo.com/past_spotlights/dec2003.cfm

We chose to dive with a place called Maya Diving, www.mayadiving.com After doing our homework, we found that this company had an excellent reputation, not only for quality but for safety as well. Owned and run by Tim Day, originally from Canada, the organisation truly does have a polished edge, and if you want a brilliant diving experience in Tulum, this is the place to come to. Oh yes, the brilliant diving experience was…..brilliant! It was unreal and like nothing I have ever done in my life! Let me try and explain it as simply as I can: Immagine walking into a cave full of stalactites, stalagmites and spectacular rock formations and then…….fill it up with water. Immagine being only inches above these stalactites, and only inches below the stalactites, and then immagine trying to scream with amazement, but you can´t as you are underwater! If you are a diver, this is a must! Alex tells me that the snorkelling was equally impressive, and that in areas the top of his snorkel was only inches from the cave of the roof. Whereas some divers much prefer diving over snorkelling, I am in that group that beleives that both are amazing, in that they offer two different, but equally impressive perspectives.

We had to make our way on to Cancun, as much as I had been dreading it. I have never made and continue to make no secrets about how much I detest the idea of resorts, and visiting and seeing in another country what you have in your own, but a girl´s gotta do what a girl´s gotta do! Cancun is the place we needed to be, in order to purchase our tickets to Cuba. Over the last two months, I had been conversing with Hernan, from Nomadas Travel via e-mail (I reiterate, where would we be without the internet!). I cannot remember who gave me his name or details, but word of mouth is a most effective tool. I found him to be extremely helpful and honest. Thanks for putting up with my dozens of questions over the net Hernan. We both highly recommend him. Hernan can be contacted on cancun@nomadstravel.com

What can I say about Cancun? To be honest, not much at this point, as we are have only been using it as a base to organise our trip to Cuba. I beleive there is a flashy beach strip, with equally flashy hotels and restaurants. We might go and take a look on our return from Cuba…for a laugh! As the Rough Guide (book) to Mexico says, ¨Almost all of the restaurants in the hotel zone are geared towards one thing only: parting tourists from large amounts of cash¨. Sounds like our deal, hey! Speaking of food, we found a woman on the street, Dona Lala, selling ¨tlacoyos¨- an oval maize tortilla stuffed with a variety of different things, including broad beans, pork, potato or cheese, and then topped with guacamole, nopales (which come from the leaves of the prickly pear), coriander and hot sauce! We tasted a variety and they were divine. We both hit food ecstacy with them! Needless to say, not only were they cheap, but we were getting the real Mexican food deal. We both beleive that, apart from costs, the best and most traditional food nearly always comes from the streets. You should see Alex and I run when we see those dreaded words, ¨tourist menu¨.

Cuba – as I write this, it is the evening of the 24th of March, and tomorrow, the 25th, we fly to Havana, the capital. We will spend 3 weeks in Cuba. I actually cannot beleive that I am finally going! Despite all of the countries I have had the opportunity to visit in my lifetime, Cuba has always held a special fascination for me, and has been up there at the top of the list of places to visit. I am bursting with excitement with the knowledge that my dream is about to become a reality! As you may know, one of my best friends, Rita Garcia, is originally from Cuba, and her family is like my second family. We recently met some of her extended family in Miami, and the final piece of the jigsaw will fit into place when we meet the Cuban contingent.

Regardless of who you speak to, and how much you read up on Cuba, no two tales are alike. It is a country that is full of dualities and dichotomies. Alex and I are very conscious of the fact that we are about to embark on a trip that will not necassarily be easy if we wish to look beneath the veneer, as we always try to. So, tomorrow, although we are not certain as to what to expect, we will leave with an open heart and conscience!

They sang about it, and we are about to do it………….¨Take me to the April Sun in Cuba, o o o!¨

“They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” – Andy Warhol

Ombi

Photos: 1.- Andale, andale: sign in Belize, a few kilometres before the Mexican border. 2.- Tulum Ruins, looking over the Caribbean Sea, Mexico. 3.- Iguana meditating at the ruins, Tulum, Mexico. 4.- Carribbean landscape, taken near the ruins. 5.- Cenotes, Dos Ojos. 6.- Tulum Beach. 7.- A Mexican guy eating Dona Lala´s¨tlacoyos¨. 8.- Waiting for the April sun in Cuba (photo actually taken at sunset, Caye Caulker, Belize).

Un- BELIZE- able!

You know the old saying, “Another day another country”…….well, that is what it has felt like lately! We are trying not to rush it, but seven months down the track, we are wondering how we are going to fit in Mexico, Cuba, (some parts of) Europe and Asia. But, as the other old saying goes, “Where there’s a will there’s a way!” And both Alex and I have wills of steel!

Belize is the only country in Central America whose official language is English, although Spanish is certainly the second, and on the Guatemalan and Mexican borders they are usually bi-lingual. As soon as we crossed the border, the whole vibe changed….to slow, VERY SLOW ACTUALLY! I had no sooner crossed the dotted line, than I was being told to, “Slow don mon! Dis iss Be-lissssssssssssssssssssse!” Ombi go slow? I make no promises, but I´ll give it a go!

The first thing one notices about Belize is the architecture. The wooden houses are painted so brightly, which is so typical of the Caribbean. The only thing missing was the beach, and those postcard type views for which it is famous for. The second thing one notices, is how slow everything seems to go, including most of all the people!

Belize is not only a tiny country, but it also has a tiny population of around 282, 600 people. It is a very multi-cultural nation, of which 25% are Creoles (descendants of British loggers, colonists and African slaves). They speak quite a unique form of English that, after trying to decipher does not actualy sound like English at all! Then amongst others, there are Mestizos (people of mixed Spanish and Amerindian descent), people of Mayan origin, Mennonites and Chinese! Quite un-belizeable really!

Our first stop over the border was a place called San Ignacio. We managed to get there on a local bus, despite some con artist attempting to divert us to a taxi, as suposedly it was only fractionally more expensive. Sure, we wasted a little time hanging about, but we soon discovered that there WAS a local bus for much cheaper. We only had to walk some 15 minutes in the heat to get to it! Upon our arrival in San Ignacio, it was more walking until we found a hotel that passed the Ombi and Alex test.

We ended up in a lovely, cosy little place, called The Plaza Hotel, run by a gorgeous elderly couple called Selpha and Roberto, who looked after us like their kids, even giving us drinks when we would come back from along walk. We spent a couple of days just walking around, visiting the local market, trying out the local food, and visiting Cahal Pech, a small Mayan ruin. The reality is that having just seen Tikal, it would have been hard to impress us, but it was still a lovely one kilometre walk out of town, and the site was still interesting in its own right. I always find Mayan sites so full of energy, and they are such great places to take the time to regroup and slow down. When we said goodbye, Selpha gave me a big hug and said that we felt like family, and that she would miss us both. I think she enjoyed that we both took the time to chat to her and her husband. Old and young, rich and poor, Muslim or Jewish – remember that we are all people, and that listening to people´s stories imparts a plethora of knowledge.

Belize City was next. Yes, it was as I remembered it, but perhaps a little more crowded. Lots of poverty too. We quickly made our way from the bus station to the centre of town, where we started the search for a place to sleep. We ended up at Freddie´s Place, run by Mrs Grifiths. It was in both a pretty and safe part of town, very close to the water´s edge.

Now, the water´s edge, yes the port, that has certainly changed! As Alex and I walked along the shore we noticed several cruise ships off in the distance. So, OK Belize is an up and coming tourist destination. But what we saw next blew us out of the water (no pun intended!)……..The Tourist Village! Yes, I repeat, the Tourist Village. This is a place on the waterfront that is basically a Belizian Disneyland, geared for tourists who want to buy diamonds and tacky-shirts at ridiculous prices. There are no Belizians in the Tourist Village, and as we walked around I kept asking myself what kind of image of Belize these people were taking home with them? And the locals of the tourists! This was so not Belize! As I looked around horrified, I was handed a brochure on a pharmacy in the village. It read, ¨Cheapest medication….viagra and diet pills¨. That seemed to say a lot about what they thought about the cruise ship set! Get me out of here, I screamed to Alex!

Close by, however, we did visit the Pirate Museum, which was very interesting indeed. Lots of true tales about the ¨Pirates of the Caribbean¨. They were a cheeky lot, the majority coming from England. Scoundrels the pommies, aren´t they!

Our next destination was Caye Caulker. Heard of it? It is the caye right next to Ambergris Caye (also known as San Pedro), as made famous in Madonna´s song, ¨La Isla Bonita¨. Caye Caulker is only a 50 minute ferry ride from Belize City. As we neared the dock, I cast my mind back….I had not remembered it as being so very beautiful! It was the thing that dreams are made of! Crystal clear water, iridescent blue sky, no trash, more of those brightly painted wooden houses on the water´s edge, white sand and coconut trees swaying in the breeze. We were living the postcard!

It actually took us a little longer than usual to find a place to stay this time, and it was getting a little late. As we were walking down the main (dirt!) drag, a trio said hello, and then we heard a, ¨Hey, are you an Aussie mate!¨ As it works out Jimmy was a fellow Melburnian, who told us about a place they were staying at called, ¨Ignacio´s¨, which was right on the beach, at one end of the town. It was tranquil enough to be away from the action, but close enough to be near it. We had a great few days hanging out with Jimmy, his gorgeous Canadian gal Jacobi, and Kevin, their friend from the USA. Ignacio´s even had a BBQ where we cooked up some good tucker! Jimmy, you are the master BBQ man, and your veggie parcels in alfoil rock! Subsequently, I made them almost every night of our almost one week stay on the island. Along with food, I need to mention coffee, and yes, we found a great litle spot that we frequented for our daily cup, or two. Lee and her daughter Jess, own and run the Caribbean Colors Art Gallery, www.caribbean-colors.com where they also offer some yummy savoury and sweet snacks, as wel as, obviously, great coffee! As the logo on the publicity board outside their place reads, ¨Life is short – so stay awake!¨ I liked that one!

But alack and alas, there is life beyond good food and coffee….and on Caye Caulker it came in the form of snorkelling and diving. We had four adventure packed days, with all trips offering something unique and spectacular. As we ran around from beach to snorkel to diving trip, I was told many a time to, “Slow don mon!” Various individuals seemed genuinely perplexed at the pace at which I was moving! I know, I know….diss iss Belisssssse! Our first trip was a half day outing to the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve, where we snorkelled. We went out by motor boat with Salvador (Salva) Arce, who was a terrific guide, and we saw lots in the clear blue waters – rays, sharks, lots of coloured fish, and phenomenol coral formations. Contact Salva on salvalberto31@hotmail.com

The next day we were out with Raggamuffin Tours, which is owned and run by a charismatic English lass called Charlie, and her equally charming husband, Jimmy (not to mention their gorgeous little boy, Malik). With their easy going natures, down to earth approach (excellent tours as well guys!) and great guides, no wonder they pull in the crowds! This time we did a full day of snorkelling and we went out on a sailboat! What a truly memorable experience. I mean, sailboats are what the Caribbean is all about. I felt like I was part of a movie. Here we saw more spectacular coral formations, relatives of Nemo, sharks and rays. And this is not all they offer folks! Check out their website, www.raggamuffintours.com

Next day, it was diving with Frenchie´s, www.frenchiesdivingbelize.com This diving school and centre is headed by Abel, who also has a team of highly qualified and efficient instructors. We went diving on a reef very close to the island, which was spectacular! Although Alex and I only qualified a couple of months ago in Honduras, our guide was so professional and thorough that we both immediately felt comfortable, and our experience was brilliant. I think diving is a little like riding a bike, once you learn it, you never forget it! The underwater world is mesmerising! This was our first fun dive (as in, not part of our course) and it truly was fun! All we had to do was follow the instructor, admire the beauty of this spectacular reef, and enjoy our surroundings! Tough aint it! It is the second largest barrier reef in the world, after Australia´s, of course. The coral formations were breathtaking, as was the marine life. Sometimes it´s hard to take it all in! Look, breathe, enjoy, be careful! I think diving has certainly reeled me in! OK, pun intended this time.

Although, a little tired at this point, our last day on the island was spent diving on the Turneffe Atoll. This time we did it with Valentino and his crew at the Big Fish Dive Centre, www.bigfishdive.com Here we enjoyed more coral, fish, rays, and wall diving, where the drops were steep, and the views phenomenal. But it never gets boring! It´s an amazing world down there, and much of it is spent reflecting and just trying to sponge in all that you see. It also gives me a chance (one of the very few!) to be still and quiet.

So, lots of sunshine, blue skies, coffee, good food, snorkelling and dives later……..we were ready to say goodbye to Caye Caulker. We did not make it to San Pedro this time, being told that it was like Caye Caulker, only more expensive and with more people. No thanks! We would rather leave with fond memories!

We had to catch the ferry back to Belize City, and then an ongoing bus north to Chetumal, just across the Mexican border. We sat on that bus tired (I wonder why!), and a little sunburnt, but very happy and excited. Happy at what we had been able to just experience, and excited about what we were about to……………Mexico and Cuba, here we come!

¨If you think education is expensive – check out ignorance¨.

Ombi

Photos: 1.- Alex crossing the border into Belize. 2.- Ombi & Malik. 3.- Local sign, Belize City. 4.- Ombi doin´her thang at the Tourist Village, Belize City. 5.- Caye Caulker front yard. 6.- Ozzie barbie mate, Caye Caulker 7.- Nurse shark, Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Caye Caulker. 8.- The sailing boat we went on with Raggamuffin Tours. 9.- Abel & Ombi at Frenchie´s Diving. 10- Ombi the clown fish (photo title compliments of the photographer). 11.- Pelican watching the sunset, Caye Caulker.

The energy of Guatemala’s sacred places.

It was raining when we arrived in Coban, and cold to boot! Actually, very cold! I was not really expecting this! Guatemala is “supposed” to be hot. Although “heat” is part of its Central American image, it can actually be quite cold in the highlands.

After an hour or so of trudging in the rain, large backpack on our backs, smaller one in front, another bag full of food, and umbrellas in hand, we finally found a place to stay. We were both a little tired and over it today! Casa Luna was run by Selvin and Edin, a jovial couple who were always quick to please and help out. I liked the feeling of the place, and quite frankly, I liked them! It also felt very secure! And yes, it was clean!

We had really only come here to do the day trip out to Semuc Champey, a series of spectacular, cascading clear waterfalls. How do I describe the colour? In this instance, Alex´s photos actually do do the colour justice! Please check out this link, http://semucchampey.tripod.com/ I agree with the person who took these photos, that whilst spectacular, it still does not do the site justice. For Alex and I, the highlight was descending down the last and longest waterfall, via a wooden ladder wrapped around a rock, and entering a cave behind the fall, and from which you could see the underground stream ripping through, out into the river in front. What an amazing place, with amazing energy! To sit amongst the stalagmites and stalagtites, and watch the roaring water push through alongside the waterfall was superb. Unfortunately, you will have to close your eyes and immagine this, as Alex’s camera is not waterproof! This part of our journey certainly, however, left an impression on our hearts!

Our final destination in Guatemala would be, last but not least, the famous Mayan ruins of Tikal, way up north in the province of Peten, close to the Mexican border. Up in this neck of the woods, we revert back to a hot and humid tropical climate. Most people stay in either Flores or Santa Elena, which is some 64 kilometres south of the ruins. This is where I had stayed eight years earlier, but I had also heard that these days it was simply a place full of people who really only wanted to go to Tikal.

El Remate, on the other hand, approximately 30 kilometres south of Tikal, was the much smaller and more tranquil option. Despite its lack of markets and restaurants, I must say, it was a great choice! We ended up at a place called Hostal Hermano Pedro, run by the easy going Arturo. A basic, but comfortable two-storey wooden structure, with hammocks swinging in the breeze and a kitchen, we felt it was a great catch!( www.hhpedro.com) I repeat, it’s always good to cook up a meal that is exclusive of rice and beans! (those staples that, despite frequent consumption, we have come to love!)

We ended up doing a 5 hour guided trip of Tikal with a local guide called Pablo. Whilst neither of us are really into tours, this was well worth it. He had been recommended to us by a Canadian couple staying in the hotel. Tikal not only covers a large area, but it was totally built in the jungle, which adds to the whole Mayan mystery. How did they do it? With so many structures and so much area to cover, Pablo was able to impart information that we otherwise would have had no way of knowing. Pablo, I do not know how you did it, but you were interesting, fun, entertaining and informative, and you took us through with the enthusiasm of a first timer! You can contact Pablo on miradordelduende@gmail.com.

What can I say about Tikal? Second time for me, first time for Alex. Like Macchu Picchu, the excitement of seeing it more than once never diminishes! The famed view over the jungle canopy, as seen atop Temple 4, is as good, if not truly better, than they say it is! Let me try and describe it: From this vantage point, all one can see is thick and dense jungle, with only the tops of a few pyramids and temples jutting out! Again, one can only wonder how the Mayans did this. Or…..did the Mayans do this? It is also said that it is one of the most spiritually powerful spots on earth, which I would also have to agree with! (http://www.enjoyguatemala.com/ruins.htm) There is so much more that I could write about Tikal, but none of it would do it justice. It is a place that is much more about the feel, the energy, and how it affects your soul. I was thankful to be back, and we both felt blessed to be able to experience its energy (in my case, once again)!

And it is with this energy that our Guatemalan sojourn neared its end. The border crossing at Melchor de Mencos was only an hour away, and the very next day we found ourselves in Belize!

“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.” – Sir Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965)

(Photos: 1.- Semuc Champey Reserve. 2.- Swimming in the turquoise water holes, SemucChampey. 3.- View from temple IV, Tikal Ruins, Guatemala. 4.- Ombi in the main square, Tikal. 5.- The main plaza of Tikal, Guatemala.)

Finally, off the beaten track in Guatemala.

Although we were having a brilliant time in Guatemala, Alex and I both decided that we could not leave until we had seen a part of the country that was not so frequented by tourists. Chela is not one of these places, but our opportunity would soon come along!

After the usual jumping on and off several chicken buses and sharing our oxygen supply with (very!) bad exhaust and diesel fumes, we made it to Chela, but not as early as we would have liked to. The bad part about rocking up late in a biggish city is trying to look for a place to stay. Looking for a place in the dark, whilst trying to watch for potential dangers are kind of mutually exclusive. This is where our guide book does kind of convert itself into a bible, and the word becomes gospel! The desire to find a place to rest my weary head safely, when it’s dark, only just supercedes my desire to find a clean place to rest it!

So, we stayed in Casa Argentina….but just for a night! Yes, it gets rave reviews in Lonely Planet, and the mother and daughter team are indeed very kind and hospitable, but ladies…….get it together and do some cleaning! Fumigating the beds wouldn’t be a bad idea either! Not happy about those bed bug bites! This is where Alex and I took out our silk liner. When in doubt, whip it out, I say! Let me explain, our light and small, sewn up the side silk liners, are fantastic, take up only a tiny amount of space, and almost excite me, when I know the sheets aren’t up to “Ombi standard!”. Yes, I have been accused of being The Queen of Clean and/ or the Clean Police! The shared bathroom did not cut it either! I am afraid that I do not do hairy shower plugs! The communal kitchen? Good in theory, but in practice, it looked like a breeding ground for the infectious diseases club!

I have learnt that bitching gets you nowhere, however, so I set my alarm for 6.00am the next day, and explained to Ricardo and Alex that it was my intention to get up early and look for a clean place to stay. That I did! The next morning, in a matter of no time, I found a place called Hotel Horiani. A very small place with only six rooms, it was run by a Mayan woman and her family. I went back, told the guys, and we moved across.

Chela is the gateway to the northern highlands, and there are a number of different places to see and visit. It is yet another place where the locals dress in their traditional clothes, which changes within each little village. Whist Chela has quite an impressive downtown area with colonial architecture, there is not much else in the physical town to see and do.

A great day trip was to the Fuentes Georginas, or the Georginas hot springs. To get there, we first had to take the short bus ride to Zunil, a town just out of Chela. Ah, finally no tourists! And we were able to see how the locals went along with their own business, buying and selling fruit, weaving and just going along with their daily happenings. From here we had to take a pick up the 8 kilometres or so up the mountain to Fuentes Georginas. What can I say? A couple of very hot and relaxing pools in the fresh mountain air! I sat in them probably way too long, and ended up looking like a wrinkled prune, but I felt soooooooooooooooooo good!

Another day was spent visiting other local highland villages, such as Momostenango, San Francisco el Alto and San Andres Xecul. We were definitely the objects of the town’s curiosity in Momo, and the market was quite exciting to visit, as we were able to see how things were done without the masses! It is here that I bought a highly colourful weaving, which I hope to use as a picnic rug back at home! We arrived in San Francisco at the tail- end of their market day, but noticed that the goods were mainly “modern” clothes and cloth from China!

Finally San Andres Xecul. This town’s only real highlight is the facade of its central church. It is painted in a yellow-ochre colour, but oddly, all over it are coloured sculptures of animals, Mayan symbols and people. For a Catholic church, it looks quite bizarre, yet it is only another example of how the locals blended their own religion with that which was forced upon them.

We so wanted to go to Todos Santos, several hours north of Chela, but time seemed to be running out. Having said that, the “lucrative offer” of a place completely off the tourist track, was so enticing! And, so we went. Firstly we had to make the four hour trip to Huehuetenango (Huehue), and then a further three hours onto our final destination. Farther up into the highlands the topography and geography was breathtaking, and also considerably colder! Those heavier pants and thermal top which had been pushed to the bottom of the backpack for so long, lovingly made their debut! The beauty of this place was …..simply being here! No put-ons or shows….it just was! This is a place where even the men wear traditional clothes, albeit some with interesting variations, a result of western influence and/or life overseas. The men basically wear red and white striped pants, so immagine our surprise at the younger generation’s version of “flared” red pants, diamond studs and black stockings on their heads! Too much MTV?

We did a breathtaking 5 hour return trip walk to a place called La Torre (the tower). Surprise, surprise, guess what we found on top? Seriously, the walk was beautiful and once up top, we were able to see several of Guatemala’s volcanoes. We took a different route on the way down, and although it provided us with another, and completely different set of views, it was very dry. I tried my hardest, but at one point went down and hit my head on a rock. A lump emerged immediately, but Alex cured me with another of his Ecuadorian home remedies. He made me take in a breath, and he pushed on it so hard that I cried! Having said that, no lump and no more pain!

It was also in Todos Santos that we experienced a Mayan sauna, or “tuj”. We met a lovely lady called Rosa, who for a small fee alowed us to use her sauna. It was a little concrete hut outside her house, heated by firewood, with barely enough room to seat two people. It was so relaxing, and she even “cleansed us” with some special herbs. Rosa was fascinating to chat to, as she had also lived several years in both Mexico and the USA. Coming back to “village life” had been difficult for her, but it was her home! At the end of the day, people only ever move in search of a better life, so before you go knocking refugees, migrants and asylum seekers…….ask yourself this: Would they be doing this if they were not searching for a better life?

We also happened to be in Todos Santos on market day, which was quite a sight. I had not seen that many pairs of red pants in my life!

Once upon a time, in order to get to Coban and Semuc Champey, in the country’s east, we would either have had to have gone back to the capital, and then made our way back up, or endured a spine breaking bus ride east from Huehue, which could have taken days. Times have changed! We took the 6.ooam bus from Todos Santos to Huehue and then headed out east and made it to Coban in a day. Again the views were breathtaking, as we spent hours traversing undulating hills, with spectacular valleys. Looking out of the window was often scary, as the drop was quite a long way down!

Having said that, we did make it to Coban in a day, although we were exceptionally tired!

Ombi

(Photos: 1.- Colonial art work, Xela. 2.- Riding in the back of a pick up to Georginas Hot Springs. 3.- Momostenango rock formations. 4.- Ombi & Ricardo in the waters of Georginas hot springs. 5.- Palm Sunday celebrations, Momostenango. 6.- On the way to Todos Santos, on the most colourful chicken bus ever!. 7.- At the top of La Torre, view of the southern cordillera , Avenue of Volcanoes. 8.- Beautiful flower on the trail to La Torre. 9.- Market day at Todos Santos. 10.- Looking around; locals in Todos Santos. )

Mystical Lake Atitlan!

I had also been to Lake Atitlan when I was in Guatemala last, but had only spent a few days here. This time, we stayed for almost a week, and really took the time to explore the various villages, all the way around it. We started off with Panajachel (Pana), which despite being known as “Gringotenango” (Foreigner-land!), has some breathtaking views of the lake. It is considered to be one of the most spectacular places in Central America, and a quick walk to the lake´s edge helps to confirm why. Lago de Atitlan, or Lake Atitlan, is a collapsed volcanic cone, surrounded by a multitude of volcanoes, and is really one of those postcard type places. As you look out onto the lake, there truly is this mystical wave that seems to sweep over you! And you definitely do feel like you are looking at a postcard!

Back to the highs and lows of tourism. Alex and I had a bit of a culture shock when we first entered Guatemala, as we had not seen this many tourists in a long time. Along with Antigua, Panajachel is one of the most touristy places in both Guatemala and Central America. Amongst the problems we encountered were people asking a ridiculously high price for their handicrafts, food prices (particularly in restaurants) being totally disproportionate (ie. overpriced for the quality and quantity!), and just flat out getting ripped off, especially with boat rides to various parts of the lake!

I was so incensed one day at having been, albeit slightly, overcharged on a boat, that I went to the tourist office, and expressed my disgust. I had reached saturation point, and was sick of being seen as ¨the gringa with a money tree in her backpack¨! The guy behind the desk actually had some very helpful and interesting information to impart. Do not give beggars and especially children money! They then become accustomed to getting things for free, as well as breeding people who feel that foreigners both owe them something and are rich! And when I thought about it, he was absolutely right! I rarely give money, but Alex and I have often bought food, especially for hungry children. When I stopped to think about it, this was the first time that we had encountered such a problem, and when one thinks about the amount of tourism here, and how many tourists are potentially giving the locals money, it all made sense! So, please be a responsible traveller, and give food and not money! It is the only way we can try and illicit some type of positive change!

Apart from that little interlude, we found the lake fascinating. The day after we arrived, we walked to the villages of Santa Catarina Palopo and San Antonio Palopo. Between the two, it was a 10 kilometre mostly winding and uphill walk, but the views continued to be impressive! (May I add that there really was no average view of the lake, with one vantage point simply being more spectacular than the next!) So close to Pana, yet we were the only foreigners in sight. I should add that in the highlands, the first language of the people is one of the many Mayan dialects, with Spanish (and only sometimes!) being a second. It is fascinating to see how even a 4 kilometre distance between villages, means a totally different colour or style of traditional dress!

As we approached San Antonio Palopo, we noticed a child of maybe 10 years old or so, sitting by the side of the road. His face and arms were streaked with dirt and charcoal, and he had a log (not a small one, but one that was quite disproportionate to his size!) tied around his waist by a thick rope. As if that was not distressing enough, he looked so sad! We stopped and tried chatting to him, but soon figured that Spanish was not his first language! We managed to work out that he was making his way back into town…..dragging the log by himself! In a community effort bid, I carried Ricardo and Alex´s backpacks, and they helped the child, who managed to tell us that his name was Jose, carry the log into town, perhaps another one or two kilometres on. As the boys walked up ahead, tears welled up in my eyes (something that has happened often to me on this trip). I struggled with the injustice of this world, and in particular, of this situation!

As we walked into town, the focus was definitely on the three gringos! People stared at us with an interested fascination! We walked the child up to his house, and when his mother came out, she clapped her hands together, looked up to the sky and thanked us! It was in a Mayan dialect, but we all clearly understood the language of the heart! She was so grateful, so very grateful! I went and bought the child a soft drink, and when I gave it to him, his mother (Maria, she told us) was close to crying, and thanked us again! I will never forget the looks in both of their eyes, and no amount of thanking us could ever have expressed their innermost sentiments! I walked away with a lump in my throat, and as I write this I once again have both that same lump as well as tears in my eyes!

We also spent some time in various other villages around the lake. A day trip to Santiago de Atitlan also proved fascinating. Yet another lake side village, with yet another set of traditional clothing, we found the highlight to be the shrine of “Maximon”. The effigy resides with a different family each year, and the usual way of finding “him” is to ask a few questions, and be escorted, usually by a local child. This local deity, who is a combination of a variety of Mayan gods and Catholic saints (the result of the Spanish conquistadors having force them to change their religion!) is highly revered.

San Pedro de Atitlan, although quite beautiful, was a little too “grunge and ganja” for Alex and I. We say, keep your drugs away and do not infect others with your lifestyle, if that is what you choose! It is all part of responsible tourism, as the use of drugs,without a doubt effects the locals!

Santa Cruz la Laguna was a beautiful spot, made all the nicer by the wonderful lake side place we stayed in, called La Iguana Perdida. (www.laiguanaperdida.com) Run and owned by Dave and Deedle, it was a truly relaxing get away. If hammocks swinging in the breeze, overlooking the lake are not enough to entice you, the amazing menu and food should! For 45 quetzales (under USD $6.00), a huge dinner is served up each night. Vegetarian options abound and you can go back for seconds! In beans, rice and tortilla land, that is certainly a luxury that most of us can afford! Apart from eating (well!) and lazing around, we also did a magnificent 3 hour walk to San Marcos la Laguna. More breathtaking views and postcard pictures!

Our last night on the lake was spent at San Marcos la Laguna, which is the lake side town known for its spritual vibe, and whilst relaxing, we knew that our lakeside adventure was coming to an end.

The next morning we got up early, caught the ferry back to Pana and, along with Ricardo, caught a bus towards Quetzaltenango (known as Xela, or Chela for short), our next destination.

Next: Further up in the Guatemalan highlands!

Ombi

(Photo: 1.- Lake Atitlan, taken from Panajachel. 2.- Wild nature around Lake Atitlan , taken at Panajachel. 3.- Traditional textiles workshop, a woman weaving in San Antonio Palopo. 4.- A man in traditional clothes from San Antonio Palopo. 5.- Alex , Ricardo, Jose and “The big mother of a log” . 6.- Salesgirl from Santiago de Atitlan. 7.- Maximon having a smoke and chilling out! 8.- View from San Marcos, Lake Atitlan.)

The intoxicating Chichicastenango market!

“Don´t go to Chichicastenango! There´s nothing that you cannot buy cheaper in other parts of Guatemala”, I heard from several tourists! Apart from the fact that I had been there eight years ago and loved it…..the tourists (as opposed to travellers) have it all wrong! Markets are not just about buying, they are categorically the best way to soak up and experience the local culture, and see how people live! At this point I should include my description of a tourist as opposed to a traveller. The tourist does the package – the top notch hotel, the tours, the shopping, and visits the ” top 5″ most visited places. The traveller, on the other hand, does not do the most expensive hotel, mostly does not do organised tours, shopping is usually part of the cultural experience, and understands that there IS life beyond top 5 destinations! They really are two totally different ways of travelling!

Chichicastenango is surrounded by sweeping valleys and mountains. The streets are cobbled, and the nights are cold! With the mist swirling in at dusk, the atmosphere is a fascinating one! Women in their traditional garb move around hurriedly and set up stalls where you can get some very cheap and traditional food, in a very traditional setting. The other part of Chichi´s fascination is its shamanic undertones! Actually, they are not even undertones, being quite a bit more obvious than one would think. More on that later!

In Chichi ( as this town with such a long name is known) we met up with Ricardo, a Mexican/ American who we ended up travelling with for 2 weeks, and had a phenomenal couple of days soaking up this intoxicating, multi-layered market. Arriving the day before the big market day, which is Sunday, meant that we were able to find a hotel, settle in and relax It also gave us the opportunity of being able to get up early the next morning and feel and see those market vibes before the hordes of tourist buses started rocking up at around 10am. (Just a quick note: steer clear of the 10am to 2pm time slot. This is when the “tourists” descend upon the markets, and prices are at their peak! With some fairly competitive haggling, bargains can be found on either end of the tourist time slot!)

We still had a couple of hours of daylight on the Saturday, so the three of us took a short tour with a local guide to the Shrine of Pascual Abaj, “the Sacrifice Stone”. Only a short walk from the city center, on a hilltop is this shrine dedicated to the Mayan earth god. This is still used to date by the locals, who come and place, amongst other things, candles, flowers and incense. They not only come to thank their god for many things, whilst also praying for others. This is the ancient religion of the Maya and they take it very seriously! Tourists are (justly!) not really welcome when a ceremony is taking place, but outside of prayer it is acceptable to visit the shrine. The energy was interesting, and I could not help but wonder why, over the years and ages, so many have sought to change them. These people, despite the efforts of many to convert them, are not Christian, and they have a completely different belief system! Neither better nor worse than anybody else´s!

We were up nice and early for the market, and also in a bid to beat the masses! It was amazing to see how hard everybody worked to get everything organised, and how so many were involved, including children. I half jokingly (and half seriously!) told Alex that I would love to run tours for first world children, to come out and see how hard the children work here! That should cure them of their often needless wingeing!

We had a remarkable day. We bought only a few things, as to be honest, the prices here are not necessarily the cheapest in Guatemala. But to be able to walk around, and feel and see the culture was amazing. I have always said that the greatest insight to a country´s culture is through their markets, and this is one of Guatemala´s biggest! We saw tourists pay ridiculously high prices for ridiculously touristy items, locals selling animals and chickens to each other, as well as side streets filled with second hand fajas (traditional belts) and huipiles (traditional women´s tops) at very reasonable prices. Not far from “all the action” was the central market, selling fruit and vegetables of every description . It was an explosion of colour, and the view from the 360 degree balcony above was a feast for both the eyes and the senses! A real bird´s eye view!

Much of the non-market action was around the church of St Tomas. Its huge white facade and steps are even more imposing, when they fill up with locals clad in their colourful garb – some selling , some waiting, some playing, some praying. It is a fascinating sight! The people of this area are renowned for their Mayan and pre-Christian beliefs, and it was so evident watching the activities in and around this church on this day. The church was filled with candles, not only on the alters but on the floors, as both women recited and prayed to a god who was obviously someone other than Jesus. Over the years, however, due to having been persecuted for their beliefs, they learnt to mesh the two together! It was so obvious that in reality, nobody had ever been able to take away what they really believed in! It was both beautiful and touching to see this! Beautiful and touching to see as well as understand that there are many roads, and that choosing one is part of life´s journey.

Yes, the market had been totally worthwhile, and no it was not because of what I bought! Despite the hustle and bustle of the day, I felt very serene and tranquil, yet ready to move on! I liked the energy I had encountered in Chichi, and hoped that I would be able to take some of it away with me!

“Love is but the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in the recognition” – Alexander Smith.

Ombi

(Photos: 1. Colourful cloth, Chichi market. 2. Woman selling flowers on the steps of St Tomas church in Chichi. Note the “ritual” fire burning in the background. 3. The colourful cemetery of Chichicastenango. 4. The indoor fruit and vegetable market, Chichi. 5. A man ¨praying¨Mayan style oustide of St Tomas church, Chichicastenango. 6. A woman praying outside St Tomas (that´s my photo folks – Ombi!)
7. Man praying, close up, outside another church, in Chichi.)

Guatemala – colour and culture!

The last time I had been in Guatemala was in 1999, and although I certainly had fond memories, I was worried about how often I kept hearing about how touristy it had now become. I hoped that this would not be the case, but alack and alas, it was! As we all know, there are both highs and lows that come with increased tourism, and even more so when it comes to tourism en masse!

The border crossing was fluid, and we soon found ourselves on a bus heading for the capital, Guatemala City. This was the first ¨non – chicken bus¨ we had used in a while, but it was coming through from San Salvador, and happened to be there just as we were crossing the border. We paid a little more and got to the capital a little faster, but I must say, having been there before, it is not a favourite place of mine. It is, however, the pivotal point for several Guatemalan destinations. It was exactly as I remembered it: big, sprawling, busy, chaotic and polluted! No sooner had we hopped off the bus, than we caught a taxi to another terminal across town, from where we would catch another (chicken bus!) to Antigua Guatemala. We
probably paid too much for the short taxi ride (part of the tourism on masse ¨lows”) to the connecting bus station, but we were certainly able to exit the capital in speedy fashion!

Our first real Guatemalan destination only took us a little over 45 minutesto get to from the capital. It too was exactly as I remembered it, just with a lot more tourists! Antigua was once Guatemala´s capital, and although now overflowing with tourists, nobody can take its beauty away from it! With its cobbled streets and colonial houses in earthy hues such as mustard and ochre, it is visually beautiful. Its backdrop is the three very visible volcanoes. Did somebody paint this? It´s really on of those ¨postcard¨type destinations.

And the people! The Guatemalans, especially the women, are renowned for their colourful clothes and headdresses, which vary not only from region to region, but from village to village. This typical dress can be seen everywhere, and it is used in their day to day living! What an explosion of colour and culture! It is estimated that some 50 to 60% of Guatemalans are of indigenous extraction, with the majority being Mayan. This indeed lends itself to a country which is full of culture, on many levels, and the reason for which it is visited by so many. The cultural aspect is indeed fascinating. It is undoubtedly the most cultural we have visited to date on this trip. But there are so many layers….and as you peel each layer off, it becomes even more mesmerising. The country has a way of weaving its magic and drawing you into its spell!

We spent a few days here, and a highlight was without a doubt, climbing Volcan Pacaya. At a height of 2552 metres, it is the only active volcano near Antigua. As I have mentioned before, there are some things you just cannot do yourself, and this was one of them. The walk was only about two hours return, but we had to drive a couple of hours to get there……and we were fortunate enough to have our chicken bus (bless its old and weary little soul!) break down! So, our band of some 20 gringos had no other option but to wait by the roadside, until another chicken bus came to pick us up! You will realise that most backpackers have a love-hate relationship with these ¨people (and whatever else) movers¨. There is another option – the more expensive and comfortable mini-vans which only gringos use…….but being on a bus with the locals, their animals and their produce, in my opinion, is all part of the journey!

The volcano, ah yes, was incredible! I mean, we got so close to the lava that it was almost offensive! Let me not lie, however, Ombi the adrenalin junkie, got as close as she could, and got a bit of a buzz, I might add. I cannot explain what the feeling of being that close to flowing lava was like! Just look at the picture! In any first world country it would have been so illegal, but that was part of the attraction! Let me explain “close”- 20 to 30 metres away! Some of you would say crazy or insane, I would say thrilling! But put your woes aside, we did it, and thoroughly enjoyed it!


We stayed a few nights in Antigua, the last two being at the Black Cat Hostel (http://www.blackcatantigua.com/). This was a fun place, with a fun crowd (read……always ready to party!), and included an amazing breakfast! Yeah, someone got it right, big and good breakfasts are a backpacker´s dream come true! They keep us going for the whole day! The staff were great to, from Amelia to Andrea as well as Adrienne, one of the volunteers. Everyone was super helpful and nothing seemed to be a problem.

On the last day that we were there, the hostel had a big ¨clean up¨day, where everything was fumigated! No, that did not include us, thankfully! On a serious note, I would firstly like to congratulate The Black Cat and then highly recommend them for doing this, as it keeps the place clean and the bedbugs away! Yes, unfortunately, some places DO have them! Secondly, as nobody was able to enter the hostel until 7pm, they also organised, for those of us that were interested, to spend a day at a place called Earth Lodge (http://www.earthlodgeguatemala.com ), about a half hour´s ride away. Nestled in the hills of Antigua and run by the congenial Briana and Drew, it is a gorgeous getaway, be it for a day or a few nights. Please take the time to look at the website, I promise you that the photo that pops up is EXACTLY what it looks like! Um, what else, the food is fresh, healthy, and tasty! Need any more reasons to go?

The next day we bundled up, and made our way to Chichicastenango, famous for its huge and bustling weekend market. We left to go there on the Saturday, as we wanted to be all ready for the action on Sunday!

Ombi

(Photos: 1.- Chicken Bus Station, Antigua. 2.- Main Cathedral, Antigua. 3.- Colonial style church, & taxi drivers and their machines. 4.- Fried! Ombi ridiculously close to the lava from Pacaya Volcano. 5.- Sunset in Antigua. 6.- Local children laughing at the photographer. 7.- Magnificent landscape, around Antigua. )