20 Hours To Great Spanish

Monday, November 30, 2009

I won’t sugar coat it; the ride from Semuc Champey to Coban was... not nice. The views were spectacular, the sun was shining, but with a bit too much to drink the night before many of us were not feeling particularly up for twisting and turning in the sun. I focused on the view and was, perhaps luckily, the first one to find the washrooms at the gas station outside Coban. After that, a Snickers bar, a bag of popcorn (I was craving something salty), and a Gatorade and I was 100%. Feeling great and, like everyone, with two seats to myself, this was better than I could’ve hoped for considering the sardine can we rode in on. Not to mention that I didn’t have to pay a cent for it. I think the driver and I may have been the only ones awake for much of the beautiful drive towards Antigua. We passed through busy Guatemala City in the day and it looked decent enough, but I’ve heard enough stories about the nighttime to know better. We definitely didn’t dally and soon were on a random street in Antigua wondering which way to go. Jez (our English friend) and Jaelle (the Israeli day bartender at El Retiro) were going to Jungle Party, so we went too, found it to be fine (a bit pricey, but not if you factor in breakfast) and we had ourselves a spot in Antigua. The next step was to find a school where we could study Spanish for a week or two.

Arriving, as Phil and I seem prone to, on a Sunday has its ups and downs. On the plus side, you definitely aren’t missing anything exciting while you sit on a bus. On the other hand, everything is closed. We wandered towards Sevilla, a school that had been recommended by our roommates at El Retiro. It was closed but the doors were open because the director’s family was having an event unbeknownst to us. The director still took the time to chat with us and give us a price, and he also grabbed a relative who was a doctor to have a look at Phil’s ear. I thought this was pretty nice but Phil had picked up a bad vibe because the director was very anxious to get us committed to starting school in the morning and both of us felt uncomfortable not having shopped around or checked prices. Being Sunday, it turned out that there were street vendors aplenty so we ate quite well (I had a few chorizo tortillas, some hot fruit punch, and enjoyed both thoroughly). And it’s a good thing, because we needed that sustenance to find our way back to the hostel. No exaggeration, it probably took us an hour and a half for what should’ve been a 5 minute walk. Everything looks the same as it is, especially at night, and it didn’t help that many of our navigational landmarks were duplicated in the exact same style elsewhere. At one point, we later discovered, we’d stood 15m from the hostel without realizing it and setting off again in an entirely wrong direction thanks to the guidance of a local Tourist Police. He probably had a good laugh. It also didn’t help that the hostel is entirely unmarked, with only a red rope to signify its existence.

We eventually returned to the hostel and watched Catch Me If You Can with some of the other rather quiet backpackers before turning in. The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, Phil and I set out again, first to the ATM and then to do some more school hunting. The ATMs here, it turns out, not only charge you from $3-$5 per transaction, but they rob you blind on the exchange rate. Quetzales for US dollars are currently 8.24:1. The US dollar is pretty much on par with the Canadian dollar at the moment, and yet the exchange rate they give you is at or below 7.5:1. Meaning, taking out $100 in Q costs $9 in currency exchange plus the ATM fee. Ouch. The next stop was finding a school. Phil was dead-set against Sevilla and I felt a bit endebted but otherwise indifferent, and in any case I wanted to check out the options and prices, so we wandered through any number of schools. The two that most appealed to us were San Jose, which has an absolutely edenic setting in a verdant courtyard with fountains and so on, and Ixchel, where Phil’s friend had studied, which also had a decent setting and most importantly, someone we felt was there to make sure we were happy with our program. The price at Ixchel was a bit high, but San Jose didn’t provide a homestay option and seemed a bit, perhaps, stodgy. By the end of a day of hunting, we discovered that we could study at San Jose for $90 and get the homestay elsewhere (stay with a local family, and three meals six days of seven) for $60. We took that back to Ixchel where we managed to get them down to $100 for the school (4 hours, 5 days) and $70 for the homestay. Having pushed as hard as we could, we knew that was their lowest offer, but we did manage to convince them to throw in a free day of study at the beach IF they had three others going. I only report these numbers because when we were trying to research elsewhere on the net we found nobody quoting prices they paid. And I’ll add, for the record, that you can definitely study cheaper but we were comfortable here and bit the bullet. You win, Aliz, you win.

It was our last night at the hostel and we met some cool people on a tight timetable and managed to convince them to visit Semuc Champey, which wasn’t hard once Phil and I got reminiscing. And the next day, school was in. We started everyday at 9 AM and would finish at 1 PM, which would give us afternoons and evenings free (aside from homework) to explore Antigua. Each student has a separate teacher and I managed to get Luis, who is probably one of the best teachers they have not only from my own experience but also according to the receptionist (Aliz) and the family we stayed with. We have a little palapa with a whiteboard and a desk and spend some time conversing and practicing speech and the rest working on grammar and vocabulary. The first day started with a conversation which, I think, was mostly to gauge my level of comprehension. My “Learn Spanish in 20 Days” book clearly paid off as I was able to hold a grammatically barren conversation and, at the very least, skip some basics. Luis was great. He didn’t waste my time doing things I could do on my own at home, we would only work on, say, conjugating ‘ir’ verbs until he was satisfied I understood the concept and then we’d move on. Our conversations were a lot of fun, too, he has a great sense of humour and we joked all sorts of things. One day he brought a 40-page tome of “vulgarities” in Spanish for me to have a peek at. Now that’s education! I realize now, at the end of the week, he was letting a lot of terrible grammar slip until I had learned the rules to speak better. Obviously it’s better to let me practice using words and putting together sentences solely in the present tense than nitpicking about things I don’t understand.

Anyway, the school was great. The teachers were all friendly and seemed quite qualified, and we got what we’d wanted, which was some basics in Spanish. I think that a few things could be done to facilitate mingling between the students and encouraging social programs. They have lots of activities but nobody ever goes on them, it seems. Free but unadvertised was a 5.2 on the Richeter Scale earthquake after classes, though we had no idea it was happening. Of course activities are secondary and anyway, we had our hands full studying. Our homestay was, though not in the safest feeling area, equally great. We had a wonderful family with great food and they were always trying to continue our education at the dinner table, not to mention more joking around. Llourda made some great food and was always happy to accommodate – how her spine is still straight after all that bending-over-backwards I’ll never know. Marla (her aunt) teaches Spanish and was happy to turn her grammatical knowledge loose on us all hours of day and night. And Hugo, Llourda’s husband, was a riot. The man cracked us up consistently, which is no mean feat considering that he would often have to explain, word-by-word, his jokes. That we’d still be laughing afterwards is impressive.

As well, we shared the house with six Koreans. I was reticent at first, as I imagined a situation where they’d all talk amongst themselves and we’d be left out, but this was not the case at all. They were boisterous (especially Chino... por FAH-vor!), friendly, and spoke Spanish as much as possible. Some were pretty quiet, definitely, and Pablo was borderline antisocial as he was struggling to finish a book that was to be published in South Korea, but we had a lot of fun with them. Sure, they ate like it was a street cart in Shanghai, by which I mean loudly, but different culture, different habits, and they were too nice to get annoyed. We went out with Helen one night to Riki’s, a little bar where the sole remaining member of the Buena Vista Social club still croons and drums as people everywhere salsa, and she was far more entertaining than I’d expected since she was quite quiet around the dinner table. We went with Chino another night and bought five litres of beer then sat around the table joking. Phil and I lost it when we were being taught that muy mono is a way of saying ‘cute’ and Fabian was trying very hard to keep up pouring through the dictionary like a mad man. You may have had to been there or at least know Fabian, but the sheer concentration on his face as he pieced together and said to Hugo, “Tu.... es.... (long pause) mono” which translates to “You ... are a... (long pause) monkey.” The timing was just right as Hugo paused then gave a dismissive “Nnnnnno.” Yeah, I guess you had to be there but man did we laugh. Not at Fabian, of course, for in truth our Spanish is probably less than his, but because of the effort and Hugo’s response.

In the evenings and afternoons, we’d wander the streets and explore a bit, or we’d stay in and study, trying to balance being a visitor and working. On the weekend, the Koreans were gone to Tikal (and we missed them) and Phil and I climbed Pacaya Volcano, an active volcano not too distant from Antigua. For security and simplicity, we went with a group which meant 15 of us slogging along uphill at a rather slow pace. I would’ve been more annoyed except that my stomach was not exactly loving life and my own pace wouldn’t have been much faster. We left Antigua at 2 PM. Or more correctly, we were picked up at 2 PM, left around 3, and arrived around 4:30. We should’ve bought marshmallows or at least a stick but sadly we didn’t. We set off with the group making our way first through forest, always with a spectacular view of clouds below and Volcan de Agua looming in the distance like Mount Doom. Eventually we reached the black cinder top, ash and sharp-as-nails rock and pebbles which were more tricky to climb. Soon, we noticed that the rocks we were walking on were giving off a pretty impressive amount of heat. And then, over the rise, a river of molten lava spurting out the middle of a rock and flowing down the mountainside. Obviously lava is hot, but the amount of heat it was radiating was incredible. Trying to get close enough for a photo meant enduring air that was probably around 60 C – just hot enough to not immediately withdraw. This was from a distance of maybe 5 metres away. Closer than that was not bearable, certainly not long enough to take a proper photo. Some people had sticks that were spontaneously combusting without ever touching the lava. Others, marshmallows. I wanted to buy a marshmallow from a girl that had a bag but without a stick it was pretty futile. So we watched, postured for photos, and waited to hear “Pantera!” meaning our group was going down.

The descent was at dusk and passed into night. Having a headlamp is definitely recommended. We saw some people just beginning the hike up, presumably to stay the night and see what would’ve been a fantastic sunrise. I’m sure the lava would’ve been incredible in the dead of night, too, and maybe they were going to get closer to the top than we did. Pacaya, it seems, is more safe than we’d originally thought but what can you do? We went out that night to Monoloco which is a bit more pricey but we were talked into staying by a fellow Canadian at the bar that is opening up a very cool-sounding surf hotel/hostel called “The Salty Beaver” in Sapiaco. He offered us a lift down there but we’d then miss Atitlan and Xela, not to mention Phil’s ears prohibit water for a week or so more. There was also another character that was quite drunk and mostly funny though toward the end annoying “I’m a surfer!” he’d exclaim and then show us a tattoo. Sure, fine, great. “Don’t laugh, I’m American” he’d then say in a very broken English which, to be fair to us, is kind of funny. “Peeets-boorg!” And eventually he was escorted from the bar as the belligerence:humour ratio grew too high.

Sunday was market day and Phil and I strolled around looking at various crafts, shirts, and so on. I bought a sweater for Xela (turns out it gets quite chilly at night) for 60Q ($7) and Phil bought a bunnyhug and a few other things as well. 5:30, the Riders were in the Grey Cup game and we were determined to find it but destined to be disappointed. American satellite will show Women’s College Volleyball, Billiards, Lawn Bowling, and worse but we couldn’t even find mention of the Grey Cup. ESPN, you’ve just made the list. Don’t laugh, DirectTV. You’re on it, too. We seriously searched for an hour, flipping through satellite channels in the six-or-so bars that have satellite in town. Dejected, we grabbed some street food, amazed at the number of people in the streets and not knowing it was a Christmas celebration in the Central Square. So we returned home to keep an eye on the game via a really slow internet connection, gave up assuming we’d won with so little time left in the fourth quarter, only to discover the final score. Montreal won and I can’t imagine how mad I would’ve been to watch this, especially a penalty for too many players on the field. To quote Phil, though it’s hard to get the intonation quite right in writing, “Really?”

Our last day of school came and went in a flash. We said our farewells, stopped by the post office to mail our first round of postcards, and came home for lunch with the Koreans now returned. It was a lot of fun to have them back, and they were happy to be here, seemingly having been starved and abused on their weekend trip to Tikal and Rio Dulce. After dinner, we invited everybody out for a drink including the newly arrived American professor and Aussie chica. To show you how cool a family they were, Hugo and Llourda even came out with us for beer and tequila. And schenanigans. It was a really fun night and I was surprised how quickly I had become attached to them all. As always with travel, you have to try to appreciate that you were fortunate enough to meet (much less spend a week with) such great people rather than dwell on the fact that you probably will never see them again. Antigua would be a great memory, but still more great places, people, and stories lie on the road ahead. Next stop, Lake Atitlan.

Antigua Photos

Dieter Libre!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Phil and I almost slept in and missed our taxi to the bus station, but we did wake up and were just walking out the door when Sergio (who owns the tour company) pulled up in his golden chariot. Well, the gold was rusting and the chariot was a Toyota, but it got us to the bus station with plenty of time to spare. Which was lucky because contrary to what we’d been told, the shuttle didn’t just fit 8 people; There were probably about 12 seats including the driver, and only three left when we arrived. Having seats full didn’t stop them, however. Not even close. By the time we left Flores, that van had 24 people in it. We were crammed like sardines, some people had to sit on the floor, others stood hunched, and even sitting was not pleasant. The ride was five hours of Asian-style hell (this is an experience very common over there) before we arrived in Coban. From there, a short walk to find the other bus station in which they attempted to really gouge us and succeeded in partially gouging us and a mediocre lunch before the fun began. The road to Lanquin, a small town outside Semuc Champey, is 61 km long and takes two hours. The reason is a combination of a narrow, windy, hilly road and, I suspect, the fact that the scenery is so beautiful that even the driver can’t help but drive slowly and stare.

We arrived in the town very happy. I had no idea that Guatemala was this beautiful. We were surrounded on all sides by lush green mountains in a small village. They call it Guatemala’s green heart and I have no reason to dispute it. The people, though occasionally wary, are not hostile and in some cases downright friendly. It might not seem like the attitudes of strangers makes a big difference, but we felt immeasurably better here than we had in Flores from nothing more than people returning our hellos, nodding, maybe even smiling, and occasionally even greeting us themselves. A little boy came up to us and led us to El Retiro, the hostel we were hoping to stay at, without us asking and with no ulterior motive aside from perhaps practicing his English. Very friendly. And the hostel! El Retiro was the best place we’d been so far and we knew that before we’d even checked in. There’s a small stone path leading down through the grass and flowers past some small palapas (huts with thatch roofs) to la palapa grande where you check in. It’s right on a rather fast flowing river which has a rope strung across it to hold on to and float, has a free sauna, internet, hot showers, and small 4-person dorms. The cost? 25 Q or $3/night, at least until the last night when it went up to 35 Q for the beginning of the high season. Muy baracha!

By the time we arove, it was about 3 PM. That gave us enough time to throw on our trunks and jump in the river. It was very cold but refreshing. We got talking with one of the bartenders, a Canadian named Roberto, who let us know that in honour of the hostel having a guest named Dieter – which was also the name of the other bartender – they were doing 2-for-1 Dieter Libres all night. Two Dieters, two-for-one. Makes sense to me. And the drinks were doubles, too. Priced at 15 Q ($2), you can’t beat this price. That night was a big BBQ but it was 50Q ($8.50) so we gave that a pass and headed up into the village for a local meal. We were plenty full with decent food and an ice cold coke in a bottle for half that price, which, if you want to understand it in backpacker terms, means that by walking to town we’d saved enough to pay for our stay that night.

Or to almost pay for four double Dieter Libres later that evening. We met Dieter, the bartender, and he is probably the most fun person in this country. I’m pretty confident in that assertion even knowing this is only my second stop, because he is simply that crazy. And the Dieter Libres, which, as you probably guessed, is just a Cuba Libre, were delicious. I’ve had them back home and hated them, and I now realize that this is because we don’t use good rum. I always thought Bacardi was pretty good but now that I’ve been here in the Caribbean, I realize how great rum can be (we were drinking Quetzalteco, btw). We sat next to a really loud (but good fun) woman from California (the travellers’ state, it seems) and her daughter as well as our new neighbours, Jez (short for Jeremy) and Amanda from England and Vancouver Island respectively. Stories were told and we all had a great time visiting.

The reason everybody comes here is Semuc Champey, a village 12 km further along the road, or more specifically, a collection of waterfalls near there. If you can picture it, there is a fairly powerful river the flows under a really huge limestone bridge. Some of the water, however, runs along the top of the bridge, forming lots of small waterfalls and pools along the way that are great for swimming, jumping, and oohing-and-ahhing. We did the tour through our hostel for 150Q ($19) which is pretty fair considering a return trip is 30, admission is 50, and you need a guide to go in the caves anyway. Yes, the tour includes a small candle-lit tour through some caves where you climb a waterfall, do a jump and swim and wander along in the dark. It was really slow going but good fun. Rachel, a girl from New York that was staying in our dorm room, was at the front with me on the way back and we put out our candles and made our way back well ahead of the pack in the dark – after the waterfall descent of course. That was kind of cool, it gave you an idea of how much it would suck to actually be in a cave with no light trying to find a way out. You hear a dull roar but how BIG is that waterfall? Nevermind how you’re going to get down. We had the advantage of having already been through this part of the cave and knowing but it was still easy to get a little worried.

After the cave, we wandered upstream and, after a few jumps off a river swing, we came upon a scene that I can only describe as perfect. Idyllic, edenic, tranquil, and, somehow, special. This was the exit of the underground river, a cave mouth topped with green grass, swaying ferns and dotted with palms. This was also the place that the pools that make up Semuc Champey flow back into the river, spreading across the green crown into two or three waterfalls and also creating a curtain of water dripping down. I have to be this descriptive because unfortunately, my camera was still in the small office where we’d left our things to go in the cave. The only one with a camera was Phil with his increasingly popular waterproof Olympus and the lighting didn’t really cooperate. I think I would’ve come all this way just to see this one place and feel what I did when we came around that corner. But this was an afterthought, a place to climb into the top of the cave mouth and jump 20 ft into the raging water below. Of course I did it (though I passed on the taller 12m/35 ft jump) and the water is moving so fast that your legs are being swept downstream before your whole body has even entered the water. What a rush.

Phil had landed really sideways on the river swing and gotten dizzy but to his credit he “manned up” which we’ve become fond of saying to egg each other on (thanks Chris Potrykus) and did this jump anyway. He was in pretty bad shape and I had to hold him on the log where we were all sitting until he recovered. He couldn’t hear out of it for a while and felt fluid coming out of it which apparently relates back to a childhood injury, but pretty scary stuff. From there, at last, we finally went to Semuc Champey, making our way up a hill to El Mirador (the viewpoint) before descending to the pools. They were beautiful turquoise, with plenty of pools that we basically had it to ourselves, even if there were quite a few of us. This was the reason we’d travelled two hours along a bumpy, windy road to an out of the way village, and it was worth it without equivocation. But what I do want to say is that even though Semuc itself is awesome, everything else here from the road in to the friendly village to the amazing hostel to the river to the caves, waterfalls, and spectacular setting makes a good experience an unforgettable one. Oh, and the really cheap drinks. We LOVED this place.

I’d been talking to one of the guys that works at the hostel and he mentioned that a family he was friends with had a great restaurant up the road about 3 k, and we could get a free ride there from some other locals that are friends of theirs too. So we went and asked them and they were more than happy to throw us in the back of their truck and take us to dinner. It was a long and dark 3km but in spite of a little fear Amanda was feeling (especially after passing a slaughterhouse) we were loving it. How awesome is it to get a ride to a little family’s restaurant that is definitely not on the tourist trail? We got there and were even more delighted that their kids took a liking to us. Somehow, I’ve ended up doing most of the talking in Spanish for us, although I think that at least Amanda’s Spanish is just as good as mine. So in particular I made a friend in little Antony. Dinner was great, too, a beef steak with a few sides and homemade picante that was so good that I put far too much on. When we finished our 20 Q meal, they happily returned us to our hostel and Antony came along for the ride, too. That night was meant to be quiet but it didn’t last long. Dieter came and sat with us, after all. And then I introduced everybody, including the four Danes sitting next to us, to the song Roxanne. And then the Jenga came out. That pretty much sealed the deal for everybody, but especially Amanda since she, after instituting a rule that you must stand on one leg for your turn, was bested by her own fiendishness and sent the tower tumbling. That meant three shots of tequila and she went from sober to almost instantly drunk which is quite obvious because her voice goes up in pitch two octaves.

The next day was a designated day of rest, not because we needed it, but because our location and the abundance of hammocks demanded it. In fact, I’m writing this right now swinging slightly in a hammock in the shade with the river providing that oddly soothing white noise below. I’ve decided that every task is better in a hammock, but especially using my netbook. And even after a day of ‘chilling’ by the water with another girl named Lauren from Canada that we met the night prior and a couple from Holland, we were agreed to stay yet another night here for more of the same. By we, I mean Amanda, Jez, Phil, and myself, as they’ve become a permanent part of our coterie. Jez and I walked into town after enough of the 'relaxing' life and ran across some sort of local party and then some very friendly kids that acted as personal language tutors while I hunted the best photo spots. Eventually, Jez and I returned home and we all went out for dinner again to that same restaurant, this time with Dieter, Lauren, and her boyfriend Dustin. She was a vegetarian and we knew from the previous night that they had no vegetarian food, which I had told her earlier in the day and reminded her about again when I found out that they had changed their mind to come.

There were three choices for dinner that night. Chicken Milanes which I guess was a breaded breast, Roast Chicken, and a Chicken “Mix” which had pork and beef as well. That was all we could distill from her descriptions. My Spanish still isn’t great but even with local guru Dieter there, we couldn’t exactly get an accurate description. I had thought I was getting a stirfry but it was a kebab, a skewer of meats, tomato, and onion and was easily the best of the three options. The beef in particular was so good I had to share a little just to brag to the others how wise I had been in my random choice. But, of course, Lauren threw a fit when she asked for a vegetarian meal and was offered ‘ensalada’. "I guess I’ll just walk home then. Or maybe they can give me a ride. You guys do what you have to do." That sort of thing. I was deeply embarrassed and even more annoyed because we'd warned her. Twice. She kept saying no and looking like she was about to cry while the woman was offering to make her stewed veggies or any number of custom dishes. “No, I’ll go.” “It’s very delicious, I make it with a cream sauce...” “Oh no, that’s fine. Just drive me home.” “Tell me what you want to eat and I will make it” “Oh no, that’s OK.” And so on until she finally gave in and sat back down proving that even as unthinking as she was, she had managed to embarrass herself.

If I seem harsh, remember that not only was she TOLD that they don’t have any vegetarian food, but she insisted on coming. And then on attempting to guilt trip us and her boyfriend into leaving with her. And on asking for a free ride there and back to boot. I can only think that she had hoped to make some sort of economic point at our expense, to prove to the restaurant that they should have vegetarian food by losing all of our business. But there is no way I would’ve got up to leave with her and even her boyfriend was feeling the same. Anyway, moving on from that little vent session, dinner was great and Antony was hilarious. He definitely has a crush on Amanda (he’s 7, by the way) and, for example, brought her a napkin to wrap around her cold beer and keep her hand warm, brought her bananas, ran around the yard only to return and ask if she wanted him to do it again, and sat there staring at her. At the end of the night, he got a box and tried to give her most of his toy soldiers, the rest of which he wanted me to have along with a Canadian flag for the soldiers to plant. I had to politely tell him the Canadian flag was for him to remember us but he wanted me to have it and the soldiers too. I kept one little guy in the end and maybe I’ll take pictures of him in exotic places and send them to him.

I definitely didn’t want to party that night. But – you guessed it – we did anyway. It was ladies night, we still had Deiter with us, and we should’ve known it was going to get sloppy. Phil was given a bra and two t-shirts to stuff it with, I was given a hat, a flower, and a very shiny gold shirt, and Jez got a spaghetti strap number with a wig. This was about the craziest/most fun night we had, with people dancing in the rafters, falling asleep beside the river, attempting Michael Jackson moves (me, yup, it was bad), and more. On top of all that, it was an Australian guy named Guy’s birthday and that sealed the deal for the night. Him wearing a skirt didn’t help matters, but it was pretty funny to see him going around to the girls, tapping them politely on the shoulder, and then flashing them. Their reactions varied from horror to big grins. And we were happy we’d stayed another night, because the next morning was a little shaky for most (I actually was pretty okay considering, but Jez was... not).

Our final day here was still more relaxing, and I used it to study my Spanish more. We had lunch with a couple Dutch girls, one of whom was deaf and anybody who thinks I’m brave traveling alone or in this part of the world should have met her. We got some sun by the river, and went into town that evening for a delicious stewed beef dinner. I had gotten chatting with the owner of the hostel that day and he needed his website updated, so I did that for him in the evening – it took about 20 minutes – and he paid for my shuttle to Antigua in return (100Q). Nice. I really really didn’t want to go out this evening but I did have to say goodbye to Dieter and Amanda, who was staying here longer and rafting to Rio Dulce (which sounds like a great trip but not in the right direction). And I ended up dancing on one leg behind the bar with Anna, a 6’4 German girl that has been bartending here for a couple weeks. The staff are great and are a big reason this place is so awesome. Particularly, I will miss Deiter, that crazy little Guatemalan that we partied with all the time, and it’s too bad we didn’t get to know Anna earlier. But off to other places and other faces.

Semuc Champey Photos

Guatemala in a Pickup

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Phil and I were three miles from the border of Belize and Guatemala, with a vengeful sun beating down on us and the air feeling like a convection oven. We were leaving the town of Succotz fully loaded with our backpacks and planning to walk to the border and (hopefully) grab a local “chicken” bus on the Guatemala side into the town of Flores. This we would use as our base for exploring Flores and surrounding towns as well as a trip up to the legendary Mayan ruins of Tikal further north. There was nothing to do but start walking, but it didn’t take many steps to realize it was going to be a miserable hike in this heat and so laden. A taxi offered us a ride for $5 Belize each which we declined nonetheless. We continued on. Vehicles were coming up on us from behind and I thrust my thumb out in what I hoped was an acceptable gesture for hitchhiking and the third and final truck in the pack pulled over and waved us in. We ran.

We ran towards the truck, of course, not away from it. A young man in a straw hat stepped out from the back and gave us a hearty greeting. I recognized that accent! Alabama. “Are you guys heading for the border?” I asked. “We sure are, want a lift?” he offered, and we excitedly accepted. He jumped in the back of the truck box with us and we drove well over 3 miles to the border while getting to know our host. He and his father (in the cab) were heading to Flores and were happy to give us a lift all the way there, two hours away. That was a great turn of events. Not only was transportation free, but it was right away, it was fast (maybe a bit too fast at some points) and we had a great view of Belize receding from us after we went through the border rigamarole (and paid our $20ish fees to leave the country). Although hard on the butts, the ride to Flores was great. We took our backpacking up a notch.

Arriving in Flores, we checked ourselves into Los Amigos hostel, which costs about $3.75 / night for a dorm bed. While I was waiting for Phil to get ready, I overheard some people who had just had their camera and cash taken at gunpoint by two guys that were driving by on a motorbike. They were fine and the girl had the guts to remove the memory card before handing over the camera, but that’s a scary story to hear in a town you’re about to amble around. I later discovered that they had been swimming with their money and were fanning it out to dry, which probably isn’t the most discreet behaviour but even so... a person has to be careful, and having Phil around still hopefully helps deter these sorts of encounters. We definitely had no problems as we wandered around, but unfortunately we arrived on a Sunday which meant many things were closed and it felt a little dead. We went for a beer in a restaurant overlooking the lake to the west, strolled some more, and came back to our hostel to visit, shower, eat, and have a few more drinks with other backpackers. I quite like the hostel, it’s got a very communal layout that really encourages fraternizing, though it does also segment people into smaller cliques too. We ate dinner here (nice but pricey), Skype’d home, and visited with some others before heading to bed.

The next day, Phil and I took a much needed recoup day. By which I mean we made no plans aside from getting laundry done and going to the bank to finally get some Quetzales, the Guatemalan currency. The bank is about 3km away, near the airport and in the pouring sun it felt much longer. Getting my traveller’s cheques cashed was a bit of an ordeal, standing in the wrong line, and most annoyingly, watching somebody who had clearly never done this before attempt it – for over half an hour. There is no magic to traveller’s cheques. They’re a guarantee from American Express to pay $50 US if you have a properly signed copy and some indication that you’ve seen proper ID. Most people, you sign it and print your name and passport number on the back, perhaps signing it again too. Then they give you the equivalent amount (minus commission hidden in the exchange rate) of local currency. Done. 3 minutes. At this bank, it was, without exaggeration, 45. Why they have to detain you so long while they do who knows what is beyond me. But eventually I was flush with Quetzales and we walked back towards the hostel.

On the way, there was a little shop/restaurant that we’d stopped at to make sure that there was indeed a bank this far out. She was very nice and helpful and it looked local and cheap so we stopped back to have lunch there. This may well have been the best thing we did in Flores. Although there was a shop front from which the woman sold drinks, she did the cooking in her home kitchen, conveniently located next door. The lunch, in my case a beefy cut of pork full of flavour, came with a bowl of soup (excellent!), home fries, and salad and a Dorado beer for 24 Q or $3. In contrast, the meal at our hostel, which was an admittedly delicious though obviously cheaper skewer of veggies with rice cost 36 and beer an additional 15. The rest of that day was spent relaxing at the hostel and having dinner with a pretty cool doctor from California. We had to take the 7 AM bus to Tikal the next morning (60 Q) which is the Angkor Wat of the Mayan world, and so to prepare, Phil and I watched Apocalypto then crashed. I should mention that this movie, though completely ignorant of the timeline of history, and a project of Mel Gibson’s, far exceeded my expectations and further was great preparation for Tikal if only to stimulate our imaginations about the lives that had been led around the temples.

The ruins cost 150 (about $20) to enter unless you are Guatemalan, but you can’t be here and not see Tikal. Yes, it’s part of the “checklist” but it’s also an amazing site and worth every cent even considering that you have to wake early and pay an additional 60 for the hour long ride to get there. Tikal, like Angkor Wat, isn’t one temple or pyramid but a collection of many complexes spread throughout a very large area with large tracts of jungle between them. This is why everybody tries to go early, usually for sunrise: it’s not about getting a great sunrise photo, it’s about the wildlife living all around the area. But it’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll spot something whenever you go though, even if it’s just birds. The first bus back is at 12:30 which would’ve meant more time than we really wanted to spend there going at 5. 7:00 was perfect though 6:00 would’ve been acceptable since we did miss the northern “Q” complex in favour of sitting on top of Temple 5 for a long time. But I digress. I’ve wanted to see Tikal ever since I saw it in A New Hope which is nerdy but true. And it was great. We did see plenty of wildlife, especially some little anteater type creatures with long snouts. The temples were massive and impressive, and it wasn’t hard to imagine a population of 250,000 Mayans spread among these complexes (and presumably far beyond). I feel like I’m giving it short shrift here but I’m not sure what I can add aside from that it was excellent.

We got the bus to drop us off at that same restaurant for lunch on the way back (really good again) then spent the afternoon strolling around Flores. It’s a pretty nice place and they’re putting some serious effort into making it cleaner. We sat and had a mojito on the waterfront where they were putting in cobblestone and burying power lines, for example. Around sunset we watched some locals playing basketball (a serious game with two refs and a scorekeeper) in the park at the top of the town, had a quesadilla and booked a minibus to our next stop, Coban, for 90 Q including a taxi ride to the bus station at 5:30 AM. This was the best deal we could find (and 60 Q cheaper than the hostel was charging) and took some serious negotiating so your mileage may vary. From there, we would take another bus to Semuc Champey, a place that a friend from back home, Megan, had insisted we visit. South, mis amigos, south we go.

Flores and Tikal Photos

Don't Ignore Ignacio

Sunday, November 15, 2009

We took the slowest possible public bus from Belize City to San Ignacio. We stopped, it felt, every 500 m to pick somebody up from the side of the road or drop them off. Apparently, there are express busses for the same price that don’t make these stops. We were most definitely not on one of them. So it was that we arrived in San Ignacio just before 5:00. I’d read about this place called Barton Creek Outpost and we inquired at Pacz about how to get there (Cayo Cafe is no longer open for information). Instead of finding a way there however (the guy that drives in was not going until tomorrow), we were offered a free room at a local family’s home. Well, he was an ex-pat, an American tax lawyer living abroad named Antone, married to a Belize woman named Rosa. They just like to take in travellers to have some company and speak proper English at home, and after dinner and booking an excursion for the next day, they drove us to their home in a small village called Succotz about 3 miles from the Guatemala border.

This is a great way to start in any backpacking location. Staying with a family in a small village outside the more touristed town. For free. And they were very gracious, we had a room and two beds to ourselves (since I volunteered to take the single bed in Caye Caulker, Phil took some cushions on the floor this time) and plenty of company. Their sons, age 5 and 8 (Shannon and _) were very excited to have us there and play around and we basically spent the evening visiting with the family and particularly entertaining the kids. The next morning, we set out on our excursion to Actun Tunichil Muknal (aka ATM), a cave that was used by Mayans to give offerings for the dead. They would haul in bodies, bowls, and ceramics and leave them there. To this day there are several skeletons, including the famous crystal maiden (an 18-year old girl) whose skeleton has formed reflective crystals on its surface. It’s a bit of a dark journey, literally of course, through what the Mayans considered the underworld, to these sacred places, but it’s a worthwhile one.

We had worked very hard to get the trip for $65 US and they picked us up in Succotz and brought us back into town. From there, we set out on what was probably a 1.5 hour trip into the Belize countryside, making our way on back roads and through farmers’ fields to the cave area entrance. From there, we had a 15 minute walk through the jungle to a picnic area where we had the lunch they’d packed for us (including plantain chips, yum!) before we set out into the cave. The cave is river-formed which means getting wet and swimming at points to get through. For the most part, aside from a few slippery river crossings, it was pretty easy getting into the deep part of the cavern with only a few squeezes. Eventually we stopped traversing the cave and climbed up to where the offerings were laid. Here we had to walk in socks to avoid unintentionally breaking anything. It was pretty cool to see so many artifacts simply laying there as they had been discovered, and as they had been laid by Mayans originally thousands of years ago. What can I say but cool?

Back in town, we wandered around and grabbed a bite at a little place outside the centre. The food was good though I had asked for a burrito and wound up with a burger. Then it was a question of finding our way home. We had only a name and a little bit of information, but I wasn’t too worried about getting home. On the ride in that morning I’d noticed how close we were to the ferry across the river to Xunantunich (yet more Mayan ruins) so I knew we could get there. We’d also asked our driver what the name of the town was but we all forgot. Amy remembered to ask our server what town the ruins were in and we all remembered when we heard “Succotz”. So back home, a bit more visiting for Phil and I with Antone (Amy was beat and went to sleep) and then we had to finish our rum. Can’t bring it across the border, after all. So Phil and I cracked a case of OJ and finished the last half of the rum, chatting in the courtyard until we’d run out of juice and falling asleep pretty quickly thereafter.

Our final day we woke at 8:00 and went for breakfast at Benny’s in Succotz. On the way, we passed a local church that was packed out the doors and singing loudly, which was pretty cool to see. For breakfast, I had some great cuchinita (they called it Pibil here) AKA roast pork cooked underground and served with salsa, avocado, and tortillas. It was delicious. We hadn’t been travelling long with Amy (5 days or so), but spending day and night with the same person can be a quick way to get to know them and I realized it hadn’t sunk in that we were parting ways that morning. She would be missed, it was a lot of fun having a third amigo along, dress shopping and all. Our last activity together was the ruins of Xunantunich, a short ferry ride (and one mile walk) away from where we were staying. With all the ruins to date and Tikal still on the horizon, it wasn’t a priority but it seemed a waste to not visit when we were sleeping at the doorstep, so we wandered around the ruins for the rest of the morning. Then, back to Antone’s and Rosa’s to collect our stuff, profuse thanks and farewells, and it was Phil and I again, on the road, 3 miles from the border in the blistering sun, with one heck of a walk ahead of us to Guatemala.

San Ignacio Photos

The Cayes to Belize

Thursday, November 12, 2009

We were out of Orange Walk and on a bus headed south. Although this town had been a shaky introduction to Belize, we were feeling a bit better about things in the morning. For one, the town was alive and friendly in the morning. Secondly, the weather was actually pretty nice, with scattered clouds and even sunshine. Finally, we were moving on and as a backpacker that’s always an exciting thing. You never know what the next place will hold. First we headed south to Belize City, a city of notorious crime and danger. But we needed to go there to get to Caye Caulker, a small island off the coast of Belize that hasn’t really developed into a resort haven and thus is the perfect place to enjoy the island life without paying the costs for it. Belize City, at least by day, was vibrant and interesting, and I had a feeling I could spend a day or two exploring. Even after a man rather randomly came up proclaiming angrily that he was not our enemy, I still thought that the city was nowhere near so bad as we’d expected. We strolled through, picking up some fruit to snack on for the 1 k walk to the ferry terminal, and very soon we were on a boat for Caye Caulker. The weather hadn’t held out, but it wasn’t raining anymore. And as the boat docked at the Caye, I realized we were about to experience a totally different side of Belize.

Caye Caulker was about the closest thing to Asia I’ve seen in this hemisphere. Little wooden huts, restaurants and budget snack shacks, barbecues, fresh seafood, and there we were at the end of the dock, me, Phil, and Amy, a Californian girl we’d met on the ferry over. The three of us walked down the pier and soon enough someone was offering to help us find a guesthouse. “Nah, we’ll be fine, thanks” I told him and then it was time for the one-local-per-locale to get angry with me. “The service is free” he repeated, and I likewise said again, “I know and thank you but we’d rather find a place on our own” and then I got told that I “need to relax man, it’s an island here, you have to chill.” So he walked us to the far south end of the island for a pretty sketchy place that was definitely overpriced for what it was. And then back some more, which for me is a very frustrating process. I don’t like being led by the nose to the places he picks out, and I’m quite capable of reading signs and communicating on my own besides. Eventually we were getting nowhere and I decided to just fade to the back of our walking group and check out this one place, “The Tropics Hotel”. He spotted me and ran in, interrupting, saying, “You don’t have a room with three beds do you?” as she was explaining to me what they did have (which did include a room with three beds). He probably got his commission and we managed to get a nice room right on the beach with private bathroom and two fans for three nights. Cost? $20 US each or $6.33/night.

So the three of us, now that Amy was officially stuck with us for at least four days settled into our very nice new room and agreed... we liked it here already. We wandered down the beach to the Split, the north end of the island which was physically split from the other more northern half by the last hurricane to hit Belize. At the Split now is a small beach bar with music pumping (yup, reggae) and we sat, had a few drinks and ate some fish for lunch. While wandering around we’d bumped into some people Amy knew and agreed to meet up with them for dinner with them and their friends. We were originally going to go see Jolly Roger (AKA The Fat Man) and share a $20 Belize lobster meal but then we happened on his sister, Fran, who was eager to cut us a deal. I wound up negotiating on behalf of the group and we ended up with a free lobster meal for bringing in a large group as well as three rum punch drinks instead of the two. So the total meal, for $8 USD was two lobster tails, potato, rice, veggies, and three glasses of rum and punch. And we all had a great time with Fran, who was quite a character and seemed to have taken a liking to me.

It had been a long day for us all, and more importantly I had an important appointment at 5:30 AM the next morning, so we said goodbye to our dinner company and went to sleep. My appointment? I had to be at Frenchie’s Dive Shop by 5:30 AM to get on the dive boat heading to Belize’s famed Blue Hole. This was another deal I’d managed to finagle, though more through good timing than excellent haggling, getting the dive for $175 instead of the standard $190. These aren’t the cheapest diving prices in the world, but it did give us three dives and the Blue Hole is 2 hours away so I wasn’t complaining. Plus, after Australia, Belize has the second largest reef in the world so it was a must on the dive list. Now what is this Blue Hole? Well, back in the ice age when there was a lot less water in the oceans, it had been an underground cave chamber. Over millions of years, water dripping into this chamber formed stalactites and cave formations while the earth warmed. Eventually the land on top of the cave was submerged and filled with reef when the top of the cave collapsed under the water’s weight, plummeting some 150 metres to the ocean floor. The result is a circular opening into deep ocean, entirely surrounded by reef. You can dive in and see the cave formations, to a depth of 120 ft (40m) below the surface and, because you are at that depth, often sharks are in the area too.

I had lately been having troubles equalizing my sinuses, causing serious pressure on the eyeballs and sometimes even my teeth as I get deeper, so I was worried about this dive. You immediately descend to 40m to see the cave and after no more than 8 minutes at that depth begin making your way back to the surface. So there’s not a lot of time to get down. But it went fine and I pretty much freefell to about 90 ft at which point I had to slow down to let my sinuses adjust. The dive itself is not for amazing reef, sea life, or much of anything else. Because it’s so deep, you may see some sharks (we did) but they weren’t the highlight. What was the highlight was how entirely surreal the place feels. First of all, at that depth, you can no longer see the surface. You know which way is up because the bubbles float that way and buoyancy acts like reverse gravity in pulling you upwards, so you get a bit of sensation out of that as well. Above, blue. Below dark blue fading to black. Only a section of wall and stalagmites to orient yourself. The blue hole below looked very tempting, as though it was an unventured path that could be explored. I mean, we were already this deep, what was a few more feet (well, say a hundred) down to at least see the bottom. I felt the vague excitement of the unexplored there and that feeling, though it may have been nitrogen narcosis, was what made this a special dive.

We did two more dives on the reefs and they were both great. Belize really does have some incredible coral in great condition and it rivalled anything I’d seen in Australia. I don’t have the name of the second dive, but the third was called The Aquarium and that was very fitting. We saw turtles, rays, a couple sharks, and any number of other fish. We also stopped for lunch at a little island off the reef where I finally found one of ‘those’ palms that jut out horizontally over the water. You know them, you’ve definitely seen them on postcards. And now I’ve finally seen one in real life. I set my camera on a coconut and put it into a timer mode, getting any number of ridiculous shots before retiring. By 3:30 we were back on solid ground. Meanwhile, Phil and Amy had taken a snorkelling trip with Ragamuffin that they loved. They had met a nice and very fun German couple on the boat so the five of us got together for dinner that night at the fat man. We got the same deal (minus the free meal because we didn’t have enough people) but not quite the same meal. The sides were different, and better, but the lobster was not as good as Fran’s. Nor was the dessert and nor was the service. As a matter of fact, I had to get up to serve drinks to our group (we were later joined by the Norwegian girls). Still a nice dinner, just not quite as nice. It had been a long day, and we went to bed early.

The next morning was, at last, an absolutely gorgeous day. We had been waiting basically since Phil arrived, over a week, and here was a clear sky and a beaming sun. And the best part was, we had no plans. We got up, had a snack for breakfast, and headed to “The Split” where a small section of sand awaited (and a round of rum and pineapple). We laid on the ‘beach’ which I should clarify is not a really great reason to come here, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. The Germans joined us again, we went for a swim, and we read, chatted, and had another round of drinks until we’d had enough sun and really loud reggae. It’s hard to put a day like this into words and it’s harder to make it into an interesting story, but we had a great time doing little and, well, life was good. We weren’t going to go for lobster again that night, but walking around looking for a restaurant, the fat man propositioned us with a deal we couldn’t refuse. For $6, the same deal we had last time. Needless to say, we had lobster for the third night in a row and this time may well have been the best lobster we had yet. A day on the beach in the sun, lobster tails for dinner, all that was needed to cap it? Karaoke. And it was a great time. Amy did an amazing rendition of Bobby McGee (seriously, incredible), than I tried my hand at “Coward of the County”, and finally Phil cracked us up with “Baby Got Back”. Great day. Great time. Caye Caulker was definitely the highlight so far. Tomorrow morning we’re headed east, with Amy in tow, to San Ignacio, our last stop in Belize.

Caye Caulker Photos

The Run From Orange Walk

Monday, November 09, 2009

South of the border, down Mexico way. South of the border again, to Belize today. Phil never sung these lines, but he should have. I’m not saying he’s a great singer, but it would’ve made a great Sinatra-esque intro to this blog post. For you see, we were heading to Belize, taking a bus from Tulum to Chetumal (164 pesos) and then another bus from Chetumal across the border to Orange Walk, Belize ($US 7). Aside from having to pay $20 to leave the country – I guess if you can’t afford it, you’re forced to immigrate. Luckily, neither Phil nor I are taking up residence. Crossing the border, otherwise, was pretty straightforward. What’s in the bag? Any guns? Alcohol? Etc etc? For some reason, in the distance there was a NASA hangar-type building that I thought might prove handy if I needed to get away from Belize very quickly. And then we were driving again. We weren’t far from the border but there were definite differences. It felt immediately more overgrown, more jungle and less civilization. We occasionally passed or were passed by pickup trucks with up to 9 or 10 people in the box. And soon, after a few local pickups in Corazol, we heard that very unique mix or English, Spanish, and then that bizarre mix of English, French and maybe some Spanish known as Creole.

As the bus pulled into the town of Orange Walk, I was starting to question our judgement. Speciflcally my judgement, since I kind of dragged Phil along for the ride to see Lamanai. We got off the bus and declined the taxi rides, walking up Victoria St to where Akihito, the cheapest place in town, was located. It was under full lock down, the gate padlocked and no signs of life. In fact, the first five or six places we came across were all in similar array, barred, gated, and closed. A random guy asked if we were looking for a hotel to which we said sure, and he pointed the direction of the James. We thanked him and he started walking and talking with us. As we walked along he switched from telling us stories about how he used to be a boxer but he doesn’t fight outside the ring, he respects people. Then he was mentioning something to Phil about being in jail for “guns”. And that’s when he flipped into ‘guide’ mode, starting to explain the church we were walking by.

Neither of us were especially worried by him particularly, it was clearly bluster, but as we walked down the road towards a run down shack with friends of his on the porch, both Phil and I wondered if we’d be better off turning and finding another place. Still, we were there and got the tour but the rooms were sketchy like crazy and about as secure as a house of cards on a sailboat in a hurricane. Which, I don’t know if I mentioned, was part of the reason we were in Orange Walk... not for a house of cards, but because Hurricane Ida had been making the weather along the coast terrible and we wanted to be inland for an escape and hopefully a bit of safety, too. This place didn’t feel all that safe, now that we were there. Eventually we saw a hotel that looked nice and were willing to pay a bit more for our security. The price was actually pretty great for what, in backpacker terms, was a luxury suite. We paid $10/night for two nights. So we kind of blew the “really expensive” Belize thing out of the water.

Sort of. The reason we were in Orange Walk was to visit the ruins of ancient Lamanai, which you reach with a boat ride up the New River, approximately two hours upstream. The cost of this is a not insignificant $40, which, when backpacking is quite a bit to see ruins. But it’s more than that. The boat trip, 4 hours total on the river, is guided as well as a walk through the ruins. And, it turned out, we would have about as knowledgeable a guide as could be hoped for. After getting settled in, Phil and I walked around town just as the sun was setting and found what was probably the only place still open on a Sunday night. A little Chinese grill which did a pretty reasonable $3 2-pattie burger. Phil and I were both surprised at the large number of Chinese here... our guide would later tell us that many had been brought in as cooks for mahogany logging camps in the early 1900s but at the time it seemed the town might be more Chinese than Belize. After our burger, we walked to the only other place we’d found open, a sort of sad homage to Chinese bars with a bunch of derelict slot machines (complete with one poor soul playing two at once) and our first taste of Belikin beer. Not bad... smooth like Pacifico, flavoured like (according to Phil) Innis ‘n’ Gunn.

That was our night. The next morning we were on the pier for our Jungle Tours trip up to Laminai at 9 AM. Along for the ride were a Polish father and daughter, two Belgian guys, a German girl, Phil, myself, and our guide, Wilfredo. He was definitely university educated and could talk at length about Belize, Mayans, and any plant of animal (or ruin) found therein. We travelled up the river, stopping to watch birds here and there, feeding some inquisitive spider monkeys (one of which boarded our boat), talking about the sugar mill and its new co-gen appendage, or the Old Master rum distillery further up. We talked about the history of Belize and of the Mayans and two hours later, arrived at Lamanai (Mayan for “Submerged crocodile”).

Lamanai had once been a city, archaeologists estimate, of 220,000 people. There are enormous mounds of dirt that have covered more pyramids and buildings than are visible today – enough to support today’s population of Regina. And yet, aside from one other group of five that we only saw when we ate lunch, we had it entirely to ourselves. And I would occasionally run back to spots I’d noted when Wilfredo was done talking at which point I DID have it to myself. A very cool and surreal feeling, let me tell you. Wilfredo did a great job explaining the building, from the Jaguar temple to the Temple of the Mask. That’s no surprise given the man’s experience working with archaeologists in various Mayan ruins all over the place. He was telling us how much taller the building had been before time wore them away, some growing beyond the heights of Egyptian pyramids. I shrugged this off as pride speaking but then he showed us evidence, and how the buildings were actually built atop older buildings in layers like an onion, as rulers changed and new symbols of greater power had to be established. This gives a whole new perspective on some of the buildings we saw which were already impressively high as he peeled back the layers and showed remains of larger outer ones.

The boat ride back to Orange Walk left us alone once again as the others were all chancing a late-evening arrival into Belize City... something we’d been strongly advised against. So we again went to visit the Chinese burger shop and this time skipped the beer to check out a club that was pumping music out. Walking through a fluorescent tunnel the smell of urine grew until we turned the corner and found two women and a man having drinks, one of which was probably the waitress. We continued turning and walked right out the door, picking up (in addition to some cheap sandals to replace my mismatched ones) a bottle of local coconut rum and some orange juice. We were almost home when four people were walking down the street towards us, one of them with eyes locked on me like he was trying to scare me. I didn’t avert my gaze, either, but thought that I would offer a friendly greeting to ease the tension. “Hola!” I said as he got closer. And then, in that very muddled Creole-English that you learn to decipher over here, he replied, “Hola, assahole”. Traditional Belize greeting, I guess. Which is why we were saying goodbye to Orange Walk the next morning.

Orange Walk Photos

To Tulum

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The morning of departure was upon me. Yet another cloudy day with a very high probability of rain. I grabbed some of the free breakfast, which is to say bread and jam, from the hostel and noted with considerable concern that my foot was very itchy. And the bites, which looked like mosquito bites, were in a triangle. I noticed my arm also had two trios of bites and sincerely hoped that these were not bedbugs. Bedbugs, or so I’ve heard in my travels, tend to bite at extremities, to bite in threes, and in lines or triangles, clustered close together. Myth or fiction I don’t know, but I suppose I’ll find out as the days pass. It was now time to pay for the hostel and that meant – for the first time in a long time – cashing travellers’ cheques. The first bank wouldn’t touch them and I can’t remember the name. The second, BanMex, told me I had to bring a photocopy of my passport. I guess they either don’t have a copier or can’t be bothered. Finally, Scotiabank cashed it with no hassle whatsoever. Phil was just getting up (he’s still tired from the adjustment to travelling life) and we walked to the bus station. I grabbed an expensive chai latte (a person has to give in to such comforts from time to time) and then we discovered a food cart doing cuchina, which was basically a roast pork taco. I had three of them, we made our way to the minibuses and, 35 pesos later, were en route to Tulum.

The rain started as soon as we were underway and didn’t abate. So we arrived in the centre of town, at the Weary Traveller Hostel, in a steady, droning rain. We didn’t stay at the Weary Traveller, however. First of all, Phil had heard it was bedbug ridden, and I had enough to worry about on that front. Secondly, when we did go in to have a look, we were roundly ignored not only by the staff (who were nowhere to be found, it appears) but also by the nine or so backpackers sitting at the table. Not a greeting, hello, hola, bienvenidos. We had walked in on their private get together and how dare we? Phil and I exchanged a glance and went back out under the canopy where we used their wireless to find a hostel another friend had recommended. It was more than 3 km away so we bit the bullet and grabbed a taxi. I should’ve known then it was going to be an expensive day. The hostel was full, we were told, until I mentioned that we were looking forward to it as a friend had highly recommended it to us. Then the gate to Pesados Machapas (I think) opened and there was room, but not for two in the same dorm. That wasn’t a problem, and the rooms were clean, the beds comfortable-looking, and were it not for the price – 180 pesos – we would have stayed. But it was a bit too much and we wandered down the highway (for we were now out of town and close to the ruins) to the nearby Lobo Hostel where we settled for 120 pesos. The vibe was not great, the staff not friendly (and downright offended when we checked the mattresses for bedbugs), but darn it, it was affordable and clean enough.

However, this location, out of town 3 km, away from the beach 2 km, and maybe 1 km from the ruins left us feeling very isolated. Not only was the hostel empty, save for a lone Mexican in our room named Paco and a girl who appeared to be a mute. So we left our bags in the lockers and wandered off, hoping to find something better near the beach. But we were at the very outskirts of the beach and there was nothing but expensive huts. A long walk later, we settled for Los Lobos and rested a bit. One thing I will say is that, besides free internet, they lend out bikes for free. We took two into town where we ambled around the side streets into areas where the kids looked at us (well, Phil) really funny and I regretted not having my camera for fear of the rain. We found some great street food, got a couple of police officers to take a photo of us pretending to be playing in a baseball stadium, and then sat at a proper restaurant. Just then, the rain suddenly poured, as though it had been waiting for us to find shelter and now had to release all that built-up rain. It was wicked. An expensive dinner and no cheap looking bars in sight we biked back, now in the dark, along the highway to our hostel – Phil’s flashlight saved the day here.

The next morning we’d planned to go to Coba in the morning (about a 40 minute drive) and then do the ruins at Tulum on our return. However, the sound of howling wind and pouring rain made it look like we were going to experience our first hurricane instead. That was at 8 AM or so. By 9:30, however, there were patches of sun and the wind had died completely, catching us a little by surprise. The altogether unpleasant fellow who runs our hostel told us the bus left at 10:15 so we jumped on our bikes and sped fast as we could to the bus station in town, skipping the included breakfast and everything. It was there we found out that the bus left at 10:57 and we’d be fine until then. We went next store and got some cheap cochinita from Tony (8 pesos for a roast pork taco) then went back to the bus station. It started pouring again while we were eating and Tony gave me a couple small plastic bags to keep my stuff dry, then we got on the bus and headed for the mildly better weather in Coba. It wasn’t raining at least, but I doubt any of my photos are worth looking at from that day. It was overcast and spit from time to time. Still, to see it in person was pretty cool and both Phil and I felt it was worth the trip.

We got back to Tulum at 4:30, too late to see the ruins in town which was just as well. We were both starving. We wandered the side streets looking for a place to eat and came across a woman roasting chicken on the barbecue. Though they spoke no English we managed to order Pollo Asado, which was that same chicken with rice, beans, spaghetti, onions, and an excellent salsa plus side tortillas. We didn’t know what to do with the tortillas so we picked the chicken apart and made our own. It was a feast and for 50 pesos each we also got a large sliced chilli pepper stuffed with cheese and ham. We were hungry enough to have liked anything, so this was simply delicious. After that, there was nothing left but to bike back to our hostel. Darkness had fallen and it was a treacherous drive along the side of the highway, headlamp or no. We made a stop at a grocery store for some granola bars, yogurt drinks, and a six pack of beer before finally getting back home and calling it a day.

The evenings here are pretty uneventful. Perhaps there is some activity in the town (there are some touristy and pricey outdoor restaurant/bars, but they don’t qualify for the backpacker budget) or maybe on the beach (though with the incessant rain this is doubtful) but we generally stayed in the hostel after dinner and passed the time visiting, planning for tomorrow, occasionally studying Spanish (not enough!), and in my case, working on this blog (writing the posts for early-mid 2009) and my photos. It certainly made it easy to get to be earlier than usual, even if Paco (whose name we later discovered was Vincent but I’m not sure I believe that) tried to keep us up all hours with strange and exceedingly loud noises. What we thought would be our last day in Tulum was extended after a conversation about cenotes (cave pools) over breakfast with two Americans. They convinced us that this was something we should do and on top of that, by the time we finished breakfast and got to the ruins of Tulum, we probably wouldn’t make it to the Belize border before dark. If there’s one thing that I’ve come to insist on in my travels, it’s crossing the border by daylight only (with the possible though still not recommended exception of Europe). So the plan for the day? Visit the ruins of Tulum and then go see some cenotes.

The rain had stopped that morning and we very gratefully made our way to Tulum. In fact, I’d say the weather was almost perfect for photos – the clouds were ominously present and dark but the sun was shining too, giving the appearance of sanctuary to these ancient ruins. Or at least of an impending doom, which was as accurate for us today as it was several hundred years ago when the Mayans finally succumbed to European pressures. We wandered along, very happy in the brief glimpse of light bestowed upon us and I took some pictures of Tulum that I’m pretty excited about. And then, no sooner had the hole in the sky been filled with imperious blue cloud than it started pouring rain. We took shelter under a few trees along with several billion mosquitoes and passed the time swatting, slapping, and itching until our patience ran dry and our clothes were soaked. Several more photos in the rain, which did eventually slow to a sprinkle, the advantage now not light but that many of the big tourist groups had run for the buses. And then we left the ruins, returning to the hostel just in time to avoid the next downpour. Phil and I got ready for a cenote swim, grabbed a bit of cash (leaving our valuables in the locker rather than take them and leave them sitting unattended) and when the rain seemed to relent, hopped on our bikes and rode the 7 km to Grand Cenote. Supposedly an underground cavern with waterfalls, lots of pools and stalactites galore. Of course, we needed to stop for lunch first and maybe 100m from the highway crossing to Coba, we found a great little restaurant with excellent food. Spinach & egg tacos, mixed meat tacos, egg and sausage were my three choices and each was better than the last – complemented, of course, by an ice cold Coke in a glass bottle. Viva Mexico.

The total of this very filling taco trio with the Coke was 40 pesos. That left me with 80 in my pocket and Phil with 47. We set off and biked along the highway until finally reaching the Grand Cenote where we were shocked to discover a $10 entry fee. I thought maybe it would be 20 or 30 pesos, ($2-$3) but 100?! The ruins of Tulum cost HALF that. So, yes, we were unprepared, and no, we did not see this cenote after all. I’m not sure I would’ve paid even if I’d had the money. It’s on private land and the owner charges for admission, but you’d think when we showed him all the money we had collectively he’d be better to take it and get ~50 pesos each from us than to just wave us away. Still, all was not lost. We hopped on our bikes, muttering ‘banditos’ under our breaths, and rode back towards Tulum and a small cenote we’d passed on the way. The Calvera Cenote was 50 pesos and the owner did let Phil in with 47 pesos. We were the only ones in there, which is just as well as it wasn’t big enough for more than that. In fact, aside from being a diversion, it wasn’t really interesting. There were scant few cave formations and quite a few bats. Now, if you’re SCUBA diving, that’s a different story – there’s a hole that leads to other caverns and it looked like it would’ve been awesome to dive. In fact, if I’m this way again, I will insist on doing a cenote dive. Still, we swam around, did some jumping, some photography with Phil’s mostly-waterproof camera, and rode back to the hostel.

The lightning earlier had blown up the transformer next to the hostel (man, was that LOUD!) so we had no power. I used the remaining daylight to practice my Spanish, reviewing lesson 3 again (they’re BIG lessons) and going through lesson 4. How’s the Spanish coming? Pretty good, I’m actually surprised with how well I’m doing with my vocabulary. Of course, as soon as the conversation veers from those known topics into others, as soon as the context is not immediately obvious, and as soon as synonyms are called into action, I’m out of luck. But Barcelona wasn’t built in a day, and my comprehension is improving even if I need work on speaking and pronunciation. On other non-travel related notes, I’ve finished reading The Bourne Identity, which is a departure from the movie on a shocking scale. Aside from the base premise – an amnesiac with skills geared towards espionage or assassination – the plot is entirely different. This actually is great, as it means the book is full of surprises and is so different from the movie as to merit no comparison. A great pickup if you’re looking for a page-turner. I still have the book Barb gave me, my first Margaret Atwood novel. Oryx and Crake will come once I complete the Bourne trilogy, as my novel to savour and perhaps trade for other books as I make my way south. Which, in an elegant segue, is exactly what we will do tomorrow. South to Chetumal, where we have to pay our non-immigrant tax and get our card stamped at the bank before hopping another border-crossing bus into Belize. The plan is to reach Orange Walk mid-afternoon and take a river boat down to some obscure Mayan ruins at Lamanai the next day. Hopefully by then, Hurricane Ida will have diminished enough to make a trip back to the Caribbean coast more pleasant in Belize than it has been south of Cancun. Take it Belizey and we’ll see you, Caye (Caulker)? Also, I promise not to do that again so stay tuned.

Tulum and Coba Photos