Caribbean Christmas

Belize is killing my wallet, and my bank account will be happy once I get on the boat to Livingston, Guatemala tomorrow, but I still had a blast these past two weeks.  After I left Caye Caulker, I stayed the night in the town of Dangriga on my way down the coast.  Val’s Backpackers overlooked the sea and I spent most of the evening sitting in a hammock finishing off the National Geographic I bought in the airport.  The next morning also found me there, where I got to talking to an English woman named Natalie.  A social worker on a 6 month sabbatical, she and her friend Aiden from New Zealand were headed the same direction as I was and we both had booked into the same hostel for Christmas in Placencia.  I hooked up with them and we all left dry, dirty Dangriga in search of a better beach until we could get to Placencia.  

We got off the bus in a fly-speck place called Hopkins with dirt roads and rusted sheet-metal roofs, and checked into The Funky Dodo.  The place had only opened up a few months ago and was owned by a tall English guy named Will.  His family was in town for Christmas so were helping out with the hostel work while we were there.  It turned out that the day we arrived was the first time Will had filled all of the beds so there was a bit of a celebration.  Will brought in beer by the case-load and his sister Pippa joined us at the big outdoor table where we managed to polish off much of the beer as well as several liters of rum.  The next day was quieter and most of it was spent sleeping on the beach.

From Hopkins, it was a couple hour bus ride to Independence where we then caught a water taxi to Placencia.  The place we were booked into was called Seakunga and it was a few miles out of town, and there we met up with two of Natalie’s friends from home.  Fran and Alice were both English, but had been living in Edmonton of all places, so there were many Alberta jokes to be endured.  At least they had a good appreciation for the steak!  When I had booked in at Seakunga, I had to pay ahead and had reserved for three people under the assumption that my travel companion from Mexico and her friend were going to join me.  The hotel insisted I pay in full because of the time of year so one night in the dorm and three nights in a cabana cost me $380 US.  Then I got word from Kia that her and her friend weren’t going to be able to make it.  Seakunga refused to refund me the extra so I was stuck, though I did manage to barter off one of the dorm beds to an American woman named Carrie, who also ended up hanging out with us for a while, but the cost was a painful one to take on considering how much Belize was costing me as it was.  But as my friend Caro said, there are worse things than having overpaid for a seaside cabana in the Caribbean Sea.  It was just too bad about the cockroaches I found the second night and the bad service.  Alas!

On Christmas Eve we headed out to the Barefoot Bar for the big party they were having.  Santa Claus came down the one street in town on a fire truck instead of a sleigh wearing a pimp hat and accompanied by Mrs. Claus in a glimmering red dress and followed by a score of scantily clad lady elves dancing with over-sized candy-canes.  Definitely one of the stranger Christmas parades I have encountered.  Christmas day was a bit subdued due to yet another hangover, but I still managed to spread a little Christmas cheer.  Aiden, Alice, Fran, and Natalie had set up a secret Santa exchange between them weeks beforehand so they all had gifts to give for the morning.  Before going to bed that night, I took all the presents and buried them around the beach and in the morning provided maps detailing their locations.

When we left Placencia, I decided to tag along with the group for a couple more days and followed the Aiden and the girls to Tobacco Caye, a small 5 acre island east of Dangriga.  It was truly tiny, and definitely a bit expensive, but I had to wash the bitter taste of Seakunga out of my mouth before leaving Belize, and besides, my Guatemala ferry only left on Tuesdays and Fridays, so I had a couple days to kill.  We caught a water taxi from Dangriga with Captain Patrick and when we were almost at the island we came across a broken down water taxi full of passengers.  After a discussion with the other boat captain, we piled everyone into our boat and almost tipped when a very large lady climbed on very quickly and unbalanced the load.  Though our clearance above the water line made me somewhat nervous, we made it to land with no more troubles.  The island itself felt quite exotic, with a permanent population of a couple dozen people, two bars and a whole lot of palm trees.  It is a common stopping place for sailboats, but is mostly a mid-range backpacker destination.  Our first night we played board games and then went to one of the bars for beer and stargazing.  The bartender knew more constellations than me (and that is a lot)from his years as a fisherman, and Natalie saw more shooting stars that night than in her entire life (though I can’t imagine you get to see any, living in London).  The next day we went snorkeling along the barrier reef and overpaid for the privilege, but the fish and eagle rays were still amazing.  We also saw a manatee and some dolphins as well as a small caye that was a dedicated as a bird sanctuary so no one was allowed to walk there.  I have never seen so many birds in my life.  

And now here I am in Punta Gorda, at the bottom of Belize.  I parted ways with my Aiden and the English girls when we got back to the mainland and tomorrow I am off to Guatemala where I can hopefully improve my abysmal Spanish skills.  Cheers and goodnight folks!

-A.

Get Out and Push

I had trouble deciding which direction to head after leaving San Ignacio, but Kenny G had said that Caye Caulker was not to be missed so I jumped on a chicken bus and started east.  Arron and Caro got off in Belmopan but I continued on to Belize City.  The place has a bad reputation so I didn’t plan to spend much time there.  A chicken bus, for those who don’t know, is the main means of public transportation in Belize.  They are old school buses sent down from the United States to serve a second life.  Painted up in bright colours and rigged with luggage racks, they only cost a few Belizean dollars and run just about everywhere in the country.  My 2.5 hour journey cost me the equivalent of $3.50 Canadian.

From the bus I caught a taxi to the ferry terminal and then boarded the water taxi to Caye Caulker.  An Australian-Belizean woman was sitting across from me (the strangest accent I have ever heard, by the way), and gave me a tip on where to stay once I got to the island.  A place called Ignacio’s Beach Cabanas, it was a bit removed from the main strip of town but for 30 Belizean dollars I got a view of the Caribbean Sea and my own place, though no hot water.  A few iguanas also shared the space, camping out on the tin roof in the sun.  Caye Caulker is a small sandy island with a total population under 3000 people.  The island was split in 2 during a hurricane in the 60s so is even smaller than it used to be.  There are no cars allowed and everyone travels by bicycle or golf cart.  Best of all there are no resorts and few hard core tourists. 

It was Friday night so I went for a wander and after watching the sun set at the Split, where the two islands used to be one, I ran into some drunk Americans from North Carolina who offered me some beer.  I sat with them for a while, but they were not really my style so I went back to my cabana.  There I found some more Americans: a young couple from Oregon and an older fellow named Darren from Georgia who had been living on the caye for the last 5 years.  He was going to take the Oregon folks out on his sail boat for the price of a case of beer and offered to let me join.  I, of course, accepted the offer.  We were to leave the next day at 10am but departure was a bit delayed due to the fact that Darren accidentally smashed into the front gate of Ignacio’s with his golf cart after too many of those beers we had supplied in payment and had to fix the damage before we shoved off.  He originally ended up in Belize after losing his license in the US for a DUI, so I guess old habits died hard.


We left the rickety dock in front of Ignacio’s at around 11am , with Rob and Jasmine from Oregon, myself, and Cecilia from Italy.  Captain Darren was clad in cut off jeans held up by a rope around his waist; his 23ft boat, he proudly claimed, was the 3rd oldest in Belize.  If anyone has seen the movie “Captain Ron”, Kurt Russell’s character is pretty much a spot-on match for Darren.  He let Rob from Oregon do much of the sailing as Rob had recently started learning on a catamaran back home.  The weather was on and off through the day with small squalls and a steady wind from the north.  We stopped at a few places along the barrier reef to snorkel and in between enjoyed some rum and… pipe tobacco. Darren wanted me to check out some odd coral formations he had found and tell him whether they were perhaps remnants from a ship or just coral.  As far as I could tell they were nothing special but he was really happy that he had a “professional opinion” on it.  I tried to tell him that geologists don’t really work with living coral, but he remained convinced that I was an expert.  He didn’t have any fins to fit me for snorkelling so cut open a life-jacket and stuffed the empty spaces with buoyant foam.  It worked amazingly well.  I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, since his boat motor had been jerry-rigged out of an old pressure washer after his outboard had been stolen.

The winds started to pick up at our last snorkelling stop so we decided to head back.  As we tried to pull out from the reef we had anchored by, the wind shifted slightly and we started drifting toward the coral.  In a matter of seconds there was a loud scrapping sound as we ground up along some rocks.  Darren dove in to try and unwedge the boat, as did Rob.  After a few seconds,  Darren poked his head up above the gunwale and says “Umm, y’all are gonna have to get out and push”.  The poor Italian girl looked so confused- she had enough trouble understanding Darren’s southern drawl to begin with, I don’t think she could quite comprehend what was happening right away.  She figured it out once Jasmine and I stripped off our shoes and shirts, getting ready to jump in.  We were quite a way out from land and the winds were picking up but the boat only had about a 4ft draft when empty so we had it off the rocks after some frantic shoving.  The hard part was getting back in as I had used all my body strength pushing the damn thing off the rocks.  Once everyone was safely back aboard, Darren dove back in to check the damage.  Since it was a wooden boat, there was little to show for our misadventure other than a few scrapes on the bow.  If it had been a fiberglass vessel, things would have been a lot different.  All I could think of was how many Canadians at that moment might have been pushing their car out of a snow bank, and here I was pushing a sailboat off some rocks in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.  Crazy.

We putted back to shore with the motor since the wind was against us and made it safely back by around 6 o’clock.  I had a nasty sunburn on the tops of my thighs from sitting in the boat all day, but I was otherwise no worse for wear.  Today I am taking it easy and not doing much other than sitting in a hammock.  I think I have had enough of the sea for a little while.

-A.

 

Back to the Commonwealth

On Thursday (I think it was Thursday- I have a hard time keeping track when I am travelling), I left Flores with my Kiwi friends Arron and Caro and we headed for the Guatemala-Belize border.  This was a much less interesting crossing than my last one; a stamp on one side of the river, then a pedestrian bridge, followed by another stamp on the other side.  One small comfort: Belize is a member of the Commonwealth so English is the official language and the Queen smiles up from all the currency.  She seems to have a bit of a sly grin on her face on the Belizean dollars- my guess is that the weather put her in a good mood.  It was just a nice change to be able to carry on a full conversation with local folks instead of them looking at me bewildered as I tried to communicate via pointing and poorly pronounced Spanish nouns.

Across the border, taxi drivers were trying to charge 15 USD for the three of us to get to San Ignacio, 15km away.  At most, it should have cost 6 Belizean which is tied to the US dollar at 2 to 1.  We decided to hoof it to the nearest bus station 3km away, but before we had gotten 100m from the border a truck pulled up and offered us a ride.  I had seen the guy dropping some folks off at immigration so he looked non-threatening enough.  Also Aaron was twice his size, so we took him up on the offer.  His name was Willem and he worked maintenance at the Hospital in San Ignacio.  He gave us some tips about the town and drove us right to the main square.  We booked into the Central Hotel which, though a bit dodgy looking was only 8 BSD per night each.  It was managed by a lanky black guy who called himself Kenny G.  He was born in Belize but had spent 20 years in New York City and said “motherfucker” more times in one sentence than I probably do in an entire year.  He was really cool though and pointed out some cheap places to eat and helped us organize a cave tour for the next day. We even got to see an x-ray of his jaw surgery.  I have my doubts about his claim of having 6 wives though.  Kenny G wasn’t exactly a what you would call handsome…

 

The tour, abbreviated as ATM, though I can’t remember the full name, was absolutely incredible.  We started out with an hour of hiking followed by a brief swim into a limestone cave.  We had to alternately wade through caverns and scramble over fallen boulders, but in the end came out into a chamber used by the Mayans over a thousand years ago for rituals and sacrifice.  The culmination of the trip was a set of female human remains left in pose almost 800 years ago.  This in a setting of almost total darkness and surreal cave formations, stalagmites and stalactites.  I had told myself that I wasn’t going on any more tours for a while but this was definitely worth it.

-A.

Mountain High to Jungle Boogie

The last 48 hours have been some of the most interesting of my life, but I better back up a bit.  Last I wrote, I was on a night bus heading west…

After the 9 hour bus ride tuned into a 13 hour bus ride, Kia and I arrived in San Cristobal on Thursday afternoon, totally wiped.  She had intended to continue on to Guatemala that day but decided to crash for the day in town.  After she left on Friday, I was on my own again.  San Cristobal was a total contrast to Campeche in that it was at an elevation of almost 2000 m and got down to a temperature of 8 degrees at night.  In a culture that has little need for central heating, I was in for a couple chilly nights.  I ended up staying three nights in total, but did little other than sleep in and wander the numerous food and craft markets in town.  December 12 was the feast of the Virgin Guadeloupe so the town was full of pilgrims and fireworks.  Apparently the ideal way to honor the Virgin was to run in a sort of relay from your local church to the cathedral in town, followed by an obnoxious pickup truck blasting sirens and honking its horn at 5 am.  My last night in town, I decided to splurge on Argentinean steak, which may have been the most delicious beef of my life (though it cost three times more than my hostel room).

On Sunday morning I took a small tour to Palenque, which was back toward the east part of the state, but closer to Guatemalan border.  I tend to avoid tours normally, but this one was basically just transportation to a few cool sites on the way to my next destination, so I didn’t feel too much like part of the tourist horde.  We stopped at Aqua Azul, an amazing set of rapids and small waterfalls going through a local community, followed by a stop at a 40m waterfall called Miso-Ha which you could walk behind.  The afternoon ended at the Palenque Mayan ruins, but the potentially more interesting part was the small commune-like community just outside the park.  Called El Panchan, it was a collection of different cabanas and camping sites with a thatch-roof restaurant in the middle of the jungle.  It was full of dreadlocked pot heads and ex-pats but looked more entertaining than the box tour hotels up the highway so I booked a night at El Jaguar in my own cabana with the screech of howler monkeys to be heard out the screen window.  For supper I rolled up to the restaurant (Don Mucho), book in hand, ready for my standard solo meal.  Half way through my homemade spaghetti, a couple Parisian gals invited me to their table.  They were visiting with a Mexican fellow named Juan (of course), and his friend Alex.  Eventually another fellow named Jorhei also showed up and I was introduced to a new drink called a Mexican Flag which involved lime juice, tequila and tomato juice, which was surprisingly delicious.  I turned in pretty early since I had a 6 am ride to the border on Monday, and that was where things got interesting.

The van to the border picked me up bright and early the next morning (actually dark and early since the sun wasn’t yet up).  It was 3 hours to the border at Frontera Corozal, which, to be fair, wasn’t exactly a main trading route between countries, but I was not expecting to have to get on a small, tippy moterized gondola on a muddy river bank.  From there it was a 30 minute boat ride to the Guatemalan landing across and up the river.  No security, and no border control other than a sweaty old man at a desk with a stamp and a request for a 40 Queztal “entry fee” (Queztals being the Guatemalan currency).  I paid but the New Zealand woman behind me got quite a fury from the sleepy man when she requested a receipt.  I am guessing the fee was somewhat unofficial.

Next, the dozen or so people who had crossed on the boat all boarded a large minibus of questionable operational ability and we started down a bone-jarring unpaved road toward Flores, Guatemala.  After fording through a few ruts and washouts, the road became a little smoother about 3 hours into the journey but my spine was not happy.  After 5 hours we reached Flores and I had made some new friends.  Arron and Caro from New Zealand (Caro had been the gal cheeky enough to ask for a receipt at the boarder), along with a tall fellow named Yomar from the Netherlands- a quiet guy with the bluest eyes I have ever seen.  Having a bit of a camaraderie going, we decided to split a 4 person dorm at the Los Amigos Hostel in Flores and travel to the Tikal ruins together the next day.  We got up at 4:30 this morning to catch the first transport to the site and arrived at 6:30 or so.  Despite what the tour operator who was trying to sell us a guide trip said, we did not get lost in the jungle.  It was probably one of the most amazing days of travel I have ever had.

We made a b-line for Temple IV which, at 65 m gave us a gorgeous view of the jungle canopy in the morning mist.  The tour groups weren’t moving as fast as us so we had the whole place to ourselves for almost an hour.  The rest of the day was spent wandering the many kilometers of jungle-shrouded ruins (some up to 2000 years old) and catching the occasional glimpse of howler monkeys and a strange creature that seemed a mix between an anteater and a lemur.  We even ran into a camera crew from Discovery Channel getting some shots for their next documentary,  At that point I knew I was in a special place.  The last site we visited during the day was surrounded by the lemur-like animals and I just sat on the ground as they ran around me and among the temple ruins.  Truly surreal.  If I went home tomorrow I would have felt the trip worth it (not that I would, of course!).

-A.

 

Here Be Pirates!

 

Campeche! I only knew the name from an old video game I had about pirates, but it turns out that it was a rather appropriate association.  The town was quite the target for privateers and the like during the 1600’s; so much so that they build a huge wall with cannons and forts to keep the buggers out.  All the better for me since parts of the wall still stand, surrounding the restored colonial central town.  The historic city has been re-purposed for modern use but it definitely feels like you are back in time around here.  There are few, if any tourist hordes and seemed a great place to recharge the batteries.

Kia and I stayed 2 nights at the Monkey Hostel overlooking the main square and were to leave Wednesday.  We had decided to part ways and then meet up for Christmas and Belize.  We had both had some bad luck and needed a break from Mexico.  I was to catch a bus at 2 pm for Chetumal and then south to the Belize border and she was catching one at 9:45pm for San Cristobal de las Casas and on to Guatemala, but it didn’t quite work out that way.  When I went to leave for the bus station, I couldn’t find a taxi to save my life and instead of arriving early, I got to the terminal at exactly 2 pm and my unusually punctual bus had already left.  Sigh.  I went to the ticket window and through broken Spanish and a little bit of crying, explained what had happened.  The lovely man at the window took pity on me and while I didn’t get a refund, I did get a half priced ticket to San Cristobal.  The Chetumal bus wasn’t going to run again for two days and I didn’t want to be stuck in Campeche with nothing to do.

 

San Cristobal will bring me close to Guatemala border, where I can cross into, then stop in Coban and Tikal before crossing into Belize from the west.  From there I can head south and get back into Guatemala for my language course after Christmas from Punta Gorda, Belize via ferry.  A little hitch in my itinerary, plus I am a few pesos lighter than I had planned, but not the end of the world.  And if a bit of crying got me a cheaper ticket, I am sure womankind will survive.

-A.

Zocola and German Engineering Part 1 & 2

PART 1

Ahh, Merida.  The main transportation hub of the western Yucatan, I had high hopes for the place.  The bus dropped me off way in the south, and I had no idea where I was, so I wandered for about an hour before I found the travellers salvation, the internet cafe.  Ten minutes later I was on my way.  I found a hostel on the main square called Hotel Zocola which looked clean enough and was inside an old colonial mansion.  I wasn’t too picky by that point as I had been walking around the city in 30 degree weather with 30 pounds on my back and it was time for a shower.  I booked in and found that the female dorm was also the main throughfare for the ladies bathroom.  Awesome.  I decided to stick around since I had already paid and just lounged for the rest of the day in the common area, which was actually quite gorgeous with vaulted sealings and arches that looked out into a little courtyard.  My sleep wasn’t great but I met a gal from Britain named Kia and we both decided to tag along on a trip to the seaside town of Progresso that the hostel owner had organized.  Turns out he just wanted to show off the new hostel they were building but we went off on our own and found a great little stall in the market that sold some really great battered fish.  There was a brief moment of panic when Kia noticed that the menu sign showed the word Delfines which translates to Dolphin, but it turned out that that was the name of the stall, not the fish being served, so I didn’t end up eating Flipper after all.  The day ended with another somewhat restless night of sleep.  I was woken up by a Mexican man crawling into the bunk above me.  I poked him awake to alert him that this was the female dorm and he should leave.  He replied that he worked there and that the male dorm was full.  Awesome.

The charger on the laptop I am using is sparking so I am going to continue this story when there is less fire hazard

 

PART 2

So where was I?  Right, so Kia and I met a German named Andi in the hostel and we hatched a plan to check out some Mayan ruins along the Ruta Puuc via car rental since the bus route was bit of a pain in the ass.  We ended up with a blue VW beatle because it was way cheaper than renting something new.  They still manufactured the old style Beetle in Mexico until 2003, which was the year of our car, but it looked like it could have been from the 70’s; the stereo had been torn out and the gear box was pretty interesting to try and shift. It had always been Andi’s dream to drive an old Beetle.  He was an engineer so he considered it a bit of a right of passage as a German.  We set out in the morning {the same morning the Mexican guy woke me up by crawling into the bed above me} and  were on our way.

Many many many ruins later,  we finished off the drive at a huge cave, called Grutas de Loltun;   it had a cathedral ceiling 40 m high and it was used by the Mayans to hide from the Spanish.  Definitely a highlight for a rock jock like myself, though Kia and Andi weren’t quite so awed.  We got a bit lost on the way back and ended  up in a village called Oxkutzcab as the sun was setting and decided to stop for food as we were all starving.  We found a little place by the market and I had the most amazing soft tacos of my entire life.  The restaurant didn’t even have a name above the door, and I don’t know if I could even find it again.  Alas.  We made it back to Merida in one piece and Kia and I split a private room for the night to actually get a proper sleep.  She locked her laptop in one of the metal locker in the main room and we went to sleep, set to depart to Campeche the next day.  In the morning we found that someone who had been staying in the hostel had picked the lock of some lockers and her laptop and a bunch of cash was gone.  Another man had everything including his passport taken, so I suppose it could have been worse.  My passport was in the locker with Kia’s so we really lucked out there.  She had to spend the entire day in the police station and I waited for her at the hostel.  After she was done they offered us a free room but we decided to get the hell out of Merida and got on a late afternoon bus to Campeche.

Road to Ruins

So other than my drunken post at the beginning of the trip, I have been a bit lax on the blog front.  Apologies!  I just got into Merida and realized I forgot my map, so went wandering in search of internet.  I found this lovely umm…cafe a few blocks from the bus station.  It is actually an old garage of some sort but it is air conditioned so one must not look a gift internet cafe in the structural structural stability, or something…

Playa del Carmen was a bit wild to be sure- when I rolled into the Rio Playa hostel, I saw there was a bar on the roof and a club next door, so I knew in advance sleep was going to be scarce.  But when in Rome, get smashed on tequila, right?  It was actually a gentle introduction to a grand trip as I was able to ease my way into the culture as opposed to jump in with both feet and my nose plugged.  I did encounter my first scam as soon as I made it through the resort taxi gauntlet at the airport.  Some fellow with greased back hair and a quick smile claimed to be a ticket agent from ADO bus lines.  Is lack of official shirt or anything other than a clipboard made me suspicious so I eventually found the proper ticket window and was on my way.

I just arrived in Merida, but yesterday I left Playa for Vallidolid halfway between here and Playa del Carmen.  My plan was to get as close to the Chichen Itza ruins as I could so I could then arrive early in the morning and avoid the tour bus hordes.  The hostel sites did not show any availability for the night so I thought I would wing it and see what I could find when I got there.  I found a small hostel a few blocks from the bus station but the gates were locked and it was a bit dark.  I went up to the door and to older men playing dice were sitting nearby and said it was open.  I spotted a young woman in the window with a laptop and assumed she was a traveller.  I knocked for a while until an older lady opened the door- she spoke absolutely no English and I had crappy Spanish so she quickly got cranky with me as I tried to indicate what I wanted.  Finally, a price was established and she led me very slowly up the steps.  The other girl was actually her granddaughter and there were no other travellers to be seen.  She led me to a room with a king bed and pointed to where the bathroom was.  Sweeeet.  The room looked like it used to have multiple beds but the place had been downsized.  For less than what I paid for a dorm in Playa, I got a place to myself.  I got up at the crack of dawn so as not to further annoy the señora and had some real Huevos Rancheros before catching a bus.  I made it to Chichen Itza by 9. 

The place was incredible and no matter what they say about it being a tourist trap, it was totally worth it.  When I rolled in none of the vendors had set up yet and there was no one in line.  By the time I left there were literally hundreds of people in the entrance hall and you couldnt walk 10 meters without someone trying to sell you something, so I think my plan worked.  If you want to avoid the vendors, I would suggest the Tulum ruins as even if it is smaller, it is by the sea and much quieter than its inland cousin.

Now to find a hostel!

-A.