Tag Archives: family travel

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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Serendipity in El Salvador, and ruminating on ruins number eight in Honduras…

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Now we’d decided to go home for Christmas we had some decisions to make – we were flying back out of Cancun in Mexico, so how were we going to get there, and what would we do on the way?

We’d been a wee bit wary of going into El Salvador and Honduras – they both come with something of a reputation and many people seem to regard travel to these countries as somewhere between intrepid and irresponsible. However we’d done a bit of research and it looked like we could do a whistle-stop tour of the two countries and visit some of the safest, most scenic parts of each. Also wouldn’t it be a waste to come all this way and not at least have a look over the border?

So we booked a shuttle bus to El Zonte in El Salvador. Shuttle buses seem like such a good idea – you get picked up from your hotel or hostel and transported to your chosen accommodation in the next destination. However, in practice they’re not without their drawbacks. The problems start when you are given a large window of time during which you might get picked up – as these buses usually set off rather early in the morning it means that you have to be up ready for, say 6 am, when you will probably not be picked up until 6.30. Chances are you will still be the first people on the bus, and you will then go on a sunrise circuit of the city picking other travellers up. There’s then every possibility that some of these people won’t be quite ready, which may involve an extra trip round town or a frustrating wait, muttering about how you could have had an extra hour in bed. Often it then transpires that someone’s still been forgotten and you have to do a third ¬†tour of the town, listening to guests who got on half an hour ago saying “Oh, there’s my hotel again”. Just at the point when you think progress is imminent, the bus will stop again and pick up more people, and extra seats will be folded down to accommodate them. On two occasions we then still stopped to pick up more people, despite there being no seats left for them to sit on. The first time this happened Kiah had to sit on Rach’s knee to let a lovely lady called Val sit down – she was from California and taught Kiah the subtleties of sudoko. The second time they squeezed a Guatemalan family of six onto two seats – they’d evidently paid for two seats and weren’t complaining but it led to an awkward journey for the Europeans who had a seat each, until Rach asked the driver to rearrange the luggage so that Pete could sit in the front and create some more room in the back. However Bon Voyage Guatemala, of Antigua, should be ashamed of selling tickets for a luxury bus and filling it like a chicken bus.

However we got through the border with very little difficulty and drove into El Salvador. At first glance there wasn’t much difference – almost everyone was carrying a machete but this seems to be a Central American thing – males seem to be born with one in their hand, and it’s a wonder there’s any vegetation left. However all the little shops, or tiendas, now had bars across the windows and served people through a grille – it was a bit like being back in Moss Side, Manchester, and made us wonder if there was more to be concerned about here. There was also one peculiar moment when the driver asked Pete to close his window and drove through an unofficial roadblock where some people were waving papers and clipboards at us – he said they were after money and we’re still not sure if they were merely collecting for charity or if it was something more sinister. However he certainly wasn’t stopping to find out and we soon reached the coast; we then drove the last part of the journey with the turquoise of the ocean and the black volcanic sand of the beach on one side, and the green of the tree-clad hills on the other, and we started to relax. We then reached El Zonte and found out how relaxed El Salvador can be – this is a surfer’s hangout and has a few laid-back hostels, a couple of tiendas, and not much else, all strung out along a beautiful bay, with the crashing surf providing a constant white noise soundtrack to go with the black sand.

We checked in, then checked out the beach, where Tilly took a very evocative photo of her feet.

Dipping our toes into El Salvador...

Dipping our toes into El Salvador…

However, the beach then quickly disappeared as the tide came in and we were forced to visit a bar. The girls went for a dip in the little bubble pool and Rach decided to join them – however she saw a step that wasn’t there and ended up fully immersed – luckily she was in her swimsuit, and even more luckily Pete wasn’t filming it! We then watched a glorious sunset and started to feel quite pleased that we’d ventured out this way.

El Zonte sunset, El Salvador

El Zonte sunset, El Salvador

P1020267On the way back to our hostel we then had the first in a series of fortunate incidents. We met a Canadian woman and her young daughter, Isla, and after chatting for a couple of minutes we were invited to Isla’s fifth birthday party the next day.

We then ate at the hostel whilst the girls played out with some of the local kids. One of the best things we’ve found whilst travelling is the way our children have become able to make friends so easily, whether they’re travellers or locals, adults or children. At one point Pete went to the local tienda to find Tilly serving behind the counter! Next minute she was doing cartwheels and handstands in the street.

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The next day we decided to visit the nearby town of El Tunco. We had an awkward wait for the local bus, as a local character talked drunkenly at us for half an hour. He wasn’t one to let a seemingly insurmountable language barrier get in the way, and asked question after question, whilst constantly giving the appearance of being about to fall over.
Seldom have we been so glad to see a bus, and when we climbed on board we found that they have a different way of decorating chicken buses round here – it had been stickered by some surfers and was definitely the hippest bus we’d been on so far.

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One of the reasons we’d come to El Tunco was because a family who’d contacted us on Facebook were staying there. We’d been unable to get in touch with them but thought there was a fair chance we’d find them on the beach. Sure enough, we went up to the first blond-haired kids we saw and asked their dad “Are you Clark?” – he seemed quite surprised but was indeed Clark, and we met the rest of the family, Monica, Jackson and Emery. We then had a great time playing on the beach, hiring boogie-boards and building black sandcastles, and the girls loved having some new friends to play with. We then just had time for a quick lunch and a swim before we had to say our goodbyes – we had a party to get to. Usually when you’re travelling you have all the time in the world – in the space of two days we’d met two families and now had to wave goodbye to one family to go to a party with the other!

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We got back to El Zonte just in time for the festivities and were made to feel very welcome by the Canadian family; they stayed here every year at this time and loved the place, and laid on a great party, with cake, games and a pinata full of sweets. Needless to say the girls thought this was great fun and had a smashing time with the pinata. I don’t think any of us had expected to be playing pass-the-parcel in El Salvador, with the backdrop of another fabulous sunset silhouetting the surfers riding the waves, but these are the moments that make travelling such an adventure – you never know what’s around the next corner or over the next horizon.
Unfortunately the bus to Honduras only runs twice a week so we had to leave the next day but we’d had lots of fun during our short stay in El Salvador; the country obviously has its problems but in this area at least, tourism is providing some income and employment and we’d found it friendly and welcoming.

The shuttle bus the next day was our earliest start yet – they said it could be anytime from 5am so we got up and got ready and left the girls sleeping until the last minute. Since the bus didn’t arrive until 5.30 we were glad we had, though we did get to see the first rays of sunlight over the Pacific, and could just make out the first obsessive surfers heading out into the constantly churning ocean.

It was then time to wave goodbye to El Zonte as we set off on a convoluted journey to Copan Ruinas in Honduras, going via Guatemala for a three-countries-in-one-day bonus, with lots of border crossings providing ample opportunity for delay. First we drove up past the capital, San Salvador and were quite surprised by how developed it all looked, with shopping malls and retail parks, and multi-national logos everywhere. El Salvador uses the US Dollar as its currency and the American influence was clear in this part of the country, and it was quite a contrast to the little shops we’d been used to, with all the goods secured behind bars.

We then got to the border with Guatemala and, sure enough, hit a snag. We left El Salvador without any problems (in fact, El Salvador was probably the easiest country to get in and out of) but were then stopped from entering Guatemala. It seems that the shuttle company were using a new minibus and they didn’t have the requisite paperwork for it, and we had a slightly anxious wait in no-man’s-land between the borders until they got it sorted. Happily, after about an hour, we were on our way again, driving through a seemingly forgotten bit of Guatemala to the border with Honduras. Out of the bus for more passport checks, back out of Guatemala, and then into Honduras, and the fifth country of our trip, and third of the day. We were feeling quite tired by this time but the small town of Copan Ruinas was only another half an hour’s drive and we were dropped off at a cafe in time for lunch. Despite the mix up at the border and the ridiculously early start this had been one of the better shuttle bus journeys, particularly since there was only us and a Frenchman called Eric, so we’d travelled in relative comfort.

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After a quick lunch we booked into a hostel and found we still had time to visit some hot springs that afternoon – after a long journey that sounded ideal, though it did involve another hour’s drive, bumping along a rutted track up into the hills. When we arrived though it was all worth it, with a series of pools built into the hillside, with temperatures ranging from chillingly cold to barely bearably hot. The springs themselves provide steaming hot water close to boiling, but this is then mixed with cold water in the various pools to provide different temperatures. There’s a chain of pools that start off quite cool and then you climb up something of a thermal ladder until you reach the hottest pool at the top – that’s if you can stand the heat, as after a few seconds in this pool you start to feel as if your skin is slowly being boiled off. There’s also mock Mayan statues, cascades and a barefoot trail, and all around is lush green jungle – all in all it was a pleasant introduction to Honduras.

The town of Copan Ruinas was also something of a pleasant surprise, small enough to wander around but with plenty of cafes and shops. Our next trip was to Macaw Mountain, which was quite expensive but also quite inspirational. It was set up as a rescue and rehabilitation centre for tropical birds, and their main aim is to add to the population of wild scarlet macaws at the nearby ruins. It also grows its own coffee and as you walk around there are lots of coffee bushes in amongst the old growth jungle. You also get to see lots of the birds up close – in Kiah’s case, very close indeed!

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As well as the macaws there are also various parrots and toucans and there’s some more photos of these in the accompanying post.

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The next day we visited the ruins themselves, and got to see the wild macaws. Several birds had been successfully introduced into the existing population, swelling their number to over twenty, and it was amazing to see (and hear) them in the trees surrounding the ruins. There were also lots of other birdsP1020357 and a very cute agouti, which is like a large guinea pig – apparently the ancient Mayans found them delicious! We’d seen some great things even before we got to the actual ruins, but these were also well worth a visit. They aren’t as large, tall or extensive as some of the other ruins we’ve seen but there’s a quiet calm about the place and some very impressive carvings. These are what sets it apart from other ruins and the hieroglyphic staircase must have been truly astounding in its day. This is a set of 62 steps climbing up a pyramid, with hieroglyphs carved on every stone step, and at 10m wide and 21m long it’s the largest Mayan text ever found. Now it has a tarpaulin shelter over it, but unbelievably people were still walking on it until the 1980s! There’s lots of other pyramids too, and in one they’ve found several earlier structures inside – new rulers would build their own temples over existing ones and in the imaginatively named Temple 16 there’s an intact earlier temple, preserved with it’s bright red colouring. You can also climb up and over many of the pyramids as they’ve built meandering paths and steps.

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From the top of one you look down over the hieorglyphic staircase and the ball court – a guide said this was the best view of the whole site and that he was selling pictures of it for 2 Lempira (the Honduran currency, 1L being worth about 3p) – he then brought out a 1 Lempira note, and sure enough, there was the picture!

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The next day we visited the Children’s Museum, which was the only museum aimed at kids we’d seen in Central America and was a fun way to learn more about the Mayans. After lunch at a trendy cafe the girls got to make their own necklaces with a Brazilian guy who ran a street stall outside.

We’d only had a few days in Honduras but had crammed a lot of things in, and in just a week we’d managed to get a brief taste of two countries that we’d been a bit apprehensive about visiting, but as we headed back to Guatemala the next day we were feeling very glad we had…

Guatemala parte uno – quakes, a lake, and bellyaches…

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One of the reasons we decided to come travelling was because we wanted to see a different side of life, to go just beyond our comfort zone and then to keep going. We’d planned the trip to ease ourselves into it, starting in the States, moving into Mexico and then progressing into Central America, slowly extending our boundaries past familiarity into uncharted territory, at least for us; and here we were, on the threshold of adventure.

There’s something about crossing the border into a new country, a certain frisson as you stand there in the heat and humidity, waiting for your passport to be stamped, to admit you into a new world. This is particularly true for land crossings, as these often seem to be a law unto themselves and you’re never quite sure how long it will take, as you stand there smiling vacantly, trying to look like your passport photo.

We’d got a minibus from San Cristobal to the border, then had to carry our many bags out of Mexico and into Guatemala. This was one of those slightly chaotic borders, with money-changers waving thick wads of notes at you, and trucks and tuk-tuks (and every size of vehicle in between) weaving their way through the barriers, stalls, animals and people. The Guatemalan officials then asked for an unofficial fee of 10 Quetzales (the Guatemalan currency, 1 Quetzal equaling roughly ¬£0.08) – however we didn’t have any Quetzales, so acted dumb until they waved us through. We didn’t really fancy changing money with one of the characters waving a stash of cash as thick as an encyclopedia at us. It seemed quite random, some people paid, others didn’t, though it did appear that people who’d been into Guatemala before weren’t coughing up!

Soon though we were on a new minibus, curving our way through spectacular scenery, lush green vegetation clinging to an endless array of hills and mountains. We’d decided to go first to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second city and a relatively un-touristy place. The Spanish conquistadors named it Quetzaltenango and that’s the official name, but almost everyone calls it Xela, from it’s indigenous name of Xelaju, which can be confusing if you’re looking for it on a map. Like many Guatemalan places, it’s surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, but isn’t exactly what you would call picturesque. It does however, have a rather lovely hotel, Casa Renaissance, and a fabulous Indian restaurant, Sabor de la India, so we were more than happy to visit. We try to find Indian restaurants wherever we can, as you’re virtually assured of decent vegetarian food, and this was one of the best – so much so that we went twice in three days! There was also a Pizza Hut, which the girls were very pleased about, particularly as it had an indoor play!

However we’ll always remember Xela for what happened on our second day. If we were looking for Guatemala to shake things up a bit, nothing prepared us for this. We were sat in the hotel, chatting to an American/English/Canadian family who’d just arrived when a strange rumbling noise started. It was like a monumentally huge freight train was passing just outside, but we knew there were no train tracks anywhere nearby. Then the walls started shaking, rattling the pictures and ornaments as our unease grew. Just as realisation was starting to hit, the Dutch lady who ran the hostel called for us to stand in the courtyard, shouting “Earthquake”, and “This is a Big ONE!”

At this the girls started screaming and a surreal passage of time began. The walls continued to rattle. Pots and glasses tinkled a chilling tune. But most of all the floor moved. Really moved. We were stood on a solid, tiled floor and the whole place just moved in waves under our feet. Slow, menacing waves, like standing on a boat but feeling a vast, primeval force beneath us. And then, after what seemed like minutes, it stopped. First thoughts, relief; then more anxious moments, wondering if it was really over, or if there would be aftershocks. Then worried about how bad it might have been elsewhere – the power had gone off so we had no way of knowing how near the epicentre we were, or how big it had been.

Rach went out on the streets and found people in a state of near panic – everyone on their mobile phones, even though there was no coverage, and rumours spreading like crazy. It was all quite upsetting and we didn’t really know what to do with ourselves for the next hour or so until the power came back on. We then found out it was pretty bad, but not an absolutely major catastrophe; again, first thoughts, relief, then guilt as there had been quite a few fatalities. Then more guilt as it was impossible not to feel that we’d witnessed, and survived, an experience that was frightening, and exciting, for want of a better word.

The rest of the day was a bit weird after that. As soon as the power came back on we sent messages home in case it’d made the news and people were worried. (Though as our friend Vicky said, the only way it would have made the news back home was if Obama had mentioned it in his acceptance speech, after being re-elected president!). Meanwhile Jacco and Mareike (the hotel owners) surveyed the damaged to the hotel – a bit of plaster damage and a smshed chandelier, leaving glass all over the room next to ours. Then Mareike had an almighty row with a disgruntled former guest who acted like she owned the place (this added to the oddness). We then went out for lunch with the other family and witnessed just how slow and frustrating service can be in Guatemala (stranger, and yet stranger). Later on we went to a playground and got some shopping at the supermarket, then, back at the hotel we cooked tea – normal service had been resumed. It was only when we caught up with the news and read about the damage and numerous aftershocks that we got worried again, and it was an uneasy sleep that lay in wait for us that night.

The next day we decided to have a lazy day of doing nothing, to recover from yesterday and to catch up on things. We’d also more or less decided to go home for Christmas, which meant lots of research on flights. Casa Renaissance was a homely place to spend some time, and they had lots of films loaded on the computer so the day passed without incident – that is, until one of the girls had a major meltdown at bedtime. Perhaps it was the stress of yesterday, the stress of travelling or the stress of spending 24 hours a day together but this was quite a low point in our journey, and made our Christmas decision for us. Maybe we were asking too much of the girls. Maybe things just got magnified. Travelling does tend to compress a wealth of experiences into a short space of time, and it can overload your senses. Maybe we just needed a break, and at least we wouldn’t have to worry about booking somewhere over Christmas.

We needed cheering up, so what better then a trip to a water park the following day? Xocomil was built by several large businesses in Guatemala for their workers – a bit of their wage is deducted and they get free entry. It’s also open to the paying public so we decided to visit, well aware that we’d almost certainly be the only foreigners there. It’s also in the middle of nowhere and the only way to get there is by one of the legendary ‘chicken buses’. These are a Central American institution, old, retired US school buses shipped down and ‘renovated’. This renovation involves a major paint job, the addition of lots of chrome, and replacing the seats with longer benches. So, in a vehicle designed to fit 4 small American children in each row they now fit in a couple of families travelling with all their worldly goods, plus a few farmyard animals. The only concession to safety seems to be to add stickers saying that Jesus will protect us. These vehicles support a whole industry of spray painters and chrome fitters, and the owners try to outdo and out-bling each other. Each bus also has a girl’s name emblazoned across it. It’s definitely part of the Guatemalan experience travelling on one of these and on the way to the park it wasn’t too bad – we had almost a place and a half between the four of us, and even if the idea of personal space is an alien concept, it wasn’t so different to being on the northern line in London.

We then reached the park and paid our entry fee and walked in – and into a different world, so much so that we wondered if we’d missed passport control. This was a water park to rival any we’d been to before, with about twenty chutes, slides and rides, plus a couple of wave pools, all bathed in glorious sunshine. We also went to the theme park next door, which had recreations of Paris, Venice and Bavaria but not many rides. This was a bit of a let down after the water park but since both parks had cost us less for the four of us than one ticket to Disneyland we couldn’t really complain.

Xocomil Water Park - it's Guatemala, but not as we know it...

Xocomil Water Park – it’s Guatemala, but not as we know it…

We then had to get back to Xela and if we’d been feeling that we didn’t quite know what all the fuss was about chicken buses this changed on the way back. It was full when we got on and then got busier; Rach got about half a seat and had both girls on her knee, Pete had less and had an elderly Guatemalan gentleman on his knee. It then started raining, so all the windows were shut and the heat and humidity reached passing out levels. We were also climbing back up into the mountains, which was bad enough for the bus but the many trucks found it almost impossible to keep going at more than snail’s pace. Imagine a bus travelling at 2 km/h trying to overtake a truck travelling at 1 km/h in torrential rain round a blind corner going up a mountain. Now imagine cramming twice as many people as you thought possible onto the bus, and then squeezing in thirty more people, all carrying bags the size of hay bales. Now imagine this scene relocated into a sauna – there, now that’s a chicken bus journey!

However Pete did get chatting to the elderly gentleman, who’d lived in California for a while and was an entertaining companion – while the journey didn’t exactly fly by it did make it more pleasant, and we got back to Xela having seen two very different sides to Guatemala.

Chicken Buses, Guatemala

Chicken Buses, Guatemala

The next day we moved on to Lago Atitlan – an early German explorer called it ‘the most beautiful lake in the world’, and it is certainly very impressive, with three volcanoes standing watch over it.

Lago Atitlan - said to be the most beautiful lake in the world...

Lago Atitlan – said to be the most beautiful lake in the world…

Village life, unchanged.

Village life, unchanged.


We stayed in the town of Panajachel, which is not quite so picturesque, but does have a decent selection of cafes and a wide range of accommodation. We found a room with a double bed and two singles, which was a little bit grotty but the hotel was run by a friendly lady, and there was a beautiful garden with hummingbirds and a resident parrot.

We took a boat trip across the lake to Santiago Atitlan, where most of the people still wear traditional dress; down by the port it was a bit touristy but when you walked up to the town itseld there was a bustling market which was certainly not touristy – not unless you count endless stalls selling tomatoes as a must-see attraction.

Apparently while we were on the boat back to Panajachel there was another earthquake, though much smaller than the last one. We didn’t know about it until a couple of days later but had noticed that the water suddenly went very choppy for a few seconds, and then stopped. I don’t think this contributed to what happened to Kiah’s hair though…

Wavy hair, Lago Atitlan

Wavy hair, Lago Atitlan

Just in case you haven’t had enough lake photos, there’s some more, along with other Guatemala pictures in the accompanying post.

One of the reasons we decided to stay in Panajachel was because we’d followed the blog of a family who were living there. They’d travelled from Alaska and were eventually heading for Argentina, but had been in Pana for the last few months. The mum was called Rachel and they had a daughter called Kyah so it seemed like we really ought to try and meet up with them. We’d been in contact on Facebook and went later that day up to their house and had a great time – they were really friendly and welcoming, our kids had a fantastic time playing with their five children, and they even fed us for two nights running!

A bound of bravery for Tilly...

A bound of bravery for Tilly…

A jump of courage for Kiah...

A jump of courage for Kiah…

Their boys, Parker and Kimball had invented a game jumping from the roof of their bungalow onto the trampoline and eventually Tilly and Kiah plucked up the courage to leap into the unknown. Tilly, Kyah and Parker also went on an adventure to the supermarket, catching a tuk-tuk there and back (a little motorised rickshaw taxi) and buying some shopping. It was great for the girls to spend time with other children, and great for us to have some grown up conversation too.

We found the town a bit of a hassle though, and after one too many meals spent sat in a restaurant being pestered by people selling stuff we were ready to move on.

Our next destination was Antigua, and we were delighted to find that Kylie and Jez, who we’d met in Merida, were staying there – the girls had got on really well with them and it was great fun meeting up with them again, going out for a meal and having a couple of beers on the hostel roof terrace. They were heading in the opposite direction the next day but Kylie still found time to plait the girls’ hair.

Antigua is possibly the quintessential colonial city, and is a World Heritage Site. It’s chock full of cafes, restaurants and chocolate shops, and its streets are full of crumbling buildings and weathered charm.

Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala

The girls were also very keen to sample the chocolate museum, and went on a chocolate making workshop…

Chocolate wouldn't melt...

Chocolate wouldn’t melt…

We’re sure it was nothing to do with the lovely chocolates, but Kiah, and then Pete, started feeling rather under the weather over the next couple of days, with a temperature, stomach aches and dizzy spells. Consequently Antigua ended up being something of a mixed bag – beautiful to look at, but left us feeling ill, which somehow fitted in with it’s feel of bygone decadence.

And that was it for Guatemala for now. We managed a bit of shopping in the markets but it was time to move on. Having decided to go home for Christmas and then fly back out to South America we needed to fit a fair bit into the time we had left before our flight. Hence we decided to dip our collective toes briefly into El Salvador and Honduras, before coming back through Guatemala, on our way to Belize and then back to Mexico to catch a flight home.

We’d enjoyed Guatemala so far – who wouldn’t like crazy buses and volcanoes?

Chicken bus + volcano = Guatemala

Chicken bus + volcano = Guatemala

And in case anyone was wondering – yes, they do still have the vicious speed bumps in Guatemala, but they call them tumulos, instead of topes in Mexico…

Colonial city, Mayan ruin, Mayan ruin, colonial city, then another Mayan ruin and another colonial city…

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The next part of our journey had something of a theme running through it, or rather two themes – cute colonial cities of old and restored buildings, and Mayan ruins of, yes, old and restored buildings. A lot of the ruins round here have had parts of them reconstructed and while they’re undoubtedly impressive there’s something more atmospheric about proper ruins covered in jungle. If the ancient Mayan rulers who built them time-travelled through the ages and cycles of the Mayan calendar you wonder if they’d be more upset by the ruin of their temples or their reconstruction.

First up though was the colonial city of Valladolid, a pleasant city built on a grid system with pretty coloured one- and two-storey buildings. The old cobbled streets may have been replaced by a concrete approximation but otherwise it was fairly unspoilt, and was a nice place to wander around. We found a playground and the girls got playing with a local girl, and tried a bit of Spanish with the help of the phrasebook. This led to them making their own little phrasebooks that they could carry around to help them in their efforts to communicate. The girls were really missing some contact with kids their own age and travel makes this a difficult issue to solve, moving from place to place and having a language barrier to contend with, but they had fun trying out some new phrases.
Our hotel in Valladolid was a lovely looking place, with the rooms set around a courtyard with a pool – as you can see we weren’t really roughing it so far…

Not your typical backpacker place!

We’d also found that travelling around Mexico need not be too uncomfortable, if you stick to the first class buses. These are modern air-conditioned coaches that transport you around in relative luxury, though even they struggle with the number and severity of Mexico’s speed humps; in England speed humps used to be known as ‘sleeping policemen’ – in Mexico they’re more like ‘wide awake, crouching policemen just waiting to surprise you and make you jump in the air’.

The only problem with our hotel though was the night porter’s love of high-octane, high-volume action movies – we complained to the formidable looking woman who ran the hotel the next day and on our second night got peace and quiet, and the odd sullen look.

We visited the ruins at Ek-Balam, which means ‘black jaguar’ – when a ruin has such an evocative name it’s got to be worth a bumpy taxi journey, and we really enjoyed it. These fell more into the proper ruins covered in jungle category, and as well as another hot climb up a pyramid had some great carvings.

Huge pyramids, middle of nowhere, Ek-Balam, Mexico

I’d like my pyramid just a liiittle bit higher…

Back in Valladolid there was some kind of festival on (actually, there pretty much always seems to be some kind of festival on in Mexico!) and there was some traditional dancing involving beer bottles balanced on heads – not for the last time were we reminded of Morris Men dancing back home. The girls also did some painting at a stall run in aid of the Red Cross and drew a picture of Tinkerbell, which in turn drew a small crowd!

Leaving Valladolid’s understated charm we took the bus to Chichen Itza, where understatement is not on the agenda. Touted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, it’s probably Mexico’s most famous and popular sight/site. If you’re there at lunchtime one glance at the car park leaves you under no illusions – this is not the place to go to for serenity and spirituality. In addition to the hoards of tourists there are almost as many hawkers and peddlers selling all manner of tat, trinkets and trash, and some decent clothes and crafts. Every bit of shade has a stall set up and there are also people walking around selling stuff – just in case you hadn’t found the exact item of tosh you were after there’s also an artisan’s market at the exit. Walking round you get assailed by shouts of ‘Very cheap, almost free’ and ‘One Dollar, One Dollar’ – throw in the ever-present jaguar calls from the people selling jaguar-call-whistle-things and it’s an assault on the senses. You can’t even climb the pyramids to get away from it. If this puts you off though, we should point out that Tilly loved the stalls and took some great photos…

Stall number 437 out of 4,037!

It is also pretty impressive, particularly if you go first thing in the morning as we did – as you walk round you can see all the stall-holders emerging from the woods with their wares, and you can see most of the sights before the tour groups swamp the place. The ball court is certainly worth a look, a vast pitch between huge walls with stone hoops set high up as goals, like an ancient version of Quidditch, but where the losing captain got decapitated (as graphically illustrated on stone friezes round the court). It’s also got amazing echo acoustics (echo acoustics, echo acoustics…)
You’ve also got to get at least one shot of the main pyramid…

However we’ll probably remember this part of the trip more for our stay at the Hotel Chichen Itza in the nearby town of Piste. On arrival we knew we’d made the right choice when Luis, the manager, upgraded us to a three-bed room and suggested the kids would probably like to jump from bed to bed. He then looked after us throughout our stay, introducing us to his family, lending us books in English, feeding us, driving us to the ruins so we could be there early, and even thrashing Pete at table tennis! The girls loved playing with Santi, his son, and still talk about being pulled round the car park in a Luis-drawn carriage (there being no horse to pull it!)

He and Santi then dropped us off for our bus and it was quite sad waving them off as we headed to Merida, but this city would prove to be another highlight. There’s not a great deal to see or do but it’s one of those places where people go for a couple of days and end up staying a week. We loved it, and partly this was down to our stay at Nomadas Hostel – this was more or less everything a hostel should be: friendly, helpful info on arrival, reasonable kitchen, decent rooms, beautiful pool in the garden and a great place to meet people. We met an eclectic bunch including a lovely 71 year old lady from Hawaii, an Australian couple (Kylie and Jez) doing a similar trip to us and an English couple (Isabel and Byron) who were motorbiking from North America all the way down through South America – whatever you do there’s always someone going further, faster or more far-flung than you! (Have a look at their blog on http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/Adventures-on-the-flying-Aga/ if you get bored of ours!)

We did a touristy horse-drawn carriage ride (the girls had obviously developed a taste for carriages at Piste!), went to the park and played on the fantastic playground (including a small plane converted into slides!) and visited the free zoo. We also went to the new/under construction Mayan Museum which was good, or will be when it’s finished. We spent a lot of time chatting in the hostel and lazing by the pool and several days passed very enjoyably. I’ll put some photos of Merida (and a few more that go with this section) in a separate post after this one.

We then thought it was about time we saw another ruin – or rather the grown-ups did, the kids were already perfecting their refrain of “Oh, no, not another ruin”. This one wasn’t as easy to get to and involved a stay at a posh place in the nearest town, some 10km away. I say posh, but perhaps mean posh/boutique/rustic – we stayed in a hut with a palapa-leaf thatched roof which looked lovely but was perhaps a bit too much like being in the jungle for the girls. Pete also got stung by a wasp and we were serenaded by the noise of various crickets and cicadas as we went to sleep under our mossie nets.

It was all worth it though for our visit to Uxmal the next day. Uxmal is as impressive as Chichen Itza but without the crowds, and I always like a place with more iguanas than people. If you stopped to look there was one on virtually every temple, pyramid or pile of stones…

Iguanas now rule over the ruins of Uxmal.

These were close to being my favourite ruins so far on this trip, but from the highs of the pyramids here we sank to a bit of a low with our stay in Campeche. It’s another picture-postcard colonial city, with some impressive walls still standing, sculpture on the streets and a nice main square. In short it sounds like a fine place to stop for a couple of days but somehow we just didn’t warm to the place, which was strange since it was absolutely sweltering. Perhaps that was part of the problem – it was too hot to do much and there was a pervasive odour to the city. We had two days there; two days, too hot, too tetchy and two tantrums too many. A storm was obviously brewing and on our second night the heavens opened and the streets were flooded, and strangely our moods lifted a little. We’d wondered why the kerbs were nearly a foot high and now we knew. We had to shelter in Burger King and they had to shut the door and batten down the hatches to stop it being inundated. Shops everywhere produced sheets of cardboard to act as makeshift doormats as people ran for cover. If we’d been feeling homesick this was a timely reminder of weather back home, albeit on a bigger, wetter scale.

We were glad to leave Campeche, and the most memorable thing was the downpour…

Road junction or river crossing? Campeche, Mexico

Next installment soon!

Leaving the United States, and entering a slightly different state (of mind, money, Mexico and manana…)

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To travel from Las Vegas, USA to Cancun, Mexico, took us two flights, most of a day, crossed two time zones and took us to a slightly different world. Mexico is somewhere between the USA and Central America, between modern commercialism and traditional values, and even though there’s McDonalds, Walmart and American TV (dubbed into Spanish), there’s no mistaking the fact that you’ve crossed a cultural and historical boundary.
Cancun, however, is not typical Mexico. I’m not sure what it is typical of, maybe all-inclusive holiday-land, but it’s a bit of a strange place, separated into a downtown area and a Hotel Zone, the latter strung out along a dual-carriageway with each hotel claiming their own bit of beach. We had a nice hotel, met some nice people on the beach and found a nice restaurant but somehow the place just didn’t do it for us…and that’s not even taking into account the tricks and trips that greeted our arrival.
On landing at Cancun airport and walking through customs you are greeted by a cabal of seemingly official, uniformed, tourist information people (for want of a better word). They then try to sell you taxis, tours and time-shares, or failing that, offer ‘free’ jaunts that need a five dollar deposit and entail a visit to a ‘presentation’. The sad thing is that we nearly went for it – or perhaps it was all genuine and the sad thing is that we didn’t – but something didn’t ring true, we were tired and wanted our hotel, and so we said “No, gracias” and headed for the bus.
Maybe it was the tiredness, but on getting off the bus and leaving the bus station Rachel and Kiah then went flying for the third time that day, tripping off a kerb and into the gutter, fully laden with backpacks. We had planned to get another local bus but the taxi drivers couldn’t believe their luck, and scooped us up for a slightly-overpriced trip to our hotel. Fare enough or taken for a ride, but we were at least glad to be in our room with nothing worse than a bruised and twisted ankle for Rach, and a slightly mucky Kiah.
We then had a couple of days in Cancun, which was more than enough, before moving on to Isla Mujeres, which is a small island half an hour away by ferry. There we had a lovely hotel, almost to ourselves, complete with resident iguanas, and their own kayaks (just to be clear, the hotel had kayaks, not the iguanas!)

Iggy Half-tail, the hotel iguana, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

We went kayaking, did a bit of snorkelling, and saw some fairly funky fish.

Kayaking off Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Now we all have an image of snorkelling in the crystal clear, turquoise waters of the Caribbean, and the sea did approximate to that vision – however when you pictured it, did you do so with a stormy, overcast sky above? Thought not, but that’s what we got, with regular downpours and stifling humidity, and that was the pattern for our three days on the island.
We went to the picture-postcard beach of Playa Norte, with it’s white sand and azure sea, and Tilly commented that she didn’t think beaches like this really existed, and it was how you might draw a typical, tropical beach. But again, one minute we were sat there, sweltering, next we were running to a restaurant, already drenched from the sudden deluge.
When we then found that some money had gone missing (almost certainly) from the hotel room, we were starting to get a little downcast ourselves. We couldn’t prove anything, or be absolutely sure, so had to let it go but it tainted our first few days in a new country. Sad that you tend to remember the odd bad incident, rather than the overwhelming majority of helpful, friendly people, so we’ll try to think instead of the taxi driver who took us out to the port – as he dropped us off he ran inside the terminal to make sure we caught the ferry about to leave.

After the island we then got a little hire car for the drive down the coast to Tulum. On first glance it looked fine, and it got us from A to B, but reminded us of how cars used to be – no central locking, a metallic clang when you shut the door and more scratches than our mosquito-bitten legs – when the man went round the car marking off the dents and scrapes he might just have well have given the card to a toddler and asked them to scrawl all over it. Driving was also an experience – first through downtown Cancun (busy and confusing), then down the highway – this is like a motorway, but every so often they like to put a speed hump the size of a low wall to catch the unwary. However, apart from nearly entering the stratosphere a couple of times, we made it to Tulum and the very lovely Posada Yum Kin, a boutique hotel that we could somehow afford. We had a kitchen, hammocks and there was a pool that you could only reach by going up a spiral staircase, across a bridge and down some more steps. However it says something about the level of luxury that the only people we got talking to were two American couples, both on their honeymoons.

We also found the delights of the Chedraui supermarket. As you pull into the car park it’s almost like driving into another world, and if you want to know where to find all the tourists and gringos just head over to the extensive wall of imported and luxury foods. There amongst the Californian wines, jars of pesto and Thai curry paste you can find bewildered westerners looking for something familiar that definitely doesn’t involve refried beans. We were delighted to find instead Heinz baked beans, which says something about our girls’ (and my) adventurous palates!

We then finally got to see our first ruins in Mexico, though there would be many more to come. If the USA doesn’t have too much in the way of ancient monuments, Central America has them by the bucket-load, dotted throughout the jungle, and maybe some of them would make it on to most people’s bucket-list.
First up for us was Coba, and it was great fun, particularly since you could hire bikes to travel between the various bits and cool down a little on the way. Climbing the huge pyramid was certainly very hot work.

Climbing down the rather steep pyramid at Coba, Mexico

But then we were in the middle of the jungle, and the jungle had certainly tried to reclaim it’s territory.

Funky tree at Coba ruins, Mexico

To cool down on the way back we visited a cenote – these are sink holes that lead into an underground world of rivers, pools and caverns and we’d seen documentaries about them years ago. It was suggested that it was partly these that allowed the Mayans to create their advanced civilisations, as they had a reliable water source under their feet. Whatever, they make enticing places to swim, with cool, clear water and dappled sunlight, and the girls loved spotting the turtles.

Thursday then arrived to bring our weekly battle with anti-malaria tablets. I think we got it down to a mere couple of hours this time and as a treat we decided to go to the Hidden Worlds Adventure Park. This was, without doubt, a highlight that I’m sure the girls will look back on for years to come. First you get a truck to bump you several miles into the jungle, then you climb on a bike suspended from a cable in the treetops for a ‘skycycle’, that starts up high amongst the leaves and drops down into a cave. You then turn round and go on a different cable through three more caves before having to climb back up to the start again. Given the heat and humidity we were very impressed that we all made it!

On the skycycle, Hidden Worlds, near Tulum – cycling through the jungle!!

We then did a zip-wire and a rappel down into a cenote – fairly exciting but only a mere preamble to the main event, a weird cross between a rollercoaster and a zip-wire that they called the Avatar. It had been designed and built there and was the first, and probably, only one of it’s kind – I’m not sure many places would have a sufficiently relaxed enough approach to Health and Safety. But it was brilliant: exciting, exhilarating, invigorating and powered entirely by yourself walking up the steps to the start. You twist and turn, dip and rise through the trees then career along a slide into a cave before plunging into the cenote below. I whooped, Tilly yelled and Kiah made not a peep of a sound, but we all went for a second go. Rach started off screaming, increased the intensity, built to a crescendo and hit the water with blood-curdling screetches echoing around the cavern. She declined the offer of a second go.
The day finished with a swim through the stalactites of the cenote, which the girls found more scary than the avatar.

Snokelling at the Cenote, Hidden Worlds

Next was the Tulum ruins, which are famous for their setting overlooking the sea. They weren’t as exciting as Coba, with manicured lawns and a no climbing rule making it feel somewhat less adventurous, but you can’t deny the ancient Mayans picked a lovely spot. The information boards waffled on about it being a strategically important, defensible position but maybe they just liked the view.

Tulum ruins – you can see why they built it so near the beach!

And so that was our first week or so in Mexico, and before we headed inland we had a last walk along the beach and found a bar with a live band playing cool music as the sun set and the sea breeze whipped the sand past our feet. Even though this part of the Yucatan peninsular is particularly flat, we’d had our ups and downs (in more ways than one!) but the last few days had been a lot of fun. Also, we’d seen a heck of a lot of lizards and iguanas, which is always a bonus…

Groovy lizard, Tulum