Monday, 31 December 2007

Community Tourism in San Juan

29th - 31st Dec

Homestay and guided tour in the Lenca Highlands, Honduras

Dos Hombres
View from our homestay door

I am sitting looking over coffee plants and chickens eating a salted taron grapefruit while the slap, slap of fresh tortillas being made comes from the kitchen where Doña Soledad is making my lunch. It is 11am New Year’s Eve and we are coming to the end of a visit to the tourism co-operative of San Juan, a village south of Gracias. We are staying in Doña Soledad’s house, a hearty and jovial 84 year-old who welcomed us in with a hug and a kiss. She spends most of her day in the kitchen, beside the wood burning hot plate. Her husband goes out to milk their cows, her adopted son Leonardo to work their land full of coffee plants, bananas, beans, maize and other fruits and vegetables. Meals have been mostly of food from her own land, much of it organic, including freshly squeezed milk, cheese, curd cheese, beans, bananas, free range yard eggs, coffee and maize tortillas.

Ggeorgia picking coffee
Georgia picking coffee

We made tortillas with her the first night. I would say ‘helped’ except for the mis-shapen attempts we produced. On the last day she demonstrated how she roasts coffee beans on her hot plate and we helped turn the beans so that they did not burn. As they roast, the smell comes increasingly of coffee, except in our case and because of our 'help' it was dominated by a heady aroma of charcoal.

Roasting Coffee
Roasting the coffee beans

Fresh Roasted Coffee
That's fresh coffee!

Soledad’s daughter Gladys runs a stationers cum button shop cum café which quadruples as the visitor centre for the co-operative. This was where we arrived to and were shown a well-produced information folder that explains the aims of the co-operative, how it benefits its members and the activities provided through it.

Leonardo picking coffee
Leonardo, Soledad's son, and Georgia pick coffee

Over the last couple of days we have got to know them all, especially Doña Soledad, and so got much closer to Hondurans than before. The co-operative is only four years old and was founded due to the plummeting coffee prices on the international market. With declining incomes a group of villagers and a Peace Corps worker identified the sorts of activities and infrastructure needed to increase small-scale community tourism. The current twenty members of the co-operative earn much needed income but also the visitor learns much more about contemporary and traditional Honduran life than if simply passing through and staying at a hotel. We have certainly got to know the people and lifestyles very well.

Danilo and Campesinos
Danilo our guide and Campesinos

We had a full-day 24km hike into the mountains yesterday to visit the Waterfalls of the Elves. While not seeing any elves we did spend a great day with Danilo, a small farmer who as a guide earns 50% over the average daily wage for a coffee worker. Not only did we learn about the plants and history of the area, we were introduced to other members of the community and felt like we were being right in a real part of Honduras.

Waterfall of the Elves
A waterfall, no elves in sight!

More photos are on our flickr photostream, link above left.

Thank You Gracias

26th-29th Dec

Capital of the Lenca Highland, Honduras


Gracias church
One of the Gracias churches

Gracias is a small mountain town in the western Highlands of Guatemala, an area occupied by the indigenous Lenca people. The bus journey from the coast rose through ever-more stunning countryside flanked by high mountains. We met a British-Irish couple who now live in San Francisco on the bus and shared stimulating conversations to pass the four hour journey. On arrival, we hopped in a tuk-tuk to the Finca Bavaria, a German-Honduran owned small walled coffee finca and hotel on the edge of town. Our room was set in a beautiful but somewhat neglected garden of forest trees, flowers, bananas, mangoes and coffee plants, all hidden behind a high stone wall and foreboding black steel gates – German style. The family who run the finca for the owners comprise a friendly but somewhat dotty hombre, a scowling senora and their pleasant, smiling daughter. The gates were purportedly closed at 10pm, to be opened on knocking, but were closed by 9.30 and opened with comments of ‘ooh, isn’t it late?’

Chat Up
Gracias Chat Up

The town is a small grid pattern of low pan-tiled painted houses, with a labyrinthine market at its centre. Two white Hispanic churches are the highest buildings in the town, one of them set next to a small wooded park. It gets its name from its founder, Spanish Conquistador Juna de Chevez, who called it Thank You to God when he came to this part of Central America in 1536. It is one of the oldest towns in Honduras, and has twice been it capital albeit briefly. An indigenous Lenca revolt against Spanish rule was brutally put down here when the Lenca leader Lempira was murdered on the pretence of an invitation to peace talks. He is now a national hero and his name is the name of the Honduran currency.

Lenca Hombre
Lenca Hombre

Gracias doesn't get many tourists which means that there is a different atmosphere in town than elsewhere we have visited so far. People are going about their normal lives and as visitors we can see what that means in Honduras rather than solely being on holiday mode and seen by locals as a source of cash. One feature is that there are lots of men in cowboy hats.

Oranges are the only fruit
Oranges are the only fruit

The market is a delight to explore and buy tortillas, fruit, vegetables and cheese. The outer walls are honeycombed with small shops selling everything from saddles and hardware to clothes and plastic things. Gracias is a place to wander around aimlessly and absorb how people live in highland Honduras. We also climbed to the nearby 19th century Castillo and spent an afternoon in hot springs situated 8km outside the town in a wooded gorge. A group of American and British backpackers arrived mid-afternoon and we shared beers over conversation – the ideal way to enjoy communal bathing. The only issue being the overly-amplified music which was further let down by Depeche Mode, Metallica and Eye of the Tiger.

More photos on our flickr photostream, link top right.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Rolling into Roli’s Place, Omoa

22nd December onwards.

Backpackers in Omoa, Honduras

We picked out Omoa as the place for Christmas and maybe New Year because the guide book said it was a quiet fishing village with a good backpacker’s hostel called Roli’s Place, a Honduran resort and a quiet beach nearby. Georgia remembered it as a nice resort with a good beach 10 years previously. It shouldn’t be too built-up or noisy yet still some Honduran Christmas action.

It is easy to get to. The bus from the Guatemalan border to Puerto Cortes passes through the village and drops you off at the road to the backpackers and the beach. The walk to Roli’s is all flat, 1 km, through the village. The hostel is beautiful, with gorgeous gardens alive with hummingbirds and butterflies attracted to the flowers. The dock is a short stroll away.

But this is where most of the attractions of Omoa sadly end. The beach has been washed away by a recent expansion of the gas factory, a new breakwater changing the currents and so leaving a narrow strip where once football and volleyball pitches lay. The nearby quiet beach is quiet, surrounded by mangroves, with ospreys in the sea, but it is covered in rubbish. Many mangroves were cut down for the gas terminal and large lorries transporting gas trundle through the village.

If you want somewhere to hang out, recover from travelling and enjoy peaceful nights sleep then Roli’s is perfect. Duck in if you are on the coast road. His 10.30pm quiet curfew is strictly adhered to so it is not for the party crowd. He boasts of throwing out the backpacks of those repeatedly breaking the curfew and when we were there a couple of backpackers were given a firm warning for talking outside the dorm after 11pm. He does provide free use of sea kayaks, bicycles, table tennis, table football and a kitchen, all set in his tranquil gardens, which make it an ideal port f call for quiet recuperation from the road. There are a variety of very nicely kept double rooms at 160 - 220 lempiras,  a dorm at L70, or you can either sling a hammock or camp for L50 a person in 2007.

In December 2007 Roli was talking of selling up and leaving, so I don't know what the future holds for the place. As of November 2008 he seems to still be in business. Its worth checking his website - - to check.

There is one great attraction if you find you need to stopover at Omoa – the Paticceria Italiana. Sheltered behind white Roman columns is an Italian bakery owned by an extremely charming Neapolitan. He bakes awesome panetone, delicious pan blanco, exquisite cakes and great pizza as well as having a good supply of Californian champagne. What a find!

Saturday, 15 December 2007

San Ignacio, Belize

12th-14th December

San Ignacio isn't a pretty town but it lies beautifully nestled at the confluence of two rivers in the western hills of Belize. It is easy to get to by bus from Belize City, the journey taking about 5 hours. If you arrive and hang out in the central park you'll quickly meet many of the local tour guide operators. There is quite a bit of budget accommodation along the main thoroughfare and a side street right in the centre of town. We stayed in a cabana set in the lawned campsite of Cosmos Camping and Cabanas on the outskirts of town and right by the Macal River. We opted for a 1km walk to get into the centre for peace and quiet at night and a rural setting near to the river. Basically, we wanted to get away from the main east-west road runs right through the centre of the town so it gets clogged up with traffic during most of the day. There were no other people staying while we were there, which could have made the place a bit desolate but the tranquility made up for feeling a little out on a limb. We'd often see the extremely friendly owner on our way into town because his house was on the roadside. He offers freshly squeezed orange juice if he sees you pass by, which is worth taking him up on.

The main highlights of a trip to San Ignacio include:

Going on a tour. We kayaked 14km down the River Macal, passing between forested hills, cruising over rapids and picnicking on a sand bank. We booked with a guy called D'Alessandro who was one of the guides who picked up on us in the central park. We chose him purely because he was friendly and not pushy. The kayak tripped consisted of D'Alessandro and his brother driving us 14km up the river, winding through beautiful farmland, where they put the kayak in the water and asked us to drop it off in San Ignacio just after the bridge before sunset. That was it.

Macal River

Macal Mirror Pelvis

Eating at the South Indian Restaurant! Belizean food is much of a muchness so to find an Indian restaurant run by a guy from Kerala was a godsend.

Meeting the many very friendly, laid-back people of Belize.


14th December

Iguana spotting in San Ignacio, Belize

Iguana Sun

We spotted them first from our kayak. An unusual lump on a branch, high in tree. We hove to and saw it was an orange iguana, all menacing black stripes and spine spikes. Glowering it was.

Iguana Profile

Once you see one iguana you start to see lots of them. On Friday evening just before sunset I counted 14 hanging out on branches, almost one in each tree over a couple of hundred metres alongside the river. They appear to be soaking up the last warmth from the suns rays before the cool of night. If you're in San Ignacio head for a riverside track a bit before sunset and get counting.

Danger Iguana


12th December

Mennonites 3

Belize is one country that is home to one of those old-fashioned German protestant communities who (mostly) left the present behind sometime in the 1700s. The Mennonites are akin to the more famous Amish. Formed out of German reformation thinking, they eschew most worldly goods, vanities and excesses for a simple life that is closer to their god. They live in distinct, even segregated, communities. We passed through one on the way from Indian Church to Orange Walk. Rows of prim, grey wooden houses, pinched white curtains at the windows, look out in orderly fashion across tidy fields with the occasional evergreen hedge for decoration. Horse-drawn buggies canter along the road, except when parked up under the veranda, and form the dominant traffic challenged only by the occasional Hispanic pick-up. Men and boys where work shirts, jeans and braces or dungarees and straw hats. Women wear loose dark dresses that come below the knee, and scarves or wide-brimmed straw hats.

Not all Mennonites are the same. While some refuse all modern inventions, so travelling by foot, buggy or bicycle, others drive cars and have mobile phones. In the north they wear more cowboy-like upturned hats, in the west the brims turn down. Some are clean-shaven while others have beards as shaving is a sign of bodily vanity.

The Mennonites are in Belize by invitation, arriving in 1962 from Canada after the Canadian government decided all residents had to be citizens. The pacifist, non-aligned Mennonites give no allegiance to secular nation states resulting in some problems up north. Belize needed skilled input to kick start its agricultural production and asked the Mennonites to come along. They now control something like 80% of all Belizean beef, dairy, poultry and egg production, as well as being major house builders.

Mennonites 2


11th December 2007


Lamanai is a Mayan city next to lagoons and amongst jungle in northern Belize. They are much smaller than Tikal, comprising a couple of beautiful restored pyramids, a ball court and some palace/administrative buildings around plazas. What mostly drew us here was an amazingly well-preserved white stucco mask – probably the face of a god or king – that had been preserved under a later pyramid until archaeologists discovered it in the late 20th century. The visit was well worth it, the 4 metre high mask being one of the best preserved in the Mayan world.

Lamanai Sun God Mask

We also enjoyed the excellent visitor centre and museum, howler monkeys, picnic lunch by the lagoon and photographing lots of delicate, gorgeous mushrooms found by Georgia.

On the Road to Indian Church

10th December 2007

We’re on the road again, Caye Caulker fast receding behind our speed boat ferry across a calm, blue Caribbean Sea. C.C. is certainly very much a resort island, nightclubs, sports bars and all. It was great for a week-long holiday. The snorkelling and weather were both good. We unfortunately moved hotels twice to get one decent and quiet – our second being a party venue next to a club – which was Lorraine’s well away from the town and right on the beach. We met some great people and had some great conversations on C.C. with Brits, Canadians, French, Germans and Turks.

A week feels like long enough so we are heading for a tiny village called Indian Church to stay a couple of nights an visit the nearby Mayan ruins of Lamanai. It feels like we’re travelling again rather than being on a long holiday.

We walked across Belize City to get a local bus to Orange Walk, a Hispanic-Mennonite town in the north. We had a three hour wait for the one bus to Indian Church – which runs twice a week – so had lunch, hung out in the central park, ate some crispy apple like fruit with salt, chilli and lime bought from a buy with a trike and got on the bus with everyone an hour before it left. The bus was packed with women returning from the market, children from a school, and a few men. The large, round-backed driver squeezed behind the steering wheel, edged forward, let someone on, edged forward, let someone on, edged forward then eased the bus onto the dirt road. Two hours down a rain-filled pot-holed muddy road running first between sugar cane fields then jungle, dropping off groups of perhaps three at one village, five at the next, and we were at Indian Church. Population 200, three shops (one the venue for watching TV), two comedors, two guest houses, a generator for electricity (only on between 6.30 and 9.30pm) and no light pollution.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Caye Caulker, Belize, Snorkelling

4-8th December

Coral, brightly coloured fishes, eels, rays, octopuses and turtles –one great tour company called Anwar and a wholly terrible, unprofessional one called Tsunami!

We have been Swimming with the Fishes…….or to be exact, swimming with the Yellow-Tailed Snappers, French Grunts, Pink Squirrelfish and Horse-Eyed Jacks. More Pirates of the Caribbean than fishes of the Caribbean? That’s what the coloured little fishes of the reef we have seen are called. We have seen large colonies of coral towering above the sea-bed, plus rays, eels, octopuses and turtles.

We have been doing what we mostly came to Caye Caulker for – snorkelling. And we love it. We’ve been out on three tours – and here’s a recommendation and a word of warning. Two tours by Anwar were good, one of them excellent. The third with Tsunami was appalling. We strongly recommend anyone who wants to go out with a good and knowledgeable guide to go with Anwar and to avoid Tsunami like the disaster they are named after. But more of this later.

Belize has the world’s second largest Barrier Reef, a line of coral than runs straight down the eastern coast and facing the Caribbean. It is broken places by natural channels and beyond it lies a series of coral and sand atolls. Caye Caulker is one of the sand islands – cayes – just inside the reef and only one of two that are inhabited. The local inhabitants have been long-time lobster fishermen until tourism took off. There is a largish local village sprawled along the key and a strip of hotels, hostels, restaurants, gift shops, jewellery stalls, dive centres and tour shops along the east-facing reef-side.

Two of our trips have been with the impeccable Anwar’s Tours, one with a fantastic guide and all-round top person called Emer. With enthusiasm, dedication and expert knowledge, he has pointed out pinnacle, elkhorn, antler, fire, brain and common sea fan corals. He takes time to point out corals, fishes, lobsters and eels then rises to the service to tell us what they are. He also takes time to answer all questions and explain how the reef works. He’s a star and if you go to Caye Caulker go to Anwar’s for a tour ans ask for one led by Emer if you can. He’s one of the best tour guides we have been with of any sort anywhere in the world.

Strangely the two Anwar’s tours have also been with the same Minnesotan couple celebrating her 60th birthday. We first went to the local Caye Caulker reef where we saw decent coral and some fish, second to Hol Chan and the Coral Gardens where we saw great coral and lots of fish.

We have also seen the entertaining, disappearing Christmas tree worms which do look like tiny, brightly-coloured Christmas trees. They disappear into their protective coral homes when they sense danger nearby. The corals rise as mounds from the sea bed, each mound a community of different types of hard an soft corals. Most are brown or green with a few purples and yellows thrown in to brighten things up.

Emer has dived to show us a multitude of multi-coloured fishes, the names of most of which are so quickly forgotten as one darting, bright treasure follows on from another. We have seen a variety of parrot, butterfly and angel fish, lots of sub-surface bobbing pipe fish, large shoals of silver and yellow fish hugging close to the coral, large black groupers, plus everyone’s favourite - the barracuda. Just floating looking down on the vibrant, three-dimensional worlds is enough of a delight to make an hour pass as if it is fifteen minutes.

Our third tour could not have been more of a contrast. The disaster that is Tsunami tours were the only company with a confirmed trip to Tunneffe Atoll, out beyond the barrier reef. The boat trip out was exhilarating due to the swell fronting strong winds. At our first stop Rene the guide swam off at breakneck speed leaving us all trailing in his wake. He pointed out only one fish but was keener to get to deeper water to harpoon his dinner. Half of the group were left behind, including three older, less fit Americans. Rene shouted at them to keep up and complained to me they should not be on the tour. A long swim later and we all made it back to the boat tired but the three Americans were struggling and Rene had to go back to escort them in. They only made it out of the boat one more time during the day.

We stopped on the sandy atoll itself for lunch and at three more locations to snorkel. Despite Tsunami saying the guide would show us coral and fish and that we could not snorkel by ourselves, Rene did not do any more guiding and either sat in the boat smoking cigarettes or went off on his own to hunt, bringing back a lobster and a fish. He also threw a live turtle in the boat for us to look at and shouted at one guy who put it back in the water as soon as anyone possibly could, poor turtle.

The large coral formations towering from the sea bed were stunning at Turneffe and because we had two good tours previously, both of us were happy to snorkel and look for things ourselves. We swam around colonies of different coloured corals, many with fish. But, not once did Rene offer to tell us where the good coral was, which direction to swim or how far unless we pressed him. Any of us could have gone too far and found a strong, cold current.

I hired an underwater digital camera from Tsunami which did not work the whole trip. When I brought it back, Heather who was running the shop was rude and offensive as she accused me of mistreating the camera while explaining that tourists lie to her and damage the cameras themselves. I said the memory card was faulty, in my opinion, which she worked out too while miserably bad mouthing tourists. Then refused a refund until she had checked with the woman who hired me the camera and we had to go back the next day to see if she would consider a refund. The whole attitude of Tsunami – their health and safety, guiding, communication and customer service was of the lowest standard you could imagine – in other words ‘utter shite’.

My highlights are the fish I’ve not seen before and long wanted to swim with.

We have had the honour at one location of being visited time again by a fly-past of at least 22 sting rays, silently gliding over the sea bed in graceful formations. A couple of larger spotted eagle rays have slipped past, their matt black bodies seeming to cast dark shadows across the water.

G. adds: yes... we have seen wonderful life under the water, and eagle rays are surely one of my favourite ever creatures on the planet to see. I loved the way that Emer pointed out all the little and more commonly seen fish as well as the 'big 5' so beloved of tour guides. the day after, I went back to Anwar's shop and spent an hour perhaps just sitting with the guide and browsing the reference books going over what we'd seen and identifying more or variations. They're a great outfit.

Sunday, 2 December 2007


The last weekend in El Remate before we go to Caye Caulker in Belize for a 10 day holiday. Can't wait.

On Saturday I visited La Blanca and Yaxha while Georgia worked on a couple of inHeritage comics. I was kindly given a lift by Lou, an American living in El Remate with half a dozen businesses and ideas for a hundred more. We met the archaeologists digging in La Blanca, were comically charged 80Qs for two lunches that should have been 40Qs and settled on 50Qs, then he dropped me off at Yaxha for the afternoon before returning to collect me after sunset.

Yaxha is another fantastic jungle-clad Mayan city that has recently been renovated and had some great infrastructure added to it - wooden walkways and decent signs. It's right next to a lake too.

Here's some photos

Yaxha Pyramid
Yaxha Pyramid

Lake from Templo Mayor
Lake Sunset from Templo Mayor

Stucco Glyph
Stucco Glyph

Monday, 12 November 2007

Tikal for the Weekend

Monday, 11th November and we are resting after a weekend at Tikal. I’ve been going up two or even three times a week to photograph the most visited and best preserved/reconstructed ancient Mayan city in Guatemala. But that involves an early start and a departure well before sunset, as well as the inevitable haggling over fare. Esta 10 quatzales por una Guatemelteca and usually 15 for uno turisto. Pero muchos collectivos quiren 20 or even 30 quatzelas. No me gusta! It’s a pain haggling with the minibus drivers so we decided to have a weekend away and stay in the luxury Jungle Lodge right next to the gates of the site. We could stay for sunset on Saturday and be up for sunrise on Sunday as well as treat ourselves to dinner on white linen under a palm-thatched roof and Victorian black and white photos of the temples being cleared of jungle.

We checked in with Oliver who has clearly been on a tourism training course that said a real smile is with the eyes and closed them everytime he did smile which was about twice a minute. We had a nice little room with a balcony overlooking a narrow, beautifully planted garden, into the jungle. Georgia was greatly attracted to the open air swimming pool surrounded by jungle. The Lodge lives up to its name!

We managed to eventually find out that for 50 quatzels we could enter the site an hour before official opening at 6am with a guard to be escorted to Temple 4 to watch sunrise. Oliver didn’t tell us this, the ticket seller didn’t tell us this. Only a guar overhearing our enquiry told us this.

We have had two great days wandering around probably the most dramatic Mayan city in Central America. It was one of the biggest and most influential in its day, though not the biggest. However, they still mostly survive as forested mounds with little uncovered to understand a Mayan city. What really makes Tikal are the six dramatic pyramid temples that soar above the forest canopy, Temple 4 is the highest at 70 metres and from here you can see jungle as far as every horizon, look down on mighty rainforest trees, watch branches and trees shake to the swinging and clambering of spider monkey foraging for fruit, follow parrots, toucans, vultures and hawks flutter, swoop, soar and glide above the trees. There are few rainforests in the world with such majestic and high viewing platforms.

Sunset was one where a large dark red fiery disc, fractured by fingers of cloud, sinks lazily towards the horizon. Flocks of green parrots squawked their way from one tree to another in search of a roost. Darkness and silence descended with it.

Sunrise was a gentle, gradual lightening of promise for a new day. The night had been quiet except for the chilling roar of a group of agitated howler monkeys and dark save the overwhelming lights of stars, planets and the Milky Way glimpsed between clearings. We climbed Temple 4 to look over the silhouetted proud crowns of four other pyramids to the east. Then, as half light burrowed into the shadows the jungle began to awake. First the howler monkeys let out their loud roars stating they were here, that others should not invade their tree-top territories. They opened their mouths, inflated their throats, and the jungle raged to the sound of demons unleashed from hell. Then, surprisingly, came silence with the dawn. The howlers stopped. Except it was totally quiet. Now that they could be heard, the birds filled the morning light with song. Sparsely came the notes at first until the sun was above the horizon, then every tree seemed alive with every type of song and call as they too announced their territorial presence. Branches began to bend to the first spider monkeys searching for food, toucans flitted to the tops of fruit trees. Ungainly in their swooping flight and comical with their oversized and overcoloured beaks, they kept high in twos and threes. If ever a bird was created based on the winning entry in a young children’s art contest, the toucan would be it.

Dawn went through a slow blending of grey, yellow and orange hues. Subtly, the clouds grew pink and orange high in the sky, the sun shielded by a larger cloud. Yellow vertical bands of light shimmered on the horizon below the cloud. After the light show, the dozens of other tourists left to start their various tours. We remained on high and were treat to the sound and sight of the jungle without camera shutters or flash bulbs. Cloud hung low in the hollows of the ground, casting treetops in silhouette. The bright oranges and pinks gave away to misty whites and diluted golds and then the sun climbed above the cloud and the jungle shimmered like a sea, the temples like majestic sailing ships waiting to set sail. What a way to spend a Sunday morning!

I have put some of my photographs of and from Tikal on my photography website - Tikal Photos

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Skulls, Drunks and Broken Taps

El Remate, the Peten, northern Guatemala.

On Thursday we decided to head to the village of San Jose on the other side of Lake Peten Itza. It was November 1st, All Saints Day. This is widely and strongly celebrated here because of the mix of Catholic faith and traditional religion which honoured the dead and ancestors. People across the country walk in large numbers to the cemeteries to have picnics with their dead families, wash and paint the graves, and place wreaths of bright flowers. We had been told that San Jose, having a alrge Maya population, had a traditional ceremony where Three Skulls were taken in procession around the village.

The day started well with a beautiful boat trip across the lake from the town of flores to the village of San Andreas only 2km from San Jose. Andreas has the hotels and we´d been recommend Villa Benjamin on the basis of its view and restaurant. After disembarking we climbed the near vertical village streets, following directions further and further up the hill. THe directions got shorted each time suggesting we were really getting closer until the last person we asked pointed and used only one word - arriber - up! When we reached the hotel the view was truly spectacular - right across the jungle-fringed lake and down into the turqoiuse waters below where kids leapt off a wooden dock. The only hitch was the somewhat shady hotel managed who couldn´t say anything - and I mean anything - without winking or suggesting in hushed tones he was doing us the sort of favour that should have involved him producing silk stockings and silver watches from a raincoat. His somewhat dubious antics put us off but being tired and hungry, by now it was 2pm ,we decided just to have lunch before deciding our next move. As the food was great and his wife more normally friendly, we thought we´d take a room as we were here. The gardens were beautiful and we wouldn´t have to speak to him. We paid then heard the shattering news that they were leaving at 4m the next morning to visit her family grave so there would be no breakfast.

Not disheartened by the news, lack of light in the baño, unfinished electrical wiring, cobwebs or fake stone walls, we set off along the road to San Jose for a sunset walk beside the lake. The water shimmered blue and aqua in one direction, shades of pink and purple in the other. We hung out on a dock by San Jose´s part-built concrete promenade which promised tourists, cafes and car parks galore. We then thought, as it was nearly 6 and our reports varied between 6 and 7 for the start of the ceremony, we should find the church where the action was meant to begin.

We climbed to the sound of bells and the vision of a white bell tower to find a church almost empty except for three skulls lined up in front of the alter, each with a raised cross on its forehead. After about 20 minutes of sitting in the empty church, except for the occasional bit of activity as a mujer brought a decoration or alter piece out, we thought best to get a drink and come back later.

We pitched up at a small bar for a soda and a licuado de papaya to be hailed from the back by a guy saying ´why not come in´. Why not chat with the locals. The three guys didn´t instanly look like they had been drinking for that long. There were the husband of the woman doing all of the work, his father-in-law (both from El Salvador) and a local friend. Georgia was soon speaking Spanish to the father in law and friend while the other guy decided to talk at me ni English. Neither of us spoke much for the next half hour or so. My amigo had come to Peten after a vision of god while on magic mushrooms after leaving the US Army cadets. He had seen eyes appear on the floor and walls, then the earth at way and in hunger. A voice spoke to him, saying ´why do you think it doesn´t not explode´before two hands cupped the earth. Taking this as a sign that he hd to go to the Peten and show the locals how to save the rainforest by growing vegetables on rafts of waste in the lake, he had ended up drunk in San Jose.

Skulls again
The church bell rang again and we took this as our cue to escape, climbed back up to the chruch to find a full Catholic mass about to begin. THe church was packed, there were plenty of chicos and chicas hanging around outside the open doors and as the mass progressed more people wandered in and out. A dog sallied in, wagging its tale as it sauntered downthe aisle until it found someone it knew and sniffed them. It soon became bored and wandered out again. That was probably the highlight for me. Realising that the mass was going to go on for a long time and that any procession wasn´t shaping up to be that spectacular we decided to walk back to our hotel.

Broken Tap
We crashed out in our room but as the toilet cistern wouldn´t stop filling up Georgia went to flush it again and turn off a dripping tap. Suddenly water was flooding everywhere and I found Georgia trying to keep the tap on the faucet. I took over so she could get the manager, as our room and the balcony flooded. Thankfully he turned off the ater without trying to sell us a new plumbing system or blackmarket coffee and we moved room. About two hours later there was a knock on the door and he shouted something, apparently prompted by his wife. It seemed to be that he wanted us to pay for the tap we´d clearly broken. Giving the general unfinished and uncared for state of the rooms we thught we´d not enter into the conversation.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Flores, Guatemala

Flores in Peten Itza Lake
Flores in the lake

We approached Santa Elena with sun bursting through the leaden sky of clouds after a rain-soaked journey thinking this a good sign for better weather until the rain came back in time for us getting out of the collectivo. Santa Elena is the muddy (or dusty depending on the weather), busy, noisy, polluted mainland cousin to the historic island town of Flores which is joined to the former by a causeway. Santa Elena guards the approach to Flores like Rapunzil’s mean father. Both are on Lake Peten Itza, the largest lake in northern Guatemala. It is surrounded by jungle-covered hills where villages nestle against the shore.

Painted Street
Bright Street of our hotel

We were whisked through the ugly to the good by another collectivo who just happened to be waiting at our drop-off point. Our arranger drove us around a few hotels until yes we agreed with him, the one he recommended was the best. This was the Mirador Del Lago at 60 Quetzals for a fan double with a private bathroom. As it was at our price with a decent room and warm water from the shower we happily took it and he presumably happily received his commission.

Typical Flores door

Flores is a town of narrow cement and limestone-cobbled streets lined with brightly painted buildings. The island was the ancient Mayan city of Taxapal and still today bits of Mayan buildings and burials are found during construction work. At least some, we were told, were found by archaeologists working alongside the builders.

Casa Vieja
Casa Veija - an old house hidden in a backstreet of Flores

Today, Flores, is a major tourist hub for backpackers and holidaymakers visiting the ancient Mayan city Tikal, just over an hour’s drive away. This means lots of gift shops selling Tikal t-shirts and traditional clothes, internet cafes and many, many restaurants selling Western specialities for prices expensive compared to local. Where a meal of squash and salad in Santa Elena would be 15 Quetzels, in Flores a meal costs twice as much. We found a great street taco place near the lakeside with a cheap buffet of salads and salsas.

Picasso´s Pizzas
Pizzeria wall advertising

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Tulum Too-rar-ay

Return to Tulum, Mexico

Tulum Beach
Tulum Beach

It was great to return to Tulum, to start where I ended my last trip to Mexico in 1999. I thought we'd look for the place I stayed before but couldn't remember the name and the pouring rain meant we took the nearest affordable beach cabana to where the taxi dropped us. We had thought about a place called El Mirador but the taxi driver assured us it had closed 2 years ago.

View from the office
View from our cabana

We stayed at El Mirador in a typical Mexican sand-floored, wood and concrete palm leaf thatched cabana right on the beach for 250 pesos. All it took as a left turn and a short walk and we were in the Caribbean. El Mirador is one of a number of places on a strip along the beach. If you want to have good access to the beach then it is best to head to this strip. If you're on a budget there are cheaper places to stay in Tulum itself, the town that is about 1 mile from the beach and ruins. Buses run between the town and beach so it is easy to get to the sand, but you miss waking up to the sound of surf, the general tranquility of the rural beach-side setting and being in the sea minutes after getting out of bed. You pays your money and makes your choices.

A quick look around suggested some things were a bit different and then the owner of the cabanas supplied the answer - Hurrican Wilma had hit this part of the Yucatan coast 2 years ago randomly decimating some cabanas while leaving others standing. Half of his were out of order while the others were fine and he hadn't the money to yet rebuild the ones he had lost. But where was the place I stayed before? I was sure it was only a little further along the beach towards the headland with the Mayan ruins. And there they were - or what was left of them. A few sticks, some rectangular depressions in the sand and lost of debris. The place I had stayed, and my memory at last caught up to tell me it was El Mirador, had been flattened by Wilma. The cabana I had shared with a German backpacker was a wall, a door and a place where rubbish collected.

Bill's 1999 cabana
Remains of the old place

Tulum works out as a great place to rest up after a long-haul flight. Highlights are of course swimming in the turquoise sea, lying on the fine white sand and the Mayan city on the nearby cliff. If you're after a beach holiday or want to get together with other backpackers then it should suit you really well. The Mayan city is worth a visit for its breathtaking location as much as its architectural interest, as well as being one to tick off the list if you're on a Ruta Maya journey. Highlights include the Castillo, the most visible building on the site, which is seven and half meters tall and has a small shrine may have been used as a beacon for incoming canoes. The Temple of the Frescoes is perhaps the most impressive building. Figurines of the Maya “diving god” or Venus deity decorate niches in the temple's façade. The architecture is similar to nearby Chichen Itza, though on a smaller scale. There's a few Tulum photos on my flickr photostream - flickr stream

We had met an American who lived in Isla de Mujeres who claimed that as it was the rainy season we would get an hour of rain each day at 3pm but that a low depression was moving south-west from Florida. How quickly we were to discover it was heading our way. The first day the rains came at mid-day and stayed for the rest of the day. Then the second held dry until 3pm but after a dawn downpour and then the rains came at midday on the 3rd day too. Each day we had a 3 or 4 hour window of sun to swim and sunbathe in before huge dark grey towering columns of clouds moved in from the sea like marauding armies crossing a plain. Spectacular to watch, bands of rain drenched everything in their paths. The first night we watched four lightning storms play themselves out silently behind different cloud banks, like the spaceships in Close Encounters silently communicating to each other. The light show was awesome. So were the gale force winds and sheets of rain. Our plans to go to Caye Caullker in Belize for a week or two of snorkelling were looking somewhat unlikely. This was simply reinforced reading a Mexican paper over a woman's shoulder. Even my limited Spanish could not hide the two pages of news about the low front that could turn into a tropical depression that was swinging in towards Belize and the Yucatan from the Caribbean. The news warned of two to three days of stormy weather. There wouldn't be a lot to see at sea.