Folly in Ometepe

Monday, December 28, 2009

Ometepe is an island in the middle of giant inland Lake Nicaragua, formed much like the island of Maui by two volcanoes and an isthmus of volcanic soil connecting them. And it was our next destination, just for a quick two nights as we had already booked ourselves into Pacha Mama Hostel in San Juan del Sur for Dec 28-Jan 2 on the southern coast of Nicaragua. We set out at around 11:30, catching the chicken bus from Granada to Rivas. It took a solid hour and a half at which point we grabbed a cab with a very strange French chap to the lakeside town of San Jorge to get the ferry to the island. There, we paid a tourist tax of 10 Cordobas that may or may not have been real to get into the port and stood on the walkway along the bottom half of the ferry until it became clear that the waves would be inundating us and I nearly had my camera and/or backpack soaked. I found a vantage point on the second level and sat up there watching the distant Volcano of Conception grow larger. This was the easy part.

When we got off the ferry, there were two options. A minibus for $5 or the chicken bus for $1. Which do you take? The taxi driver tells you the bus will take two hours where the taxi is only 45 minutes, but can you believe him? Is $5 a fair price for the distance? We were unarmed with this information and so took the chicken bus. It did indeed take 2 hours and we arrived, again, after dark in Santo Domingo (the nicest beach on the island) only to find every single place full, from the cheap hostel to the expensive resorts. On top of that, the busses were pretty much done for the evening, but luckily we ran into a couple Canadians who had a hostel with space even if it was in the middle of nowhere between Santo Domingo and Santa Cruz. This turned out quite well, as we got rooms for $7 and got to hang out with the Canadians after a much needed dinner. When I say we, I should mention that the French guy had tagged along with us which I don't really object to (I've been the solo traveller plenty of times) but I wasn't a big fan. Still, we all had fun and got some interesting insights into Nicaragua as the Canadian girl had been born and raised in Nicaragua then moved to Canada, so she could discuss the local philosophy on garbage, the reason Phil and I had no luck with the ladies here (apparently, it's customary to ask until you get annoying in Nicaragua so that the girl doesn't appear too eager: maybe as many as six or seven times) and of course her own difficulties coming to Canada.

The next morning we were going to hike to the top of the smaller volcano where there are some great views and a volcanic crater filled with green water but the clouds precluded that and we instead rented some bicycles and set off to make our way around the small volcano, about a 30 km track all said. We had a pretty leisurely ride in the morning, chatting with the very friendly locals, stopping to watch a few innings of a baseball game, lounging and swimming in the lake and snacking on the lunch we'd packed. I'd bought 6 sandwiches for the three of us so we could have lunch anywhere, given half to Jeremy and, as I discovered at lunch, forgotten the other half in the hostel. This was the start of the day's mistakes. From our lunch point near San Ramon, we decided to climb to the waterfall, supposedly 3km. This was arguably a second mistake, although I would not claim it as such. The hike up was hot and relentlessly upwards and we stopped under a mandarin tree to pick a few slightly underripe Christmas oranges at which point it occurred to us that there may not even be much water this deep into the dry season. As we got further and further up, well past the 3 km point in my opinion, we still could hear no water running though we could now see a dry riverbed. Uh oh.

Fortunately, we pressed on and eventually came on some running water, then scrambled up the rocks surrounded on all sides by towering green walls until we rounded a corner and there, at last, was a beautiful waterfall floating down from the crater above. Cold water has rarely looked so appealing as it did to three sweaty and tired backpackers at this point. We had our showers and cooled down then returned to the bottom where time was definitely slipping away from us. I was pretty sure that we were not anywhere near halfway around the volcano but the other guys thought we were and I wasn't going to argue the point. This probably was the biggest mistake of the day as a quick look at the map would've told us we had much further to go around than to return. But instead we pressed on around the volcano to circumnavigate this part of the island. I would be remiss at this point if I didn't mention the 'roads'. They are exquisitely terrible. Large boulders and rocks are strewn and embedded everywhere and the road undulated up and down along the coast like a mating python. Our rental bikes had neither suspension nor the capability to take the punishing abuse these roads offered and instead transmitted it to us through handlebars and hardened seats.

This should say a little about our condition. First of all, we'd hiked quite a ways to a waterfall, not to mention biking a fair distance around the volcano on the aforementioned roads to get here. Our hands were sore, our butts were sore, our legs were sore, and the beginnings of hunger were already stirring. We also got sunburned on the way up to the waterfall and I had a bit of a headache from too much sun, I think. This was how we were feeling when we set off from the volcano on the long road home some 20 km more to go. Jez's chain came off repeatedly if he switched gears and so he had to start walking his bike up hills. Before long we were exhausted and joined him walking. Meanwhile, my bike was starting to fall apart from the shocks and jolts of these terrible roads. I could feel the handlebars were starting to give and pivot a little bit and was conscious not to put too much weight on them. Meanwhile, I was terribly exhausted and would try to eek every ounce of speed I could from the bumpy and treacherous downhill segments. This combination ends as you might expect. In disaster.

I was going down one of the hills about as fast as I could given the rocks everywhere when I felt with a sickening certainty that the handlebars had given way. They no longer supported my weight, they just pivoted freely. I attempted to brake and slow my progress but it was too late. Within the blink of an eye I knew that I was going to go flying from my bike as it hit a rock and then I was gone. I had enough presence of mind to try to land on my feet and also enough to know that I wasn't going to be able to stay on my feet flying downhill from a fast-moving bike in flip flops. I think this is what saved me a more serious outcome. I hit feet first and my legs collapsed, absorbing some of the shock even as I was thrown into a roll. I must have hit with my right hand and hip first, bending my thumb pretty well and also bruising the hip before going over onto my backpack and continuing to roll a few more times. Behind me, Jez thought I was done for but I stood up, nauseous, with a bit of sunstroke, physically exhausted and shaking but for the most part unharmed. My knees had very minimal scratches on them as did my left hand. Only my right hand might have sustained a bruised or sprained thumb.

Jez had saved his last candy for whoever did something spectacular, and that little bit of sugar did wonders for me. We fixed my bike as much as possible, untwisting the handlebars and stretching/bending the brakes so I could limp it home. It couldn't possibly be that far now. This was the theme. Every light, we thought we were there and yet never seemed to be getting nearer. It started to rain for a bit on us as darkness crept closer then subsided as darkness fell. Eventually, we made it most of the way around the volcano to Balgue, tired, hungry, out of water and food, and stopped to eat and drink. While this did wonders we managed to get a ride back the last 5km in a truck to Santa Cruz where we returned our bikes, drank a Coke, and walked back to the hostel, beaten. Ometepe, you win this round.

Getting a ride back that last stretch was the first smart move we'd made in a few days, and we were determined it not be the last. We didn't skip breakfast in the morning and in fact woke up early enough to eat, pay our bills, pack, and catch the 9:00 bus. We took a minibus to the dock instead of the chicken bus. We didn't try to find a cheaper lancha in the rough seas but took the ferry and took a taxi back to Rivas where we caught the bus to San Juan del Sur just in time for lunch. This would be where we'd spend the next five or six days, where we'd be for New Years Eve, and hopefully where we'd reunite with some old friends and hopefully make some new friends as well. And it looked like it would be a lot kinder to us than Ometepe had been (knock on wood). Time would tell.

Ometepe Photos

Christmas in Granada

Friday, December 25, 2009

First things first: by this point, we had a cadre, a crew, a group of travellers hanging out together, which I have to admit is something new to me. Generally I'd keep it down to one or two people but it's Christmas and everybody is great. Plus this is Central America, and there's safety in numbers. So the dramatis personae: Myself; Phil, a friend from Saskatoon; Jez, an Englishman whom Phil and I met in Semuc Champey, Guatemala; Fran and Ronja, two Sydney girls that we met up with in Leon; Lizzie, an English girl that Fran and Ronja had met elsewhere; Andrea, a friend of Lizzie's from Switzerland. Today we were all setting out to buy gifts for our Secret Santa, and I had Lizzie. Now contrary to having the crew, I wound up setting off on my own to explore Granada and try to find a good Secret Santa gift and, due to a misunderstanding, the rest took off for the markets of nearby Masaya on their own thinking I wasn't coming (while I was changing). I ran out the door but they were long gone. Oh well, I've never been very good at shopping with other people anyway.

I set off and decided pretty quickly that I really liked Granada. They really take pride in the appearance of their city here and it shows. Brightly coloured buildings line the streets, fresh and glowing paint that looked like it had been applied yesterday. Maybe some would call it artificial, but I had no such thoughts. Nor did I have a mission plan; I just bounced from place to place, church to church, checking out landmarks. Had it been my first stop in Central America, I might have burned through all my camera's memory, but it did have a striking resemblance to Antigua or even Leon for that matter, except well-loved. I found my way to the teeming markets, which is something I really enjoy: people everywhere, singing and crying out the various wares they're selling, chickens clucking, carts carrying supplies pressing through narrow gaps in stalls. Maybe this is why I like going shopping when it's busy (say, Christmas Eve). I like the hustle and bustle. And in the markets, you never have to wait in line.

I found Lizzie a monkey to hang out on her backpack and a Santa hat as she was new to the group and didn't pick up a Santa hat with the rest of us in Leon. That, wrapping paper, and a nice box put me just under the 100 Cordobas ($5) limit, and I was free to explore some more. I met up with the group later at our hostel, The Bearded Monkey, which was a pretty cool place all said (and the inspiration for Lizzie's gift). They had not liked Masaya at all, and the photos they showed me looked like a garbage dump with a market on top. Moreover, most of them hadn't found gifts, so they ran out to the Granada markets to find some Christmas presents and returned. I went out with Phil to help him pick out something for Jez, and in the end Jez got a small bottle of rum, some water wings (to protect him from the surf), and a baby bottle to drink his rum from. Of course, Jez wouldn't know that until Christmas day...

'Twas the day before Christmas, and through the guesthouse not a backpacker was stirring nor even a mouse. Instead, Fran, Jez, Phil, and I took off for Laguna de Apoyo, a beautiful lake set in a collapsed volcano crater near Granada that I'd heard about from some Managuans I'd met in El Tunco, El Salvador. We grabbed a taxi who tried to charge us $30 to get there. Then when we told him the price was $12 he said $10 to the road at which point I said to Crater's Edge, which is a hostel on the lakeside. He would take us to the top only. OK, OK, he said and ushered us in. About 10 minutes later, however, he tried to drop us off at an intersection of the highway saying we'd reached the top. Nope. We weren't having it and he shrugged, somewhat annoyed that his fare hadn't been as stupid as he'd initially hoped, and took us up the road (it would have taken us 3 or 4 hours to walk) to a town and then told us THIS was the top. Well, we definitely didn't believe him and I told him he had better drive us where we agreed as an apology for trying to leave us stranded on the highway and he now very angrily drove on. This is the price everyone charges and we'd asked around so we knew when we were being ripped off. Eventually he realized that he was still getting the regular fare and was nice again, then dropped us off and we were finally at the crater lake of Apoyo.

We walked along the waterfront until we found a swimming area that looked pretty nice. The water was crystal clear and quite warm though still cool enough to be refreshing. We swam around until about 10 locals came to our swimming spot and then decided it was time to find lunch and hopefully some kayaks or water activities we'd heard about. We went over to Abuela's which was quite pricey (200 Cordobas minimum) and then backtracked to a more local spot closer to the road in. Phil and I had some great fish soup, Jez had some chicken dish, and Fran chicken soup. She has a thing about needing a disconnect from the animal to the food, so if it looks remotely like the animal she can't touch it. Needless to say she was a bit grossed out by our soup but she handled it well. We got a taxi back from Monkey Hut where they charge $6 to use their beach but it includes use of kayaks and a floating dock. What a great place this would be to spend Christmas, we thought, and decided to convince the others to return tomorrow.

That evening the hostel put on a Christmas BBQ which, to be honest, wasn't really worth the mention just then but we all had it anyway and sat around, visiting and having a few drinks. We met some really cool Columbians and pretty much the whole hostel hung out with each other along the big table. Fran and Ronja were chasing down some Aussies at another hostel so they left a bit early to go visit with them. Here, they celebrate Christmas at midnight on Christmas Eve and so, aside from Fran and Ronja, we all made our way to the waterfront via taxi as fireworks and firecrackers filled the streets with smoke and the skies with light. It was a great night out at a local club, and we had a lot of fun before finally getting our cabs back to the hostel and calling it a Christmas Eve to remember.

Christmas day we woke up and exchanged our gifts which was a lot of fun. There were some pretty funny gifts all around the table. For my part, I got a small bottle of rum and a Nicaragua leather holster for it, which would probably save my life two days hence. It seemed like we were going to be too late (most people slept in quite a bit) to get to Apoyo but in the end we got reception to organize us a taxi van and filled it with hostellers when it finally came an hour and a half later. Even though our day was a lot shorter than we would have liked it was very worth it and an excellent way to spend Christmas. Sitting out on the floating dock, swimming, jumping, and laying on the beach, it was as good as Christmas can be without family there. And we had our great crew there with us, too. A few more drinks, some food, and we returned to continue visiting at the hostel, where I finally managed to call home and get a Video Skype session going to Nicole's house where the whole family, aunts, uncles, and my grandparents had just finished dinner. I had been looking forward to seeing everybody all day and thanks to the wonders of the internet, I got to. Boxing Day, Phil, Jez, and myself were trucking off for the lake island of Ometepe to spend a couple days before heading down to San Juan del Sur for New Years on the 28th where we would be reunited with many of the friends we'd spent Christmas with. It may not have been a traditional Christmas, but I'm happy that I met so many great people with whom to spend it.

Granada Photos

Kings of Leon

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

That morning I was in for a pleasant surprise. I checked out of Hostel La Clinica, grateful that they’d taken me in last night but not really eager to spend another day sleeping on stained sheets. It was fine and cheap for the most part, but it was pretty quiet and I was ready to meet some people. So I went to the Bigfoot Hostel and checked in at 11 AM, which has plenty of people everywhere not to mention a layout I feel much more comfortable hanging around in than somebody’s home. And after checking in, I walked out of the hostel and saw a familiar face. There, sitting in Via Via, was Jez waving at me. I went over to say hello and noticed he was sitting next to somebody else I knew - Phil! Who would’ve thought we’d be arriving within 8 hours of each other in Leon, Nicaragua, but here we were again, three of the original four Semuc Champey crew missing only Amanda, who’d gone home to Canada. It was now six days to Christmas and the timing could not have been better. They had just spent a good deal of time at Rancho Tranquilo in a town called Los Zorros near Jiquilillo and it sounds like I missed out, but then that’s how it works on the backpacking circuit. The best places are the ones you hear about, not read about, and of course you need to be spending time with people to hear about them. And now here we were.

The three of us explored the town for the day, keeping our eye out for a volcano-boarding tour. Volcano boarding is basically snowboarding except with volcanic ash instead of snow, and I was determined to try it and also break the 80km/h speed record. Well, maybe. But there were no tours on Sunday and Monday was already sold out. We found nothing but yet more churches and interesting locals, so the day was a success in the end. That evening, after some very delicious mojitos at Bigfoot and chatting with some English crew, we celebrated that success at a little pub where a girl that Jez had met was also celebrating her birthday. However, it was her, her sister, and about 10 guys, one of whom was getting on my nerves. Phil and I decided to venture elsewhere and came across a bar called Bohemoso. It was 150 Cordobas or $7.50 to get in but then it was all the rum, vodka, and beer you could drink. Yeah. A situation like that spells only one thing: trouble.

Phil and I were the only gringos in the place, which was pretty cool. We already had a decent amount of alcohol in our systems but were determined to get our money’s worth. We then took turns getting shot down by all the amazing “Nica Chicas” and wound up sitting with a local couple who insisted on over supplying us with beer. Like two to three beer at a time. I had taken in more than I could handle and had to leave early to go home, but Phil pressed on and wound up at their place for a house party afterwards with some Danish people that came into the bar later. Pretty cool. The next day was a slow start and a ‘chill day’ being that it was a Sunday and there was nothing to do but go to the beach anyway. We hung around the hostel, called home, and managed to get ourselves on a morning trip to the top of a volcano. With snowboards and toboggans. Leon would get one more day after all. That evening, we went out for dinner with a couple Aussie girls from the hostel, Ronja and Fran for some of the best street food I’ve had since Mexico. Some cabbage roll type things, greens and rice, and tasty homemade beef patties. We also had a chat with some travelling El Salvadoreans. And we were joined by a very unfriendly American girl who would always give me a look like I had just killed a puppy. Luckily, she joined us for drinks, but she did warm up after a couple beer.

The next morning was unseasonable and inconceivable rain. It hasn’t rained here in a month but this morning, a freak rainstorm. We were supposed to be volcano boarding but clearly that wasn’t in the cards anymore, so we decided to add yet another night to Leon. The five of us decided to get in something cultural and walked (I should say trekked) across town to a museum only to find it closed. Closed and very uninspiring from the outside. Still, after such a long walk we decided to hang around for another 40 mins until it did open at 2:30, only to discover how uninspiring it was from the inside as well. Uninspiring and/or creepy, worth neither the walk nor the wait but amusing nonetheless and we DID find some Santa hats in the end so it wasn’t a total write off. We were looking for a local restaurant but everything was closed for mid-afternoon siesta, so we found ourselves scarfing down some Hollywood Pizza, which was appropriate as we were heading to the movies after. Or should I say movie. There was only one in English (with Spanish subtitles), The Surrogate. Bruce Willis or not, it wasn’t much of a movie but it was nice to just sit in a theatre with some popcorn and watch.

We did manage to get volcano boarding the following morning – at last! The drive out there is about an hour in the back of a pickup truck but when at last you arrive, you’re faced with a very steep cone of solid black fury towering over you. I had been sandboarding in Australia and it wasn’t really that exciting, so I had my doubts about this, but craning my neck to look up at Cerro Negro disabused me of any notions that this would be a routine box-ticker escapade. We set off climbing, boards and bags in hand, and soon realized that the climb was worth it for the views alone. Lava flows in all direction crept over the land like a shadow on the green landscape while a line of other green domed volcanoes stood in formation ready and waiting for their time. We made our way into the steaming crater, sulphurous gases oozing out of cracks in the earth, escapees of a magma chamber 30m below our feet. The climb continued and there was another yawning crater looming over the crater we’d just climbed into, sticking out like a black and angry red pockmark on the horizon.

At last it was time for final instructions. Weight placement, balancing techniques, I took them all in. But somehow it did me no good. The girls went first and Fran actually went down quite fast – not 84 km/h fast (the current record, set by a German, but a respectable 50-something I’d guess). Some of the other people on the trip went and then Jez took off and was probably the fastest of the day, maybe even flying down the 40 degree slope at over 60 km/h. Finally, Phil and I squared off. The problem, which I discovered as soon as we set off, was that I was not properly centred on the board. I would veer quite a bit to the right and as I stuck my left foot into the air to correct, it would over-correct and start the whole thing again, but at a higher speed. I soon had to start digging my feet alternately into the pebbles to slow myself but it was too late for a weight adjustment. I went for broke anyway, trying my best to keep the board moving down the mountain quickly though Phil was long gone, and just as I got moving at a respectable weight I wiped out. Aside from a few scratches and a damaged ego, I was fine but there was no hope of gaining any speed by now and I limped into the finish line sadly, knowing that I wouldn’t hear the end of this for some time. All I wanted was a second try.

But we were off again, the red truck waiting, first to Leon for our complimentary (and delicious) mojito, then for a quick lunch, a bit of time online booking a place for New Years Eve in San Juan del Sur, and finally a bus to Managua, the sketchy capital of Nicaragua. We arrived in Managua just fine and switched busses for Granada, two drivers vying bitterly for our five butts in their seats. It’s regularly 20 C but the one said 15 and we were sold. Of course, once you get on the bus and are well underway, they don’t remember anything about this arrangement and charge you 20 C ($1) anyway, which upsets me on principle but not economically. We arrived in Granada at night but Ronja and Fran had been here before so getting around was no problem, and we found our way to the Bearded Monkey where we would be staying until Boxing Day, celebrating Christmas, and hopefully meeting yet more cool travellers. We went out with some for dinner where I was again charged more than what I had agreed to because “it was imported”. I did argue the point but I think only succeeded in annoying the others, but it's the principle. Sigh. Different cultures can only excuse so much but I paid the difference which, again, was trifling and we called it a night. Tomorrow morning would bring Granada by day, always an entirely different experience and one I was much looking forward to.

Leon Photos

Bare Ash Beach

Friday, December 18, 2009

Leaving Juayua on the Flower Route at 10 AM gets you to the volcanic black sand beaches of El Salvador’s Balsam coast (and specifically El Tunco) at about 2 PM. From there, you wander down a small cobblestone road from the highway into town, passing a few hotels here and there and eventually coming upon some restaurants and cafes. All this done with 20-some kilograms of backpack in surprising heat (the mountains are warm in the day, but nothing like this) leaves you anxious to find a place and quickly. I found one pretty quick that was $10/night for a private room but stubbornly pressed on, noting that there seemed to be nobody around (and I’d heard it was really busy here). Before I knew it, I found myself on the beach and noted a friendly (and pretty) surfer walking back from the beach with surf board under her arm. Aside from a couple Aussies who were staying elsewhere and seemed even more clueless than I did about where everybody was, she was the first foreigner I’d seen and I hailed her for instructions. She’d just arrived that morning, but had a place with private rooms for $10 AND with a swimming pool, not to mention a few other Canadians staying there. She was kind enough to lead the way to Fabrique and I was happy enough to follow.

The place was definitely not central but it was nice and had the essentials: fan, hammock, clean beds and bathroom. Plus it had a pool and at least one nice person to visit with. So I stayed. Jessica, the Canadian surfer from Vancouver Island, and I went to explore the beach and the town of El Tunco, sans backpacks, and wound up walking (and crawling through a cave) all the way to Playa Al Sunzal where we had some beer on the rocks and watched the sunset before walking back. She had a friend also staying here that was out when she’d arrived and we ran into the friend, Robyn, on the walk back. She seemed friendly enough. The third Canadian girl, Kat, was not so friendly and took an instant dislike to me, to the point of not only ignoring me but turning away when I offered an introductory hand and pretending not to see me when we passed in the street. Given that this behaviour started from the moment we met, she is either always a grump or else she really didn’t like my beard. Add to this a lack of humour and I definitely didn’t feel all that comfortable hanging out with the girls anymore as they seemed oblivious to her rudeness in my direction (and she was perfectly pleasant with them).

The next day, I have to admit I started by watching the Dexter finale. Holy crap. I won’t bore you with details but wow. Shocking. That done, I grabbed my book, The Bourne Supremacy, my towel, shades, and a bit of cash, and headed for the beach. After a quick breakfast at Erica’s, which is without a doubt the best food in a several mile radius, I sat on the beach and read. It seemed like I could get in about one chapter on my front and one on my back before I gave into the heat and had to go in to the water and swim/body surf. The waves here are great for body surfing, and I wasn’t quite ready to jump on a surfboard today so it worked out well. I finished the book, which was again entirely different than the movie, gave it to the girl at Erica’s, and retreated to my hotel to sit by the pool a bit and enjoy the last bit of sun. The girls were gone with a local guy to a local beach some distance away and were camping over night, so I had the place to myself. This could be a good thing or bad, I decided to head into town and see who I could find. Almost nobody. Almost. I ran into the Nicaraguan couple I’d visited with in Juayua who, it turns out, had had their camera bag stolen with the girl’s passport, wallet, camera, and a few other incidentals while on the bus here. We had dinner together and I bought them some drinks before retiring to catch up with Brian for the FrankBlack.Net Podcast.

I finally rented a surf board on my third full day in Playa El Tunco, and decided to splurge for a lesson to refresh my memory. I don’t think the lesson was worth it as the ‘teacher’ did nothing but hold my board and give me a push, but I did manage to catch several waves and only had the crap kicked out of me once. I surfed as long as I could with the heat, salt water, and weak arms I had to deal with, and returned to the hotel to find the girls were back. I still don’t know what makes a wave ‘crunchy’ but I’m learning. Jessica came to my room to say hello and tell me that they’d been invited to go partying in San Salvador with some local guys. It was one guy’s birthday and he’d rented a minivan and got a driver so that everybody could drink. Whether or not I should go played in my head. Pro: a cool opportunity with some locals in a city I’d never go party in on my own. Cons: San Salvador is really really dangerous at night; I would probably not be all that welcome by anyone but Jess; I was thinking to leave tomorrow morning. I went out to dinner to consider my choice (meeting again with the Nicaraguan couple, which is always a challenge for my seemingly worsening Spanish) and on my way back ran into a whole bunch of travellers that were likewise going and invited me to join. So I jumped in the crowded minivan, and off we all went.

It was a surprise party, so when he came to get in the van we all yelled something in Spanish (Happy Birthday, old something) then headed out to Stanza6. They had a pretty cool live band doing U2 covers among other things and there was not even a moment of feeling like there was the remotest danger. We were there from around 10:00 (we left just before 9 from El Tunco) and returned at 4:30 AM, stopping at a little street food vendor along the way, where the van almost left me behind. That would’ve been interesting. It was a great night and the return van cost $5 and club entrance with free drinks until midnight cost $10, and that’s all I needed to spend. The group was friendly, fun, and I would do it again... in a day or two. I decided El Tunco and the surrounding towns and beaches would get one more day after all, and set out in the morning with my camera to get, hopefully, a few decent shots. I almost brought it the night before, but luckily I didn’t as Jess had hers swiped. Most of the photos on this blog post are from that morning photography session. I wandered up to El Sunzal again, this time at low tide so I could walk further, and then came back noting a restaurant teeming with locals where I had a great lunch. It was time to enjoy the poolside hammocks at the hotel and I did.

I was hoping to get to Nicaragua the next morning so I tried to find out information. There’s a Pullman/private “Tica” bus (a company name) that leaves San Salvador at 5 AM for Managua. Not a bad option, but I had to somehow get to San Salvador in time to catch it. Some research unearthed another company called King Quality, that allegedly had busses for the same price (about $25) leaving at 10:30 AM. Done. I got up early and arrived in San Salvador via Chicken Bus (and then a short $3 taxi to Puerto Bus) by 9:45. There, I discovered there was a really early bus (4 or 5 AM), a regular-hour bus (8 AM) and another bus at 11:30. The catch was this bus was not the more reasonably priced $25 one but $46. Because they serve you food, supposedly. Well, here in El Salvador, that had better be a T-bone steak with some wine. So I was in a quandary: I had a backup plan of chicken bussing to Alegria, moreorless on the way to the Honduras border, and spending a night or two there before pressing on. On the other hand, Christmas was coming soon and I wanted to be sort of settled in Nicaragua somewhere that I liked, maybe a beach. And I’d heard of the difficulties in time and availability getting to Nicaragua from El Salvador (through Honduras, which is what makes the whole thing tricky) already. So I did something stupid and paid way too much money for the bus ride.

Why was this stupid? Well, for starters because it was the same price as two days in El Salvador eating, sleeping, and even drinking were I so inclined. Secondly, I would be missing out on eastern El Salvador, which is supposed to be pretty. Thirdly, had I thought about it with more clarity, I could have easily discovered that I could catch these same busses at more reasonable hours further east in El Salvador. So I could have gone to Alegria and caught, say, the cheap-o 5 AM bus from nearby San Miguel at about 8 or 9 AM. If I could rewind time, this is what I would have done, and I hope somebody somewhere reads this and is able to do it the smart way as a result. I should also mention that contrary to the supposed CA-4 agreement between Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, I had to pay a $3 fee at the border (in spite of discussing/debating with customs officials and demanding proof) of Honduras and an $8 fee at the Nicaraguan border. The CA-4 is supposed to allow free travel across all those borders so I was miffed but, luckily, I had just enough money on me to cover it.

The bus, which didn’t leave until after 1 PM incidentally, did get me to Leon, Nicaragua at 10:45 that night. I hate arriving anywhere at night. It’s hard to get your bearings, it’s definitely less safe to be walking around with everything you own on your back, some hostel receptions are closed, and so on. I got a taxi from the gas station where I was dropped off into town for $1 and he took me to Big foot, which was boarded up for the night but a few knocks got someone to the door to tell me they were full. Via via across the street was in full party mode, and I didn’t even want to attempt to navigate my backpacks through that crowd. Which left me standing on the street with nowhere to stay at 11 PM. There was a hostel a block over that I walked through the shadows to get to, and that was not a pleasant experience. It too was boarded up and there was no answer. My same taxi driver drove by me on the street and stopped because he thought he’d given me incorrect change. He then drove me, free, to another hostel (he should’ve waited in the first place but this made up for it) called La Clinica which was not exactly a nice spot but it was cheap enough and I just wanted somewhere for the night at this point. I checked in, went to grab a beer, then came back and crashed. My exploration of Nicaragua would start tomorrow.

Balsam Coast Photos

Ruta Del Salvador

Monday, December 14, 2009

Crossing a border is like starting your travels all over again: new place, new rules, new people. You never know what to expect on the other side. It was time for me to leave a country I’d grown pretty familiar with, Guatemala, for that small unknown mark on Central America’s Pacific coast: El Salvador. I had just enough Quetzals left, in my estimates, to make it to the border. The journey started by finally grabbing the chicken bus to “Guate!”, slang for Guatemala City, and something you can’t spend much time in Antigua without hearing shouted in the streets as chicken bus assistants shout their destination in the hopes that homes will empty and seats, aisles, and perhaps roof racks will fill with passengers as eager as they are to get to the capital. I had about 50Q left, and the bus to Guate cost 9. I met a couple Italians on the bus and missed the stop I should’ve gotten off at (Tikal Futuro) to transfer to the terminal. They couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Italian, so everything was in Spanish between us. We found a local bus in Guate to take us to the terminal for 1Q and managed to get a bus to the border of El Salvador for 25Q, leaving me with 24Q (or $3) left for snacks or food en route. By about 2:00, we were at the border of El Salvador, I managed to get my passport stamped yet again (though they generally don’t as a result of a free-passage agreement called CA-4 between Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras). We crossed the bridge and I was beginning a new journey.

I had decided to make my first stop in Guatemala a small town called Tacuba, and specifically Mama & Papa’s Hostel, where the legendary Manolo offers tours and advice on El Salvador and specifically on nearby “Impossible National Park”. So I parted ways with my Italian travellers (who were destined for Nicaragua that night – good luck!) in Ahuachapan and hopped on a very local bus, the only gringo in sight. Even from the changing of the busses, I realized that I would like El Salvador. Not to say that Guatemalans were unfriendly – quite the opposite aside from Flores – but there was a lot more, let’s say “warmth” here. This way to the bus, various strangers would tell me. When I sat down, a beautiful girl (no not the one in the photo) came and sat next to me. Now this is a country that knows how to make a person feel welcome! After a little bit of silence I asked her some basic question in Spanish (I think how far to Tacuba, as it was getting on 4:00 and I don’t like arriving anywhere at night). A bit more silence and then she offered me a candy and we started chatting. She was studying English at university though we stuck to Spanish and when I asked her name and for her to write it (it was not a name I’d heard before), she also wrote me a nice little note with two email addresses and a request to write each other if I wanted to. I may start carrying a notebook out with me back home...

I managed to arrive at Mama & Papa’s Hostel just as the sun was waning, so my timing was pretty good all said. They serve up some pretty nice homemade meals for $5 (by the way, El Salvador doesn’t have its own currency, they simply use the US$) which was more than I usually spend on food but it was worth it and also a bit more healthy than I usually get on the street. I chatted with Manolo who was not going to be doing a tour over the weekend but had a friend opening a new trail, or rather re-opening an old trail. I was here because I wanted to see more of the country than its legendary surf beaches but after Xela, I was a bit burned out of hiking, especially with visions of an 8-hour trek cutting a trail in my mind. Not to mention it was $25, which was more than I was used to spending in Guatemala. The first days in a new place are always hard to adapt, price-wise. You don’t know what’s a fair price in the country and in this case, I had no basis of comparison. It turns out that this is quite a reasonable price here and so was the home-cooked meal. Anyway, I didn’t bother with the hike, in the end more because I was tired of hiking than for cost, and after visiting with a couple American girls over some beer at the dinner table, went to sleep.

The next morning, I left Tacuba. I spent almost no time here, but quite liked my small glimpse into it. I intentionally missed the first bus out to have some Salvadorean Papusas, a pretty famous stuffed tortilla, and as I sat on the street eating breakfast I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the locals going about their morning business and visiting with each other, noting that there are few corners of this country where there is not some music playing. I also passed by a medicine shop that would’ve been a paradise for alternate-medicine nuts or witches/warlocks. Root of mandrake, essence of rhubarb, it was all there in liquid form to combat any number of maladies. Finally, I hopped on the very-slow moving bus (trolling for more passengers, of course) back to Ahuachapan, this time, destined for Ruta de Las Flores, a string of mountain towns that are normally beset by flowers this time of year. There weren’t so many flowers, but it was a beautiful drive and I jumped off the bus in Juayua where a great gastronomic festival was taking place (and takes place every weekend). A dorm bed at the Anahuac hotel was $7. A meal featuring BBQ rabbit was $5. A skewer of fruits drenched in milk chocolate was $1. Ice cold Coca Cola in a glass bottle was 50 cents. Samples of many delicious entrees were free. I partook in all of the above. On top of this, there was a Christmas parade which was pretty neat. The local band noticed me taking their photo and lined everybody up just for me, the only foreigner watching the procession. Girls were dressed in traditional clothes, boys given hats and painted mustaches. It was a sight to behold.

There’s a lot more to Ruta de las Flores than small towns and feasting, however. From many of the towns there are hikes to natural wonders: waterfalls, volcanic peaks, crater lakes, and more. I had seen a photo of a crater lake in Cerro Verde, stark milky green against red cliffs, and that evening met an Irish/Scottish couple (one of each, living in the neutral territory of England) that it seemed were visiting there the next morning. So I tagged along with them and we grabbed the morning bus and hiked for a good hour before coming upon Laguna Verde, which was not at all what I’d hoped. It was a hot day and the lake was pretty natural and surrounded by grasses and lilly pads (so it looked a little dirty). On top of this, our guide, who we’d seen videos of doing ridiculously dangerous jumps from crazy heights into very small and shallow pools (with flips!) told us it was too dangerous to swim. Apparently, the crater underneath the lake has a fair bit of suction and at times will drain the whole thing away. That said, it was far more entertaining to watch a few kids playing at the water’s edge and fooling around. Plus, we saw a bunch of cattle come to drink – and defecate where they were drinking, right into the lake – which definitely quelled any desire to risk the odds.

From the lakeside, we climbed up a hill to a pretty nice lookout on this part of El Salvador. The guide tried to tell us it was the highest point in El Salvador, but when I mentioned Volcan Santa Ana, they conceded it was ‘egual’. There were coffee plantations as far as the eye could see and in all directions. Here, they grow the coffee within a grid of hedges to protect them from the wind and it has a funny appearance on the mountainsides. We made our way back to town, arriving around 1:00, and I went for some BBQ pork ribs that were a definite feast alongside some ice cream to combat the relative heat (no sweater required here at night, contrary to Xela and Antigua). It was time to get out of the mountains, however much I was enjoying this town, and head for the beach. After the hike today, I couldn’t be bothered hiking to another lake or up another volcano, so Cerro Verde would have to wait. I figured I’d get up early in the morning, hike to a nearby waterfall (it’s 2 km from Juayua and looks stunning from photos I’ve seen), and then set off for the coast.

Well, I woke up early alright. The problem in this part of the world is, especially travelling solo, banditos. Walking alone early in the morning (for the best photos) to a waterfall through 2km of jungle is asking to be relieved of your camera. I went to the police for an escort because I heard that they take tourists for this very reason, free of charge, at 8 AM, but the police told me I couldn’t get an escort until 10. So by the time I returned, most of the day would be gone and I still needed to get to the beach. I seriously contemplated running the trail myself but in the end decided I’d rather miss the waterfall than get there and find out that either: a) I could’ve brought my camera after all; b) I shouldn’t have brought my camera; c) It wasn’t worth hiking with or without a camera; or d) I wasn’t being literal when I said I was “dying” to see this waterfall. I grabbed my bags, left the very cool Anahuac Hotel, and jumped on a chicken bus for Sonsonate, the first stop on the way to El Salvador’s black sand beaches and legendary surf.

Ruta De Las Flores Photos

Adios, Guate!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

We returned from our hike to Taljumulco, the highest point in Central America and said our goodbyes. I needed to find a place to stay and after chatting with a girl from Vancouver, decided the hostel attached to Quetzal Trekkers, Casa Argentina, would do just fine. I was going to meet up with the Vancouver girl and her friend for wine later, but right now, I wanted some street food. Sundays in Xela there’s a market with lots of street food, so I headed out there with a French guy I’d just met named Sebastian. We also chatted with another Canadian named Andrea, this one from Peterborough, Ontario, who was likewise going to Blue Angel for some food, drink, Spanish study, and internet. So Sebastian and I wandered to the central square. I’ve said this already, but I love Xela at night. We came into the square where there was a clown show for the kids, beautiful churches all floodlit, lights everywhere, a market, live music, and plenty of street food. Pupusas, small taco-like bites of deliciousness, and the Guatemalan take on Loukoumades (nowhere near as good I’m afraid) were dinner and dessert and then we joined the girls at the Blue Angel for 10 Q wine and chatted. As we were getting ready to leave, I ran into somebody I hadn’t seen in over a year and didn’t expect to see again.

It’s not like we were close or even friends, but she did recognize and remember me. We had been on the same two-day slow boat from Thailand to Laos (and specifically Luang Prabang) and now here we were, in Guatemala, in the Blue Angel Cafe, sitting one table apart. I had, back then, wandered up and down the boat visiting with all the groups and remembered her and her boyfriend and an older man sitting near the front. We’d chatted for a couple hours on the boat and had also shared the minibus from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. I’m not trying to attach undue significance to this, but the odds of running into the same person again like this are, to me, astronomical. In one of a zillion cafes in a small town in a small country in Central America. She was leaving for Antigua the next morning but we agreed to meet up there since I had to pass through in order to get south to El Salvador anyway. We finished up our conversation with Andrea and drifted off towards the hostel and the warmth of our beds. I knew it was going to be cold here but man, does it get chilly! I have only one sweater and two pairs of pants (one of which is pretty thin) plus a fleece, so I’m afraid that to non-backpackers I look like a one outfit man.

The next day was a day of recuperation from Tajulmulco and the general business of travelling. When everyday you’re travelling to new places, looking for places to eat, things to climb, photos to take, day in and day out for over a month straight, it can be wearying. Add to that trying to study Spanish, write a blog, and edit/select/caption photos not to mention rather regular socializing, and yeah, I was due. That said, I didn’t just sit around on my day off. First of all, I had to organize the hike up to Volcan Santa Maria for tomorrow, including getting information and hopefully company for the hike. The trail is pretty easy but a little planning goes a long way, and I was planning on going up without a guide. But when do busses start, what about taxis, how much, how long, trail markers, food, water, let’s just say there’s a big of planning. I must be tired as I write this, because everything is devolving into a list of seemingly simple activities. In addition to this planning, Sebastian and I planned to take a trip up to Fuentes Georgina, some hot springs near Xela to emphasise the relaxation part of the day.

We left at 2:00 for the hot springs, 50 Quetzales later, stopping in a small town en route to look around and take some photos. The hot springs were really misty and locals kept spitting in them, but otherwise they were great. Hot, relaxing, and varying in temperature as you neared the scalding hot water pouring off rocks as the back of the pool. We stayed, I met a fan of Frank Black and the Pixies and back we came for an early evening, or at least we tried, after a little 25 Q pizza+coke combo. I think Sebastian and I were asleep by 1:30 AM and we were needing to wake up by 4:30 to catch our 5 AM taxi to the mountain so we could hopefully ascend and beat the formation of clouds over the brilliant view of active volcano Santiaguito. It turned out I had a stomach ache and woke at 3:30 AM but a few pills and that was gone. We were in the taxi, on the way to pick up Shane (from the Tajulmulco hike), wondering if it were possible for the cab to go any slower. Finally, we set off on foot up the base of the mountain. The battle was joined.

The ascent was steeper than Tajulmulco but now that I was somewhat acclimatized (I still got a bit of a headache but nothing serious) it went much easier, too. It became obvious pretty quickly that there would be no morning break in the clouds and worse, no view down of fiery Santiaguito. You’ll have to look online to see what we would have seen with better weather, for when we got to the top, there was nothing to see but the ground below your feet and mist. Still, it was nice to get a morning walk in and as we waited at the top and chatted with some locals, we discovered that we had arrived on a day of ceremony for many, as they prayed for the new year. We were visiting with a small group of traditional Mayans while they waited for one of the younger ones to bring up the offerings from below and they invited us to not only observe their ceremony, but to take part. So sometimes you don’t get what you expect, but you have to be open to the fact that you may encounter something far more special.

First they stacked some incense-blocks and then scattered chocolate and other things on top. Then a small pyre of wood shavings and it was time to light the fire. With the wind, there was a lot of trouble lighting the fire, though eventually Shane and I managed to get it going for them, Shane blocking the wind and I fumbling with his lighter and the kindling. We were each given a different coloured candle, I a green one that symbolized the Earth, Shane a blue one for the sky, and Sebastian a yellow one for fertility. There was also red (blood), white (purity), and normally a black one (hair?). The ceremony switched back and forth from the local Mayan dialect to Spanish, I suspect for our benefit, and we were given energy from the fire, put our candles in, and we were even included in their prayers for safe travels and so on. As this was finishing, spots of sky began to open and offer glimpses of Xela below us. Powerful stuff.

We hung around the mountaintop for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, watching the clouds go by, snacking on our ham and cheese sandwiches and cookies, and hoping that the clouds below would also clear. Alas, no view of Santiaguito was offered but it was a great day nonetheless, and we enjoyed sitting so high and watching the weather form and break around us. We were back down and in Xela before we knew it, a quick 1:45 descent followed by an ice cream sandwich followed by a chicken bus back into town. We said goodbye to Shane on the bus and went back to the hostel where we met a couple Canadian girls from Vancouver and went out to dinner with them at a local-ish place. They were good fun and really friendly so the conversation moved easily over dinner. They went for a glass of wine with Sebastian at Blue Angel while I went back to the hostel to get warmer clothes and ended up visiting with Andrea for a bit. As such, I missed out on the wine when I met up with them at Blue Angel but that wasn’t a big problem. I hung out with Andrea some more and tried her homemade granola (delicious!) that she had made while we were up on the mountain, watched an old episode of House (she has a TV), and went to sleep.

The next morning, I ran around like a crazy man, trying to get everything together to mail my family their Christmas presents. I picked up the rest of the ingredients I was missing, including a box, and went to a local paper store to get wrapping paper and wrapped the box up neatly. Then, to the post office, where I was told that under no circumstances would they mail Rum. DHL, however, would, so I had to get a taxi to take me there (and wait to take me back). At DHL, however, there was only express shipping, which was more than double the cost of what I was sending home, but I bit the bullet after getting myself a 25% discount. Then they had computer problems. All said, it took a good three hours to get this thing mailed but finally it was on the way to Canada and I was on the way to Antigua with Sebastian. We arrived before 5:00, I without my iPod as it was lifted from my pocket (I felt its absence but thought nothing of it as I usually don’t keep anything in that pocket) and checked into Jungle Party again, where I Skyped Carmen (remember her?) and we met up for drinks. That is, after some amazing tacos at Rony’s (6th St), which are without a doubt the best tacos I’ve had on my trip so far.

We went for drinks at Riki’s, which is a pretty happening place on Wednesday nights for its live music and famous musicians. It was nice to be back somewhere familiar, where you know where to find good food, good drinks, and good times, not to mention hanging out with good people. Carmen convinced me to stay one more day in Antigua, though I was sort of burned out and this wasn’t a tough sell. We went to a local pool the next day and pretty much were the only people around, relaxing in the sun until about 1:00 when Sebastian had to go climb Pacaya. I, on the other hand, went with Carmen to her old project, a home for handicapped children, which put a damper on my spirits. Imagine a room with kids laying and occasionally writhing and moaning on mattresses on the floor. It was very upsetting, even though the kids were being treated well (and better than being on the streets, abandoned by their parents). I spent most of the afternoon afterwards hunting down a cheap replacement for my iPod, found one for about $30, and after another dinner at Riki’s, I was off on the next leg of my adventure: a trip to El Salvador.

Xela Photos

Top of Central America

Sunday, December 06, 2009

I quickly loaded my pack with gear and refilled my water bottles (5 L in all) while everybody was loading their packs into the back of the pickup. We were setting off at 5:15 AM for the highest point in Central America, Tajulmulco, about three hours north of Xela close to the Mexican border. Quetzaltrekkers, the company I was travelling with, provided almost all of the gear including a backpack, so I stashed my own backpacks in their office along with valuables and we were off to catch a bus. The bus ride was to San Marcos, which in the morning sun felt a little like Kunming. I think this may be because it was a fairly large centre and Kunming was the last place I remember waking up on a bus and arriving at dawn. We had a nice breakfast (included) and grabbed another bus for a small town at the base of Tajulmulco, which isn’t just the highest point in Central America at 4220m (about 13,000 ft), but a dormant volcano. The highest I have ever been is 4670m in the Himalayas, and I had been more acclimatised by living at higher altitudes in Lijiang, Shangri-La, and finally near Dequin before doing this trekking. Here, I had just come from Lake Atitlan, which is maybe 1500m ASL to Xela at 2335m ASL the day before and so would be hiking at elevations almost 2km higher than I was acclimatized. I was a little worried about altitude sickness, but it hadn’t occurred to me until we were discussing it on the way there.

Speaking of on the way, I went to take a photo of the crowded chicken bus while en route. It was then I discovered my camera’s memory card was still in my netbook, as I had backed up my photos the night before. I effectively had no camera for this fairly epic trek. I was not impressed and bordered on distraught, though I tried to think that this would allow me to focus on just enjoying things. When I mentioned this plight to others in the hopes that they might be carrying an extra SD card, Sam told me he was a terrible photographer and I could use his card if I’d give him the photos after. This was unspeakably nice and I hope I got him some photos he is happy with. Our group, by the way, was nice and small. Myself, a Kiwi named Shane, and two Americans named Sam and Celina that may or may not have been together. We also had two guides, Scott and Sara, from Seattle and Ottawa respectively. The hike started on a dirt road through farmers’ fields, and we passed a few locals working and hauling wood while we made our way upwards towards the looming dome of Taj, which is what I’m calling it even though the ‘j’ in Spanish is an ‘h’. We could also see the distant mountain, which forms part of the border with Mexico.

As we climbed I was fine, the altitude not really getting to me aside from heavy breathing and a slowing pace. Celina was having difficulties, however, and popped some Motrin for her headache. We picnicked in an alpine meadow for lunch watching the clouds for below and eventually above as well. I began to notice the very beginnings of a headache myself, which worried me, but I didn’t take anything for it because I wanted to know if it got really bad. Headaches, stomach pain, dizziness, nausea, and of course shortness of breath are the body’s way of telling us we’re from the prairies and have no business scaling mountains. I wanted to know if I was about to die from it. We pressed on and as we were moving it disappeared, probably more forgotten than gone, into an alpine forest and into cloud and mist. Occasionally, the clouds would break above to offer some warming sun, but generally it was mist everywhere, which added an ethereal effect to the forest around us. We stopped at one point to watch a couple locals gathering wood by throwing a log on a rope around a branch, winding it around, and then pulling as hard as they could. The first few efforts it unwound and came screaming at them, but finally they managed to break the branch and send them on their butts.

By the time we reached our so-called base camp at about 4000m, my head was pounding pretty good and I had lost pretty much all my energy, collapsing on my backpack in a huff, both happy to be done for the day and utterly exhausted and out of breath. As we set up camp, my headache grew worse and I took two Tylenol to help combat it. We climbed further to a lookout to watch the sunset, which was both chilling and fantastic as the clouds whisked around our peak obscuring and then revealing amazing views. Back at the bottom, the camp stove was boiling water for hot chocolate. I could barely drink mine at this point and I tried to sit with the others around the stove but I just couldn’t, so I went and laid down in the tent thinking I was likely to throw up at any minute – a bad idea since dehydration is not good for altitude sickness. So I fought it and the growing fever, throwing off all my warm layers in the sleeping bag and feeling like a furnace. I actually fell asleep for a bit, the time being around 6:30. They woke me for dinner and I felt a bit better though I had no appetite whatsoever, which is yet another symptom of altitude sickness, though I still forced down about a spoonful of pasta before retiring to the tent again. I felt terrible and was pretty worried about my health since I know that altitude sickness can be fatal and I wasn’t sure how far along I was in that progression. Interestingly, although Celina had been having more problems than I had on the climb up, she now seemed fine. It’s a funny condition, this one. We climbed to a small rise to watch the sunset, which was less impressive than the clouds zipping around us, and went to bed.

I slept pretty well considering I had no pillow and was fully bundled in all my cold weather gear. I did wake up any number of times to take a look at the almost full moon (read: bathroom – I’d drank almost 4L of water that day) and discovered that Celina was now worse off than I was with severe cramps and everything that goes with it, not to mention nausea. When I woke up at 3:30 in the morning, I was fine aside from a slight headache which I took two Tylenols for again. In spite of this, we ascended to the top of Taj in pretty good time without needing torches thanks to the brilliant moon, all of us (including Celina though she was feeling terrible), with our sleeping mats and sleeping bags to sit in as we waited for sunrise. This was comfy, though as soon as the horizon started lighting, I couldn’t help but wander around looking for photos. Sunrise was among the most spectacular I have ever seen – I can’t think of a better one, but there have been many greats alongside it. We could see into Mexico. We could see all the way to Antigua, with distant Fuego erupting and sending a smoky finger into the sky. We couldn’t see the Pacific as it was hazy in that direction, but it was there. I took a lot of photos.

We descended around the old volcano crater, a beautiful walk back to base camp in the light of a new day. Breakfast, which I again stomached (still no appetite), looking over northern Guatemala, and our hike down which went pretty quickly to the bottom along a ridgeline that also offered spectacular views. Although the mist was ethereal yesterday, what it had been concealing was stunning. It really is a beautiful country and I reaffirmed that this hike had been worth all the altitude issues and heavy breathing, not to mention the detour from Atitlan and my path south to get here. My stomach served as an altimeter and I noticed my growing hunger with each step down the mountainside. When we reached the bottom, there was a very out-of-place skier-type restaurant waiting for us with shrimp tacos, sour oranges (lime on the outside, orange on the inside), rice, beans, soup, potatoes, and a virtual feast for 20 Q (although it was, again, include), not to mention juice. Hungry as I was, for the first time in Central America, I couldn’t finish. We stuffed ourselves, and so the irony of seeing a pig wandering down the street when we left was not lost on me. Two long bus rides back and a hike through Xela and we were back home.

Tajulmulco Photos