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Roatán – an Island Christmas

Beer of the Day - a Port Royal by the beach

Beer of the Day – a Port Royal by the beach

After the delights of La Ceiba it was with great enthusiasm that we got up at the crack of dawn three days before Christmas and jumped in a taxi over to the ferry terminal to head over to the largest of the Bay Islands, Roatán. There is a well-organised ferry over there that leaves twice a day, the Galaxy Wave II; or as it’s known to everyone who has sailed on it, ‘The Vomit Comet’. Staggeringly for Central America, the boat left half an hour early, so by 10am, after the ferry staff had valiantly handed out a large number of plastic bags and catering-sized wads of kitchen roll to our fellow green-faced passengers, we slowed and approached the turquoise waters than line the island. Thankfully our sea legs held.

If you’d like to head straight to the pictures, click here!

Roatán is around 48 miles in length, but only 5 miles wide at the widest point. It has a fascinating history, having been claimed by both the Spanish and the British at various different times during its history. Before the Spanish arrived there had been French buccaneers there at one point during the 16th century, which apparently gave one the island’s main settlements, French Harbour, its name. No trace remains of the indigenous population, instead today the island’s inhabitants are a mix of Hondurans from the mainland, particularly the younger population, and older islanders, many of whom speak English as a first language. There are also a large number of people of Garífuna descent who speak a kind of Creole English. As such it was impossible to know whether to speak English or Spanish on the island; in practice most people seemed to speak some of both!

Two local lads fishing - successfully!

Two local lads fishing – successfully!

On arrival we took a taxi from the ferry terminal which is on the south side of the island around half way along, to West End (unsurprisingly, all the way over on the west side of the island). As the taxi slowly meandered along the road through the town, with the beach, blue waters and swaying palm trees just feet away we agreed that we’d made a pretty solid choice for a spot to kick back over the festive period.

Half Moon Bay, West End

Half Moon Bay, West End

One of West End's picturesque bars

One of West End’s picturesque bars

Our lodgings were a brightly painted wooden cabin with a hammock on the terrace and a little kitchen of our own and for the first time in a long while, we actually unpacked! Perfect. Until around 3pm. At this point the sound system at the newly opened bar/club/restaurant complex next door started up. We’re not ones to complain about a little music but as the evening wore on the volume reached the point where the cabin floor was shaking and we couldn’t hold a conversation indoors. We decided there was nothing for it but to head out for a few cold ones to send us to sleep later and hope it had stopped. No such luck. The same thing happened the next day so the choice was to either find some other lodgings or ship out. Luckily, another spot a little walk away had a cabin to spare so on Christmas Eve with a number of apologies to the lovely owners of the previous place, who were very understanding and driven mad themselves by the noise, we moved to our new spot at Hillside Garden Cabins in a secluded spot among the trees.

(A note on this new bar – it’s called El Boské, and is apparently owned by a guy with no ties to the island and large quantities of cash who doesn’t give two hoots that he’s destroying local business and the community. At the request of the owner of our former lodgings I went to speak to him to explain the effect that the noise levels and lack of respect are causing but I got a rather empty apology and a few platitudes saying he would turn the music down but this was a total lie. It just carried on. They have a website and a facebook page with comments sections if anyone who lives there or has been there wants to share their views…)

After this slightly stressful start, things got better from there. We had a lazy day on the beach and working out which bar had the coldest/cheapest beer. Christmas Day dawned, our first away from home and what’s more in the Caribbean…..and it was raining!! Not to be defeated we headed out in our raincoats in search of a bar (just for the wifi, honest) to Skype our families back at home who told us to stop complaining about the rain as Britain was more or less underwater… We rounded the day off with a lovely fish/steak dinner and bottle of red. What more could you want.

Christmas Dinner 2014

Christmas Dinner 2014

It was time though to take advantage of Roatán’s main draw- the excellent scuba diving. The island is surrounded by coral reef, clear waters and a whole host of sea life. My PADI certification was 10 years old so I sought out a refresher session and some fun dives at Reef Gliders. On advice from one of their Divemasters Rich decided that due to his issues with his ears (essentially he can’t equalize them when there’s changes in pressure) diving was out. With credit to the guys at Reef Gliders – they are not in for the hard sell and genuinely want everyone to be safe and enjoy it so don’t encourage people to do it if it wouldn’t be a good idea. The next day I was back in (and under) the water, and for 5 more days after that. The diving truly was fantastic. I saw moray eels, groupers, trumpet fish, giant lobsters and crabs, big shoals of shimmering blue fish, eagle rays and best of all, turtles. So many of them and I could swim just feet alongside them – fantastic stuff. Best of all on the last day I dived with Jason McAnear, one of their Divemasters and an Underwater Videographer who filmed the dive and pulled out some stills for me which are the dive shots on here – check out his series of videos here!

Rocking a wetsuit...

Rocking a wetsuit…

Trumpet fish doing a bad job of hiding

Trumpet fish doing a bad job of hiding

Me and my turtle friend

Me and my turtle friend

We did take a day away from the tourist bubble of West End for a day on New Year’s Eve, hiring a moped and setting off up through the island. The main road is a little hectic but once we got past the main towns of Coxen Hole and French Harbour the traffic thinned and the road climbed up to the highest point from where we could see out over the north coast of the island and see the reef out at sea. French Harbour itself was fascinating – a working town, mainly centered on fishing, where most of the houses are traditional Caribbean painted wooden boards, often on stilts. We wound on and on down a dirt track with the promise of a little bar/restaurant called La Sirena at the easternmost point called Camp Bay, passing though remote settlements where life on the island looks as if it’s barely changed for 50 years or more. We finally arrived at La Sirena and were not disappointed, a perfect spot for a cold beer while we chatted to a big El Salvadorean family on holiday on the island. Sadly we had to start back for West End – attempting a 100 mile round trip on a moped was a little ambitious perhaps, and both of us on a scooter is not entirely comfortable for that long!

Houses in French Harbour

Houses in French Harbour

Traditional houses and the reef

Traditional houses and the reef

On our return we started to prepare some dinner at around 6pm when the power went out. Luckily they had a gas hob… After dinner by candlelight we set out into the town with a torch headed for a New Year’s shingdig at our favourite beach bar Sundowners along with half the rest of the town it seemed. The power came back on but went out twice more that night which seemed to entertain everyone, especially after several $1 rum and cokes. An excellent evening all round.

NYE 2013!

NYE 2013!

Our cabin home for 10 days

Our cabin home for 10 days

So that more or less sums up our time in Roatán – diving, beach time, a bit more rain than we’d have liked and a few more rum and cokes that is advisable but it is a great spot. We left a day later than planned due to our taxi not showing up to take us to the ferry at 6am which is the type of thing we’ve been learning to get used to in Central America. Ultimately we’ve got nothing but time!

Waiting to get in the water!

Waiting to get in the water!

Yep, this'll do

Yep, this’ll do


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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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Antigua – Colonial charm, idyllic scenery and some more mezcal…

Arch of Santa Catalina

Arch of Santa Catalina

It’s dark when we arrive in Antigua from Monterrico, and we emerge from the 3 hour bus ride scratching our selves like flea ridden dogs from the sheer volume of mosquito bites we were sporting (I reckon I had over 50!).  After sorting accommodation for a night we venture out to into the busy streets in search of supplies, food and a cold beer; all of which were readily available at each turn here.

For just the snaps, click here!

Palacio del noble ayuntamiento

Palacio del noble ayuntamiento

Antigua is a brightly-coloured colonial city complete with cobbled streets, which is nestled in a dark green valley.  Volcán Agua stands visible to you at most points in the town as it sits poking through the clouds to the southern point.  The city itself is a UNESCO world heritage site and strict building regulations mean it stays bloody delightful.  The lack of buildings over two stories high affords you a decent view from pretty much any second floor window or terrace.  1773 saw the city crumble to an earthquake and many of the colonial ruins still lie untouched alongside the rest of the surviving buildings.  The architecture and layout is extremely similar to San Cristobel de las Casas in Mexico, to the point where walking up 4 Ave Norte approaching the handsome Parque Central, I had a mild bout of confusion and thought I was back in the high altitude Chiapas town.

La Merced

La Merced

Bartolomé de Las Casas bust - They love this guy

Bartolomé de Las Casas bust – They love this guy

One of the various church ruins of Antigua

Straight posing

So on our first night here we found our way into the brightly lit-central square of Parque Central and admired the impressive architecture and started to soak up the general laid-back vibe the place has.  Seeking refreshment we headed to ‘The Ocelot Bar’ but when we entered we found that the building opened into a twee courtyard and we were surrounded by a few others establishments as well.  After meeting up with an American we had met in Lake Atitlán at the Spanish school we headed for ‘Café No Se’ with its promise of cold beer and mezcal.  The dark and purposely dingy bar has a smaller bar to the side which sells its own brand of mezcal which they have proudly smuggled out of Oaxaca for a few years and officially produce it now under the name ‘Ilegal Mezcal’.  The Brit behind the bar was happy to tell us the story and pointed out the one lonely bottle of tequila that sits on the back bar in case the cops come looking, having to claim that the mezcal is just decoration.  This was also the first place we came face-to-face with Maximón who is the ‘evil saint’ also known as San Simón as he has a shrine in the back where you give him booze and smokes.  Needless to say that we had a good night and the one thing I can remember clearly is speaking with a Dutch guy and learning about/discussing the finer points of Swaffleing’.

Ilegal Mezcal

The shrine to Maximon the Evil Saint

The shrine to Maximon the Evil Saint

Handsome back bar

We had two full days in the city and we moved to the much coveted (and deservedly so) Yellow House hostel.   One day was to be used to venture up Volcán Pacaya following my defeat by San Pedro and the other was to just for exploring.  The weather was not great so we decided to abandon the volcano trek for a lighter day of further sightseeing.  We spent the whole first day just walking through the cobbled streets, admiring the colourful buildings and complimentary weathered effect that they have succumbed to.

Antiguan Street

Aspirational

More building posing in Antigua

Colonial ruins and churches are everywhere and we decided to pay to visit the peaceful ‘San Jerónimo’ ruins which were once a church and school before the quake.  This was a top little spot and we had it almost to ourselves apart from some locals who get in for next to nothing and were taking advantage of the peace by having a picnic in the scenic gardens.

Central yard of San Jeronimo

Ollie pulling a Mona Lisa face

San Jeronimo Stairs

Some nooks in San Jeronimo

Success!

The pit of San Jeronimo

A visit to the local market was good fun with all kinds of weird and wonderful things on offer including the fruit called ‘Sapote’ that Ollie has been going on about since she left Cuba and she finally found it here.  One happy traveller!

Finally found the Sapote

Finally found the Sapote

The second day was a late starter and feeling refreshed we hiked up to Cerro de la Cruz, which is a lookout point over Antigua and Volcán Agua.  It was a stunning view.

Cerro De La Cruz overlooking Antigua and Volcan Agua

Cerro De La Cruz overlooking Antigua and Volcan Agua

Cru selfie...getting better at them!

Hike up to Cerro De La Cruz

Antigua is a main tourist draw and many people come here and use it as a base to take trips to the rest of the Gringo trail in the country.  I was slightly apprehensive about this place as we had heard lots of reports of crime against tourists on the way down south, but we saw none of that.  The local life going on around the tourist army is a friendly one with the majority of locals giving the obligatory ‘Hola’ as you walk past them in the street.  We are on a short time frame in Guatemala and it was a shame to leave this spot so soon as I could have easily stayed for at least a week.   It is not kind to a backpacker’s wallet however.  But, if you’re ever in the area it would be foolish not to stop by.

Camoflage dog

Chicken Bus to Guate from Antigua

Volcan Agua to the south of the city