Jardin, Colombia: 27-29 Feb 2020

Travel:
4.5 hours on a small bus.

The Place:
This quiet, quaint, beautiful town is nestled in the Colombian mountains a little out of the way of most things. Not yet a big tourist destination (and I hope it stays that way) it feels safe and relaxed. Colourful buildings boarder the main square that is dominated by an impressive Neo-Gothic Church (a little unexpected for such a quaint town). The square is a fun place to eat, drink, people watch and every so often spot one of the locals trot along the street on their horse (real life Colombian cowboys).


The Accommodation: Hostel Luxor
We stayed in a 4 person dorm for $5 including breakfast! The first night we had it all to ourselves and the second night we just had one other traveler and one demon snorer join us. The hostel was OK. Nothing at all wrong it; it had a great rooftop with hammocks, dorms were clean, beds were comfy, it could have maybe used some more communal areas or a dining table- I just think I’ve stayed in so many amazing hostels now that my standards have raised.

The Food:
Good food at a fraction of the cost we had been paying in Medellin. Our money went so much further here so our stomachs were always full. I love how fresh made smoothies are such the norm here as the fruit literally grows on the trees in the town.


What We Did:
Hiked up to some waterfalls and enjoyed the beautiful countryside. The hills form dramatic peeks and dips so you are always either walking up or walking down. I missed the flat.

The Good: The beautiful quaint town which felt more like “real Colombia”

The Bad: The fact we only had two nights.

The Verdict: I loved it here and could have stayed longer. As much as I would love for everyone to see it, I would hate for it to become touristy and ruin its charm.

Medellin, Colombia: 22- 27 Feb 2020

The Travel:
We left Sapzurro by water taxi to Capurgana to find out that they didn’t have our reservation for the next water taxi (welcome to South America) but they got us on the next boat. For me this was the worst travel day of our trip so far. On the 2-hour water taxi to Nicocli I was very sick. Nicoclis beach front was lined with bars and restaurants each competing for attention blasting super loud music. We found a quieter spot on the beach to grab a drink and pass the 5 hours until our night bus was due.

It was in Nicocli that the most stressful moment of the trip occurred when Adam left our bag containing our passports, money, credit cards, travel documents (basically everything important) on a tuk-tuk. After drying our tears and against all odds Adam guessed the route the tuk-tuk took (that’s fun to write) back to town and found the tuk-tuk along with our belongings parked outside a cafe. Disaster averted.

We got on the night bus 30 minutes early and it left immediately. The temperature on the bus felt like it was set to -30 C and Spanish dubbed American films blasted from a TV that no one was watching for 6 hours. It was quiet for the last 3 hours. We caught moments of sleep and arrived in Medellin dazed and disheveled, got a taxi to our hostel and had 2 more hours sleeping on sofas in the hostel’s cinema room. Waking up to my first hot shower in seven weeks didn’t make it all worth it but it was nice.

The Place:
Medellin is the most modern city we have come across so far on our travels. The huge city sits in an enormous valley and sprawls up the sides of the mountains. Infamous in the 90s for being the home of Pablo Escabar and the most dangerous city in the world it has recently undergone a regrowth and Resurrection of sorts to become one of the top tourist destinations in Colombia. Having said that if you go to Medellin and don’t get offered drugs you must be deaf. There is a great metro system running through the city that makes travel a breeze.

The Accommodation: Casa Kiwi
The hostel was great. We had a private cabin on the top floor with views over the rooftops. Hot showers, small pool, cinema room and good vibe.

The Food:
So many amazing restaurants close by. We ate in some great vegan and vegetarian restaurants. I had the most amazing Avocado toast with the sweetest cherry tomatoes (I had it twice it was so good). Street food with Arepas and Empanadas for about 30p. Fell in love with a sweet cheese Arepas.

What We Did:
First day was a complete write off due to tiredness. We had a nice shower, nap and food. We made a short trip to the local market to sample some Colombian fruits.

The free city walking tour:
The 4-hour tour was great, our English-speaking guide was full of energy and emotion as he described Medellins colourful history while we meandered through the city. Favourite moment of the tour was when Adam had to take a phone call regarding furnace issues at our house, at the exact moment and in the exact direction the guide pointed when describing the red light district. The guide gave him quite a look.


Arvi Park:
One metro ride, two stunning cable car rides later takes you to Arvi Park. The park is beautiful with lush forests navigated by rivers and hiking trails but it is almost worth going just to see the city fall away in the valley below as the cable car ascends. Day trip to


Guatape:
2 hours away from Medellin is the small town of Guatape sitting alongside the reservoir. The town lends itself to watersports of all kinds, and I was excited to do some kayaking. Unfortunately the area was experiencing a drought so no playing in the water for me. The beautiful town was still worth a visit with its brightly coloured buildings displaying intricate tiles each depicting its own story related to the building or town. The giant granite rock of El Penon lays to the southwest of the town and after 649 steps (yes I counted each painful step) provided breath taking views of the town, reservoir and surrounding mountains.


The Good: The excitement of a big city. For me also the variety of restaurants.

The Bad: Being offered drugs.

The Verdict: I would highly recommend visiting the city if you come to Colombia.

Sapzuro, Colombia, 19-22 Feb 2020

The Place:
Small sleepy seaside town sandwiched between the beach and the mountainous jungle. Really in the middle of nowhere. Colombians come here to get away from the tourists (sorry locals!).

The Accomodation: Casa Mola
We had a private room in the jungle hostel complete with netted beds (had a couple of dream fights with that as it touched my face). The hostel had a cool laid back vibe and a no shoe policy. The power often goes off for the entire village. It was funny to see everyone huddled over their phones when the power came back on after a long period. For me the worst part was the heat when all the fans went off.


The Food:
More rice and fish. However, I had the most amazing suculent tender roasted fish at a seaside resaurant (made me love fish again). Eggs for breakfast everyday. We got into the habbit of eating twice a day with a snack in between. Our hostel host Diago cooked us an amazing dinner of roasted vegatables that was a welcome change. I was so happy I wanted to hug him.

What We Did:
We walked over to the next village Capurgana over the jungle pass. I was told it was easy… but I barely made it. My life straw came in useful as we were able to fill it up in the mountain streams and have a much needed refreshing drink. I think it was a combination of the humidity, the difficulty of the hike, the fact that we haven’t hiked in a while or maybe just that I’m completely out of shape (yep definately the last one). After 2 hours up through jungle trails we arrived at a stunning view point where we could see both Sapzuro and Capurgana. Then back down the other side for another hour. Capurgana is bigger than Sapzuro with more infrastructure. As we didn’t want to walk back through the jungle pass the only other option was via speedboat which we had been strongly cautioned against from other backbackers. Despite these stories I did not have it in me to walk back. Our friend spoke to the waiter who told us the ferries may have finished for the day but he personally took us to the dock where he got us on his freinds boat home. The boat was a little rough but compared to our San Blas adventure it was nothing.

On the last day we walked across continents from Colombia in South America back to Panama in North America. Up 200 steps and down 200 steps to the beach at La Miel. At the top we had to cross the boarder and show our passports to a soliatary military person guarding the gate and barbed wire fence. The beach was beautiful but the sad thing was all the plastic that had washed up on the shore.

While on the San Blas island we met the sweetest Norweigian/ Sweedish couple (Miriam & Julius) who came to stay in our hostel and helped us research our next steps through Colombia and by research I mean that we decided to completely change our plans and tag along with them for a while (it helped that Meriam spoke fluent Spanish). As much as I love my husband after seven weeks it was nice to have a change of conversation even if they were alcoholic vikings. Norway has now been added to our to do list along with Cartagena (our orginal plan in Colombia until we found out that the national park was closed).

The Good: Making new friends and enjoying the beach

The Bad: The heat when the electricity went off

The Verdict: If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the cities come here.

San Blas Islands 17-19 Feb 2020

To get from Panama to Colombia we had three options; 1. Walk the super dangerous Dorian gap through the jungle with no roads for three days, 2. Fly, 3. Go by water by taking a three-day speedboat tour of the Caribbean San Blas islands. We went with option 3 with a company called San Blas Frontier. It wasn’t as relaxing as I envisioned…


The Journey:
We were a group of six with three guides on a large speedboat. To say we got wet would not really convey our situation accurately. To better understand- imagine being sprayed in the face with a salt water hose pipe while every so often getting a bucket of water thrown over you for good measure. In addition, the boat is violently moving up and down as it navigates the waves, sometimes gaining air and throwing the passengers up and down onto wooden seats. The salt stings your eyes and lips and it’s better just to close your eyes, hold on tight and go with it. After a while the fear and discomfort fades and time just passes in a sort of trance. At some points the waves were so high it felt like we were in a Japanese sea painting. Imagine all that for 4 hours straight, having lunch then doing it all again for an hour or two.
The first day on the boat was a bit of a shock. The second day we were ready but it was by far the toughest day, we were veterans by the third day so it was a breeze. On the second day we all wore plastic ponchos or bin bags with holes cut in them but it did absolutely nothing to keep the water out. All our bags were wrapping well in plastic under a cover, so they remained dry.


The Accommodation:
The first night we stayed in a beach hut. The walls were bamboo, the roof was palm thatching, the floor was sand. I tried and failed trying to figure out how to not get sand in the bed. The island was a collection of huts and palm trees on a beautiful beach. The second night we stayed on an inhabited island. The inhabitants had built on every piece of land or beach available and the houses jutted out into the waves on stilts reminiscent of buildings from a Tim Burton or Studio Ghibli film. The bathrooms were little huts precariously balanced over the ocean where the toilet seat opened up onto the waves below. Plumbing wasn’t necessary here. We stayed in a little house by the sea with wooden floors (luxury) and its own bathroom.


The Food:
The Caribbean food mainly consisted of rice, beans and fish (whatever they caught that day). Super healthy, but I was ready for something that wasn’t fish by the end of it.


What We Did:

Traveled between the islands, chilled on beaches, swam in the sea. On the second night we joined in with the local Kuna tribes’ celebrations of independence. We watched a dance then joined in while the locals sat back and watched. Every so often we would get a cheer when we got it right. The guys had it harder as they had to dance and play bamboo pipes. We were told to ask permission before taking photographs of the tribal women as they believe that the photo may capture some of their soul.

The good: The beautiful beaches, the culture

The Bad: Being constantly wet and salty.

The Verdict: Definitely the best way to pass from Panama into Colombia as long as you are prepared for the journey to be an adventure.

7 hours in San Salvador, El Salvador, 14 Feb 2020

To get from the Bay Islands to Panama City we flew and had a 7 hour stop over in El Salvador. There is a great service that meets travelers with layovers, picks them up from the airport shows them the nearby attractions and returns them in time for their onward flight (#don’tskipelsalvador).

We felt like VIPs as we were escorted through security and immigration out of the airport and into a car with our guide. We visited volcano San Salvador to see the crater within a crater and learnt that the capitol San Salvador sits between two volcanoes and is nicknamed the hammock city as it swings between the two volcanoes as the earthquakes shake the earth. Many people made simple homes on the side of the volcano which made no sense at all to us as everyone is waiting for the volcano to erupt any day now.

We walked around the capitol. There was so much music and life with entertainers on every corner and everyone seemed so happy. We went in an ugly looking concrete building that on the inside turned out to be a unique dome shaped church with stained glass windows casting beautiful coloured light down onto the alter.

There were more American fast food restaurants than I was expecting and the dollar is now their official currency. The city was much more modern than I had been led to believe with cafes and restaurants full of people while still having an old city feel. Due to the earthquake in 1917 many buildings have been rebuilt. One church was on its third reincarnation.

On the way back to the airport we stopped to eat the local dish of puposa- corn tortilla with cheese and fillings. Ours were filled with loroco edible flowers and we ate it with cabbage pickled in pineapple juice and salsa and it was so delicious, much better than I was expecting.

Our short experience in El Salvador exceeded expectations.

Then we were back at the airport and onto our next flight to Panama city.

Roatan, The Bay Islands, Honduras: 05 -14 Feb 2020

The Place:
Caribbean island with sandy beaches surrounded by the worlds second largest reef. The sea breaks out at the reef so there is almost no swell near the beach. It was fun to just float in the still water. We stayed in Half Moon Bay in the West End. The street runs parallel to the beach and is lined with restaurants, bars and dive shops.


The Acommodation:Hotel Chilles
We stayed in a private wooden cabin surrounded by mango trees just steps away from the beach. It was lovely to wake up walk to the beach, read, relax and go for a swim or snorkel every time it got too hot (which was often).


The Food:
We had many varied meals on the island from street food tacos to huge restaurant meals of coconut curries, noodles, burgers, fish rice n beans and so on. My favourite breakfast was a belaeda which is a fried tortilla stuffed with refried beans + avocado for about a dollar. We devoured the famous cinnamon buns at Sandy Buns cafe. Every vendor had the prime on-the-beach location but mostly without the high end prices. We enjoyed a happy hour or three watching the sunset with our new favourite cocktails- BBC (Baileys, Banana and Coconut) monkey lala (same but with coffee liqueur) and Zak Attack (vodka, lime, coconut). Smoothies just became a way of life as there was so much fresh fruit everywhere so adding a little alcohol every now and then just felt right.

What We Did:
Scuba Diving!
The dive company was right on the property and was only $30 per dive. We swam the bottom end of the reef that we had swam up in Caye Caulker so that gave us some sense of its size. I have never seen such a beautiful and varied underwater coral garden. On our night dive we saw a little luminescence while we sat at the bottom looking up at an almost full moon through the water.

We enjoyed some days just exploring the island from West Bay to Sandy Bay discovering idyllic isolated beaches along the way. We really used this time to take a break as our schedule up to this point had been packed and we knew the pace would once again pick up once we left.

The worst thing about the island was the sand flies! We got eaten alive! I have never known itching like it. We tried every remedy or avoidance solution suggested but nothing worked. The locals just become immune to it after so long.


The Good: Beautiful island with warm water and sandy beaches. Super cheap diving.

The Bad: The sand flies!

The Verdict: Come here for cheap diving.

Interlude: Stuck!

Antigua, Guatemala: 03 -05 Feb 2020

We should be in the Bay Islands right now but unfortunately we are still in Antigua. Here’s what happened:

It was 2:45am and after waiting an hour in the cold dark street in front of our home-stay we decided to call it. The 2am shuttle was not coming. We called the hostel that made our shuttle booking but the night porter did not speak any English so was of little use. After some searching we finally got hold of the bus company. It turns out the bus had been given the location of the hostel and not our address as the pick up point. They apologized but were already 45 minutes out of Antigua. We went back to bed at 3am cold and annoyed.

The next day we turned up at the hostel to see what our options were. The hostel completely messed up our booking, but they did put us up for 2 free nights with a free meal so that went some way to healing our wounds as we dreamt of the beach. We stayed in the Doozy Koala, an Australian run party hostel. We met the very friendly Australian Manager at 9:30am doing shots in the bar… We got 2 free welcome shots of tequila and tried to make the best of a bad situation. The worst part was that the shuttle only ran every other day, so we have to wait until Wednesday to get out to the Bay islands. The hostel booked us on the next shuttle but we decided to call and double check the info. That was a good call as the shuttle had now been informed to pick us up from our old home-stay!

On Wednesday thankfully everything ran smoothly but it was a long and cramped travel day. The mini-bus picked us up at 2am from the hostel and we arrived 13 hours later at the ferry terminal in Le Ceiba, Honduras. One ferry journey and one full sick bag later we arrived on the island of Roatan. Our travel day was finally over after a 30 minute taxi ride to our cabin. Luckily we just caught the hotel manager as she was leaving for the night. It was a close call and at that point I was willing to just sleep on the beach. We took a much needed shower and slept like logs.

In the morning waking to see the calm blue caribbean sea lapping gently against the soft white sand made it all worth it.

Antigua, Guatemala 26 Jan- 03 Feb 2020

After a 8 hour journey from Semuc Champey to Antigua we stepped off the bus to the sound of explosions. To say I was startled is an understatement. Fortunately the explosions were caused by motar-like shells being fired up into the air creating the deafening BOOM to call everyone to church.

The Place: Antigua
Antigua is an interesting city of uneven cobbles, charming colonial Spanish buildings and ruins surrounded by volcanoes. The main volcano dominating Antiguas skyline is Volcan de Agua and on a good day Volcan de Fuego can be spotted erupting. The city is a UNESCO world heritage site. Behind the varying coloured flat building facades lining the streets there are openings into beautiful cafe gardens, stunning courtyards, restaurants and salsa bars that leads you into the false belief that you have discovered hidden secrets. The city is definately more than it initially seems. The relatively modern city exists within the beautiful old architecture.

The Accomodation:
We stayed at a home stay 10 minutes walk from our Spanish school. The main house had a number of smaller buildings where other students were staying. We had a private room with a shared bathroom, which had hot water (YAY!).

The Food:
We had most of our meals supplied by our lovely elderly host Irma at our home stay. The food was fresh and prepared with love but it got a little bland after a while- lots of rice & beans. On the occassion we did eat out the restaurant food in Antigua was very high quality. Right now I am eating the most delicious roast vegetable and carmalized onion toasted sandwich sat in a beautiful cafe garden.

What we did:
Spanish School:
We attended Spanish school in the morning, studied in the afternoon then went to activities provided by the school in the evenings such as Salsa dance lessons and the Macadamia farm tour. The school itself was set in a beautiful garden . Each student has their own teacher for 1 on 1 tuitution and studies sat at cast iron garden tables. Turtles swim in the pond and tortoises walk the grass. Flowers hang from vines above the students and sometimes splash stored water onto unsuspecting heads. It has a lovely laid back setting and they come round with tea and cookies every morning to keep everyones brains functioning. The teachers are patient, knowlegable and work to each students level. I can’t express enough how great the school was.

Shopping:
After leaving my ill fitting walking shoes in Semuc Champey we hunted for new shoes only to be miserably disappointed. Guatemalan women just do not come in my size and neither do the shoes. If I didn’t feel like a giant before, then I definintely do now. I will recommence the shoe hunt in Columbia.

Guest Writer: Adam Simpson
Hiking The Volcano
This adventure was extreme! The hike was extreme, the views were extreme and seeing a volvano erupt like a huge fountain filled with glowing red/orange lava with thousands of glowing red rocks one hundred meters into the air was extreme!

Here’s my play by play:
I was provided a nutriuous breakfast by the tour company in the morning and was very impresed with the quality and quantity of the food. Little did I know I would need every calory and nutrient for the adventure ahead. After an hour and a half shuttle journey, bonding and getting to know other people/victims we arrived at the start of the trail head. My first thought was that this sharp 35 degree sandy incline at the side of the road couldn’t possibly be the trail. I was wrong. Thank you Elaine for recommending that I rent hiking poles. Those poles became my best friends and life savers by the end the day. I felt my heart break a bit when I had to return them back to the shop the next day. After a quick briefing we began what was by far the hardest hike I have ever done. The group very quickly divided itself into differnt groups as fittness levels showed. I found myself at the very back of the fast group which suited me well. Every step was a small victory. I prematurely celebrated once we reached the 20 minute flat walk I was promised 4 hours into the hike only to then discover that flat = Guatamalan flat (mutliple steep inclines and declines in sequence average out to mean flat). So all I could do was grit my teeth and just keep ploding along. Just keep hiking, just keep hiking… I saw on the other hikers sweaty pained faces that they were singing the same song. After 5 hours we made it to base camp. I flopped myself into a chair by the camp fire and stared across the valley where I was rewarded with amazing views of the adjacent volcano erupting every 5 minutes. Enjoying my view and feeling proud of myself I got out my well deserved victory brownie. Before I could take a bite I was told we were only about half way and that we had another 3 hour hike ahead of us to reach erupting Feugo for better views. So storing the brownie for later, back on with the bag, off we set again.

Sliding and skidding down the volcano using my poles for balance we made our way down the other side towards the sounds of booming eruptions. Half way down we had to cross a deep ravine by carefully traversing a tree trunk. I comforted a girl with a fear of heights as the guides shouted on how easy it was. She dried her eyes, held back some tears, held onto my backpack and we crossed. She thanked me while shaking on the other side and decided I was her new hiking partner. So together we made it to the bottom where this time it was I who wanted to cry as I stared up at the next volcano we had to climb. Knowing I had to do this all again in the dark in reverse- I didn’t know if I could do it. We persevered and climbed and climbed, overcoming a few energy walls. We made it to the top just in time to watch sunset over the clouds. It was so amazing it was almost worth it all. Then the ground shuck as an echoing Kaaaaaaboooom filled our ears and we saw the volcano erupt with larva and rock thrown high into the sky lit under its own red glow. That was amazing! Now the pain and struggle of the hike was totally worth it. We all huddled up to keep warm and watched multiple eruptions and flowing the lava until it was completely dark and the stars were out. Head torches turned on we started our hike back down and the pain and struggle started again. Knowing there was a food, a bed and a brownie waiting for me kept me going otherwise I was quite prepared to call the side of the volvano my bed for the night. Completely exhausted I made it back to base camp. Yay! I did it. The brownie went straight into my belly and nothing has ever tasted so delicious. I ate my dinner slumped over the table barley able to sit up. Although I did find the energy to jump everytime the volcano erupted. I thought that if this kept going I wouldn’t be able to get any sleep and rest for the hike back down tomorrow. Hike again? tomorrow? I wasn’t sure if I could walk again. Good news is I was so exhausted I didnt mind being woke up every 20 mintues to huge booms and the floor shaking. The triedness sent me back to sleep immediatley. Unfortunatley our 6am rise to watch the sunrise was pointless as it was a white out. No one was truly that disapointed due to the views we got the evening before. So we headed back down for the 3 easiest hours of the hike. With the motivation of a warm shower I made my way down back to the base with with my new friends. Tired but reflecting back on the epic views we saw last night we all high five’ed each other with promise of never again doing anything as extreme as that no matter how amazing the advetnure was.

The Good: The Spanish school. Adams volcano hike

The Bad: Our preperation. Maybe we should have got more basic Spanish before we came here. Also the cobbles are a twisted anckle just waiting to happen.

The Verdict: This is a great city to learn Spanish.

Katie’s Diary of Spanish School

Day One:
Today was our first day at Spanish school and my brain feels like a wrung out sponge. The lessons are one-on-one and work to our individual levels (rock bottom). Repeating during the lesson was fun but the moment I stepped outside the school doors my memory failed me. All our meals are provided by a lovely 80+ lady at our home stay. No English is to be spoken at the table. She patiently repeats her questions slowly in Spanish without realizing that no matter the speed it means nothing to me. The conversations resort to miming as I try desperately to gleen and convey some understanding. Today has been overwhelming.

Day Two:
Yo tengo un perro.
I’m learning as fast as I can and its definately information overload right now but my conversational skills are limited unless someone happens to ask if I have a pet. I know this is meant to be full imersion but I wish our host family would get a better understanding of our lack of understanding. Meal times are a constant cause of anxiety as I know I will disapoint them as they slowly speak Spanish to me. The other house guest is a well intentioned retired American lady who I’m sure thinks she is helping as she slowly states the question again using different Spanish words with a knowing look. Nope still no help- we are only on day 2 of Spanish.
In other news we found the nicest McDonalds today. It was set within a beautiful stone courtyard centered with a fountain. The tables nestle in the shade under stone arches. We studied there for 2/3 hours.
We went shopping in the market and bought extra notebooks, coloured pens, highlighters and flash cards. I regressed back to my school days as I happily set to organizing my revision book. My notes are now written up as thus: black ink: Spanish, red ink: English, blue ink: phonetically.

Day Three:
Still no hablo espanol. Today felt less intense but I am just so tired! My brain is not used to the amount of new information. I feel like I need a week to take in and revise after each days lesson. In the afternoon we went to a macadamia farm. The tour itself was short and ended quickly at the gift shop but the real experience was the journey (no I’m not being philosophical) on the chicken buses there and back again. Chicken buses are old American school buses that have been modified and pimped up with bright metallic colours. They are super cheap to ride but crowded and it’s not unknown for people to carry a chicken or two, hence the name.
After school we are making a habit of studying in a cafe. I tried to order a chocolate milkshake and got a strawberry one- half right at least.

Day Four:
So it turns out I’ve been Miyagi-ed. Today after spending days listening and learning words it turns out I have the ability to say sentences- all be it slowly. I’m getting less anxious at meal times as I can just about follow the conversation. I understand much more than I can speak so they probably still think I’m a bit of a mute.
We enjoy chatting with the other Spanish students as we find out our struggles are not unique. Everyone is so freindly but honestly it’s just nice to have some interesting conversations in English.
Tonight we had a meal at the school where my teacher impressively sang then went to a salsa club to drink and dance. Our dancing vastly paled in comparrison to the locals fluid moves but it was fun to watch. At the risk of sounding old- it was really nice to watch people actually dancing.

Day Five:
The last day of school!
There is no way we have learned enough but hopefully it will be enough to get by as we continue our travels in South America. I would like to continue my Spanish education in the future and was very inspired by the number of retired people taking it upon themselves to keep their brains active and learn new things.
Total imersion might have been a little too ambitious for us at our none existent level of Spanish. It really has been sink or swim and by the end of this week I think we are just about treading water.
I ordered a cake for our host family and a hot chocolate for myself in the most broken Spanish but I was so proud when I got what I asked for. The city is a great place to study Spanish as everyone is just so patient and understanding as we butcher their language.

Next–> The Bay islands

Semuc Champey: 22-26 Jan 2020

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Travel:
The journey from Flores to Semuc Champey lasted around 10 hours in a very cramped mini-bus with the last 45 minutes up a bumpy dirt road in the open back of a truck sitting on our bags holding on to metal bars (health and safety is not a thing here). The journey wasn’t the best but the cramped conditions made it worse. More worrying was the organization of it all. We bought our bus tickets in Belize City and were given a picture of what we should stand next to on the day of our departure. Many buses arrived and we asked each one if they were going to Lanquin (closest town to Semuc Champey) to which all including our bus driver said no. After being told by a helpful German lady who luckily overheard our conversation that the bus she was going on did go to Lanquin we checked again with the driver who changed his mind and confirmed that his bus was now in fact going to our destination. The large mini-bus had our bags strapped to the roof and we set off on the long journey strategically stopping at relatively expensive lunch and dinner spots.

The Accommodation: Utopia Hostel
As soon as I walked into the hostel I felt myself relax. Everything was wood, spacious and open air. A large open dining room provides views of the surrounding jungle. The river could be heard down below. The hostel itself is 45 minutes away from the nearest town and is nestled away in the jungle surrounded by cocoa trees- it’s idyllic… Well some people freaked out over the tarantulas but to me it was all part of living in the jungle (just make sure to check your sheets before sleeping). The dorms have a view of the outside world and it was the most wonderful thing to wake-up and look out at the morning jungle covered with mist and see it all fade away as the sun comes up. The only downside was that it was a little chilly for a couple of nights due to the exposure. Up in the apex of the roof was a spot I frequented often to swing in a hammock and gaze out. Maybe you can tell that I fell in love with this place instantly and we booked an extra night. This was also the first place on our trip that I went sleep walking so I apologize to anyone that saw me wandering the dorm at night.

The Food:
The food was provided by the hostel as we were not near enough to the town. It was an entirely vegetarian menu that offered most delicious fresh food in huge portions. They had a menu but also provided a “family meal” every night at 7pm. We always took the family meal as it was great to sit down with other travelers to talk about the day. There was a very communal feel that everyone embraced. The lasagne was so good that I had to try and get the recipe. Unfortunately the kitchen staff only spoke spanish so all that I understood was that there were a lot of vegetables in it with a fresh salsa. We also had real Guatemalan tamales wrapped in banana skins.

What we did:
Our mornings started at 7:30am with the yoga classes then a cold shower.

The cave tour:
We were handed long wax candles as we entered the cave led by our guide who only speaking Spanish conveyed to us not to get them wet as we wouldn’t get another one. We waded in as the water got higher and higher until it was up to our necks with one arm lifted high to keep the candle aloft. At points we were either swimming or pulling ourselves along with one arm along a rope into the darkness. My candle never went out. We climbed up underground waterfalls and slid down slides all in the glow or our candle light. The scariest point was dropping down a very small hole while our guide tried to explain to me in Spanish what to do. We literally dropped into the unknown.

Semuc Champey:
After a 45 minute hike up what felt like a million stairs to the viewpoint we got to see Semuc Champey in all its glory. Semuc Champey is a group of beautiful turquoise pools that drop down in a water staircase ending in a waterfall. After the hike we cooled off in the pools and jumped or slid into the next pools making our way down. We ended our day by returning to our hostel via tubing on the river to the sound of the boys shouting “save the beer” with up stretched arms every time we approached rapids on the river.

The chocolate day: chocolate tour & cocoa ceremony
The hostel is surrounded by cocoa trees with fruits either pink or a ripe yellow. We picked one from a tree and cracked it open to reveal a glutinous citrus tasting white substance containing bitter purple cocoa beans (yes we ate everything at every step of the process). The beans are then dried out in the sun for a few days and turn brown. We got some beans that were already at this step and roasted them in a large cast iron frying pan and most amazing chocolate aroma filled the room. Once roasted we sat down at a table and spent the best part of an hour taking the husks off by rolling them in our fingers. The beans inside tasted like a very bitter chocolate. To finally make the chocolate we ground them in a blender with sugar and a little coconut oil. Now this tasted more like the dark chocolate we had grown accustomed to. We poured the mix into molds and added coconut, cinnamon, nutmeg, peanut butter or coffee to create flavoured chocolates.

In the evening we decided to embrace new experiences and joined a cocoa ceremony. We sat in a circle on yoga mats as the sun was setting and drank hot cocoa. This is unlike hot chocolate as we know it as it uses the raw bitter chocolate we made earlier in the day mixed with sugar, cinnamon and chili. The cocoa in its most unprocessed state as we were drinking it has properties that dilate the arteries so to ask for more hot chocolate the code was to say either “my heart is opening” or “my heart is open”. We listened to our hosts sing songs and play the ukulele, picked a taro card and did some guided meditation.

On my final day I relaxed and had a massage.

The Good: The place, the hostel, the activities

The Bad: The couple of chilly nights.

Verdict: My favourite place so far.

Flores, Guatemala: 19- 22 Jan 20202

After a 30 minute water taxi from Caye Caulker to Belize City we took the advice about not staying in the city and got a bus straight out to Flores, Guatemala taking just over 5 hours.

The Place:
We stayed on Flores island which is surrounded by a lake and connected to Flores city by a causeway. The island is man-made and consists of cobbled streets lined with restaurants and no beaches. Flores served as a good base to see the ruins but there wasn’t a lot going off in the place itself.

The Accommodation:Tikal Backpackers Hostel
The hostel was good with a roof top bar and lots of open communal spaces for lounging. We stayed in a four person dorm with just one other occupant. A simple breakfast was included.

The Food:
So cheap!
We tried a Guatemalan desert which was a ball of tamarind rolled in sugar with a strong taste of citrus and sweetness (make sure you spit the seeds out).

What We Did: Tikal
2 hours from Flores is the ruined city of Tikal. Only 15% of the buildings have been excavated which really gives you a sense of scale and what a bustling city this must have been in its prime. Due to the limestone qualities of the structures it was decided that the best method of preservation would be to allow the majority to remain underground. Therefore, most of the sudden mounds or steep hills are likely to be hidden Myan temples or houses. We climbed to the top of several temples taking in the jungle views and spotting the peaks of the next temple we were going to climb (so many steps!). Being able to explore the ruins and climb really allowed us to try and imagine the city as it would have been. Most of the buildings would have been painted red to represent blood and thus life. We found a few bats snoozing in the rafters of some ruined homes and watched spider-monkeys swing from trees.

The Good: The ruins.

The Bad: Not much going on.

The Verdict: See the ruins and move on.