A Travellerspoint blog

Lake Atilan

From rio dulce we made our way to Antigua. Antigua is a beautiful city full of charm and quirks. It was nice to have a few days just wondering about from cafe to bar. It's a beautiful city with a volcano dominating the horizon and little doorways everywhere that open into huge shops or courtyards and gardens.

Next stop chichicastenango, one of Guatemala largest markets via three chicken buses. Guatemala's chicken buses are different to Belize. They are still old American school buses but they are seriously pimped up! And the seating arrangements are very different. In Belize it was one person per seat, in Guatemala it's more like a game of buckaroo. So one small two seater bench fits three people. I was on the end half on half off. A lady stood in front of me leaning over the seat in front with her basket, inches from my face. A gentlemen stood right next to her and when we veered left would end up on my lap. Another lady balanced her lunch on my head for a bit while one more sat, yes sat, for over an hour on my hip. This is not for the claustrophobic! And still no chickens. The market was huge and loud and full of colour but people weren't as in your face as I had expected which was nice. The textiles here are amazing, intricate and colourful. I succumbed and brought a wall hanging.

From the market we made our way to lake Atilan. It was a busy day but we made it to the shore in time for the sunset and a beer on the pier. The lake is amazing and from where we sat we had a backdrop of four volcanoes towering over the other side of the water. So beautiful.

The next day we took a boat trip round the lake. We stopped for a few hours in the afternoon in the town of Santiago, home to Maximon. Maximon is a combination of maya gods and Christianity's judas in the form of a wooden Statue covered in silk Ties smoking a cigar. He moves homes every year and it is a great honour to provide him a home. People come from all around to receive his blessing and bring offerings of cigarettes and alcohol, rum being his favourite. A statue of Mary lies in a glass cabinet next to him and dried flowers and stuffed animals hang from the ceiling. An unusual and surprising mix of Christian and Mayan tradition.

We carried on by boat to San Juan la Laguna, a traditional Mayan village. The village is run by cooperatives, weaving and art being two of these. Here we were given the privilege to stay in someone's home and spend the evening with them and there family. Domingo and his family where so lovely. He lives with his wife and six children in a tradition Mayan home. There is a kitchen with a wooden burning stove and two or three bedrooms. Their clothing is traditional so the women all wear these amazing brightly coloured skirts spun and woven by the cooperatives. Things are much simpler here. The family were so welcoming and tried to teach us how to make tortillas. Mine did not look like theirs! Their first language is Mayan but they spoke some Spanish as did Steph so we were able to chat and share stories and ask questions about each others lives. The kids where gorgeous and taught us card games and where very interested in our cameras so I now have hundreds of photos of their faces from different angles. It was a wonderful and fascinating evening.

Planeterra is a charity supporting conservation initiatives for sustainable development around the world including this home stay small business initiative that enabled us to be able to stay in their houses. These projects aim to increase income, conserve their cultural heritage and support the long-term health of the picturesque landscapes that the tourism industry relies upon. They are now working together to develop the small businesses in the town and providing grants and training to help mitigate negative environmental and cultural impacts of tourism. It's a fantastic company and a wonderful way of supporting these communities.

The next day we journeyed back to Antigua ready to meet dad!
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Posted by sp8j 08:11 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Guatemala

My first experience of Guatemala is the Tikal Mayan ruins. The ruins were built about 700 bc in the middle of the jungle. It's amazing. You walk through dense jungle and then all of a sudden trough the canopy there is this huge pyramid type temple structure towering high above the trees. The temples are beautiful and striking and a feat of human achievement pre machinery. But what's fascinating about Mayan temples is the maths. These temples were not built at random in any way. Every centimetre is part of a predetermined plan. Numbers 3, 9 and thirteen represent the three layers of Mayan existence, hell earth and heaven and the measurements of each and every temple in some way equate to these figures. The temples are built around plazas which all face either north, south, east and west, exactly not vaguely but within two degrees. The two main temples were calculated in such a way that on one day each year the shadow of one reaches the staircase of the other thereby marking the start of a new year. Incredible. From Tikal we went to Flores for the night for beer and sunset. Standard ;)

The next day we travelled to Rio Dulce a small town on the edge of a lake (lago de izabal) to stay in a place over a swamp where the rooms are on stilts and joined by boardwalks and the only way in or out is by boat.

In the afternoon we took a boat and a bus to a waterfall. The river beneath waterfall runs cold but the source of the waterfall comes from hot springs. So that water is hot, like a bath, hot. It's a very strange and totally wonderful sensation sitting in a cold river with hot water pouring down you.

The next day we took a boat trip to livingston. The boat trip is stunning and fascinating. The scenery varies from lakes, to Lilly pad filled back waters to the jungle walled canyon. The life on the lake and river is amazing. People are living not just next to but on the water. Huts on stilts are scattered through the back waters and boats carved out of tree trunks are the only way to get anywhere. We saw children rowing to school, men fishing, women washing their clothes and themselves in the shallower waters. There is no electricity in these house and no access to clean water or sewage systems. The houses are wooden structure with no doors or windows and leaf lined roofs. They probably have one or two rooms inside. It's a beautiful place to live but I can't imagine for one moment that its an easy place to live and is possibly the closest to the opposite of my life I have seen on this trip.

Livingston is a quirky village on the Carribean sea. It's population is mostly garifuna. The garifuna trace their roots to African ancestors who were brought by the British as slaves and banished to an island following an uprising and presumably left for dead. Charming. but they didn't die, they multiplied and now garifuna communities exist the entire length of the Carribean coast. Including Livingston a small town unconnected by road from the rest of the country. We wondered the streets for a while and ate traditional garifuna soup. Which consists of crab, shrimps, fish, coconut milk and plantain! It's was nice but a weird combination for my tastebuds.

Guatemala has such a different feel to Belize. It's busier. Has a different pace. And has more extremes. It has highlands and low lands, the very rich and the very poor. Guatemala has a long history of violence and oppression and understandably unrest. The civil war is within living memory. A combination of google, conversations and guide books has taught me that following two decades of political violence the 1980's saw the introduction of a policy which wiped out hundreds of people and villages. Thousands were massacred, thousands fled and thousands 'Disappeared'. A guesstimated total of 200,000 at its 36 year end. A peace treaty was signed in 1996 and People are only in the last ten years being brought to justice for these atrocities. The peace treaty included the identification an specification of human rights for indigenous people's. I know you can do the math but that's less than 20 years ago. The inequalities are still enormous. People say that 70% of the land that is farmable is owned by 3% of the population, or that Guatemala is owned by seven families. Illiteracy is still a big issue in Mayan communities and therefore so is health care, education and political weight. Then in 2005 a hurricane ripped the country apart. Yet this is a country where the people I have met smile and wave at you. They have set up schools to teach their children how to use and harness tourism. They are kind and unworried and there is a strong sense of family. The symbol for birth is painted on also most every entrance to anything. I don't know if I feel small and silly for having a holiday here or glad that I am able to input into an industry which is helping stabilise the economy and lessen the inequalities.

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Posted by sp8j 12:01 Archived in Guatemala Comments (2)

Jungle lodge

Now when you find paradise it's pretty difficult to leave, but the rain came and leave we must, fond farewells were had to the people who had made out time there so amazing and also have wicked names; wish willy, mamma star and dice. Boat taxi, collectivo and a chicken bus ride later ( sadly still no chickens, but there is still time, at the bus stops though, the music goes up and men selling ice drinks, nuts and coconut tarts amongst other things board the bus and dance up and down the isles displaying their wares, amazing) and we arrive in San Ignacio for a couple of nights in an Eco friendly jungle lodge.

The jungle lodge is ace. Little huts are scattered through the jungle in amongst the crazy tropical plants, humming birds, monkeys and the biggest butterflies. The lodge has composting toilets and outdoor rain water showers. Why is showering while looking up into the trees one of the most amazing things?! A place like this calls for evenings filled with beer and card games.

The next day we drove out to mountain pine ridge which is part of the maya mountains. This enormous national park where people of indigenous descent live in a similar way to the Amish I suppose. We swam in the rivers and walked through caves and then trekked down a mountain to big rock waterfall for another dip.

Belize describes itself as a melting pot of races and its easy to see why. Maya people, mestizos, garifuna, Americans, Indians, Chinese and Europeans are just some of the ethnic groups which make up the population. Despite this there is little unrest or unharmonious relationships. Some put this down to the small population (a little over 300,000) others say that everyone's number one rule is - if you give respect, you get respect and others would explain its because children all go to school together, no matter what their ethnicity or religion and that as part of their education they learn about each other. I imagine its a combination of the three but what ever they are doing it works and it makes for one chilled out happy place that I will be sad to leave.

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Posted by sp8j 13:03 Archived in Belize Comments (2)

Beautiful Belize

Caye caulker

sunny 32 °C

Today I go over the boarder to Belize! It begins with a 5 am start and sweaty walk to the bus stop. Here I have my first experience of a chicken bus. Chicken buses are used throughout Central America and are different in each country. They are all old American school buses with big speakers and get there name because people carry chickens on them. Sadly on this particular one there were no chickens but speakers were thumping with reggae and brought a whole new feel to the term party bus!

Crossing the boarder was easy enough although they obviously saw us coming and bumped up the departure tax. But what you gonna do. The boarder is a simple enough affair and the nice man asked me if I had anything to declare at which point I mentioned my cigs, which is something they can ask you not to take across. The customs official response to this 'yeah girl, were you going you smoke all night long, enjoy my country.'

Welcome to Belize!

Now as mentioned the boarder was a simple affair and I thought it a good idea to change my money here. Don't get me wrong, I didn't expect a full on Bureau de change, but maybe a desk or a wooden sign. What I found after following the directions was a small man with a large plastic bag full of money and a very small calculator hiding behind the corner of the building. It was the funniest image.

Then followed a long bus ride through Belize. It's so different to Mexico much less commercial for a start. In Mexico I passed eight Starbucks, three mc Donald's, a Burger King and a crispy cream on a two hour bus ride. In Belize all the shops and cafe are named after the proprietor. Anna's supermarket, Sarah's place, mikes bar and restaurant. My favourite spots so far have been Adrian's care and repair shop and frans grill. Fran I hope you are reading this as there is a picture attached just for you. I will keep an eye out for these! I have seen no Starbucks or anything like it, thank god. We headed straight for the islands from Belize city via boat taxi.

Caye caulker. Or paradise as every one is referring to it as. White sand, blue sea, carribean coloured painted houses. Rastas's, cocktails and heavenly food. Paradise indeed. It's a small island about 1k by 5k. In the 60's it was torn in half by a hurricane. The point at which the island became separated is now called the split and has a fantastic bar. This is the most chilled place I have ever been. Excited to get to our hotel, dump our bags and dive into the warm blue water we were obviously going to fast as a police man calmly told us to (in a Caribbean accent) "calm down man, you have arrived". Signs around the island say go slow and this is the first writing you see on landing

The next day I took a snorkelling trip out to the second largest barrier reef in the world. From the perspective of trying to be conscious of the kind of tourist I am and where I am spending my money we picked a company who are local born and breed. In the past the major industry of the island has been fishing and this has assisted in keeping this island un-spoilt by tourism. Tourism now grows around it, allowing it to maintain its beauty, its culture and unique island vibe. Golf carts and bicycles are the only heavy traffic to frequent the three main sandy roads running north to south. It's really important to me as I do this trip to try and make sure that I spend money in the right places, where it will be spent on the right things, to do my part in making sure tourism has a positive impact and assists in preserving whats so special about these places.

The first stop was in Hol Chan Marine Reserve. The words hol chan mean ‘little channel’ in the Maya language and therefore the location is a natural hang out spot for marine life. The reserve covers about five square miles and about nine miles North East of Caye Caulker. The channel is about 30 feet deep, and since no fishing is permitted in the reserve, it is rich with sea life of every description . We an abundance or different corals, angelfish, blue-stripped grunts, schoolmaster snappers and hundreds of other varieties. It is also known for the green moray eels living in tiny caves along the wall.

The Shark and Ray Alley our second stop within the Hol Chan Marine reserve. Locally known as the Aquarium, this spot is known as the shark and stingray city of Belize. it was here that i swam with a shark for the second time this trip! Nursing sharks and completely harmless and share their waters with Stingrays amongst other fishes. They are beautiful and swam around us like we weren't there.

But the last swim of the day was the most incredible. The Coral Gardens are located two and a half miles south west of Shark and Ray Alley. The myriad hues of coral are rainbow like: pale pink, flashy reds, deep purples, flamboyant greens and a multitude of colours in between. We swam out and there in front of my eyes were green turtles gliding through the water, one was feeding on the bottom while another swam up for air as an eagle ray swam right across and a green moray eel poked out from his hole. Incredible. I have always wanted I swim with turtles and what a way to do it.

Back on the boat we lay out on the roof to dry off. The reggae was turned up and the rum punch flowed. We danced the whole way back to shore.

Merry with rum punch and hot from the dancing we headed straight to the split to drink more punch, dive off the jetty and watch the sunset. I think this is about as perfect as life gets and it didn't end there. We went out for fresh lobster and then headed to a bar with no seats. Only swings. To dance and swing and drink the best named cocktails I have seen in a while. My personal favourites being the notorious and delicious panty rippa and a ducks fart!

Days of sun, swimming, back flopping (yes, flopping, ouch!) from the split, rum, fresh sea food and dancing followed. Bliss.

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Posted by sp8j 16:56 Archived in Belize Comments (2)

Having a whale of a time!

Sorry couldn't resist.

semi-overcast 29 °C

So day 2. I was planning to go to Tulum today to see the ruins and the turtles but the opportunity arose to go swimming with shark whales. It's a once in a lifetime thing as there is a pretty small season where you can do this and there was no way I was saying no.

Here are some things I have learnt about whale sharks;
They are sharks not whales.
They are the largest fish in the sea and can reach about 40ft.
Fortunately for most sea-dwellers—and me!—their favorite meal is plankton.
In order to eat, they jut out their formidably sized jaws and passively filters everything in its path. The mechanism is theorised to be a technique called “cross-flow filtration,” similar to some bony fish and baleen whales.

At this time of year hundreds of Whale Sharks gather just north of Isla Mujeres in a seven mile radius to take advantage of the plankton rich waters created by the joining of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

A quick, but beautiful, one hour boat ride saw our group arrive to the sight of about eighty whale shark fins bobbing in the ocean. Wow.

Snorkelled and finned up in we went. It was surprisingly hectic up until this point. I was clambering to get my fins on and trying to listen to all the instructions. Then you hear Carlos (whale shark leader extraordinaire) just go go jump jump swim swim and in I dive. Then there is the inevitable moment of panic when your mouth fills with sea water and you have to remember how to snorkel and then out of nowhere and within touching distance is a whale shark. He was so close I could have hitched a ride. It was a strangely emotional moment when I realised we were swimming together. Breathtaking. They move so slowly and with such gentle majesty, the contrast to the hectic moments before was really striking. There was silence now and there I was swimming along side this enormous fish. Watching his gills open and close, studying his skin, His flattened head sports a blunt snout above its mouth with short barbels protruding from its nostrils. Its back and sides are grey to brown with white spots among pale vertical and horizontal stripes. Its dorsal fins are set further back on his body and its tail is the strongest looking thing I think I have ever seen. Up in front another whale shark swims towards me and I have to scot out the way. They swim fast i gave it my best to keep up but slowly he was out of sight. As I head back to the boat two manta rays with wing spans of like two metres are doing graceful loop the loops. I don't think I will ever forget what it felt like and wish I had better words to explain.

One of the guys has an underwater camera so hopefully will be able to pinch some of the pics we took at some point and add them to this!

Back on the boat we headed to Isla Mujeres a gorgeous island for a swim and a beer, not going to lie a few hours of whale watching and sitting on the stationary boat got the better of me and with very little warning i was promptly sick in front of the entire group! Ah well better out than in. Half an hour later we arrived at the island and drank beer whilst swimming in the Caribbean Sea, followed by a ceviche (fish salad) and guacamole. What a way to end the trip.

It may all sound like some crazy American tourist money making disaster that has put upon the Mexicans and this incredible natural occurrence. But I did my research and the licensing and planning in place are based around studies which aim for the co-existence of the tourism industry, the Whale Sharks themselves and their environment. The goal is to develop a sustainable eco-tourism market providing opportunities for tourists and jobs for local businesses while protecting the habitat and well being of the Whale Sharks. Strict licensing and permissions have only been granted to certain organisations on Isla Mujeres who understand and respect the overall goals for this experience. Go responsible tourism!

So tomorrow we head down the coast and to the Belize boarder and then out to caye caulker for a few days on a proper Caribbean island. Hello rum and rastas's! I have no idea if there will be much Internet so I shall stop annoying you all until I find wifi again.

Posted by sp8j 20:37 Archived in Mexico Tagged sharks whale Comments (2)

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