Tulum, Mexico

And so, as we crossed the border from Belize back into Mexico, our Central American trip came full circle, at least in terms of countries visited.  This time the border crossing was a breeze, completed in 2 minutes with neither the two-hour wait nor the 100 pesos tucked into the passport that we had the last time.  We just had chance to take note of how instantaneous the move to full-force Mexicana had been as we crossed the border (zero English spoken, dramatically different mix of ethnicities, obligatory taco and pollo (chicken) stalls lining the street), before we were straight onto our fifth bus of the day, driving 4 hours northwards to the town of Tulum.

Tulum is most famous for its Mayan ruins, and having already seen 5 sets elsewhere in Central America, we’d decided that this would be our last set…sorry Chichen Itza, Uxmal et al, maybe next time.  Arriving just before 10pm (after 14 hours of travel) we had little opportunity to appraise Tulum town, but just enough time to find a hostel (Casa del Sol) and grab a quick bite to eat before hitting the hay.

The next morning we planned to use the hostels rag-tail collection of free-to-use bikes (the kind only a scrap-metal collector would bother trying to steal) to ride the 5 or so km’s up the coast to the site of Tulum’s ruins.  The ride took us out through the town, largely strung along a 4 lane drag, which although not completely charmless, certainly has nothing approaching the beauty or interest of Mexico’s many colonial style settlements.  It’s essentially a tourist town, with restaurants, ice-cream parlours, internet cafés, and hotels accounting for the bulk of street-side buildings.

The ride to the ruins was fun though, cruising along on rattling American style single-speeders where you peddle backwards to brake, occasionally gasping as we met a particularly baking patch of air.  As we approached Tulum ruins, the signs of what was to come were there in abundance; a huge coach-park, a collection of tackily themed restaurants, a bunch of heavily made-up ‘traditionally’ dressed Mayan warriors, and a guy draping a large iguana over tourists shoulders for ‘amusing’ photo opportunities.

As we entered the main complex, it quickly became apparent that Tulum’s ruins could well have been designed as the perfect tumbledown temple for the tourist masses; an easy excursion from the resorts of Cancun, and small enough for a steady stream of substantial American tourists to shuffle through in under an hour.  Within the smallish rectangular enclosure, a single path runs from one end to the other, where after exiting, tour groups can take a shaded walk back down a track to hop aboard their waiting air-conditioned coaches to the next must see sight.

A resident iguana looks on, this one thankfully not from a tourist shoulder

In case it doesn’t come across, we weren’t really fans of Tulum’s ruins.  Compared with other’s we’ve seen, they’re small, architecturally underwhelming, but most of all they’re overrun with tour groups.  Say what you like about the Maya though, they were all over ‘location’ a good 1,500 years before Beeny, Allsop, and Spencer got in on the act.  Perched on limestone cliffs overlooking impossibly blue water and talcum-powder fine white sand…as far as private beaches go I suspect there was little to rival Tulum back in the day.  It’s just a shame it was a bit like feeding time in the human enclosure when we went down for a quick paddle.

Tulum's beach-side ruins (and the masses)

After a fairly anti-climactic visit to the ruins, we took the coast road back towards Tulum town, cutting through a narrow strip of forest to reach the wide expanse of beach that runs virtually unbroken all the way to Cancun and beyond, 100+ km’s to the north.  Off all the beaches we’ve ever seen, the one here is definitely top-3 in the white sand blue water stakes….the white too bright to look at in the midday sun, and the water a shade of blue you on ever see on postcards.  It was so nice, that after heading back into town for a bite to eat, we rode straight back out to swim under the last of the days sunshine.  The only down side to this excursion was an encounter with Tulum’s voracious mosquito’s…I swear they’d seen us ride past the first time, and waited to ambush us on the return leg, springing out of the forest, easily catching up with us on our bikes and (to quote Rachael) “sticking their dirty little snouts in, even through our clothes”.  Brutal.

Tulum's beaches...they take some beating

Before leaving Tulum the next day, we paid a visit to Tulum’s second biggest attraction, the Gran Cenote.  The whole of the Yucatan Peninsular has been described as a large Swiss cheese, riddled with tunnels and caves as fresh-water rivers and the rising and falling of sea levels have dissolved the limestone bedrock, in some cases for hundreds of km’s inland.  The Gran Cenote is where one of these caves meets the surface, the roof partially collapsed letting sunlight stream through to light the perfectly clear water.  Apparently limestone sediment is particularly heavy, sinking quickly if disturbed to leave sparkling clear water.  Learning from our Tulum ruins experience, we headed out early on the bikes, arriving just as the cenote opened, and for a blissful half an hour, we had the place virtually to ourselves.  This alone is definitely worth the visit to Tulum in our opinion…we’ve done a lot of amazing stuff over the last few months, but nothing quite like swimming through caves dripping with stalactites, where swifts and bats swoop around in the semi-darkness.  Awesome.

Swimming into the Gran Cenote, Tulum, Mexico

Back at the hostel by late morning, we packed up our stuff and headed to the bus station to pick up a ride to Valladolid, a smallish inland colonial town that promised a less touristy feel than Tulum, and couple more cenotes to explore…

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Utila (Honduras) to Hopkins (Belize)

Retracing our steps back along the eastern coast of Honduras, through the town of Tela and Central America’s largest bus terminal in San Pedro Sula, we arrived in the small village of Omoa at around 3pm…9 hours after departing Utila.  Omoa is really little more than two streets with a cluster of houses and restaurants along a rough track in front of the beach, but it was close to the Guatemalan border (where we were heading the following day), and it sounded like a relaxed place to spend an afternoon and night.

I’m not sure where a place stops being relaxed, and starts being deserted, but Omoa was definitely on the latter end of this continuum.  From a tourism perspective the village has been suffering the impact of a disappearing beach, 40% of which has been washed away since a gas company installed protective coastal defences on one side of the harbour, diverting currents on to the main tourist beach.  However, according to one long-term resident we met, the place still transforms at the weekend (especially after fortnightly pay-days) when locals flood in from nearby towns, and the gentle sounds of lapping waves are replaced by booming baselines.  As we were there mid-week, we had to make do with an evening of floating in ridiculously warm Caribbean sea (significantly warmer than in Utila where we know the water temperature was 30 degrees) and taking it easy before another 6am start the next morning.

View from Omoa pier down the bay, Honduras

Catching the first chicken bus of the day, we arrived at the Honduras / Guatemala border by about 7.30am, and after a quick but ruthless shafting by the exchange men at the border, we were back onto Guatemalan ground and into a shuttle to take us an hour or so to the  town of Puerto Barrios.  Here we just had time to throw down some breakfast (spicy chicken, tortillas, beans, and cabbage….standard) before jumping aboard a super-fast water taxi for the hour crossing to Punta Gorda in Belize.  It was only 6 hours since waking up, and we’d already arrived at our third country of the day.

Punta Gorda, Toledo Region, Belize

You really can’t knock the first impression of arriving in Belize…the captain cuts the throbbing boat engine, and you glide gently through crystal clear azure water towards a pier protruding from a shoreline of golden sand, swaying palms, and bright blue sky.  “Welcome to Belize” smiles the waiting border guard in English, heavily laced with a rich Caribbean drawl.

Now our original plan for Central America was to focus on 3 countries in our 2 months; Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, but with a route which took us right to the Belizean border, we were never going to skip it completely.  Reluctantly however, we resolved to resist the urge to try and see too much of Belize in favour of sticking with our original plan and leaving us enough time to see some of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsular without rushing through it.  With that in mind, we decided to head for the small town of Hopkins, 4 hours north of our arrival point along the flat, straight roads of the coastal plains.

It was immediately obvious to us just how totally different Belize is to any other Central American country we’ve visited on our trip.  It’s reflected in the language (English is the first, although Spanish, Creole, and Mayan dialects are also spoken), the food (rice replaces tortillas), the ethnicity of the population (a real mix of African and Mayan ancestral lines), and the music…the chicken buses bounce to a reggae beat in Belize.

"We're jammin'..." Chicken bus, Belize

Hitching is the norm in Belize, as we found out when the bus from Punta Gorda to Hopkins dropped us at a dusty t-junction 4 miles from town.  After a moment of concern as the first few candidates bounced past us trailing dust in their wake (“do they use thumbs to hitch over here or what?”) we were soon squeezed into the back of a car and riding into Hopkins town.  We’d originally chosen Hopkins for 3 reasons.  Firstly it was as far as we could tolerate travelling that day (10 hours), secondly it was supposed to have a great beach, and thirdly the area has a particularly strong Garifuna culture, an element we were keen to experience given the brevity of our time in Belize.

The road to Hopkins, Belize

The Garifuna culture is that of the Garinagu people, originally of West Africa, the cultural tie to Central America tracing back to an African slave-boat, shipwrecked off the coast of St Vincent in the 1600’s.  Since then, Garinagu descendants have settled across Central America’s eastern countries, Belize included.

If we’re honest though, although the beach was indeed nice (a narrow but long stretch of palm tree dotted sand), and the waters warm and blue, we didn’t really get the strong sense of identifiable cultural identity that we’d hoped from Hopkins.  Perhaps we were looking in the wrong places, or perhaps we just didn’t look far enough up and down the 2 mile stretch of shore-side road (the only road) that constitutes the town, but while we found people really friendly, there was little to separate the place culturally from the general observations of Belize that we took from our hour in Punta Gorda.  Even in the restaurants, unspecified ‘Garifuna dishes’ had to be pre-ordered, suggesting to us that they’re made more for passing tourists than as day-to-day local fare.

Main Road, Hopkins, Belize

That said, we had a thoroughly chilled couple of days in Hopkins.  We stayed in a really nice stilted cabin no more than 10 metres from where the sea gently lapped the shore, we read, we swam, I windsurfed, Rachael watched me windsurf, and we even managed to spot a couple of manatees from the shore.

View from our hut balcony. Hopkins, Belize

A couple of days in Hopkins was enough though, so we were ready to move on as we waited for our 6.45am chicken bus an hour up the coast to Dangriga.  This proved to be the first of 5 buses and 14 hours of travel before we crossed back into Mexico for our next destination, Tulum…

P.s.  In Belize, we have been mostly drinking…

Belikin Beer...Cheers!

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The Bay Island of Utila, Honduras

Getting from Copan Ruinas to Utila meant crossing the whole of Honduras, some 300km’s from its western border with Guatemala to the eastern coast, then further out to the Bay Islands of which Utila is one.  As usual this was achieved by a 5am start, a 6am bus from Copan, and after subsequent changes into a minivan, taxi, and ferry, we were eventually deposited onto Utila’s dock at just before 6pm.

As we stumbled down the pier already somewhat disoriented by a rock n’ rolly crossing, we were immediately besieged by a tanned international mass of guys and girls, all clad in a ‘uniform’ of board-shorts and branded dive-shop t-shirts, and all telling us about the ‘best’ dive shop on the island.  Fresh meat straight of the boat for the waiting dive-sharks to circle.  The level of attention and persistence was nothing compared to our experiences in India though, and to be fair the description does the guys a bit of a disservice…although all new arrivals were pounced upon the second they crossed the pier’s imaginary ‘go get em’ line, the dive promoters were a genuinely friendly and helpful bunch without too much hard sell about them.

Welcome to Utila. The dock. No ferry = no clamouring dive centre crew.

Taking (but ultimately ignoring) our fistful of flyers, we turned right at the end of the pier (there are really only 3 roads on Utila, all of which lead to the ferry).  We headed in the direction of two dive-shops for which we’d already had recommendations, most recently from two girls we met at the mainland ferry terminal, just returned from 3 weeks on the island.  As we walked down the main drag it quickly became obvious just how completely Utila is dedicated to the dive industry.

Down towards the intersection. Utila's main drag.

Virtually every other building along the ocean side of the main road is a dive school, each with its own pier stretching out into the bay, strung with inviting hammocks.  But the dive-shop prevalence is not without good reason.  Not only is the stretch of water along the Honduran coast home to the second largest reef system in the world (from Honduras it stretches up alongside both Belize and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsular), Utila is also one of the cheapest places in the World to learn to dive.  A four-day PADI Open Water course costs between $250 and $300 USD including accommodation and 2 post-certification ‘fun dives’, which compares to around $350 USD in Belize, and $400+ in the Yucatan.  And with somewhere in the region of 100 different dives sites around the Island, 30 degree water temperature and 25m visibility, there really is very little reason why you wouldn’t choose Utila as the place to learn to dive.

Standard sunset viewed from the end of Deep Blue's pier (with a beer)

After checking out a couple of dive shops, we decided to go with the two girls’ recommendation of Deep Blue Divers, the determining factors being the laid-back feel of the place and the promise of super-relaxed 1-to-2 tuition from Kevin, originally from Chicago and one of Deep Blue’s resident instructors.

Deep Blue Divers, Utila, Honduras

The following day, after watching a few DVD’s in which ‘zany’ characters from the early 90’s pranced around in luminous wetsuits telling us that “Scuba divers have more fun.  Fact.” (but also giving us the various practical info that we’d need in the water) Kevin gave us a run through of how to set up the gear, and we were soon taking a ‘giant step’ off the end of the pier for the first of our ‘skills’ lessons.  Although delivered by Kevin with consummate professionalism and enough gags to keep it light, the pier-side practice of the various skills required for us to make it out into ‘open water’ was really just the stepping stone to greater things on the reef.  Thankfully apart from a few issues with flooding and removing of masks underwater, by the next day we were ready to board the boat and head out to the reef.

"It's off to work we go"...boat crew. Utila, Honduras.

The reef was where any thoughts of not sticking around in Utila drifted away like the bubbles from our regulators.  While the quantity of marine life probably wasn’t quite what we’d hoped (we’ve seen greater volumes snorkelling elsewhere) the variety of species was incredible and the reef itself was spectacular…tall and brightly multi-coloured, covered in both hard and soft coral, conical forms poking up from the floor and giant fans swaying in the gentle ebb and flow of turquoise waters.  After a fantastic first 40 minute, 12 metre dive which passed by in a flash, we surfaced to the cry of “dolphins” so we scrambled up onto the boat and quickly headed over to where the fins of around 30 spinner dolphins could be seen cutting through the water.

What followed was probably the best half an hour we’ve ever spent in the water which, for anyone who read of our slightly disappointing New Zealand dolphin encounter, made up for it a hundred-fold.  Although never close enough to touch, there were times when we were individually surrounded to either side, below, and (when diving down with snorkel and mask) above, by up to 20 dolphins, just out of arms reach, circling around us, the water filled with squeaks, clicks, and whistles.  There really are no words to describe the feeling of looking down as a trio of dolphins swim on their sides beneath you, looking right into your eyes with their permanent smiles mirroring the massive grin protruding either side of your snorkel.  Incredible.   We all regrouped on the boat exhausted after trying to keep pace with the dolphins, but exchanging exuberant high fives and jabbering over each other about our respective experiences.

Yes....this close. Dolphins off Utila, Honduras.

We could wax lyrical about our underwater adventures ad infinitum, but suffice to say that we loved it so much that we decided to carry on and do our Advanced Open Water course, which gave us another 7 dives including an awesome night dive surrounded by glowing phosphorescence, and a wreck dive 30 metres down.  The latter also resulted the following exchange; Rachael “that was amazing, but I felt a bit sad about those that lost their lives here…how many was it?”…Kevin “well, some dive-shops bought this boat and sank it deliberately for training dives, so, err, none”.  I nearly fell overboard laughing.

Scuba diving. It's all about getting the look 'just so'.

In terms of aquatic life, during 13 dives and 10 hours spent underwater in Utila, we saw huge spotted eagle-rays, a green moray eel, squid, lobsters, a bright yellow seahorse, barracuda, grouper, lion fish, and dozen upon dozen of brightly coloured ‘common’ reef fish.  Oh, and if our first dolphin experience wasn’t incredible enough, the very next day we had a similarly awesome experience with a large pod of bottle-nose dolphins, which as well as being larger than the spinner dolphins, were even more playful and stuck around even longer.  Back of the net.

In fact we enjoyed ourselves so much on Utila that we ended up staying for 10 days…more than double the time we’ve spent anywhere on our entire trip.  That’s not to say that Utila is the most beautiful, or the most authentic, or the most varied place that we’ve visited, it just has a combination of factors that make it an incredibly difficult place to leave.  The superb diving I think we’ve covered, but it’s the overall vibe of the island, the Caribbean feel so totally different to the western side of Honduras that really seduces.  Everything is sooo easy.  You roll out of bed and straight onto a dive boat.  You flop out of a hammock and a few metres down the road to great, cheap cafe’s serving incredible super-baleadas.  Then at night you cruise between bars on rickety open-air piers where you can fall / jump right off the end into warm Caribbean sea, and/or shoot fireworks off the top deck out across a star-studded harbour sky.  Of the many bars on offer, two highlights include the Alice in Wonderland meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ‘Treetanic Bar’, perched in the boughs of a mango tree, and the always buzzing Tranquila Bar, especially on ‘Tequila Tuesday’ , where free-poured shots cost 10 Lempiras (30p).  Ooof.

Welcome to Treetanic. Utila, Honduras.

There are numerous reasons why few people make the 6.20am boat off the island (especially on a Wednesday morning), but after an already extended 10-day stint, that’s what we had to do.  It was with great sadness that we got back on the road, but with a route which dictated that we either go over, round, or through Belize, it was with some excitement that we headed towards an unscheduled visit to our 9th country of the trip.

Oh, and a nice idea woefully late in our trip (but I’m going to do it anyway).  In Honduras, we have mostly been drinking…

Salva Vida...Cheers!

Posted in Beer / Drinking, Honduras | 4 Comments

From Guatemala to Copan Ruinas, Honduras

Returning to Antigua after a week or so since our first visit wasn’t in our original plan, but it made sense in terms of the logistics of making the journey across Guatemala to the Honduran border in a single day.  It turned out to be really nice though, as there have been very few places on this trip that we’ve visited more than once, and it felt great to return somewhere familiar where we could revisit favourite bars, café’s, and banana bread sellers.  Apart from a visit to the excellent collection of museums within the hotel Casa Santo Domingo complex, which is itself contained within the impressive preserved ruins of a 16th Century monastery, we spent our day-and-a-half relaxing and re-wandering Antigua’s beautiful streets.

Having paid for a shuttle to cross from Mexico into Guatemala, we decided this time to take the DIY option, so it was a 7am checkout from our hostel in Antigua to board the first in a series of 5 different buses and taxi’s to get to the border crossing at El Florido.  Although we were slightly concerned that after 10 hours of travelling we’d miss the 4.30pm deadline for making our crossing, the immigration office was still open at just before 5pm, so after quickly exchanging our remaining Guatemalan Quetzals for Honduran Lempira’s with the money men hanging around the border, it was onto a final shuttle for the 20 minute drive to Copan Ruinas.

The border territory at El Florido is thickly forested hills of bright green jungle, really very beautiful, and it’s in these surroundings that Copan Ruinas is nestled.  Copan is a smallish town with a long history…Mayan ruins dot the whole area, and there’s a significant central collection of ruins by the same name just a few hundred metres outside the modern town.  Apart from arriving at the same time as a torrential downpour whose fat raindrops had the streets gushing with water and forcing us to shelter in an ice-cream shop where we comforted ourselves with a couple of choco-bananas, our first impressions of Copan were really good.  After checking in to the super-chilled Via Via Café (a hostel / bar / restaurant), a quick wander around town confirmed Copan as a friendly, attractive little place with cobblestone streets and enough bars and café’s to service the steady stream of travellers arriving or leaving Honduras and pausing to check out the ruins.

Copan Ruinas, Honduras

The genius of choco-bananas (these fine examples photographed in Xela)

This is exactly what we did the following morning, when after a leisurely ‘tipico’ breakfast (corn tortillas, fried eggs, avocado, beans, cream, rice, a feta-like cheese, and chismol aka salsa) we wandered out of town in the baking heat.  Although Copan is surrounded by hills, at 500-odd metres it’s significantly lower and hotter, even at 9.30am, than either Antigua or Xela.

Now after 4 previous visits to Central American ruins, we’re starting to get a little ‘ruined out’, but those at Copan Ruinas do offer something a little different to the others we’ve seen.  They’re similar to Palenque in that the main site is in a well manicured clearing in the jungle with a few other ruins a short walk through the forest, but as the settlement was occupied slightly later in the Mayan period, the carving here is significantly more intricate than we’ve seen elsewhere.

Carvings at Copan Ruinas, Honduras

There are also a couple of tunnels accessible on the site, but to do so effectively doubled the cost of entry (already higher than any other ruins we’ve visited) so we elected not to bother with them.  A couple of hours wandering the site was enjoyable enough though, and as usual with these things, as soon as you wander away from the main areas, you pretty much have the place to yourself…in fact returning to the main plaza at about lunchtime, we were literally the only people there, two lone gringos standing where once 20,000 people lived.  An interesting snippet we read (probably in the ‘bible’, but I forget) told us that following the demise of the Mayan civilisation in the 9th Century, the population of this area didn’t again reach similar levels until the 1980’s.

Through the helpful guys at Via Via we booked an overnight trip for the following day to nearby Finca El Cisne (a ‘finca’ is farm or small-holding, in this case a 60 hectare coffee plantation) which to supplement farming revenue, provides a kind of agro-tourism operation.  Your $82 (US) gets you a ride there and back, an hour through some of the most beautiful, hilly, primary and secondary forest we’ve seen anywhere in Central America, a tour through the homestay’s organic gardens, a 3 hour horseback tour of the estate, a visit to nearby thermal springs, a trip up into the coffee plantation and processing plant, a night’s accommodation, and lunch, dinner, and breakfast cooked using ingredients grown or reared on the farm…more expensive than our typical day in Central America, but pretty good bang for your buck.  Oh, and all this accompanied by Carlos, the estate owner and a genuinely interesting, amusing, and knowledgeable guy, clearly passionate about what he does and the organic, sustainable way that he does it.

Our 24 hours at Finca El Cisne really was fantastic.  The homestay is actually just outside the farm territory, and it’s in these grounds that Carlos grows a whole host of fruit and veggies, which if they’re in season you can sample at any or all of the meals provided.  Our morning started with a great walk through these gardens, where we found out a bit about Carlos’s various crops, which include cacao, avocado, plantain, guanavana, mango, limes, passion fruit, and coffee.

Home grown and awaiting the kitchen. The fruit in front is a Guanavana.

Next up it was a horse ride, which although great to see the beautiful forested hills that make up about 60% of the finca’s territory, was slightly marred by some significant chaffing in the latter stages…note, sweaty legs and leather saddles is not a winning combination.  Oh, and if anyone says “give cantering a go, it’s a smoother ride” don’t believe a word of it.  Apart from fantastic home cooked food, the other highlight of our visit was the nearby thermal pools, which were significantly better than those in Xela, a whole network of different temperature pools at different levels in the middle of the jungle…drinking cold beer looking up at shafts of sunlight filtering through forest leaves while chaffed legs soothe in hot water, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Hot springs near Finca El Cisne, Honduras

Carlos' Steed, Finca El Cisne, Honduras

After a night in the candle-lit homestay (another eco-measure) the following morning started with a pre-breakfast trip up into the coffee plantation, where Carlos gave us the low-down on organic plantation management, and showed us his coffee amphitheatre ringed by stunning primary forest in which early morning cloud still hung.  Then after a delicious breakfast and a cup of finest home-grown coffee, with an “adios” and a “muchos gracias” it was back to Copan where we spent an afternoon relaxing and visiting a section of the ruins that we’d missed the first time.

Carlos and his 'coffee amphitheatre'

Copan proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable first taste of Honduras.  The town is small enough to navigate without problem, being able to walk to the ruins at your leisure rather than get up at the crack of dawn to catch a bus is great, and the surrounding countryside really is spectacular.  The trip to the finca was also a definite highlight of our time in Central America, and beyond the enjoyment of each of the activities, really gave us a great insight into life in rural Honduras that we would have missed had we just ‘done’ the ruins and moved on like many on the gringo trail undoubtedly do.

We departed the following morning via the 6am bus, somewhat regretful that our schedule dictates that we scoot across much of Honduras, but really excited about our next stop, the divers paradise of the Bay Islands…

Posted in Guatemala, Honduras | Leave a comment

Quetzaltenango (Xela)

After 3 hours on 3 different chicken buses (mental note to avoid them for a while after the recent glut) it was with an exhalation of relief that we arrived in the city of Quetzaltenango.  To avoid the tongue-twister of it’s actual name, everyone calls Quetza-whatever, Xela (“shay-laa”).  As this is the third Guatemalan town in succession whose lengthy name is routinely abbreviated, one wonders why they didn’t choose something snappier in the first place…

Xela’s chicken bus station is located a couple of km’s outside of town, adjacent to one of its largest local markets through which we had to walk to get to the city centre.  Despite having just come from the market in Chichi, it was great to see one targeting a 100% local population, with stall after stall piled high with mangoes, pineapples, melons, papayas, avocados, tomatoes…an utter feast of locally grown goodies.

Walking into a new city (as opposed to stepping off a shuttle straight into the centre) is always a great way to build a first impression, and this proved to be the case in Xela.  Our first impression was of a slightly shabby and tumbledown jumble of houses, streets only partially organised using a colonial grid system, where straight main-roads were linked by curvy cobblestone alleys.  This lead to a slightly grander central plaza with a church and a few other stately buildings, which is a nice place to relax and watch the world go by.

Xela...a bit shabby, but better for it

Church in Xela's central Plaza

We also noticed a distinct dip in the number of tourists on the streets compared to most of the other towns and villages we’ve visited in Guatemala, which was one of the reasons we’d chosen to visit Xela in the first place.  The other was it’s location, up in the highlands of Guatemala’s indigenous heartland offering the promise of plenty to do in the surrounding hills.  At 2,300m, Xela is also high enough to have a lovely fresh temperature at night (jeans and hoodies required), but is plenty warm enough for shorts and t-shirts during the day…a great example of the ‘land of perpetual spring’ reputation that Guatemala has.

As far as the city was concerned however, one day of wandering was probably enough, as it doesn’t really have a huge amount in the way of ‘sights’ once you’ve seen the main plaza and walked the surrounding streets for an hour or two.  Although we did spend an amusing (and occasionally disturbing) hour or so at Xela’s natural history museum, a bizarre, jumbled collection of early computers & mobile phones, Mayan artefacts, stuffed animals (including a disproportionate number of Siamese examples), and a grim selection of preserved animal and human foetuses lined up in jars.  After that little lot we needed some perking up, so we headed to one of Xela’s coffee houses for a cup of locally grown finest, which with the ‘benefit’ of knowledge gained from a growing coffee addiction, was really rather good.

Paseje Enriquez Arcade, Xela

Having checked out a few options for exploring around Xela, we decided to rent a couple of bikes and attempt to ride them out of the city, and up to Fuentes Georginas, some thermal springs in the surrounding hills…a 40km round trip certainly easier said than done when your bikes feel as though they were made from scaffolding poles.  Still, surfing a sugar high after a breakfast of tropical fruit bought for peanuts at the local market, we made good progress, and once we’d climbed out of the city we had the pleasure of coasting downhill for most of the 10km stretch to the market town of Zunil.  Here we saw just how fertile this part of the country is.  The market was primarily wholesale fruit and veg, where great piles of tomatoes, carrots, onions, and cabbages were being bartered over in Mayan dialects before being loaded either into a van or onto somebody’s head.

Zunil, near Xela, Guatemala

After a brief stop in Zunil to check out the market and see more brightly coloured traditional clothing of the local ladies, we continued on our scaffolding bikes, dragging them up a steep, winding, occasionally collapsed 8km road towards the hot springs.  Although tough, the ride was hugely atmospheric, as for most of it we were surrounded by increasingly thick cloud, through which locals harvesting crops from the fields swam into view, accompanied by the scent of coriander and, as we approached the springs, sulphur.

Local lady balancing, Zunil, Guatemala

Fuentes Georginas springs consist of 3 man-made pools fed by natural thermal water which bubbles to the surface nearby.  Since a landslide a couple of years ago however, the temperature of the water has increased significantly, effectively rendering one of the pools unusable…we just managed a full submersion before leaping straight back out again, hopping around until the stinging subsided.  Thankfully the middle pool was, in the words of goldilocks, ‘just right’, so we bobbed around surrounded by walls of jungle which disappeared into the cloud.  After declaring ourselves cooked ‘al dente’, we dried off and hopped back on our bikes for the return leg.

Fuentes Georginas Thermal Springs, near Xela, Guatemala

Looking up into the jungle at the thermal springs

After whizzing back down the 8km descent through the cloud with water droplets collecting in our eyebrows and lashes, it was a long predominantly up-hill 14km slog back to Xela along a road plied by roaring chicken buses and thundering tankers.  Then, as we were literally 10 minutes from home, the heavens opened and we were suddenly riding through 6 inches of water, utterly soaked to the skin…not exactly the perfect end to an otherwise great day.  Rachael had one final bit of excitement before the ride was out though, as a hidden pothole resulted in some over-the-handlebar gymnastics, but thankfully apart from a bit of a graze, a wonky helmet, and wobbly lip, it was nothing a mug of tea and a big slab of cake couldn’t sort out once we’d dragged ourselves back to the hostel and dried off a bit.

We left Xela the following morning, this time via a ‘pullman’ bus (1 significant step up from the chicken bus) bound for Antigua where we planned to spend one night before embarking for the Honduran border, drawing our time in Guatemala to a close.  Although appearing a bit shabby at first, and not really having a huge number of ‘sights’ per se, Xela has an undefinable charm that you can’t help but enjoy.  We think it’s the winning combination of a great location, a good mix of indigenous and Hispanic people, and a lack of overt tourism that means Xela has an authenticity that not everywhere shares.  Next stop, a brief return to Antigua, then Copan Ruinas, Honduras…

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Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango (or “Chichi” to most) is situated in the highlands 30km’s or so north of Lake Atitlan, and is reputed to be Guatemala’s biggest and best handicrafts market.  The handicrafts in question are predominantly traditional woven textiles and wood carvings, produced and sold by a large local indigenous population which floods in from the surrounding countryside for twice weekly markets on Thursday and Sunday.  As Sunday is the biggest of the two market days, we timed our arrival for Saturday so as to be there from first thing the following morning, hopefully before the tour groups arrived.

Turning up on Saturday was actually a really good idea, as although the town itself is nothing particularly special (certainly compared to Antigua), being there to see it transform from ‘everyday’ to ‘market day’ really added to the experience.  The towns central square is permanently given over to a network of partially covered metal frames which are home to most of the markets food and fresh produce stalls, but it’s in the surrounding streets that the real change takes place.  Come Saturday evening there starts a frenetic period of activity as Sunday stall-holders arrive carrying bundles of long wooden poles, soon to become the framework for their 10-foot hight stalls.  We spent a fascinating couple of hours watching with a beer from a first-floor terrace as the stalls were erected with an efficiency borne of practise, and skill with rope and a forked stick borne of necessity…while the stalls are tall, the stall holders are seldom over 5 feet.

Big frames, small ladies. Chichicastenango, Guatemala

By dawn on Sunday, the streets two blocks in all directions of the main square were jam packed full of stalls, which within an hour or so of sunrise become jam packed full of people jostling for a bargain.

Being up and into the thick of it shortly after 7am on market day, we were able to wander the stalls before the crush got too much to bare, and where we watched the locals buying their weekly supplies of fruit, veg, poultry, and piglets (respectively squawking from inside bags and squealing from under-arms) before the focus shifted more towards the arriving tourists.  Although we weren’t really in the market for much in the way of handicrafts (not so much a reflection of the quality or desirability of what was available, it’s just that with 35 litre rucksacks there’s not a whole lot of room to spare), it was great just to wander around and watch all the action unfold.  It was undoubtedly one of the most colourful places we’ve been, owing partly to the produce on sale, but also to the abundance of traditionally dressed locals.  Guatemala has one of the highest indigenous populations of any Central American country, and this was gloriously represented at Chichi’s market…a real highlight of our visit.

Snoozing after an early start, Chichicastenango

Wooden masks, Chichicastenango

Fruit and Traditional Dress, Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango church & flower sellers

The extent of Guatemala’s passion for colour, certainly in this area, was highlighted as we wandered out of the market for a bit of a breather and found ourselves approaching the local cemetery.  Guatemala’s colourful pallet really does permeates both life and death, a complete contrast to the perpetually drab and gloomy British equivalent.

Chichicastenango cemetery

By late morning the crowds were starting to make it more of a battle than a pleasure to wander the market, and as we must have walked every street at least twice by this point, we returned to the hostel to collect our bags and embark on (yet another) series of chicken buses to the city of Quetzaltenango.  We’d ummed and ahhed a bit about going to Chichi, but it was well worth the effort and we were glad to have spent long enough there to see the market set up, and see a more local side before the tourist hoards arrived.  A night and a few hours in the mayhem were probably enough though, as without the market Chichi probably wouldn’t feature on very many travellers itineraries…

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Lake Atitlan

The journey from Antigua to the town of Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlan (about 3 hours) gave us our first taste of the Guatemalan Chicken Bus.  Four tastes in fact as we had to change 3 times to get there.

Chicken buses are ex-issue North American Blue Bird buses (the same as the bright yellow American school buses…these have also made their way down here), which have shunned their conservative yellow uniform for a significantly more ‘pimped’ attire of a multi-coloured paint-job, chrome, blaring music (usually Latin American), and either a crucifix or Christ statue to keep them safe on the roads…although I’d have thought employing a less audacious breed of driver would be a more effective approach to road safety.

Guatemalan Chicken Buses...climb on & breathe in

I guess they’re called chicken buses because of how you feel once you’ve been jammed into one.  By the time your average chicken bus leaves the station, it’ll have 6 people squeezed across parallel rows of two-person benches, meaning that those in the middle will have (at best) 1 bum cheek on the seat, the other floating over the aisle, and prevented from falling into said aisle only by how tightly he or she is pressed up against their corresponding similarly 1-cheeked aisle-buddy.  Any gaps in the aisle are then filled with unlucky ‘standers’ until the bus is absolutely bursting at the seams.  It’s at this point that the driver’s buddy, the one that’s been drumming up business by shouting out of the door at anyone standing vaguely near the roadside, will attempt to walk down the aisle collecting fares for everyone’s journey.  Queue a whole lot of squeezing, jostling, and personal space invading until matey reaches the back of the bus, where (thank God) there’s a rear door so the whole experience isn’t repeated in reverse.  Still, journeys are cheap as chips, and funny as hell so long as you a) get on early enough to get seat, and b) don’t have to travel in them for longer than an hour or so.  They may be built by American’s, but seat dimensions are 100% Guatemalan…small.

After our three changes where at each there were ‘driver’s buddies’ waiting to shepherd us swiftly into the next coop, we were deposited at Panajachel (called “Pana” by tourists and locals alike), the primary transport hub for Lake Atitlan.  While not exactly unattractive (nowhere on a lake in the Guatemalan highlands, surrounded by volcanoes, could be considered that) Pana isn’t the most beautiful of places, so we stayed just one night before jumping into one of the water taxi’s and heading for the tiny one street village of Jaibalito.

Classic Lake Atitlan shot, check

While the morning revealed what the previous evenings dusk had hidden, the fantastic 3-volcanic peak skyline above the lake, it also delivered the temporarily crushing blow that Lake Atitlan is currently (May-2011) full of thick, brown, smelly, sludge-like algae.  This is a problem that first reared its head in 2009, resulting (it is thought) from the use of agro-chemicals as fertilizer on the surrounding hills.  It dissipated in 2010, but with heavy rains in the 2010 wet season washing a new dose of fertilizer into the lake and a recent bout of hot weather, it’s back with a vengeance.  Goodbye thoughts of 4 more days of El Remate style splashing and lounging.

The plus side of this turn of events was that we could instead spend our time focusing on the beautiful scenery and rich indigenous culture which surrounds the lake.  We had wanted to visit Jaibalito to treat ourselves with a stay at Casa Del Mundo, which according to Lonely Planet is “Guatemala’s most magical hotel”.  While the hotel and grounds are spectacular, there’s very little to Jaibalito village once you’ve walked its 60m street, so our day here was all about lounging in the hammocks, gazing out at the incredible views.

Jaibalito...view-tiful

The next day we caught another water taxi further around the lake to San Pedro, a much larger town with a population of some 10,000.  While we weren’t immediately bowled over by the look of San Pedro (it’s a little shabby in places with a warren of little signless passageways), we quickly warmed to the super-relaxed atmosphere of the place and, trying to resist its tempting whispers to order one more cocktail and retreat to a hammock, we booked a guided walk into the hills for the following morning.

To fill our afternoon, we grabbed yet another water-taxi to the next town around the lake (the second largest behind Pana), Santiago Atitlan.  Once again the town wasn’t all that in the attractiveness stakes, but what it does have is Maximon (‘Mashimon’).  Maximon is a well revered Mayan God, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s The Man.  Maximon prefers the finer things in life…money, clothes, hats, rum, and cigars, and he lives in Santiago, moving house every year, with a troupe of minders who manage the flow of locals exchanging gifts for good luck, and tourists exchanging cash for photo’s.  They also have the important task of managing his smoking habit, tapping the ash and quickly furnishing him with a replacement once he’s done ‘smoking’ it.

Even before the bizarre experience of meeting Maximon, finding him is entertainment enough.  As he moves house so often there are no signs, so you have to ask bemused looking locals to wave you in the general direction of his new haunt, before giving one of the local kids a few Quetzals to take you down an innocuous looking alley to his current abode.  Seriously, the whole episode was undoubtedly one of the highlights of our time in Guatemala.

Maximon and minders, Santiago Atitlan

To say that we’d booked our walk for the following morning was somewhat misleading, as our alarms were set for 2.15am, ready to meet a local guide at 3am, all so that we could see sunrise from the summit of a lake viewpoint called the Indian’s Nose.  Craziness.  And so it felt as we waited for our guide to show up, exchanging banter with a pair of locals staggering home until our man rocked up, half an hour late and swinging a machete….”it’s for protection”.

Of the walk up there’s little to say other than it was dark, steep, and took 3 hours.  But when we popped out onto the summit, the view out over the lake, volcanoes, and pinky-blue dawn sky with the lights of lakeside towns still twinkling in the half light were incredible.  Absolutely worth the effort and the early start.  The walk down however was fantastic.  We started of slipping through tropical forest from the summit before walking through high-level sweetcorn fields where chimps crashed around in the trees where the hillside dived down towards the lake.  From the field we then returned to woodland where coffee plants grew in the shade of avocado trees, and butterflies flitted between shafts of the still early morning sunshine.  By 9am we were back in San Pedro, eating a well deserved hearty breakfast, our second of the morning but a good 7 hours apart thanks calorie counters.

View from Indian Nose, Lake Atitlan

Indian Nose..and the rest of his face looking skyward, apparently.

Later that day we returned to Pana where, gluttons for punishment we clambered aboard the first of 3 chicken buses to reach our next stop, the highland market town of Chichicastenango…

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Antigua

Our overnight, supposedly first-class bus from Flores (you get fractionally bigger seats, and a ‘free’ sandwich that managed to taste kind of like a bad big mac), arrived into Guatemala City at around 5am.  Now Guatemala city has a pretty bad reputation as a gun toting, crime ridden, pollution filled city of little merit, and trust me, arriving at 5am in the drizzle after a night on a bus does it no favours whatsoever.  It took us about 2 seconds to decide to pay slightly over the odds to not even leave the bus station before immediately boarding a waiting tourist shuttle bus for the hour long drive to Antigua.

Arrival in Antigua gives you a far warmer glow…familiar pastel coloured colonial houses, cobbled streets, and a beautiful position surrounded by forested hills and a perfect conical volcano.  Trying to navigate from where we were the shuttle dropped us to a hostel, quickly highlighted a perpetually annoying feature of Antigua, a complete lack of street names or numbers.  It’s not that they don’t have them, they have names and numbers in fact, and with the usual colonial era grid-system it should be a breeze to navigate, but for the lack of signage…Antigua, sort it.  Still, at least it has a massive volcano on one side of town to give you some hope of orientation.

"Where's the taxi rank?...in front of the volcano, right."

Apart from missing street signs, Antigua is a real charmer.  With its setting and colonial features, although slightly squatter (very few of the buildings are taller than double story) it’s similar to the Mexican towns of Puebla, Oaxaca, and San Cristobal.  While many have the familiar pastel pallet of other colonial towns, Antigua does a great line in ‘artfully distressed’ with many houses having a kind of splattered look, with two or more colours on show.  We have no idea whether this is by design or neglect, but either way it looks pretty cool in our opinion.

Antigua Two-Tone

Colonial Charmer, Antigua Guatemala

Another element which adds to Antigua’s distressed look is most definitely not by design.  After an earthquake in 1773, many of Antigua’s colonial cathedrals and churches were partially (if not totally) ruined.  While some were restored, many remained in ruins, but have been preserved as tourist destinations, and in our opinion are more interesting to wander around than their fully restored and functioning counterparts.  Aside from the perpetual disorientation of absentee street names (which I’ll try to get over) Antigua is thoroughly enjoyable to walk around.  The city has just the right mix and distribution of tourist orientated café’s, bars, and restaurants to make it feel natural rather than contrived for western titillation, although the concentration of gringos is certainly higher than most Guatemalan or Mexican towns we’ve seen so far.  We spent a great couple of days just wandering, checking out the buildings and finding a few favourite coffee, cake, and dinner spots that we would have the chance to return to later in our Guatemalan itinerary.

Antigua ruins, Guatemala

One restaurant of particular note is Restaurante Dona Luisa Xicotencatl, which as well as having a great little courtyard setting, friendly black and white uniformed serving ladies, and a good value menu, the attached bakery also serves up the best banana bread we have ever tried.  Bar none.  It was so good we couldn’t resist taking a half-loaf with us when we left town.  A second is the plaza-side Tienda La Canche, which we walked passed at least twice before agreeing that it was actually somewhere to eat…from the street it looks exactly like one of a thousand other micro-stalls selling the usual array of crisps, coke, and cigarettes.  But if you actually enter, you’re quickly shown behind the shop counter and into a back room that looks exactly like someone’s house.  Which is exactly what it is.  And inside they dish up ridiculously cheap (less than £1) traditional meals, home cooked by what appeared to be 4 generations of ladies who, even standing on each others shoulders, would still have struggled to get one of them up to my eye-level.  Classic.

As well as offering plenty to occupy yourself with for a few days in town, the hills surrounding Antigua offer plenty more to get involved with.  We opted (as do many) for a hike up Volcan Pacaya, one of three active volcanoes within spitting distance of Antigua.  After a standard 6am start, we hopped into a shuttle for an hour or so’s drive to the base of the volcano.  Now as recently as 9 months ago, visitors could toast marshmallows over flowing lava, but to our immense disappointment the recent period of relative inactivity has meant that none of the red stuff is currently on show.  Instead we had to make do with great views, rock that hasn’t yet reached its first birthday, and the odd vent breathing out hot, sulphurous jets of air.  Oh, and the knowledge that the 2 hours up, 1 hour down would have earned us another half loaf of banana bread.

Vlocan Pacaya Warnings

3 steaming volcanoes, viewed from a 4th

Back in Antigua and pretty knackered to be honest, but with our half-loaf swinging happily from our hands, we jumped aboard our first Guatemalan ‘chicken bus’ towards our next destination, Lake Atitlan…

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From Palenque (Mexico) to Flores & Tikal, Guatemala

We’d looked in to getting from El Panchan to Flores in Guatemala ourselves, but in the end decided that paying a bit more for a shuttle was preferable to dealing with the timings and logistics of the bus-boat-taxi-bus combination  required to get across the border.  As it transpired, the border crossing we’d intended to head for was spuriously ‘closed’, so we had to travel further south to a second crossing point via a laborious and completely unnecessary 2 hour loop to a cafe that was almost certainly owned by a friend or family member of the driver.  Still, that’s just how it is in Mexico, and there’s very little point in getting worked up.

Walking out of the jungle, El Panchan, Mexico

The border crossing itself was a fairly opaque affair…we all handed our passports to the driver who disappeared for 2 hours before suddenly reappearing and rushing us across the border to Guatemalan passport control.  Another hour or so of waiting for passports to be stamped, and we finally boarded a second bus for an excruciatingly slow drive to the town of Flores.

The benefit of travelling on a bus whose speed topped out at a whopping 40mph, is that we had plenty of time to take in the Guatemalan countryside as it slipped slowly by.  As you’d expect given its proximity to Mexico, Guatemala at first sight certainly appeared more similar than different, but there were a few subtle differences; significantly fewer trees where private owners had cleared the land for farming, fires burning to both clear and fertilise the land with the resulting ash, villages that appeared just slightly shabbier than their Mexican counterparts, and horses grazing or tethered everywhere.  There seems to be a view that Mexico is actually part of a more developed Northern American region, but having moved across the border all the signs suggested we had arrived in Central America proper.

Some 4 hours after crossing the border and 11 hours since leaving El Panchan, we pulled in to Flores, a small island of little more than a km square sitting at the southern end of Lago de Peten Itza.  Although undeniably attractive with pretty colonial style pastel coloured houses, Flores sounded a bit on the touristy side, so we hopped into a taxi with fellow Brit called James and drove a final 25km’s to the two road village of El Remate on the northern edge of the lake.  This meant that we could enjoy rest day on the edge of the spectacular lake after 12 or so hours of travelling, with the added benefit of being 45 minutes closer to Guatemala’s #1 tourist draw, the Mayan ruins of Tikal…not insignificant when you consider having to get up for a 5am bus ride to reach Tikal for when the gates open at 6am.

Having checked in to the good, cheap, Hotel Sun Breeze, right on the lake edge and run by the ebulliently jovial Alberto (who did a great line in Spanglish to help advise us on our various options in El Remate and beyond) we just had time wade into the lake to cool off while lightning crackled amongst mauve clouds on the southern shore.

Out the back of Alberto's place, El Remate

The following day was a candidate for the most relaxed of the whole trip so far, spent almost entirely on a thatched covered stilted platform protruding into the lake, alternating between floating on our backs in water battling with the sky for the title of ‘most blue’, and lying on the platform watching little silver fish darting between its stilts.  The perfect antidote to cramped buses and tedious passport control.

Stilty loveliness

Suitably refreshed by a blissfully chilled couple of nights in El Remate, we rose before dawn to be met by a minibus for the hour run to Tikal.  If we thought that the jungle setting of Palenque was impressive, the route to Tikal, a 30 minute drive off the highway through dense walls of jungle vegetation really highlighted just how ‘in the thick of it’ the site is.  We had also only truly appreciated just how vast the site is when reading some stats the previous day.  Just 7% of the full extent of the ruins are accessible to the public, but within this there are an incredible 4,000+ individual ruins which the average visitor will have to walk some 20km’s of forest paths to see the most significant constructions.  With this and the intense heat of Palenque fresh in our minds, the logic behind the antisocially early start was immediately obvious as we stepped off the bus into jungle air still relatively cool with the sun still below the tree-line.

If we thought Palenque was a step up in terms of impact, from a jungle and towers perspective, Tikal really turns it up to 11.  While Palenque as a collective is impressive because much of it can be viewed as a whole, with manicured lawns separating most of the larger structures, Tikal wows you slightly differently, with immense and isolated towers penetrating the forest canopy as you wander from thick shady jungle into bright clearings.  Although not all of the towers are climbable, several are, and from the top you can gaze out over the jungle to see other behemoths poking their heads through morning mist while parrots, toucans, and numerous other birds flit between trees, as howler monkeys call to each other in the distance.  Incidentally the sound from the latter really does have to be heard to be believed…the sound of nightmares if you didn’t know what it was…we’ve heard it described as both “the type of roar a yeti might make”, and “like two huge slabs of rock being dragged across one another”.  It would certainly be this rather than either guards or eviction notices that would be the determining factor in deciding whether or not to spend a sneaky night atop one of the temples….it’d be the towering Temple V or one of the more secluded temples in Complex Q & R if you want a recommendation.

Temple 5, Tikal Guatemala

Temple 5 (reverse view) Tikal, Guatemala

After 8 hours of wandering the temples (only just enough to get round them really), we returned to the waiting minivan as a familiar heat was building.  Although the majority of the walking between temples is done under the relative cool of the jungle canopy, you really wouldn’t want to be doing too much walking after late morning at this time of year (May) so the early start is a must.

View out from Temple 4, Tikal Guatemala

After returning to collect our bags and take a welcome shower back at Alberto’s place in El Remate, we caught a shuttle back down the lake to Flores, where after a couple of preparatory happy-hour mojito’s, it was onto the night-bus for a ride to the architectural gem in Guatemala’s colonial crown, Antigua…

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Agua Azul, Misol-Ha, & Palenque

Throughout our trip we’ve made a point of avoiding anything packaged – tours tend to cost 3 times as much as doing the same activity under your own steam, and usually mean you’re doing whatever ‘it’ may be with a bunch of other tourists.  Not our bag.  There are times however, when it just makes sense to pay a bit more, or see things a bit more quickly instead of battling with numerous buses and a convoluted route just to save a few pesos.  A case in point was our trip from San Cristobal to Palenque.  It’s around 6 hours between the two if you catch a direct bus, and to have stopped off at the pair of reputedly beautiful waterfalls that we wanted to see en route would have been a real headache to achieve by public transport.  Instead we we’re up at 5am, and ready for our ‘tourist shuttle’ (a private minibus with a few other gringo’s) at 6am.

The winding route from San Cristobal to Agua Azul passed through beautiful hilly, tropical, densely forested scenery, which by now we recognised as typical of southern Mexico.  Our enjoyment was somewhat diminished by a driver who appeared to be attempting to beat his own one-handed personal best for the route, but once you’d wedged yourself into the seat, gritted your teeth, and stopped watching his overtaking manoeuvres it was kind of ok…at least we were getting there quickly.

Agua Azul is an extensive collection of stepped waterfalls climbing up through the jungle, a place where clear cool turquoise pools beckon sweaty visitors.  After walking the half hour or so from the car park to where the rivers and pools disappeared into the jungle, we headed back down past lines of souvenirs and mango stalls to where we could resist the urge no longer, and waded in to deliciously cool flowing waters.  Sadly with just over an hour allocated to our Agua Azul stop by Jose Schumacher (a downside of the tour approach) all too soon we had to  return to the minivan to rejoin the race to Palenque.

Aqua Azul Waterfalls

Swimming jungle style, Agua Azul

Our next pit stop, an hour or so further was Misol-Ha, this time a single waterfall of 30-odd meters plunging down through a hole in the forest into a large green pool.  Here our drivers efforts to break the sound barrier paid off, as for most of our hour we were the only people splashing in the pool while birds and butterflies crossed the sky above.

Misol-Ha waterfall, Mexico

Nice as the waterfalls were however, the main attraction of the day was Palenque, the ruins of an extensive Mayan city set amongst tropical forests.  And my God were they tropical.  We’ve been in some pretty hot and sweaty places since arriving in Mexico, but what met us in Palenque was something else entirely.  The mid-afternoon heat as we stepped from of our air-conditioned bubble was immediately smothering, and as we staggered from one shady patch to the next the sweat ran in rivers down our backs.  Not even the sting of salt in our eyes could detract from the spectacular sight of the ruins though; great grey stepped towers rising up against the vivid green of the jungle, and as you push further into the forest, ruined temples and houses half reclaimed by the jungle.  Of the ruins we’ve seen so far in Mexico (this is the 3rd set) Palenque was definitely the most awe inspiring, owing partly to the structures themselves, but also to the incredible jungle setting.  A fantastic sight to end the day.

Palenque ruins, Mexico

More Palenque ruins, Mexico

After the two and a half hours of exploration we had allocated (Palenque really deserved at least twice that in my view), the park was closing so it was back in the van for the short ride to El Panchan, a small commune like enclave of half a dozen basic hotels and restaurants set right in the jungle.  El Panchan is a great little place with a really chilled vibe….a perfect place to take the edge of the steaming jungle with happy hour margaritas.  We also sampled a Chelada, an interesting Mexian twist on a beer serve, basically taking the ingredients of a Bloody Mary (ice, lime, salt, pepper, and hot pepper sauce) but replacing the tomato juice and vodka with a Negra Modello (dark beer)…a surprisingly enjoyable combination, the spicy devils.

El Panchan balcony view - it's a jungle out there...

Margarita times, El Panchan

Before hitting the hay to the sounds of the jungle right outside the bedroom window (after our Palenque sweatathon we’d pushed the boat out and opted for air-conditioning), we booked our second ‘tour’ in two days, this time to negotiate the bus-walk-boat-bus of the boarder crossing from Mexico into Guatemala…

Posted in Beer / Drinking, Mexico | 1 Comment