Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Day 179 - Glad we missed the hurricane

San Ignacio to San Pedro

The aftermath of yesterday's adventure was that K was grazed along the length of her arm and leg, she was also very bruised on her back, arm, thigh and calf, so she had some difficulty getting about. By taking it slowly though we were able to make the short walk to our bus for Belize City.

The bus service was great for us, it took us directly to the ferry port in Belize City (which seems to indicate there doesn't seem to be much else to see in Belize City), then it was just a short walk to board the ferry. The first stop for the ferry was Caye Caulker where lots of people disembarked, we stayed on all the way through to the small town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. As we pulled in to port the damage from Hurricane Earl was obvious with smashed piers and debris everywhere.


Our apartment was right on the beach about a kilometre from the port, and given K's condition it was just what we needed, with a great view and close to shops. Our plan here was to get our Cuba arrangements well underway or even finished, given that we really needed to have pretty much all of our travel and accommodation sorted before we left for Cuba in about a week's time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Day 178 - Into the depths

San Ignacio / Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM)

It was about an hour's drive to the national park that ATM is in, the way went through Mennonite country, they are similar to the Amish, hard working farming people that follow a simple traditional way of living, though they do use technology. The land we drove through included plenty of corn/maize, as well as plantations of teak and mahogany that wouldn't mature for at least 30 years..

We were set up with our helmets and life jackets (and without cameras, as they weren't allowed at all) and set off for the 4km walk to the cave entrance. Within two minutes we had a river crossing to make, so we used the rope strung between the banks to haul ourselves  across. The water level was higher than usual, due to the rain brought by Hurricane Earl. The eye of the storm had passed through here, and the damage that had been done was amazing to see, fallen trees and debris everywhere, the effects of the storm had closed the caves for 15 days and they had only reopened four days ago, as it had taken that long to clear the track using a large team of workers who were still there.

We reached the mouth of the cave and attached our head lamps, then started the swim in. We climbed over and under large rocks until we reached what they call "the neck slicer", a rock at neck height with a defined edge with a gap above it just big enough to fit your head through. We had to turn and position our head and neck just right, then turn our head at right angles so we could get through the next gap. All of this was done while we were in waist deep water, and as as we travelled through the cave the water in places was even deeper, needing us to swim to move forward. The whole trip through the caves was incredible fun and nothing like anything we have done before.


Along the way we were shown different cave formations and points of archaeological interest. After some time we climbed up a series of boulders where we were told to remove our shoes, it was socks only from this point. It was explained to us and we quickly saw that there were Mayan artifacts embedded and scattered throughout the floor, so by wearing socks the idea was that we would be more careful to watch where we stepped so as not to damage anything. This relates to the reason that cameras aren't allowed, over the years two tourists had dropped their cameras and ended up breaking skulls and pots.

We were nearly at the end where we would get to see the the "Crystal Maiden", all we needed to do was climb up a few rocks and go up a ladder. It was at this point that K slipped and fell quite badly, heavily "bouncing" off a ledge and rocks ending up further down. This was probably the only point in the journey where you could fall this far down onto solid rock, so of course that's where K fell!


K knew that nothing was broken but she was very messed up after hitting those rocks and falling so far, she could just stand but was in a lot of pain. As if that wasn't bad enough, we the only way out was to retrace our steps to the entrance. It was slow going and tricky at times but we eventually made it out of the cave, then tackled the four kilometres back to the car, wondering all the way about what would have happened if it had been worse, if there had been a broken bone?

We later learnt these types of injuries and worse have happened in these caves, more often than you would expect. The plus side of doing "adventure" activities in these countries is that you are allowed to experience things that would normally be considered unsafe back home, the other side of the coin though is that as they are unsafe you need to live with the consequences of doing these risky activities.

Overall though the experience was amazing and we highly recommend it .... just watch your footing at all times and don't fall over!

Note: As no cameras were allowed but we still want to give you some idea of what we saw, in this post I've used pictures from other websites:

  • http://www.sanpedrosun.com/environment/2011/07/25/actun-tunichil-muknal-is-one-of-10-top-sacred-caves/
  • http://www.jmbelizetravel.com/actun-tunichil-muknal.html
  • http://dfwgrotto.org/blog/oztotl.php/2010/03/09/actun-tunichil-muknal-cave-belize-dec-2009





Monday, August 15, 2016

Day 177 - And just like that we were back in the room

Flores (Guatemala) to San Ignacio (Belize)

We were told to be ready at 7 for a 7.30 pick up for our bus trip to Belize but of course it was after 8am by the time we got going, something we are so used to it barely registers with us but the German people who were also waiting were getting quite stressed, we told them that in nearly six months of travelling we have never been left behind.

Today's journey didn't take too long, we possibly spent more time on the border formalities crossing between Guatemala and Belize than sitting in the bus. We were in for a pleasant surprise when we reached Belize, if we'd done our homework we would have known this, but in Belize the official language is English (really? we are now speaking English?). Queen Elizabeth is the head of state and she has very similar powers as she does in Australia. There was even a sign painted on a building at the border with "Welcome Prince Harry".

Not many people got off in San Ignacio with us, most were travelling on to Belize City and beyond. It was an easy walk from where the bus dropped us off to our guest house in town. Once we settled in we walked down the street and found the agency recommended to us so we could book our visit to Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) the next day,

Looks much nicer on the inside
ATM is a large underground cave system that was used as a Mayan burial and ceremonial site, getting in to see the artefacts and skeletons can only be done with a guide, and requires hiking in to the site, crossing rivers along the way, then navigating the dark, water filled caverns and passages. Apparently there has been talk of closing it permanently to protect the artefacts (some have already been damaged by tourists), so even though it is known as being difficult we thought we'd better take this opportunity.



Sunday, August 14, 2016

Day 176 - A growler, not a howler

Flores / Tikal

We took a minibus for the hour and a half trip to the Mayan archaeological site of Tikal. We were armed with our copy of the Rough Guide on the phone and a map of the site from our hotel as we headed off to explore the ruins at 8am.

While it is a relatively large site is is also quite easily walkable and we could quickly see the similarities to Chichen Itza and Teotichuan that we had visited in Mexico some years ago. We followed the paths between the sets of pyramids and other ruins, some of the sites hadn't been fully uncovered so huge mounds were visible under which you could easily imagine there would be more pyramids.

We saw some spider monkeys early on in the day, and we were near the Perdido Mundo section when we heard the most tremendous noise coming from a little further ahead. We followed a guide who stopped at some trees, the noise was now so loud and ferocious that we wouldn't have been surprised if a large brown bear appeared. Up in the trees were two groups of howler monkeys, it's amazing how such small animals can make such incredibly loud, scary and deep noises, perhaps they would be more aptly named growler monkeys.


The weather was very hot and humid so we were delighted when a huge thunderstorm started just as we arrived back at the entrance gate. They have a stupid system with the buses where they only return to Flores at set times, 12.30pm and 3pm. There were lots of people waiting, with the shuttles parked nearby, but it was well after 3 before we finally started the drive back. You'd think it would be much better if each bus returned to Flores as soon as there are enough people to fill it, instead they all wait until they are all full, then all leave at the same time.




Saturday, August 13, 2016

Day 175 - The Guatemalan shuttle blues

Coban to Flores

Another poor shuttle ride - as we had been the first ones off in Coban two days ago, we were the last ones on today, everyone else had boarded in Semuc Champey and Lanquin. The good thing though is that we didn't have to get up early and endure a rough few hours getting to Coban, we'd done it all yesterday.

At one point we had to take a small car ferry across a river, and once we reached the town of Flores late in the afternoon we had to change buses to get to the small island where our hotel was. The island of Flores is tiny, about four blocks by four, connected to the mainland by a bridge. It's also very touristy but still very pleasant, with restaurants and hotels all along the waterfront with great views of the lake and the sunset.



Friday, August 12, 2016

Day 174 - "Where are the gringos?"

Coban / Semuc Champey

We spent some time yesterday trying to arrange a tour/transportation from Coban to Semuc Champey but hadn't been successful, the agency that our hotel arranged for us cancelled our booking at 9pm, so we had decided to make the trip using local transportation.

We were told the bus left every 30 minutes for Lanquin so a taxi dropped us off at a bus terminal at 8.15am. We promptly bought our tickets and hopped on to what we thought was the 8.30am bus. 8:30 came and went and we just sat there, we didn't really get going until closer to 10am. The minibus was also in poor condition and the road was really bad, so we didn't get to Lanquin until after 12pm.

We were hassled by touts trying to get us into a truck to Semuc Champey, one guy launched into some spiel about how we'd need a private trip blah blah blah, we told him to just tell us what the real price was, I guess they have to try to con us out of as much money as they can but it gets tiring having to "haggle" when the information on the going rates is readily available on the internet, and it was also obvious we'd come via local transport and hadn't arrived in an air conditioned tour bus with a tri-lingual guide, a bunch of middle aged Europeans and a packed lunch!

Semuc Champey is only 9km from Lanquin but it took almost an hour, the road is very steep and incredibly rough, even with some sections of it being paving for short distances.


The natural pools at Semuc are beautiful and we visited a few of them, trying not to fall over on the slippery rocks getting in and out of the pools. We spent a nice afternoon swimming and walking around, along with quite a number of other people who had braved the trip, most of whom must have been staying in Semuc Champey or Lanquin.


It wasn't long before we had to contemplate the long haul back to Cobán. We managed to get a spot immediately in a large truck with about 20 others, Two people sat on the roof, K sat in "luxury" in the front next to the driver, while M stood in the back while the other 18 people there had seats -  so much for respecting your elders and giving up your seat! As soon as we arrived in Lanquin we were lucky enough to immediately jump on a bus for Cobán.

Looks inviting!
On the way back a strange man insisted on chatting to M in Spanish, even though we told him multiple times it was too loud and difficult for us to speak, then once we finally arrived in Cobán he insisted on being our "guide" to take us to our hotel, even though we showed him we had a map and knew exactly where we were going. In return for this he wanted M to buy him a beer for providing this unwanted service (by now we'd figured he was probably the town drunk), we managed to evade him by ducking into our hotel via a side door. When K went down to reception to get our key he was there as well, asking the guy at the the counter "where are the gringos", not even recognising K who was standing right next to him!

Was it worth the three trip one way, most of the time on shocking roads, for a day trip to Semuc Champey? In K's opinion the answer is "no", even though the place is very beautiful and unique, six hours of travel for a few hours of swimming isn't a good enough exchange - but if we hadn't done it we'd still be wondering what we'd missed!






Thursday, August 11, 2016

Day 173 - Dumped again

Panajachel to Cóban 

Another day, another shuttle bus ride ... we had been dreading our trip today to Cóban as the shuttle from Antigua had been so poor, but as our hotel was right on the edge of town we were collected first and had the pick of the seats, meaning we also had control of a window and access to fresh air - very important! The shuttle was also fairly new and had decent leg room, everyone that got on sounded pleasantly surprised. For a while there we thought we were going to have a very nice trip, but we should have known better! An hour or so into our nine hour trip we made a stop at Chichicastenango, where we picked up more people, so out came the folded seats and once again we were back to being crammed in, though not as badly as in the last shuttle.

Along the way there was one stop for toilets/food, and we arrived at the McDonalds in Cóban (to squeals of delight from some of the passengers on the shuttle) around 5pm, and the driver said there would be a 30 minute stop before the shuttle continued on to Lanquin. The problem though was that Cóban was our stop, and we had been told when we bought the ticket that we would be taken to our hotel - wrong again! The driver refused to take us to our hotel about 2km away, and he also declined to remove our luggage from the top of the bus so we could make our own way. Did he really think that a) we wanted to eat at McDonalds, or b) we were happy to sit and wait while everyone had something to eat?

Coban ... just another intricate front to a plain church
M climbed up onto the roof and started untying the rope and tarp to get our luggage, after a few minutes the driver came out shaking his head, but at least we had forced the driver's hand, he climbed up and gave us our luggage and we caught a taxi to our hotel.




Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Day 172 - A spiritual journey

Panajachel

We walked down to the wharf to figure out how the transportation around the lakes work, there wasn't much in the way of signs or information. Our plan was to spend the day visiting the towns around the lake, so we hopped on the first boat heading to Santa Cruz. When the boat arrived at the next jetty there wasn't much there and only one person got off, so we stayed on until we arrived at somewhere more interesting. Lake Atitlan and its towns are picture postcard beautiful and many of the stops along the way were at lovely resort type places, or what appeared to be gorgeous holiday homes.

At San Marcos we disembarked and wandered around the very small town for a while. It was getting warm and the town seemed pretty quiet, the main businesses appeared to be related to yoga, massage, natural healing, and other spiritual/holistic type disciplines - not really our thing, though I'm sure if we could make up develop a great new spiritual/healing technique I reckon we could make a killing!



After some time here M's chakra was telling him it was time to seek enlightenment elsewhere, so back at the jetty we took the next boat heading in the right direction and travelled to the larger town of San Pedro. Once there we wandered the streets looking for a place to have lunch and found a great place on the edge of the water.

After lunch we wanted to head to San Antonio, which was known for its ceramics. We were told the best way was to go back to Panajachel first. We took the express boat that went straight back across the lake rather than around the edges. Although much quicker this was a bit of a mistake, we thought it would be nice sitting at the front, but being a long way from the shore we missed the lovely views and on the way back the boat pounded the waves, so being at the front meant it was an extremely rough and uncomfortable trip.



Back in Pana we were told the only way to get to San Antonio was more than an hour by road, or by getting a private boat. We decided we didn't want to go that much and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the town and the waterfront. We did find a shop that sold the ceramics from San Antonio, they were nice enough but not really worth the additional effort of travelling to the town, so it looks like we made the right decision.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Day 171 - Just like sardines

Antigua to Panajachel

Finally a civilized pick up time of 12.30 for our shuttle to Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlan. The pick up time might have been civilized but the shuttle certainly wasn't, we were all crammed in with every space filled up. Some of the younger guys were quite tall, so no one had a good experience, except maybe our luggage which was given the prime seats behind the driver rather than being put on the roof. For some reason the driver drove down the same streets more than once while picking up new passengers, our last stop before departing was the place next door to where the first passengers were collected!

We had been told it was a door to door shuttle but after an uncomfortable trip we were dumped at the wharf and even though we pointed out that our hotel was only two kilometres away we were left on the side of the road. After a couple of taxi drivers tried to get us to pay more than the rate we had been told by our hotel, we eventually squeezed into a tuk-tuk (interesting that they have the same name in Asia, we always presumed it was an Asian name) and made it to our hotel on the very edge of town. After checking in we walked into down and down to the waterfront to admire the view and check out our options for boat trips tomorrow.


Monday, August 8, 2016

Day 170 - Yum, toasted marshmallows!

Antigua

What is it with tours and activities that they insist on starting so early in the morning? Today's 6am pick up was to climb the still active Volcan Pacaya which had last erupted in 2014. We were the last to be picked up and the downside to this is you get the worst seats, so we were both jammed in the front with the driver. By the time we were collected and then stopped for a coffee it was 7am before we finally left town. 

At Pacaya the the steep climb started immediately and continued that way for most of the 2.8 kms to the top. There were kids on horses following us up, who kept asking if we wanted a "taxi". They started asking right from the start, and were right on our heels all the way up, M had to tell them to back off more than once, they were like vultures waiting for someone to fall over or give up.


When we reached the top we stopped to enjoy the views, then walked down to the recent lava flow which had unfortunately only completely cooled a couple a couple of months ago, meaning we didn't get to see any flowing lava. However there was just enough warmth left in some spots to roast some marshmallows, which were quite tasty, though a bit gritty if we touched them on the hot rock. 

After marshmallows came the Lava Shop, which has been called the shop in the most obscure spot in the world. Surprisingly it didn't sell any cold drinks for the now quite hot climbers but rather jewellery made out of lava crafted by locals, none of which looked very appealing. 

The descent back down the volcano was quite slippery and we didn't envy the people we met just starting the trek up as the sun was warming things up further. 


That evening we did something we that's become almost a custom for us - we visited an Indian restaurant. The food was tasty but the portions were small, once again a nice change from standard Central American fare.