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Bienvenidos a El Salvador! – Crossing the El Poy border, Suchitoto and Santa Ana

Painting of the Vista de Lago hostel and lake Suchitlan

Painting of the Vista al Lago hostel and lake Suchitlan

Whilst Ollie was spending her time bobbing around with the turtles and the trumpet fish on Roatán, I found myself with quite a lot of spare time.  I decided to plan our trip through El Salvador, including the public transport options.  The buses are all numbered chicken buses and seemed to run on a pretty reliable and cheap network.  So we set off to get a bus from Copán in Honduras to Suchitoto in El Salvador.  As the crow flies, this is not a long way.

For just the full photo gallery, click here.

We started our journey on a 7am and after two cold bus rides through the moody Honduran landscape we found ourselves at the El Poy border.  An uninterested Honduran official stamped us out with not so much as a grunt, we changed some money to US$ (as that is the currency of El Salvador since 2000), wandered through an army of stationary trucks (that we later found out were blocking the borders to vehicle traffic in protest at a new tax) and were then met by a small El Salvadoran official who greeted us warmly and welcomed us to his country.  He showed us the way to the immigration office where we were met with another friendly official who took time to find out where we were going and told us to take off our fleeces as it was warm in his country.  Already, we felt welcome in El Salvador.

Bienvenidos a El Salvador

Bienvenidos a El Salvador

Walking through the peaceful border we hopped on a #119 bus which chugged along for around 2.5 hours through the handsome town of La Palma and some other red tiled roofed communities stashed in the north of this hilly little country.  We were soon off this bus and standing by a strange road in Aguilares, with no sign of the bus I knew we needed.  We asked many people, including the child vendor Ollie nearly gutted with her pack dismounting the last bus, where the next one would stop.  They all told us to wait where we were.  The bus didn’t come so after 40 long minutes and after many hopeful cigarettes smoked (the theory being when you light a cigarette, your bus always comes) we followed another local’s advice who directed us through the heaving market.  Packs getting heavier in the heat of the sun and the desire for a cold beer and a solid recline growing by the minute, the goal seemed out of reach. We finally found the #163 sitting there tucked away one block away, after we had of course done a lap of the market.

Iglesia Santa Lucia over Park Centenario

Iglesia Santa Lucia over Park Centenario

Suchitoto, our first overnight stop, was accessed by a pleasant 50 minute bus ride away from the chaos of Aguilares, west-bound through the peaceful countryside framed by the sun-kissed peaks of long extinct volcanos and hills.  Arriving at about 5:30pm we were greeted by a colourful cobbled street colonial hideaway that overlooks a large manmade reservoir, Lake Suchitlán.  We headed for our desired lodgings, Hostel Vista al Lago, which does indeed have a view of the lake.  They were out of rooms, but the mother of the family-run hostel offered us her emergency room (a cupboard with a bed) for the night until a better option became available.  Arrested by the stunning view of the sun setting over the mountains and the lake we happily agreed and tucked into a few bottles of the local brew called ‘Pilsner’ which tastes fine when ice cold and having done a 11 hour bus epic.

Our first view of Lake Suchitlan, El Salvador

Our first view of Lake Suchitlan, El Salvador

This town, combined with the view from our room that we finally got, was the perfect combination for rest and relaxation.  It’s an easy going place, and feels like it is El Salvador’s push for colonial town tourism.  Except, there were not many foreign sightseers around.  A few pasty Americans, who I assumed were on some kind of church/mission trip, were really the only tourists we saw.

Cobbled streets of Suchitoto

Cobbled streets of Suchitoto

Bright colours of Suchitoto

Bright colours of Suchitoto

We took a walk down to the quaint little tourism port of San Juan one morning, where they have a selection of restaurants, full of El Salvadoran families, and spent the rest of our time in the town just admiring the colours and taking in the tranquility the place seemed to ooze.  A solid local market kept us in bananas and avocados and the town had a few excellent options for coffee so, we were set for three days…which turned into four.  We spent one night out with an Aussie couple, Josh and Anna, who we swapped stories with over pupusas and tinnies in the town square, but the remainder of time was spent outside our room overlooking the captivating lake below us.  We were going to visit a nearby waterfall, but it was the dry season, so it was not…erm, falling.

Puerto San Juan

Puerto San Juan

Lake Suchitlan pose

Lake Suchitlan pose

Lanchas for hire on Lake Suchitlan

Lanchas for hire on Lake Suchitlan

Zip line from main land to island

Zip line from main land to island

Pupusas are our favorite new thing.  They are El Salvador’s way to serve beans and cheese, but instead of using the corn to make tortillas, the pack the ingredients inside the corn dough and then grill it, resulting in a cheesy, beany dough pocket, which you cover with chili sauce and pickled veg.  We were dressing them like a pizza and eating them with cutlery until we observed locals eating with fingers and dipping/scooping their way through meals.  At less than $1 a go, they are a fine backpacker snack.

Not the traditional way to dress a Pupusa, but, it looks pretty

Not the traditional way to dress a Pupusa, but, it looks pretty

The Pupusa lady, she was awesome

The Pupusa lady, she was awesome

This town is beautiful and you can really slow down here.   I would go as far as to say my favorite stop so far on our whole trip. For our first experience in El Salvador, we certainly felt spoiled and had high expectations of the rest of the country.

Quiet colonial charm

Our view at Hostel Vista de Lago.  We got a better one the next day!

Our view at Hostel Vista de Lago. We got a better one the next day!

Anti Domestic violence stencils are outside most houses in Suchitoto

Anti Domestic violence stencils are outside most houses in Suchitoto

Santa Lucia at dusk

Santa Lucia at dusk

The day came to leave and we reluctantly jumped on a bus back to Aguilares, to continue the journey cross country to Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second city.  It’s probably about 40km to the west of Suchitoto and I planned a route across country on three local buses to save time.  Let me just say, I was not completely wrong, but one of the buses only goes once a day, so this journey turned into four buses over six hours.  (If you’re planning this trip, just go to San Salvador and back up, faster and cheaper.)

Santa Ana, El Salvador

Santa Ana, El Salvador

Eventually arriving in Santa Ana we were dropped off in the extreme south of the city, with no cabs in sight so started walking in the rough direction we thought we needed to go, until we were stopped by a local in his car advising us about walking a in a certain direction.  He conceded we had to keep walking that way, but make sure we don’t stop.  A busy local market scene confronted us with everything you can think of on sale, with all of the foul smells and soft underfoot feel to boot.

Casa Verde doesn’t have a sign, it’s just a green house, in a road full of different coloured houses.  We walk into this gringo compound and are confronted by a group of middle aged Europeans in their pants eating watermelon and drinking red wine.  It was a confusing moment to say the least and a bit of a contrast from the grubby streets of Santa Ana.  However, the local owner, Carlos apologised for his lack of rooms (no apology needed!) and showed us to our dorm beds, whilst giving us a tour of his bachelor pad that any lad could only dream of.  Along with the (clean) pool he had two incredible kitchens, free coffee for guests that you had to grind yourself, as well as a wine cellar and cheap frosty beer (it was Pilsner, but hey).  I could go on, but just look at the Trip Advisor.

Street of Santa Ana

Street of Santa Ana

We had some drinks with other guests while the older German lady moaned about the Finnish (we think they were Czech) who were using the kitchens at all times in their pants without the decency to have a nice body.  Up on the roof terrace at night, the city is dead.  No sound at all from the second largest city of El Salvador gives a slightly eerie feeling, yet the endless vista of red tiled roofs under the moonlight with the cathedral poking out above all is a pretty special sight.

The next day, we ventured out to explore the town centre, and after quite possibly the cheapest breakfast ever of five pupusas for $1.30 at the side of one of the city squares (the trade-off being however that you must eat with about 30 El Salvadorans gawping at you throughout the entire meal) we checked out the neo-gothic cathedral as well as the sprawling central market that sells quite literally anything you could need.  The city is hot, possibly too hot for us, so we retreated to the hostel to cool down.

Parque Mendez, Santa Ana.  Great spot for Pupusa breakfast

Parque Mendez, Santa Ana. Great spot for Pupusa breakfast

What, no gun? In the government offices? Outrage!!

What, no gun? In the government offices? Outrage!!

Parque Libertad Santa Ana

Parque Libertad Santa Ana

Inside the Alcaldia, Santa Ana

Inside the Alcaldia, Santa Ana

Catedral Santa Ana

Catedral Santa Ana

Since crossing the border we have been amazed by the friendly nature of the El Salvadoran people.  Of course the children stare at you like you have come from Mars some times, but everyone is incredibly friendly and most will greet you when you catch their eyes, in the places we have been anyway.  Stark contrast from Honduras, our experience crossing the border is a perfect example of the two countries attitudes towards tourism.  Despite being classed officially as one of the world’s top five most murderous countries, we have felt nothing but safe so far.  There is an excellent tourist police visible and willing to help, as well as (so we’re told) one of the most effective and corruption free police force in the Americas.  I just hope this great experience keeps up and so far hasn’t been a fluke.  The El Salvadorans we have met want to help us, even when they have told us the wrong information about buses I get the feeling they are not being devious, they just wanted to assist in any way they can.

Thanks for reading.

For the full photo gallery, click here.


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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!