A Travellerspoint blog

Oaxaca - coast, mountains and culture

Pronounciation: "Wah-Ha-Ka" not "Oh-Axe-A-Car"

sunny 25 °C

We caught our best overnight bus yet - from San Cristobal to the state of Oaxaca. The road had a few bends at the start, but the second class bus was comfortable enough for a sleep for most of the 11 hour trip. We arrived, rested, in the transport hub of Pochutla and then caught a ride to Mazunte in the back of a modified pick up truck. A steady stream of these connect the beach towns with the transport hubs and are crammed with locals.
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Mazunte is a relaxed beach town where we had hoped to surf. Unfortunately we didn´t see the right waves in our three days there, so we used the time to eat and relax. I booked a cabin up on the cliff above the beach which had hammocks everywhere (including in our room) and a beautiful lookout over the Pacific Ocean from the kitchen area.
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However, we had mosquito repellent of insufficient quality and the mosquito net in the room was full of holes and too small to fit over the bed. Laura slept one night with her leg against the net and woke with a cluster of bites...

The first afternoon we explored the beach at Mazunte and booked a wildlife tour with some locals on the beach for the next morning. We then enjoyed the sunset from one bay over.

The next morning we went back to back - setting our alarms early for the sunrise view from the kitchen. After making breakfast we joined our wildlife tour. We saw Roca Blanca ("white rock") - alternatively named Roca Caca ("poo rock"), various turtles, the southernmost piece of land in Oaxaca, and - for a magical half hour - a pod of playful dolphins.
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That night I tried a local favourite food - the tlayuda - yet another varient on the quesidilla, basically being a big BBQ´d quesidilla filled with onion, meat and cabbage.
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On our final day we bussed North to the tourist mecca of Puerto Escondido, hoping again to find some beginner surf at Playa Carrizalillo. The beach was beautiful but the surf was too beginner, so we instead interspersed our dips in the water with sips on a drink (beer and coconut water). After some tacos we caught the bus home before continuing South to the beach town of Zipolite.
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Laura had reasearched a top-notch restaurant and it was worth the special trip. For just NZ$15 for mains, I had premium steak medallions, while Laura ordered coconut shrimp - which was not what we think of as shrimp, but half a dozen king prawns. Mouth-watering!
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Unfortunately I had already had an upset stomach all day, and although I valiantly battled through the delicious food, the next day I wasn´t any better. After watching another sunrise, we decided to begin the trip to Oaxaca city. After returning to Pochulta in a pick-up truck, we squeezed into a van through the winding mountain roads - but we planned to split the 7 hour journey in half by stopping overnight in the beautiful mountain town of San Jose.

I really wasn´t in great shape for the next day, so was greatful for the break in the cheap but beautiful mountainside cabin including a well-utilised toilet and a crackling fireplace for the cold nights (after the hot weather at the coast we were now back at altitude of 2,500m).
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The town has great hiking, ziplining and, most importantly, beautiful views over the misty mountains. From our cabin I enjoyed assuming the recovery position for the great view of sunset.
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The next day I did manage to go out for a hike after lunch through the forest.
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We found a free way to zipline!
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We enjoyed the (not sugary) local hot chocolate...
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... and then settled in for another sunset, while Laura enjoyed a bottle of pineapple liquor.
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After two nights recovering here, we got back in a shuttle to Oaxaca. The first night we walked around the bustling square and people watched with a beer. Although this is a city know for its great Mexican food, all I wanted was a streetfood burger (to follow two straight meals of canteen sandwhiches in San Jose). I promised myself that I would try all of the yummy food later.
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The white vertical tents you can see from our table were all shoe shining stations. The main square alone had more than 20 of these stations!
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Laura eating corn plus chilli, cheese and salt.

We also checked out a neat refurbished church which is now a museum / library.
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When we got home we found that we had $250 of Guatemalan currency remaining in our bag... whoops! To date we still haven´t found a good rate to change this but we´re working on it.
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Laura found a list of free events in town, and so we went along to a classical guitar concert at a fancy music hall. We even got our own private box!
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The next day we wanted to see the "Petrified Waterfalls" at Hierve de Agua. We booked a full day tour which visited:

1. The world´s third largest tree
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2. An indigenous village which uses traditional weaving methods to make carpets and rugs.
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Including the traditional plants used to make all of the colours and dyes.
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3. Some things we opted out of - ruins & a buffet lunch. We waited outside... and did this thing, whatever it is.
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4. Hierve de Agua.
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It gets its name from "boiling water" because the geothermal gasses make the water bubble up.
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Unfortunately they weren´t hot pools and in fact the water was quite cool. It was worth a visit though.
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5. A factory for mescal (like tequila, but not from the same plant or from the same region). We learnt about the process...
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And then tasted the mescal...
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And I made a friend...
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The next morning we visited the Zapotec ruins at Monte Alban - and although it was a large site on top of a hill, it wasn´t much to write home about. This is fortunate because I´ve since managed to delete the photos, aside from this one, which looks back at Oaxaca.
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Instead, here is a more impressive aerial from Google Images:
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On the streets of Oaxaca, Laura liked the ways shops set out their wares.
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We had a false start the next day - unable to find the bus to one of the surrounding indigenous towns, but instead visited a famous gold cathedral which the Spanish had ¨gifted¨Oaxaca (or rewarded themselves with - depending on your point of view). The reason for the gold cathedral was that Oaxaca had an abundance of a cactii-eating bug which was used to make red and purple dyes (Cochineal). These colours were so rare that Cochineal was worth more than silver or gold and it is still widely used today for red for food colouring or garments. Whatever the reason for its establishment, the inside of the cathedral was one of the most ornate either of us have seen.
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Awe-stricken, we moved on to an informative guided tour of the gardens set up behind the church. In fact, the church and its yard were used as barracks and training grounds for soldiers until 1994, when the church was cleaned up and the gardens opened. They have an abundance of local plant types, including many cactii.
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There was also a 500 year old catcus recovered from the site of a roading project.
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And a piece of art with real Cochineal flowing down it - representing the blood and hard work of the local people in exploiting the international trade of Cochineal for the Spanish.
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Amazingly, the type of plant used for Tequila and Mescal grows a huge flower - but only when it senses it has too much competition from the roots of other plants. It grows the 5m stalk in as little as a month and a half!
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That night we borrowed bikes from our hostel (thanks Azul Cielo!) and rode (but mainly took our bikes for a walk) up the hill to a lookout near the observatory.
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Our 6 hour cooking class the next day kicked off with a tour of the markets with one of the chefs. In particular there was an impressive array of chillis - and we purchased a few of them for the dishes.
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We also tried the local delicacy - chillied crickets.
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The class was very enjoyable - and we got lucky as it was just the two of us. Plus there was also an "open bar" of Coronas and mescal.
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The table sauces included 14 chillis!
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The recipe for the local favourite ¨red mole¨ also included 30 ingredients (here is us preparing).
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We also enjoyed the opportunity to switch from English and try to have conversations while we were cooking in Spanish. The whole lesson (and the conversation afterwards) ended up being entirely in Spanish.
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On our final day we did manage to make the day trip to the ecotourism villages for some hiking in the woods. We got a little confused as to what trail we were on, but worked it out once we found the road again.
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Sadly, after the food and culture of Oaxaca, we then had to pack up and move on to our final Central American destination - Mexico City.

Posted by nzdora 16:53 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

The Day of the Dead

Merida, Palenque and San Cristobal

sunny 35 °C

Our next three towns gave us a glimpse into cultural Mexico: Merida, Palenque and San Cristobal.

We arrived early in Merida to allow ourselves time to find somewhere to watch the Rugby World Cup 2015 final.

Walking to our hostel, we noticed that this was another cute colonial town, with colourful buildings as well as many parks and squares.
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Also - there were VW Beatles everywhere! We counted for the rest of the day but gave up at about 30. I´m not sure why Beatles are such a hit in Mexico, but these have made up around 5% of the cars in Merida, San Cristobal and Oaxaca.
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Aftert trying 8 or 9 cafes and hotels, ironically our hostel had was showing the rugby! We had a great time, ruining the party for the half dozen Aussies at the hostel.

The real event though was the Day of the Dead ("Dia de Muertos") celebrations in Merida. We ate lunch at a highly recommended restaurant where we both tried local dishes which were loosely based on tacos and checked out the (massive) local markets before preparing for what promised to be a special evening.

With some others from the hostel we began the pilgrimage to the cemetary which was the focus point for the event, stopping in a local square to have our faces painted in the festival´s inimitable style.

As a side note, our painter asked for 35 pesos - to which Laura said ¨that other lady is asking 15, can you do it for 20?¨- an offer which was IMMEDIATELY accepted. This is less than NZ $1.80.
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Mexico has been cheaper than some of Central America because (counterintuitively) the locals are richer. Tourist sites, restaurants and beaches are filled by locals and tourists side by side, which I like. One thing that does rile me, is when a vendor tries to get as much money as possible from us as naive tourists. For example, later that night we bought a couple of iceblocks. When we asked the price he said ¨ssssssssss... ten pesos¨. I wondered if he was going to say 7 pesos and had my answer immediately, when he offered an iceblock to a local lady for seven in a hushed voice while we were choosing our flavours. Now, the amounts I am talking about here are insignificant - we saved 25 cents each by paying 7 instead of 10 - but it is the principal of being treated differently that bothers me. The trip has developed our negotiation skills...

To continue, after all having our faces painted we joined the huge tide of people walking the streets towards the cemetary. On both sides were family shrines and altars to their loved ones, street vendors, and characters in costume. The throng of people also crossed through two squares where performers were dancing and playing live music.
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Unfortunately we had missed the candlelight procession ¨Paseo de las Ánimas¨of locals in formal dress with faces painted, but we still saw all of the roadside celebrations as we shuffled along with a huge number of people for a 5km crawl to the cemetary. Once there we weren´t sure what to do, but we had a look at a few of the graves and then just people watched for a while before beginning the long walk home.
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On the way home we stopped and watched a special display of traditional Mayan ball game (essentially football but you are only allowed to use your hips, elbows, knees and wrists), accompanied by frenzied tradititional music on drums and flutes.

We enjoyed a great sleep after our long day and then prepared for another busy one. We sandwiched a trip to some stunning ruins at Uxmal with two genuine local experiences. In Merida, there is a real community feel, despite its population of 777,000. Just one community activity is that every Sunday morning a few streets are cordoned off so that all of the families can go cycling for a couple of hours. It was great to see a regular community event go so well.
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In the evening we went to the main square for some tacos, to see the oldest cathedral in the Americas and to check out the local music.
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It started to rain but this didn´t dampen the vendors at the stalls encircling the square, nor the dancers on the street who were all jamming out to a fantastic marimba band. We enjoyed watching but didn´t feel confident enough with our basic salsa to join in. Plus it was raining... (we´re not very adventurous with our dancing!)
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In between we visited the Mayan ruins Uxmal, which are surrounded by jungle and were largely empty. We were able to climb the ruins except for one - perhaps because of its steepness, or maybe because of its intricate stone carvings.
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In general Uxmal had more intricate designs surviving than the other ruins we have seen so far, and boasted excellent views from on top of the pyramids.
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We also saw the ballcourt where the traditional Mayan ball game was played. Historically, the losing team was beheaded!
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The Mayans also paid homage to another ball game legend - RICHIE MCCAW. They had a whole temple to "The McCaw" as you can see from the sign.
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The next day we learnt about some of the history of Merida as part of a walking tour around the city. The Spanish had dismantled the five pyramids which made up the central city and had built government and church buildings using the stones. We also learnt more about the oldest cathedral in the Americas which we had already seen.
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Later that day we then caught a bus north of Merida to the beach town Progresso, which sits inside (the invisible) Chicxulub crater - where the metor landed which destroyed the dinosaurs.

Laura had read about a great fish restaurant to have lunch, and it was packed with locals. We ate a whole fried fish with tortillas. Yum!
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We then had a swim in the sandy water, wandered along the beachfront and scratched our heads at the 7km long wharf extending into the distance.
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That evening we had signed up for the cooking class at Nomadas where we ate our own homemade tortillas with tomato, egg and sunflower seed paste as well as bitter Mayan hot chocolate and Pan de Muerte (the bread of the dead). The class was free and ingredients cost just $2.25.

We spent the best part of a day bussing from Merida to the jungle ruins at Palenque - including a two hour stop when the bus broke down. We arrived and checked into the cheapest accomodation we have had - just NZ$9 for the both of us in a simple room in the jungle, right outside the entrance to the national park where the ruins are.

We started out early the next morning so as to beat the tour groups and those who had to get to the ruins from Palenque town. The archeological site is quite large - with only 10% uncovered, although much of the rest are residential houses. The impressive 1,500 year old temple to one of the kings was my highlight. We were able to walk inside this building to see where the tomb was and later we saw the intricately engraved tombstone in the museum on site.
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Again, we were able to climb many of the ruins at Palenque and had a great view back over the uncovered areas.
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We walked through the site and down through the forest-covered residential ruins to the museum on site with an Israeli traveller who also had some good tips for us on South America.
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Having beaten the main crowd largely, we used the afternoon to bus to San Cristobal de las Casas - which was a winding road, although we did manage to watch the Paddington Bear movie in Spanish on the screens in the bus.

The pace of our trip slowed in San Cristobal. As well as having some respite from our ambitious pace, I loved San Cristobal because it was actually cold - an altitude of 2,200m. We were staying at a really cute small hostel which had room for just 15 people, including 4 staff who were all travellers as well. The hostel proved difficult to find for our taxi driver, as its name was a little generic "Hostal Posada Mirador" (hostel inn viewpoint), but it was very comfortable and easy going.

We had some good "life admin" time in San Cristobal, including a huge pile of washing, going for a run, reading the lonely planet guidebooks in our hostel and shopping. San Cristobal has some stylish pedestrian streets with artesan shops and trendy cafes which I really enjoyed exploring.
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We spent more time trying to use the post system in this town than at their famous markets which tended to focus on blankets, hammocks and handmade souvineers - not things we were looking for.

That night we shared some homemade pizza at the hostel and indulged in some tequila and beer (not mixed together). Well-rested we booked a tour the next day to jetboat up Canyon Sumidero. The walls of the deep canyon were impressive, reaching up to 1,000m. The river itself also gets hundreds of meters deep as it leads into the reservoir for the Chicoasen Dam.
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We also saw a crocodile, many birds, and a unique "Christmas Tree" waterfall.
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The river had a cave which had some unusal pink rock
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Laura was impressed that the Dam had a statue for the engineer, and I was unimpressed that the "beer" I had purchased was in fact 50% clamato juice.
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The bloodymary-esque drink ruined my "beer commercial" for this part of the world.
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We made some friends on our tour from Australia and England, and they invited us to join them at the movies that afternoon to watch the newest James Bond film. This was an appropriate choice because the first scene is set at the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City - it was an impressive start to the movie.

The next morning we finally scaled the steps to the Guadalupe church which was right next to our hostel.
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We then walked to a nearby centre for the preservation of the Mayan culture. Named "Na Bolom" - the Mayan word for Jaguar - the centre focused on the work of its founders, a Dutch couple who had dedicated their lives to preserving the culture of an isolated jungle tribe.
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The centre includes accomodation and a large referance library of Mayan related information. There were also a number of Mayan / Mexican families who live and work at the centre. For lunch we found a local family who had a restaurant as their front room. I tried a local dish, Chilaquiles, and we enjoyed it so much that we decided to return the next day for dinner.

That night we were introduced to an important food: Gordita. This roughly translates as "little fatty", and it was easy to see why. You choose a type of pork and then this is stuffed inside a taco which has been made with lard. The whole thing is tasty satisfaction for $1 each, but we ordered too many - two would have been enough each.
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Again taking advantage of the cooler weather, we went for a run again on our next morning to a sculpture garden which I had read about, but we arrived too early for opening so we returned home to pack up for our 11 hour overnight bus that night.
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We then caught a colectivo (the vans which locals use) to the small town of San Juan Chamula for a day trip. Although recent years have had a modest increase in tourism, the town has a strict no photos policy of religious ceremonies.

Accordingly, we have zero photos of it, but we did visit the church in Chamula where they sacrifice chickens. There were two live chickens and a couple of dead chickens while we were in there, and approximately a thousand candles on the floor, the tables and in huge rows which the locals were praying and chanting. There were also an impressive number of fresh flowers all around the church, and the floor itself was covered in pine fur - perhaps to make it easier to kneel.

Outside the church there was a busy Sunday market where the vendors had precariously stacked their fruit. We walked up the road to the cemetary, which was well-decorated this close to the Day of the Dead.
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We then caught a colectivo back to San Cristobal for dinner at the local house that we had found before we made our way to the bus station and back to the heat of the beach at Mazunte.

Posted by nzdora 15:40 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

UnBELIZEable snorkeling

You'd better Belize it - oh and we went to Mexico too

sunny 28 °C

Continuing our travelathon across Guatemala, we had one final long bus trip after Tikal.

We woke up before 5am for the fifth time in two weeks to catch our shuttle to Belize City, then a 45 minute speed boat ride to the small island of Caye Caulker. Here we met up with our latest new friends, an Australian couple we had met during our Guatemalan hostage episode. A huge amount of rain had hit Belize a couple of days before and there was a fair amount of flooding, although we had perfect weather throughout our stay.
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Belize, and in particular Caye Caulker, markedly contrasted with the rest of our Central American trip. I immediately noticed:
1. For the first time on our trip, we were in an English-speaking country (albeit with a Carribean accent). This was a relief for our brains - although at times Laura caught me responding "Gracias".
2. The speed of life was even slower than in central america, which is very different to New Zealand. The motto of Caye Caulker is "Go Slow".
3. The scenery, buildings and people all seemed very different to the rest of Central America - almost islandish, even on the mainland - which I think is because we were on the Carribean coast for the first time, rather than in the highlands, the jungle or on the Pacific coast.

Caye Caulker itself is the little brother of the more developed, larger and touristy destination San Pedro on island Ambergris Caye. Both islands sit on a beautiful coral reef. However, Caye Caulker is already itself very touristy. As we were there we could see a large amount of construction, on an island already dominated by bars, diving/snorkeling tour operators and accomodation.

The island was very cute - having two to three streets running the length of the skinny isle - "Front Street", "Middle Street" and "Back Street". There were no cars, but instead an armada of Golf Carts which zoomed up and down the island, offering you "taxi rides".

We were very excited about our hostel on the island - the infamous "Dirty McNasty" - which had a good social scene. The hostel price included an amazing cooked breakfast, purified water and, after 7.30pm, free rum punch! They also had a volleyball court, pool tables, and organised the best full day snorkeling tour on the island - but more on that later.
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We checked into a room with our Austalian friends and then ventured out to explore. We had lunch under the palm trees and beach umbrellas on Front Street, and then spent the afternoon scoping out the sorkeling tour options on offer for the next day - we were advised by a few other backpackers to wait to speak to a guy called "Smooth", who runs Dirty McNasty, later that night.
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We had a swim and a drink before watching the sunset from Back Street - including a cute couple who were in kayaks watching too.
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Afterwards we ate an awesome BBQed street food dinner before we returned for the free rum punch at our hostel. Smooth told us we'd need at least 7 people, so we set about making friends.
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We found 11 people - and talked the price down with the tour operator "Pops" (you couldn't make these guys' names up) by US $10 per person - an added bonus for our budget.

The next morning our 11-strong international snorkeling squad assembled at the rum punch zone of Dirty McNasty's. Unfortunately we were fed a host of excuses all morning as to why the boat was "on its way", "being fixed", "waiting for a part" etc - as well as apology local coconut rum (rum again?!).
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Once the boat arrived we were fed lunch which sobered our group up a bit but after this the tour proper commenced. And it was a fantastic day out - one of the best on our trip!
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The first piece of action for us was to see the barracutas tear up sardines that we were asked to hold a few centimeters above the water - nobody lost a finger, but it did make us nervous when we were asked at our next stop to jump in the water with sharks, stingrays and many different fish. We took turns with our 99% waterproof action camera the "no go pro" and in-between simply drank in the sights.
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We then stopped near the edge of the coral reef for a spot of turtle hunting... Hunting for a photo that is - with a turtle, a mooray eel, or any of the fish darting in and out of the coral.
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After our day under and over water we visited Pops' private island to have a delicious fish dinner cooked for us, a campfire, and more apology rum.
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Yes, Pops´ fantasy island had a parrot.
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We returned to (relative) civilization in the early hours, happy with our "half day", the sights we saw and our new friends that made up our snorkeling team "Oceans 11" (I just made that up now - we couldn't have invented this name while trying to make sure nobody fell off the boat on the way home).
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The next morning we managed to make it to the sports bar which had opened early for us for the World Cup Semi Final. I saw it fit to have the hair of the dog by ordering a beer and somehow *spoiler alert* Dan Carter kicked a drop goal.
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We decided we had done what we intended to do on Caye Caulker and that we might as well use the day to travel to Mexico. Instead of paying $55 US each to get to the Mexican boarder by direct speedboat, we took the speedboat back to Belize City, had some yummy street food and caught a very tidy chicken bus all the way to the border.

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Bye bye Caye Caulker...

We then became lost trying to walk through no man's land - which for this border is filled with duty free shopping and casinos - and flagged down a taxi who helped us enter Mexico and dropped us at a nice hotel in Chetumal which were doing a special rate.

We walked around town that evening, enjoying the street food and a drink with a couple of dive instructors from the Cayman Islands who "recognised my accent" from when I had got chatting to them three weeks ago in Guatemala.

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A few of the busy street food options.

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Laura enjoying fresh coconut slices with lime and chili powder the next day.
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Us enjoying our $1.40 quesadillas of amazingness for breakfast.

The next morning we had a lot of trouble finding anywhere to watch the Australia v Argentina semi final and ended up watching it on a laptop in the dive instructors' room.

Chetumal was not touristy at all and seemed to consist of real Mexican people doing real things. Oh, and shoe shops. Somehow the whole main street sold sandals... Laura took advantage of this to buy some sandals, and a t-shirt. That night we re-visited the taco stand where we had eaten the previous night, rejoycing in the streetfood stalls - but then quickly finding icecream as we had been too brave when adding hot sauce!

After our second night in Chetumal we had recharged the batteries enough to get on with some touristy spots. We headed to Tulum - a town which has tripled in population in the last 7 years due to the influx of tourists trying to avoid Cancun and the party scene.

One feature of our hostel in Tulum was its dog, who apparently snoozed in hammocks overnight as we found him like this each morning:
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Tulum town is a few kilometers from the Tulum ruins, a former Mayan port which overlooks the beach. We rented bikes and made use of the excellent bike paths and trails in the city by heading to the ruins for a look around, then down the coast to Playa Paraiso (Paradise Beach) before returning for lunch.
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We walked through the Tulum ruins - complete with Iguanas on the buildings which looked as though they had evolved to be the same colour as the stones!
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Laura and I then took a dip in the sea below the ruins for a unique view as well as to cool off as temparatures were in the mid thirties.
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After the Tulum ruins we biked home past the fancy resort area down the coast.
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After a delicious lunch at local favourite "El Aguacate" (the avocado) we again made use of the bikes to get to our first cenote. A cenote is an underground swimming sinkhole / tunnel / cave system formed by the erosion of the limestone under ground level. There are tens of thousands of these in the Yucatan peninsular, some of which were used for Mayan ceremonies, and some have formed beautiful caverns.

At this cenote, Gran Cenote, we snorkeled with fish and more turtles!
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The limiting factor for visibility was light rather than water quality, with some of the clearest water I have ever swum in thanks to centuries-long limestone filtration.
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There were also divers who went deeper into the dark tunnels than we could but we did swim through a tunnel to a second open area whic was very cool.

Laura had been suggesting, much to my horror, that we should have some non-Mexican food for dinner as we had been eating tacos non-stop for about 4 days. Luckily, the Chinese place was a-maz-ing (so good we went back the next night). Having said this, we are looking forward to another month of Mexican food!

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Us enjoying the food and drink of Mexico one evening in Tulum.

The next day we caught our first "collectivo", a continuous parade of shuttle vans which drive up and down key routes (eg Tulum to Playa del Carmen to Cancun) and are cheaper than busses. We relaxed at Akumal beach - the Mayan word for turtle - where we searched the seagrass for life.
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I got chatting to a couple of our parents´generation who were on vacation from Boston. They had visited a private lagoon bay around the corner from the main beach previously and had enjoyed it so much that they were going to return - and when the rain came bucketing down, we decided to go with them. They showed us the "free" way around the point on the rocks (to avoid having to pay for a tour with the hotels). We were thankful for the cooler weather that the rain brought when we walked to the secret spot.
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We explored the bay and its fish, and then ate our sandwiches on our private picnic area on the rocks.
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We then returned for some more turtle time on the main Akumal beach before returning in a collectivo to Tulum (for our second Chinese dinner). I met some guys who had just arrived at our hostel in a car and were planning to drive through our next stop (Valladolid) the next day, so I got chatting, and we chatted for an hour more the next day in the car!

Our next town was another beautiful colonial town, Valladolid, with colourful building fronts, with all sorts hiding behind the walls.
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For example, we found this when we just wandered into an open doorway to what seemed to be a courtyard restaurant.
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A good park bench for a conversation.

When we checked in to our hostel, the staff had a huge number of recommendations, including a great local spot for lunch. In the food hall all the other vendors were flapping their menus at us, but we marched on to the recommended shop run by a Santa Claus lookalike and ate a very economical and tasty traditional lunch. It was a telltale sign of quality that of the dozen or so lunch options, Santa Claus accounted for the most local customers - around three quarters of the people in the hall.
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We actually managed to squeeze in two of the three things I had planned for Valladolid that same day. Firstly, being able to pronounce Valladolid. We tried so many times that I think we got it right once. Secondly, two neighbouring Cenotes are just a few kms from the centre of Valladolid. There was a free city tour bus which stopped at the Cenotes, but as we were the only bus tourists the bus driver suggested skipping the tour and taking us directly to the Cenotes to catch the best lighting conditions.

The Cenotes, called X´keken and Samula, were both beautiful, cavernous pools with a hole at the top for light. The stalagmites and the tree roots which extended down from the roof were really quite bizzare to behold.
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One thing which we haven´t enjoyed about many of the tourist attractions in Central America are the number of children who are put to work by their parents to sell food or rent equipment. After renting snorkeling gear for $1.50 from a cute primary school aged girl, Laura and I resolved to make a rule that we wouldn´t buy from children any more. It is really disappointing that these kids are persuaded to skip school to earn money instead of getting an education. In the same train of thought, we had had another experience at Semuc Champey in Guatemala which we have since found out more information about. We bought local chocolate off an articulate, charming and persuasive 7 year old girl. She told us she was on school holidays for two weeks - but we met another traveller who had heard the same story from her over a month ago.

After chilling out in the cool pools of the Cenotes, we returned to the town center for a quick City Tour - which involved two circuits of the main square plus two other streets in rush hour traffic before we were interrupted by a procession for Valladolid´s day of the dead festivities. We returned to Santa Claus for dinner, but he was closed so we went to the restaurant next door to try some other traditional dishes we had been recommended.

The next morning we visited Casa de los Venados, a bizzare but beautiful colletion of Mexican folk art at a rich American´s grand colonial house.
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His name is John and he took the time to meet us himself, although the tour and the mansion were run by a team of uniformed Mexican staff. The art collection was incredible but a little overwhelming - with maybe a hundred pieces in each of the five lavish guest rooms as well as several hundred in John´s own quarters.
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It was a very worthwhile tour, which we found really interesting and learnt a lot about traditional Mexican art. Donations from the tour go to charities for the poor and the disabled in Valladolid, and it was nice to know our tourist dollars were making a productive difference to the local community (unlike buying from kids in the street).

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A game of poker with skeletons / Mexican day of the dead characters.

After Laura visisted the markets in Valladolid, we walked to a less popular Cenote in town. The nickname of Valladolid (as we learnt on our brief city tour) is ¨Zaci¨, and this Cenote (being right down town) was named Cenote Zaci. We enjoyed the more open air feel of this half-shell cavern, and Laura even jumped off a couple of higher platforms.
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Even I jumped into the water from a very low height.

We also popped into a Tequila tour where we learnt from our teacher Ceasar about the commercial versus artesan processes as well as the different plants and the products to buy (or not buy).
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Early the next morning we got up again at 5am to catch our bus to Merida, the capital of Yucatan, on the morning of the Rugby World Cup Final... but more on that adventure next time!

Posted by nzdora 20:01 Archived in Belize Comments (0)

Guatemala hostage situation... call Doctor Ropata!

Palm Oil workers hold up tourists

overcast 25 °C

Hostage situation in Guatemala!

......but all in due time (chronological order).

Our first impression of Guatemala was fantastic as we were dropped in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua by our new friends. The first thing we noticed was the beautiful cool climate at the altitude of 1500m. This was extremely welcome after being uncomfortably hot in every place we visited for the last 2 months.
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On our first afternoon we climbed to a cross on a hill to get a view of the city which was really nice. On our way we passed a marimba band who were playing in front of the cathedral so we stopped to listen and to look inside.
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On our first full day we explored Antigua. We went to a salsa class, and David was extremely patient with my lack of timing. It was more difficult than I expected but by the end of the class we had put together a couple of turns and spins which was fun!!
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I perused the markets alone (David hates shopping in general) and bought some amazingly comfortable black and white pants which will doubtless feature in future pics until they fall apart.

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We also visited a fantastic restaurant, Rincon Tipico, which served traditional Guatemalan food - not knowing the names of anything we chose at random but the meals were both delicious.

We stayed at a backpackers called Roo's, which was unsuprisingly full of Australians. Everyone we talked to raved about an overnight climb up Volcano Acatenango which looks across to the currently erupting Volcano Fuego. We quickly decided to spend an extra day in Antigua to fit it in.

We loaded our packs with tents, sleeping gear and food, and started our tramp (which we had to call a 'hike' due to the ignorance of our present company). They were a really friendly bunch, although a few of them were not very fit so our group took about 6 hours to reach our campsite which was at an elevation of about 3600m.
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The weather was pretty bad, our hair was soaked just from the thick mist that was everywhere, and we couldn't see the volcano we had climbed so far to see.

We gathered wood and cooked our dinner (2 minute noodles) over the fire, and then in the dark the clouds cleared. It was a magical moment after the anticipation built during the climb and inside our fog blanket. We could see red lava erupting from Fuego, and watch it tumbling down the volcano. It sounded like thunder, and would spew new lava every few minutes. It was absolutely amazing, and none of the photos even slightly did it justice, so we all just drank in the moment. We had carried up a cask of wine which we shared around, and a few others had brought rum.
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We headed to bed early that night but were woken several times during the night by the noise of the volcano erupting. We woke up at 4am to climb the last 300m of scree to the top. A couple of the people who had struggled the day before decided to stay at camp but the rest of us climbed for about 1.5 hours to the summit. When we started in the dark we could see the lava but the weather hadn't improved overnight and by the time we were at the summit it was blowing a gale and we couldn't even see Fuego.
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We fortunately saw the sunrise in the other direction but not much more and soon headed down to camp for a much needed breakfast.
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The walk down was much faster and we were soon back in Antigua.
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We took a shuttle that afternoon to San Pedro, a small town on the shore of Lake Atitlan where we would spend a week studying Spanish. San Pedro was a small town in an area which retains its Mayan heritage, but has also embraced technology and tourism (and pubs!)
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San Pedro was a great place to learn Spanish because the locals first language is one of the 22 Mayan languages in Guatemala, their second is Spanish and for many, the third is English. Their Spanish accent is really clean, and their understanding of Spanish as a structured subject is ideal for teaching travelers like us. I wouldn't know what the names of the tenses are in English, I just use them!

The shuttle arrived 1.5 hours late so we were lucky the school manager had waited for us so late on a Saturday. We met our host family as well as their two other kiwi hostees who funnily enough had both worked as lawyers at the vero at the same time as David, although for a different company. We got along with them really well and they showed us the ropes of how family life worked.
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The view from our room.

The next day was Sunday so we got a ferry to the nearby town of San Marco which was super 'hippy'.
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We walked through a nature park with beautiful views, people jumping into the lake, and people carefully placing some sort of crystals around a fire.
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That evening we celebrated one year since David proposed to me by visiting a couple of popular bars with our new kiwi siblings.

Our week of classes began the next day. David's teacher was a daughter in our host family. She was really funny (one of the phrases of the week was "es una broma!", meaning "it's a joke!") and the two of them got along really well.
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My teacher was really nice but also more professional - I learnt how to use four types of past tense verbs that week which I couldn't have even named in English beforehand.
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Classes ran from 8:30-10:45 then we had a 15 minute break where we were served snacks and coffee, and made friends with the other students, many of whom had studied at the school for multiple weeks. Then back to class until 12:30. It was really well organised compared to our school in Mexico with an actual curriculum and exercises and 'exams' if we wanted to see how well we knew a certain thing.

We had the afternoons and evenings free to explore the city which was great. We spent some afternoons studying or doing homework in a great cafe nearby while taking the opportunity to use WiFi which was not available at our family's home.

We spent one very relaxing afternoon at a wine and cheese place in the nearby town of San Juan which gave us 24 different cheeses to taste!!!
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The walk to San Juan
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We squeezed into a tuktuk on our way home.

One morning before class we got up at 3:30am and climbed Indians nose, a lookout over the lake area for sunrise. We got a chicken bus there which was surprisingly busy for that hour of the morning (photo of chicken bus is from later that day).
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The lookout was beautiful, we could see Volcano Fuego smoking in the distance which ironically we hadn't seen from a much closer viewpoint a few days earlier.
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We also hired kayaks for an hour on the lake - including visiting some old houses which are now one story underwater due to the rise in lake volume of 5m over the last few years. The locals know that the lake level fluctuates and so haven't built by the edge - the foreigners did build there and now some have had to abandon!
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We also enjoyed a football game of students vs teachers at the school one night which was lots of fun - we even won!!!!
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Laura running really fast!
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One afternoon the school organised 'Spanish games' which were basically extra classes and I managed to drop my phone between storeys at the school onto a concrete surface. It is a bit sad but after thinking it has died so many times before only to have it restart after a few days it was nice to have the certainty that it is irrefutably beyond repair.
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On the Friday a number of our friends were leaving the school too, so we had a 'Graduation party' which was a great way to round off a nice week which had given us the chance to unpack our bags, make some friends and settle into a routine for the first time in a while.

The next day we delayed our 12 hour ride to our next destination because the All Blacks game was on!! David had spent a lot of that week briefing our host family on rugby (Richie got turned into 'leche' - milk - and his teacher knew about 'Dan el hombre'/Dan the Man) and we bought them some drinks so we could watch the game together over lunch.
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It was really nice, until at 34-13 with 20 minutes to go the power went out! It was only out in half the town so we ran to a bar in the other end of town and by the time we arrived it was 62-13!!!

The power still hadn't come back on at 4:30 the next morning when our shuttle picked us up and we bid San Pedro goodbye. We got dropped off back in Antigua at 7:40 and were told or next shuttle would pick us up at 8. By 9 were getting a bit worried but eventually it arrived, and pulled over shortly for some engine work. One of the tourists who was a mechanic explained to everyone else on board that they were trying to get the air out of the brakes but were doing it wrong. In the end they gave up but the mechanic stayed on board so we figured it would be safe. We arrived in Lanquin at 5 and then boarded a 4wd which would take us to our hostel in Semuc Champey. Our driver stopped to buy two beers and after about 10 minutes we saw an empty beer can fly out the window. He then pulled over again and bought two more.... We reached our accommodation at about 6:20 which wasn't bad considering we were supposed to arrive at 4.

Semuc Champey was EXTREMELY remote, with power only available from 6-10pm each day, internet nonexistent and and amazing night skies. We could walk to the famous terraced river from our accommodation which was great.

The next morning a group of us went caving, where they give you candles and you walk/climb/swim through caves while trying to keep your candle alight. It was a lot of fun, although a bit challenging from a claustrophobic perspective as there were some very small gaps we had to climb through

That afternoon we walked to the pools of Semuc Champey, which are the main attraction of the area. It usually costs $10 to get in but because of some trouble with the government it is free at the moment. We walked up to a lookout which was stunning and then swam in the pools which were actually quite cold so we didn't stay in too long.
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There were lots of little fish who would nibble dead skin off your feet if you let them!

From the lookout we hadn't been able to figure out how the huge muddy river upstream and downstream of the pools could create these beautiful turquoise pools. When we got down we could see that the river actually pases UNDERGROUND beneath the pools and reappears downstream and the pools are formed from small streams which run of the adjacent mountains.
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The next day we got another shuttle at 7am to Flores. It was a full jeep leaving our hostel so we volunteered to sit on top for the bumpy ride to the nearest town which was quite fun.
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The view back towards our hostel and Semuc.

We then packed 15 people into a van and headed for Flores. We stopped for lunch at around 2 thinking we only had a couple of hours left and that is when things got interesting.

Our driver told us that there was a roadblock about ten minutes ahead and recomended that we pay him about NZ $5 each to take a different route which would take 6 hours to get there. None of us were keen on this idea so we decided to drive 10 minutes to look at the roadblock and offered him an extra $1 each in the event we did turn back.

I started having second thoughts when we passed a few people who waved at us to turn back but we soon arrived at the roadblock and realised no one was going anywhere. We decided to turn around and take the long way but after about 500m we were blocked by 4 locals in a ute. One of the guys was clearly drunk and ranted about the evils of the USA and basically wouldn't let us past (he said we'd need $15,000 to get past him) so we turned back towards the roadblock again and joined the queue of about 10 vehicles which had pulled over.

Our driver was pretty annoyed at us (understandably) so walked off and presumably found some friends to talk with, leaving us with the van. It was sweltering so we sat in the shade outside and waited. Some people told us that it could last 3 days or more. After about 2 hours or driver came back and told us to subtly get in the van. With fifteen of us this didn't really happen so some people who had been watching us came over and told us that we were their bargaining card with the government so we wouldn't be going anywhere but on the plus side we would be "safe" for the same reason. No one seemed quite sure what the protest was about, but the most regular explanation seemed to be a palm oil plantation being shut down by the USA. The workers and their families wanted to continue the business.

The atmosphere was actually pretty relaxed, with most of our group laughing at our situation, although with some bitterness. The locals were playing mariachi-type music and drinking and told us that the officials were coming soon and we could go if it went well. We didn't hear anything further until after another hour. The people watching us had gone but our driver came back and said we were stuck for 3 days. Fortunately an Argentinian guy in our group had just talked to someone who had said the roadblock behind us was now open, so when the two talked we quietly got in the van and left back the way we came! We arrived in Flores at 11pm and gladly took a cheap dormitory bed in a hostel!

The next day we allowed ourselves a sleep in before a day trip to Tikal ruins - the largest Mayan site, impressively situated in a vast jungle. We visited with two Australians from our hostage van the day before.
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Over 3 hours we took a look at over half of the large and small temples and sacrifice sites, many of which were still buried in the jungle. They looked like forest-covered hills, rising sharply out of the ground.

The first highlight was looking from the tallest temple back towards the four or five other peaks visible from above.
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At the end of our route we arrived in the main plaza. This was one of the most impressive views on our trip so far and was hands down the highlight of Tikal.
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We climbed the structure opposite the famous Jaguar temple for some photos and then had a look inside the acropolis buildings alongside the square.
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We also ran into some locals we had met the day before at the roadblock. It transpired that the roadblock had been dismantled a couple of hours after we left, but we didn't mind as we were happy enough to have got to our destination!
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That night we enjoyed some delicious street food in Flores including enchilada, burritos and salads.

The day after our Tikal trip we waved goodbye to Guatemala - a beautiful country with a proud Mayan heritage and lovely local people. Unfortunately our admiration for the country was dampened by our roadblock experience but it was still a good story and we were never directly threatened.

Our next adventures may be very different in Belize and Mexico!

Posted by nzdora 13:44 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Leon and El Salvador

Or "three countries in a morning"

22 °C

The minibus from Granada to León took about 3.5 hours and involved a change of transport in the capital city of Managua. It has a population of almost 2.2 million (about a third of the population of Nicaragua) and was the first city we'd been to in central america.

We got a ride from the bus stop in León to our accommodation in a 'bicitaxi' where the driver offered us weed, subtly at first and then more blatantly after he realised how oblivious we were.

We really liked Leon, it is bigger than Granada and not as well maintained, but it was a lot less touristy and had more character. We found a room at the nearest hostel which had a much appreciated beautiful pool and a slightly weird flower arrangement on the bed.
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It was a nice place but was a little more expensive than elsewhere (doubly so because it didn't have a kitchen) so the next day we moved into a new hostel. This one was much more social and we really enjoyed it. The best feature was that they had free pancake breakfasts!!!! Definitely a nice break from the rice and beans which have been a feature of virtually every single meal through Cuba, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

We got a local chicken bus to Las Peñitas, a nearby surf beach. We hired a board and tried to build on the surf skills we had begun to develop in San Juan del Sur the previous week. The beach was beautiful, with hardly anyone else around.
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The surfing didn't quite go as planned, as the waves were a lot more challenging than the ones at the previous beaches we had tried, with waves coming at angles and a strong current along the beach. It was still fun though, and the Nicaraguans we hired the board from were really friendly and we had some good laughs while conversing in Spanish so that balanced out the confidence hit we took regarding our surfing ability.

That evening we went with some new friends from our hostel to see the museum of the revolution, which only finished in 1980 and our guide had actually fought in. It was reasonably interesting, although it was all in Spanish so we didn't follow all of it.
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The next day we went volcano boarding at Cerro Negro. Funnily enough the others in our group had traveled from Ometepe to Granada with us a few days earlier. My favorite part was actually the walk up the volcano, which last erupted in 1999, burying León in a cloud of dust around 1m thick. The ground was very hot and I think it melted the plastic on the soles of my shoes a little! On the way up I managed to get stung by a wasp. Our guide helpfully told me that some people die if they are allergic to this type of wasp!! Fortunately I don't fall into that category.
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The smaller stones and ash were blown to one side of the volcano while the rest of the rocks went in the other direction, meaning that one side has mostly sand-sized particles which are great for sliding down. We got our gear on and went for it!
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It was good fun, and was surprisingly challenging. We both made it down without falling spectacularly, although David went, in his own words, "as slowly as possible without stopping". We had the black volcanic sand EVERYWHERE - inside ears, fingernail, even inside my belly button despite having a full protective suit.
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Luckily we made it back relatively early so we could watch the England - Australia rugby game. We found a hostel which was full of Brits and Aussies and tagged along to watch it on someone's tiny laptop.
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After that we visited the cathedral which is the largest in central america. It has a beautiful Middle Eastern style roof which you can tour. We forgot our sunglasses so squinted our way around.
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That night we got the shuttle to El Salvador which left at 2am, done through Honduras and arrived at 12. The group of Poms and Aussies were on the same shuttle as us, although they were continuing on to Guatemala. We were relieved to get off and relax at our hostel. After virtually no sleep the previous night I managed a 2 hour nap and then a 12 hour sleep overnight when I woke up feeling fantastic.

We stopped at an El Salvadorean beach called El Tunco. It is another surfing town, although it has only 2 streets and was really cute. We tried and developed a bit of an obsession with "puposas", a traditional street food which is basically a thick tortilla stuffed with deliciousness. Commonly beans and cheese but also meat, spinach, blackberries - anything really. They are about $0.50 each and we bought a ridiculous number of these during our time in El Salvador.
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We had heard about "surfers shakes" - a fantastic milkshake bar which lets you choose your milkshake. We couldn't improve on a combination a friend had mentioned - banana, strawberry, oreo and oats. At $2.50 it was delicious and we had them for breakfast both days we were in El Tunco.
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We hired a surfboard again (one is enough for us as it means we can take turns resting and surfing) and took on the waves. We had a point along the beach recommended as being better for beginners which was a mission to walk to but we made it! Surfing looked so easy watching the pros but we really struggled once again. David managed to stand up on one wave before it broke briefly but I like to think I learnt more as I got more bruises.....
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After only half a day we had both had enough of getting thrown around so we trekked back to our hostel and recovered by the pool. We went for a walk along the beach to see some caves but the tide was very high (and coming in) so we decided not to swim inside.
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We went out for a few drinks with some friends from our hostel, 750ml beers were only $2 in the bars!

The next day we got the chicken buses to Joya de Ceren - "the Pompeii of the Americas". It was a Mayan village which was buried by ash in about 600AD and has only been found recently. We really enjoyed it, as the other Mayan Ruins are the grand temples but this gave a good insight into how the normal people lived.
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We stayed in Santa Ana that night, where we met a really nice and interesting couple from Australia who we got on with really well. They were driving north and passing near Antigua the next day and kindly offered us a ride. This saved us from getting 5 different buses and we gratefully accepted. The border crossings with the car were straightforward and we were in Antigua just after 1.

There is a reasonably well established tourist trail through central america so we have kept meeting the same people - it's actually quite nice. As a further example, upon arriving in Antigua we immediately ran into a British girl we first met crossing from Costa Rica to Nicaragua and have since met in San Juan del Sur, El Tunco and now in Guatemala.

Guatemala has been fantastic but I'll leave that story for next time.

Posted by nzdora 15:28 Archived in El Salvador Comments (0)

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