Tikal – complete washout

Fun Tikal fact – George Lucas came here in 1979 to shoot a scene for one of his Star Wars films.

Not every day on a 14 month holiday is going to go exactly to plan. When we first packed up and left the UK we took with us a very British attitude that a holiday abroad must include sunshine and warm weather. On our way we’ve been through it all, unbearable heat, snow storms, tropical gales and everything in between. We accepted long ago that not every day will be dry and prepare for wet days with a smile. Since we have only a few weeks before returning to the UK perhaps it was fitting then that we were treated to a total downpour, preparing us for London in February.

Tikal is one of the largest Mayan ruins in Central America, it’s the poster child for the Mayan prophecy that the world will end on Dec 21st 2012 and so has become a big hit with the tourists. Mentalists will flock here at the end of the year, as the world ends, and dance and stuff in the hope they will be granted pass to the next world or a trip on an alien spaceship or something. Hotels are booked up, prices are rocketing. I want to be there on Dec 20th, buying up all their valuables at discount.

Tikal temples
Tikal temples

These Mayan ruins have always been on our list as a must do whilst in Guatemala along with Palenque in Mexico. We have crossed off Chichen Itza after hearing underwhelming reports and also we want to spread our time between beaches, towns and ruins. Tikal is famous not just for its impressive temples but also the setting; the site sits deep in the jungle, populated by howler and spider monkeys.

Tikal
Tikal

We are staying in Flores, a cute island about an hour away. The town is joined to the mainland by a small road with most hotels overlooking the crystal clear lake. It’s not so touristy, and although there are souvenir tat shops everywhere it still maintains its charm. And it’s cheap. Our hotel room was £11 a night including private bathroom, air-con and cable TV. We set our alarms for 4:00am with a bus to Tikal at 5am. Everybody tells us we must aim to get to Tikal by 7am as there is less chance of rain.

Wrong.

Tikal - damp
Tikal - damp

It rained. Not your usual heavy rain, but soaked to the socks in a second rain. Many in our group (we opted for a guided tour, he was a bit crap but you need someone as you can easily get lost at the site) fled back to the café drenched and cold. We had our raincoats but after a few minutes they afforded no protection. After about an hour and a half the rain stopped and even a bit of blue sky sneaked out. We spent about three hours in total around the site, it’s certainly impressive, the steamy jungle adds to the whole experience but in all honesty we didn’t actually like it as much as previous Mayan encounters. Copan Ruins was beautiful, and as our guide told us, was where the artists lived so had many more decorative buildings and carvings. We don’t think our disappointment was too much down to the rain. Maybe after Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu we take some pleasing.

Tikal temples
Tikal temples

Fun Tikal fact – George Lucas came here in 1979 to shoot a scene for one of his Star Wars films. That made my day. I sat on top of a temple looking out at an immediately recognisable scene and made a few Yoda impersonations.

Tika or Yavin 4 depending on how much of geek you are
Tikal or Yavin 4 depending on how much of geek you are

We had both developed trench foot so headed home and had a quiet day. As per usual in Latin American towns, there was a street festival that night, locals lugged around town some religious gold, that could better be used melted down and donated to the local hospital. The streets were filled, a local band with trumpet fired up and fireworks finished the night. Awesome.

 

Generic Latin American street festival fun
Generic Latin American street festival fun

 

Caye Caulker – lobster central

Within 60 seconds of being underwater we were surrounded by sharks, rays, moray eels and hundreds of fish.

We’ve been looking forward to Caye Caulker since before we left England.  Our original plans were to start backpacking in Mexico, spend Christmas in Caye Caulker (we even had an apartment booked) and then fly out of Panama down to Brazil for the Carnival, working our way back up to Colombia in South America.  The big change was simply down to cost; flights from Panama down to Rio are very expensive. It worked out cheaper to spend our first three months in Asia and then use air miles to get to Brazil.

Our view from the cabin
Our view from the cabin

In the last few weeks before leaving the UK I would browse pictures of this tiny Belizean island for hours. Arriving up the coast from Placencia we caught the San Pedro water taxi for an hour through turquoise water and across shallow reef. Arriving at Cake Caulker we realised just how tiny this island is. Comparable to Little Corn Island in size but more developed. There are no cars on the island; they have adopted golf carts as their first choice of transport. Taxis, delivery vans and even police vehicles are golf carts. Even though it only takes 10 minutes to walk from one end of the island to the other, many American tourists seem to prefer spending $50 a day on a cart – lazy buggers.

You can outrun the local police
You can outrun the local police

We are spending a week here, the first  three days in a sea battered wooden house on the beach (Lena’s place)and the rest in a hostel in the centre of town (but still on the beach) called Yuma’s.  Lena’s was a great place run by an old local couple, rooms were simple with a fan and bathroom that even had hot water. Uma’s had a reputation for bedbugs but we heard it had been taken over by a German lady so we assumed it had got its act sorted out. We were correct; the place was run with ruthless efficiency, perhaps a little too ruthless, there were signs posted on every wall with various warnings and instructions on what to, and what not to do. One of the fun parts of backpacking and spending time with other cultures is how often country stereotypes are reconfirmed.

We spent our first few days exploring the island; at first glance food seemed to be expensive. But with a little hunting we found a couple of places where a breakfast would cost only £3 for both of us, and a whole lobster, rice and beans with drink and dessert would cost only £8. Opt for the American sports bar and the same would cost you three times that.  We recommend Marin’s for breakfast, Fran’s or the Enjoy bar for dinner. If you come here, and you should, hunt down the pizza shack run by the local policeman after hours, the pizza is first rate and his Cuba Libres are deadly.

Fran's Grill - some pretty good lobster
Fran's Grill - some pretty good lobster

Sometimes we get advice from other travellers and it gets forgotten quickly but when an Australian couple who have dived the Great Barrier Reef tell us we can’t leave without snorkelling here with a local guide, you start to think it’s going to be special. Later the same day, an American couple give us the same name and tell us his snorkel trips area the reason they came back to Cake Caulker. So we book a whole day on the reef with Juni, a 73 year old sea dog with a small sailboat and very curious manner. When asked what the day would involve he just replied  “not going to tell ya, wait and see” I suspect this act was a little bit of  pantomime for the tourists, but he’s known by everybody on the here, he was born and raised on the Island so I’ll go along with the fun. He’s the boss.

Juni - he talks to the fish
Juni - he talks to the fish

This time of year the warm wind blows hard onto Caye Caulker, at night it howled through our cabin. We wake up to our day at sea and there is not the slightest breeze so Juni has to fire up his motor, which sounds like it’s packing about 2 bhp. The sea was like a lake, not the slightest of waves. It took us about an hour to get to our first snorkel spot, the motor sounding like an electric toothbrush.

A quiet day at sea
A quiet day at sea

Within 60 seconds of being underwater we were surrounded by sharks, rays, moray eels and hundreds of fish. Incredible. The waters were teeming with life and Juni seemed to summon fish up to him with a few clicks of his fingers and fed moray eels right in front of us.  He liked to tell us he’d known some of the fish personally for years. We spent a few hours snorkelling the second biggest reef in the world; as good as any I’d seen before in Asia. On our way back a small pod of three dolphins swam around our boat for a few minutes checking us out.

The lesser spotted sea bat
The lesser spotted sea bat

Whilst walking through town one day our friends the Stefs from Switzerland ride past on the back of taxi-cart. They hadn’t originally planned on coming here but had heard great things. This of course meant some more big nights out. The disgusting local rum, One Barrel, was consumed late into the night and we were the first on the dance floor at the local club, OceanSide.  No shame.

flesh-fest down at the split
flesh-fest down at the split

We loved Caye Caulker. It may not have the perfect beaches like some other islands near here but the Caribbean atmosphere is incredible. We spent many days just sitting reading down at the split (the end of the island), local music blaring from speakers, surrounded by half the island’s tourists doing the same, occasionally jumping off the sea wall into warm crystal clear water to cool off.

Placencia – they speak English!

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.

Dollars and the Queen? just seems wrong
Dollars and the Queen? just seems wrong

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.

The standard Central American Chicken Bus
The standard Central American Chicken Bus

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.

Hokey Pokey Water Taxi
Hokey Pokey Water Taxi

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.

We hate cruise ships too
We hate cruise ships too

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.

Placencia beach
Placencia beach

Rio Dulce and Livingston – swamp living and crocodiles

It’s a mix of four different cultures here, Caribbean, Mayan, Hindu and Chinese. We decide to mix it up even further and stay in a tree house like affair in the middle of a swamp owned by a British chap called Rusty

We are on our way up to Belize. Our plan is to spend a week on Caye Caulker, a small Caribbean island. A week of fresh fish, fruit and a chance to give our Kindles a good work out. We are slowing down now and have big plans not to do too much in the four weeks we have left. Coming back to Guatemala after Belize our route will take us to Tikal and then up into Mexico and across to the Atlantic coast. In no rush, we stopped twice en route to Belize, first at the end of a long day on a bus in Rio Dulce and then for two days in Livingston whilst we wait for some rain to pass and for a boat over to mainland Belize.

Dead fish drying on the pavement
Dead fish drying on the pavement

Rio Dulce is a destination in its own right, although we have little interest in taking advantage of what it has to offer, our sights are firmly set on watching our budget and Belize. Our bus dumps us in a chaotic street just after dark and although we usually avoid touts, we take advice from a local and are swiftly led down a dark alley to a boat which whisks us off down the river to an Australian owned hostel called Kangaroo. It’s a great location, right in the middle of the mangroves, monkeys screech and wildlife is literally on our doorstep. The native Mexican wife of the owner cooks up some pretty good snacks here but unfortunately the hostel is probably the worst built we have come across. We learnt later that the Aussie chap built it himself. Our room had only two walls the other two were just chicken wire leading out onto a communal balcony. There were no ceilings and the shared bathroom was feet from our bed. Add to that a group of travellers who were intent on having a rather big night and we didn’t get much sleep. We are never going to moan about others making too much noise, it’s part of staying in hostels, you just have to live with. Some nights you want a quiet night others you’re the one making the noise.

Kangaroo Hostel
Kangaroo Hostel

The next day, bleary eyed, we caught a tour-cum-trip to Livingston. It’s a great journey down the Rio Dulce, cutting through thick mangrove until it opens into a wide river flanked by cliffs and dense jungle. Local kids paddle up to the boat in canoes and try to sell us dead starfish and crap made out of shells but nobody is buying.

Kids selling dead starfish
Kids selling dead starfish

Livingston is a nice enough place, the owner of the Kangaroo hostel told us not to go and that it’s a dump but it turns out he was just trying to keep business in-house. Nice tactic, but word will get out. People like me will let others know on the internet.

It’s a mix of four different cultures here, Caribbean, Mayan, Hindu and Chinese. We decide to mix it up even further and stay in a tree house like affair in the middle of a swamp owned by a British chap called Rusty – Casa de la Iguana. This is a party hostel, in the evening residents hang from the rafters whilst downing shots of sugary alcohol. We decide not to indulge but instead just sit back and watch the carnage – it’s just as much fun. A group of three mid 30s women who worked on the X Factor UK keep up the dodgy British reputation with some quite outrageous behaviour. As we said to the hostel owners, for those not drinking, they should sell popcorn.

Downtown Livingston
Downtown Livingston

It rained almost solidly for two days and we both had developed mild colds so we vegetated. I got a chance to watch Newcastle beat Manchester United on TV, a rare chance to watch some football. Leah has started to work on her CV.

Can’t leave without mentioning the local kids playground in Livingstone, not only are the swings and slides cast iron death-traps, there is a crocodile pit in the middle. The local kids love it. No children playground should be without one. No kidding.

Croc in the playground
Croc in the playground

Antigua – New Year’s nonsense and fireworks

This was actually quite an honour, the square was packed, the whole town was here and behind us the God squad stood waiting for us to light the explosives to kick the whole thing off.

2012, blimey. Last year will obviously go down as rather special. Everybody back home keeps telling me the past year has flown by, but not for us. Being in London and a daily work schedule seems like a distant memory, we slipped into the nomad life easily. Saying that, we are ready to come home – almost. We are certainly not tired of travelling, there’s a whole lot more to see, but we are keen to get back to London, to friends and family and Sundays down the pub. We are also both quite passionate about our careers and keen to get back to work and whatever new challenges await. Not so much an end to the fun but the start of something different. The job hunting has begun and after writing this, it’s time to update my LinkedIn-profile – on the beach.

We spent New Year’s in Antigua, a small town in Guatemala that sits beneath three rather large and very active volcanoes. Had we visited Central America first as originally planned this post would contain pictures of me standing next to red hot lava flows. Unfortunately a large eruption last year left the volcano in a quiet phase. So we are here, with the Stefs, just to see in the New Year and spend some time in town.

Antigua -central square
Antigua -central square

You could be forgiven, as getting off a bus in the central square, that you were in fact in North America – at Disney’s new attraction – Guatemaland.  Authentic this place is not. For two blocks around the central park every shop and house has been transformed into a spotless, sterile – could easily be in any mall in America – coffee shop or restaurant. Big money has been spent to make a North American tourist feel like they are back home, with just a little ethnic spice sprinkled around the edges. Undeniably it’s a very pretty place, the streets are cobbled, houses are painted in pastel colours and windows boxes are well maintained.

Just a few blocks back however, in any direction, and the real world starts to creep in. The local shops start to take up space, buildings are less maintained and you get back to real Guatemala, warts and all. Where there are fewer shotgun-wielding security guards, things are not so cute. Crime here is very real. Guidebooks mention that muggings, rapes and murders of tourists are not AS common as before and we hear first-hand of an armed mugging on a short walk to the local cemetery.

Antigua - locals
Antigua - locals

We are staying just a few blocks from the centre, firmly in fantasyland and were looking forward to a bit of a party with the Stefs. They had plans to meet up with a friend of a friend, a local chap, for New Year’s Eve and we were coming along for the ride. All the locals seemed to be wearing novelty head gear, so we felt we should blend in.

New Year's Eve nonsense
New Year's Eve nonsense

We started off on the roof terrace of the great yellow hostel that the Stefs were staying at, where we had some drinks whilst the local volcano belched a spectacular puff of sulphur into the sunset.

Volcano fart
Volcano fart

A fantastic New Year’s Eve unravelled. Local rum, cheesy music and some great company ended around 3am –quite respectable. Enough said.

New Year's Eve
New Year's Eve

The next day, the next afternoon to be precise, we wandered around town and learned that a local festival was kicking off around 5pm. I’d heard rumours of fireworks, so there was no option of not attending. We didn’t learn the name of the festival but it went like this. After a church service the alter cross was heaved on the backs of a few clergy and walked out of the church. Here they were met by a local band and they would play for a bit. The local square at this point had been literarily carpeted by Chinese firecrackers and other fireworks. The cross, band and congregation slowly made one lap of the square, fireworks being lit directly in front of them before they headed back into the church.

Just a few of the fireworks
Just a few of the fireworks

I must have been taking far too keen an interest in the fireworks as the chap in charge decided that I needed to join him in lighting the fireworks. This was actually quite an honour, the square was packed, the whole town was here and behind us the God squad stood waiting for us to light the explosives to kick the whole thing off. So, local chap, Stef and I risked an eye or two for a few minutes lighting these, obviously not passed any safety test, fireworks. Great fun, although next time I’ll choose something better to wear than flip flops, shorts and t-shirt. It hurt.

Below is a little video of the event, the filming, which Leah shot, is a little bit crap as she was being bombarded by small explosive missiles. And no, you cannot see me smoking. We were given cigarettes to light the fuses and even though you can see me taking a puff that was only to keep the thing nice and hot; been a happy non-smoker for well over four years now.

The next day we had a bit of a shopping spree, I bought a huge leather overnight bag. For £35 it was a steal but meant I would be carrying the damn thing around for the next six weeks. We also picked up some great local coffee sacks that we plan to frame once we get home…and get a flat…and a job… etc.