Text

After the LONGEST day of travel EVER, I finally arrived in San Cristóbal, Chiapas, México, last night!

I started the morning off in the lakeside of town Panajachel on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, where I attempted to catch the 7am direct bus to the market town of Chichicastenango.  I soon realized that there was no 7am bus to be found, so I hopped on a bus bound for Xela, and got off at a junction where I was able to cram myself and my backpack onto THE most crowded bus I have ever been on (and that´s saying a lot!!).  I arrived in Chichicastenango about an hour later, and after peeling a few sleeping Guatemaltecos off my shoulders, I was able to disembark just in time to watch the bus driving away with my backpack still tied on top.  I panicked and shrieked and sprinted after the bus and pounded on the windows until it stopped and someone hopped on top and threw my bag down for me.

Out of all the days for that to happen, that was possibly the worst, as I always keep my camera in my daypack or purse with me, and my USB stick with all my photos on it in my backpack, so if one gets stolen, I still have all my photos backed up.  Unfortunately, I had stayed at a sketchy place the night before and had hidden my camera deep in my backpack and forgot to pull it out before leaving in the morning!  All I could think of as the bus was driving away with all my belongings was my photos…I was SO relieved when I was able to stop the bus!!

Anyways, I found a hotel in Chichi that would let me stow my backpack for Q10 for a couple of hours, and spent a little while wandering around the outskirts of town, as it was still a bit too early for the market.  The cemetary was one of the nicest I have ever seen - bright, vibrant tombs perched on a sunny hillside overlooking the town site.

The town´s main church was also gorgeous, but the main part was temporarily closed for renovations.  However, a lot of the ritual activity had simply relocated to the steps outside the church, which made for a beautiful scene as the Mayan elders made small sacrifices and offerings of flowers, burned candles and copal incense, and spent time meditating in the morning sun in front of the white-washed church.

The market itself was definitely not as good as I was expecting!  The prices were insanely high, and although there was a lot of hand-made and hand-embroidered work, I was surprised by how much mass-produced items were for sale.  I had been expecting to find some really special pieces, but overall I really wasn´t blown away.  I spent about half an hour bargaining over a hand-embroidered Mayan calendar (a wall hanging), and only managed to get it down to Q260 from Q350…and after all that I didn´t even really want it anymore, but I felt like I had to buy it!  Other than some street food, that was pretty much the only thing I purchased.

After a couple of hours, tour groups started arriving en masse, and I decided that I had seen enough of the market (it also wasn´t as big as I was expecting).  I retrieved my backpack and got on the next chicken bus heading to Santa Cruz del Quiché, where I transferred to a microbus that was heading to Huehuetenango.  I still hadn´t decided whether I would spend the night in Huehue, or keep pushing on towards the border, but seeing how it was still fairly early in the afternoon, I decided to hop on a bus from Huehuetenango to La Mesilla - the border with Mexico.  I got off the bus in La Mesilla, walked about a kilometer to the Guatemalan migration offices, then hopped in a colectivo to get to the Mexican migration at Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, about a 15-minute drive away.  Once I got through the Mexican migration post, I walked across the street and bought a ticket for the next bus to San Cristóbal, which was leaving about two hours later.ç

I was sitting in the terminal debating getting some dinner, when an Australian guy came by and we found out we were heading the same direction.  We walked over to a taco stand down the street for dinner, and sat there for quite a while killing time before the bus left.  Eventually we decided to head back to the terminal, but not before stopping to get popsicles at a corner store…which was a terrible, terrible decision.  We got super distracted by all the delicious Mexican snack foods (far superior to anything else in Central America), and took about 10 minutes in the store.  When we walked back outside towards the terminal, the ticket agent came running at us, super agitated and yelling that the bus had just left…

Turns out there is a time change of one hour when you cross the border!!  We had no idea that it was actually an hour later in Mexico :(  The bus driver and the ticket agent had been nice enough to make the bus wait almost half an hour for us, but eventually it had to be on its way, and we missed it by about ten minutes.

We quickly debated over what to do next, and after checking out the prices at the one hotel in town, we realized that the best thing to do would be to take a taxi to the next town the bus stops in, and hope that we could catch up to it.  The only thing was that the next stop was 75 minutes away!  We had to pay the awful price of M$350 to get to Comitán, and we pretty much hopped out of the cab as he was pulling up to a stop, sprinted through the terminal, and caught the bus just as the driver was getting ready to back out!!  Luckily, they honoured our tickets from Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, and we managed to make it to San Cristóbal without any more issues by about 11pm.

We had to take a taxi from the bus station, but were able to check into a super nice hostel for not too bad of a price.  It´s definitely a shock adjusting to Mexican prices though, after so much time in dirt-cheap Central America!!

San Cristóbal is as beautiful as I remember it, and after visiting the artisan market here in town, I wish I hadn´t even bothered with Chichicastenango!

Either tomorrow or the following day, I´m off to Palenque, finally!  I´ve been wanting to visit it for years now :)

Text

After having quite enough of the cold of the Highlands, we decided it was time for a few days in the sun!  After a giant $2 breakfast at the market, we made our way across town and hopped on a bus bound for Lake Atitlán, one of my favourite places from my previous trip to Guatemala.  We chose to stay in the village of San Marcos, so after arriving in the tourist hub of San Pedro, we caught a boat across the lake to the New Age center of San Marcos.  After a lot of bargaining, we scored a beauuutiful room at the nicest resort in town for $7 each!

Unfortunately the whole sun thing didn´t really pan out, so instead of basking in the sun and swimming in the lake, we´ve been drinking cup after cup of amazing coffee, generally doing a lot of chilling, and even enjoying a massage yesterday!  It seems like every other person here is a massage therapist or an aura reader or a meditation specialist, so prices are pretty low!  I´ve never had a real massage before, and it was glorious, especially after hauling a heavy pack up and down the Cuchumatanes Mountains for several days!

This afternoon I am off to Panajachel, where I will be catching the first shuttle of the day tomorrow to the famous market town of Chichicastenango, to make a few souvenir purchases before heading to Mexico on Friday!

Text

From Antigua, I headed north to Xela, also known as Quetzaltenango.  A friend I had made in Antigua who had unfortunately broken her foot and was on crutches was heading the same way, so I was lucky enough to get to carry TWO packs all day while we were transferring from bus to bus!  I hadn´t quite gotten over the flu yet, and the road was one of the windiest I have ever been on, and I spent pretty much the whole day doubled over with my head in a bucket, making quite the spectacle of myself as the Guatemalans looked on, amazed that I was so weak haha.

Fiiiiinally we arrived in Xela, grabbed the first cab we could find, and asked the driver to take us to the hostel we had randomly picked out of a guidebook.  We checked in, I spent some more quality time with my head in the toilet, and then I slept from 4pm to 7am and woke up feeling much, much better.  I made my way over to the Quetzaltrekkers office and paid the balance on a six-day trek that I had paid my deposit for before getting the flu.  It really was an awesome deal - $140 for a six-day trip, all food and transport included (accommodation was mostly outside), and free rental of any gear that I needed!

I spent the rest of the day running errands and picking up a few last-minute things I needed for the trek, and then went to bed nice and early in preparation for the 6:30am meeting time at the Quetzaltrekkers office.  I stored a bunch of my clothes and stuff at their site, and rented a down jacket and sleeping bag, toque and gloves, and sleeping mat and picked up my portion of the group´s food. 

We spent most of the first  day bussing to the small mountain town of Nebaj.  The afternoon was spent wandering in the market, looking at the amazing huipiles that the local women weave on their looms.  We spent the first night in a hostel run by an American expat, who was quite the character.  We had a delicious dinner that was followed by THE most amazing apple pie, and then we were treated to a performance by the Nebaj Children´s Choir!  It was hard to keep a straight face as we were serenaded by a group of about a dozen young Mayan girls led by an odd American fellow, singing songs like This Land is Your Land, various Beatles songs, and even The Loco-Motion.  I´m pretty certain the children didn´t understand a word of what they were singing, as Ixil is their first language, and they learn Spanish once they start going to school, but definitely no English is spoken in Nebaj!

The next morning we started off bright and early, walking through picturesque valleys filled with cows and horses, and stopping off at an Italian-run cheese farm to pick up some fresh cheese for the next few days´ sandwiches!  Eventually we made it to the tiny hamlet of Xexuxcob (no idea if that spelling is correct), and settled down for the evening on the floor of the town´s school building.  We were lucky enough to get to use one of the local family´s temascal (traditional Mayan sauna) to warm up before having a filling dinner of rice and beans in the family´s home.

The next morning was the hardest of the trek.  We woke up at 3:30am in order to attempt to make it up a steep, steep hill of 87 switchbacks before the sun rose!  Unfortunately we weren´t quite able to beat the sun, but the view of the sun coming up behind the lesser peaks was amazing as we were walking (struggling!) upwards.  We made hot oatmeal and coffee at a beautiful lookout spot along the trail, and then tackled the last stretch of the hill before arriving at the altiplano.

The altiplano, or high plains, was incredibly beautiful, but quite desolate.  It was covered in rocks that looked like the fell from the sky, and because of the ground consisting mostly of limestone, there were lots of weird sinkholes and other rock formations in the earth.  Here and there we passed lonely-looking Mayan sheep herders, and occasionally travelled through teeny villages of no more than a few mud-brick shacks.  After a loooong day traversing the altiplano, we descended steeply into the village (if you can even call it that!) of Canton Primera, and settled down for the night on the concrete slab outside of the local school.  We cooked up a hearty dinner of pasta and gulped down some hot drinks before bundling up and burrowing into our sleeping bags to face the cold, cold night.

The next morning we packed up quickly and descended the rest of the way down the mountain to a beautiful river.  We prepared a hot breakfast and warmed up in the sun for a while before starting the long uphill slog up the other side of the river valley, gaining almost the same elevation over the course of the day as we had the day before.  Around mid-day we were on the altiplano again, and some of the darkest clouds I have ever seen began to surround us.  We quickly huddled and made the decision to pay a local family to make us some hot eggs for lunch and let us hunker down in their house until the storm passed.  It was an excellent decision - minutes after taking out packs off, the roar of hail on the tin roof became deafening, several tornadoes whirled around in the fields surrounding the house, and forked lightning hit the transistor near the house and knocked out the power!

Once the storm passed we thanked the family for their kindness and headed up to the ridge overlooking the town.  Looking back from where we came, it looked as though the fields were covered in snow - so much hail!  We made it to our next destination, the town of La Ventosa, just as the skies opened again and it started to pour rain.

In La Ventosa, we stayed in a spare room at the house of the village chief, and were lucky enough to get to use a temascal again!  Unfortunately, this one wasn´t quite as nice and as another girl and I were the first group in, we were dismayed to have the later groups report that what we thought was mud in the dark of the sauna was actually dog poop.  Not exactly a cleansing experience!

The next morning we headed out to tackle the highest non-volcanic point in Central America, La Torre, at almost 4000m (the volcano of Tajumulco is a little bit higher).  The climb was one of the mildest of the trip, as we were already at such high altitude, but the view was unfortunately one of the worst as we were quite clouded in.  Because it was sooo cold, we didn´t linger at the top and instead continued down for a few more hours until we came to a sheltered spot to stop and have lunch.

A little while after lunch, we arrived in the town of Todos Santos - the end of the trek!  The town itself is very interesting; all the men wear exactly the same outfit of red and white-striped pants, a blue jacket with an embroidered collar, and a type of straw hat with an embroidered band.  All the women wear navy and white-striped skirts, with beautifully embroidered huipiles (traditional blouses) cinched in with woven belts.  It was really funny to walk around town and see how some of the townsfolk had adapted the outfits to their own styles - lots of the younger men wore their pants low and baggy and their hats tilted forward at a jaunty angle!

We stayed in the spare room of a family´s home again and were treated to a wonderful homemade vegetable soup for dinner - a very nice change from rice and beans with the (very) occasional egg!

In the morning (the morning of my 24th birthday!), we woke up at 4am to catch a couple of buses back to Xela.  A friend I had made on the trek and I found a cheap room near the trekking office, and after wrapping things up with the group I had the best hot shower of my life!!  After getting clean and dry, we headed to a cute cafe in the centre of town and met up with a couple from the trek, and spent the afternoon drinking beer and eating delicious waffles and enjoying the luxury of not being freezing and wet and sitting in dirt!  Then I skyped with my parents for a while, which was really nice, and then headed back to the trekking office for a yummy potluck dinner and a lot of red wine!

Photo Set
Text

After one night in Poptún, I headed a few hours south to Río Dulce.  The town itself isn´t especially pretty, but it´s situated on a gorgeous river and there are tons of nice places to stay on the river and its tributaries outside of town.  I caught a boat and crossed my fingers that the place would turn out to be nice, and was I ever in luck!  The hostel was gorgeous, and I met some really nice people and had a good first evening chatting over beers.

The next day, five of us took a boat to town, had a $1 street food breakfast of fried chicken and washed it down with a cold beer, then hopped on a bus to Finca El Paraíso.  It´s an amazing place - a hot, spring-fed waterfall tumbling down onto a crystal-clear cold river!  We spent the day swimming and basking in the water, and then headed back into town for another dose of street food in the afternoon, stocked up on rum for the evening, and took a boat back to the hostel for a fairly rowdy night.  The next day was pretty chill, just hammocking and swimming, and then the next morning I headed back to town and caught a bus for Guatemala City.  In Guate I made the last shuttle to Antigua with just seconds to spare, and arrived a couple of hours later for the beginning of the Holy Week celebrations - the biggest and most vibrant in the country.

The hostel I had booked (reservations are crucial for Holy Week - I think I got one of the last affordable beds in town!) turned out to be not so great, but luckily filled with fun people.  The area I was staying in was basically an unfinished attic with a bare tin roof, furnished with a handful of lockers, and 30 plastic-covered mattresses lying on the floor.  The heat was UNBEARABLE during the day, and at night the cold was so bad we were given three heavy woolen blankets each!

The town was FILLED with people, and the celebrations were quite neat to watch.  The hostel was situated right on a main street, so we were lucky enough to have a lot of the processions go right past the front door!  One of the employees was nice enough to invite a few of us to help his family build their flower carpet in front of their business across town, so we eagerly took part and had a great time!  Probably the best part of Holy Week though was the street food…there were hundreds and hundreds of vendors, with every kind of Central American street food you could imagine!!  Lunches were always a several-hour long affair as we ate and ate and went back for seconds and thirds and more, and probably never spending more than a few bucks! 

Unfortunately, the economical dining caught up to me eventually and I was waylayed with a pretty intense flu, and of course I managed to catch a bad cough and cold at the same time.  Since it was pretty much impossible to nap at the hostel, I pushed through and still had a really good time anyways.  One of the highlights of the weekend was going for a tour of the city at 2am, just as everyone was finishing up their elaborate flower carpets in time for the religious processions to start at 4am!  It was amazing to see how much work went into the carpets, only to have them trampled by the processions a matter of minutes or hours later.

Photo Set
Text

After saying goodbye to Utila, I attempted to make it to Guatemala in one day so I could catch the first boat to Belize, but it just wasn’t possible.  However, along the way I met my first-ever Lithuanians - a whole family of them travelling together!  They were super nice and attempting the same route I was.  In the afternoon, despite hitching a ride which did speed things up, we realized it wouldn’t be possible to make it to Puerto Barrios at a reasonable hour so we got let off in Omoa, Honduras instead.  It was actually a delightful little beach town, with clean clear waters that the whole town came to swim in at sunset!  The next morning we took off first thing for the border, crossed without too much hassle, and made it to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, in time to catch the boat to Punta Gorda, Belize.

I had been to Belize a couple of years ago and was not especially enamoured, but I had to pay it a visit again to renew my Central American visa as my 90 days were almost up.  I went straight from Punta Gorda, which was impossibly sleepy, to Placencia, a picturesque beach town unfortunately overrun with older North American ex-pats.

I managed to find the only cheap lodging in town - a ramshackle, broken-down wooden guesthouse that swayed in the wind.  Luckily there was one other guy staying there, also on a visa run, and so we passed a couple of days avoiding the expensive restaurants in town by dining on noodle cups and rum that previous travellers had been kind enough to leave in the hostel kitchen.

I left after two nights for San Ignacio, which would bring me closer to the Guatemalan border (a different one than from where I originally passed through).  After a night in a sketchy, sketchy downtown “hotel”, I was pleased to finally be on my way to Guate! 

After getting shaken down for a few bucks at the border, despite my protests, I pushed through the sea of shuttle bus touts and taxi drivers eager to drive me “all the way to the bus station”, I walked one block and found a cheap shuttle to Flores.

I had already been to Flores on my previous trip to Guatemala, but my reason for going this time was to join a jungle trek to explore the unexcavated ruins of El Zotz.  Unfortunately, it looked like I was the only one interested…after checking with every tour agency in town, it didn’t look like there would be any trek leaving anytime soon :(.  I decided to cut my losses in Flores and not spend a few days waiting around with the hopes that more people miiiight sign up for the trek, and instead I caught the first bus in the morning and headed for a finca outside of Poptun, a small town halfway between Flores and Rio Dulce.

I arrived 2 minutes before 9am, just in time to take part in a really cool hike to a cave where an underground river flows.  It took about two hours of fast hiking to get to the cave, then another hour and a bit to swim through the caves, jump down waterfalls into pitch-black pools, and body surf rapids attempting to hold the candle up out of the water!  It was a really fun day, but after the hike back in the blistering heat I was ready for some quality hammock time!

Text

Ooops…haven’t posted in a while!  After leaving El Salvador, which has definitely been my favourite country so far, I moved on to Honduras.  I spent one night in a small coffee city en route to Lago de Yojoa, and then spent two nights staying in a brewery in the middle of the jungle beside the lake!

Lago de Yojoa was absolutely gorgeous.  It’s meant to be a bird watcher’s paradise, and although I can hardly identify any birds, I could still appreciate the abundance of different species flying around!  The first morning there I went on a sunrise rowing trip on the lake with a local guide and a German traveller.  It was a gorgeous morning, and as the sun came up the mist on the lake burned off and everything was crystal clear and as green as could be!  Later on that day we headed to the waterfall at Pulhapanzak, and as we were walking to catch a bus we were lucky enough to hitch a ride with the operating manager, who got us in for free and gave us free drinks and a discount with his favourite guide.  We spent a little while swimming in the river and enjoying the sun, and then headed on what was promised to be a great adventure - they didn’t lie!  The waterfall was way bigger than we were expecting, and we followed a series of slippery, moss-covered trails down to a pool at about mid-height of the falls.  From there, we all had to link arms in case anyone got swept off their feet, and cross a couple of pools of roaring rapids and then go underneath the actual falls!  The water was coming down soooo hard and the current in the pool was SO strong, and the air was so saturated with water it was difficult to breathe.  After getting through the water, we crawled on our bellies through a tiny, tiny tunnel that opened up to a cave that lies behind the waterfall itself.  On the way back, we had the opportunity to do a 12m cliff jump and of course I took it!

The next morning I made my way to the dumpy port city of La Ceiba, where I was to catch the ferry the following morning to Utila, one of the Bay Islands in the Caribbean Sea off the north coast of Honduras.  I met a cool Dutch girl in the hotel and we took travelled to Utila together and decided to pick a dive school together, and found a really fun one called Underwater Vision.  It was such a nice place, filled with fun people and located right on the water and very close to town.  The first afternoon we got there, we took out snorkeling gear and went to a postcard-perfect beach and had an amazing time snorkeling right from shore!  At the time I didn’t even think diving could be any better (but boy was I ever wrong)!

After a couple of days of snorkeling and chilling in the sun, we started our Open Water course.  I was the only native English speaker in my class - our instructor was French, and everyone else was Dutch or Danish!  I pretty much instantly fell in love with diving, and as soon as the Open Water course was completed, I did my free fun dives and then signed up to start my Advanced course the very next day!  It was really, really fun, with less classroom work and more adventure!  We went as far down as 30m, and although I didn´t feel the effects of nitrogen narcosis, we did a test that involved putting randomized numbers into sequence above the water and 30m below the water, and it took me twice as long at 30m below, and felt exactly the same!  I can definitely appreciate now how dangerous it can be to “get narc’ed!”

The Advanced course consisted of 5 dives and 2 free fun dives at the end.  The course dives were a night dive, a wreck dive (my favourite!), a buoyancy control dive, a navigation dive, and the deep dive to 30m.  Although I did a total of 14 dives, I never saw a turtle, which was my ultimate goal!

After a couple of attempts to leave Utila on the early ferry were foiled by too-late nights at the bar, a group of 5 of us that got to be really good friends all managed to finally escape the island after about 2 weeks.  Unfortunately everyone else was heading south, whereas I was heading north to Belize to make a visa run.

Photo Set
Text

After a few boiling hot, dusty hours of horseback riding and hiking, I was desperately looking forward to having a cold shower upon returning to the hostel.  Unfortunately, the local utilities had picked that day to shut off the town’s water supply (with no notice) to do some unexpected maintenance.  That meant no cold shower, and almost no restaurant food available in town, as no cleaning or dishes could be done.  Of course, it was one of the hottest days that I have ever experienced.  Apparently temperatures were close to 40 degrees, and there wasn’t even the slightest trace of a breeze, and the sun was baaaaking down without a cloud in the sky.  Normally the heat doesn’t bother me at all here, but even walking to go get an ice cream cone almost left me dizzy!  I decided to retire with a book to a hammock in the shade, but even lying there motionless, I was sweating like crazy!

The next morning, after sneakily joining in on a campaign worker breakfast special at one of the nicest restaurants in town ($3 for sooo much food), I headed out to San Salvador.  It was one of the first times that I’ve been on a bus that wasn’t crammed to capacity!  I actually had an empty seat beside me, and didn’t have to hold my big, diesel-smelling backpack on my lap, and even got to take out a book for a while!  My parents were nice enough to get me a nice hotel room in the city on reward points, so I took a cab (my first in El Salvador!) across town and checked into the Marriott.  I was soooo happy to see real towels, multiple pillows, my own bathroom, and even a king-sized bed!!  Unbelievable luxury after having spent the last 2 months in nothing but cramped dormitory rooms and on the odd occasion, grungy guest house rooms with a shared, cold-water bathroom.

San Salvador is soooooooo different from the rest of the country.  You wouldn’t even know that you were in El Salvador, if it weren’t for the smoke-spewing city buses clogging up the roads.  The construction is all very modern, and the main roads are lined with American fast food chains.  The hills are all covered in pastel-coloured gated communities that wouldn’t look out of place back home, and most of the cars on the road are new-looking SUVs and expensive cars.  There are also a lot of shopping malls here, and the security is unbelievable.  There are armed guards and armed policemen EVERYWHERE, and in the malls, despite the fact that there are armed guards patrolling around, each store has its own door, with its own armed guard standing inside.

The weirdest thing is that all of the guns are huge, long, shotgun-type weapons, even in tiny boutiques.  It seems to me that it would be far more convenient to have a small handgun ready to whip out, rather than a three-foot long pump-action weapon!!  But what do I know…

Tomorrow I’m heading out to La Palma, which is very close to the Honduran border, which means my time in El Salvador has just about come to an end.  I am planning on hiking the tallest mountain in El Salvador, Cerro El Pital, on Sunday, then crossing the border on Monday.  However, that all depends on how the elections go, as El Salvador is holding its mayoral and city council and legislative assembly elections on Sunday.  Although they have carried out extensive (and expensive) trial runs and tests of the system, there’s a lot of speculation as to whether everything will go as planned, as they have made a lot of changes to the process this year.  I enjoyed my last cervezas in the country with dinner tonight, as no alcohol is allowed to be sold in the country between midnight tonight and midnight on Monday.

If anyone is so inclined, there’s some interesting information about problems with the electoral process in El Salvador here: http://voiceselsalvador.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/a-look-at-salvadoran-political-institutions-part-two-election-day-misconduct-in-2009/