Thursday, April 28, 2016

Oaxaca - (Wa-ha-ka)

There an extraordinary amount of churches here but they are all old, massive and gorgeous. I have zero knowledge about construction styles and the only type I know is Gothic but I have no idea what a Gothic church would look like. These are all colonial, I get that but they are all very different. Welcome to Oaxaca, where 60s hippies have come to pasture.

My plan was to spend time here to relax and heal my belly. Mission accomplished. The biggest challenge for me in the last 5 days was to do as little as possible. Read, sleep and short walks around town filled my days. If this is how people retire I want nothing to do with it.

Health Update: I guess to sum up the post food poisoning puke fest in one word it would have to be nervous. Nervous to walk to far, to sneeze, to eat, to drink coffee ( I did it anyways). You get the picture but for those who can not put it together I was constantly nervous I was going to sh** my drawers. I am running about 95% with good energy and I have moved from jello to sandwiches. That's all we will say about that.

I mentioned in my last past my laptop charger crapped out and that has not been a top priority for me this week. I am posting from my old reliable Galaxy 3. I just downloaded an app that lets me transfer pictures from my camera to my phone as the camera does have a wireless function.

The walk was interesting. My first surprise when I left my area was I walk smack into what can only be considered the red light district of Oaxaca. This was no Reeperbahn. Lining both sides of the sketchy street in from of two very nasty looking hotels were 30 or 40 of Oaxacas finest. Mid day, other people going about their business no worries. I caught the eyes and smiles of a few but nothing aggressive. Who knew? I was hoping the standard Japanese businessman would have walked out of one of the hotels but no luck. 

I then came across a large, hectic and smelly market where more than one person looked at me sideways. One lady was selling popcorn which I hoped was safe. It was incredibly delicious. I devoured the bag in four heaping mouthfuls as you do with popcorn. 

Revved up on popcorn and porn I ventured on. Across a busy highway and over a very smelly river I came to the base of the hill. The town climbed the hill and with that there were stairs. Lots and lots of winding steps. Easiest hike and best find ever. Up I went past sleepy dogs, smiling school kids, a friendly and really funny road work crew who I ended up talking to for a while and through what I know realized was a poor shanty town. San Jocinto I think was a sign I saw. I just kept climbing. Stairs ended at roadways so I needed to search a bit to find the next set.

I passed a shop dripping with sweat and a shop owner smiled knowingly as I passed and offered me a cold beer If I stopped on the way down.

At last a much needed victory was mine. I stood at the base of the cross that had been heckling me, turned and enjoyed the splendid view of Oaxaca and the surrounding mountains. The view was splendid and it was a good hike. I remembered the offer from the shop owner and now it was time to go find my free beer. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Palenque - Epic Fail

It all started with a shuttle that arrived at 4:30 am instead of the scheduled 5:00 and the driver being upset I was not ready. Halfway to Palenque I threw up that Subway sandwich and everything else in my stomach. I showed him. That is how my trip to Palenque started and it went down hill after that.

Palenque was a top priority for me. An important and impressive Mayan Ruins site and I was excited to get there. The town itself wasn't much but there was a three block touristy area that was nice to wander around.

Well back to the trip. Its was scheduled for about 10 hours with stops for breakfast and to view a new natural sites. A waterfalls that is always a hit and agua azul. Deep blue pools a poor mans Semac Champay if you will. At the breakfast stop I grabbed a coffee and the thought of food made meg gag. That should have been the first hint. An hour later we were cruising along looking at the mountains and valleys and I suddenly and without any know reason realize I am going to be sick. I am about to be that guy. I tell the driver and as we are on a winding mountain road he can not stop. Another 25 minutes he says. Nope another 2 minutes I reply. Remember this is in Spanish and I know the errors as I am saying them but he and everyone else understood.

Suddenly my first angel appeared. "Bolsa?" I was asked as she gave me a plastic bag. I hunkered down against the side door for the inevitable and it arrived in a fury. To my astonishment there were no moans or eeeewes but concern and help. Quick offers of water,stomach medicine and the greatest Chiclets I have ever tasted. The driver found a place to pull over and I got rid of the evidence cleaned up and off we went. OK I thought that was weird but I feel better...but did I?

First stop were the blue pools and I was exhausted. I could not climb any steps and figured back to the truck I go. Waterfalls, same scenario. The couple that offered me the bag were checking on my and made me put some pills they had in my pack. They were over the counter but I forget the name. Fast forward and we arrive In Palenque. I jump out as they were heading to the ruins on a day trip. I was heading to my hotel and to bed. I actually received 6 hugs from complete strangers and was told to get rest. Sometimes the kindness in people just shines brightly.

I hit my bed at 3:30 pm and slept until 8:00 am the next day. I have been down this road before many years ago. I was blessed with food poisoning and it was not going to be pleasant. Long story no gore. I had no appetite and no food for 3 days but kept drinking water and Gatorade because of dehydration. Cultures around the world practise 3 day,5 day and longer fasts. I have lots of mass and was not about to waste away after a few days with no food. Plus I did not want any.

Well I wake up feeling as crappy as you can imagine so instead of the rest I need my brain says " get out and get some air and exercise". There is a reason I have never qualified for MENSA. So off I went looking for the collectivo to the ruins. As Murphy's law was running along side me I did not jump into one of the many newer models, nope not this genius. I creaked open the side door of a van well past its rusting and shaking prime. Murphy you suck.

The site entrance is filled with vendors selling trinkets and trash, food and drinks and offers of personal guided tours from dirty kids to professional guides  people just trying to make a living. I passed on everything and suddenly there I was, standing in front of the Ruins of Palenque. The excited skip in my step disappeared the second I tried climbing. That was not going to happen this day. I never got beyond the third step and I had to sit down. These ruins were going to he enjoyed and viewed from ground level and ground level only. They were everything I knew they would he. You can check out various web links if you want to learn more. I could never do it any justice because my head was not really in the game.

After 3 hours it was back to to hotel and back to bed where I basically stayed for the next 3 days. The kind lady at the desk knew I was sick and would check on me from time to time, Angel # 2. Murphy reared his ugly head again when I plugged in my laptop and suddenly the charger was not working. It is a Rocketfish product which was an expensive purchase when the power cord that came with my laptop failed. Old power cord lasted 3 years, new power cord gave me 10 months. Why are consumer electronics such crap. Regardless I can find another. I then received an email from telling me that my taxes for 2014 have been reassessed and I owed the Canadian Government money. Third reassessment since September. As previously stated. Murphy you suck.

Moral of this epic fail. When kids try and sell you Chiclets, buy them. You never know.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Viva México !!!

 southern Mexico from Guatemala. I entered  the Mexican Free and Sovereign State of Chiapas which has an interesting and somewhat modern violent history. (Quebec could be so lucky). I do know a little bit about the Zapatista Army and have a vague memory of news of their past uprisings. Like so many of the revolutionary movements in Latin America the Zapatistas are a peasant revolution against government corruption and abuse.

Since 1994, the group has been in a declared war "against the Mexican state", and against military, paramilitary and corporate incursions into Chiapas - Wikipedia.

Yes there is the standard police and military presence I have come to expect in Latin America but so far it is not as intense as El Salvador. I suspect that is much different in the North along the border with the USA. However, we were passed by a jeep with a 50 Caliber gun mounted, manned and ready to go. That will make you sit up and take notice. No I was not about to try and take a photo.
Guatemala - Mexico Border chaos
When I left Xela for what I thought would be a 5 to 6 hour shuttle ride I was headed to San Cristobal De Las Casas. A major tourist town and a hub for where I wanted to get to which are the ruins of Palenque about five hours north. San Cristobal would be a good rest stop to get acclimatized to another currency and recover from what was actually an 11 shuttle ride.

I was still very sore and tired from my hike up Volcán Tajumulco. Like hangovers I find that great hikes take longer to recover from as you get older. I was tired and sore but in that great way. I was also fighting a stomach bug but that just made me want to poop and sleep. So I did. Mixed in with all of this was a 6.2 earthquake that woke me up yesterday morning. See the news story here. I though it was cool but since then there has been devastating earthquakes in Ecuador and Japan so cool is not the right word I should have been looking for to describe the experience.

A poor shoe shiner against a powerful backdrop
San Cristobal de las Casas is about as touristy of a town as you can find anywhere. It is clean, tidy and teeming with restaurants, bars, coffee shops and travel agencies. I found a room at Hotel San Luis for $14 a night. A gem of a place. It was clean, modern, had hot watrt and wifi.

Still feeling a bit off I did not venture to far. The coffee was delicious where ever I went and cheap delicious food options were plentyful. I am here just as a jumping off point tp Palenque and the Mayan ruins there. Tops on my Mexican to do list.

As a confession in the past I have only known resrt Mexico and nightly news Mexico. Neither of them flattering. Mexico was never on my radar. I am happy that has changed. Does Mexico have issues? Lets not be silly sure it does what country doesn't?No I am not afraid of being express kidnapped or caught in the crossfire of warring cartels. You do not need the psudo safety of resort walls to explore and experience Mexico, although I did eat Subway today which was not much of a mexican experience.

Final thought. It seems like no matter where I go I  have had the joy of listening to a barking dog as I settle in for the night. Tonight its a little yappy mutt with a high pitch bark..if you can call it that. I miss being annoyed by roosters.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Volcán Tajumulco

One of the simple great things that happen while wandering on the road are random surprise. My latest happened while checking into the Los Nativos hostel in Xela. Walking to my room I ran head long into Nikki Zeiter who I had last seen almost 3 weeks ago in San Ignacio Belize. We had toured a few Mayan ruins sites with Anthony Williams.  Most of us follow the same "Gringo Trail" and it is bound to happen. It is always a great emotional uplift to meet a road friend and a friendly face.

Nikki is an avid hiker so over a quick lunch we decided that the next day we would meet at 4:30 am to begin the journey to the highest point in Central America. Volcán Tajumulco rises a grueling 4,220 metres (13,845 ft) and the journey to get there is about 3.5 hours but we were both excited by the challenge.

Yes that is a goat strapped to the top left of the chicken bus
chickens smickens

Waking up at 4:15 comes early no matter where you are in the world or what you have planned. I was ready in 10 minutes and laid back down on my beat with the faint hope that Nikki would sleep in. Not a chance. I heard the bolt on her door open down the hall. Ok, this is going to happen and off we went. We daringly walked the 20 minutes to the Minerva Terminal at 4:30 am creeping along eerily quiet streets. We had to take a our first chicken bus 90 minutes to San Marcos. We messed up a bit trying to find the right bus location in Xela but as usual locals, and there we lots of them prepping for market day, were helpful when asked. At San Marcos we switched to another bus to Tacana. We were told to let the driver know that we were hiking Tajumulco and he would drop us off at the trail head. A couple of westerners with packs and hiking gear looking out of place early in the morning with a bus load of peasant farmers and school kids, it was obvious were we were going.

Using a great blog post about the hike as our guide we were on our way. 

And so it begins

The summit peeking at us
I struggle with altitude when I get above 3000 metres and like Acatanango before it Tajumulco would need a serious effort. Shortness of breathe and dizzy spells are relieved by slow walking and climbing, rest stops and plenty of water. Slow and steady would be the rule for the day. There would be no running up this beauty.

Spread up before us was our Yellow Brick Road. A cobble stone road/trail would get us started along with our hearts pounding and blood flowing

There were a few houses along the road that resulted in friendly waves and "buenos dias" from locals starting their day. We could see Santa Anna rising through the clouds in the distance. We also had discussed climbing Santa Anna but reports of robberies on that volcano were confirmed when I asked Quetzel Trekkers in Xela about it and they said they take armed police with them. That choice was easy.

I have hiked with armed guards on Volcan Verde in El Salvador. It was an odd feeling knowing that in the forests around us there were bandits lurking. They knew better because these guards were heavily armed and would shoot to kill.

The cobbles ended (thankfully) at a very dusty and bolder strewn road that was easy to traverse and killed any hope of staying clean. I was finding my breathing rhythm but I could feel the altitude. Nikki was 10 feet ahead bouncing along merrily without issue and taking photos like a crazy girl. She had spent time living in Boulder Colorado and I think hiking is a law there. You have to hike or you get sent back to the State that you came from. She was strong and cheerful on the trail and I was happy to have her with me.
As we left the dusty road for what can be considered the actual trail both the elevation (obviously) and incline increased. I felt my breathing..check that I heard my breathing even more. I sounded like I had just finished a pack of smokes. My legs and back are strong but I have learned how to climb at elevations that work for me and my body. Hiking is not a competition and there are no gold medals for being first. The goal is to summit. Always remember that when you find yourself tired, out of breathe or frustrated on any hike. If anyone you climb with does not understand that, climb with someone else.

 Thankfully part of the trail flattened out in spots but the rocky and steep summit always loomed menacingly ahead. I have hiked 11 other volcanoes in 5 countries but the Tajumulco summit was messing with me. Maybe because it stood out like a huge menacing rocky crag standing alone against the sky. It distorted my initial perspective and messed with my ability to evaluate time stretches of the hike. What I thought was an hour hike to a certain rest spot such as a specific ridge line took 20 minutes. I did get back on track and I can put this experience in my hiking toolkit.

Aside from the spellbinding views the aroma of the pine and spruce forests along the trail added the sense of tranquility you experience while challenging yourself.  When I was a guide with Quetzel Trekkers in Nicaragua one of the first things I would mention to any hiker was "every once in a while, tired or not, just stop and look around. Enjoy the views because that is why you are here". I heeded my own advice and I had a hiking partner that who was literally on the same page about everything while on the trail. These pauses did give us the chance to talk, and talk we did like we had known each other all our lives.
 Once we cleared the forest we stood at the base of the final ascent. The monster that was staring at us right from the beginning. It was all boulders and scree and there would be some scrambling. A few years of rock climbing experience came in handy. The issue here is personal safety vs. the excitement of the summit. If you can not stay calm, focused and keep safety first in mind, stay home. These areas can be steep and rocks are never forgiving and sometimes sharp as a razor. If you hurt yourself you also put your partner or team in danger as well. I am not being dramatic here, just a pragmatist (practical and focused on reaching a goal).
Celebrating by standing on the highest rock on the summit
As we climbed and scrambled we reached a false summit as sometimes happens. We stood and looked up at the 10 minutes of easy trail that would take us to victory. With Nikki leading the way we were dumbfounded by the beauty of being above the clouds. Pictures never do justice to the reality of a situation. The fault line views on top of El Hoyo was as beautiful as it gets. Watching Fuego explode while atop Acatanango was Mother Nature at it's most powerful. Standing above the clouds with Santa Ana peering through in the distance brought a sense of tranquility to me. I can only imagine what the view from from the 8,848 m atop Everest must be. NO I am not thinking about it. Not now, not ever. I am a hiker, not a mountaineer and there is definitely a difference.

Selfie Celebration..and yes Nikki is wearing a Subway hat
After about an hour that included lunch and wandering around quietly enjoying the summit views it was time to descend. If you hike then you HATE the descent. It hurts your knees, crushes your toes and it is when you are most susceptible to injury. The adrenaline rush of the ascent is now pushed aside to the reality legs tightening up. You can slide and fall on loose rocks/scree, twist an ankle on a rock, fall in a rut or any other type of mishap. We both had a few slips to our back side but holy crap by the time we reached the dusty road (after realizing we were off trail and had to re adjust our track) my knees were aching but my toes were crushed.

We were on a deadline for the last bus to San Marcos but were well ahead of schedule so we did not need to push it. Finally the Uneven downhill cobbles of our Yellow Brick Road added a bit more pain but lead us to the trail head and the main road.

Hiking down through the clouds
The road was busy and a bus arrived in about 5 minutes and an uneventful 90 minutes got us to San Marcos. We had just talked about how everything had gone smoothly with the day when we were told that the last bus to Xela had just left. It was 4:30. The guys at the San Marcos terminal were helpful and kept saying to go to 97. WTF is 97? A random guy told us that we could get a bus in front of the pharmacy across the street. So off we went. Nikki stepped up and had a conversation with a guy inside who said yes and micro bus would come by. OK, lets go with that.

30 seconds later a collective pulls up and after some confusion we were told he would take us to 97 where there is a bus to Xela. So we jumped in the GuateUber and off we went a bit confused but knowing that we were being helped. A block from a busy corner a sweet lady taps Nikki on the should and lets her know that is where we need to go. The GuateUber kid running the show told us to wait until we turn the corner. We did and lo and behold sitting alone in what looked like some guys personal garage was a single colourful chicken bus with Xela on the sign. It turned out to the be the same bus we took to San Marcos. With grateful smiles and thanks all around we dashed across the street and jumped aboard. Our timing was good because this bus was going to get busy.

The decent begins
** No traveler would ever know to get to this location for an after hours bus to Xela without lots of help. With that being said if you are reading this and find yourself in the same situation as for a ride to 97th street. When you turn right jump out and look across the street and your magic carpet ride to Xela will be there. Its funny because when we pulled out and other bus was backing in. Guatemala ingenuity at its best. "The station is closed, screw it we will run a private bus terminal out of my house!".

With 30 minutes of Guatemalan confusion out of the way we settled in for the 90 minute ride to Xela. However, things got more interesting as we waited to leave. More people kept climbing aboard. It was time to loose any perspective of personal space. A larger lady sat beside me and we were now three on a seat create for 2 or 3 school age kids. Remember these are old American school buses. As we lumbered out for what was now going to be a hot and cramped ride home there were people 3 and believe it or not 4 abreast, to many standing in the aisle and some sitting on the floor. We did a general count and there were 85 people on a school bus designed for 42 kids. 

Now the greatest spectacle of all of this was the money guy. He calls out to people to get them on the bus then collects the fares. Well there was no way he was going to get through the throng on the bus, although I have seen money guys climb over seats and people in the past. Nope what this guy did, while the bus was in full flight, was climb up a side latter, run across the top and appear at the back door. Opened it, jumped inside and worked his was through the crowd he could not reach from the front. When he was done he disappeared out the back, ran across the top, down the ladder and stood at the open front door like nothing happened. Freaking badass! It was the best entertainment possible.

We pulled into Xela and thanks to Nikki's smart phone GPS skills we jumped off the bus at a corner near the bus station saving us about a 20 minutes of walking. As we talked and laughed about the experience rising out in the distance like a beacon of happiness was the golden arches of McDonalds.  We finish the day with McFlurries, me Oreo, her Smartie agreeing they were so much better than a cold beer ever could be after the day that we had.

Nikki climbing to meet me for the final ascent to the summit
Thank You Nikki for sharing this experience with me, I could never have done it without you. Well I could have done it but it would have sucked. Well it would not have sucked but...oh you know what I mean. Travel Safe.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Panajachel / Lago de Atitlan

Lake Atitlán is renowned as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and is Guatemala's most important national and international tourist attraction. German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt called it "the most beautiful lake in the world," and Aldous Huxley famously wrote of it in his 1934 travel book Beyond the Mexique Bay: "Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing. -- Wikipedia

Aldous Huxley is a damn fine wordsmith."touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como (a lake in Italy) with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing". I guess that is a tab bit better then "Lake Atitlan was amazing"

Yes I am still wearing the same T shirt after 4 days
I found myself in the very touristy town of Panajachel (Pana) after a long bus ride from Languin. I had been here before in October of 2010 while I was with Global Vision International. All I remember then was rain, lots and lots of rain.

The magic bus pulled into town just after sunset and there were hotels a plenty along with food stalls and bars along Calle Santander which was also hopping on a Saturday night. I loved the vibe. I wandered a bit until I stumbled across Hotel Uta Rajil. I was new, clean and I was ready for the hotel experience, including hot water all for $17 a night. I get that dorm rooms at the local hostel are $7 but how can you not adjust your budget to allow yourself the luxury of cable tv, a quiet room with a good bed, hot water and clean sheets. Maybe it's just me.

I had many options while I was here. I could take a collectivo panga to one of the small villages surrounding Atitlan. There are parks and hiking trails scattered around the lake plus Volcano Toliman,
Volcano De Atitlan and Volcano San Pedro looming beautifully and were calling my name. I can not tell a lie, I did nothing that did not include eating delicious street food, drinking coffee, wandering the waterfront, napping, taking hot showers, napping, walking up and down the main street and napping. I did go to a German bakery tonight and ate a large piece of chocolate blueberry cake for dinner.

I had a nice hotel room and I was going to take advantage of it. I even spent time watching bad American cable TV realizing after 15 minutes of drug advertising and commercials that I do not miss watching TV. I did switch over to a Spanish Soap Opera that made Coronation Street look like Shakespeare Theater.

I am all rested and tomorrow I head to Quetzeltenango which is referred to by its indigenous name Xela. There I am going to get off my butt and hike the fourth highest volcano in Guatemala, Santa Maria and the most active volcano in Guatemala, Santiaguito. There is also the highest volcano in Central America, Tajumulco that might get my undivided attention.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Semuc Champay

Semuc Champey is Mayan for Sacred Waters. I can only wonder how sacred and magical this place would have been to the Ancient Mayan because it sure was magical to me.  As usual you can go to the park on you but if you join a tour with qualified guides the experience is so much better. El Retiro did not have enough people for their tour so I walked into town and jumped on a semi filled pick up with a group from another their confused surprise. We then bounce and jolted our way the 30 minutes to the park entrance up and down what can only be loosely termed as a jungle road.

War Painted up and read to enter yet another water filled cave
Our tour started with yet another cave walk, this time by candle light and our two guides were the most energetic guides I have met to date. They used natural coloring from a few jungle plants and painted our faces for our trek to put us in the Mayan warrior spirit. They also used twine to keep my Havaianas from falling off. A very ingenious solution to be sure. Well with candles in hand we waded into the cave for our 700 metre trek and swim. Once inside there was an eerie feeling with the candles which provided a much better adventure than flashlights or headlamps. We waded and swam through cool water, climbed up and over boulders and back down into the stream. Our end game was a swimming hole where, if courageous, you climb 15 feet up a rock face and jump into a natural pool remembering this is 700 metres deep inside a cave.

Mayan cave warrior
Next up, tubing down the Cahabón River which is always fun. The best part of this were the "beer kids". They started hitting us up as soon as we got to the park. "hey want to buy a beer?", my name is Mario you can pay later" and with that the little salesman hooked me. When the sun is shining and your floating down a river on an inner tube, the answer to  "Drink beer  now, pay later"  is always a big OK. Regardless that it was 10:30 in the morning. There were half a dozen of these enterprising little guys but they knew their stuff and were relentless.

My relentless beer kid Mario following us down the river with his cooler
It was 45 minutes of fun on the river including falling off the tube more than once but NEVER spilling a drop of beer. Mario was right there encouraging more beer if I lost mine in the river. What a thoughtful kid. We ended our little water journey near a bridge where we were encouraged by our  guides to "get some courage and jump" to which Mario said "man beer gives you courage, you want another beer". It was about 30 feet and no amount of beer was going to get me to jump off a bridge. I am a tubing in the river kind of guy, not a jump off a bridge kind of guy.

After getting out of the river we gathered up our gear, paid for our beer and walked to the bridge. The beer boys had ran ahead and as we walked on the bridge they started pointing to various people and saying "your drunk", "he's drunk", They are drunk" and then offered us more beer. What funny group of kids
We will jump from that bridge ahead of us
Would you jump from this height?
After lunch we had a 30 minute fairly strenuous 30 minute hike to the Mirador or lookout point. From here we had our first view of the tiered pools of Semac Champay, the fast flowing upper river and the surrounding mountains. I must still have my Quetzeltrekkers game face on as the hike was difficult but aside from a soaked shirt I was fine and recovered quickly. That's not to say that I ran up the trail like a bunny. My legs were burning and were shaking plus I wobbled a bit when I walked when I reached the top. I find myself really pushing it when I have the opportunity to do so. Life in a hammock can be detrimental to a guys belly.

It is always a strange feeling to be staring at something that you have only known in pictures or heard of in stories. There I was on the Mirador looking down on the clear blue and tiered pools of Semac Champay. It did not disappoint and was a huge photo opp moment that included group shots, solo shots, scenery shots and lots of ohhs and ahhs. The exciting part was were were going to hike down and swim in the pools using the rocks as slides into the pool below. There were caves to be explored that required us to swim underwater to reach them. Sounded dumb but whatever off we went down to the pools. Everywhere I go there are caves to be explored. What's up with that?

The Cahabón River at the top off the pools
The Cahabón River actually rushes under the pools. The water in the pools are accumulated from the streams and run off of the surrounding mountains. We hopped in the top pool and it was clear, warm and maybe 8 feet deep in the middle. We swam and worked our way down the pools using the smooth surfaces of the rocks as slides with everyone squealing like children at a water park. Wait, we were children at a water park. It was 2 hours of sheer joy and fun with NO cameras. Everyone just enjoying the moment. Yes, we swam into low laying caves near the bottom pool which freaked me out a bit as there was only about 6 inches of headroom once you surfaced from the 5 foot underwater swim. We swam and followed our guides underwater and then back up again like a school of happy dolphins.

We cleaned up and bounced along  back to town a tired but happy satisfied group. Semac Champay did not disappoint. As I said earlier it is always cheaper to do these hikes on your own but paying for a tour accomplishes so much more. You have guides to make the day interesting and enjoyable. You meet up with new people for the day which is as important as anything when you are a solo traveler and finally its just more fun when your in a group. 

The El Retiro Jungle Lodge was a great setting for my time in Languin. It was remote enough from the town to be quiet yet the 20 minute walk made it an easy hike into town to explore. I paid $10 a night to stay and if you wanted they had a themed buffet every night for $10. I had Italian night and Thai night. The restaurant had a decent bar where beer was reasonable and a great place to be social if that was your thing. There was lots of space if you wanted to read, or just hang by the river plus there were friendly lodge dogs everywhere who would just stroll over, tails wagging and hang with you.

Guatemala. You can enjoy your time in this beautiful and mysterious place with it's friendly kind people. You should bear in mind that more than 200,000 people were killed over the course of the 36-year-long civil war that began in 1960 and ended with peace accords in 1996. About 83 percent of those killed were Mayan. That was less than 20 years ago so tourism is a relatively new thing for this generation of Guatemalans.

Look deep and you will see that the Civil war was started when the American Government over threw a democratically elected government due to land reforms and the United Fruit Company.  Yes democratically elected. They used fear of Communism as a pretext to war. Sound familiar?

Do not let that deter you from coming here. As with many countries in Latin America the people and places are wonderful, kind and peaceful. However I think you need to keep perspective when your touring around enjoying yourself with a credit card and pockets full of cash. Please try and not barter with a farmer over the price of a pineapple trying to save .10 then walk over to a foreign owned coffee shop and pay $2 for a coffee without issue.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Scary Bus From Flores to Languin

There is one more "must see and do" before I leave Guatemala and head north to Mexico, Semac Champay. The challenge "if I wish to accept it" is the 10 hour bus ride from Flores to Languin. Not a real concern except the road is exactly what you would think of when you imagine a third world jungle mountain road and a driver who you know is going to drive too fast and pass where ever he can regardless of the conditions. Guatemala has some of the worst accident records in all of Central America and twice the death rate as Canada.

Most of the incidents of buses careening off of the roads and down 1000 foot cliffs are Chicken Buses. Most are older school buses in poor condition with macho drivers who follow no rules. They are also under pressure from violent gangs to deliver as many people as quickly as possible to pay fees, otherwise they can get stopped anywhere on the road and are robbed. These long distance Chicken buses are normally filled with locals going to markets or home from spending time working in the coffee fields harvesting for Starbucks. Very few travelers venture onto them except for short town to town rides knowing the dangers regardless of the savings. This is an interesting chart that I found showing World Road Accident Death rates. There are some very serious dangerous drivers out there in the world and in every country. Before we all jump to insane conclusions how many times have you read in your local newspaper about a traffic accident death. It is so commonplace now you do not give it a second thought. It is just more dramatic when it involves a bus going off a cliff. Perspective is everything.

We are heading into them thar hills
With all that under my cap and a free breakfast courtesy of the Chaltuna Hostel, I boarded a Microbus at 9:00 am for the 10 hour trek to Languin. Oddly our driver started the trip buy turning to us and saying "Good Morning, my name is Hector. I am not a normal Guatemalan bus driver". "We may take longer but we will be safe as I too have a family". As I said thank you Hector I calmly and quietly removed my diaper.

The trip itself was un-eventful in its beauty. Driving over high mountains into deep valleys down the ever present well worn winding roads at times with hectic traffic. A few Chicken Buses passed us going to fast, down hill and into tight curves where the drop was gut wrenching. Hector pulled over a few ties during chaotic moments to let cars and buses pass. Hector became more awesome with each kilometre. We passed through the village towns of La Liberdad, San Fransisco, Sayaxche and  La Rosas each with it's own charming central square. The views were as breath taking as you can imagine both up and down hill. Not once were we in any danger thanks to Hector. He even pulled over a few times to have a smoke and encourage us to take pictures. Make no mistake the road at times was rutted and we bounced along pretty good. I can not imagine this road during the rainy season.

We arrived in Languin just as the sun went down and it did not look like much of a town but the daylight will change all of that. The moment the bus door opened we were greeted with the screams and shouts of "young touts". "Where is your hotel", "where are you staying", "come with me, good price". Here we were in a town deep inside a Guatemalan jungle valley and the drive for tourist dollars was alive and thriving. I had a reservation at the El Retiro Jungle Lodge and our driver was going to take me there directly. Sometimes is pays to be prepared.

El Retiro has a great reputation and NO WiFi. I was going to be unplugged for 3 glorious jungle days. I could probably find a connection in town at a coffee shop but the decision was made. I was Unplugged and was staying unplugged. The resort was not busy and there were only 3 people in the dorm built for 10. I knew there was a river out there in the dark somewhere, I could hear it rushing and suddenly had to pee. Jungle Lodge bathrooms at night no matter how modern and clean are still Jungle Lodge bathrooms. After the long ride down the winding scary roads to get here I was ready for yet another three days of hammocking. Yes I know I just used the noun hammock and made it a present progressive tense verb.

Before laziness abounds (on the road its called chilling but its really just being lazy) there is Semac Champay. The reason I made this trip. Maybe the torturous drive will bring the remote Eden I have heard so much about.

Tikal And Flores

With my long travel day over I found myself in San Miguel at the Chaltuha hostel across the lake from Flores. I had stayed at the Chaltuna hostel in San Ignacio, Belize and the experience was great so this was a logical choice. I liked that it is across a small lake from the tourist chaos that can be Flores. It was worth the 5Q panga ride back and forth to Flores when I wanted to go get dinner, a beer or to just walk around. However the tiny village of San Miguel had some great food choices that were delicious and about half the price of the trip into Flores such as Q2 Tacos served out of the front door of a local home.

The view of Flores from the Chaltuna Hostel
Flores is the jump off point for the ruins of Tikal, one of the largest Mayan sites in Guatemala and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Make no mistake the locals have learned how to exploit tourists at a "popular tourist destination". The Government has also realized that tourist and travelers are going to stop at Tikal regardless of the entrance fee. It was a reasonable $22 to get into the park considering the cost of maintaining the site. It was the cost of transportation and guide from Flores where we get Bonked like sheep. $35 was not brutal considering it was an hours drive each way plus you get a private tour guide of the site. Transportation was a microbus and there were only 8 of us which gave us lots of room to spread out. After being crammed on local chicken buses the ability to have some space, even for a short while, is quite luxurious.

They Mayans were definitely Masters of their era. They occupied territory in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. They were inventors, warriors, builders, scientists, traders, merchants and artists but were also blood thirsty lunatics. Blood being a life force the more they spilled through sacrifice the more they were to appease the gods. I am certainly not going to try and write about the Mayan culture, its History and what effects it has had on modern society, there is volumes of information online for that. What I have come to appreciate is as much as the Inca were masters of their time, the Mayan took that to a whole new level. Then the Spanish showed up and fucked everything up.

The Central Plaza
Tikal is buried deep in the northern Guatemala jungle. There are various other sites of interest in and around the area including the massive El Mirador. Here is a full list of Mayan sites. In the jungle you can hear and see Howler monkeys, spider monkeys, Toucans and colorful parrots along with assorted snakes and spiders.

If you go to Tikal, hire a guide. You can save a few dollars by wandering the site yourself but having a knowledgeable guide take you around can bring the site to life, even if you are a part of a zombie type group following obediently. You remember, they type or people I made fun of in my visit to ruins in Belize.

A panga and a tuk-tuk. That's how we roll in Flores and San Miguel
After my journey to Flores and day in Tikal I had 2 days to swing on a hammock, read and enjoy the quiet that was the Chaltuna Hostel. There were roosters galore but the beer was cold keeping me on a even keel. I am in dire need of a good hike as all this hammock swinging is taking its toll. I will think about that after I wake up from my hammock nap.

Monday, April 4, 2016

A Typical Travel Day

For all its glory international travel is not all about great hikes, stunning photos, cold beer on the beach, ocean views, exploding volcanoes, delicious street food and FB posts or blog posts showing it all off. Well yes it is but  you have to get from one place to the next. As the saying goes sometimes the fun is in the journy and more times than not those nuggets become the stories of your trip. Be prepared for touts at every border crossing and bus station, over crowded hot buses sometimes with livestock, confusion because you did not do your research, momentary hopeless moments, overpriced cabs and the small victories that go along with it all to get you to you next WTF moment. Yesterday was one such day.

As I sit at the Chaltuna Hostel sipping a cold Gallo following my tour of Tikal my mind wandered back to yesterday and the road trip that was San Pedro Belize to Flores, Guatemala. There were a couple of "ah shit now what" moments but in the end I made my destination unscathed.

With a hot coffee in my hand I was on the Belize Express Water Taxi Dock by 7:30 for my 8:00 ride back to Belize City staring at the myriad of fish in the shallows. The funny thing about my time in Belize. I noticed it did not have that great "ocean smell" you come to expect. Not the dead fish and seaweed smell but that great salty clean smell you get from coastal breezes. My boat arrived on time and a little over an hour later, with a stop at Caye Caulker I was back in the sh**hole that was Belize City. Thankfully it was early on a Sunday morning and the streets were relatively quiet.

I vaguely remembered, or thought that I remembered the way to the bus station from when I walked here less that 2 weeks ago. Well that was my first mistake. Ten minutes into my slow confused but determined walk (always look like you know where you are going) a large car pulls over and a larger driver yells "where you going boy", "To the bus station" I reply. "Boy, your lost jump in and for $7 I will take you there". First there is no way I am jumping into a random car in Belize City. Second, there is no way I am jumping into a random car in Belie City. I cut my losses and turned around to start again. As these things do happen at that exact moment a cop is pulling up the street in my direction. I wave him down and he waves back confused but I get him to stop. "I am looking for the bus station" to which he replies "boy you're lost". I am already sick of hearing that. He gives me directions back to the swing bridge where I was supposed to turn immediately left and not go straight. Thanking him and off I go with the realization that my backpack is now starting to get heavy. Within 15 minutes I am at the chaos that is the dingy and grimy Belize City bus terminal. I am not sure being lost was worse.

People stand in herds in what looks like a prison rec yard blocked off from the incoming buses by a locked one way swing gate. As the time nears the masses move towards the gate in unison. As the bus pulls into the station you sure as hell better have your A game with you. The transit official in a bright yellow shirt and dark menacing sun glasses gives the cue and with that opens the door to let everyone charge for a seat. The Transit official had a sneaky smirk as I passed him in a flurry. It was like fish trying to leave a pen for the ocean. People, young and old pushing, shoving and blocking you from going anywhere in front of them. I thought fuck it, and so elbows up off I went. I think the locals respected it because a few smiled in their sweaty quest for the bus. I ran to the back door where there was a space and tossed my bag in the doorway. This gave me priority...for about 3 seconds. I jumped in, grabbed my bag and found a seat.  I may have elbowed an woman or two along the way but nobody yelled at me. So goes Belize and Central America. I had a seat for the 2.5 hour ride to San Ignacio. 

In San Ignacio I grabbed a burger to wind down. I had a border crossing to make. I was struggling to find a cab to take me to the border that did not want me to buy his extended family dinner that night. I settled on a $10 ride which was twice what I should have paid but it was time to move on and I was at the border in about 15 minutes. I paid my $37 exit fee (can you believe that one) to leave Belize walked across the border without any issues as per usual. The Guatemalan customs agent took my passport, scanned it, stamped it and handed it back without looking up. I walked out, past the touts offering rides everywhere and read a sign, Welcome to Melchor de Mencos Guatemala....What, where? Now I needed a collectivo to Flores. That proved easier said than done

My initial thought was to walk about a kilometre along the highway and just wait for one to come by. That would have worked but as I stood there I started to over think things. What if there isn't one on a Sunday, maybe I am in the wrong spot, ok, where is a hotel just in case, I need to poo. Normal stuff really. After a few minutes a little kid standing on the corner opposite me yelled, "Hey, you want collectivo 30 Q" to which of course I said yes. "come this way down here". Here is where you have to learn to trust. I thought "shit, I am not going down some side street with a kid" my over stimulated mind having me beaten, robbed and cut up into chunks for dog food. Turns out he was just being a helpful and honest kid because 20 minutes later when nobody was around I walked down that little street and sure enough the collectivo bus station was right there under plain as day white arches and it was 30Q. Sorry kid, although all 60 lbs of you was quite scary.

I jumped in and was off to Flores within the hour. The bus only had 5 of us as passengers which was a nice change from the normal 20 passengers squeezed into a collectivo designed for 14. I was dropped off in Santa Elena then a quick Tuk Tuk to Flores. In Flores I hoped on a barca to cross the lake to Chaltuna and was in my room before you could say 9 hours by boat, bus, taxi, walking, border crossing, collectivo, Tuk Tuk, Barca and finally climbing a big ass hill to the Hostel.

No, its not all "Wonders of the World" when you travel because you have to get to the places you want to go. Aside from a few bumps and bruises yesterdays travel day was easy. You have to be prepared for anything because anything can and will happen.

Now about that poo

Saturday, April 2, 2016

San Pedro - Ambergais Caye

In a Caribbean town of 14,000 where the most popular mode of transportation are Golf Carts things can not get over the top stressful. Road rage? Well when you can walk faster than the electric mode of transport you should not expect to much intensity between gold carts. However, texting and golf carting lives and breathes in San Pedro. Renting a golf cart for the day never crossed my mind. I just really enjoyed watching everyone cruise around with big smiles on their faces and beer in their hands. 

If you get road rage here you have other serious issues to be resolved
 Here is a brief recap of my time in San Pedro. I am proud to say I accomplish my personal goal of "sloth" . A man needs goals.

Glorious Papusas: The world now stops when I see a Pupusaria. On the main street of San Pedro I found one and they were every bit as good as anything I had in El Salvador. It helped that the old gal on the grill was from San Salvador. I was spoiled with my .30 papusas but at $1.75 these were just fine...all 5 off them. I have been there a few times and will top off my time here tonight with a final visit.

Crazy Canucks Sports Bar: Boasting real Buffalo Style chicken wings I had to make the effort to get here. Well Crazy Canuck Sports Bar, FAIL! Let's be clear they were decent and for someone who really does not know what real Buffalo Wings are then sure, they will do. Hot buffalo style wings do not have chili flakes in the sauce. Personally, I grew up 30 km from Buffalo and have had the gastronomic pleasure of The Willow, The Anchor Bar, Honeys, The Stuffed Mushroom, Yanks, Mr Bs, Duffs and so many more. I can be classified as a " proud chicken wing snob". I was happy to devour them as a treat with an 11:00 am beer, well 2 beer but left a bit wanting. Now all I can think of is getting back to Canada and gorging. That will come in due time.

We need to teach you about Chicken Wings, but A for effort

Sunsets: What is it about sunsets. Given the opportunity everyone will stop, find a good sunset and enjoy it. San Pedro is no different. I was staying at the Sandbar Hotel which faces East and it is a long 10 minute walk to the other side of the island that overlooks the lagoon and faces west.  It is around this time that the locals bring out their gear and fish for red snapper off the dock with their family in tow. I had the feeling that no catch means no supper, but the one guy I spoke with caught two fairly quickly and was just going to catch a third. I like that he limited himself and would come back the next night. Tomorrow I am getting up early to watch the sun rise, well I say that now. Mobile devices need not apply.

Sunsets are mesmerizing where ever you are

The Truck Stop: Take a barren parcel of land. Clean it up. Place 4 shipping containers there, clean them and convert them to food trucks and a bar. Build a very cool boardwalk and patio to the ocean. Have pig roasts, movie nights and various other fun great food and you have a winner. I walked to the The Truck Stop in 45 minutes but having been offered rides going both directions. Golf Cart drivers are the best. There is an Asian truck (naturally), Colombian, an ice cream and a full bar. My first trip I had the chicken stir fry. Today I had flat noodle shrimp stir fry with side of veggie spring rolls with sweet chili dipping sauce. I followed that up with a trip to the ice cream truck for one scoop of Maple Bacon Heaven. Seriously, there were real bits of bacon in the ice cream.

The Truck Stop. A great idea with really good food. Golf cart parking optional

Chicken Drop Bingo: Wahoos Lounge. I do not even know where to start with this but it was freaking awesome! You have a pen with 100 squares in it numbered 1 to 100 naturally. The squares are about 8 x 8 each and lined in a 10 x 10 grid. So the pen is how big? That's right, 6.66 feet x 6.66 feet that  is enclosed by a 1 foot high cotton type fence.
Enter the Chicken. He runs around and you scream and shout hoping he poops. Yup, you are cheering for a chicken to poop on your square. If he does, you win $100. Thank god for alcohol.

** As an aside. The first game was won by a young girl, maybe 15. She was all excited and having fun and everyone was cheering for her. Her parents? Arguing because neither one of them got the victory on video. Young girl just started crying, parents kept fighting. What is wrong with the need to have recorded proof of everything? Why could they just not have a fantastic moment.?
** As an aside two. There is a top prize of $1000 Belizian in game 4. You pay $10 for that game instead of the normal $1. Suddenly as if like magic quite a few of the local "boys" showed up, hung around and were chatting trying to make friends with way over the top "heeyy man, how ya doing man". Just a quickly sowing up were a few of the local cops offering a free escort back (on a golf cart of course) to your hotel if you won.

The Chicken Drop playground.

The Gator Hunt: ACES / American Crocodile Education Sanctuary is an NGO that works to preserve and protect the local gator population. Our guide "Chris that Gator man" launched our night tour from the Office Bar and Grill on the Lea side of the Island.  Chris is from England, not a hotbed for "gator activity". However he came to Belize 8 years ago and found his life's passion.

Ten of us launched with Chris and his first mate. We were receive a great education on gators, croc's and caiman. They were using a large flash light searching under the mangroves for the tell tale sign..the red glow of the gators eyes. Chris was talking but suddenly says, "we have one". We were 20 metres from the mangrove and sure as shit looking down the light line you could see the "devil eyes.  We slowly motor over and at 25 metres from the short Chris decides to jump out. He is going to catch this gator.

The water is about chest deep and he wades to the under brush. After 10 minutes he comes back to the the boat and to our surprise, even though we were expecting it, he is holding a 3 foot American Alligator. He proceeds to educate us on the little guy who did not look to pleased at being the centre of attention. After a bit he was released to reduce his stress and we were off to find another, and we did. 

These were juvenile gators but we were assured that there are large 3 to 4 metre adults in the mangroves. So you know, the mangroves are along the shores where people have built their homes. ACES is trying to protect habitat through education and awareness but were were told with more than a twinge of sadness, that like so many natural things in the world today people pretend to care, as long as it does not "affect their lives or their new homes", then the gators are a nuisance. 

Keep the passion Chris

Wandering The Streets/ Reading Boods: There is not much to downtown San Pedro. There are shops, restaurants, bars, official buildings, boats launches, an airport and water. Lots and lots of water. I found that after morning coffee I walk the 10 feet to the beach, grab a chair, pull our my book and away I . I finished The Catcher in the Rye fairly quickly and found myself staring a limiting book swap. I settled on a Tom Clancy novel The Teeth of The Tiger from 2003. It follows in the tradition of Jack Ryan but it is his son, Jack Ryan Jr. I really am having a hard time finding my reading rythem with this book, but once I open I book I have to finish it, just one of those things with me.

After reading I needed to stretch so walking around became my things. Maybe stop somewhere for lunch, a beer or both. Then back to my bench or to get out of the blazing mid day sun, a shade covered hammock. I have re-discovered my passion for reading. It was always there but 30 minutes here, 30 minutes there. I lost the ability to sit for 3 hours, maybe 4 devouring a book. Hopefully this rediscovered passion remains

My morning book reading view
My time in Belize ends tomorrow. It has been an interesting couple of weeks. Mayan ruins, jungle treks, exploring caves, swimming with sharks, sandy beaches, warm breezes and long day of doing nothing. This country has so more to offer and I encourage anyone to come here. It is not expensive if you manage yourself properly. You will find warm people, good food, solid transportation, stable currency and a big old play ground.

Guatemala and Flores/Tikal are up next. I adore Guatemala and I am looking forward to returning.