hop on the good foot

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Due South – 3 Days in Costa Rica with some time to reflect.

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When you are on a jungle clad volcano island in the middle of a lake so big that you feel like you are at sea (Lake Nicaragua is so big in fact that at some points you can’t see the shores of the mainland and also it has freshwater sharks!), staying at a cheap eco-lodge that has a pizza night three times a week, with a price tag of $14 a night for a private cabin, it is very hard to leave of your own accord (Smug alert).  But alas, we had a flight booked so we had decided to journey from Ometepe to Liberia, just across the border in Costa Rica in a day.

A bus to the town of Moyogalpa, 29 km away from Santa Cruz managed to take 2.15 hours, standing all of the way of course.  A creakier and rockier lancha than our journey to the island with seats raided from a chicken bus, ferried us back to the mainland in 1.5 hours, where four of us crammed into a cab to Rivas.  There we were to get our last chicken bus in Central America to the border of Peñas Blancas.  Not really feeling misty-eyed about saying goodbye to this mode of transport yet as this last bus was a killer.  The Sunday service to the border took 50 minutes and was crammed full as we squeezed in the back, but then more got on, cramming me against the reggaeton speaker, door latch and a sweaty/obese/intoxicated/bad tempered/smelly specimen who was so drunk he kept dropping his bootleg porno DVD’s on the floor.  I noticed he squirrelled them away quickly enough when he met his wife at the other end!  The border was slightly confusing, but safe and relatively hassle free, we soon found our way crossing into our 7th country.  The whole journey cost us $8.50 each in total.

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Costa Rica is unreasonably expensive.  We only had three days there in one place and felt ‘robbed’ every time we bought something.  It’s not just us comparing prices from Central America and being stingy backpackers.  The prices are almost a match for the UK’s when in the supermarket buying basic food stuffs.  It also didn’t help matters that we stayed in a hostel that was run by a psychologist who had a distinct lack of people skills and proceeded to rub me up the wrong way at every available opportunity.  This added to my general dislike for the country.  Avoid.

Liberia International Airport is a fantastically clean and shiny new place that is basically a place to ship the sunburnt Yanks back home by Delta, JetBlue, United and American Airlines.  It’s a final shake-down spot.  $29 each to leave the country is the first little slap in the face until of course you get to the other side.  Two beers cost us the best part of $20. Now these were not fine imported Belgian beer or some kind of locally produced draught ale. These were two tins of $1 local piss water poured into plastic mugs.  A bag of Doritos and a bottle of water would have set us back $19 but we couldn’t bring ourselves to spend that.  Avoid also!

How much?

How much?

But why Rich?  Why didn’t you do the San Blas island tour from Panama straight to Cartagena?  Why fly from a country you didn’t plan on going to, to another country you didn’t plan on going to?

Three reasons.  Firstly, money!  The cheapest flight from Central America to South America that we found was Liberia to Quito at around $400 each which is equal to/cheaper than some of the boats.  Secondly, I get terribly sea sick, and four days open water sailing just sounds awful.  Third reason: why not?!  Ecuador sounds awesome!

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On board the tiny plane bound for San Salvador it felt strange to be moving somewhere without someone trying to sell me mango strips, parasite medication or duct tape from the aisle.  The only thing coming from there was a free sandwich!   It did give me a chance to see six weeks of hard work on chicken buses being undone in 90 minutes as we flew along the coast back to El Salvador.  From the plane I could see the two peaks of Ometepe clearly, then following north to the rest of Nicaragua’s line of volcanoes to the Golfo de Fonseca.  Then, El Salvador’s Volcan San Miguel was clearly visible and soon, we were on the ground, eating a pupusa in the airport terminal.

If you squint, you can see the peaks of Ometepe

If you squint, you can see the peaks of Ometepe

The flight to Quito was painless and is the only flight I have been on in a long time where the majority of passengers clapped on touchdown.  Local time was around 1am when we walked through to the terminal and we were soon in a taxi bound for Quito’s Old Town, just shy of an hour away.  The Secret Garden Hostal, which is neither secret nor has a garden was our destination.  We dumped our bags then summited the 5 flights of stairs to the terrace where the effects of being 2850m high started to take their toll.  Regardless, we had made it.  Our first sight of South America was indeed an unforgettable one.  Quito’s Old Town was lit up in front of us, seeming to climb the mountains behind it.  To our left stood the Panecillo statue shrouded in the creeping fog and to the right the Basilica Cathedral stuck out in all of its gothic glory.  It is one helluva fine spot.

The view of Quito Old Town from our lodgings on the first morning.

The view of Quito Old Town from our lodgings on the first morning.

4 months down and we have crossed through 7 countries in North and Central America successfully and without incident.  That is to say, no physical incident; having three cards cloned and accounts emptied was indeed an incident, but one that was relatively painless due to the helpfulness of the UK banks.

Mexico and Central America has been an incredible journey for the both of us.  We have travelled from the border of Tijuana all the way to Costa Rica by bus and boat.  Total time spent travelling of 213.5 hours.  That’s just a few hours short of 9 days.  I could reel off more facts and figures, but you get the gist and I don’t want to reveal just how truly geeky I have been about recording stuff just yet.  A long bloody time basically.  However, my point is, is that all modes of transport have been public (with the exception of Guatemala where we used the tourist shuttles, it would have been silly not too due to price and convenience) and they have all been safe.  Pretty stressful and hot at times, but still safe!  No issues to report, with the exception of course of one stolen baseball cap in Mexico, which I am still not over.

^^Our journey so far through North and Central America^^

There is much fear mongering by the US which rolls over the pond to the UK, warning us not to visit these places.  I know that when you log onto some world news site, you are bound to see a news story about some kind of Mexican cartel war, or possibly a kind of political protest at a Guatemalan border, or maybe the BBC deciding what the most dangerous place outside of a war zone today.  Is it Honduras or El Salvador now?   It could even be some kind of natural disaster like the common deadly hurricanes that relentlessly battered Mexico’s west coast last year or even Volcan San Miguel in El Salvador blowing its unpredictable top.  These things are all true.  But…see above.  No problems.  The closest I have come to confrontation with anyone was a local ‘borracho’ in El Salvador who took a fancy to my Zippo lighter.  Apart from that, the majority of encounters with locals have been pleasant ones.  Always keen to help, and in the more rural parts of the less travelled areas we ventured in, mainly curious.  The only area that we faced anything other than friendly (but still, no worse that uninterested really) was Honduras, but they’ve got bigger problems to worry about than the gringo backpacker tourist trade.

Yes there ARE drug cartels in Mexico, but you would have to be extremely unlucky or a drug dealer to ever meet any of them and then have them want to kill you.  There are protests every week somewhere in Central America, but it’s got nothing to do with us and they are doing it for a good reason, mostly.  San Pedro Sula in Honduras is an extremely dangerous place as are the eastern barrios of San Salvador in El Salvador.  But you wouldn’t go walking through the middle of high rise housing estate in Hackney or a housing project in Baltimore in the middle of the night using your new iPad as a camera, so why do it here? (If you did of course, you deserve everything you get) The natural disasters…yeah, I’ve got no argument with that one.  If it happens while you’re there, you’re in trouble.  Same goes for wildlife.  Lots of nasty stuff over there.

My point is, if it happens, it happens. If you’re thinking about going to any of the places we have visited and are worried about the US state department/FCO’s warnings, then take my advice instead. Wing it!  That’s what we did and we had an amazing four months and came through it in one piece with incredible memories.  Something just as bad can happen to you at home, so you might as well be in the sun when it does right?

Anyway, roll on Ecuador and the rest of South America.

Thanks for reading!

Any questions about anywhere we have been, please feel free to email us.

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Tikal – Mayan Skyscrapers and the tiny island of Flores

In front of Temple 2

This is not the first blog written about the Mayan ruins of Tikal and it certainly won’t be the last, so I will be brief and just mainly show you pretty pictures.

We left Lanquín on a tourist shuttle (Q150) with a collection of highly irritating ‘gap yah’s’ from Israel who seemed to be intent on making the journey one of the most unbearable yet.  The hangover of course did not help as well. Arriving in Flores at about 5pm, it is like a scene from ‘The Birds’ with a variety of different winged beasts lining the roof tops and trees, making a deafening racket that gave us both the willies. They do this every night at sunset, it’s very strange.

Too much waffle for you?  Click here to go to gallery.

Colourful cobbled streets of Flores

Colourful cobbled streets of Flores

Flores Alley

Flores Alley

Swimmers in Lake Peten Itza

Swimmers in Lake Peten Itza

Flores is a tiny Island on Lake Petén Itzá.  It has a mock colonial style running throughout with cobbled streets, brightly painted houses and tin roofs all painted red.  It is tiny and you can walk round it in about 10 minutes, although we couldn’t as some of the walkways by the lake appeared to be flooded.  The weather was highly unpredictable at the best of times, with bright sunshine, followed by thunderous downpours without warning.  There’s nothing much to do here apart from seek lodging and have a beer whilst visiting Tikal.  It’s quite expensive for a backpacker, but there is a taco stand at the back of the center square where you can get some cheap eats with a nice view over the lake.

Gallo Beer Sponsored Christmas

Gallo Beer Sponsored Christmas, got to love Guatemala!

Flores Central Square

Flores Central Square

A slippery alleyway down from the Central Square

A slippery alleyway down from the Central Square

Tikal, once described by one explorer as ‘Place where the Gods speak’ is a huge collection of Mayan ruins dating back to as early as 900BC.  It is set in the jungle of ‘National Park Tikal’ and takes around 1.5 hours to get to by bus (Q70 round trip for bus and Q150 for entry).  The site is one of the most impressive in existence mainly due to the collection of 6 temples that stretch up to 64m high from the forest floor peeking through the jungle canopy.  The temples are later works and date from between 600-800AD and as with most of the pre-Columbian cultures, they would simply build on top of the old stuff when a new leader came to power.

The great plaza

The great plaza

Sweaty trek through the jungle

Sweaty trek through the jungle

The temple of Inscriptions (Temple 6)

The temple of Inscriptions (Temple 6)

Ollie is a bit bigger than your average Mayan

Ollie is a bit bigger than your average Mayan

You can quite easily spend a whole day exploring the site and many lunatics opt to go at 3am, where they can climb to the top of Temple 4 and watch the jungle canopy spring to life with the sunrise.  We did not feel this was a good use of our time so ended up going there at midday and exploring for ourselves.  We still managed to see monkeys and other strange furry things through the jungle trails and, to our surprise, it was pretty empty.  We started at Temple 6 and wound our way to all of the great structures, culminating in the view from Temple 4, where you really feel like you are on top if the world.  The top of the canopy is endless and incredibly green, with four other temple tops visible poking through.  This was the top of the Mayan world and yet another incredible sight we have been blessed with.  Here are some more pictures.

Temple 2

Temple 2

Temple 5
Slippery steps...I fell down these shortly afterwards

Slippery steps…I fell down these shortly afterwards

Temple 1

Temple 1

So much to explore

So much to explore

Complex Q

Complex Q

Temple 4 through the jungle

Temple 4 through the jungle

Top of Temple 4 panorama

Top of Temple 4 panorama

For the full gallery, click here.

Thanks for reading.


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Lanquin – The mighty Rio Cahabón, Kan’ba cave system and the incredible Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey from above

Semuc Champey from above

“We can’t go any further guys, the water is too strong and we may drown”.  This was a sentence I was not expecting to hear at any point in my future when we decided to go to Lanquin!

On a tight schedule now as we have a destination date for Christmas in Honduras, the next two stops in Guatemala are going to be rushed, however they are my most anticipated.  The first being the town of Lanquin, the gateway to Semuc Champey.  When researching our travels this is the attraction that excited me the most and I have been looking forward to it since we left the UK.  A cheeky 9.5 hour cramped mini bus ride (Q125 each, shop around in Antigua, some people paid Q180 on the same bus!) took us via Guatemala City and then through winding wet hills of The Verapaces; which consist of the Baja and Alta departments (lower and higher respectively).  The journey as usual is minging; packed in with 17 other souls including one infant child, it becomes tiresome quite quickly.  After a stop in Cobán the journey takes us to Lanquin through treacherous narrow passes in the pouring rain and we try to ignore the evidence of recent landslides on the roads.

The Verapaces- How did these kids get here??

The Verapaces- How did these kids get here??

Semuc Champey, described locally by many Guatemalans as the ‘Eighth Natural Wonder of the World’ is a series of natural formed limestone pools that bridge the thundering Rio Cahabón in a smooth staircase-like fashion.

As always, for the snaps only and no waffle, click here!

Church in Lanquin

Church in Lanquin

We stayed at El Retiro Lodge (Q120 private room for two) which is set up for backpackers visiting Semuc, offering a tour to the site as well as a visit to the nearby Kan’ba Cave system (Tour cost Q180 per person).  On arrival we bumped into Jenna and James from our school in San Pedro so spent the first night drinking cubetazas (buckets of beer) in the pouring rain in the lodge next to the steadily rising river.

9 o’clock in the morning: the rain is pounding down and the river is getting increasingly more aggressive. We become anxious about the upcoming day trip of caving and tubing on the same river as we chow down some eggs and coffee.  However, we jump in a pick-up truck with approximately 20 others and take the 9km ride into Semuc.  This journey is not for the faint hearted.  Due to the heavy rain, it could be compared to one of those ‘Jungle Log Flume’ rides you take at a theme park…except there was a very high chance of certain death with one wrong turn from our trusty driver.  Standing the whole way it takes approximately 50 mins to reach the caves, via steep gravel roads through thick cloud forests.

Cloud forest of Semuc Champey

Cloud forest of Semuc Champey

The caves: not really sure what was going to happen, but the pathway to them was flooded as the river was steadily rising.  Only the middle of the path next to the heavy waterfall from the caves above was showing, but we waded through and before we knew it we were standing at the entrance in in our smalls with candles in our hands.  “Before we go in guys, can every one swim?  Does anyone have asthma?” A series of sensible questions were asked of  us in broken English as we stood outside, with one girl looking sheepish saying she could ‘sort of swim’.  The Brit in us couldn’t help thinking about how much health and safety legislation this would be breaching back home.  However in we went, in the freezing dark water, neck deep with bats flying around our heads.

Pathway to the caves is mostly flooded

Pathway to the caves is mostly flooded

Doesn't bother Ollie though...

Doesn’t bother Ollie though…

Swimming through the dark caves with thick water currents and then scrambling over rock faces, at all times holding a candle above our heads with the guides screaming and howling like crazy bastardsThis is when the guides said we have to go back or we will drown.  Not very comforting when one in the pitch black murky waters with only a half burnt candle to protect you.  Back we went, the same way, including the added bonus of sliding off a rock face into the dark cave pools below.  Ollie being the first gringo to go, she let out a sound I have never heard her make before, followed by my own tirade of foul language and heavy splash.  Needless to say, watching the rest come down was hilarious.  Emerging from the caves our faces were painted black with soot and orange from some kind of flower by the guides.

We'd like to thank Alexa and the girls for the cave shots!

We’d like to thank Alexa and the girls for the cave shots!

It got a lot damn deeper!

It got a lot damn deeper!

Cave joy

No sooner were we out than we were walking with rubber rings towards the outrageously heavy rapids of the Rio Cahabón.  With the water still rising, the current gaining strength and the banks being flooded, getting in was one of the stupidest things we have ever done.  We set off in a line of five, all clinging to each-others feet, franticly trying to paddle away from the middle of the river, but forgetting the submerged shrubbery.  We quickly came apart, losing one girl straight off; she grabbed Ollie’s feet for dear life.  Then I went in after hitting a tree and had to wrestle the tube free from a branch under water.  We all made it out without drowning, but certainly a lot damper and colder than we went in.

Some concerned faces setting off on tubes down the mighty Rio Cahabón

Some concerned faces setting off on tubes down the mighty Rio Cahabón

Making our way back to the entrance of the caves, the pathway was completely submerged now, and we all waded back in with two of the Canadian girls going completely over and one German girl managing to rip off her toenail and then fainting into the river.  My toe nail nearly suffered the same fate, but I managed to move my foot pretty quickly.  The only other casualties were some minor cuts and scrapes amongst the rest of the crew.

The guide leading the last few through the sunken path

The guide leading the last few through the sunken path

So far this was a pretty incredible and high energy day and we hadn’t even made it to Semuc Champey yet.  Awesome stuff!

Welcome to...

After a quick lunch of BBQ’d chicken and rice we walked into Semuc Champey national park and trekked the 1.2km up the slippery slopes into the cloud canopy to the Mirador lookout point.  Our first sight of Semuc was incredible.  The green lagoon seems to snake through a valley of thick green with clouds and mist floating past underneath and in front of us.

Semuc Champey

Mirador pose

Descending to the pools was a slippery task, but soon we were at the first point where looking north you can see the Rio Cahabón smashing its way under the first pool and to the south from the same spot, a calm series of glimmering lagoon like pools gently flowing into each other.  As we get to the next pool I decide to jump in and wallow around a bit, soon followed by Ollie and then some others from our group.  Words can’t describe how beautiful this place is and trying just wouldn’t do it justice, so here’s some more pictures of it.

Close up of one of the limestone bridges at Semuc Champey

in I go...as you can see, I need to work on the tan still!

In I go…as you can see, I need to work on the tan still!

in she goes...Check out those tan lines!

in she goes…Check out those tan lines!

Semuc Champey waterfalls

Kill nothing but time

Kill nothing but time

Wallowing...

Wallowing…

After heading back the same perilous way we came we hit the bar for some fine Italian buffet action and some beers, leading to a poor decision to join the Swiss, American and Canadians from the trip in a round of ring-of-fire, while we taught them the way to play Fuzzy Duck.  Apparently I am a Cardinal now? The rest is a bit hazy, but my god what an incredible day!

Bridge over the Rio Cahabón

Our ride

Our ride

Bumpy pick-up selfie

I feared this place, being well and truly established on the Gringo trail would be jam packed and full of touts and people at every turn.  It wasn’t.  The hostels all offer daily tours which keeps the bod’s flowing through, leaving the parks and caves to a couple of groups each day.  We saw one other group that day and it was very briefly as well.  The place still has a very much unspoiled and wild feel to it.  Probably one of the most exciting and memorable things we have ever done but…absolutely exhausting!

pretty nice eh?

Achievement

Air plants

just a tree

hoponthegoodfoot

Full gallery, click here

Thanks for reading!