Monthly Archives: April 2012

April 25th 2012 – ‘El Peten’ Northeast Guatemala

It took us over 6 hours to get to get from Coban to the El Peten (jungle) region in the Northeast of Guatemala. For the first time on our travels in Guatemala we were on the bus with Europeans, some of them British, which made the journey easy. It’s nice to talk in your own language and have an in depth conversation occasionally! I met a kid who was a web developer in London and we had a canny chat about the business and he gave me a few tips for contract work – as well as discussing the Steve Jobs biography I’d just finished (great book by the way).

flores

Creole influence? Half expect to see Elvis on the verranda!

We are staying in Santa Elena, a dusty little town by a large lake, called ‘Lago de Peten Itza’. Its hot here!!! Its actually so hot and humid I’m really glad we booked the Mayaland Plaza Hotel – it has cool courtyards, air-conditioning, TV and a pool – even though Jane keeps telling me its over budget:)!  The staff are a bit ‘Fawlty Towers’ but it adds to the overall charm. At least the coffee’s good!

Flores West

The "Promenade" as Jane calls it..."It's not Whitby ya knaaa!"

This is Janes bit of the trip. We are here to see the Mayan temples and they had better be worth it for putting up with the sweltering conditions! But we are just going to chill for a few days, adapt to the heat a bit, before travelling out to Tikal where the Mayan Temples are – that’s going to be tough, spending all day walking  jungle tracks to pyramids and temples, but its got to be cool to be among the Mayan sites in 2012! End of Days!

Santa Elena (where we are) used to be the ceremonial hub of this region. It was awash with temples and pyramids until the Spanish came and pretty much razed it to the ground, leaving behind a bland, grid of a town with no remenant of it’s past… but still, a lively place.

Sundown in Flores

Sundown in Flores a true Mayan burnt orange sun!

From Santa Elena a causeway takes you out to an island in the lake, which is the tiny town of Flores. This is the posh end. Its really nice here, a bit like Antigua, with cobbled streets and low buildings that all lead to the plaza at the top of the hill. The houses are more brightly coloured here, due to the creole/carribean influence from neighbouring Belize, but it has a definate Spanish feel. Most nights we go for dinner on the west side of the island, because the sunset is amazing over the lake, the pizzas are good, there’s a two for one on beer and at about 6pm a lot of people gather to jump off the jettys and swim, so it gets pretty lively.

Vanilla Sky in Flores

Vanilla Sky in Flores

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April 21st 2012 – Semuc Champey

Another 60km bus journey took us through more rural areas and onto dirt roads. Sharing the journey with some other tourists from America, Barcelona and Guatemala (who were pretty entertaining despite the fact we couldn’t understand a word they were saying!).

Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey pools

Semuc Champey

More of Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey is a natural limestone “stair step” formation with a huge waterfall filling it’s clear pools with mineral rich – and fish rich – waters. It’s pools are filled with locals and tourists alike swimming in the mid-day sun, and sliding down the natural slides from pool to pool, and just basically chilling in an amazingly beautiful place. Oh yes… our guide “Daniel” took us to the pools via a bridge from which he jumped.. check this out…

It turned out to be quite a hike day. After the swim in the pools (I didn’t Jane did), it was then time for a walk up to the viewing platform, right up on top of the limestone cliff. This was knackering, pretty much vertical hiking, about 3k of it… but once you got to the top, the view of Semuc Champey was astounding.

View from above

View after a 3k vertical climb!!

On the way back we visited a huge cave system, in the village of Lanquin, used by the Maya for thier ceremonies, our guide Daniel, a Mayan himself, called it thier ‘church’.  It was a strange and spooky place, the walls were black with candle and fire smoke, and from what Daniel was saying, possibly blood from the sacrifices still occuring there – animal not human!  Apparently a team of cavers explored 4km further into the system, losing one of the party to low oxygen and heat exhaustion before heading back defeated. Guatemala sits on a convergence of three tectonic plates (there was an earth tremor big enough to move my bed, with me on it, and leave the light fitting swinging the other day) so I guess there is a lot of geothermal activity under the cave. Don’t worry even Jane didn’t take a picture of yet another cave – we’ve lost count of how many we’ve been in – so no boring pics of blackened stalegmites and sacrificial sites!

We had a great day, due to the company as much as the amazing place, and headed back to Coban in the dark with an electrical storm lighting our way.


April 19th 2012 – The Highlands of Coban

We’re heading North and a highland town called Coban seemed just about the right distance to break up the long journey, so we booked some bus tickets from a ‘reputable’ company and got ourselves out of bed early for a 3 to 4 hour journey. Didn’t quite turn out how we expected – we were had – the company just put us on the airport bus back to Guatemala City and after leaving everyone else at the airport, took us across the city and dropped us at a delapitated bus station. The driver handed us two tickets and disappeared. They were for the chicken bus. It took us over 8 hours to get to Coban, but it wasn’t a bad trip, a bit cramped, but the other passengers were really great.

Thankfully our hotel in Coban turned out to be really good. Its an old colonial convent, really good quality and one of the best nights sleep to be had, despite it’s location – by the side of the main road. It was run by an American lady who I think took a bit of a shine to us…especially when Jane told her that she had great taste!

Posada, Coban

The Posada, Coban, Guatemala

Coban town is quite a small place by all accounts. It has a town square with a Russian monument in the middle known by the locals as the “El Kioske” a remnant from the cold war days… and they pretty much detest it. However it does serve as a platform for community events such as rewards ceremonies – we witnessed one of these and it was really good…it gave the kids recieving the awards a huge confidence boost. They were filmed and shown on huge screens to rapturous applause from thier friends… then fireworks would go off in celebration. It was really good.

El Kioske

El Kioske - Soviet Cake Stand??

We stayed in Coban for 5 days – mooching around the old streets and drinking coffee (or what passed for coffee) in many of the local eateries, just enough to get over the travelling really, but we did embark on a satellite trip out to see a place called Semuc Champey – a natural limestone waterfall about 60 km out of town… more on that in the next post.

Coban Street

Luckily not all the streets in Coban are designed by Soviets!!


April 17th 2012 – Walking up Pacaya

Yet another early start today! We are walking up one of the volcanoes – Pacaya – today!

Again a 6am start and a one and a half hour drive (we can see it from the village, but you have to take some roundabout roads to get to it!) brought us the foot of Mount Pacaya. As soon as we arrived we were surrounded by skinny dogs and kids selling walking sticks (2 for 10 Quetsales) “Lo Necessita senior, Lo Necessita senior” (it’s needed mister). I declined and after we paid into the national park we set off with our guide (who spoke no English) on a 3km, one and a half hour hike to the top (turned out not to be but…). We were followed by locals on horses shouting “taxi!” for those of us who couldn’t be arsed to walk. They left after the steepest section when they realised all of this particular party were going to walk it! They must get takers sometimes though to follow us as far as they did.

Volcano

A small poof... and no, not Graham Norton 🙂

The hike was interesting… the soil was black as coal, but a young forest was growing out of it as well as the planted areas of crops and vegetable gardens. This is why the locals risk living on the slopes of a live volcano, the volcanic soil is rich in nutrients. There’s also lots of fresh water here, as a natural lake of very pure water sits in an ‘old’ caldera and this provides water for over 20 communities in the area. Like I said, our guide only spoke Spanish, but there was the odd information board on the way up so we learned a bit about the volcano!

volcano

Pacaya a little active today

We were the first party to leave that day, and a pack of dogs joined us. They are clever bunch and know that western tourists will share what’s in thier backpacks, so the walk up is definately worth thier while. We broke up a scrap at one point as one of the younger dogs was testing the ground for takeover of the pack. He soon found out that not only has the head honcho got plenty fight in him yet, he also has a very loyal pack.

Jane on Pacaya

Jane with the One Ring ready to throw it into Mount Doom 🙂

It was a good moment geting to the edge of the top caldera and looking out over the most recent ash fall. Steam was floating across the surface and you could feel the heat coming out of splits in the caldera floor, its a landscape like no other.

Marshmallows

Jane roasting Marshmallows in one of Pacayas' lava tunnels

We spent a bit of time roasting marshmallows from one of these ‘natural ovens’ and got the opportunity to explore a bit, but, to our great disapointment we could not go any further as the summit was ‘active’ – they are very wary these days as a group of tourists were killed when the volcano had a small eruption a few years ago – our guide (translated by someone in the party) told us that you can’t see the lava when its active anyway due to all the steam. We were still peeved. Anyway, as we started to make our way back down we looked back to see the dogs settled for the day, waiting for the next group and thier sandwiches.

dogs of Pacaya

Dogs of Pacaya - They follow you up, but they don't follow you down 🙂


April 14th 2012 – Antigua, Guatemala

OK… so we couldn’t get out of Guatemala City fast enough…so fast in fact I think the dust in the carpet in the room followed us for 10 miles 🙂

Antigua is only an hour and a half west on good roads by mini bus, so after an early start of 5 am we arrived in Antigua at round 6:30am but unfortunatley the staff (those who speak English anyway) don’t start work until 8am so we had to hang around for a bit, in a very comfortable living room, before they very kindly checked us in early. Then we went straight back to bed for a bit… it’s becoming a habit this (we were up at 3.45!).

View of Mnt Agua

View of Mount Agua on our arrival

Our home for the duration

Our home for the duration, a typical Guatemalan building!

We surfaced around noon (I know I know… shut up…we were tired) and went for a mooch about town. Antigua is a much more quaint agreeable town, flanked by volcanoes (we’re going up one of them soon) with cobbled streets and vennels as well as Castilian looking churches (I’m half expecting Yul Brynner & the Boys to trot down the street followed by locals shouting “senior, senior…can you help us” (Magnificent 7). It’s obviously geared for tourism by the price of the rooms (but as usual we didn’t pay full price) and there are lots of cafes and bars and even a Subway all ready and willing to part you from your cash. I reckon it’s mainly because it’s a popular destination for rich American tourists which explains the prices.

Santa Catalina Arch

Santa Catalina Arch, Antigua

Not every place in the town is like that though, we found some great, sensibly priced, little coffee bars and restaurants, really ambient places – in fact one bar, besides two red, twenty watt lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling, was entirely lit by candles –  with attentive staff who’s English is better than my Spanish! Although I’m picking little bits up here and there… and the miming always helps. (I might move to Paris and become the new Marcel Marceau!).

Central American Bus

Pimp my bus!!! - Central American Buses are cool!


April 12th 2012 – Arriving in Guatemala

It was a strange flight. When we arrived at LA airport, we were asked to do a self check-in, and that our seats would be issued at the boarding gate. So, Jane went to get us seats, and came back with exit aisle seating. We were well pleased with the idea of our extra leg room, (you have to pay for them on any other airline) that is until the service desk kept repeating over the mike that they had exit seats left, would anyone like them? She did everything she could to try to get people to take them. Now we were worried – what the bleep is wrong with the exit seats?

Boarding was mayhem. Someone was in the quenue, in LA airport, with a dog. Not kidding. Where in the world can you take your dog into the plane cabin….on the flight to Guatemala thats where. I was losing confidence in the airlines less than modern operating procedures. We were nearly the last on the plane, and on being shown to our exit aisle seats, the male steward put his hand out and asked Jane for 40 dollars. Her face was a picture, I could see it flash through her mind – ‘thats why people won’t take them’ – but he was joking!  So we took our extra leg room seats, no extra charge, still waiting for the catch….none.  All we can think is that the Guatemalans think its tempting fate siting in this area. Before the plane took off a stewardess approached us to ask if we would help in an emergency. We nodded, not good enough, she told us we have to verbally agree to it.

Our Hotel in Guatemala City

Our Hotel in Guatemala City - not in the best neighbourhood...

Maybe the Guatemalans don’t like the idea of being useful in an emergency. Anyway we were on our way… We arrived at 5.30 am, knackered. We needed an ATM, and the only one the airport has was so well hidden we needed help to find it. It was at this point that we realised that no one speaks English. Janes Spanish is near non existent, and mine is a bit pidgeon. Oh shit. We got a bit of a fright as the ATM wouldn’t give us cash…shit…but releasing a few emergency dollars from a safe place we went to the exchange. To our delight the girl here spoke a little English, enough to tell us that the cash points do not give out money until after 8am – probably to reduce crime.

We managed to find a taxi and get dropped off at our hotel.  Lets just say that Guatemala City is not pretty, and neither was our hotel. It looked nothing like the pics on booking.com, and it had a 12 year old armed guard at the door (doubling as the doorman – so our first impression was being greeted by someone with a sawn-off shot gun and a big smile – what would you think?), and none of the staff speak a word of English. Our room was….basic, but at least it was available at 6.30 in the morning! We put the ‘do not disturb’ on the door and climbed into bed, needing sleep not just for exhaustion, but to ease the stress 🙂

Typical Guatemalan street

Typical Guatemalan street

When we finally surfaced for a walk out into the chaos, we went searching for an ATM and asked the desk clerk (in mime) where the nearest one was and off we went to find it. It’s not pretty here… and in some places you can see the aftermath of various earth quakes. At one point in our walk we met a lady and her child… she was talking away in Spanish until I told her “Lo Siento, no hablo espanole” (I’m sorry I don’t speak spanish), so it was back to miming and gesturing. With my pigeon Spanish I could make out the odd word eventually understood that she had lost her husband in the last quake when her house had been wrecked (which was in the process of being re-built). She showed us where to find the ATM, we would never have found it without her, and so we felt it was a fair exchange to give her something to feed the kids that day. I have to admit it was hard for me to see this woman with four kids living in what I can only describe as a corrugated box with some brick left in a wall or two… tragic. Howaay man it’s my first day!!!

Second impressions

Once we had got over the intial shock of the place we decided to have a mooch day…Our hotel gave us a ‘map’, but actually it was just a series of lines, with no discernable landmarks. we set out to look for the tourist information, and with the ‘map’ being of no use, got lost, then got led to an area we weren’t looking for by a ‘helpful’ local. We were going ’round in circles!  So, walking past shops, offices and government buildings, all with armed guards in the doorways, we found ourselves back at the hotel….but we had a plan.

It's not ALL a warzone...

It's not ALL a warzone... although even the park had an armed guard!

Our third day turned out well. We took a taxi to the Premier bus company (I ain’t gettin on no chicken bus) on the other side of the city, to book tickets out of here! I felt happier already. we decided to walk back, as we had all day, and actually found a tourist office. Now we had a useable map! It turned out to be a really enjoyable day. Theres not much to see, but at least we knew how to get there, and we ended the day in a great little family run restaurant, the food was fantastic, and it was then that we realised that the hotel food was not a good example of Guatemalan cuisine – and was over-priced!

Guatemalan Church - note the razor wire

Guatemalan Church - note the razor wire!

Tomorrow we are on the road to Antigua,(at five in the morning!) and we are looking forward to getting out of the noise and pollution and into the hill country.


April 7th – Kanab, Slot Canyon

Everyone can guess why I love Kanab, besides the fact that it’s a really nice town, in a really nice setting, but for Jane the reason was different. One thing we had not managed to do on this trip was walk a slot canyon. We had intended to go to Horseshoe canyon, to see the pictographs and walk through a slot, but we found out that the access road needed a 4 wheel drive (we had an SUV) and then there was an 8 hour return hike (no way), so that wasn’t going to happen.

Well we discovered that there is a slot canyon right here in Kanab. And I didn’t even need to drive. We booked a third night here, deciding we did not need to be in LA until the day we fly (22.30pm flight) and booked a trip.
What a great day. First we travelled over the corral sand dunes in a massive 4 wheel drive, it was a roller coaster ride for about two miles until we pulled into the ‘White wave’ area. This is a massive white sandstone outcrop – this pic gives away the name..

The White Wave

"The White Wave"

From here we treked over the butte to an area used by the ancient Anazasi tribe. It was an arched cave, full of pottery shards and the walls were covered in petroglyphs….one or two were pretty interesting. This is where our guide ‘Will’ and Jane really hit it off (lots of conversation about alien intervention in the ancient past) There is one of a ‘rocket’ and some strange ‘beings.’  Will told us that he and a mate had seen a green UFO a few nights earlier from his porch in Kanab….Oh well, Jane was happy:)

Petroglyph of bloke with funny hands

Petroglyph of bloke... "Jane!? are you sure that this pic isn't from Vision On?"

Petroglyoh of "a rocket"

Jane thinks this is a rocket...mmmm...yeees....

After this we drove over more dune-scape to the canyon entrance. These things are amazing. Carved out by water over millenia, the slots are curving works of art made of stone.

Mystical Slot Canyon

Mystical Slot Canyon - just outside Kanab, Utah

At some points the blue sky shines above, and at others the sides of the canyon meet and it becomes dark…and then at other you gat a bit of both, a shaded place with a shaft of light.

Shaft of light in Mystical Slot Canyon

Shaft of light in Mystical Slot Canyon

At one point there are some hand carved foot holds, created by the Anazasi tribe – Will reckoned they may be an escape route from flash floods. The tribes used the canyon slots to stay out of the 40 drgree summer heat, and  water can flood the entire canyon in minutes when it rains. It was a pretty amazing day with a really informative guide who is a guardian to this landscape. Really glad we stayed in Kanab.

Shooting up

Shooting up...er...so to speak

Besides one last night stop before LA, on the long road back to the coast (over 500 miles from here), this is the end of our stay here in the US….so what next?