Wednesday, March 30, 2016

4 Days On Caye Caulker

Day 1: The journey to Caye (pronounce key) Caulker was a $4 bus ride from San Ignacio to nasty Belize City. The 10 minute walk to the port was a bit, no very sketchy and it was good thing that there was two of us (Anthony from San Ignacio) heading that way. If I am alone when I head back there I will take a cab the 3 blocks. Outside the Boat terminal was a girl selling tacos, .50 a piece. I devoured 8 of the little buggers. The $10 boat ride from Belize City to Caye Caulker was uneventful in its routine. Regardless, we hit the beach, the sun was shining and the sky was blue. Cool breezes blew across this little island paradise but but but its Good Friday, the beginning of Semana Santa, and there was no booze sales in Belize, could not get a cold beer in a shop, restaurant or bar. Not the worst thing in the world. I did have a great Jerk Snapper dinner that was certainly spicy after 6 months of bland Nicaraguan fare.

Semana Santa also brought a 3 day party to the island that included incredibly loud double base DJ/Reggae music from noon to midnight that you can hear all over the island. What I do not understand is if Reggae is Jamaican why does every Caribbean island or coastline become Jamaican when they want to throw a party. What is wrong with Calypso or Zydeco?
The Reggae music blasted away until midnight but I was out well before that.

Day 2: The second morning brought an early lustful search for hot coffee  The Ice and Beans was on the beach and they gave you a filled french press for $2.50. An hour later after staring into the ocean and chatting with a the few people around me I was good to go. Walking back to the Pause Hostel ,where I was staying for $15 a night, I found out that the owners brother was taking a group out snorkeling. Ten minutes later I was cruising to the Belizian Barrier Reef with 5 others..well 5 girls.

We were promised sharks, rays, turtles, manatees and fish galore. We were not disappointed although I would have though the colours would have been more vivid. This is the ocean and there are scary creatures that live there, as I was told. I like snorkeling and I have no desire to learn to dive. I wish when I was talking with people who dive that they would understand that. I understand their passion and the response always goes back to "oh it's sooo peaceful", and "you are missing out on so much" .  Truth be told, I snorkel because I am closer to the boat when the Great White or Tiger Shark chooses to say hello with their hungry shark smiles. Divers you can hide but your air tanks do not last forever and you will have to surface. I will watch you from the boat.

The Captain being a funny guy

We were out on the reef all day. The skies were blue, the seas were calm and you knew that along the way you would be overexposed but being idiots you shrug it off. We have 5 stops along the reef. The first was sting ray alley where we swam with spotted rays which we were told had barb-less tails. They were about 6 feet across and not afraid of us. All was good until a massive Black Sting raw with a deadly barbed tail decided to play along. It was about 8 feet across and with its tail 8 feel long. We kept away from that bad boy.

Blue Spotted Ray

Stop number two brought us turtles, big grumpy looking sea turtles who where bored to death of being around tourists. They were fun to watch and well they are turtles, they are awesome.

Stop number 3 we the most intense, swimming with large nurse sharks. We had chased a few along the way but this was going to be up close and personal. I was nervous but game. We pull the boat up to what was called Shark Alley, everything is an Alley here. The captain tosses sardines over the left side of the boat and the feeding frenzy was on. At least 20 Nurse Sharks knowing the routine and a myriad of other fishes went nuts. "Get it on the other side and have fun were were told".  So we did. The absolute second I put my mask in the water and Shark much larger than myself swam towards then under my by about a metre. I peed a little. I swam over to the frenzy and was mesmerized to the point I kept getting closer and closer. I get within inches of a few of the activity and the large mellow sardine eaters. This lasted about 5 minutes and when the sardines ended the sharks sunk to the sea bed and hung out, waiting for the next group. I could care less about the morality of pre-feeding a frenzy, it put all my senses into overload.

Welcome to the ocean human. Do I smell pee?

Swimming with the fishes

Stop 4 was a short trip over an old barge that had sunk and stop 5 was a coral reef that was basically skipped  we were all fairly exhausted by this time. We heading back stopping to watch a family of manatees feed and breech for air and finishing in a mangrove swamp to view small yellow seahorses do their thing.

Fearless Maria. Sharks or no sharks she was first in.
I was in dire need of a beer after all day on the ocean so I hit the local sports bar which oddly enough has a Canadian programmed cable box so I watched the Leafs vs the Bruins. As the game progresses I felt my skin tightening and I knew that feeling. I also swallowed quite a bit of sea water during the day and I know what that brought as well. I did not drink much water so while the Leafs were losing and I was sipping my beer the realization that the next few days were going to be shit hit me. Sunburn, dehydration and my lungs were going to fight back. So I had another beer and thought I would worry about it the next day
Loud Double base DJ/Reggae music from noon to midnight that you can hear all over the island was blaring but I was out cold by 10:00

Day 3:
I knew it was coming and it showed with a vengeance. The shivers, the coughing, the headache, the sweats. The do not take any precautions post snorkeling fun recovery time. I spent the day in a hammock, in the shade reading, drinking as much water as I could stomach and napping. Really not the worst thing in the world. I finished The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut and like the other books of his I read I always remember why I like him as an author.
Loud Double base DJ/Reggae music from noon to midnight that you can hear all over the island was blaring but I was out cold by 8:00
Day 4:
See day 3 but with a few walks in town to get supplies. I started The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. I want to revisit the torment that is Holden Caulfield.
With it being Monday the street party was over. There was no music and it was as quiet as a tropical Island should be. News trickled in that there were quite a few fights between the locals and the boys that came over from Belize City with resulted in 3 stabbings and one woman who was hit by a board an robbed. Its not always Trouble Free in Paradise.

My two day recovery hammocks. It could be worse
I think it would take me quite a bit of time to hit my slow strike on a small tropical island if I was to ever stay for an extended period of time. Everyone I met while shopping, drinking coffee, at the pub or on the street were genuine and helpful. "We need to keep the Belize City trash off the island" was the general consensus of locals and expats alike. Now if that small tropical island had an active volcano well then we would be onto something.

One funny Caye Caulker story / Antedote

I was having a beer with a local expat from the States. He retired here 6 years ago and is living his dream.
EP: Yup, living the dream here in Belize
ME: Nice, what are you doing now to keep busy
EP: I run a few small businesses in town. Coffee shop and a bakery. It busy because of the tourists
ME: Good for you. Are tourists most of your business
EP: Yes, tourists and expats with a few locals
......longish pause
EP: You like it here in Belize
ME: I am enjoying myself, the world is big and there are lots of great places to see
EX: to busy for ya eh. Yeah, the tourist are ruining this place 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Actun Baby

Actun Tunichil Muknal, also known locally as ATM, is a cave in Belize, near San Ignacio, notable as a Maya archaeological site that includes skeletons, ceramics, and stoneware. I walked, climbed and swam through this today and yes that skeleton is real. No cameras were allowed so all pics were taken from google images. Click here and be awed.

That is a 700 year old skull. Denture work held.
An hours drive east of town we entered the park. It was very unassuming, a parking lot really. We geared up with helmets and headlamps then entered a trail head that was a nice easy walk. That particular feeling ended about 10 minutes when we came across the first of three river crossings. The water was cold, knee to waist deep and about 100 metres wide, as were all three.  There was rope for those who need it but our guide James is literally King of the Jungle told us "nobody touches the rope. You fall, you get back up, you get wet, you keep going" I liked him immediately.

James showed us jungle plants that cause pain and remedies for illness. Everything is in the Jungle, then they chemically reproduce it and well...he tailed of. Case in point, I had no repellent so our boy grabbed the leaves of 3 plants and mixed them into a pulp in his massive Mayan hands. I spread it on my arms and legs and not only did I not get bitten, it is water proof and it smelt amazing, lemony. I did not ask how do you wash it off. Do not piss off the Jungle Guide.

Arriving at the cave entrance I was then asked "can you swim"? Odd time to ask our group of 5 intrepid spelunkers. First jump in the swimming hole to the left." But, but there are fish, lost of fish in the water" said a nervous 12 year. It was crystal clear and yes sir, there were fish, lots and lots of fish. "You have to get used to it came" the reply. I jumped in because as anyone knows, I am one with the fishes. Now James teaches jungle training to special forces in Colombia. When he says do it, it gets done. Make no mistake, he is not a drill Sargent and laughed and smiled quite often. You just did what he said because you know he had your back.. The tour is not cheap but worth the $85. You can pay up to $110 so Bargain, Bargain, Bargain.

Entering the cave
Jumping out of the fish bowl we walked to the caves entrance and in we went. It was odd having fish bump and swim into you and what felt like nibbles. Apparently these are the toothless relatives of the piranha that are used in spas to clean fee. I promise you my feet we damn clean. Thirty metres in the water lower and we walked, well waddled through an endless path of water,On dry areas we were treated to magnificent stalagmite (up) and stalactite (down). What time and water can create after 1000s of years is truly outstanding.

Entering the preserved area we needed to remove our shoes and climb up 15 feet of mud covered sloped rocks which was easy enough. The Mayan were kind enough to be thinking ahead 800 and provided us with an 10 foot aluminum ladder. Way to go Mayans!

Then the Mayan artifacts started to appear. Shards of, pottery, full bowls, skeleton bones and remains, human skulls. Tour ended with the viewing of what was described as a royal killing. On the way back we were challenged to tight spaces in neck deep water with rocks as hard as diamonds and as sharp as any known knife on the place. That gave you pause for thought. I can not do the experience justice and am thrilled that I participated.

We understand that the world is made up of different and interesting people. We all know that but are guilty (myself included) and not looking around once in a while. The website Humans of New  York for example. Absolutely one of the most creative and intelligent website have come across. Get off FB and start following and you just might smile a bit more often. This is a must read daily. It is beautiful in its simplicity, as are most things.

Meet Anthony, a happy healthy and very chatty Belizian. Born to a Jamaican father and Mayan mother (yes Maya are still with us much like any native tribe in North America). Born and raised in Belize and happy for his station in life, I mean really happy. Here is a bit of his resume.

Cave tour guide / Business owner
Belizian Certified Archeological site guide
Master Diver
Jungle Survival guide
Military Jungle Survival trainer

His stories of being put in the jungle at 10 for 2 weeks, training the Colombian Military in Jungle Warfare against the FARC guerillas just mesmerized me. His knowledge of the Mayan Culture and this particular cave system was as impeccable as he was proud to know it, in minute detail. That is all I am going to share on his request.

Just when you think your a  a man of the world, you realize you are not. Not even close. Thanks for the best life lessons possible on this trip James.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

I Am Ruined In Belize

After a long bus ride from Antigua I hit Flores, found Los Amigos hostel and had a cold beer waiting for me thanks to Tom (England 1) and Marcus (England 2). They had flown in earlier in the day and like the good lads they are knew that a 11 hour bus ride was going to kill me. We had a bit of a night as after 10:00 the party moved to the upstairs bar where there was free tequila. Oops. With a heavy head I was up and on the bus to Belize by 7 am, at my hostel by 1:00 and asleep in a hammock by 1:15.

No that is not why I was ruined in Belize. I do not know why but when I think of Belize I do not think of Mayan Ruins. To be sure they are here because 2500 years ago there was no Belize as It was all Mayan jungle. So let the bloodletting begin.

San Ignacio is a quiet village and my first taste of the Caribbean vibe in quite a while. A good starting place for Belize. What it is also close to are Mayan Ruins most notably Xunantunich and Cahal Pech.
I am staying at the  Chaltunha Hostel which is nice enough. The woman running the place, Windy, goes out of her way to help and she did my laundry. Two people, Nikki from San Fransisco and Anthony from Seattle were talking about going to the ruins in the morning and as you do I asked to tag along. Thirty minutes later we entered the Xunantunich Ruins Park. That is how traveling goes sometimes.

Grabbing a photo before the hoards of zombie cruise ship tourist arrive

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Sweat
I know very little about ancient ruins and try to take something away each time but the task to learn is massive. I have been to Chitzen Itza, The Pyramids of Giza, Machu Pichu and various other ruins and archeological sites around the world. Many of the Mayan and Inca sites were designed and built very similar with a main temple for worship and sacrifice, games courts, housing and food storage. These were thriving communities where people lived, worked, farmed and worshiped. They were battle hardened and battle ready.

Without trying to add anything intelligent on the subject I suggest you watch a great movie from 2006 called Apocalypto. It is very well done and gives a great account of a declining Mayan Civilization just as the Spanish were arriving on the continent.

Xunantunich was larger than I thought it would be and the ruins impressive to say the least. I managed to climb the main temple fighting my height vertigo and the steep steps along the way which showed up for the first time while hiking the Inca Trail. Thanks for nothing Incas.

A little armed soldier safety is always a welcome but nerve wracking site

We caught a cab back to town to water up and headed to Cahal Pech. It is near town and we walked there in about 45 minutes, up hill, in the heat and my freaking legs are still sore from Acatanango, seriously. This site was substantially smaller but none the less impressive. What made this site more enjoyable was there were no tourist hoards sweating and hacking while trying to lug their bodies up the temple steps. It was quiet and soothing and we just hung around, wandered about and enjoyed the site.

All told it was a good day. Tomorrow will be interesting as I head out to the Actun Tunichil Muknal, better known as the ATM, cave tour. Real Indiana Jones stuff including skeletal remains.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Beast That Is Volcan Acatanango

Volcano Acatanango. There are bigger volcanoes on the planet but in my world I fought this beast with all the energy I could muster. Some moments she was winning the struggle then other moments I would catch my breathe and take another steep uphill step forward. Reaching the summit I was battered, bruised, bleeding and a bit beaten but triumphant.

Looming Acatanango: Do not let the serenity fool you
Waking up at 5:00 am for a hike, good attitude or not, means nothing without a decent cup of hot coffee and that requirement was still over 90 minutes away. Unlike the pre-hike with Quetzal trekkers breakfast was not included but the pre-hike was similar. Sleeping bags, Tents, food, and clothing were sorted and given to each of us. As it was to get very cold on the summit and most of us did not have winter type clothing OX supplied us with what we needed from a large assortment of donated clothing. Warn and beaten but they would do the trick. I was fine as I have packed my Doite rain hiking jacket, my wind proof MEC sweater and hat and gloves. I tossed in a large down jacket from OX just in case but in the end I did not need it. The trip was a bit on the expensive side at $89.00 which did not include water, snacks or park entrance fee. I am prouder of Quetzel Trekkers and the service they provide every time I do a hike with another company

Loaded with my stuff, a sleeping back, tent gear, and food, snacks and water I was raring to go. The pack weighed less than my pack on the El Hoyo hikes but this was to be a 5 hour uphill battle. For those in the know, think the first hour of El Hoyo but for 5 hours.

Porters with their horses, dogs and kids along for the ride
After loading the van and then a quick breakfast stop at a local cafe (with of course a large hot Guatemalan coffee) we hit the road and were staring at the trail head in about an hour. Acatanango loomed quietly in the distance with a sinister smile. We grouped up with local porters who were hired by a few of our crew to carry their packs. They paid 200 Q for each direction which totaled $60 extra. Their choice and considering the trek ahead of us and the packs we were carrying a good choice for them.

Packed and loaded off we went. There was no slow easy start to this trip. From the trail head at the road the trail went up and kept going up. As expected the first hour or so was volcanic sand. Deep and sloppy but manageable. I had brand new FILA hiking shoes that I purchased in Leon and I am happy I did. A few in our group were using sneakers which were fine. There were no volcanic rocks to climb over so to speak, it was all trail. However the sneaker users were prone to slipping without good treads to hold them in place.

With Marcus and Tom (England 1 and England 2) during one of our many rest stops

As we climbed we started getting fantastic views of the surrounding countryside and volcanoes. A full string of them along the fault line similar to the string in Nicaragua. These bad boys were much higher as shown when they were peaking over the cloud cover. The most prominent was Volcano Agua which is the monster that you see form Antigua. Adding to the excitement we could hear the rumbling and banging of Fuego which was still hours away and around the backside of Actanango. We were constantly reminded of how active Fuego was and little did I know then what our guide Jose (yes a Spanish guide names Jose) meant when he said active. I mean I spoke of volcanoes being active all the time but this was going to be different.

Catching my breath at 3000 metres with Agua looming in the background
The day was nice and the air was crisp and clean. There was a low cloud cover giving us picture postcard views but the altitude was taking its toll on me. Nothing dangerous but what I learned is The concentration of oxygen at sea level is about 21% while at 13000 feet is drops to 12.7% and I could feel it. I found my pace and was certainly not the fastest but I did not hold anyone up. When hearing how old I was Jose remarked "good for you".  I am not sure what he meant but did not have the air in my lungs to ask. 

I was walking 20 or 30 feet at a time then resting for a few seconds. If I did something dumb like tie my shoes and come back up too quickly the results were a spinning I did that often as it was kind of fun

A group of exhausted happy hikers acting up at camp.
After about 5 hours, many photo and breath catching stops, a lunch break with a nap and lots of sweat we made camp and with that we had Fuego on our doorstep. She immediately welcomed us with a boom and plume of smoke. Jose tried to get us excited by letting us know that the plumes were lava and that they would glow when the sun went down. Do you want to know what else happened when the sun went down. So did the temperature, and fast. Adding to the now bundled up and campfire needing crew was that we were at the elevation where the low laying clouds were now the camp surrounding clouds, and with that came dampness. Not to be deterred the campfire was lit and it was show time.

Fuego welcoming us to our campsite
With Fuego constantly blasting away we settled in for dinner and a show. As the sun went down the explosions turned to red hot lava flows with each one being more dramatic than the last. After shooting so many pictures most of us put the cameras away, sat back, relaxed and enjoyed the moment. Bedding down around 8:00 we were bolted awake by a huge "booming" sound from our girl. That was it, time to hang by the fire. We just lay there curled around the campfire watching explosion after explosion. I would fall asleep for 30 minutes only to be woken up by the "oohs and ahhs" of my hiking partners. Sunrise came to early for all of us as with the sun we lost the red hot glow of Fuego's glory.

Curled up around the fire with a front row view of Fuego
Sunrise was colorful and as wonderful as expected. I am often asked "beach or mountains?" As fun as beach time is, the mountains or in the case the volcanoes hold my attention. Its not even close, its mountains all the way.

6:30 and we had to break camp for the hard down hill hike. I have experience the toe and knee pain you get from hiking downhill for a long time and this was no different. We started at 8:00 and made the trail head by 10:30. Five hours up, two hours down. There were times a few of us actually ran down because it was easier believe it or not. There was a cold beer waiting for me when the pickup van arrived and it was well deserved. If you are going to hike a volcano in Central America and only have time for one hit up Acatanango. It was difficult, at times cold and abusive (kind of like the Toronto Maple Leafs) but the rewards outweighed any of that.  I am writing this post 3 days after the trek and my thighs are still unbelievably sore. You always say "sore in a good way"  but there is no "good way" when you are climbing down the steps of a bus and need both hand rails hitting one step at a time, grunting each step along the way.

Breaking up is hard to do so I will be quick about it. My dear Cerro Negro, El Hoyo, Asososca, Telica, Momotombo, San Cristobal and Coseguina. We flirted and we had some moments. I must tell you that you have been replaced. Acatanango and Fuego have stolen my volcanic heart. Keep doing what you are doing dear 7 volcanoes of Nicaragua, you are amazing and will continue to great things.

I think I have been on the road too long. I just broke up with a volcano...or a group of volcanoes.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Cobbles of Antigua

The journey from San Salvador to Antigua Guatemala was uneventful with the exception of our full police escort from inside the Guatemala border to Antigua. "There have been some robberies of other companies in the past so we do not take any chances" was what we were told. Robberies aside, the fact that Gekko Explorer International, who was my transit provider, pays for these security services. Good job Gekko. You get a thumbs up from me.

They were also 2 hours late in picking me up. The Microbus started at 3am in Leon, went to El Tunco El Salvador for a large pickup then up to San Salvador for me. They sent a car around and picked me and then drove me to a meeting place on the highway for quicker service. That was a nice touch as well. I am used to buses and well everything and everyone being late in Latin America so that did not even phase me. Another breezy border crossing and now it was Quetzels to get me through my days.

The Cobblestone streets of Antigua. Police support extra
I was last in Antigua in September 2010 and I do not remember it being this busy, however I do remember it being this pretty. The central park was lit up when we arrived at 8:30 pm and there were lots of people in the streets around the park, as it goes in Latin America. It helped that it St. Patrick's Day / Night and everyone seemed happy, or hammered. Semana Santa (Easter) is just around the corner and this town of 50,000 turns into a chaotic mess of 500,000 (or so I was told that number). I have no idea where everywhere is going to fit

I met a few good people on the bus, Tom (England) Alissa and Corrie (Australia) and once we settled into our hostels we all met up for a few post trip beer. Long trips knock the crap out of me so it was a really good way to end the day.

Indigenous Market Woman

Antigua has changed since I was last here. It is busier with more people, restaurants, shops, hostels and drunk foreigners complaining how "touristy" the place is. Again this could be because it is high season and I lived here in the fall months of September and October. I am here for one reason and that is to climb Volcano Acatanango. 

She is a beast spiking at 4000 metres (about 13,123feet). The air starts to get thin around 2500 metres meaning slight altitude sickness is a probability. I have been through it before along the Inca Trail and it can be draining. Again, this is not Everest with death and debilitating altitude sickness. Headaches, sluggishness and an upset stomach are all possible. Think of it as a having a hangover while hiking up a volcano carrying a 15 kilo pack. Good times!
Gutemala, home of the best chicken buses in Latin America
I am staying at the OX Expeditions Base Camp. They have a solid reputation for their tours and guides. A quick chat with people working there revealed a standard operating procedure for many adventure companies here in Latin America. American owned and run by a staff of eager western young volunteers in return for free accommodations. There are a few paid local guides and It will be interesting to glean whatever I can from our guide as to how the company operates. They are looking for guides and I might put them on my list if I find them credible. Not being an NGO and working as a for profit private company leads me to believe that may not be the case. A great setup really. Free labor while you reap in the profits.

Central Square
Like El Salvador before it, Guatemala is clean compared to the ecological garbage in the streets disaster that is Nicaragua. It also has a very public "indigenous culture" that is missing in other countries. I like that.

Time for Bed. Next up, the beast that is Acatanango and after that 3 days of agonizing leg pain

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Is San Salvador Scary?

A few years ago before I came to El Salvador for the first time my mind was foggy. The only things that came to mind were the deadly civil war with death squads and murdered nuns, the M-18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs and the ongoing travel warnings from any google search. So that begs the question. Is San Salvador a scary dangerous place?

That is a tough question. From an outsiders / traveler's viewpoint the quick silly answer would be no. If you manage yourself properly like anywhere else in the world, stick to know areas of interest and stay away from the Ilopango and Soyapango barrios on the east side of town you should be fine. The reality is absolutely yes. This is one of the worlds dangerous with some of  highest murder rates in the world.

But lets go back to the good side of the city because right now my dear mother is reading this and has already started the email telling me to come home. God love her.

This city of 2 million is surrounded by my favorite things, volcanoes.  Boquerón Volcano and Cerro El Picacho  can be viewed anywhere in the city while San Jacinto, Soyapango, Santo Tomás and San Marcosare near by. It is modern, clean and they pick up their garbage. (Do you listening Leon and Managua?) Zona Rosa looks like any street in Canada or the USA with its wide boulevards, chain hotels and fast food joints. I stayed in Zona Guadeloupe and never felt any fear when I wandered. There are lively restaurants, bars and lots of traffic.

Yellow taxis are everywhere, clean, safe and cheap so traveling around is easy. The more adventurous can take the public buses for about .25. Some are new, some not so much but they will take you where you need to go. I did not have the energy to try and figure them out, and just in case I screwed up I did not want to end up in the wrong place.

With that, I wandered to the top of my barrio to one of the main streets. I stopped for a large coffee and watched the world stream by. After a quick visit to Iglesia Guadeloupe I found a pupusa street vendor. Sitting at the standard plastic table and chairs the piping hot bean and cheese beauties were delicious and at .30 each a pretty darn good deal. There were a line of taxis right in front of me so off I went to the National Palace and Cathedral Metropolitano. Both beautiful and historically important.

The National Palace in San Salvador
Gardens inside the National Palace

Cathedral Metropolitana

Inside the Cathedral Metropolitana
The short version of the story Óscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador was he was an outspoken critic of the government in 1980, a very dangerous time to be that person. As a result he was shot and killed while performing a mass service on March 24th, 1980. During the funeral procession outside the Cathedral Metropolitana violence erupted when teargas was tossed into the group of mourners numbering 250,000 while rifle shots came from the surrounding buildings including the National Palace. In all 31 people were killed officially (estimates are as high as 50). His large portrait hangs in the church (upper left in the picture). The beatification of Romero was held in San Salvador on 23 May 2015

There are so many more places to visit in and around San Salvador but without a guide I was not going to just "wander around" a city of 2 million people with a dark reputation. I did wander one of the huge local markets where I purchased a new toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving cream and 3 pair of socks for $3. The pic does not do the market any justice. I discovered later while reading about San Salvador that these markets are all controlled by gangs, I mean serious serious gangs. They have spies, usually kids, wandering around checking on peoples business and gathering protection money.  Sometimes it is best to be unaware of things. I was never in any danger as there were police and para military guards everywhere and NO I was not going to take their pictures.

Market view from the door of Calvarilo Church

The reality of San Salvador as told to me by my cab driver back to my barrio. Hector who spoke great English and appeared to be around 50 had escaped to the United States in the mid 70s during what he said were very dangerous time for the country. Yes, a civil war would be considered dangerous times. He traveled through Guatemala and Mexico crossing illegally into the United States. Yes, people leaving the ravages and poverty of Latin America for the possibilities of a better life are very real.

He was working a living in Houston for about 10 years when he was caught by immigration using a faked green card. I never asked him what he did for a living or how he was caught. He volunteered the conversation, I shut up and listened. He had working man hands and long scars on the inside of his left arm. Again, no questions.

He was tossed into an American Immigration detention centre for 4 years with out so much as a trial then one day they deported him. I suspected there was more to the story, but it was his story. He found himself back in El Salvador just after the war but now had a criminal record that carried over to El Salvador. Taxi was what he was only qualified to do.

"San Salvador is a very dangerous place and I can get shot at anytime" and with that honest phrase I was hit with a cold dose of reality. We were now driving down the main very busy and touristy boulevard and he said "for example, "if we turn at this corner we will get shot"  to which I instantly replied "ok, so lets not turn at that corner". Thankfully he laughed. He talked about his need to know every barrio and every street, even the smallest streets in order to survive. "The want my money, my car and even my shoes" . Its all about fear and control and we are afraid and they are in control. "They shoot police for fun and as a part of initiation into the gangs". He said that there were no jobs and money was hard (he was not looking for any money from me) and to be careful as some people are bad people in this town. With that he smiled, dropped me off and thanked me for visiting El Salvador.

Reality. If you go about your business and visit where you want to visit in San Salvador you will be fine. If you do not know where you are going, hire a guide. Take taxis as they are cheap and as anywhere in the world, taxi drivers are the smartest people in that city. Do not get drunk and decide that visiting Ilopango and Soyapango or another dangerous neighborhood would be "cool". You WILL NOT return.

Gangs of San Salvador are very real - YouTube Video   Nov 30, 2015 - Vice News Run Time 1: 05. Take the time to watch this video and you will get great insight and perspectives from the police, gang members, teenage EMS, religious leaders, peasant farmers, market stall owners and government officials. It's a well done documentary and makes you realize that the gang issue is not going away any time soon.

Like my last trip here I never felt unsafe and enjoyed myself. I am off to Antigua Guatemala tomorrow and a date with Volcan Acantanango. That bad boy is going to hurt.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

What Border Security

After six months of living and working in Leon I am ready for a road trip. The last week in Leon I had nothing to do except wait for my final paycheck on the Friday. That led to lots of beach and beer time. I tell you, I am glad that is over. I am a serious lightweight when it comes to drinking now. Having been a member of the heavyweight division for years and being "punch drunk" to many times to count I am happy that does not excite me one bit any longer. I talk a big game now, that's about it but none of that is important.

My friend Antonia stopped by for a few days on her way to Esteli to revisit the projects we use to work for with GVI, Alexis Arguello and La ThompsonThe Phoenix Projects had broken their affiliation with GVI a few years back and are doing great work on their own. We had a great visit and there was lots to catch up including our favorite topics, travel and my selective memory. I have met lots of great people in Leon but it sure was nice to see a friendly face.

Packed up and ready to head out of Leon. Next stop El Salvador
We ate 8:30 on Tuesday the 15th my transportation arrived that was taking me to Potosi, near the Cosequina Volcano. From there it was a 3 hour boat ride to La Union, El Salvador and transit to San Salvador. It was going to be a nice mixture and I thought a good way to start. I booked with Cruce Del Golfo as I really wanted to take this route. Land transportation would have been a snap but there are no public water crossings across the gulf so they were the logical choice. A bit expensive? A little bit, yes but again it was the only option for this route.

My chariot arrived with one other passenger, fellow Canadian Ben from Edmonton who was heading to the beaches of El Salvador. The 3 hour bus ride was uneventful but passed quickly as we chatted the entire way on a variety of subjects. Our driver was from VaPues tours in Leon who I had met a few times while with QT.

The Panga beach launch. *gulp*

Arriving at Potosi we drove through a security gate on our way to the beach which was the border. Pulling into the shack there sat the 3rd member of our intrepid team, Hanna, yet another Canadian who was heading north to Guatemala and then parts unknown. I had met her previously at QT as she had booked a tour with us. After what can only be described as the laziest border exit interview EVER, off we went to the Panga version of the SS Poseidon. You just knew we were doomed, or at the very least we were going to get soaked.

Settling in, pre life jacket
Initially all was well. The Gulf was calm (ish) and we were 90 minutes from our first stop, La Isla Meanguera Del Golfo. Here are some google images. We had fantastic views of Cosigüina and the massive boulders that it tossed into the Gulf from its last eruption in 1835. This was and is the largest known historic eruption in Nicaragua and these boulder could be mistaken for small islands. We bounce along looking for dolphins that do not make an appearance and our captain giving us a nice tour of the surrounding area. We are in the middle of the gulf when he stops to point out that we can view Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador which I admit was pretty cool.

.. and suddenly the winds picked up and that pretty cool feeling became a very wet reality.

"Any port in a storm" goes the saying. Not so much a storm but choppy seas in a Panga meant that Meangura was a welcomed site. "let me me check with security" says our captain. "As this is Nicaragua and we will be illegally in the country I do not want us to get arrested, but they will have a coffee for you". I am now thinking the choppy gulf is not the worst thing that can happen on this day, coffee or no coffee. Well, true to form, this was indeed an island that belonged to El Salvador and as we hit the beach we were now illegally in El Salvador...and I am following along like a freaking sheep to slaughter.

Trust me, I am your Panga Captain. They will give you coffee

Illegally in El Salvador
It turns out that our captain had to verify his identity and credentials as a part of a passing boat security check.Customs officials did give us free coffee for our troubles. Right at that moment I was living in an alternate universe. As it turns out, Salvadorians serve fresh coffee to illegals while the person bringing them into the country gets checked. The assistant of the boat, who was driving, did not come ashore. "He can not" was all we were told. So that happened.

La Union and the El Salvador mainland was now a mere 30 minutes. It was 30 minutes back into the windy and rolling Gulf of Fonseca. We picked up 4 locals who were heading back to the mainland. They were chatty and friendly and were excited to tell us all about El Salvador. Then we rounded the lighthouse point and hit the open water. Chatter became diving for rain suits and anything plastic to cover yourselves. After 10 futile minutes there was a general "fuck it" and off we were back to talking and laughing at how soaked we were getting. Next stop, El Salvador Immigration. I figured I was going to get as wet a possible and see how that went with them. I was illegal once, what could they do to me, make me clean up my dripping mess? The big tough rebel that I am.

Welcome to El Salvador
As it turned out, El Salvador entrance immigration was more lax (laxer ?) than their Nicaraguan counterparts. There was a big smile and welcome from the only guard who wore a clean and neatly pressed uniform. "Passports and $10 each" was all he said. The $30 went into his pocket and new entrance stamps went into our passports. Who was I to say anything but "gracias"

I had planned on stopping my journey with the tour company from here and I was going to catch a bus to San Salvador and find a cab to my hostel. It was getting long in the day and I was wearing down so I made the best decision of the day. I jumped in the shuttle that was pre-booked by my partners, paid the fee and sat back for the 3 hour ride that would drop me off at my door. As I said, best $$ spent that day.

El Salvador means Pupusas
El Salvador means one thing, Pupusas. Glorious glorious pupusas and there are pupusarias everywhere. Do you see the 3 large corn rolled beauties in the picture above filled with pork, cheese and mushroom? All mine, mine, mine. You top them off with hot pickled cabbage and its "hands only" like pizza. Utensils need not apply no matter how much pain you feel in your fingers.

This shop was in La Union. Everything I read about La Union in most guide books was negative and to use it as a transit point only. Boy, are they wrong. I understand guide books are developed and created by information sent to them from various contributors. The thing is, what is cool and interesting to one person is obviously not the same for another. La Union is a case in point. It is not a dirty and grubby port town. It was an active, clean and friendly town. It is a port town but I saw one fishing ship and a beat up old Chinese boat loading something that I wanted not to know. Looking the other way was the best thing to do. I let a guide book manipulate me into not staying the night in La Union and have a fresh start to San Salvador in the morning. Anyone who may read this and La Union El Salvador comes up in the conversation. STAY THERE at least one night if for the pupusas alone.

San Vincent Volcano on the way to San Salvador
The drive to the capital was a smooth 3 hours. Our driver was chatty and full of fun facts and information. He steered clear of the tragic history of El Salvador and pointed out great natural landmarks like the volcanoes in San Miguel and San Vincent. He was from San Salvador so he knew where each of us were staying, helped us with our bags and registration. He hung around answering any questions each of us had about San Salvador and was really excited we had come to "his city". It was coming back to me how warm and welcoming the people of El Salvador are.

Lets finish with a review of the tour/transportation I booked with Cruce Del Golfo and VaPues tours. I would not have done this trip if they did not have a boat to cross the Gulf of Fonseca. Now that being said they are the only game in town and the price shows. It was $99 for the transportation to the Panga and then the Panga to El Salvador. They did help with customs/immigration but really, no help was needed. Bear in mind if you found your own way to Potosi Nicaragua the crossing was $65. A bus from Leon to Potosi is about $4 and a room about $6 so you save $20. The same goes for transit from La Union. Mine was $30 (he gave me a $5 discount) and a bus is about $6 and a cab from Ocidente station to my hostel is $7. So you save $17. However having private transport into a capital city where they drop you off at your door is always worth the extra money for me, especially at night.

Did I enjoy the day, absolutely. Good travel partners, great guides and drivers and smiling customs officials. Would I recommend this trip? No. If La Union is on your agenda then maybe but you can always get there another way. There are other things to spend your money on aside from expensive transportation but keep in mind. Private transportation into a Latin American capital city is always a top priority for me.

I am glad that I did it, but we always say that don't we.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

León and Nicaragua, That's A Wrap

My dear León what an interesting time we have had.

We had earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, gorgeous lightning, sonic thunder, searing heat and torrential rains. There were scorpions, tarantulas, Boa Constrictors, iguanas, Geckos, chikungunya carrying mosquitoes and tiny little ants with big ass ant bites.

Cars that do not stop, death defying sidewalks, smelly streets, honking horns, belching buses, street vendors and money changers. Cold beer, gallo pinto, sweet yogurt, smoothies, sidewalk cafes, fritungas, pulperias, outdoor markets, comedors and burger stands.

We had fun and ate well at Pan y Paz, Libelula, Kiss Me, Via Via, Mi Casita, Nicaraguita, Desayunaso, Manhattan, Oxygen, Paz de Luna, Imbir, El Sesteo, Antoninos and so many more.

Toss in La Union, Banpro, the Central Park, bad Spanish, cheap taxis, cheaper buses and a nice beach town that was nearby.

The TEFL Academy reminded me what it was like to be a student. ELI taught me how to be a better teacher and QT reinforced my need for patience with tourists.

Mix all this with so many helpful and interesting people that shared their time with me and we had a full lid.

What a time indeed.

Nicaragua TEFL Academy

American Nicaraguan ELI at Mimundo

The Harvest House, my Nica home

Justice Cat clearing out the riff raff in the garden

41 hikes and 7 Volcanoes later.