A Travellerspoint blog


Adventures on Waves and in Caves

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The next day it was off to Caye Caulker in Belize for what is supposed to be a rather special lazy island with excellent snorkelling and diving (the world famous blue hole is most easily accessed from here). The island itself is quite remarkable being only about 500m wide and at most 4km long with a mantra of "Go Slow" which the locals handle with a plomb. In fact there are no cars allowed on the island with the exception of golf buggies available for hire. Being an island you would expect the fish to be good and we certainly couldn't complain as we found a local chef walking along with a giant barracuda in his hand and decided that his place was worth eating at.

The next day we headed out to go snorkelling on the reef, which is the second biggest reef in the world that has sadly suffered the effects of diving and over fishing. Impressively (for me atleast) I was fine and stomached the entire ride even at it's choppiest - some members of the group weren't quite so lucky. The marine life around the reef was very good with a plethora of vibrantly coloured fish, however the hightlights were definitely the manta and sting rays, nurse sharks and giant turtles we were able to swim along with. Well worth the visit though it spelt a death knell for my beard which was just too annoying! The other thing of note was the Pom-bashing which would become a tradition for the tour, on this occassion it wasn't the bashing persay as when our local skipper chimed in with this subtle jab:

Skipper: Where you from?
Andy: England
Skipper: Wonker (in the greatest carribean accent ever!)

The bar scene in Caye Caulker is pretty slow (along with everything else) it did however have a sports bar which despite not being all that flash had sport on TV and a quiz while we were there. A respectable third in the quiz helped take 20% off the bill but the aussie's amongst us were left dumbfounded after failing to get the "aussie slang" question right, anyone actually used the term "10 oz sandwhich"? The other night time option there was a place called the raggae bar which offered a rooftop full of swings for bar seats a very cool idea if not a little dangerous late in the night. The place was pretty good for a couple of beers but that seemed surplus to the requirements of the locals in there.

Sans my beard which felt a little strange we then headed off to San Ignacio which to me seemed little more than a half way place to spend the night on the way accross the border to Guatemala. Boy was I wrong with the place boasting many Mayan sites with the best seeming to be the adventure to the A.T.M. cave, a site of mayan sacrifice.

The site itself promised so much but the journey there was the major selling point. The cave itself is an hours bus ride from the town, then a further 45 minute hike through the jungle and across three rivers jut to get to the entrance. Once inside the cave it is a further hour long combination of walking, swimming and rock climbing to get to the actual sacrifice site. This was absolutely awesome and I would love to be able to do this every day of the trip with the added bonus of the difficulty in getting there also helping to preserve the integrity of the site. The tour guide we had for it was quite strange with him being over protective of stepping near things or taking a different path but being more than happy to walk over some of the broken pots and lead us through the final water section of the cave with no light whatsoever. The sacrifice site is nicely cleaned and excavated with only one real sacrificed body there, a couple of other skeletons are around but they are not as convincing in their placement. The tour guide was also very fond of giving us his story as how other relics in the cave came about but it was very much heresay. The whole day journey however was a really great experience and something I would recommend to anyone travelling through Belize with a bit of energy and a sense of adventure.

Whilst in San Ignacio I also met some american engineers that are doing some volunteer work through their university near there helping to develop a cheap and easily replacable water filtration system for the local people. This sounds like a really cool project and something I wish we had the opportunity to do through university, whilst there one of the girls had her 21st birthday that was obviously a big deal and helped to ensure a good night for me and my group leader. It is starting to become a running joke that I am really only on the tour (or atleast with the rest) part time.

Posted by rhinoc 18:25 Archived in Belize Comments (2)

My Journey Down the Yucatan


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It was finally time to catch up with the rest of my tour through central america, so I headed off with time to spare only to thwarted by the airlines and the weather. A happy ended was secured when I managed to chase them down the coast and enventually end up on the same bus fashionably late (only by about a day late).

My group is a very good mix with 14 of us including the guide. The ages vary from a those in their 20´s up to two older ladies that are in their 70´s, still loving life and travelling. They are an inspiration to most of us and I atleast hope that I have their zest for both when I am their age as well. Our trip leader seems very laid back as well and is more than willing to help us out when necessary but also to let us do our own thing when we want or need too.

When I caught up with my group they were on their way to the sleepy little coastal village of Tulum, which is most famous for it's ruins and caves. The first thing that stood out though is our accomodation which whilst being slightly on the basic side is literally a stones throw from the beach. The showers being cold salty water anyway meant that the ocean was the preferable option and despite the huts resembling birds nests they were again very comfortable complete with mosquito nets. The most difficult thing to get use to was the fact that they only had power from the generator for 5 hours of the day but its a nice reminder of how simply you can live when you have to.

The first stop was obviously the ancient ruins Mayan ruins of Tulum which were are quite small compared to other ruins and not as spectacular initially. The ruins mainly consist of administration buildings with an impressive castle and also a trading dock present. Moving through the ruins however you follow the path back to what is quite a nice beach and probably the best I have seen in central america with the possible exception of the one outside Trinidad in Cuba. The beach is a welcome relief as during the day it is very warm and humid and the view back from the beach overlooking the ruins is probably the best view on offer at Tulum. The people that resided at Tulum mainly worshipped the one god which translates to "God of Commerce and War" which I found quite amusing. The other thing of note is the large population of Igauana's that have taken refuge around the ruins and we regularly on display sunning themselves.

After the ruins we headed off to check out one of the more famous caves around Tulum, Dos Ojos (two eyes) and once again we weren't dissappointed. The two caves were full of fresh freezing cold water (again very well received) that also provided the opportunity to swim and explore the relativley large cave system. All in all this was a really good day with time well spent amongst ruins and caves with a couple of swims to kill the heat of the day.

Posted by rhinoc 05:32 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Learning Spanish in Paradise

San Pedro, Lake Atitlan in Guatelmala

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The village (San Pedro) we are staying at is beautiful and right on the lake. We are paying $A3 each a night for a room with a spectacular view from our doorstep. I can’t describe it but hopefully the photos will do it justice. Suddenly everything is so much easier, with us wanting to organise a few things we gave ourselves all day but alas Guatemalan efficiency saw us get them all done by midday after talking to only two people. Boredom kicked in very quickly but a couple of hours kayaking on the lake solved that and somehow still managed to preserve the relaxing day we needed.

The next day we were up before the crack of dawn to hike up one of the volcanoes. This was ridiculously hard and it seriously kicked my butt, I knew I had lost a little bit of fitness but this was ridiculous. It was however a pretty steep climb, that saw us advance about 1200m up in one and a half hours, I felt bad until we realised it was the equivalent of approx 300 floors in a building via the stairs! The views were quite good and well worth it however with a lot of fog over the lake it wasn’t as crystal clear as it could have been. Our guide had taken some Australians up a couple of weeks ago and they had paid him in Australian dollars which you can’t change anywhere in Guatemala so I decided to do the right thing and help him out by changing it (~1.5 weeks wages by the way). I don’t think I can describe how happy this made him and after many hugs we now have a friend for life here.

In the afternoon I had my first Spanish class (which I am paying almost nothing for by the way, ~$A4 an hour) and I discovered exactly what I don’t know in Spanish – pretty much everything. The first lesson I walked out under siege, my teacher is good but is moving very fast. Despite feeling mentally drained after the four hour lesson I think I understand a little bit more than I did before even if its just knowing what I didn’t previously.

Once again I’m travelling solo and I am quite enjoying having a bit of downtime at the moment in a very peaceful and cheap environment where I can relax and work on my Spanish. My Spanish is slowly improving but I have a long way to go. With five days worth of lessons under my belt I’m currently at the point where I can mostly express myself and can understand the gist of a conversation however both myself and my teacher agree that I need a lot more work on constructing sentences and building my vocabulary. With all verbs being tense and subject specific, this does not make it easy, requiring you to remember up to 15 words for one action depending on who is doing it and when it happens.

After spending a week here I have really enjoyed it and the people here are very friendly, they are still trying to sell you things but are very willing to barter with you and also understand that sometimes you just don’t need what they have. People here always say hello and the people I see regularly are very willing to walk with me for a bit and encouraging me to practice my Spanish. Since I’m coming back in two weeks and staying in a village about 15 minutes away by boat they are very keen for me to come back and visit again. This has been a refreshing change from the people in Cuba. The best bit so far has been that in the last hour of my Spanish classes between a dictionary and what I know I was able to talk to my Spanish teacher and find out a fair bit about what life has been like for her and her family growing up in Guatemala. I think a certain amount of Spanish definitely adds to your experience here as most people are very willing to talk to you but only have limited English they have picked up from tourists.

There is also a really cool pub here run by an English guy which is where all the tourists in the town head too. It is nice after studying Spanish all day to go to a place where you can relax, talk English and meet pretty much all the tourists in town at the one time. They also have good food (I actually had $A5 roast beef on Sunday which was brilliant), a movie theatre upstairs and a sports bar down stairs. I was happy to finally be able to catch slumdog millionaire while I was here along with the remainder of the premier league season. The owner was even nice enough to organise my accommodation in Guatemala City which was great for me given I left in a bit of a rush.

Posted by rhinoc 10:36 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Adios Cuba

The Final Days and Impressions

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Amazingly the illusion works a treat provide we walk as couples and it really is the most that any of us have been left alone the whole time we are in Cuba. We only regret that we didn’t figure this out earlier in the trip as we have crossed paths with these girls a few times and discussed the problem without arriving at this solution. With the girls leaving tomorrow we tried unsuccessfully to watch a baseball game but alas it didn’t work out so we did something typically Cuban and hung out at the malecon over a couple of cervezas.

It was now time to leave Cuba (we are both ready to go and agree we have been here about a week to long already) and whilst I had some fantastic options (special mention to Janelle for her very tempting one) I decided to head to a place in Guatemala that my travel colleague assures is both quiet and beautiful to brush up on my spanish. This meant trying to organise a flight there in a day not exactly difficult but this is Cuba! The bureaucracy here is something else and to even simply sort out a flight took half the day with the remainder being taken trying to get a police report for my camera. This was a memorable experience if not a pleasant one and once the police found out that we were leaving tomorrow decided to put the squeeze on to get us to drop the matter. The final result believe it or not of 3 police stations and about 9 hours was that to avoid retained to “investigate” the matter we had to sign a form stating that the whole matter was our fault – you really couldn’t make that up. By the end of it the desire to leave the country was so strong that insurance or no insurance I don’t care and I’m happy to leave with no desire to return.

Without going in to too much detail the country is really not as pleasant as I would have hoped, It is almost always the case that the local people you meet make the country and here they honestly don’t. The biggest problem is that tourist interaction with genuine people is almost non existent with the only real local contact being touts and people that want your money. I can only remember one real nice gesture and conversation with local people that didn’t involve a possible financial transaction. The two tiered currency system has encouraged uncontrolled hyper black market capitalism which precipitates the continual presence and harassment by touts/girls eager to get convertible (tourist) pesos. The way the travel is setup makes it so linear such that every destination is almost pre-prepared and as a result seeing the real Cuba is a very difficult thing.

For those interested or going to visit I will only say that it does offer almost a packaged tour environment in itself with only two real “trails” on offer and that once you get away from Habana things are a lot nicer. But get here soon as with the American borders almost certain to open up in the near future the country will lose what little it has going for it now.

Posted by rhinoc 19:04 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Strange Days

Vinales & Los Terrazas

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(Ahh Vinales this was an interesting experience for so many different reasons, initially a really great cheap place to relax and enjoy ourselves turned out to be quite an experience mostly due to our casa hosts) After our bad casa in habana we decided to break the cycle and find our own and with Rene speaking Spanish I thought we would be ok. Firstly we were the only two getting off the bus that hadn’t already booked a casa which meant that we had 15 people making a B-line straight for us. At this point we figured we could pick and choose and we watched them slowly but surely drop from 20CUC to 10CUC a night which we figured was a good price. However with all of them offering this we were still no closer to a place to sleep for the night, at this point the most amazing thing happened and in a rare display of civility they decided that one girl had talked to us first and therefore we should go with her – fine by us. Walking down the street we soon found out why the circus happens, there are ~400 casa’s here and nowhere near 800 tourists in this town at any one point!

Vinales as a town can be walked in about 10 minutes with one state run restaurant, a very touristy bar and a small selection of shops. However it is nestled beautifully in valley between large limestone rock formations and promises to be a great place to go hiking and check out some caves. With the restaurant not looking that flash we will be mostly eating at our casa, something they are very keen to encourage and they have promised to go out of their way to make it enjoyable and not too expensive. After the first night we figure we have made the right choice, for $A10 we got a 3 course meal that we were unable to finish (we did not manage to finish a single dinner at this place), breakfast for $A5 is the usual fruit, omelette, juice and bread affair and we only managed to finish this twice, not bad considering.

We decided to test out our casa owners hiking guide skills and she took us out into the valley of silence which is supposedly where the majority of the tobacco farms are in the region. It is rather aptly named as the walk was very peaceful if not all that challenging. She took us out to a tobacco farm where we saw the whole process of cigar making without the chemicals that the factories use and this culminated in rolling our own cigars, sealing them with honey and smoking them. Well worth the time sadly the rest of the hike really wasn’t worth the time or the money and but for a nice swim in the lake and some hunting (stealing mangoes and throwing sticks to knock fruit out of the trees) with the young kid we were mostly disappointed.

Today we headed out on a nice 35km round trip bike ride out to a supposedly massive (46km) cave system. As with everything in cuba it is impossible to get away from the linear tourist trails and we were greeted there with a “free guide” provided you pay the 10CUC entry fee. The guide went onto to detail the formation of the caves and their stalactites and stalagmites but with no swim reward this was once again disappointing. The bike ride itself was good but the succession of hill climbs just about killed me and I cramped up about 3km from home – needless to say I was less than impressed and I may have to focus a bit more on my fitness.

This was about when things started getting very strange at the casa we were staying at with them really trying to hard sell us scooters last night we are a fraction weary now that they have insisted that we come out with them tomorrow night. This was followed by a half hour long reminder that our house was separate to theirs (something we had suspected given the lack of joining walls) and we were therefore allowed to have girls there if we wanted, this was offcourse followed up by the offer of them arranging some girls for us. After much amusement and frustration we gave them a thanks but no thanks and hit behind some aussie girls we had met that day. With Rene feeling crook we decided to have a relax the next day so he could recover and I could sort out where I was headed next week. When we came back for dinner we could hardly believe it as their were two girls in their mid 20’s waiting for us – you just wouldn’t believe it. After a polite were not interested the girls went back to their house and we retire shaking our heads hardly believing it and wondering what was in store if we had headed out with the family! In one final unbelievable act they did some laundry for us (all of about 10 items) and wanted to charge us $A15, quite ridiculous and we ended up settling on $A5 which was still a rip off – the people of this country are just not genuine and really are after nothing more than money in any way shape or form they can get it from you. After those events we are getting the real cold shoulder from the family which is quite strange given they are still doing well out of us, both of us are starting to get annoyed and we are about ready to leave.

Before we left we decided to one more really long hike by ourselves and take in as much of the valley as we could in the 5 hours we had before the bus left, this also meant a lot less time at our casa. This hike was well worth it with both of us setting a good pace circling around the limestone formation and weaving between the tobacco farms. We managed to come across a pretty cool cave and also a nice Cuban who was willing to show us in for a swim for a reasonable charge. The swim brilliant with the water freezing cold (and I mean spanner water cold) which made for a refreshing change since the temperature outside was well above 30 and humid. After this we ventured out past the hideous mural of evolution there is no other way to describe this but just classically ugly! Time to head back to the casa and take off to los terrazes an eco lodge near Habana as neither of us are that enthused about heading back there.

This ecovillage is quite something else and whilst being close to what I expected is also somehow completely different. We are literally in the middle of the Cuban jungle here in a tiny village of only 5 gueshouses (i.e 10 people staying here). Amazingly I am surrounded here by 7 Dutch and 2 Germans, it really is true what they say about the Dutch travelling separately but always agglomerating! The cabins we have rented are really cool and riming me of an A-frame birds nest on stilts (I wish I took a photo), kind of like the witches house in the first heroes quest for those that have played the game. The main attraction here is the swimming hole that is cut out by the rocks which provides both a terrific pool and a nice natural ambience.

With so few people here the nightlife was not going to be spectacular and to top it off the only bar in the place actually shut at 9pm! However with the help some local support staff (who actually out numbered the tourists there at one point during the night) who were able to procure a bucket for us, we were able to stock up and make a reasonable night of it. The highlights included a guy who could apparently get us chicas (you seriously can’t get away from it here) asking for introductions to the dutch girls we were socialising with and by far the best being a dutch girls effort in scattering ~12 support staff by showing her tongue piercing. We couldn’t believe it after they had hung around for about 2 hours dancing and serenading the girls they vanished never to return – apparently Ninka is now the equivalent of the Cuban boogey monster!

Since we had the entire day before getting on the bus we headed off another 4 hour hike taking in lots of jungles and some supposed bird watching trails. Whilst bird watching interested neither of us we are both glad to get out and do some exercise and take in the views from the nearby hills before retiring to the water hole for a swim to end the day. With the dutch girls also continuing on to Havana we are going to travel together and see if we can put off the touts a bit as “couples”.

Posted by rhinoc 19:02 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

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