Category Archives: Photos

Colombia!

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Colombia. We’d reached Colombia. This was a place with a reputation. For much of the last few decades this was a country that was seen as a no-go area; for most people, this was still a country that was pretty much a no-go area. However this was also a country that had turned itself around. We’d met so many people who’d loved the place, and declared it one of their favourite countries. They’d loved the stunning scenery, but more than that they’d loved the people. We hadn’t originally planned to visit it, and indeed were now travelling in the wrong direction, but given all the recommendations we had to see it for ourselves.

After the topiary of Tulcan we got a taxi to the border. Formalities were fairly straightforward; it had taken our friends many hours to get through in the other direction, though they had had the misfortune to be crossing during a holiday – thankfully it was very quiet when we were there, and we were through in about half an hour. As we walked over the bridge that marked the national boundary we passed a man; his face was etched with character, the kind that builds up over a lifetime of stories – he greeted us with a cheery (and slightly intoxicated) “Welcome to Colombia!” and we felt we’d arrived.

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We got another taxi to the nearest town of Ipiales and booked into a hotel. The town had a bit of a rough-and-ready feel to it, but as we walked into the centre it was quite clear we were in a different country. There was an air of brash confidence in the streets, the teenage boys sported elaborate hair-dos (though you wouldn’t have wanted to get too close with a naked flame, given the amount of hair product in evidence), and even the pooches were dressed up to the nines (or should that be canines?)

In the main square there was an inflatable slide, so the girls quickly paid their 1,500 Pesos and we stood to one side to watch. Now, often the girls attract a certain amount of attention, and we really have lost track of the number of times we’ve been asked if they’re twins. So, when someone approached and asked if they could have a photo we weren’t altogether surprised – that is, until it became apparent they wanted a picture with us, rather than the girls. Again, we were clearly in a country in an altered state of reality.

The next day brought another highlight. We could try and describe the Basilica de las Lajas, how it’s a church built in the Gothic revival style, how it’s constructed to form a bridge across a canyon, but to fully appreciate how staggeringly bonkers and brilliant it is you really have to see it, so here goes…

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P1030250P1030251On the way down to the church we took the opportunity to get some cheesy photos of the girls on llamas. Later on, some more Colombians asked if they could have a photo with us; we’d got used to old ladies coo-ing over the girls and often we’d see their faces break into a huge smile as they exclaimed “Que Lindas”, or ‘how pretty’ as we walked down a street or through a market: now however, we’d had the rather baffling situation of having our photos taken twice in two days, and this time it was at the request of two teenage girls!

Moving on from Ipiales we then had two long days of travelling to get through, in order to reach the pleasant colonial city of Popayan. We broke the journey in the town of Pasto, which was nothing special but did have a friendly hostel with huge rooms set around a courtyard in a rambling, crumbling old building; the girls had plenty of space to get out their toys and built a vast Lego village. Perhaps we sometimes forget to allow enough time and space for a bit of normal, everyday play, but this was a great place to relax after a long journey.

The scenery in this part of the world is something special – seemingly endless green hills, with sharp valleys and deep folds, and winding roads picking out a route through the crinkles and creases. The only thing interrupting this unspoilt view is the hundreds of polytunnels that are dotted around, often clinging to the hillsides at precarious angles, looking like giant plastic bags that have somehow got snagged on the landscape.

Another noticeable thing about the journey was an added ‘feature’ of Colombian buses. Now, throughout much of Latin America (and the developing world) you can be sure that whenever a bus stops an army of people will rush on to cater for any culinary or travel needs the passengers may have. In the couple of minutes that you may be stationary, a steady procession of drink sellers, fruit sellers, crisp sellers and other assorted snack sellers will squeeze up and down the bus, thrusting their wares under your nose. In Colombia you certainly get the full range of salespeople, but with an added bonus. Shortly after leaving the bus station (and as you inexplicably stop to pick more people up, often right outside the gates – why can’t these people make it into the station itself!?) someone will stand up at the front and make an announcement. They will then proceed to give a sales-pitch – depending on what they’re selling and how accomplished a performer they are, this can either be fairly funny, mildly entertaining, or awkwardly embarrassing! We were given the opportunity to purchase rare miracle cures, unusual snacks (that were somehow worthy of a lengthy lecture), and various self-help books and CDs. The usual form is that the person will go through the whole bus handing out their particular ‘must-have’ item, then talk about it for ten minutes, and then parade back through the bus collecting money, or more often, retrieving the said items. However the most noteworthy performances were of the musical variety – one singer in particular still makes us shudder at the memory, and even typing this brings on a slight cringe! After they’ve collected whatever money they can, and as you reach the outskirts of town, they get off the bus, doubtless to go through the whole rigmarole again on the next bus.

Sometimes you realise that some people have to work really hard to make a living.

After two days, we reached Popayan and stayed at another fantastic hostel, this one run by a Scottish couple. A friendly welcome, a map and a bit of information, and some good communal space really does make all the difference when it comes to accommodation. Popayan is a bit like a lot of the other colonial cities we’ve been to, but is almost all painted white, making it quite dazzling in the sunshine. We also ventured out of town to the hot springs nearby, which provided both relaxation (in the thermal pools) and adventure, in the form of a giant water slide. After we’d gone down for the umpteenth time and were recovering in the splash pool at the bottom, a rather large middle-aged man came crashing down after us, hitting the water with an almighty splash and then emerging smiling, excitedly saying “Velocidad extrema!” over and over again.
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P1010284The next day we moved on, this time to the small town of San Augustin. Again, the ride took us through some more amazing scenery, though this journey was more memorable for what happened as we got off the bus. We had to transfer to a pick-up truck for the final few kilometres and had just climbed into the back when another bus arrived behind us – however the driver totally misjudged the distance and crashed into the back of us. Fortunately he was travelling quite slowly and no-one was hurt, though two men had to jump out of the way as they were waiting to get in our vehicle. It could have been quite nasty, but luckily we were on our way a few minutes later, minus a rear light and a few shredded nerves.

P1030286P1030290When we’d looked at coming to Colombia, we’d worked out that we could just reach San Augustin before we had to return to Ecuador. Hence this was to be our main destination in Colombia, a nice little town surrounded by mysterious statues. There’s hundreds of stone figures dotted around the surrounding countryside, with the oldest dating to about 3,300 BC. No-one seems quite sure who made them, or what they represent, but most seem to be beside tombs or ceremonial sites. Some statues are of animals, some of people, some quite cartoon-ish, and they’re all set in beautiful rolling countryside.

Strange statues abound around San Augustin

Strange statues abound around San Augustin

We spent a thoroughly enjoyable day wandering around, seeing quite a few of the funny little fellas. That evening then provided another of the things we’ll most remember Colombia for. We’d gone out for dinner and Rach had ordered whilst Pete went to the cash machine for some money, as we were down to our last bits of change. Finding it out of order, he went to the one other ATM in town – predictably, this too was not dispensing any money. Returning to the restaurant in something of a fluster, we explained our situation, and how we had no Pesos to pay, so could we pay by card, or in Dollars. The friendly owner told us not to worry, and that we could come back the next day and pay when the machine was working again. As we were leaving first thing in the morning we paid in Dollars instead, but he insisted on showing us the exchange rate in the newspaper, to make sure we got the proper rate – this was a better rate than the money-changers in town gave us the next morning when we had to change more Dollars to pay for our hotel. Sometimes people are just genuinely helpful and it can be easy to forget that in a cynical world.

During our stay in San Augustin we encountered other examples of the kindness of strangers: firstly, the girls had been given a free horse and cart ride by some people we met at the playground, and secondly, the owners of a camp-site had been really helpful when we’d turned up and asked to use their wi-fi as it seemed to be the only place in town with a working connection. When the other travellers we’d met along the way had told us about Colombia they had sung the praises of the Colombian people, and how friendly they were – we were very happy to have experienced the same level of hospitality.

And then, after an all too brief stay, it was time to retrace our steps, all the way back to Ecuador. Given the remoteness of San Augustin and the mountainous terrain, we had no option but to go back via the same route, so it was back over the hills to Popayan and an overnight stay in the Scottish hostel; then back over more hills to Pasto, and an overnight stay in the rambling, crumbling old building; then back past the polytunnels to the border. In truth it was a bit of an arduous trek to see some funny statues in the middle of nowhere – but we wouldn’t have missed it for the world…

Here’s a few more photos…

Sanctuary of the Virgin of Las Lajas, Ipiales, Colombia

Sanctuary of the Virgin of Las Lajas, Ipiales, Colombia

Playing in the hostel, San Augustin

Playing in the hostel, San Augustin

School bus, Colombian style

School bus, Colombian style

One of the hundreds of strange statues near San Augustin

One of the hundreds of strange statues near San Augustin

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Ecuador part three: teleferiQo, trains and topiary…

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After our quick trip to Mindo we found ourselves back in Quito, so we decided to go up the TeleferiQo cable car. This is highly expensive, has a bit of a daft name, but takes you up to over 4,000m for an impressive view of the city.
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We had a wander around at the top but the girls were feeling the altitude a little and soon wanted to go back down. We’re sure this had nothing to do with the fact that there was a theme park waiting at the bottom of the cable car. This was quite strange: almost deserted and still at some absurd altitude, but you can’t beat rolling around in an inflatable ball at 3,000m.
Back in town we popped into a travel agency, just to enquire about the outside possibility of maybe doing a Galapagos trip – this was to prove an influential moment in our trip, as we quickly went from “We can never afford that” to “Ooh, maybe we could manage it” to “Oh, hang the expense, let’s go on a luxury cruise!”
The trip was due to set off in a couple of weeks so we had a few more decisions to make: all through our journey we’d met people who’d loved Colombia and we really wanted to go, so we had to work out how to fit in a quick trip there. We also had to figure out how to pay for the cruise – if we elected to pay by Credit Card it would add an extra 10% to the bill, but our bank wasn’t making it easy to transfer the money directly; on the other hand we didn’t want to keep taking out lots of money and then have to carry it as we went to Colombia. In the end we decided to worry about it later, and set off to Ibarra, on the way to the Colombian border.

To get there, first we had to get a taxi to the far-flung bus station – this was miles out, way past the airport on seemingly never-ending dual-carriageways, and the taxi cost almost as much as the bus tickets. Once in Ibarra we booked into Fran’s Hostal and then went out for pizza. The owner of the pizzeria seemed a little surprised to see us and asked how we’d heard about the place – he was even more surprised when we showed him our guide book with his restaurant listed. Unfortunately the food wasn’t so good, or we might have done a Trip Advisor review for him.

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Ecuador used to have a spectacular rail network and travelling by train would be one of the most enjoyable ways to see the country. Unfortunately, most of the tracks have fallen into disuse or been destroyed by the relentless effects of the weather, and at the moment it’s not possible to get very far by train. Tren Ecuador have, however, restored a few sections, and now run tourist ‘excursions’ at vastly inflated prices – they do have some dancers at the destination station though, so that’s ok. However, we really wanted to see at least a bit of the countryside from the comfort of a carriage so we bit the bullet and paid through the nose, mixing our metaphors as we went.

The journey was something a little different right from the start: the train sets off through the town’s crowded streets with security men on motorbikes racing ahead to stop the traffic and clear the way. It then rattles its way down a valley and the views get more scenic and the engineering more impressive, as it negotiates iron bridges and dark tunnels. After an hour or so, we screeched our way into Salinas station, where the aforementioned dancers were limbering up to herald our arrival – we’re not sure we’ve ever felt more like tourists!
After a walk round the small town, and a look at the even smaller salt museum, we had some lunch and then got the train back. It was all a little odd, but pleasant enough, and we met a family with a little boy called Darwin, so the girls had lots of fun on the return journey.

P1030214Whilst in Ibarra we’d seen adverts for the Ecuadorian National Ballet Company, who were playing the next night – obviously this was too good a chance to pass up, so we decided to stay for another day. This also gave us the chance to visit the small animal rescue centre on the top of the hill overlooking town. This was very low-key, and we met a couple of the young volunteers who were helping out. They’d obviously got quite attached to some of the animals – quite literally in the case of the monkeys who clung to them and wouldn’t let go!

The night of the ballet finally came and it must have been the most middle-class thing happening in Ecuador that particular evening. The great and the good of Ibarra were out in their finery, along with the trendy twenty-somethings and a slightly shabby backpacker family of four. The theme seemed to be experimental dance, but this was preceded by almost endless speeches, punctuated by occasional applause and barely concealed boredom. When the dance got under way it was, how shall we put it, a little on the dark side. There was no narrative to speak of, but lots of anguished movements and moody lighting. All in all, it was quite an experience.

Next stop on our northwards trajectory was Tulcan, just before the Colombian border. We’d read that this otherwise nondescript little town had one must-see attraction – its cemetery. Sometimes you read about a place and think it sounds interesting: sometimes it turns out not to be; sometimes it turns out to be worth a small detour; and sometimes it turns out to be quite amazing, and provides an unexpected highlight.

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Tulcan cemetery very much fell into this last category. Sometime back in the 1930s the gardener, with an eye for art and a nifty way with hedge-cutters, decided to start doing some topiary around the place. It seems like a hobby developed into an obsession, and then into a family tradition, as he and his sons created hundreds of living sculptures in a place reserved for honouring the dead.
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Cemeteries in this part of the world consist of long buildings with hundreds of coffin-sized niches built into them, like long walls of windows, or holes for the souls. Between these buildings are gardens, and here in Tulcan, these gardens are galleries, containing the most amazing topiary you could imagine. Figures both real and imagined, from nature and history, myth and cartoon; geometric shapes, three-dimensional shapes, and reliefs carved into hedges. It was all quite spell-binding, and we wandered around in awe, sharing the moment with lots of Ecuadorian sightseers, some people paying their respects, and hardly another backpacker in sight.

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Perhaps we got a bit carried away with the place, (we certainly took enough photos), but it seemed like a great way to round off this first visit to Ecuador – next stop, Colombia…

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More belated Ecuadorian stories, and a trip to Mindo… (Warning – post may contain photos of frogs!)

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We’d got quite used to Quito after the last few days, but it was time for a change of scenery.

We’d decided to go to the cloud forest: we’re not entirely sure how one defines a cloud forest but it seems to be like a jungle in the mountains, usually drizzled in mist. As we checked out of our hostel (the highly recommended Casa Helbling) we asked the owner about our destination – he said something along the lines of ‘It rains every afternoon, torrentially, for hours…’ – oh goody, just like home!

We were heading for Mindo – it’s only a couple of hours from Quito, but might as well be a different world; it’s several hundred metres lower in altitude, and tucked away on the other side of the Pichincha volcano from Quito, drenched in cloud and draped in the lushest of greenery. Not having done the most thorough of research, we didn’t realise it was one of the bird-watching locations in the world: we just thought it sounded like a nice place to visit – though to be honest, we were mostly sold on staying in one of these cute little caravans…
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The journey there was mildly interesting, as this was our first taste of bus travel, Ecudorian-style. The bus was reasonable enough, but it felt slightly strange that after you got on, the driver and mate shut themselves off behind a door, closing off the front of the bus completely, with curtains blocking any forward view. It also seems to be frustratingly common for buses over here to have a metal bar running across the side windows at eye-level – there might be wonderful scenery outside, but you’re going to get a crick in your neck if you want to see it. However we could just see enough to know that we passed ‘El Mitad del Mundo’ on our way to Mindo, and so were briefly back in the Northern Hemisphere.

As the altitude decreased, the oxygen and humidity increased, and soon we were in the cloud forest, and checking in to our posh caravan at La Roulotte (if posh camping is ‘glamping’, what would that make this – glaravanning??!) It really was lovely – double bed bunk-beds, a luxurious en-suite and a wood-burning stove. In the middle of all the caravans there was also a great central restaurant/seating area, surrounded by bird-feeders and beautiful gardens. We soon saw lots of birds, including quite a few hummingbirds, and realised why bird-watchers flocked to Mindo. Nearby, there was also a ‘Mariposario’, or butterfly farm, and this too had beautiful gardens and bird feeders. There were even more hummingbirds here, as well as hundreds of, yes, butterflies, in every stage of their short (double) lives.

Hummingbird, Mindo, Ecuador

Hummingbird, Mindo, Ecuador

Now, it’s usually very difficult to catch a hummingbird in flight, as they’re maddeningly quick little things – they’re like little sprites, with unpredictable, sudden changes of direction, and sometimes it’s as if they’re being radio-controlled by someone watching you line up your camera shot, jerking them away just as you hit the shutter release. However, there were so many of them here that after several hundred attempts (and that’s only a slight exaggeration!) we managed to photograph some, delicate wings beating like crazy. There’s a couple more shots below, for anyone who’s twitching to see more.

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We were also offered the rare opportunity to smear over-ripe banana on our fingers and feed the butterflies – it’s a rotten job, but somebody’s got to do it – here’s Kiah taking up the challenge.
That night back at the hotel, the lovely staff took us on a walk to find some frogs, to round off a fantastic, nature-filled day.

P1030129P1030136The next day we set off on an adventurous ramble through the jungle; this included having to propel ourselves across a river in a little cage (via a rope and pulley system), and having to clamber up a densely forested hill, complete with ropes to get you up some rocky parts. We were really proud of the girls as it was tough going, though to be honest they seemed to find it easier than us.

P1030149P1030158Once at the top, we dropped down the hill on the other side to find a huge rope swing, and steps leading to a waterfall and riverside swimming pool. It would have been lovely to relax in the sunshine after such a tiring walk, but the weather had other ideas and the promised rain duly fell, and fell, and bucketed down. It didn’t stop the girls going for a swim though, but they did opt to wear their waterproof coats, which seemed a little ironic, and amused the local family who were the only other people still braving the elements. To get back to our comfy caravan we had two options – walk several miles in the pouring rain, or get a pick-up to pick us up. We took the latter, and shared it with three other people who were also waiting. As there weren’t enough seats inside, Pete had to stand in the back for the twisting, bumpy, half hour journey, dodging low-hanging branches and riding the sudden jolts and jumps, swaying to the rhythm of the road – it prompted one of those moments of reverie when you hope you live to a ripe old age so you can look back and smile at days like these…

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Mindo had been a great destination, and we were genuinely sad to wave off the staff at La Roulotte as we headed back to Quito…

Here comes a belated post about Quito, or Ecuador Part One…

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After spending Christmas and New Year in familiar surroundings it was time to get moving again, and start the second half of our travels.
Had we learned anything from the first three months of travel? Well, yes and no. As anticipated, we’d found that it was more difficult travelling with kids than without. It requires a bit more planning, a bit more restraint and a fair bit more money. We’d also had to adjust to spending pretty much every moment together, and again, as anticipated, this took some getting used to. However, during the times when we’d got into a reasonable rhythm we’d had a lot of fun, and in those 92 days we’d packed in enough adventure to fill many photo albums and several lengthy blog posts – if the next few months were as exciting we were in for a treat…(though whether the readers of those lengthy blogs were, is an entirely different question!)

So, we were back on the road again, or back in the air again, and off on a long journey to Quito via Atlanta. The first flight had decent food but lousy entertainment, the second decent entertainment but inedible food. Over four flights we hadn’t been overly impressed with Delta, apart from their amusing safety videos, and we were very glad to finally reach Quito. We’d booked a hostel and a shuttle transfer as we were landing late at night, and for the first time in our lives we walked out of customs to see someone holding up a clipboard with our name on it – it was unexpectedly reassuring! So, as midnight passed, we reached our hostel safe, sound, sleepy and sore after a hard day’s flight.

Waking up the next day we had breakfast in the hostel and looked around – they had lots of flyers about and there was a sense of a new world waiting to be discovered. However we had to get used to a new country and to the altitude – Quito sits in a bowl at around 2,850 metres above sea level, surrounded by mountains that pierce the clouds close to 5,000 metres. So we had an lazy day, and the kids ran off some energy in the fantastic Parque El Ejido, which had more slides, swings and climbing frames than you could reasonably expect in the centre of a capital city.

Old Quito, from the tower of the Basilica.

Old Quito, from the tower of the Basilica.

P1020960The next few days were spent exploring the city and getting used to life, both back on the road and up in the rarified Andean air. We visited the quite fantastic Basilica, which our friends Isabel and Byron had told us about. Here you climb up inside one of the clock towers, (emerging behind the clock face, ‘Hugo’ style!) then walk along a wooden walkway above the ceiling of the church, to then clamber up incredibly steep ladders to the top of the central tower, where breathtaking views of the city wait beneath you. This was breathtaking in more ways than one, as the climb up those extra few metres of altitude was quite an effort!

Meanwhile, Rach was struggling with strange aches, pains, pins and needles in her leg, and after two days we thought we’d better get it checked out. So we found a local, modern hospital and in our best Spanish tried to find out what was wrong. Rach was quickly ushered through a security checkpoint, plonked on a wheelchair and whisked away, leaving Pete and the kids sitting in the waiting room wondering how long to wait before trying to get past the security guard to find her! A couple of hours later we left with several x-rays, some medicine, a large bill and not much more clue as to what was wrong. We later worked out it was sciatica, and only needed some stretching exercises, not expensive x-rays – the nerve of these private hospitals!

P1020991We visited the Museo del Agua, which is set in Quito’s original water treatment plant, and has great interactive displays about water and science. It’s set high up above the city, but doesn’t seem to be high on the tourist agenda. When you read guide books about Quito you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a dangerous city where it’s not safe to venture out at night, use public transport or step off the beaten tourist track – we’d found some fantastic things to do, meandered slightly off that track and had no trouble, though the crime figures are still rather intimidating. You try and take the safer options but just taking a taxi can be a confusing lottery if you’re not careful – there are official licensed taxis, seemingly official community taxis, and then those guys who’ve just written ‘Taxi’ on a piece of cardboard and stuck it in the windscreen of their clapped-out old banger – we always took the former, even if it meant waving away unofficial taxis who pulled up when we were looking for one.

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The next day, after a good, cheap lunch in a pleasant veggie cafe, we went to ‘El Mitad del Mundo’, or the self-proclaimed centre of the world, or to be more accurate, the Equator.

Depending on whose GPS measurements you trust, this may or may not be on the actual equator, but this hasn’t stopped them building a giant monument with huge compass markings, plus the obligatory line on the floor marking the supposed equator. Everybody poses with one leg in each hemisphere, and when you’re actually there it’s hard not to join in! It’s all good fun, and there’s ample opportunity to buy tourist tat, though the girls were much more impressed with the various playgrounds dotted around the hemispheres!

It was all a bit different to the last time we were at the equator, in Kenya – this just had a 6ft high concrete circle by the side of the road, with ‘Equator’ written on it, though I suppose it may have changed in the last 13 years – perhaps there’s now a lion standing majestically astride the equator line.

P1020964P1030024However, the middle of the world also hides another treat within its grounds -a scale model of Quito, lovlingly recreated in amazing detail. Here are two pictures, one taken from the Basilica, one of the model – if we show them in low enough resolution, they may look quite similar!

And so that was that for our first taste of Quito. Next up was a visit to Mindo, but we’ve got so far behind with this blog that we’re going to try and do a few quick posts to catch up, so hopefully that chapter will follow soon!

Taking it easy in Belize, a meander through Mexico, then back to Blighty for a chilly Christmas…

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The time had come to leave Guatemala, and as we headed to Belize, December arrived to herald the advent of a new stage in our travels.

After getting up for a 3am start the day before for our trip to Tikal, we were afforded the luxury of an extra couple of hours kip, as the bus to Belize didn’t set off until 5am! Consequently we were a bit bleary-eyed as we reached the border a couple of hours later, and it felt very strange to hear the border officials speaking in English as we passed through passport control into the sixth country of our journey. As the bus set off again, straight away it felt like a completely different country: different houses, different language, and a different feel.

After a couple more hours driving through green countryside we reached Belize City. Now this is a place that comes with a daunting reputation, and most travellers head straight through it and catch a boat to the island of Caye Caulker. We were also ready to take it easy on a sunny island in the Caribbean, so we decided to do the same, and half an hour later we were on a boat. After a quick skip across the water we were dragging our bags along the sandy road on Caye Caulker, feeling the sun on our backs and feeling like we’d entered a different world again. This was more Caribbean than Central America; most of the population is black and there’s a lilt in the voices and a swagger and a stroll in the step. One man was walking up the road, half shouting and half singing “Melt in the mouth…, and not in the hand…” as he sold something from his cart. We didn’t quite catch the rest of his refrain, or work out what he was selling, but this sing-song-sales-pitch was to be an almost constant accompaniment to our time on the island, as he worked his way up and down the main road. Well, main road might be overstating it a little: more of a sandy track running parallel to the sea, with only golf buggies, bikes and occasional delivery vehicles meandering their way along.

IMG_20121202_084249We booked into a pleasant hotel, where our room (a hut on stilts) was only a hop, skip and a jump from the sea. We then went shopping and found Heinz Baked Beans and decent milk in the shops, and when we got back to the room the movie ‘Elf’ was on in English, so we watched a cheesy Christmas film while eating Baked Beans and mashed potatoes – cue two happy girls. Sometimes it’s nice to find a place that feels a little bit like home, albeit a bit more tropical than we’re used to back home in December!

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Hugo, Kiah, Jamie and Tilly playing at the Split

The next day we met up with Jane and her son Jamie, who we’d met in San Cristobal, Mexico about a month earlier – social media makes all kinds of meetings possible nowadays. We met up at ‘The Split’ which is a famous spot on Caye Caulker that divides it into north and south islands. There’s a local story that a hurricane created the rift but while it might have started a small channel, it seems that the locals then dredged it to create a passage to allow boats to cross the island. Whatever the truth is, the split is now a popular place for snorkelling, hanging out, drinking and watching the sunset at the Lazy Lizard bar. Over the next couple of days we would do a quite a bit of snorkelling, some hanging out and a fair bit of drinking, but that picture-perfect sunset would elude us for now.

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Caye Caulker is in many ways an ideal size for an island – small enough to find your way round and to meet people, but big enough to have a decent selection of shops, bars and hotels. It also felt small enough and safe enough for the girls to have some freedom and they had great fun exploring on their hired bikes, nipping to the shops and visiting Jamie at his hotel.

One day we all hired bikes and tried to cycle round the southern tip of the island but had to abandon it when we cycled into a cloud of midgies- this was quite horrendous, and we were wiping bugs off our skin for about an hour afterwards!

We also bumped into some other old friends that we’d met along the way, including the Barnsley bicyclers and a Dutch couple who had been on our trip to Tikal. Jane had also made a few friends on the island , including Fernando, Aurora and Hugo, an interesting Portuguese/Angolan/French family who were living on the island, and the girls loved playing with Hugo.

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Hence we had quite a social group and the next few days passed very pleasantly, with eating, swimming, meandering and chatting taking care of the days.

We found a cool ice-cream place that provided a daily treat for the girls, and it was next to a place that did good coffee – it’s surprisingly easy to while away the time when basic needs are being met!

The evenings inevitably led to the split and it was easy to see how people ended up staying here longer than they anticipated; it’s easy to get into a routine, but after a few days we were ready to move on. It’s a great party place for a few days but then you start to notice the tensions that run through the island. Before we left though, we had to go snorkelling…

P1020675P1010093Belize has a coral reef running parallel to its shoreline and it lies just a short boat ride away from Caye Caulker, and this was one of the main reasons to come to the island. We’d had to wait an extra day for weather and sea conditions to be favourable, and even then it rained on the way out to the reef and for our first stop: however, as soon as you put your eyes and mask below the surface it was all worth it. This first stop was imaginatively called the ‘Coral Garden’, but it was beautiful – tropical fish darting in and out of the different types of coral, all in a glorious technicolor that the overcast day couldn’t ruin. The next stop was even better.
P1010112Again, competition must have been fierce amongst the local poets when it came to naming the spot – it was a channel full of rays and sharks, so (and you’ll never guess) it was known as ‘shark and ray alley’. Again though, it was marvellous – if you don’t feel at least a tingle of excitement when you’re in the water and only a couple of feet away from a majestic shark or stingray, then snorkelling really isn’t for you.
The final stop was the Hol Chan Nature Reserve and here were more fantastic fish, and some sublime turtles effortlessly paddling their way through the water. All in all, it added up to a brilliant day, though we did get a little seasick on the journey back to shore, something even the free rum punch couldn’t knock out of us.

And that was that for Caye Caulker. It had been a fun few days, and we’d miss its laid-back charms, and the way the ladies would say “You’re Welll….Com” when you’d thank them for your coffee or meal, with a rhythm that seems inherent in the island. While it’s not without its problems, and it’s not quite paradise, it was another memory that would have us smiling in years to come. We never did get to find out what that man was selling though, or quite where it melted, but on our last night we finally got our sunset – a glorious riot of colour, painting everything in a warmth and glow that felt very Caribbean, with boats and a bird posing obligingly for a near perfect photo opportunity…

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Caye Caulker sunset, from the Split

Caye Caulker sunset, from the Split

Not wanting to come all the way to Belize and only visit one place, we thought we’d spend the night at the zoo! Admittedly this decision was made much easier as Jane and Jamie were heading there, and we realised we could book a lodge for the six of us. Belize zoo is quite famous for its conservation and education work; all the animals are ones you could find in Belize, and many of them are rescued or orphaned. They are kept in enclosures designed to be as close as possible to a natural habitat, and they have amusing rhymes on the information boards for each animal! In short, it’s acknowledged as a model zoo, and they’re trying to teach the local population to appreciate the local wildlife that shares their country.
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They also have some rustic but beautiful accommodation in a nature reserve on the other side of the highway. We stayed in a huge cabin with a fully-screened balcony, that looked out over a lake – and if you looked out carefully you could see small crocodiles and turtles swimming around. Dinner was included as part of the deal but was nothing to write home about – unless that is, you really wanted to let the folks back home know what caused the crippling stomach cramps later that night!

However we got to visit the zoo both during the day and on a special guided night visit. On the day visit we got to hold a snake, see lots of beautiful birds and experience the foul-smelling stench of two varieties of peccaries.
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On the night visit we got to feed tapirs and touch a jaguar’s paw, on a torch-lit perambulation through the site. However the highlight was hearing the howler monkeys – boy, can these creatures make a racket! Our guide told us that they actually recorded howler monkeys for the dinosaur noises in Jurassic Park, and when you’ve heard the low, primeval roars up close you can appreciate how prehistoric, and slightly unnerving, it sounds.

The next day we said our goodbyes to Jane and Jamie, as we were heading in different directions. We’d had a lot of fun, and it was all down to a chance meeting at the indoor play in Burger King in Mexico! We then set off on a long journey back to Mexico – first back to Belize City, then to the border, and then to Chetumal. We didn’t see too much of Belize City, and the main thing of note was an enormous graveyard on, and around, the main road out west – at one point we went round a roundabout and even this had gravestones in the middle. It then took an absolute age to get beyond the city and its outskirts. It seems to be a Latin American rule that buses must stop every few yards whilst in a city, town or village. Often a bus will set off from the bus station, drive less than fifty yards, and then stop to pick someone up – and even occasionally to let someone get off! Quite why those people can’t make it all the way into the bus station to get the bus baffled us, but travelling the first couple of miles on most bus journeys would often take more than fifteen minutes.

Eventually though we got to the border and bade bye-bye to Belize: we’d had a great time but somehow it was one of the few countries that we were quite glad to be leaving. It had an edginess about it, and though we’d had no problems at all, and met mostly friendly people, there was a vague feeling of malevolence lurking somewhere under the surface.

Getting back to Mexico felt quite familiar in comparison, though our poor grasp of Spanish had almost wriggled out of our memories entirely, and it took a little while to get used to saying “Si” and looking dumbfounded again. Having had enough travelling for one day we decided to stay in the nearby city of Chetumal for the night. This was a mistake, as was our choice of lodging – the Hotel Ucum was not the charming hostelry our guidebook made it out to be. Chetumal itself wasn’t too endearing either, though perhaps we weren’t in the mood for a busy, grimy city with hardly anywhere to eat. When we eventually found a pizza place and ordered a pizza with pineapple on, there was an air of inevitability when it appeared with ham on it. This had happened to us three times now, though this was the first place that had tried to bring us the same pizza back, with the ham shambolically removed. They had hardly even bothered to disguise this fact, leaving great big gaps where the ham had been! We complained again, whereupon the girl made out she didn’t understand us, even though we were speaking in our finest Spanish! Eventually though we got a fresh, meat-free pizza, and having had quite enough fun for one day, returned to the salubrious surroundings of Hotel Ucum.

The next day we moved on to the lovely lake-side town of Bacalar. If Chetumal was a disappointment, Lake Bacalar was more of a delight.
P1010137P1020735We stayed at the very pleasant Casita Carolina, in a comfortable round hut with thatched roof and en-suite facilities. It was set in a large garden with the lake near enough to hear the gently lapping water. At least, we could hear it until the place next door cranked up its disco that night, proceeding to belt out awful pop music ’til sunrise!

P1020731P1020736That apart though, it was a great place to stay, and we met lots of interesting people. Having stayed in a fair few places over the years, we’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps the most important thing in any hostel is having a good communal area where people can sit and chat and meet other people. There were a couple of Americans staying who were thinking of buying somewhere and living out here, an English lad who was living in Mexico City, and two Dutch sisters with unpronounceable names who the girls took to straight away. We spent a very relaxing couple of days here, kayaking on the lake and enjoying the sunshine, and it felt like a great place to stay before we flew back to the cold climate of England.

However before we caught the plane, we just had time to stay at one of our favourite places again – Posada Yum Kin in Tulum, where we’d stayed two months ago. As soon as we walked in the door, Ricardo greeted us as if we’d never been away and gave us our old room again: it really did feel a little like we were already back home! We spent our final day doing some Christmas shopping – the main street had all its Christmas decorations up, as had every town we’d been in for the last month or so. Bizarrely though, the decorations here are more or less the same as at home, complete with snowmen and reindeer, even though it never snows here (or for that matter, in the middle-east).

P1020737We also found time to have a last swim, and watched a film with a Canadian family who were staying at the hotel – Padme was travelling with her two sons and her brother, and one of the lads was also called Kyah, though we may have spelt that incorrectly (guess our Kiah will have to get used to that too!!)

And with that, we were off on a long voyage back to Britain, via a bus to Cancun, plane to Atlanta, plane to Manchester, and a lift home from our friend Sally, arriving back at Pete’s parents house just over three months after we’d left. It was significantly colder than when we’d left, and much colder than where we’d just left, and Pete was feeling a little under the weather (wherever that weather was), but more of that next time…

Guatemala parte tres – more fun, frights and amazing sights (or how a little Tikal does you good…)

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Guatemala certainly isn’t the biggest country in the world but it manages to pack a lot within its borders. We’d already seen volcanos, an amazing water park, a beautiful lake, a World Heritage city and the sublime scenery of Semuc Champey, and now it was time to visit another must-see sight in this must-visit country – the ancient Mayan site of Tikal (incidentally, another on the World Heritage list).

Predictably enough though, getting there involved another lengthy journey, the highlight of which was crossing a river by ferry: now this was no ordinary ferry, but was basically a glorified raft with oil drums at each corner, attached to which were four outboard motors. Now you might think there would be some sophisticated steering system in place to coordinate these motors, but you’d be mistaken; instead they only operated one, or occasionally two, at a time and weaved their way across the river. It was only a short journey across and there were signs that a bridge was in the early stages of construction – although we were glad to reach the other side it’d be a bit of a shame to lose such a quirky transport solution.

Riding the rickshaw, and a moment for reflection...

Riding the rickshaw, and a moment for reflection…

So, after eight hours and with numb bums and lethargic limbs we reached Flores, a pleasant town jutting out into the middle of Lake Peten Itza, connected by a causeway to the mainland. This is the main tourist town for visiting Tikal, and some people (and guidebooks) do it down a little but we liked it – it felt like an island, being almost surrounded by water, had hilly little cobbled streets, a few craft shops and a couple of very decent places to eat. It also had auto-rickshaws, or tuk-tuks, which the girls loved; to top if all off it had an enormous Christmas tree in the square, with blaring music and glaring lights, and a chicken on top courtesy of the sponsors, Gallo beer. (Just in case anyone’s confused, we’re so far behind with our blog that we were actually there before Christmas and as such the tree was entirely appropriate, with the possible exception of the chicken).

We had a couple of quiet days exploring Flores, recovering from our bus journey and preparing for a sunrise tour of Tikal – this was to set a new record in early starts as we were being picked up at 3 am. Yes, that’s still the middle of the night, but somehow we were able to get ourselves and the kids up in time. The girls have proved remarkably resilient in getting up early for buses and enduring epic discomfort on long journeys – sometimes the things you think they might moan about are the things they take in their stride with very little fuss.

We left Flores at 3 and arrived at Tikal at 4 am, ready for an hour’s walk by torch-light through the jungle to climb Temple IV for sunrise. On the way we saw a jumping tarantula, which jumped down onto the path in front of the people in front of us – these are canopy dwelling spiders and apparently its quite rare to see them – this didn’t make the arachnophobes in our party feel much better! That aside, it was quite atmospheric walking though the darkness, with vast temples looming out of the gloom and a dotted line of torchlights leading the way. There was then many steps to scale before we could take our place near the top of Temple IV as the first signs of light and life began to appear. Unfortunately there were some people already up there who seemed to expect total silence and at first the main sounds we could hear were tuts, sighs and shushes. Considering there must have been about forty people there and that everyone had just climbed a hefty stairway to get there we thought it was a bit rude, particularly since nobody was making that much noise – that is, until everyone started getting their cameras out. This heralded a cacophony of bags being unzipped, followed by the distinctive ‘der-ding’ noise of digital cameras springing into life. Everyone comes here to listen to the sounds of the animals in the jungle waking up; maybe the monkeys and toucans come to listen to the curious song of the digital traveller, the photo-call of the often-spotted Western tourist.

However, in amongst all this, there was a moment of magic to savour. To hear the sounds of the jungle waking up and to see Tikal’s other temples slowly define themselves against the sky, with mist moving through the trees all around was quite an experience. It wasn’t much of a sunrise but we did get a brief burst of colour before the cloud descended and somehow all the man-made noise didn’t seem to matter so much.

Tikal's temples appear through the morning mist

Tikal’s temples appear through the morning mist

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We then had a guided tour; now we don’t often do guideP1020516d tours, thinking it might be too much for the girls, but this was certainly worth doing, and Luis, the guide was fantastic. We’d already heard spider monkeys and toucans but then we went and found coatimundis, various birds and more monkeys. This was just on the walk between the various temples and ancient ruins themselves.

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And the ruins were pretty amazing too, with huge monumental pyramids soaring upwards at improbably steep inclines. The jungle setting adds a dense green backdrop and the early morning mist adds an air of mystery; it was also really quiet too, with no stalls and very few people, making that 3 am start all the more worthwhile. If all that wasn’t quite enough it also starred in the first Star Wars movie, though George Lucas seems to have had better weather than we did.

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P1020551 P1020588Later, the girls were telling Luis about all the Mayan ruins we’d visited, and counted eight including Tikal. Luis said it was a shame we hadn’t seen nine, as this was a lucky number – we then recounted and realised we’d missed out Tonina, so we’d done the magic nine! We’re not sure that Tikal was our favourite but it wasn’t far off, and we saw another tarantula and some amazing trees, to round off a great trip.

We then headed back to Flores and got back in time for lunch – we’d been on a nine hour trip and still got back in time for lunch! Needless to say we were quite tired for the rest of the day, but still managed to see a glorious sunset over the lake. It’s not all that often we see both sunrise and sunset but then this hadn’t been an ordinary day – we would soon be leaving Guatemala but what a way to leave it. It had become one of our favourite countries, with fantastic sights and friendly people – what more could you ask for?

Sunset over Lake Peten Itza, Flores

Sunset over Lake Peten Itza, Flores