We are very much in the Caribbean now, the Caribbean that I had always imagined. Patois is now spoken along with English and a very youthful Queen now features on all the notes – it’s like stepping back to the 80s.
It’s only a one hour boat ride across from Livingston in Guatemala to the Belizean mainland. Border proceedings were a breeze and after breakfast we were on a chicken bus up the coast. We are very much in the Caribbean now, the Caribbean that I had always imagined. Patois is now spoken along with English and a very youthful Queen now features on all the notes – it’s like stepping back to the 80s. Although Belize has been independent for over 20 years they have chosen to keep the Queen on all the notes – but nobody has thought to update the picture.
Four hours up the coast we pass some quite impressive jungle, I think this is where an expedition of British Army soldiers got lost and had to be rescued by helicopter whilst on a jungle survival course. Amusing.
To get to Placencia you have to get off at the wonderfully named Mango Creek and hop onto the local Hokey Pokey water taxi through the mangroves.
Placencia itself is an immaculate small caye. It’s one of those one road type towns, but it’s been invaded by North Americans so although it’s still all wooden shacks and sand floor bars it’s all very – nice. The beach is stunning – white sands and crystal clear water and we get lucky with the weather too – according to an American guy who’s been spending the winter here it’s the first nice day in four weeks.
Since the place is catering mostly to middle-aged Americans, there’s a surprisingly good range of restaurants for somewhere so small. But if you’re on a tight budget then this probably isn’t the place for you. It’s certainly not expensive by European standards but we struggled to find a room for less than $40 and eating out definitely costs more than anywhere we’ve been in Central America so far. We ate at a great little restaurant, run by another American ex-pat but if you’re looking for something more local there are plenty of bars serving fresh seafood on the beach.
Placencia’s lovely, and it’s the kind of place I could imagine coming for a two week holiday but at the moment it’s a little expensive for us so we’re only stopping for a few days before heading to the cheaper, more backpacker-friendly Caye Caulker.
There is a darker side to Little Corn which cannot be ignored. The island is a major refuelling station for cocaine smugglers coming up from Colombia heading to the US.
Christmas was just around the corner and whilst we killed some time in Managua before our flight we visited the local shopping centre to stock up on some good stuff for Christmas. Very quickly we both realised that this year Christmas would be a bittersweet affair. Last Christmas we were barely one month into our journey, the excitement of over a year on the road ahead meant we enjoyed the novelty of holidays on the beach. Whilst shopping for sweets and drink we both felt a little homesick, not just for our absent family and friends but also for the other things that make a Christmas – drinks with friends, mince pies and Christmas puddings , even office parties. Luckily we were no longer alone and would be spending it with our new friends. We had lots of local rum, cigars and silly hats in the bag.
Getting to Little Corn Island is a bit of a mission. It’s possible to get a boat to Big Corn Island on a local boat but it’s a long journey, the seas are BIG and sea sickness is a given. We splurged a little and booked a flight from Managua to Big Corn Island where we would have to take a short water taxi to Little Corn.
The airline was not the most professional service I’ve experienced, the boarding cards were big lumps of blue plastic that had been altered over time by passengers. After being unable to start one of the engines on the plane we were taken off and herded back into the waiting lounge whilst engineers prodded and poked around until they got it started. A slightly less enthusiastic group were ushered onto the plane by the grinning pilot, reassuring everybody not to worry and have a nice day. The boat to Little Corn Island was not at all bad. The internet is full of horror stories of huge waves and swells, lost luggage and tears but we didn’t suffer any of it.
Little Corn Island is a tiny island, only three square kilometres; there are no roads, just a few paths along the west coast. Transport is bike or cart and the atmosphere is laid back. Most locals can be found horizontal in hammocks all day. It’s Christmas so we splurged again, booking into probably the only real hotel on the island. We have a balcony, air conditioning and a bathroom with electricity from 2pm – 5am, luxury. No hot water still though, that would be asking too much.
We had a few days before the others arrived and they flew by. We were instantly infected by the local condition – acute laziness. Our days went like this –bed to beach to bar to beach to bar to bed. We loved this place, at first it appeared a little cliquey, all the bars and dive shops (about four of them) had groupies and we felt like outsiders. But after a few days, we got to know everybody and were treated like family. As usual we got to know the local dog population well and gained some canine company on our balcony in the evenings. Leah made friends with the hotel monkey, Rosa. She didn’t like me so much but I wasn’t too fussed, she smelt quite bad.
Once our friends arrived the days quickly became a routine. Swimming on the beach, drinks on our balcony followed by happy hour at Tranquilo bar and restaurant. Tranquilo’s sells the best burgers I’ve tasted anywhere in the world as well as an impressive British fish and chips.
Christmas day started with Leah and me opening our stockings we had bought for each other, stupid toys and sweets – a tradition Leah was not going to give up even if we were on the other side of the planet. We spent the day on the beach, started a sand castle competition (which we thought we should have won) played some pool , followed by cigars and drinks on our balcony, finishing the day with a Christmas dinner of lobster and steak. All very different but all very nice.
Little Corn Island is the first place we have visited on our trip where we really thought we could settle down for a while. I’m not thinking forever but easily for 6-12 months. We really will miss this place, especially the dogs!
There is a darker side to Little Corn which cannot be ignored. The island is a major refuelling station for cocaine smugglers coming up from Colombia heading to the US. When boats are intercepted by local police the smugglers will dump their cargo overboard. Kilogram blocks of cocaine regularly wash up on the beaches here, the locals call it ‘White Lobster’. They have the option of selling it back to the Colombians or keeping it for themselves. On the mainland there is even, in the midst of wooden shacks and mud streets, a spanking new concrete internet centre funded by the Colombians, built to enable locals to contact them if they wish to sell back lost ‘produce’. Luckily all this nonsense went unnoticed by us, locals accepted us with open doors and warm smiles. We will not be thanking them, however, for the local delicacy ‘run down stew’. A giddy brew of crab, lobster, conch and root vegetables. I thought it was hideous.
We thought this would be a final farewell to our friends but it turns out that the Swiss couple have made identical plans for New Year in Guatemala. So we sadly say goodbye for now to Josh from Alaska and Paola from Italy, thanks guys we had a great month.
Next, it’s a quick stop in Honduras before heading into Guatemala. Only 7 weeks left!
The plan is to spend just three days here before heading off to Lima. The truth is we are almost done with Peru, we’ve already done most of the ‘must dos’ and the ‘have to sees’ have been seen.
Inca Trail over, we decided to stay in the centre of town, which is a good thing as we can barely walk. Climbing and descending over 4000m has left me with painful concrete-like calves and we both hobble up and down steps for the next few days. The plan is to spend just three days here before heading off to Lima. The truth is we are almost done with Peru, we’ve already done most of the ‘must dos’ and the ‘have to sees’ have been seen. Although the capital is next, all reports paint a grey and miserable picture, with the nightlife being the main draw.
Dodging the kids peddling cocaine and weed in Cuzco is only slightly easier than avoiding the constant pestering from ladies offering massages – it’s annoying as hell. The local Irish pub sells t-shirt with the blissfully simple words ‘No Gracias’ on the front – perhaps I should have invested in one. Cuzco is one hell of a party town at night, scores of bars and clubs spill of the main square and run till sunrise. We don’t really manage a big night out, we’re still bit tired from the Trail, but we do manage to become locals at the ‘paddy bar’, as well as Indigo’s, an incredible Thai bar/restaurant that serves the best green curry I’ve had outside of Thailand. The spice scale is a bit weak though, you need to ask for the hottest available – I guess the ‘farang’ here are a little delicate.
To congratulate ourselves on completing the Inca Trail (ignoring that fact that only those who die en route don’t complete) we decide to treat ourselves to some traditional English dinner at the local Brit café – curry it is. The Real McCoy is a great little place serving PG tips, peanut butter on toast etc. We went to their inaugural ‘spice night’ and had a very decent curry and a bottle of wine, followed up with numerous pisco sours in town. Don’t know what a pisco sour is? A local tipple founded on grape brandy and raw egg white. Good stuff. Recipe here.
Cuzco, a place where you could easily lose weeks/months and septum if you’re like that. But what a waste, there are plenty of places nearby that you’d be mad not to visit (Bolivia is spitting distance). After almost two weeks in and around the city, we are ready to move onwards and upwards towards Ecuador.
I can’t leave an entry on Cuzco without a mention to a new friend made and now missed, Lorenzo. This chap was continuous company whilst staying at our hostel, he would always come and greet me at breakfast and sit for hours with me in the afternoons while reading. The staff mentioned he would complain and had to actually be removed from the public areas when I left as he would pine my leaving. I forgive the few times he crapped on me.
Regulations state that only 500 people can start the Inca Trail every day, and since this number also includes porters and guides, the actual number of tourists starting is around 200.
Rather than take a direct bus from Puno to Cusco we decided on the Inca Express, a tour bus that only takes a couple more hours but include a few stops en route. It was a mediocre day, we were stuck we a few weird couples that creeped us out massively and promised ourselves to be more selective with the organised tours in future. Move on…
So here we are in Cusco, for one of the highlights of our tour of the Americas – The Inca Trail. Over the past few months we have learnt there is a fair amount of snobbery around trekking to Machu Picchu. Many say the original Inca Trail is touristy and crowded, some same it’s not authentic, yadda yadda yadda. Our opinion is that these comments appear to be from people who didn’t book the trek in time and therefore didn’t have the option, the bitter and twisted souls. We, however, booked about four months in advance, and can’t see a reason to come all the way here and not actually follow the original Inca Trail and are very very excited (although the tour shops will tell you of the other one day Inca treks which is nonsense).
Regulations state that only 500 people can start the Inca Trail every day, and since this number also includes porters and guides, the actual number of tourists starting is around 200. We have picked one of the biggest and best known companies, SAS, on the recommendation of friends, who follow a slightly different camping schedule, meaning we will miss most of the other groups along the way. Machu Picchu itself has lifted all limits on visiting tourists, what used to be a 2500 daily limit has gone, so you need to get there early to miss the hordes. If all goes well we will have most of the trail to ourselves and arrive at MP at the quietest time, just as the sun is rising.
We have a blissful five days in Cusco to acclimatise, although that’s nonsense really – we have got used to the altitude already, it’s just a bit of an excuse to settle and relax. Our hostel is only a 10 minute walk out of town and we make full use of the many restaurants and bars that Cusco is famous for. This is a very touristy city, full of two week holidaymakers, most of who seem to be American. For the first few days we take full advantage of the incredibly cheap deals on offer (£3 for a 5 course meal). Until I come down with a bug that is, and suspect the cheapo salad.
Whilst overcoming the curse of unwashed cucumber we watch lots of TV, take in the sights and smells of Cusco, and enjoy some more sunshine, we are both counting the days until we get to a beach again.
The night before the Inca Trail starts we decided last minute to hire some proper hiking books after we are told at a briefing that there are many thousands of metres of steep stairs, and well, I’m getting on a bit. We also stock up on snacks and water and treat ourselves to a huge McDonald’s feast in preparation – telling ourselves we will no doubt burn it off in no time!
So, back to the Inca Trail. We’re picked up around 5am from our hostel, then drive for three hours to the start of the trail. We have only our day packs to carry, but we have, as is usual, porters to carry the rest. It might be a tough four day trek but we are not going to ruin it by actually having to carry all our own stuff, oh no!
The Inca trail is about 40km (25 miles) in total, which might seem such a short way for four days, but when you consider that we have to ascend up to 4300m from 2300m, taking in three summits along the way, with very few flat paths, then you begin to realise why it takes so long. We are advised to buy some walking sticks to help with the steep steps, which everybody in the group does. There are only 10 people in our group, as five people decided to pay extra and go private and there was a cancellation. That leaves us with a couple of really nice German/American friends and a bunch of American students who have come unbelievably prepared with pills, potions and paraphernalia that would make even an experienced Everest expedition feel ill-equipped. In contrast, we have stocked up on Mars bars, trail bars and a bag of coca leaves to help with the altitude.
Here is a fancy video showing a virtual Inca Trail using Google Earth.
(Leah takes over the writing here as I got bored)
We’re told the first day is easy, a gradual climb, about seven hours walking starting at 10am and finishing around dusk. When we arrive at the start of the trail it seems we’re a couple of porters short, so whilst the guide makes some last minute phone calls, we head off. Don’t worry, they’ll catch us up, we’re told!
After a bit of a climb initially, it’s a nice flat walk for an hour or so – this is a piece of cake! But then we hit our first bit of uphill and we realise that perhaps it’s not quite so easy. We’re all huffing and puffing and glad of a ten minute sit down at the end of our ascent. And this is the EASY day. And it’s not even lunchtime. What about tomorrow?! But, as we settle into it, we all begin to find our own pace and start to figure out that if you just take it slowly, it’s not all that bad – it’s not a race after all.
Unfortunately, due to the porter shortage, lunch is a little later than anticipated as we have to wait for them to catch us up, but we eventually stop at around 3pm, with only a couple more hours of walking left ahead of us. We’re all expecting a few pre-packed sandwiches and a packet of crisps and we watch in awe as the porters unveil a marquee, complete with table and chairs and a two course hot lunch with at least five different dishes. This is much more than any of us had anticipated and we’re all quietly impressed.
After some grub it’s back on the road again. After half an hour, we pass the campsite where most groups stop for the first night but are told that we walking on further. It’s a stiff hour long climb to the finish, but at least it means one less ascent tomorrow! As the sun sets and dusk hits, we reach the campsite and collapse into our tents – the porters are all there ready and waiting and everything has been set up for us already. Perfect.
I should probably mention a little more about the porters here for those that are unfamiliar. As well as carrying all our belongings, including clothes, sleeping bags and sleeping mats, they also carry all the food, tents, chairs, table, and gas for cooking. Each porter carries up to 25kg each – which is a pretty hefty weight – yet they practically run through the Inca Trail, whilst wearing sandals made of old car tyres. They are truly superhuman.
Anyway, back to Day 1. That evening and it’s another delicious meal cooked by our chef, Mario, before we all crash into bed at about 8pm!! We’re all seriously shattered and struggling to keep our eyes open! Plus, we’ve got to be up at 5.30am the next morning for a long Day 2 so none of us are keen on staying up any later.
We’re woken with a coca tea and haul ourselves out of our surprisingly warm sleeping bags for a breakfast of quinoa porridge and pancakes. We’re out of the campsite by 6.30am, leaving the porters to pack everything up behind us. Today is the tough one, lots of uphill, including the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass, and 16km to cover before bedtime. Eek.
Unfortunately one of the American girls is sick too so it’s a doubly difficult day for her. Poor thing.
Still, we all set off in relatively good spirits, despite the early hour, and start the day as we mean to go on with some seriously steep steps. Along the way, we buy a couple of bottles of rum to share amongst the group later. Our guide kindly offers to carry them for us, and it’s only later we realise he’s been taking a few cheeky swigs along the way!
Then it’s the long, but not quite so steep, climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass, before an evil 20 minutes to the summit. I’m not going to lie, it’s certainly not easy, but it’s also not impossible. And as long as you take it at your own pace, you’ll be fine. You don’t even have to be THAT fit (as we both proved), and the American girl even managed it whilst simultaneously throwing up!! It felt great to reach the top, although as soon as we stopped walking, we started to feel the cold and we were soon piling on whatever clothes we had with us in an effort to keep warm whilst we waited for the rest of the group.
After some group shots at the summit, and lots of cheering and back-patting later, it’s time to head down the other side of the mountain. Yippee! Downhill! Easy! Not.
Yes, believe it or not, downhill can be just as challenging as uphill. Ok, so you’re not huffing and puffing nearly as much but the steps can be very uneven and pretty steep so it’s tough on the knees. And ankles. And thighs. But after a few arduous hours, we reach the foot of the valley and our stop for lunch. It’s here that many groups set up camp for the night, but again, we’re heading on a few hours further, back up the hill. Oh joy.
Still, we enjoy the rest while we can, and the boots come off as we enjoy a delicious lunch of ceviche, amongst other local delights. Then, much sooner than most of us are ready for, we’re back on the trail again, climbing another summit and stopping of at a couple of Inca sites before a final 20 minute (flat!) walk to the campsite.
That night at dinner and Aldo introduces us to the wonders of macho tea, a concoction of tea, orange and lemon juice, some spices, and the added kick of some rum. Despite our best efforts, we’re all too tired to overindulge and after one round we all slope off to our tents. Oh well, there’s always tomorrow night!
The benefit of having walked further than the rest of the groups on both Days 1 and 2 is that we have a pretty easy Day 3, and we are due to finish by 1pm tomorrow. It also means that you’re not walking in sync with 200 other people, so we’ve had a pretty quiet Inca Trail so far, something which I’ve heard friends travelling with other companies have been less lucky with.
After an omelette for breakfast, we head off for our final day of full trekking. Today is the easiest so far, fairly flat with only some gentle up and down hills, plus only five or six hours of walking – yay! I’m certainly not envying those other groups who won’t finish until this evening and still have some serious uphill hikes, feeling rather smug!
We arrive at the campsite at lunchtime, and after a bite to eat, we head to an Inca site a mere five minute walk away. We’ve decided to forego the hot showers (they don’t seem to be open yet anyway) in exchange for a dip in a nearby waterfall, a little further on. As we climb down the hundreds of steps on the way to the falls, we’re all too aware we’ll have to climb back up them on the way back, but at this point the lure of the cold, clean water is too much for us to resist. As we strip off to our swimwear, we’re the first in the water and it is FREEZING. The kind of cold that takes your breath away but is utterly refreshing and definitely worth it to feel even remotely clean after three days of sweaty trekking. Even the girls without bathing suits decide it’s too appealing to pass up and get themselves drenched in their clothes. After everyone is satisfactorily soaked, we head back up to the campsite for a spot of macho tea and a well-deserved rest.
That evening, and after thanking and tipping the porters, who we’ll see the last of in the morning, it’s off for another early night before a 3.30am wake up call. Yes, that’s right 3.30am. If we want to hit Machu Picchu for sunrise then we have to set off as soon as the checkpoint opens at 5.30am. And if we want to set off from the checkpoint as soon as it opens then we have to be at the front of the queue, and start lining up from 4.30am. Urgh. Can’t someone else just hold my place?!
( I’m getting bored now so Rich continues with the blog)
So after getting up super early and standing in line for 45 minutes, waiting for the checkpoint to open, we’re off on our final stretch to the magnificent Machu Picchu. Of the whole trail, this is the only point where things feel crowded as everyone races to the Sun Gate. It’s an hour and a half through the jungle before we reach the site, and the scenery is stunning. At this point, I (Rich) was really struggling, my calves were cramping and I’d slightly twisted my ankle. Thankfully it was nothing too bad; another in the group was wincing with pain at this point.
Hiking the Inca Trail, aside from the fun of it all, does have the benefit of an experience that no other trekkers or day-trippers will enjoy – watching the sunrise through the Sun Gate. This is where we first get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu itself. The truth is that the ruins are almost always misty in the morning and the chance of watching the sun striking the ancient structure is small. But luck is on our side and the sky is clear. In fact, we had pretty much perfect weather the whole trek. The days were dry and warm and every night we were treated to torrential downpours that left the mornings clear and fresh. At around 7:30am we peak through the Sun Gate to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu, the sky almost cloudless. Nice. If you have time (the first section drags on a bit) here is a video of me puffing and panting the final stretch to the Sun Gate.
Machu Picchu itself is stunning, a lot bigger than I expected and more impressive also. But I’m not sure it’s what I will leave remembering. The trek itself was a blast, it was difficult but not THAT difficult. Attitude more than exercise will get you through without complaint. The jungle sections were stunning, with waterfalls and hanging vines, Dead Woman’s Pass was surreal and the final two days were like walking through an Indiana Jones cum Tomb Raider set.
After our ceremonial group and individual photos, our guide gave us a short tour and then left us to explore alone. We found a nice little spot overlooking the whole valley and just took it all in. Around 12:30pm, dark clouds started to gather and as the place started to REALLY fill up with day-trippers we made our way down the hill to the nearest town, a bus taking about 15 minutes, passing hundreds of tourists going the other way, armed with cameras taking the easy route to the top.
Down in Agua Calientes we have a nice cup of tea and feel a little more human, the rain is now pouring down and we again realise how lucky we’ve been with the weather. After a spot of lunch with the rest of the group it’s a late train back to Cusco and hopefully a hot shower waiting. Here are some gratuitous photos that really don’t do the whole experience justice!
we have managed to get ourselves onto a fantastic volunteer program in Ecuador. For the whole of October we shall be staying in the Ecuadorian jungle together with another six or so volunteers and a couple of vets looking after injured and previously captive Amazonian animals.
It’s time to hit to road again. As Leah mentioned in the previous post, we kept ourselves reasonably busy in Palermo, but as we kept saying to each-other –we are on holiday so we can do whatever we want. If we stay in for a few days and watch terrible films and drink wine, that’s exactly what we’re going to do – without guilt. Which we did loads of.
However after our two months were up, we were both itching to dive back into the backpacking culture. For our last week in Buenos Aires we were joined by a good friend who was celebrating his birthday – it was a big one – with a zero at the end. Much more wine and steak was had and we ticked all the tourist attractions off the list that we had held back on until his arrival.
All the Photo’s of our time in Argentina are now up in the gallery.
So, what next? We have crossed Venezuela off the list for the time being. Our plans to travel up from the Amazon into Venezuela and then over the border into Columbia not only would have put us into some particularly dodgy regions –time wise we need to start balancing what we see with how much we have to spend. The good news is that we have managed to get ourselves onto a fantastic volunteer program in Ecuador. For the whole of October we shall be staying in the Ecuadorian jungle together with another six or so volunteers and a couple of vets looking after injured and previously captive Amazonian animals. Feeding the animals, cleaning cages and releasing the critters back into the wild as well as building new and maintaining existing reserve buildings are all on the job list. It will not be a comfortable month I’m sure, there is no electricity and the showers we are told are freezing. This is something I’ve always wanted to do, and never thought I would, but now I am. Very excited, proper ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ stuff. Solar charger has been bought though, so I can keep at least some of my gadgets alive.
So, here is the plan.
From Buenos Aires we travel up to Salta at the foothills of the Andes, for a few days with our friend Alexis touring the region (we were going to go to Mendoza but it looked cold and snow actually fell there whilst in Salta). From Salta we will head over the Andes to the Atacama desert and over to the Pacific coast with dreams of surfing lessons. Nipping over the border into Peru, then over to Lake Titicaca before heading to Cusco to start the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. After the trek we will potter around Peru for a while before heading further north into Ecuador, darting around the country until October when we start out rainforest duties. If we survive it’s over to the Ecuadorian coast for some beach before heading to Colombia where we will spend a month splitting our time between beaches, cities and maybe even a bit of countryside. If we time things right, it’s then a short trip over the border into Panama in the dry season where we will spend our last 2-3 months making our way overland to Mexico via Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize.
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