Tag Archives: travel with kids

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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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!

Hugo, Kiah, Jamie and Tilly

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 dos – fun, frights and awesome sights… (or how Semuc Champey took our breath away)

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After our quick jaunt through El Salvador and Honduras it felt good to be returning to Guatemala, though perhaps not so good to be on another mammoth bus journey. Our journey from Copan (Honduras) to Coban (Guatemala) would take seven hours, two buses and one border crossing, all just to change one letter. First we had to catch an early morning shuttle bus – this involved the usual early morning shuttle shuffle as we drove round town picking people up, though as Copan Ruinas is a small town at least it didn’t take too long this time. The multi-cultural collection of passengers included three French travellers, three people from Thailand and a large group of young Americans who were on a weekend minibreak from teaching in Honduras. Consequently it was quite a lively group who headed to the border for the random roulette fee-charging policies of Guatemala’s passport officials. Some people paid their Quetzales, others (including us) didn’t, and again we entered Guatemala not quite sure of what had just happened.

But we were soon back in fairly familiar territory and drove for a couple of hours before stopping for breakfast. When these meal stops work well they’re a model of efficiency, with the restaurant able to feed a coach load of people and get them back on their way in about half an hour. Happily this was one of the good ones, and it even had a small play area for the kids. We then drove on for a while before we had to switch buses – our shuttle bus was heading for Antigua with the giddy teachers so we were dropped off at the dusty junction town of El Rancho, with only the vaguest of instructions that a bus to Coban would be along shortly. However again we were pleasantly surprised as fifteen minutes later a bus did indeed pull up. It was crowded but bearable, though it did stop almost immediately for another meal break. The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful – we drove up over some hills blanketed in cloud forest that apparently provide the habitat for the last remaining wild quetzel birds in Guatemala – however it’s not called cloud forest for nothing, and that’s precisely what we could see: nothing!

The weather hadn’t improved by the time we reached Coban and it was almost like being back in England as we got off the bus – cold, damp, drab and grey. We found a reasonable hostel though, and then found a playground where the girls impressed some of the local adults with their monkey bar antics – we got the impression they didn’t get many fair-haired white kids swinging like chimpanzees in this neck of the woods. We also found a bit of a gem of a restaurant too, called Casa d’Acuna, where white-shirted waiters served fantastic pizza in a courtyard garden – while Coban hadn’t really grabbed us with its drizzle and dullness it’s always nice to eat somewhere that feels both posh and affordable.

The reason we’d come to Coban was beacuse it made a convenient stopping off point on the way to Semuc Champey. This is one of Guatemala’s must-see attractions, and as getting there involves something of an arduous journey we thought it must be pretty spectacular when you got there. While at the hostel in Coban we tried to book accommodation at a backpacker lodge in the small town of Lanquin, the nearest place of any size to Semuc Champey, but were told that they didn’t take children. Now, sometimes you can get thrown off course and things happen that turn your travels into travails – at other times a slight twist or kink in your path can send you in a different direction and throw some fantastic experiences your way, and provide memories worth keeping for a lifetime. That’s what makes flexible travel such an adventure, an unplanned diversion or change in itinerary can lead to something that becomes a real highlight, made all the better by its unplanned nature. So when the lad on reception recommended another place that had only just opened, and two other guests who happened to be nearby also said they’d stayed there and loved it, we booked a room in Utopia: it would prove to be one of the best places we’ve stayed at – if that first hostel had taken kids we would have missed out on one of the most memorable times of our trip.

Getting there wasn’t without incident though, and the promised arduous journey was that, and more. Yet another early start saw us herded onto a creaky charabanc of a bus for the two hour journey to Lanquin. The first hour was ok, on a proper tarmac road; we then turned off onto a rough track for the next hour, down a series of switchbacks as we dropped into a lush valley. We had been told then we would then switch into 4×4 vehicles for the last few kilometres to Semuc Champey, as the road was too bad for the bus; when they then discovered that they didn’t have enough 4x4s for the number of passengers it was coincidentally decided that the road wasn’t in fact all that bad, and we would continue on the same bus. This was despite the fact that this area had suffered the same heavy rain that we’d enjoyed so much in Coban! Sure enough, the road was an interesting mix of muddy trenches and standing water and we were left to admire the skill of the driver in getting a two-wheel-drive shed of a bus up and down the slippery surfaces. Just when we thought we were nearing our destination we hit something of a traffic jam; after some investigation it appeared that a van had run out of diesel while coming up the hill in the opposite direction – as virtually all the road is single track it hadn’t taken long for a queue to build up in both directions. We couldn’t quite understand why somebody would be driving in such a remote area with no diesel, but it didn’t come as a great surprise. Yet again though, our driver proved his worth, as he syphoned some of the diesel from the bus, put it in the van and got it going again. There then followed a lot of shunting back and forth to get all the vehicles past each other – if anyone has played Traffic Jam on their smartphone they’ll have a decent understanding of the complexity involved.

Utopia, with Remy, Ellen and the dogs!

Utopia, with Remy, Ellen and the dogs!

So, after a delay of an hour or so we reached our rendezvous with Remy from the hostel, and a few minutes later we were at Utopia. It sat amongst cocoa trees above the turquoise waters of the Cahabon river, surrounded by verdant hills, and had a huge communal area with tables, chairs and swings, and several friendly dogs. Sometimes a place just feels right, and the girls loved it straight away. They immediately made friends with Ellen, an American girl who helped run the hostel and we spent the rest of the day eating, drinking and chatting. There was a couple from Barnsley staying who’d spent the last year and a half cycling around, and also another English couple, Carl and Becky, who lived in London; however Carl was also from Barnsley, making this the biggest Yorkshire contingent we’d met outside Yorkshire itself.

Swimming by candle-light, Kan'Ba caves

Swimming by candle-light, Kan’Ba caves

The next day would turn out to be one of the best. We’d decided to do a tour with the hostel, partly after speaking to an American family who’d done it the day before. This would involve a visit to the Kan’Ba caves and to Semuc Champey itself. Weeks ago, a Canadian girl in Merida had told us about these caves where you go swimming with just a candle for light and she said it was one of the best things she’d ever done. We’d been unsure of how the girls would enjoy it, but as the American kids were only a couple of years older we decided to go for it. We still set off with a certain amount of trepidation though, and this would turn out to be well-founded. Almost immediately after entering the caves you are plunged into almost total darkness, with only a spindly candle each to light the way. You are then plunged into icy-cold water, and it’s quite a feat swimming with a candle in one hand and a child in the other, leaving only the feet for propulsion. Just when you’re getting used to swimming for a bit and then picking your way over rocks for a bit, you are then presented with a new challenge – either climbing up a knotted rope through a waterfall, or climbing up a metal ladder through the edge of the waterfall.

Taking the plunge...

Taking the plunge…

When you’ve surmounted this obstacle you have the opportunity to take things up a notch, adventure-wise, just in case you’d been feeling it was all a little tame! Emerging into a high chamber with a deep pool in the bottom, we watched as our guide scampered up a ten-foot rock face, threw his candle down into the water and then leapt through the darkness into the forbidding water below. Of course we were given the chance to try this and Tilly quickly decided she wanted a go – she climbed up quite a few feet and jumped down into the pool, and we were mightily impressed by her bravery. Pete wasn’t quite so quick to accept the challenge but, with heart thumping, managed the full jump, to emerge coughing and spluttering but exhilarated.
We then had to make our way back to the entrance, meaning a climb back down the waterfall and then a slide down a natural chute. Pete went first and the two girls were sent next – however the three of us couldn’t see which way we were supposed to go as our candles had gone out, and we had a bit of a moment’s panic before our guide climbed down and handed us some new candles. By this time though the candles were down to a stump, meaning boiling hot wax was dripping onto our hands and as we swam through a narrow chamber these candles too were extinguished, leaving us in total darkness with two screaming, and by now freezing, children. The rest of the group quickly caught us up though, and we soon emerged back into the daylight, blinking and feeling like we’d had quite the adventure. The girls warmed up and calmed down, and we were left with a thrill of exhilaration as we tucked into a well-deserved snack.

Almost a bridge too far...

Almost a bridge too far…

Faced with the next challenge, this feeling must have gone to Pete’s head, as he then agreed to do a mad bridge jump. We’re not sure just how high above the river it was, but suffice to say the time in the air went on for far too long for comfort. That feeling of exhilaration was quickly replaced with screams, a feeling that this was crazy, then wondering why the water hadn’t arrived yet, then just why was I still in the air, then ooooooaaaarrrgghhh, as body hit water, knocking breath and sense away – even the swim back up to the surface seemed to take an age, then whoops a-plenty on emerging fully intact. If the guide and Carl hadn’t done the jump first it would have seemed a crazy thing to attempt, but it was another high in a day of glorious adventure, and we still had Semuc Champey to come.

After a bit of lunch we then climbed up to the viewpoint above Semuc Champey with Carl and Becky and yet again our breath was taken away…

Can't really think of a caption that does this justice!

Can’t really think of a caption that does this justice!


These crystal clear pools create a natural water park that's impossible to resist!

These crystal clear pools create a natural water park that’s impossible to resist!

P1000948This was truly spectacular – the main river disappears underground, flowing under a vast limestone bridge before emerging hundreds of feet downstream. Some water still flows above ground and runs down over this bridge, creating a series of impossibly inviting pools, linked by little cascades and waterfalls. It also provides some natural water chutes, to add just a little more excitement to the day. And that was our day at Semuc Champey – seldom has a beer tasted as good as the one back at Utopia that evening!

We then had a bit of a mad, and maddening, day on the following day, just to even things up. It would take too long to recount all the details (in an already lengthy post!) but a combination of a 4×4 truck that wouldn’t start, a spare wheel that had been removed in order to fit in the Barnsley couple’s bikes, a group of hippies who couldn’t be bothered to turn up for their lift to Lanquin, and a tyre as flat as a pancake meant that we weren’t able to make it to Coban the next day as planned. Hence we had to stay an extra night at Utopia, and this time the change in our plans provided memories of a more challenging variety. Just as Rach and the girls were going to sleep they had an unwelcome visitor in their room – a visitor of the hairy, scary variety! Pete was in the next room and heard Tilly screaming “TARANTULA!!!!” Thinking it would just be a slightly larger spider than usual he went to investigate and found three females entwined together, all screaming, while above their heads a very real, very large arachnid crept along the ceiling.

Just to try and convey the full horror of this imagine you’re in that drowsy, trance-like state somewhere between sleep and consciousness; you’re lying in bed beneath a low, sloping bamboo roof: now imagine that just as you’re about to finally drift into dreams you take one last, lazy glance up and see a gigantic tarantula a few inches above you. Even if you weren’t a fully fledged arachnophobe you may let out a small scream. The girls let out blood-curdling screams of a magnitude you wouldn’t think they were capable of. The staff and all the rest of the guests came running to see what the commotion was – all apart from one girl in the dorm just outside the room, who somehow managed to sleep through the entire incident! Rach and the girls left the room, vowing never to return again; Pete managed to take a photo before the tarantula disappeared back behind the bamboo ceiling – knowing it was still in the room there’s no way any of us were going to be able to sleep in there, so we were moved to a different room for a night of uneasy sleep, and eight-legged nightmares! We promised not to put the photo on the main post, for viewers of a particularly nervous disposition, but if you want to see it its in the accompanying post, along with some other snaps.

The next day we did finally leave Utopia and Semuc Champey- it was one of our favourite places, and had certainly provided plenty of incident! Next we were on our way to another of Guatemala’s amazing places, but that will have to wait for another day, and another post…

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…