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 fa├žade. 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.