4 February 2019: And that’s a wrap for this trip: 15.5 months, 5 continents, 21 countries and too many dodgy hostel rooms with even dodgier plumbing to count. We leave with countless brilliant memories and thousands and thousands of photos (not all of which are of penguins) which now all need to be sorted. Homeward bound with a change of clothes in sight! Now let’s get that kettle on.
L: Obelisk, Central Buenos Aires; M: Eva Peron: R: Boca Juniors Football Stadium On a walking tour of La Boca, we were told by our guide that if we asked any Argentinean about the 1986 world cup quarter final game against England, they would probably admit that Maradona cheated when he scored a goal with a handball (the Hand of God) but then they would quickly point to his fabulous second goal only about 5 minutes later when he dribbled the ball past five England players: in any event, we were told that no one in Argentina really cares how the game was won: the fact remains that Argentina went on to win the World Cup that year (and haven’t done it since) and therefore Maradona is seen as a god as a result. This is quite clear from a lot of the street art dotted around Buenos Aires dedicated to him. You also see Pope Francis, Eva Peron and the tango musician, Carlos Gardel, being honoured in this way but really this is a Maradona show: he beats all the other legends hands down (pun intended).
Maradona, Eva Peron and Carlos Gardel
Joint billing with Pope Francis
Our second trip to Buenos Aires was a lot more positive than our first admin trip when we had been in transit and were over tired. This time we understood what everyone loved about this city from its European style architecture (interestingly far more French than Spanish looking), the quirky neighbourhoods with colourful houses, artwork and street markets, the good food, and of course the tango although in fact this is not quite as prevalent as I had imagined and now is often only performed for tourists.
Touristy or not, it is worth catching a show or stopping to admire one of the impromptu displays put on in parks etc as there is some rather fancy footwork going on, the kind I can only dream of ever mastering and had instead to be happy just watching in amazement as yet another flick of someone’s leg goes up without tripping over their partner. Needless to say this wasn’t quite the experience we had when we took a half hour group class but still it was a laugh and we didn’t fall over so that was a result!
L: Colourful street art; M: French style architecture; R: The colourful Caminito in La Boca, Buenos Aires
One of the highlights of the tourist trail in Argentina is of course a visit to the mighty Iguazu falls, the largest waterfall system in the world. Move over Niagara and Victoria Falls (which we have both also visited), this is the Real McCoy. If you like water and rainbows which add an artistic touch to your photos, then this is the place to be. Nature in its finest form.
On the Argentinean side, you have more of the waterfalls themselves and you can get really close while doing the lower walk and also have a view from above from the higher walk. Some people we spoke to seemed to be writing off the Brazilian side but I think that is really unfair; from this side you get a full panorama of the falls and it is hard not to be struck by the huge scale of this stunning natural phenomenon.
And if you are after a bit of a drenching, both sides can happily provide that as the spray is of course tremendous and actually very welcome too as it was incredibly hot and humid when we were there. You just need to be a little careful with your camera and phone but once those are safely waterproofed, it was a joy to get a little bit wet and a little cooler!
Aaah, it’s a tough life going wine tasting in Mendoza, the region renowned for its world class Malbec although (as we soon learned) various other delicious wines including white wines are also produced here. Actually because we chose to do the wine tasting by bicycle in the 30+ degree heat cycling about 25 km in the Maipu neighbourhood, it did involve a little bit of effort on our part so it wasn’t a complete indulgence (she says trying to justify it)!
Maal Vineyard, Mendoza
We visited 3 different wineries: at first we thought we would be able to fit in a lot more but actually it took a while to get from A to B and in the heat, only so much was possible. Our first vineyard was the Maal vineyard which is a really small one which only produces about 170,000 bottles of wine a year: apparently a vineyard in this region is deemed to be small if it produces only 1 million bottles each year so this one operates on a tiny scale. They only produce Malbec but interestingly, they also produce what they call a white (or “blanc de noir”) Malbec (which had a slight pink colour) called “ambiguo” which was really delicious. Next on the list was “impossible” a more traditional red malbec (but produced using oak staves inside the cement vats rather than traditional barrels which gave rise to its name). Like “ambiguo” this was also served chilled which seems to be quite common practice in Argentina – in many (but not all) restaurants, our red wine has been served straight out of the fridge and that’s just because it would get too hot if stored at room temperature. The wine specialists at the vineyards told us that it does the Malbec no harm to be stored in the fridge (at a slightly warmer temperature than a normal food fridge) but then generally once it has been opened it is left to “warm up” rather than being put in an ice bucket like white wine would be.
After a full day of wine tasting, we felt able to tackle the extremely long wine menus in the restaurants in Mendoza – they tend to list all the wines by the name of the wineries and so we were able to spot a couple of familiar names and felt like “old pros”.
L: Now that is what I call a parilla (grill); M: A perfect rare steak; R: Cycling through Cechin vineyards
And obviously what goes well with a great bottle of Malbec when you are in Argentina? Yes, that’s right, an amazing steak or two (or maybe three or four). Some of the portions though were ridiculous– on one menu, the sizes were either 400g or 800g – I mean 400g is about 14 ounces so who on earth is meant to eat a 800g steak? Even tackling 400g felt like I was eating half a (very delicious) cow and was not something that could be undertaken lightly, albeit it was a challenge I was happy to accept. It’s strange to think though that this time last year we were pretty much vegetarian when we were in the Indian sub-continent: when in Rome etc etc. To be fair, if you are vegetarian in Argentina, food options can be rather limited, especially outside of the big cities.
Not content with having seen some amazing glaciers and icebergs in Antarctica, when back on terra firma in Argentina, we went to El Calafate and did a side day trip to the Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park which was great: a “must see” without a doubt. The glacier is 250 square kilometres in size (30 km long) with 74m sticking out above the lake level and is hugely impressive.
One of the most amazing things about our visit there was the noise: every so often there were sporadic very loud cracking noises (at first, these were a little disconcerting if I’m honest) which were made by chunks of ice breaking off the glacier and falling down, sometimes into the lake creating a mini tsunami. It’s as though the whole thing is alive and we really felt as though the whole shape of the glacier was changing even during our relatively short (3 hour) visit there. The glacier is also quite unusual as it is still advancing (most glaciers are currently in retreat).
Walking in Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten
Further north in the same national park, we stayed in El Chalten which is situated in the park itself. This allows you just to walk straight out of town either for day treks (or if you want to camp (which we didn’t) you can do longer overnight treks too). Here again the scenery was lovely although it’s fair to say that we weren’t exactly that lucky with the weather and got drenched on both our days of walking. In fact when we did the “big” Sendero Mount Fitzroy walk, as well as pretty high winds that actually knocked us off balance a little from time to time, we also had to contend with horizontal snow which then turned into torrential rain. I’m not sure at what point my walking shoes stopped pretending to be waterproof but I know that I was sloshing along in them for many kilometres but by that point in time, the paths had also turned into mini rivers so it really didn’t matter – we’d reached the point where we couldn’t get any wetter and just continued to splish splosh through the water.
Amusingly, when the sun did eventually deign to make an appearance (at about the 14th kilometre of an 18 kilometre walk), you could see other walkers stopping to take off their boots to pour the water out of them and also to wring out their gloves and hats etc: I don’t think anyone escaped a good drenching on that particular day and when we got back to our hostel, we realised that even our money had taken a hit as well and we had to lay that out to dry. What was a shame about the walk was that when we were at the top at Lake Torre we did not get the splendid and hoped for view of Mount Fitzroy which was a shame but never mind.
Fortunately as we started moving further northwards, the weather improved. In Bariloche in the Lake District area, it was much warmer (after all it is summer in Argentina at the moment) although there was still quite a chilly wind at times and especially when we went up Cerro Catedral which was about 2100m above sea level. It was at this point that I began to wonder why we had chosen to wear shorts especially when we were sitting on the open ski lifts and the sun had decided to disappear behind the clouds. But fortunately it wasn’t too bad and we soon warmed up again once we descended. This was another beautiful pocket of what is a truly beautiful country and a pleasure to visit.
Views of Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi (Bariloche) including the cable car at Cerro Catedral
“The lady’s question is ‘Can we eat the penguin eggs?‘” said a giggling Rose, one of the translators, to a somewhat shocked George, the British ornithologist, who had just completed his first lecture about birds with a heavy focus on conservation. He was now taking questions and this was one of the very first from one of the Chinese passengers on board the Ocean Atlantic. Once he had got over his deep and very obvious surprise, his answer was actually quite neutral. “We could if we didn’t care about conservation but on this trip, no, we won’t be serving penguin eggs in the dining room“. The question however had obviously stayed with him though as he did some more research and subsequently confirmed that in fact in the Falkland Islands, people are still allowed to eat a certain number of penguin eggs and they still do so.
All our lectures were presented in English and were then translated into Mandarin although (without actually knowing any Chinese myself), it didn’t appear that everything was translated word for word as the laughs weren’t always in the same place. And sometimes the lengths of the translations seem to bear no resemblance to the original words so who knew exactly what was being said? Mind you, hats off to the translators who had to deal with some pretty specific biological and geological terminology as well as some rather dour poetry penned by one of the members of the expedition team. At first, having to wait for the translations was a tad annoying but after a short while, we became very used to it and it even gave us an opportunity to muse over the point that had just been made while the translation was in progress.
L: It was common for people to take photos of the presentations, sometimes to upload to their own accounts; R: not everyone was a model student in lectures!
Another rather odd comment (this time addressed to the Expedition Leader) came in the form of a concern raised by a Chinese lady about her boots getting wet during a beach landing. Given we were all kitted out by the boat with rubber wellingtons, specifically for the purpose of getting off the zodiacs into shallow waters on the edge of beaches, it was somewhat mystifying how anyone felt this was an issue which needed to be raised. Perhaps they had been lulled into a false sense of security by the initial landings in the Falkland Islands which were onto jetties and therefore dry. Either way it was made very clear that all landings in both South Georgia and Antarctica would be wet and in fact in Peter’s case, one landing in particular was very wet as unfortunately he was encouraged to leave the zodiac just as a large wave came in leaving him with a wellington boot full of icy water which wasn’t ideal.
It’s fair to say that the Chinese passengers were a pretty enthusiastic bunch. Any lecturer who started their talk with a resounding “ni hao” was treated to a round of applause and those who ended with “xie xie” (thank you) were adored. In fact, throughout the 3 week trip, there was a lot of spontaneous clapping, the kind you get sometimes on an aeroplane which has just landed (always a mystery to me that one). Mind you, this enthusiasm was pretty contagious and I found myself joining in with the clapping and cheering, even the whooping, from time to time.
And on two or three occasions in particular the excitement seemed to reach stratospheric levels. When we finally made it to our most southerly point of the trip (66 degrees 45 minutes) even beyond the Antarctic Circle which we crossed at 66 degrees and 33 minute, everyone suddenly started to act like crazed were-wolves at full moon, rushing around having their photos taken in front of a massive Chinese flag someone had conveniently produced and generally being terribly over excited.
L: Photo opportunities at the Antarctic Circle; M & R: China’s Great Wall research base
But the pinnacle of the excitement levels came when we visited China’s own Great Wall research base on King George Island in Antarctica despite the total absence of any wildlife on this landing. For the international passengers, this was therefore probably the least exciting landing and a bit of a shame that it was in fact our last one, but for the Chinese passengers, this was a big deal and a moment of deep national pride for them. We were told how difficult it was to be able to reserve a landing here and were given a whole list of rules to follow, the most important of which was the specific instruction about flags and banners: no flags whatsoever other than the Chinese flag were allowed onshore here and, critically, this was not the time to produce the “Free Tibet” banner you might have to hand in your rucsac or anything else concerning another potential political hot potato such as Hong Kong and/or Taiwan. After all, this was very clearly Chinese territory.
Once back on board following the Great Wall Station landing, the levels of excitement continued and at dinner, vast quantities of wine were drunk which was unusual. And when I say “drunk”, I’d never really seen anything like it: instead of sipping wine as is customary, the Chinese simply downed in one full 175ml glasses of wine in the same way as you might down a much smaller shot. And then they refilled their wine glasses and downed it again. And so it went on which was all pretty interesting as that night we began our second Drake Passage crossing and it wasn’t quite as smooth as the first one.
And let’s not forget the sudden and somewhat surprising appearance of ‘Miss Antarctica’. On our first morning in Antarctica, the weather was pretty kind and some people decided to get rid of their big jackets for a few selfies in slightly more flattering clothes. But then suddenly one Chinese female passenger took this idea a whole lot further by coming out onto deck in her dressing gown which she soon discarded to pose for photos wearing only a bikini paired with completely impracticable furry boots which she must have packed specifically for this moment. Unbelievable.
It’s fair to say that not really surprisingly our fellow passengers were a keen bunch of photographers. A lot of them spent the trip lugging around photographic equipment that was almost bigger than them – super large cameras (often more than one) with simply enormous lenses as well as large 1.5m high tripods. On our first landing in the Falkland Islands, I even saw one passenger trying to wheel a medium sized wheelie suitcase full of his camera equipment over very bumpy (tussock grass) terrain so it was hugely impracticable – and this was for a landing which lasted maximum 1 hour! Out on deck, everyone would charge from one side of the boat to the other if someone started pointing into the ocean, just to make sure they got the best vantage point and didn’t miss out on any potential whale sighting. Given this, it was very tempting to make some arbitrary gesticulations just to get people running around. And let’s not forget the machine gun noise of all the thousands of cameras, i.e. the sound of continuous photos being taken even of (non moving) landscape scenes.
And finally you could really tell you were on a Chinese cruise ship when it came to the evening entertainment. We had regular karaoke nights as well as quiz nights, talent shows and game shows, each taken extremely seriously. In fact when the quiz master tried to introduce a degree of leniency for some of the answers to the quiz (for example allowing an answer to a question about the length or tonnage of the ship to include a small range of figures instead of an exact one), he was challenged heavily and shot down: the answer was apparently right or wrong – end of! And when it came to the question about which Antarctic research station had pulled off the feat of drilling the longest continuous borehole through the Antarctic ice sheet, all hell almost seemed to break loose when it was clear that the correct answer was not the Chinese research station (although interestingly there is an ongoing attempt by the Chinese scientists in progress to set a new record in this regard). On the final night, there was a charity auction raising funds for the worthy hookpod charity (www.hookpod.com). At this point, we realised that we were in the company of some very rich (and generous) people. Some of the prizes (art works made by members of the expedition team) went for as much as USD 9,000 which was more than we had paid for our passage. Although even here there was a little crazy twist: the lady who made the highest bid of the night made her payment conditional on having a 15 minute sunset bird-watching walk on deck with one of the male members of the expedition team (with translator in tow of course). Only on a Chinese chartered vessel!
And so finally we made it to what apparently is the highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent – Antarctica. And it isn’t difficult to add another superlative here – the most magical continent. One thing that truly was breath-taking (apart from the cold) was the huge scale which was almost impossible to capture in photographs. Just being there made you realise how largely insignificant we (humans) are: snow-capped mountains rose directly out of the icy water and there was so much space and peace. Obviously there aren’t that many visitors who have made it here – apparently in total there have only been about 140,000 visitors (including explorers, scientists and now tourists of course): that’s not that much when you consider the current world’s population currently stands at around 7.5 billion people.
But it’s not an uninhabited place of course. Here we met chinstrap penguins for the first time and reacquainted ourselves with gentoo penguins again. It was funny to watch these fellows nicking stones from each other: apparently this is part of their mating rituals – the males try to impress the females with their choice of stones (if you remind yourself that a diamond is a stone, perhaps we humans have something in common with gentoo penguins!).
Chinstrap penguins and chicks. R: Chinstraps throw their head up to the sky as part of their noisy mating signal.
Unfortunately due to ice blocking our route (a common hazard in these parts of the world!), we were unable to make it to Petermann Island where we had hoped to meet adelie penguins (who live only in the Antarctic region) and so (much like the macaroni penguins of South Georgia), these were a penguin species that got away from us. Never mind: maybe it provides us with a reason to return in the future? We knew that it was very unlikely that we would see any emperor penguins as they breed inland very far south in crazy weather conditions but still, all in all, we did get to see an awful lot of penguins on this trip.
Gentoo penguins and chicks. L: Warding off a potential attack by a skua; M: a careful selection of stones
As well as leopard seals, we saw crabeater seals and were treated to a fantastic display by a school of orca whales (also known as killer whales) who curiously approached our ship and played around it for about 20 minutes. The water was so clear that you could see them under the water as well as when they came up to the surface properly. A wonderful few minutes.
L: Crabeater seal; M: Leopard seal; R: Crabeater seal near the Antarctic Circle
Unlike the famous explorers before us, we were nowhere near the South Pole and stayed mainly on the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula although we did get as far south as the Antarctic circle (unsurprisingly there wasn’t a big red line in the ocean marking the spot, not least as this is a point that is always moving: apparently we had to travel 1.2 metres further south to reach the Antarctic Circle than we would have had to have done a month earlier). However, it was a cause for celebration on the boat and marked our most southerly point of the voyage.
L: The water became a lot icier once we were down by the Antarctic Circle; M & R: stunning iceberg formations off the Antarctic Peninsula
The trip was all going very well when unusually we were called back for a briefing after dinner one night. In fact in the earlier briefing that day, we had been told to get an early night as we had some early starts for our planned landings the next day (on what was to be our final day in South Georgia). Ever the obedient passengers, Peter and I were already in bed when the tannoy summoned us back to the lounge which we knew did not sound like it was to impart good news.
And it wasn’t. Unfortunately one of our Chinese passengers had had a heart attack when he had returned to the ship after a landing that day which had involved a bit of a hike (although we are not talking about anything too strenuous here). As a result, the captain had already turned the ship around and we were now hurtling full pelt back to the Falkland Islands which was due to take 2 days and 3 nights and it was very much hoped that the guy would survive the journey. It really made us realise that we were in the middle of absolutely nowhere when a ship going as fast as it possibly can still needs 2½ days to get to a hospital. As luck would have it though, one of the other Chinese passengers happened to be one of China’s leading heart surgeons so the guy was in good hands, the only problem being that the ship’s hospital wasn’t equipped sufficiently and so he couldn’t operate on board.
Drama on the High Seas indeed and for us a bit of a disappointment as we lost our final day of wildlife spotting in South Georgia and an opportunity to see another species of penguin, macaronis. To date we had literally seen only one macaroni penguin who had somehow rocked up at St Andrew’s Bay which was a king penguin colony. Rather than finding his way back to join his family and friends, he had obviously decided to hang out with the kings instead who didn’t seem to mind his intrusion. Still even if he wasn’t anxious to get back to his own kin, we would have loved to have had the opportunity to meet them, but alas it was not to be.
We therefore faced 4 consecutive days at sea while we went back to Stanley and then down to Antarctica to pick up our initial itinerary again as soon as possible. 4 sea days and an extra crossing of the famous Drake Passage but fortunately for us this was a pretty calm experience (apparently on the trip just before ours, the “Drake Shake” had been out in full force with dining furniture being turned upside down etc as the ship lurched from side to side). As always during the sea days there was a full program of lectures as well as other activities such as dance and art classes as well as dumpling making. In for a penny (or should that be a yuan!).
Almost as soon as we were notified about the ship’s turnaround, the Chinese whispers (literally Chinese whispers given we were on board a Chinese charter) began. Somehow the language barriers seemed to get broken down as the rumour mill cranked up to overdrive. We heard stories about the sick passenger making a quasi recovery within the next 24 hours and him promptly announcing that he was going to refuse to get off the boat at Stanley and was instead demanding that the captain turn the boat round again and continue with the original programme. Some said he wanted to continue to participate fully and do more landings and zodiac rides himself while others “heard” that he had agreed to stay on the ship in his cabin for the rest of the trip and would sign any sort of disclaimer put in front of him.
At first we had understood that he was a 62 year old male with no relevant medical history, but subsequent tales included the fact that apparently he had had a problem (maybe even a minor attack?) only 2 weeks before he had boarded the Ocean Atlantic and had been prescribed medication but had not been taking it since coming on board. This seemed to be put down to the fact that his wife hadn’t joined him on this part of the trip and while the cat was away, the mouse indeed seemed to be playing by not taking his pills and instead over eating (as indeed we all were), but (the gossip mongers noted further), he was eating an awful lot of eggs, bacon and ice cream (presumably separately but who really knows and nor did it really matter for the purposes of the over-heated rumour mill!). Questions were asked (passenger to passenger only just to keep the gossipy chat alive) about why we were returning to Stanley and not pushing onto Antarctica and in particular to King George Island where there is an airport. It is here where anyone who does a flying/sailing cruise arrives by plane but these flights are highly weather dependent and do not always run to schedule. Presumably if we had sailed there, there was no guarantee that there would have been a proper flight connection for him and, more importantly, there are no medical facilities on King George Island. Obviously some people were more anxious to minimise disruption to their own trips of a lifetime rather than being too concerned about the passenger but ultimately we were all in it together.
Apparently once the captain radioed in the incident, he would then have been instructed by none other than British officials (given we were in South Georgian (and therefore British) waters when the incident happened) to proceed to Stanley. And you don’t want to upset the Brits after all! The fact that the passenger began to recover was neither here nor there; he remained a potential liability for the rest of the trip and we were unable to change course again. Apparently there are about 48 medical evacuations every season and at the time ours was in process, we understood that a French boat was also undertaking a medical evacuation too. Shame we couldn’t meet up to offload our passenger onto them although that would hardly have been practical in open waters!
L: The assembled crowd of “well wishers”; R: the British flag was raised as we approached Falkland Island waters
When we arrived at Stanley, the passenger was able to walk off the ship and get onto the hospital boat that had been sent out to meet our ship. A large number of passengers had turned out to watch him get off the boat (myself included). I wasn’t sure if the big turnout was to find out who he was, or to wish him well, or to make sure he got off the boat (given the earlier rumours) or, as in my case, it was something to see after 2 full days at sea when suddenly land was ahoy once more and there was more to see than rolling waves! A bit of excitement!
Post script: we subsequently heard that the passenger made a full recovery (again through the Chinese rumour mill). Let’s hope that piece of information was correct.
On arrival in South Georgia, I immediately understood the comparison to the amazing Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. The sheer volumes of the wildlife, predominantly seals and penguins, was breath-taking as was the scenery. As if we didn’t already have enough to contend with when trying to make the landings (what with the katabatic winds, fickle waves and high swells in these ever changing microclimates), on some beaches it was also difficult for the expedition team to find a good spot to land, simply because there was just so much wildlife on the beach.
The male Antarctic fur seals were pretty territorial about their patches of beach (which were reserved solely for them and their harem) and woe betide any intruders who could be charged down irrespective of size. While their “homes” may not have looked that much to the casual observer, let’s just say they were a pretty house proud bunch and the advice was to stay off their patch although in practice, this was a little tricky as stepping off one fur seal’s domain typically put you squarely into another’s!
Antarctic fur seals and king penguins
We were advised that if we were charged, rather than fleeing, we had to stand our ground and make ourselves look as tall and big as possible raising our hands above our heads (in a sort of hands-up surrender-like position) while taking the opportunity to heartily roar back. And it seemed to do the trick at least against what I would probably class as mini charges rather than full on charges which are apparently more common earlier in the season when the animals spend about 4 weeks mating during which they don’t leave their patch of land not even to feed and can lose as much as 1.5kg a day while they are fasting. In fact, when we were there, the vast majority of the seals seemed pretty chilled happily lolling around on the beach even doing some sun bathing when the weather was kind. What was quite amusing was getting “charged” by the pups who were just learning the ropes and were hugely endearing although I suspect a nip from them would not have been that pleasant so still best to avoid.
As I’ve already said, what was incredible was the sheer volume of seals that we saw, particularly given that during the height of the whaling and sealing industries in the first half of the 20th century, apparently the numbers of Antarctic fur seals reduced to only 100 animals in total. Today, apparently there are between 4 to 6 million of the furry fellows globally, with about 95% living happily (now unhunted) in South Georgia. Isn’t that a wonderful rebound story – and it certainly felt like we saw a significant percentage of that current population, there were so many of them.
The disused whaling station, Stromness. Every single one of those dots in those photos is an Antarctic fur seal (the numbers were simply crazy!)
Antarctic fur seals are not a predator of penguins, at least not normally, so in South Georgia you find penguins and fur seals living pretty harmoniously side by side.
Elephant seals (they also go through an annual moulting process like the penguins)
As well as fur seals, other neighbours of the penguins are the massive elephant seals. When I say massive, I really mean that: some males can grow up to almost 5 metres in length and weigh up to 3000kg! However, despite their size, again they are pretty harmless if you happen to be a penguin unless you get in the way of an elephant seal bull fight during which time all bets are off and apparently penguins and even seal pups (including even their own elephant seal pups) can and do get regularly crushed in the charge. Again during the peak sealing and whaling period (South Georgia was the global whaling centre until the industry collapsed in the 1960s), elephant seals were hunted aggressively: apparently despite their size they didn’t put up much of a fight and were easy targets known as “sea elephants”.
The king penguin colonies seemed to go on forever!
But probably the crown of our wildlife spotting in South Georgia went to the king penguins of which we literally saw hundreds of thousands – some simply enormous colonies including at St Andrew’s Bay which I understand is home to the world’s largest king penguin colony comprising of over 160,000 mating pairs. By the time we were there most of the chicks had already hatched and were wandering around in their rather ugly brown suits, eager to explore and also to check us out. Other older penguins had come back onshore for their annual catastrophic moult which can take between 2 to 5 weeks during which the penguins effectively fast as they don’t return to the sea to go fishing. This process led to some quite odd looks being sported during this moulting phase which is done to replenish the penguin’s waterproof feathers.
King penguin chicks
There are predators here too of course – after all, the circle of life continues no matter how upsetting it was to see injured or even dead penguins. On land, large skua birds steal eggs and chicks while in the water leopard seals aggressively hunt for penguins which is why we quite often saw relatively sizey groups of penguins on land tentatively approaching the edge of the water in case there was a strategically placed hungry leopard seal hanging around. I guess the theory was that there would at least be some safety in numbers.
King penguins: the “headless” look (as per the picture on the left) always makes me laugh
A simply stunning place to visit and even though sometimes the weather was unkind to us and we weren’t able to make all our hoped for landings, we had such an amazing time there, albeit all too short.
Of course our main reason to visit the Falkland Islands was the wildlife and it did not disappoint in this regard. In fact here was one of my favourite landings of the whole 21 day trip, namely Saunders Island.
Black browed albatross and rockhopper penguin colonies, West Point, Falkland Islands
At West Point we walked across the island to an area of tussock grasses hidden in the middle of which were hundreds of black browed albatrosses nesting side by side with the rather diddy (approximately 50cm high) rockhopper penguins. It was a magnificent first wildlife sighting and the sheer number of birds here was spectacular. We also got to see a striated caracara (known locally as Johnny rook) which is one of the world’s rarest birds (albeit there are fairly large numbers in the Falklands so the odds were in our favour) and various geese and other birds.
L: Striated caracara; M: Female and male kelp geese; R: Upland Goose, West Point
That afternoon we landed on the beach of Saunders Island for a truly magical landing. As soon as we clambered ashore from the zodiac, there were penguins everywhere, a feast for sore eyes. This small area was home to 4 different types of penguins: magellanic, gentoo, rockhoppers and a relatively small colony of king penguins.
Gentoo penguins, Saunders Island
In the beautiful turquoise waters off a wonderful sandy beach we also saw some small commerson dolphins. In my ignorance up until this point I had thought all dolphins were grey but these were black and white beauties. Although were a little far away for me to capture on film, you could still see them in the water as it was so clear. Fortunately the beach here was one of the ones which is free of land mines, a fact which sadly is not true for all beaches in the Falkland Islands – another unpleasant reminder of the conflict over 35 years ago.
The rockhopper penguin colony, Saunders Island
While the rockhopper penguins seemed to keep themselves separate from the others (preferring to nest on the rocks (of course!) above the beach), the other penguins seemed more sociable and happy to intermingle, especially where the boundaries of their colonies were not clearly demarcated. Given the vast numbers, essentially they were all nesting on top of each other but it didn’t seem to bother them too much.
King penguins on Saunders Island including ones undertaking their annual “catastrophic moult”
The penguins were also pretty unphased by us. We were told to ensure that we remained 5 metres away from the wildlife at all times and the expedition team marked out a trail for us to follow to minimise wildlife disturbance. However, not all of the penguins had obviously got the memo about the 5 metre rule as the more curious among them would come a lot closer to have a good look (and occasionally the odd peck). Simply wonderful flippered fools.
As soon as you set foot in Ushuaia at the southernmost tip of Argentina (known as El Fin del Mundo), you are immediately aware that feelings about the Falklands still run very high. For a start, the airport is called “Aeropuerto Internacional de Ushuaia Malvinas Argentinas” (literally Ushuaia – Argentine Malvinas International Airport), Las Malvinas being the Argentinian name for the Falklands. Even while waiting for our luggage, I saw the first of what would be many signs declaring that the Falkland Islands are Argentinian. For example in the centre of town down by the coast is a huge banner declaring “Las Malvinas son y seran Argentinas” (The Malvinas are and will be Argentinas) and inside the port, we saw an official rather stern sign declaring that the islands have been under “the illegal occupation of the United Kingdom … since 1833“. Apparently even on utility bills or government notices there are banners repeating this assertion although we didn’t see any of these first hand. It does seem to be a big deal though here in Ushuaia, the self-proclaimed capital of the Falkland Islands.
I can’t now remember if my own knowledge of and interest in the Falkland Islands was sparked by the news coverage of the war in 1982 itself or from subsequently reading about Adrian Mole’s obsession with the Falklands War in the Sue Townsend books that I so enjoyed reading as a child. Either way and especially given it is home to several species of penguins, it was somewhere I had always wanted to visit and had placed it firmly on “The List” for this trip (despite the impracticalities of actually getting there and/or getting around when you arrive and all the corresponding costs). So when our last minute Antarctic cruise deal came up for the belts and braces package including the Falklands, Christmas really had come.
We had 3 “landings” in the Falklands when you transfer from the ship in groups of 10 in inflatable zodiac boats and spend time on shore. In the Falklands, all 199 passengers could be on shore at the same time but in both South Georgia and Antarctica, numbers are restricted to 100 people per landing while the other 100 would go zodiac cruising, everything being weather and sea swells permitting at all times of course.
Our first landing was at West Point Island owned by a Falklands Island couple. And of course within minutes of meeting fellow Brits, to what does the conversation turn? Perhaps somewhat unbelievably given our geographical position, to Brexit of course (!) with the farmer expressing his disappointment that the 3000 or so Falkland Islanders (unlike Gibraltans who have the same status as residents of a UK Overseas Territory) did not have a vote. To be fair whether the Falkland Islanders had been eligible to vote or not was not something I had ever previously considered. He felt that if they had been able to vote, Falkland Islanders would have shored up the remain vote. But maybe that is just in their psyche having voted overwhelmingly (99.8% (3 leave votes) with a 92% turnout) to remain with the UK in their own far more relevant referendum in 2013. Now that is what I call a decisive referendum result.
The Falklands felt very British indeed complete with its red phone boxes and another passenger even reported having seen a Waitrose delivery van too! Wow: home from home. Although they have their own bank notes and coins, they are 1:1 in value with UK currency which is also legal tender there (albeit the reverse is not the case). On our second day in the Islands, we visited the capital, Stanley, which the Argentineans insist on calling Puerto Argentino although there is pretty much zero Southern American influence here: it really is British all the way and we were warned most clearly before leaving the ship that although US dollars would be accepted alongside sterling of course, Argentinian pesos would be firmly rejected! We were also able to send some postcards for only 66p a shot which seemed like quite a bargain given it costs 67 pence to send a domestic letter in the UK (and a horrifying 170 pesos (about £3.50) from Argentina). Whether or not they will actually get to their destination is perhaps beside the point.
L: Government House, Stanley; R: The Iron Lady (in the background the sign says “Thatcher Drive”)
While the exhibition in the interesting Prison Museum in Ushuaia presents one side of the story of the Falklands Conflict (focusing heavily on Margaret Thatcher’s somewhat controversial order to sink the Belgrano), the excellently presented museum in Stanley tells a completely different story focusing on the terror and real life disruption caused by the invasion. And if you are in any doubt as to how the Islanders feel, a walk down to Thatcher Drive with its proud bust of the Iron Lady or a trip to the gents toilet in the Victory Pub where you can find General Galtieri in a toilet seat should leave you in no doubt! On both sides of the South Atlantic Ocean, it is clear that passions on this subject still run high. Fascinating.
Given I am a little over the age of 6, it has been a long time since I have woken up on Christmas Day truly excited. But this year I was literally hopping around the room as at 15.00 on Christmas Day we were going to board the Ocean Atlantic, the ship which was to be our home for the next 21 days and which would take us to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and, of course, to Antarctica and the Antarctic Circle. Wowee.
We’d managed to get a discounted last minute deal on a Chinese chartered ship which meant that of the 199 passengers on board, only 18 of us were international “walk ups” with 92% of the Chinese passengers comprising one large tour group headed up by the travel agent, Mr Li.
However we were not the only non-Chinese on board. In fact it was one of our most international experiences to date. The ship itself was Danish with a captain who was Russian heading up a mixed crew which included Central Americans and Eastern Europeans. The catering staff included Chinese and Indonesians and the hotel staff included Jamaicans and Filipinos (and many other nationalities too), all communicating in English of course.
Finally there were the 22 members of the Albatros expedition team headed up by Sam from Quebec with his team comprising of Europeans, Americans and Australians plus 5 or 6 all important Chinese or Taiwanese interpreters (these latter ones somewhat controversially being introduced to the passengers as being from “Taiwan, China”, to rapturous applause). The interpreters had the unenviable task of translating quite technical lectures on geology, geography, history and wildlife etc plus safety briefings from English into Mandarin. While we had been a little apprehensive about joining a Chinese charter, it actually worked in many ways to our advantage as without the language barrier, we had more opportunity to hang out with the expedition team and we also got to hear their lectures first hand so to speak. For example it seemed that many of our British ornithologist’s humorous anecdotes were somewhat lost in translation judging by the audience’s reactions.
Just the odd iceberg or two floating past our port-hole (as they do...!)
And although we were in the lowest tier of cabin, our room was perfect and one of our best hotels on the trip to date with even an unnecessary evening turn down service and nightly chocolates (let’s just say that’s not something you typically get in hostels no matter how clean they may be!). We had a twin outside cabin with a porthole but to be honest we didn’t really spend much time in our room and were more commonly found in one of the various lounges, on deck or in the dining room (not so much in the gym or sauna it has to be said). At 139m long, the ship was spacious enough to accommodate everyone in the public areas and did not feel over crowded.
Peter and I had previously discussed whether we would ever choose a cruise for a holiday in less remote regions, say in the Baltic, the attraction being you don’t have to pack and repack continually yet you still get to move around and see different places. However, we had always expressed concern that we might over eat and not be able to exercise appropriate self-constraint. Well I can confirm that 3 weeks on board the Ocean Atlantic certainly put that theory to the test and we failed completely, falling pretty much at the first hurdle with dinner on Day 1. What with buffet style breakfasts, lunches and dinners serving a wide and ever changing array of fresh and delicious dishes (both Chinese and Western style cuisine) not forgetting afternoon tea with its sandwiches, cakes and scones, essentially we completely pigged out. Ok it was Christmas when we got on the ship and we could perhaps cut ourselves some slack but by January 15th we had long run out of decent excuses!
Pork featured quite heavily on the menu (evidence of the Chinese influence)
And that’s even before we admit to putting our hand in the freshly baked homemade bottomless cookie jar as well, perhaps more than once a day. It is fair to say that our clothes felt a little tighter as the days went on (especially on less interesting sea days when any semblance of self-discipline disappeared almost entirely). We half joked that in order to be able to get us off the ship, the crew would have to lower its stern door (which it would have used when it had been a roll on roll off military vehicle ship in a previous life). Fortunately it didn’t quite come to that but it was a close shave!
L: The afternoon tea spread; R: we were treated to barbecues outside in both South Georgia and Antarctica when we had incredible weather
Exciting times lie ahead for us: we are off on a 3 week Epic Antarctic adventure exploring the world’s seventh continent as well as visiting the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. In short, we are off to see the penguins about which we are incredibly excited.
Yes, for a second year running, despite still being away from home, instead of taking the opportunity to experience a hot and sunny Christmas, we have again opted for a cold one (again, colder than the UK).
On an administrative note, this trip means that you won’t hear from me again here until mid January 2019.
In the meantime, Feliz Navidad and all the best for 2019.
Unfortunately for us, BA didn’t so much stand for Buenos Aires but more for Boring Admin which somewhat deflated the experience of what was my very first day ever in Argentina. Mind you, it was never going to be a great day given we had lost a night’s sleep as we had flown from Cartagena in Colombia and were on our way all the way down the continent to Ushuaia in Argentina. This entailed a 4 hour or so flight to Lima in Peru with a few hours and then another 4 hours or so in the air arriving in Buenos Aires around 08.00 local time with a 20 hour layover there until our rather unsociably timed 04.50 flight the next day to Ushuaia (entailing a 02.00 wake up call: Ugh).
As usual, a new country gave us the challenges of obtaining local currency as well as getting a local sim card (or “chip”) for our mobile. Neither should have been quite as hard as the headache they in fact were.
First up, getting cash. Wow, this is just difficult and ridiculously expensive. For a start, not all banks (including Santander which can be found on every UK High Street) take international bank cards. An additional frustration here is that you only find this out once you have patiently waited for quite a long time as we found the queues in all the banks we visited (and boy did we visit a lot) really long. Then of course there were a number of machines that despite appearing to be operational simply didn’t have money in them: “No tiene dinero” became an all too oft heard phrase.
And finally there’s the big sting in the tail: the double whammy of tiny withdrawal limits and the eye watering huge ATM withdrawal fees. We had of course read a bit about this online in advance but it didn’t really hit home until we standing in front of an ATM experimenting with ever decreasing amounts when it asked us how much we wanted to withdraw. Our worst transaction was only being allowed to take out 4000 pesos (c£82) which cost us 389 pesos (c£8) thereby reducing the exchange rate effectively from 48 pesos to 43.5 pesos to 1 GBP. Our best was 8000 pesos (c£166) for the same charge – but any which way you look at this, a charge of over £8 per withdrawal is just painful. And for some reason the machines seemed to prefer our Visa card rather than our Mastercard (the latter often returning some sort of nonsense message about our daily limit having been reached despite there being no such thing).
I particularly liked the signs above the ATMs telling you the functionality of the individual machines. In the circumstances, the term, “extracciones” seemed particularly appropriate given the whole process was akin to a nasty trip to the dentist for a tooth extraction (or worse).
So what are the alternatives? We’d read that cash (particularly US dollars) is king in Argentina and that visitors should essentially load up and bring enough US dollars to see them through their trip. While I am sure this is good and well-meaning advice, it wasn’t particularly practical for us given we are on an extended trip and had no practical way of obtaining dollars in Colombia the last country we visited prior to Argentina. However we still had some dollars from our time in Panama and at Lima airport had managed to find a dollar dispensing ATM but clearly not enough funds to see us through a potential 4 or 5 week (maybe more?) trip to Argentina. Clearly you don’t want to be carrying around thousands of dollars in cash for obvious reasons. And also the only dollars we could get were used 20 USD bills and we’ve read that money changers can be pretty strict and prefer USD 50 and 100 dollar bills in absolutely pristine condition (which is somewhat ironic as many of the peso notes we’ve handled are some of the tattiest I have ever seen although these seem to circulate happily). While we haven’t actually tried changing USD cash yet, we did rather alarmingly see one sign saying only 50 and 100 dollar bills were accepted so I can see another headache coming on shortly.
One silver lining is that, so far (and without wishing to jinx this in any way), our credit card has been pretty widely accepted and without surcharge so that has thrown us a lifeline. But I guess only time will tell if it is possible to use this everywhere. Fingers crossed.
And so onto the second challenge of our somewhat trying day in Buenos Aires: getting a sim card. Clearly going shopping on the Saturday before Christmas was never going to be a relaxing experience and we were caught up in some phenomenally lengthy queues which all added to our pain. But by the time we had queued for over 20 minutes in 3 Movistar mobile provider shops only to be told that they didn’t have any sim/chip cards and also that international calls (other than via WhatsApp) were not possible, our patience was beginning to wear rather thin. Finally, we went to Movistar’s chief competitor, Claro, and at least there they could sell us a sim card and we could load our mobile with enough credit to call back home and have a bit of internet access. But just like with the cash, this just took way longer than it should have done and we had to be really patient with the never ending queues.
We are due to return to Buenos Aires shortly and am sure our next trip will be full of far more positive experiences; by that time we will also be rested and will have worked out the best way to face these (and any other) administrative challenges put in our way!
It’s fair to say our time in Colombia was brief – all too brief – but colourful nonetheless. In fact we were only there for 3 nights – in the vibrant Cartagena de Indias (to use its full name) – before taking flights down the full length of the continent to the southernmost tip of Argentina, Ushuaia. In our defence (!), Colombia had never been on our original itinerary but it somehow slipped in there at the end of our sailing trip from Panama City. And yes it would have been great to spend more time in this fascinating country but – even with an extended trip – it turns out that there is not enough time to do it all. Shame.
Palenqueras: descendants of slaves who were the first to run away from the Spanish
But what little we did see was all very positive including the temperature. Here we were basking in December in mid 30 degree temperatures (quite humid too) which is always a strange sensation for Northern Hemisphere inhabitants when you are walking around in shorts seeing Christmas decorations.
Castillo de San Felipe
We took it pretty easy while we were here – strolling around the beautiful Old City and other neighbourhoods which have seen a certain amount of gentrification in recent years as well as visiting the City’s quite formidable (mostly against the English!) fortifications.
In fact, it sounds like Cartagena has changed beyond all recognition in recent years: picturesque districts such as Getsemani previously characterised by crime are now the city’s newest hotposts with previous drug dealing spots now the sites of boutique hotels etc etc. Already there are a lot of tourists here so we may have missed a trick not exploring more of this country but “you can’t do it all” (apparently!). More’s the pity.
L: Las Bovedas: M: Site of the final resting place of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; R: house in Getsemani
To give ourselves a treat (well it is the season after all), we opted for a fine dining option in Cartagena, Colombia.
But it came with a bit of a twist as our chosen restaurant was called Interno and was located inside the San Diego female prison.
The women working both in the kitchen and as waitresses are current inmates of the prison but are working in the restaurant as part of their rehabilitation programme to imbue them with useful skills they can then use on the outside once their sentences are complete. The strong message behind this project is to give every woman a second chance and to demonstrate clearly and forcefully how mistakes can become opportunities. The project also focuses on improving the quality of life of both the prison and post-prison population.
And for us, as well as getting to support an innovative and worthwhile cause, we got to sample some rather tasty food which was beautifully presented. It was a bit of a rushed affair but I think that was more by virtue of the fact that they seem to run 2 sittings in the evening (which we hadn’t realised when we booked) rather than for any other reason although perhaps they don’t necessarily want you lingering around anyway.
And without wanting to spoil the fun in case your imagination has run wild, the restaurant is sort of attached to the jail rather than set deeply within its confines. So you are not actually locked in while dining although the food preparation itself takes place behind bars.
All in all, a highly recommended evening out if you are looking for a bit of a treat while staying in Cartagena.
Although the setting of the sailing cruise from Panama City to Cartagena via the San Blas Islands could not be beaten, the one thing the captain couldn’t control for us was the seas or the weather. To be fair, I’m sure he would have done if it had been possible.
We first set sail from Puerto Lindo in Panama at around 5pm on day one and sailed until midnight through fairly choppy waters with 3 foot swells. Those of us who didn’t have sea sick pills soon took up positions leaning over the railings while those of us that had popped pills essentially were rather zoned out / half asleep but avoided being sick or feeling too queazy. It was much better on deck than down below where you really realised how much the boat was rocking around and, without windows, there was no opportunity to fix your eyes on the horizon. I think everyone was pleased when they heard the anchor finally being dropped around 12 midnight. No more lurching.
After a few days cruising gently around the San Blas Islands, we began the big journey from the relative sheltered waters across the open Caribbean Sea to our final destination, Cartagena. Normally on these trips this crossing is done straight through and can easily take upwards of 30 hours without any stops. However, our captain told us that bad weather was closing in and so in fact we started off a little earlier than originally scheduled and therefore sailed for just over 24 hours before having a 10 to 12 hour stop before a further 8 hours or so of sailing.
And for us and our fellow passengers, none of whom had much sailing experience previously, what a 24 hours! Especially for our Swiss compatriots who seemed to suffer more than the rest of us (perhaps coming from a landlocked country they were immediately put at a disadvantage?). Although the captain told us that the swell was only just over 2 metres high, it felt like it was a lot higher and perhaps for the purposes of this blog, I should be reporting some sort of dramatic 5 metre swell (at least).
However, the real issue was the killer angle at which the boat was positioned throughout this whole 24 hour period of sailing. This made for a rather challenging time particularly when trying to use the bathroom especially when taking a shower (the water didn’t drain away as the holes were positioned in the centre of the bathroom floor and the angle of the boat meant it never got anywhere near that) or for using the toilet (I found that I sat down on the toilet with an extremely satisfying thump pleased to find the seat!) or even for brushing your teeth when you found yourself pinned against one wall of the bathroom no matter how hard you tried to centralise yourself.
Let’s just say that getting to sleep that night was also a highly interesting experience: being on the top bunk, I had the additional challenge of trying to get myself up to that level without falling backwards (this proved a bit easier when I waited to launch myself upwards in time with a surge in the boat’s motion) but then the real challenge was trying to stay in the bed without falling out: the rakish angle of the boat meant that I constantly felt like I was about to fall out pretty much all night long. It really was quite challenging to say the least and not my best night’s sleep it has to be said (when I awoke in the morning, I felt that I had gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson but had probably caught a bit more sleep that I thought).
It did mean however that I wasn’t looking forward to the next night of travel that much although to be fair this leg of the journey was in fact far smoother and before we knew it, dawn was breaking over Cartagena and we had arrived and completed our journey.
Post script: As I said before, because of the Darien Gap, it’s not possible to travel from Panama to Colombia by land. Well when the captain gave me back my passport, I felt like there was evidence of the Darien gap or equivalent in play here. Having been stamped out of Panama on the 13th December, we were then not stamped into Colombia until the 17th December: as I understood it we had in fact either been in Panamanian or Colombian waters throughout so I’m not quite sure how to explain away the intervening 4 day gap in no man’s land. Food for thought: is this where Lord Lucan has been hiding out all this time?
Because of the Darien Gap, it isn’t possible to travel by land between Panama and Colombia. So your choices are to fly or go by sea. And what better way than sailing on a 64 foot yacht for 5 days via Panama’s idyllic San Blas islands. Blue skies, pristine white sandy beaches, all palm fringed of course.
And don’t forget the amazing turquoise waters with a hidden treasure trove lying beneath: the beautiful coral and the huge variety of brightly coloured fish, not to mention eagle rays, turtles and dolphins.
A true Paradise both above and below the water.
We lucked out completely with our choice of boat. The Quest is owned and operated by an experienced Swedish captain, Goeran, for whom these trips are clearly a labour of love as he sails you around the beautiful Caribbean coast in what essentially is his home, of which he is rightfully very proud. With only 10 passengers plus the captain and the cook, Isabel, there was plenty of room, both inside and on deck although apart from sleeping, we pretty much spent all of our time on the deck or in the water. There were 4 private cabins and 2 bathrooms with unlimited fresh water thanks to his desalination machine, both for drinking as well as for showering off the salt water after a snorkel. The luxury of unlimited showers in 2 bathrooms (and also on deck when you climbed in from the sea) cannot be understated and we were able to put away those baby wipes as they weren’t required on the Quest (unlike on other boats where showers aren’t available; in fact we even heard that on some boats there aren’t even any toilets (but I don’t want to think about that!)). Not that we actually saw many other boats to be able to gloat over as essentially we seemed to have Paradise pretty much all to ourselves.
L: The view down from the top mast of the Quest
Well almost but not quite. On our first full day of sailing and snorkelling we moored just off one tiny island. The captain called this island Julio’s island in honour of the local Kuna called Julio who is in in his 70s and who apparently had last left the island in the 1990s (although what had caused Julio to take such a drastic step at that point in time was not known). Ok I hear you say: what’s the big deal, Julio and his family plus another family live on an island, so what? But this particular island was tiny. It took us less than 15 minutes to walk around its entire perimeter. But even here you find solar power as well as a sign advertising beer, coca cola and coconuts for sale. And apparently there was even wifi. Amazing hey!
The island we moored near on our 2nd day was completely uninhabited despite possibly being marginally larger (think this one may have taken us the full 15 minutes to walk around). Here we saw an eagle ray in the water as well as colourful starfish. The captain also dropped us off on another part of the reef in the open water although here the snorkelling was a little more challenging in the choppier water and I was pretty happy when I caught sight of the captain returning in his zodiac to collect us (even if this did entail rather an inelegant scramble back into the boat!).
R: The Quest
And to top it all, on the boat we were fed like kings. The cook managed to produce some amazingly delicious meals from what was a pretty small galley kitchen even when the boat was moving (and let’s face it we probably didn’t help that much by getting in her way as we squeezed past her and her stove on our way to the beer fridge!). From full eggs and bacon or pancakes for breakfast to burritos for lunch, not forgetting the freshest of fresh lobster served in a delicious garlic sauce one night for dinner or the shrimp pasta on another. This is the life……!
L: The lobster doesn’t get much fresher than this; R: our bedroom for 5 nights
Our final Central American border crossing took us from Cahuita in Costa Rica across the border right through to Bocas del Toro in Panama, both on the Caribbean side. Lots of people (tourists included) cross between these two countries every day, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this.
So why did this border crossing cause us so much angst in the days leading up to it? The reason is simple: the lack of clarity surrounding exactly what the immigration officials on the Panama side want from new arrivals. When you start talking to people about your plans and you mention that you are heading into Panama, every conversation turned very quickly to the question “do you have your flight details ready?”
L: Paying the US$8 (officially US$7) exit fee at the Costa Rica side of the border; R: the path up to the Costa Rican border officials
But what flight details are in fact required?
Is a flight required or is it just evidence of onward travel out of Panama? You hear stories that land border officials are no longer accepting an international bus ticket out of Panama as sufficient evidence of onward travel (even though it is of course evidence of just that!). And what about evidence of a booking on a sailing yacht to Cartagena: is that sufficient?
And to where does this flight have to be going? A general consensus seems to be that its destination should not be in Central America but would a ticket to say Miami be sufficient? Some blogs even suggest that it is necessary to prove that you have a ticket booked to the country where your passport was issued. But what if you are say an Australian living in the UK who is just on holiday in Central America with no intention of popping “down under” on your return route to your home in the UK?
And does the flight have to be from Panama itself or is a flight from another Central American country e.g. would a flight from San José in Costa Rica suffice? But if that is sufficient, how is that “evidence” of onward travel out of Panama (you’re going to have to get back to Costa Rica to get that flight and that’s probably going to be by a public bus which doesn’t even issue a ticket let alone a ticket in advance)?
And what’s the time frame for this flight ticket? Again if you read things online, some people say that the flight needs to be within 90 days of entry into Panama. But this is a little curious given that (all being well and assuming that you are going to be let in!), you usually get a six month stay in Panama.
Of course, I hear you say, just read the official information on the Panama government websites or the travel abroad section on the UK’s gov.uk website. Good luck with that – the problem is there’s nothing really 100% definitive on either which just means you are left in the lap of the gods.
The problem is that a lot of people who are travelling long term through Central and South America and making up their routes as they go (which is very common) simply don’t have a return flight or even a confirmed plan of their route out of Panama. While we did have a plan to exit Panama (a 5 day sailing trip to Cartagena), this didn’t exactly fit the bill of a return flight to our home country.
L: the bridge marks the border between Costa Rica and Panama; R: the old bridge (now disused although some people seemed just to wander back and forth at will)
As well as the onward flight requirement, you also read that it’s necessary to have funds of at least USD$500 per person to enter Panama. Again, it’s not entirely clear what this means – do you literally have to turn up with that much cash in used US dollar bills? Or is flashing a credit card sufficient? Some reports say that if you are going to use your credit card, you then have to show a hard copy of a current credit card statement showing sufficient available credit to meet this somewhat arbitrary financial requirement.
And then you might also need 1 or 2 (again it’s not clear how many) copies of your passport to hand over as well. That of course means you have to try and find a copy shop that can print out all this stuff for you as it seems unlikely that just trying to show screen shots on mobile phones would be sufficient. But again, who really knows?
The worry that we might be denied entry for failing to meet any (or all) of these specific requirements loomed over us in the days before we attempted the border crossing, the big headache being the return flight issue. What to do? We looked hard for “refundable” flights online but there were so many terms and conditions attached to the definition of “refundable” that our heads quickly began to spin. After all, if you are going to book a flight back to London that you don’t need and which may not be fully refundable, that would be a rather expensive option.
So what about reserving a flight but not paying for it? Copa Airlines allows you to hold a reservation for up to 24 hours without paying for it: would that satisfy a border guard? Given it’s Panama’s national airline, one has to assume there might be some level of familiarity with this booking option and, to be honest you wouldn’t have to be that eagle eyed to spot that it wasn’t a fully paid for confirmed flight: so how could that satisfy the entry requirement?
What about using a fake flight? There’s a whole host of websites that allow you to create your own flight booking which you then print out as “evidence” of your confirmed flight. But here’s the fly in that ointment: a US ex pat living in Cahuita to whom I was chatting a day before we were due to cross told me that the last time he had gone into Panama at Guabito (which was exactly where we were intending to enter), the border official had had taken his flight confirmation number and then actually logged onto the Delta airlines website to verify that he had a genuine booking. Well that’s not going to work with a fake flight is it? You’re either going to have to pull out an Oscar earning acting performance in looking surprised, angry or upset (or all 3) that there seems to be something wrong with your booking or you’re going to have to admit that you have effectively lied to the border guard by producing details of a fake flight. Either way that looks like a recipe for a bottom clenching moment or two.
Or perhaps, if challenged and you haven’t already bought a flight in advance, you need to get ready to bite the bullet and book that US$ 105 flight to Miami (the cheapest flight we could find) on the spot (assuming you have mobile data which you might not of course having just crossed into a new country) and be prepared to throw it away (if, of course, a flight to the US would work for a UK citizen).
What a conundrum. Would excessive tears or some sort of “facilitation” payment work? But at what point should a “facilitation” payment be offered? And if you’ve already had to flash US$500 in cash, just what sort of size of payment are we talking about? The whole thing potentially gets trickier and trickier.
As we approached the border, the levels of angst from the lack of clarity regarding these entry requirements were hardly assuaged by being asked both by the Costa Rican “official” collecting the departure tax of US$8 (although your receipt only shows US$7 – go figure!) and the Costa Rican border official stamping me out of the country both asking if I had my flight details for the Panamanian side when frankly it was nothing really to do with them.
And so what happened? Well, we got in didn’t we! While we were both asked for our flight details, the official processing Peter’s immigration took only a cursory look at his document before returning it, while my official didn’t even pull the piece of paper through the small cubby hole in the glass that separated us and so it just sat on the counter half way between us completely ignored. And a few finger prints, an immigration photo plus some hearty stamping of passports later, we were both in with a permitted stay of 6 months, no difficult questions asked.
So what exactly is required? I’m afraid I’m still none the wiser – it seems that this is likely to vary on the time of day when you are crossing (although we were early it was really busy when we were there and there was quite a long queue) and how efficient and/or officious the immigration official decides to be. Take a deep breath, stay calm, smile a lot and be patient and go with the flow!
In contrast, leaving Panama could not have been easier: we didn’t even have to present ourselves in person at the border and instead the whole exit process was handled by the captain of our yacht on a small San Blas island!
Our stay in Boquete (Panama) was really enjoyable and we grabbed the chance to do some hiking after having recently spent quite a bit of time on or near beaches, both in Costa Rica and Bocas del Toro. What wasn’t entirely clear, however, was whether we needed to go with a guide on these routes which were a few kilometres out of town: our advance research (both online and reading the guidebook) had left us a little mystified.
Sendero los Quetzales: these trees are so high
In the end, given that things in Panama are pretty expensive (although marginally cheaper than in neighbouring Costa Rica), we elected to have a go DIY-style. And this proved to be a perfect decision and, in the case of the hike along the Sendero los Quetzales, saved us US$138, and for the Lost Waterfalls hike, a further US$36 between us! In both cases, despite some contradictory information, the trails were clearly marked and easy to follow and getting the collectivo minibuses up from town was also easy. We also lucked out on our return journeys as although the minibuses apparently only go once an hour, as if by magic they seemed to arrive just when we needed them. The arrival of the collectivo was particularly welcome when we finished the Sendero los Quetzales as by this time, it was pouring with heavy rain and we were pretty drenched.
L: The ranger’s hut at the start of the Sendero los Quetzales; R: the “view” from the mirador (viewpoint)
So transport and hiking trail wise, there was definitely no need for a guide. But with one, would we have seen more wildlife? Possibly especially on the Sendero los Quetzales, but not definitely (especially after the weather had closed in) and from what we read the eponymous quetzals (brightly coloured birds) are pretty hard to spot on this trail anyway. And of course we’d already been lucky enough to see them when we were in Monteverde in Costa Rica.
By the time we got to our turning point (the viewpoint), the clouds had descended and we didn’t get much of a view but walking the trail through the rainforest was fun and we pretty much had it all to ourselves. Although there wasn’t so much fauna to see, there were lots of beautiful plants to admire (albeit admittedly we weren’t able to name many of them: some of them must have been orchids though I’m sure of it).
River crossings on the Sendero los Quetzales (even some of the bridges were a little dubious!)
The start of the trail took us across small rivers, sometimes on bridges (including a rather rickety rope bridge with a slightly rotten wooden floor), sometimes without any obvious way to get across which entailed a bit of a balancing act on rather slippery stepping stones (and, on the way back, a wade across the ice cold water in bare feet). All in all it was a 5½ hour hike (there and back) with a fair amount of pretty steep climbing as we got nearer to the “view”point.
The next day we walked the Lost Waterfalls route. I still have no idea why they are called Lost Waterfalls (we thought that perhaps this might indicate a lack of water) but (a) they were very easy to find (all were very clearly marked) and (b) there was an impressive amount of water pouring over the cliffs to form each of the 3 waterfalls. Clearly found and not lost at all (and certainly not by the owner of the private land over which you walk and are charged US$7 for the privilege!).
The Three Waterfalls: 1, 2 and 3 – we found them!
In some ways, although shorter (about 2½ hour round trip), we probably preferred this hike: yes it was muddy (not least because of the torrential downpour during the previous night: it doesn’t half rain in this region) and in parts, entailed a bit of a scramble up and down the steep paths (albeit with the help of some strategically positioned ropes), but walking through this part of the rainforest was beautiful and each of the 3 waterfalls was impressive. Again, as we’d started early, we were on our own until we started making our return journey, but even then there weren’t that many people walking this trail (and no one with a guide – it’s just not necessary). If it had been warmer, we could have thought about taking a dip in the pools at the bottom of the 2nd or 3rd waterfall but it would have been a rather bracing experience so we gave it a miss.
While in Boquete we also visited a coffee finca (estate). We’ve been in Central America for almost 4 months and although we’ve consumed gallons of the black gold, we hadn’t actually got round to finding out a bit more about this key industry. So in Boquete off we went to a small finca where they produce only Arabica coffee (apparently Robusta coffee which you find in most coffee chains and restaurants is very much second class) and they do a lot of the sorting of the coffee beans etc by hand: it’s all a really time consuming process and a labour of love. With the temperate climate in Boquete (not too hot to burn the coffee beans) and the altitude of 1500m, apparently these are perfect coffee growing conditions and we were told that Panamanian coffee had been voted best coffee in the world for a number of successive years. Now I don’t want to be cynical but I’m sure I heard something similar when we were in Guatemala (“statistics, statistics”), but to be honest, not being a huge coffee drinker myself, I’m probably not in the best position to judge. However, I’m happy to admit that I’ve been enjoying some nice coffee while I’ve been in this region and it was interesting to understand a bit more about the process.
Coffee beans (green ones are not yet ripe; red ones are ready for picking; others are being dried in the sun)
Unfortunately despite some valiant efforts on our part, our Spanish practice has somewhat stagnated in the last few weeks and it goes without saying, we still need that practice! In Costa Rica, with its highly US focused tourist industry, it was hardly surprising to find that English was incredibly widely spoken – not pigeon English but pretty much perfect English which made it just that little bit too easy to revert all too frequently to our Mother Tongue.
In Panama there are more opportunities to practise our Spanish again, even in the international capital. However, our first stop in this country was in the islands of Bocas del Toro, home to another large Garifuna population (like Roatan Island in Honduras and also Livingstone in Guatemala): everyone in these communities seems to be completely bilingual although you often get a blended mix e.g. “hola chica, what are you looking for?” almost sung to you in a strong lilting Caribbean accent.
It’s also interesting noting the regional differences. In Honduras we got used to being greeted with a hearty “Buenas” rather than “Buenas dias” in the morning or “Buenas tardes” in the afternoon. It seemed somewhat more economical and meant you didn’t have to worry about exactly what time of day it was so I quite liked that (less room to make mistakes!).
Here in Panama, they seem to go one stage further and I’m now hearing either “Buenas dia” or even “Buena” as here they regularly seem to drop the final “s”, not just on greetings but on lots of words, e.g. when negotiating taxi fares or other prices, we’re often hearing “sei” rather than “seis” (six). Mind you, it gives me a little more confidence: if they aren’t that bothered about the final “s” on their words, then hopefully they won’t be too bothered about and kindly forgive my (sadly often incorrect) verb conjugations!
Surely no trip to Panama City could be complete without a trip to view the Panama Canal. Although I perhaps wasn’t as excited about seeing it as my husband was, in fact a trip to the visitors’ centre at the Miraflores locks made for a very interesting couple of hours.
Although 36 boats pass through the Canal every day (which is open 24 hours a day), while we were there we only saw 3 vessels. When we arrived, we caught sight of a cruise boat which had just cleared the Miraflores locks on its journey towards the Atlantic Ocean and in the distance, we could also see a much larger vessel (huge… really huge) passing through the (relatively) newly opened expanded canal which was a bit further away from the viewing centre. However, we were able to watch the progress of one tanker through the Miraflores Locks from start to finish which was quite a majestic experience. All these boats were all going in the same direction – from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. We were told that a few hours later that afternoon, boats would be coming through the other way.
In she comes into the first water chamber and the gates are shut behind her. Check out the guiding locomotives (which look tiny)
While going through the locks, the ship is guided by small locomotives which run along tracks along the sides of the canal. On first blush, it looks as though these little engines are pulling the vast ships along but that’s not actually the case (they would have to be extremely powerful to do that given their comparative sizes). These ships are literally enormous (and the ones on the expanded canals even bigger) – even the tug boats used here are pretty sizeable when you look at them in isolation but when they are up next to the larger vessels, they just look like children’s toys!
First water chamber filled with water so the gates to the second chamber are opened and on she passes….
All ships have to book their slot in advance and pay a pretty hefty toll to use the Canal and this has to be paid at least 48 hours’ in advance. Interestingly, no credit cards are accepted, only cash. Images of used dollar bills in huge money laundering suitcases immediately sprung into my mind but presumably there is some way to wire funds by bank transfer. Apparently domestic boats are allowed to use credit cards to pay – an interesting fact perhaps but one I doubt I will have reason to need.
And for those that are interested, here are some more quick facts: the Panama Canal is just over 80 kilometres long and was completed in 1914 (so it has recently celebrated its 100th birthday). Ships using the Canal save 8 days and thousands of miles of travel round the hazardous Cape Horn (the southernmost tip of the Americas) by going through the Canal which takes about 10 hours (although there can be quite a bit of waiting around time for ships before they are allowed to start their transit through the Canal). When passing through the Canal, the captain of the ship grants control of the ship to a Panama Canal pilot who has been specially trained to transit vessels through the Canal.
Finally she is off into Gatun Lake on her way to the Atlantic Ocean. The tug boat follows her into the lock chambers and then awaits other vessels coming through the other way later that afternoon
As they go along the Canal, ships have to pass through 2 sets of locks that raise them from sea level to 26 metres above and then, after crossing the Continental Divide, lower them back down again to sea level. In the initial unsuccessful attempts to build the Canal (which were started by the French in 1881), the plan was to build a sea level canal (like the Suez Canal) but that project proved to be unrealistic and failed.
The size of the lock chambers determines the maximum size of ships that can pass through. Because the Panama Canal is so important to international trade, the size of these locks therefore usually determines the maximum size of ships worldwide. The original lock chambers are 33½m wide and almost 305m long. The new locks are 25% larger allowing bigger ships to transit through deeper and wider channels and again these locks have now set the new maximum size of worldwide ship dimensions.
It takes 100 million litres of water to fill each of the various chambers in the locks but this is actually done pretty rapidly. In fact, we were told that it would be quicker to fill one of the lock chambers than it would be to run a bath in your house!
As well as being renowned for its biodiversity, Costa Rica also has some stunning beaches. Some are superb for surfing apparently although our time on the beach has been spent a little less energetically it has to be said. To be fair, quite a few of the beaches have rip currents making swimming a little dangerous.
Sunset over Tamarindo beach
L: Sunset on Tamarindo beach; R: Santa Theresa
Perhaps we were a little too relaxed on some beaches, however, for example at Santa Theresa we’d made ourselves very comfortable at the top of the beach quite far from the water and were quite happy relaxing, aka having a snooze (well why not?). Unfortunately we didn’t keep an eye on the tide coming in and before we knew it, the water had come right up and we got more than a little wet! Whoops!
Manuel Antonio National Park: iguanas and sloth
On balance, our favourite beaches in Costa Rica were in Manuel Antonio. An added bonus here was the fact that you can combine nature watching with beach time as three of the area’s four beaches are actually inside the national park boundaries. So while you are soaking up some rays, why not do some sloth spotting or have a closer look at an iguana?
However, have a care: you may find that there are some less pleasant beach-chums around, namely some of the monkeys. On one beach we came across a particularly aggressive cappuchin monkey who had no fear and was after everyone’s bags in search of easy to obtain food. It seemed that no one was safe and you needed eyes in the back of your head.
Unfortunately like many others, Peter had a bit of a nasty encounter with him but luckily came away unscathed (well apart from a bit of a dent to his pride) unlike his poncho that the aggressive little thief had ripped to shreds. Very annoying and more than a little scary.
Cahuita National Park: raccoon and iguana
Leaving Manuel Antonio and the Pacific Coast behind us, we moved across the country to the Caribbean coast and, in particular, to Cahuita and its national park. Again, like Manuel Antonio this (free to enter – donation only) national park also contained some pretty beaches although here we were too busy wandering along the full 8.6km trail through the park to sunbathe.
Cahuita National Park
Cahuita National Park, M: Spider monkey; R: Cappuchin monkey (non aggressive)
Although it was a completely flat trail, the terrain changed quite a bit and it was highly enjoyable: again, we had the opportunity to see iguanas, different types of monkeys (fortunately non aggressive ones), raccoons, crabs etc – there were also sloths
apparently hanging around but we failed to spot any ourselves on that particular day. But it was a lovely walk and a good day out on our last full day in Costa Rica.
The local Tico* diet consists largely of rice and beans: nothing new there for a Central American country although tortillas seem to have completely disappeared off the menu just to keep us on our toes. (*Ticos are how Costa Ricans refer to themselves).
A typical breakfast dish is gallo pinto (spotted rooster) which is stir fried rice and beans which you can jazz up with eggs if you feel so inclined. It is actually tastier than it looks.
L: Gallo pinto; R: Gallo pinto con huevos
And the most economical lunch time option is a casado (literally, a married man) eaten in a soda (a small informal canteen (equivalent of our greasy spoon with less grease)). This dish features meat, salad, vegetables and of course, the ubiquitous rice and black beans.
Although I should probably admit that in this country it has actually been quite hard to find comida tipica, certainly in the more touristy spots which we have been visiting. So it is nice to try it when we can! Some of the international food has not been that great and, in common with a lot of things in this country, rather over priced!
While it is fair to say we haven’t lucked out with our volcano spotting/landscape views while in Costa Rica, at least we have done better on the wildlife front. We are visiting Costa Rica in the shoulder season and the weather is mixed to say the least: we spent our first 7 days here pretty wet but are now drying out a little away from the rainforests.
As an aside, I’m yet to be convinced that Volcano Arenal actually exists having spent 3 (very wet) days in La Fortuna (which is the nearest town which should have afforded us a great view of this volcano which last erupted in 1968 and which has been dormant since 2010) and even having undertaken a “Two Volcano Extreme Hike” (so called because apparently Arenal in fact has 2 distinct craters) up to the highest scenic viewpoint on the lava fields “to see Arenal and its spectacular surroundings” or so the blurb would have you believe. Although, this was a pleasant enough walk through the rain forest and when the clouds did clear from the viewpoint, we did get a brief view of Lake Arenal which we then crossed the following day by boat (again minus the view of the pesky volcano).
But, as I said, on the wildlife front, we have had a lot more luck. After all, Costa Rica is a country which is considered to possess the highest density of biodiversity in the world, attributable to its variety of ecosystems: cloud forests, rain forests, beaches, mangrove forests etc: they can all be found here in what is a relatively small country. Apparently over 25% of the country has a protected status either as a national park, wildlife refuge and/or a forest reserve. The government is active in trying to protect the country’s biodiversity which, of course, is a major draw for tourists: from the vast numbers of tourists here, it’s pretty obvious that ecotourism contributes hugely to the economy. Deforestation, however, remains a problem as does the government’s somewhat potentially difficult relationships with the huge pineapple and banana corporations who don’t always use 100% organic production methods.
L: Albino howler monkey: Top R: white faced capuchin monkey; Bottom R: spider monkey
So what have we seen? So far, we’ve been lucky to spot 3 of the 4 varieties of monkeys, caimans, sloths, iguanas, bats and a whole host of birdlife, both migratory and endemic. Particular highlights for me have been seeing 3 quetzals (the national bird of Guatemala) in Monteverde Cloud Forest as well as several different types of hummingbird (almost impossible to photograph as they only seem to stay still for a nanosecond) and the red eyed leaf frog who is my personal favourite: what he may lack in size, he makes up for in beauty.
L: Hummingbird: R: Red eye leaf frog
One of our most successful wildlife spotting days was in the Cano Negro to the north of Costa Rica when we were on a boat on the River Frio (which marks Costa Rica’s border with Nicaragua and is the closest point we have got to that country on this trip). On this excursion, among other things, we saw caimans, orange male iguanas (orange to try and attract the females), highly camouflaged bats, many different birds as well as an albino howler monkey (also orange in colour) which apparently is one of only 3 specimens in the country left (its albino nature was apparently caused by in-breeding). Rather sadly (but perhaps understandably), often the bright orange monkeys are ostracised from the rest of the troop because they are just too easy to spot by predators.
L: Quetzal: R: Cormorant
On a night time “safari” in Monteverde, we were able to follow a sloth with its baby moving slowly but gracefully while hanging upside down in the high canopy of the rainforest as well as other less pleasant creatures such as tarantulas!
L: Bats; R: A caiman
On another evening, we found ourselves on a moonlit beach near Tamarindo watching Pacific green female turtles make their way up the beach to dig a hole in which to lay their 60 to 80 eggs. From the tracks showing a U turn half way up the beach, one had obviously had a change of heart and either been disturbed or decided that this was not the place she wanted to lay her eggs and so had headed back to the safety of the ocean . We saw another turtle busy digging a hole with her back flippers but sadly she had hit a rocky part of the beach and the guide thought it was unlikely that she would be able to dig a sufficiently deep hole where she would be comfortable laying her eggs.
But a third seemed to be having more luck, having heaved herself up the beach, she had dug a hole and we saw her laying her eggs: a magical moment and a pretty impressive one too as she would sometimes shoot out 4 eggs in quick succession before taking a small break in the delivery process. I would love to witness the baby turtles actually hatching and the beach coming “alive” with the baby turtles heading towards the ocean, but our timing is a bit off so that will have to be something for a subsequent trip. To be honest, given it wasn’t far off Full Moon, we were lucky to see any turtle activity so no complaints.
*a few of these photos were taken by our Caňo Negro guide, Pierre, whose photographic equipment was far superior to mine!
Apparently Costa Rica is home to over 1,200 different species of orchid and in the Monteverde area, you can find over a third of these. There are orchids that only bloom for a single day; tiny fern orchids that grow right on the tips of fern leaves; orchids that only “open” to receive rain then close tight again; miniscule pygmy orchids as well as the more familiar (to UK shoppers at least) hybrid orchids that flower for half a year.
Armed with Sherlock Holmes style magnifying glasses we were guided round an orchid garden and got to see a huge amount of different varieties, some of which were so tiny, it was hard to see how they survived. Apparently 80% of natural orchids around the world are miniature. Most orchids don’t need soil really and quite happily grow in nooks and crannies on other trees (most definitely not as a parasite but as a beautiful epiphyte: a bit like a room-mate co-existing in harmony). Just as well we had a guide pointing out the different flowers to us; when we retraced our steps at the end of our tour to take some more photos, we found it almost impossible to identify the different flowers: just where was the “Tiger” orchid or the “Angel” one. Gone, to the untrained observer!
On a less harmonious note, we were also shown the “spider” orchid. This type of orchid is pollinated by the tarantula hawk which is a spider wasp that hunts tarantulas. The female uses her sting to paralyse her prey; she then lays a single egg on the spider which hatches to larva which creates a small hole in the still-living tarantula’s abdomen which it then enters and starts feeding on the spider, avoiding its vital organs for as long as possible to keep the spider alive. Finally, the larva turns into a wasp which finally leaves the spider and at some point, will pollinate the “spider” orchid.
L: Tarantula hawk (wasp); M: Hybrid orchids; R: a variety of miniature orchid
And then there are the fig stranglers. Costa Rica is home to over 80 types of fig tree, about half of which again can be found in the verdant Monteverde cloud forest region. Of these fig trees, 10 are fig stranglers. These start off as a single seed left on another tree by a bird, bat or monkey which then grows as another epiphyte. As the fig grows, its long strong roots develop and start growing round the host tree, reaching the ground and entering the soil. As more roots do this, the original host tree is enclosed in a strangling latticework, ultimately creating a near complete sheath around the trunk. The host tree has to compete with the fig tree for light and nutrients but it’s a battle it loses and will eventually die, rotting away leaving only the beautiful hollow lattice work of the strangling fig roots. Apparently once the process has started, that’s it and there is no reversal. Cruel perhaps but all part of Mother Nature’s cycle.
L and M: Strangling Fig in action; R: Fig wasps
We have also learned about the fruits of some of these trees too. Many varieties of fig have their own individual species of wasps that enter the heart of the fruit (essentially its flower albeit it is on the inside of the fruit). The female wasp lays her eggs and also pollinates some of the flowers on the inside: once this has been done, this is the end of her short life. Once the eggs hatch and develop into larvae, the males immediately mate with the females and also make a hole for those females to escape from the fig. Job done, the males fall out of the fig dead. The females then find their way out, picking up pollen as they go after which they fly to another tree of the same species, where they deposit their eggs and the cycle begins again. The life span of the female fig wasp is about 36 hours in total.
Well, sort of! Today’s activity was zip lining in 100% Aventura’s Parque de Aventura in Monteverde. Here we travelled through and above the treetops of the cloud forest first on 10 zip lines, 1 rope bridge and also on a rappel (a vertical rope drop). Once hooked onto each rope by the team of professional guides, we then zipped along the cable to the next platform trying desperately to slow down when the sign for brake was given or to keep going when the opposite sign was indicated. At one point, I didn’t quite make the arrival platform and came to a standstill on the wire (not quite in Boris Johnson fashion but not that far off) necessitating the guide to come out onto the wire himself to collect me before panic could set in while I was left suspended in mid-air. But other than that we got round the adventure park with no mishaps.
Normal zip lines over (“normal” being when you go down them in an upright position), next came the 2 “superman” cables when we were hooked onto the wire in 2 places in a horizontal position to undertake what is billed as Latin America’s longest zip line (1,590 metres) over a valley with the rainforest canopy rather a long way below. If I’m honest I found this one more than a little daunting and had to close my eyes especially when the wind seemed to get up a bit when I was half way along and I felt myself being buffeted around; when I did pluck up the courage to open my eyes, the arrival platform always seemed a fair way off although this time, I was fortunate enough to make it the whole way without getting stuck. The second “superman” cable was only a mere 700 metres and so this was child’s play in comparison.
But to make sure you couldn’t get complacent at any point, the finale was the “biggest Tarzan swing in all of Costa Rica”. Some people opted out at this stage but we saw the challenge through to the end. For this one, we had to walk out along a hanging bridge onto a platform about 100 metres above the ground and then (once hooked up) free-fall for about 3 seconds (ok, that doesn’t sound like much but I can tell you it felt a lot longer!) down 45 metres until the rope “bit” at which point we swung back and forward quite far as well as up and down with at least 3 more little bits of stomach-lurching free-fall (albeit in ever decreasing amounts as we began to move towards a resting position). There’s a reason I’ve never done a bungee jump before and after today, I don’t think I’ll be rushing to sign up for one in the immediate future. Again on the Tarzan swing, I elected to keep my eyes mainly shut and actually found it a little disorientating when I did open them while bouncing around as the ground seemed to be at a bit of a strange angle. To be honest, my preparation for this final swing hadn’t exactly been helped by the extremely loud screams of the girl who had jumped immediately before me.
Overall verdict: all in all, it was fun and a big adrenaline rush, especially the “normal” zip lining runs. However, I’m not sure that I, personally, would rush back for more “Superman” cables or Tarzan swings! But each to their own: Peter was completely relaxed on the Superman cables, happily enjoying both the views with his eyes open as well as the excitement of it all.
The name of the country may translate as Rich Coast but undoubtedly you sure need to be a Rich Tourist to come here. It’s by far the most expensive country we’ve visited in the Americas to date and it’s taken us a little by surprise. The tourist industry is extremely well organised and boy are there lots of ways to get the million plus annual visitors to part with their cash. Spend spend spend.
Although the country has its own highly decorative currency (colones), it can be a little confusing as there are a lot of noughts involved (1 GBP is about 800 colones) and so to make it just that little bit easier for tourists to part with their money, most tour or shuttle bus transfer prices are quoted in US dollars and the greenbacks themselves are widely accepted (as are credit cards).
It’s not just the tourist trips and guides that are expensive – food is too and the cost of dining out here is not dissimilar to prices in Europe so you have to pick and choose a little carefully although in some places (like the tiny Santa Elena/Monteverde), there isn’t a huge amount of choice. Still, it doesn’t seem to put people off: we have seen far more Western tourists here than anywhere else on our trip to date (perhaps bar SE Asia), even though it is still pretty rainy at the moment in this, the shoulder season approaching the drier (and high) season. This was in evidence right from the off: there were long queues for immigration at San José airport and in our first week here, we haven’t managed to escape the tourist crowds. But at the same time, it’s not difficult to see why Costa Rica is so popular given its scenery (when you can are lucky enough to get glimpses of great views through the clouds!), its biodiversity and its contented ethos summed up in the country’s catch phrase “pura vida” (the pure life).
The celebrations for Day of the Dead in Mexico City (or “CDMX” which is short for Ciudad Mexico) were a little more edgy with political overtones. Although we unfortunately missed the big colourful Day of the Dead parade, when we arrived in CDMX, the festivities were still ongoing and the decorations were still out in abundance. While this filled me with glee, by this point, my other half was over Day of the Dead and took to making unhelpful comments such as “just how many photos of skulls and skeletons do you actually need?” and “this isn’t so much a Día de Muertos as a Semana de Muertos” etc etc. But like it or not, there was no escaping it.
This year, CDMX dedicated its Day of the Dead Offering in the big parade as well as in the main display in the Zócalo (the main square) to both migrants from other countries who had lost their lives while in transit and also to those groups of migrants who had arrived over time in CDMX thereby enriching the city and creating a true City of Shelter. CDMX has long been a city of exile, offering a home to outsiders, exiles and refugees. Some of the famous people who have sought refuge here include Leon Trotksy (whose frugal house we subsequently visited) as well as Fidel Castro and Che Guevera. Refugees have fled to Mexico during both World Wars including Jews fleeing Nazism and Stalinism while in the 1970s, citizens of other Latin American countries fled their violent military dictatorships. And of course today, many hundreds of illegal immigrants arrive in Mexico to try and reach the “El Dorado” that is the USA.
The various Zócalo displays each comprised of 5 catrinas (the papier maché skeletons): a young modern Latin American, an indigenous Mexican, an Asian, a Jew and a person of Spanish descent, each portrayed walking to their final destination. The various displays showed the different challenges that the migrants might face, for example crossing a deep river. The accompanying text explained that for each of them, the souls of the deceased needed to overcome diverse and hard tests before arriving at their final destination (the underworld or the place of their death).
The whole display seemed extremely poignant and timely given the simultaneous international news coverage of the caravan of Honduran and El Salvadoran migrants slowly making their way through Central America and Mexico towards the US at that very time (an event that seemed to become a political hot potato in the US Mid Term elections).
In another square, close by to the Zócalo, there was another series of Day of the Dead exhibits, again with a powerful message. The 48 displays in this square were dedicated to “M68” on its 50th anniversary. Back on 2 October 1968, there had been a large protest against the Mexican government when hundreds of university students, professors, civil servants, middle class professionals, intellectuals and even some Catholic priests had all joined together to form a protest march. However, scared that civil unrest might cause disruption to the Olympics that were due to start shortly, the state over-reacted and opened fire on the protestors causing several hundreds of deaths and, in addition, there were multiple arrests and disappearances. The events of that night were not even officially acknowledged for another 30 years but every year, the anniversary of this atrocity is marched by a peace march in CDMX. And this year was marked by these exhibits/Day of the Dead altars etc.
On a lighter note, the citizens of CDMX seemed to be out in force enjoying looking at all these displays and lots of families were having their photos taken with all the street artists in the Zócalo. As well as people dressed as catrinas, these included concheros who are Aztec revivalists who dress in robes, loin cloths and extravagant feathers and blow conch shells. Apparently they dance to pay homage to their heritage but when we were in the Zócalo, their primary purpose seemed to be posing for photos for tourists (domestic and international alike) in return for a handful of pesos!
You would be grossly mistaken if you thought the only mole (pronounced “mol-lay”) in Mexico was the avocado based guacamole. Far from it. In the part of Mexico we have been visiting, especially in Oaxaca, the Mexicans take their moles very seriously indeed. Essentially a mole is a sauce, which comes in a variety of flavours and colours including black, red, yellow and green. The sauce is typically chocolate and chilli flavoured and also usually contains a fruit, nuts and other spices. The most common is the brown coloured mole poblano. And you find it everywhere – smothered over chicken breasts or on top of enchiladas etc (even if it is not actually specified on the menu, it often appears, like it or not!).
A selection of moles
Another local delicacy is chapulines which you can eat whole, marinated or in salsa form. All well and good perhaps until you realise they are dried grasshoppers! In true “I’m a Celebrity” fashion, we both tried the whole ones which were pretty crunchy but both baulked a little at eating any specimens that were larger than 2 cm in size, although were happy to have them ground into a freshly made salsa. Chapulines are widely available to buy in the markets (nb: they are already dead when you buy them, otherwise that could be quite a challenge). We also tried nopales which are prickly pear cacti: these were often served as a vegetable and were pleasant enough (although I found them to be a little on the gloopy side).
L: Chapulines; R: an over large dish containing pretty much everything including nopales at the back right
Streetfood in Mexico is great and available everywhere: you are literally never more than about 50 metres from a stall selling one or more of the endless varieties of Vitamin T: tortillas (flat thin bread made from corn or wheat), tacos (soft tortillas wrapped around a filling), tostados (a big tortilla chip covered in a range of toppings including avocado, beans, cheese, meat or seafood), tlacoyos (filled corn dough cooked on a griddle), tamales (tortilla dough filled with meat or vegetables and steamed in a corn husk), tortas (a sandwich roll stuffed with meat, beans and avocado) and so on. And all come served with an (optional) helping of chilli sauce, some varieties of which can raise the roof.
Chilaquiles with egg
L: Tostados; R: Chilaquiles
There are also hundreds of snacks that don’t begin with a “T” including burritos (shredded meat mixed with chilli sauce wrapped in a large tortilla), enchiladas (corn tortilla wrapped
around a filling of chicken, meat or cheese, usually garnished with more sauce and cheese), quesadillas (tortillas folded over a cheese filling), chilaquiles (tortilla chips with chilli sauce, cheese and cream topped with chicken or egg) among others. In fact, the list of antojitos (snacks or literally “little whims”) seems endless and many are variations on a general theme really. Not always the most healthy of options it has to be said and this probably explains why you see so many obese Mexicans.
But as the food is pretty tasty and cheap and a far cry from the TexMex horrors that you generally get in the UK, we’ve found it pretty hard to resist.
It is probably fair to say that we may somewhat have over indulged while eating in Mexico, from opting for a tasting menu in a restaurant called Nomada in San Miguel de Allende to ordering
over-large main courses in Guanajuato that actually defeated us (it’s very rare for us not to lick our plates clean but here the portion sizes were out of control!).
Other specialities we’ve tried include chillis en nogada (large chilli stuffed with ground meat, fruits, nuts and spices covered in a walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds) as well as some delicious and super fresh ceviche (raw seafood marinated in lemon
or lime juice with garlic and chilli). Shortly however we will be back to a more frugal diet of rice and beans in Costa Rica so maybe it’s been ok to make hay while the sun shines in a country which is, after all, a bit of a Foodies’
L: Chillis en nogada; R: Ceviche
A food stall in Mercado Hildalgo in Guanajuato. Absolutely no shortage of “pica mas” sauce here!
10 November 2018: Today’s visit to the Museo de las Momias (Museum of the Mummies) in Guanajato has to be one of the strangest museum visits I have ever undertaken.
Billed as a major attraction of Guanajato, the museum which is home to numerous mummified corpses, many with gruesome facial expressions and contorted positions, attracts hundreds of visitors every day. I guess this fascination with death shouldn’t come as a surprise in a country somewhat obsessed with death (look no further than the fabulous Day of the Dead celebrations). Many of the exhibits are a little gruesome including the pregnant woman mummy and the separate mummy of her six month old foetus (the museum notes somewhat gleefully that this is the world’s youngest and smallest mummy).
So why are the mummies here? Apparently the first remains were dug up in 1865 when it became necessary to remove bodies from the cemetery to make way for more corpses. However, instead of finding skeletons, the authorities came face to face with mummified corpses: due to the rich mineral content of the soil (this area is renowned for (and has made its wealth from) its vast silver, iron and quartz mines) plus the dry atmosphere, the bodies had not decomposed but had been preserved.
And the exhuming processes continue today with the ongoing pressure on space in the cemetery. Woe betide those families who fail to continue to pay for their slots in the public cemetery as the bodies will be unceremoniously dug up. However not all exhumed bodies end up in the museum on public display: this is reserved only for the best preserved “display quality” mummies with the rest just being cremated.
For me, the highlight of the Day of the Dead celebrations was a trip to the cemeteries, both during the day and at night.
Visiting during the day was a calmer experience: we saw families taking the time to spruce up (by cleaning and painting) the family graves and then decorating them with yet more – yes, you’ve guessed it – marigold flowers and candles.
At night-time, there’s more of a carnival atmosphere. Outside each cemetery, we saw lots of stalls selling food, decorations and other trinkets and there were even stages set up where bands were playing. I had read that at some cemeteries there are even fun fairs but we didn’t see any of those ourselves.
The cemeteries at night are simply magical: the graves are all beautifully decorated and lit by a thousand candles flickering away against a haze of incense. Clearly some family members are very proud of their graves and keen to have photos of their handiwork taken; other people however spend time in reflection and/or praying while remembering their passed loved ones. But to be fair, it’s a pretty noisy affair generally – this is not really a time of peace and solitude. True there are a lot of tourists but there are also a lot of families sitting on or in front of the graves, eating and toasting the dead with mezcal while listening to the mariachi bands who are wandering around making a few pesos serenading the families and the dead. Laughter abounds: this is not a sad festival by any stretch of the imagination. Unfortunately the general cemetery in the centre of Oaxaca was closed at night (it got damaged in the 2017 earthquake so they limited visitor numbers this year) but wandering round both the Panteón Viejo and Panteón Nuevo (Old and New Cemeteries) in Xoxocotlan at night was a unique and wonderful experience.
Away from the cemeteries, the party continues. There was a whole programme of events put on in various locations throughout Oaxaca on impromptu stages – from theatrical productions, traditional bands, pop music to performances by school orchestras etc.
Not a bad venue for a concert!
Not a bad venue for an outdoor concert!
And then just as you thought you might have had your fill for a night, you would turn a corner and bump (literally) into a comparsa. These are carnival like processions of people dressed up with painted faces dancing along to lots of music. They seem to be organised on an impromptu basis but we were lucky enough to run into quite a few of them. A lot of people (including many tourists) joined in with the fun by painting their faces too: the facial “art work” lasted a bit longer on those who had their faces painted in the evening rather than first thing in the morning when they then had to try not to touch their face at any point on what were really some rather warm days: it’s fair to say we saw one or two smudged faces around! But no one really cared: it was such a good humoured festival despite all the crowds.
L: An evening (adult) comparsa: R: a children’s comparsa
No wonder the whole event has been recognised as a UNESCO cultural event.
And finally there was one of my favourite moments and a bit of well needed “down time” at the degustactión de pan y chocolate when I happily munched on the pan de muerto and drank the most delicious hot chocolate: after all Oaxaca is the centre of chocolate production in Mexico. Pan de Muerto is bread which is basically made with egg yolks, fruits and mezcal. For the rest of the year, it is known as pan de yema (yolk bread), but for Día de Muertos, it is shaped into round loaves or into the shapes of corpses and decorated with a little head (“carita”) which we believed was edible (if not actually that tasty)! Dipping this bread into the hot chocolate was great and I would highly recommended it.
Since I first heard about Day of the Dead in Mexico, I always wanted to go there in early November to witness these festivities for myself. Definitely one for my Bucket List and our spending 5 days in Oaxaca during this period was amazing and did not disappoint in any way. Far from it: I didn’t want it to end.
So 1st a few admin points. Is it called Día de Muertos, Día de los Muertos or even Día de la Muerte? You see different permutations but the one used in Oaxaca was definitely Día de Muertos so that’s good enough for me.
Next: which day exactly is the Day of the Dead? Again, this seemed a little confused: was it the 1st or the 2nd November? To be honest we were having way too much fun to care and in Oaxaca, the party and festivities stretched over several days so it really didn’t matter. Technically, the answer is 2nd November (although ironically, we found this to be one of the quietest days of the whole period).
Some of the goodies on sale in the market including caramelised pumpkins, pan de muerto and sugar skulls
So how is it celebrated? First, there is the all-important trip to the markets to buy everything necessary for the days ahead, especially for the altars that families build in their homes. We were lucky enough to be taken by the owners of our hostel to the huge Central de Abastos market in Oaxaca which, at this time of the year, was crazily busy with everyone loading up on flowers, foods and other decorations: a bit like a Christmas shopping frenzy but on a much larger scale. I soon lost count of the number of return trips to the car that were made to off load the shopping we had bought “so far”, so that the family had their hands free to continue to shop for more. It seemed that you could never have enough marigolds or chocolate apparently: at first, Julietta (our hostel owner) thought 4 kilos of chocolate was enough but no, that was clearly wrong, she soon went back for a couple more “just to make sure there would be enough”.
L: Sugar cane; R: You can never have enough marigolds
Back in the hostel that evening, we were privileged enough to help the family make their very own Day of the Dead altar. These altars comprise of an arch (ah – ha, that was what the hugely long (and completely impractical to transport) pieces of sugar cane we had bought in the market were for) covered in marigolds, known as flowers of death or cempasúchil. This is essentially a symbolic doorway from the underworld and, additionally, the path to the altar is strewn with yet more marigold petals to help the dead find their way easily.
L: The altar we helped build: R: an altar in a shop in central Oaxaca
The altar is then piled high with offerings to the invisible visitors – flowers, skulls (both sugar skulls and ceramic ones), candles, fruit (both fresh and caramelised), chocolate, pan de muerto, mezcal (the local tipple which is similar to tequila), the local speciality food (black mole) as well as any other favourite dish of the deceased, whose framed photos are also carefully placed on the altar. So this is what we had been buying in the market – all the food was for these ghostly visitors and none was going to be consumed by the (living) family. I guess the process of making the altar was a bit like decorating a Christmas tree but took a lot longer and felt like it was done with more pride and precision although perhaps some of the precision went a little out of the window as we were plied with a few shots of mezcal during the process.
In terms of timing, as I understood it, on 31 October, the “angelitos” come (these are the little souls or souls of deceased children) while on 1 November, the adult souls come back and stay until 2 November. The offerings on the altars are put there to sustain these souls who return to spend some time in the world of the living again.
L: The big altar in the Zocalo; R: another altar near Santo Domingo with local kids posing
It’s not only in private houses that you find these altars: unless you are somehow walking around with your eyes tightly closed, you will see that they are pretty much everywhere – in hotels, restaurants, shops etc and also there were larger altars on the Zócalo (main square) and in other public gardens and spaces.
L: Ceramic statues (in an exhibition); R: papier mache skeleton on the street
As well as the altars, you also see the impressive sand tapestries (tapetes de arena) that have also been carefully set out as part of this festival. Apparently sand tapestries also form part of normal death traditions in Mexico: when someone dies, a sand tapestry is made in their home which usually depicts a religious image or a preferred saint of the deceased. However, the Day of the Dead sand tapestries can be more whimsical featuring not only religious figures but also cartoon like skeletons etc. They are a form of art in themselves and in various barrios or neighbourhoods of Oaxaca, competitions were being held for best sand tapestry. All rather impressive stuff.
Yes these are made of sand!
The decorations don’t stop there – as we wandered around Oaxaca, we saw Day of the Dead related decorations everywhere from skeletons climbing lamp-posts, to brightly coloured skulls as well as streamers of brightly coloured tissue paper (papel picado) with intricate shapes cut out to represent air. On some streets, there were also papier maché skeletons, each carefully decked out with jewellery, hats and feather boas etc. The amount of work that had been put into all these decorations was impressive. What a dazzling and colourful display. Simply wonderful.
Our first few days in Mexico saw us complete our Mayan route, a journey that has also taken us through Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. However on this trip we are not covering all the Mayan sites (we’ve previously visited the mighty Chichen Itza and Tulum and will not be visiting them again this time). After all, Mexico is a big country and our main purpose in coming here was for the Day of the Dead celebrations in the middle of our journey through Central America (albeit a journey that will now not include Nicaragua regrettably).
My favourite Mayan site is the majestic Palenque in yet another jungle setting although the size of this site is far more manageable than Tikal. As our hotel pretty much bordered the park entrance, we were able to get there early before others and also before the heat of the day reached its crescendo.
We also visited Yaxchilán (accessible only by boat down the Rio Usumacinta (which marks the border between Mexico and Guatemala) into the depths of the Lacandon Jungle) as well as the vast Grand Plaza and Mayan murals of Bonampak. We made these two visits on an organised tour with a group comprising of us (the only Europeans), a few Mexican couples and then a whole swathe of older Mexican women who seemed to be on some sort of Women’s Institute or equivalent day out. And what a merry time they were all having tucking into beers at lunch time, singing along to the minibus radio, hitting on the 35 year old or so attractive Brazilian male travelling solo and generally cackling away at their own jokes and especially at the very light hearted rom com film that I think the driver only put on in the vague hope it might calm the rowdiness down. Some hope! Their high spirits were infectious though and a good day was had by all. However I was somewhat relieved that we were not staying in the same hotel as I’m not sure we could have kept up with the partying despite their being at least 20 years’ older!
As well as Mayan ruins, in this part of Mexico we also saw some spectacular waterfalls as well as the impressive Sumidero Canyon whose cliffs soar as high as 1000m. The Rio Grijalva which flows 13 kilometres through the narrow Canyon is home to spider monkeys, crocodiles and lots of birdlife including pelicans. Unfortunately the river (which has been dammed to produce hydro electic power) collects a lot of rubbish too (mainly plastics) from the rivers that flow through densely populated urban areas into it, especially during the rainy season (i.e. now) and the waste tends to build up in the canyon because of its narrowness. Such a shame in such a spectacularly beautiful natural site: another stark reminder of the negative impact of man on the natural environment.
While there was no opportunity to swim in the Canyon (to avoid becoming lunch for the crocodiles), we had plenty of opportunities for splashing around in the various waterfalls of Roberto Barrios, Misol-Ha and Agua Azul (although here the waters weren’t quite as blue as their name suggests or as blue as they would have been during the dry season). Our favourite was Roberto Barrios, perhaps also because this was less crowded and less commercial than the main draw in the region, Agua Azul.
I had thought that the cartoon featuring Road Runner and Wile E Coyote was set in Mexico but having done some extensive research (just where would we be without Google?), I now realise that I’m wrong and that it was actually set in the US.
Not to matter: I had already concluded that it could not possibly have been set in the Mexican state of Chiapas. If it had been, it would have been a very different cartoon with each episode featuring the Coyote catching Road Runner very quickly without any problem at all.
Why? Simply that in this state, there are what seems to be a ridiculous amount of speed bumps. Our drive from the Guatemalan border to Palenque in Chiapas and again on our route out of Palenque both featured what seemed to be a speed bump every 100 metres or so. Sometimes there were even a whole series of speed bumps just to add that extra level of bumpiness to the journey. Many were marked (we soon learned (and began to dread) the word “tope” and even worse “zona de topes”) but there were others that went unmarked just to keep you on your toes. Up and over again (and again). They were all pretty steep bumps too, definitely no taking them at speed.
While I am sure they are all there for a good purpose to slow the traffic, the sheer number did seem a little on the excessive side. All in all, a bit of a pain in the backside (literally)!
We spent our final days in Guatemala in Flores with the obligatory side trip to the magnificent Mayan ruins in the jungle at Tikal. We were lucky enough to be making a return visit here and it was again a magical experience. We spent 3 hours with a guide and then another 3 on our own exploring some parts we hadn’t previously seen and, in fact, having to suddenly up our pace just to make sure we made it back in time for our shuttle bus back to Flores.
Over the years, there’s been a significant amount of excavation work at Tikal revealing some very impressive steep sided temples rising to heights of more than 44 metres. However because the site is so massive, there are still a lot of huge earth mounds which are home to covered temples and other buildings still waiting to be “unwrapped”. But in this part of Guatemala, there are a lot of Mayan sites.
One of the highlights of course is climbing Temple IV and looking out at the spectacular view of the jungle canopy broken only by a few temple tops peeking through. This is a familiar view anyway: it’s a view of the planet, Yavin IV, from the first film of the original Star Wars trilogy (now Episode IV). It was here that the rebels had their base in order to organize the big battle against the Death Star and in the film you see the Millennium Falcon coming in to land above the jungle/rainforest which is home to Tikal in real life.
The photo on the left is the view from Temple IV
Continuing the Star Wars or at least movie theme, while we sat on top of Temple IV admiring this view, the peace was disturbed by a noise that sounded distinctly like Chewbacca (and all his family) and/or some dinosaur stars from Jurassic Park. This is the noise of the howler monkeys and it is an incredible (and if you don’t know what it is, a rather disturbing and intimidating) very loud noise especially when (like us) you can’t see the noisy culprits. Did we want to descend from the safety of the top of Temple IV into the arms of some unknown beast? Welcome to the jungle!
Both here at Tikal and also at Uaxacatun (a more isolated and less excavated Mayan ruin which we pretty much had to ourselves on our visit there), there was no escaping the fact that we were in the jungle. To start with, lots of mossies even in the day time, but also our Uaxacatun guide enthusiastically pointed out to us what he called a small tarantula (big enough for me I can tell you) and he was also on the active hunt for snakes and scorpions to show us but these we didn’t see. My first real life wild tarantula was frankly enough for me as I realised that wearing open toed sandals into the jungle had not been my best fashion decision to date (one that was quickly rectified for the subsequent trip to Tikal). We also saw spider monkeys as well as toucans (who surprisingly sound like frogs!) and the rather striking ocellated turkeys as well as hearing lots of our “friends”, the howler monkeys.
Back on the quaint tiny island of Flores, we relaxed. Day trips aside, there wasn’t a huge amount to do especially in the rain but although tiny, it is a little charming place that draws you in and we definitely succumbed to her charms. Sadly some of the lakefront promenade is now under water due to the rising levels of Lago de Peten Itza which is Guatemala’s second largest lake. While several streams flow into the lake, it has no outlets from it (no rivers etc) and loses water mostly by evaporation, although it is not a salt lake.
Apparently the lake is also home to a number of crocodiles but these we didn’t see – we were told they are nocturnal and there are rumours that this may have been when we were otherwise engaged checking out one or more of Flores’ many bars’ happy hours!
We may not have seen a crocodile, but there were other things to see!
I was rather amused when my husband enthusiastically struck up a conversation in Spanish with the man standing next to him on our overcrowded bus from Rio Dulce to Flores. Then I realised the conversation was about what level the guy had reached on Candy Crush which he was busy playing on his phone to while away the time. As he was on level 2308, Peter was regarding him with open admiration (and this also gave him a chance to practise his (higher) numbers in Spanish).
Mind you the power of Candy Crush and Peter’s befriending of the bloke stood us in great stead when 2 hours into the 5 hour plus journey, a seat finally became free next to him who then kindly offered it to me as he was getting off only a short while later. Hurrah. Standing for the whole 5 hour plus journey was not a prospect that filled either Peter or me with much glee and Peter was also able to score a seat for the second half of the journey, albeit one without any legroom as the seat in front was broken and therefore its passenger almost on Peter’s lap. However, after almost 3 hours of standing, any seat was an absolute bonus!
Knocking another of Lonely Planet’s Guatemalan highlights off the list, we took a boat trip on the River Dulce from the village of Rio Dulce itself to Livingston.
Although it had been raining during the night and also at breakfast, we had hoped that the clouds would disappear and make way for the sun. Suffice to say that our optimism did not quite pay off and we didn’t need our sunglasses or sun lotion on this particular day. Somewhat laughably only 2 days before, some other tourists had told us that Rio Dulce was the hottest place they had visited in Guatemala and their visit there had only been the previous week. Well, how quickly the weather can change: there’s now a tropical storm in the making off the coast of Guatemala and Mexico bringing lots of rain to this region. To be fair, we have so far been shielded from the far worse storms that have recently been hitting the US so we can’t complain too much but it is fair to say that it’s a little soggy at the moment.
The guidebook describes the ride as a “spectacular journey through a jungle walled canyon” and the scenery as we approached Livingston was indeed pretty impressive. It was just a bit hard to see anything what with the rain sheeting down coupled with all the river spray making for one very wet experience. True the boat had a canopy of sorts but this wasn’t particularly effective in these inclement conditions. By the end of the trip I had both my waterproof trousers and my waterproof jacket on and just wished I had something to cover my face too! What a shame.
Still it was interesting to get to Livingston which is not connected by road to the rest of the country and is only accessible by boat. The town sits at the mouth of the River Dulce where it meets the Caribbean Sea and its local indigenous (Garifuna) population call the place “Buga” which means mouth. Here the ethnicity of the local inhabitants is very similar to that of the residents of Roatan in Honduras, another somewhat isolated group in the Bay Islands.
In Livingston, we tried the local speciality called tapado which is a coconut milk seafood stew as well as the more widely available ceviche, another seafood dish although this one was heavily tomato based which I hadn’t tried before. Satiated we primed ourselves for our soggy return trip to our hotel set in the rainforest on the edge of the river (another destination only accessible by boat and in fact most of the buildings themselves were suspended over the water on boardwalks (this was not the place to be careless and drop anything as some of the boardwalks had rather large gaps)). It was a pleasant enough setting albeit a little limiting in such wet weather.
Before our visit to Rio Dulce, we knocked off another guidebook “highlight” when we visited Semuc Champey. This stepped series of limestone pools over the River Cahabon (which actually flows underneath the limestone “bridge”) is touted as the most beautiful place in Guatemala. And it certainly was a picturesque bathing spot and with a free fish pedicure to boot, what’s not to like? For us, it was a strong reminder of our trip to the very similar and equally beautiful Kuang Si waterfalls just outside of Luang Prabang in Laos (which were also full of nibbling fish): see Blog post dated 11 July, 2018: “A different pace in Laos”. All a reminder of how lucky we are to see some of these amazing wonders that Mother Nature has created.
Semuc Champey; L: the view from the viewpoint; R: where the River Cahobon disappears down a natural “drain” and flows under the pools and waterfalls on the limestone “bridge” above (that are visible in the picture on the left).
Unless you travel around Central America with your eyes tightly shut, you can’t help but be impressed by the magnificent volcanoes that form the backdrop to the many beautiful views in the region. The Central American Volcanic Arc has a length of 930 miles and extends parallel to the Pacific coast line from Guatemala down to northern Panama. The highest peaks are found in Guatemala (the highest is Tajumulco standing at a majestic height of over 4,000 metres).
Some of the volcanoes are a perfect conical (almost cartoon-like) shape; the craters of others have collapsed and are now “home” to colourful lakes while others (including Santa Maria/Santiaguito, Pacaya and Fuego in Guatemala) are still active shooting smoke into the sky at potentially alarmingly regular intervals. Most (but not all) of this region’s tallest peaks are volcanoes although (slightly annoyingly), given it is currently the rainy season, the peaks are often shrouded in cloud. However, if you are up early enough, you stand a good chance of catching a glimpse of the peak before it disappears under its white adornment.
And then of course you start wondering whether simply admiring the landscape is enough or whether you feel the urge to get a bit more up close and personal by joining a volcano hike (or two!) and hiking up them. While we were in Xela, we’d trekked to see Santiaguito in action (see Blog post, dated 3 September, 2018, “Now you see it, now you don’t” and on the way down to Lake Atitlán during our 3 day hike, we’d admired Volcán San Pedro which dominates the lake view.
But in El Salvador we put our hiking boots back on and did a great day trek to see Volcán Santa Ana in the (slightly unimaginatively named) Parque Nacional Los Volcanes. The day walk (yay! No need to start at crazy o’clock in the morning) was not too difficult a climb (albeit let’s face it the climb up any volcano is pretty much straight up and straight down without a lot of flat given their inherent shape) and led us through coffee plantations and wooded areas before arriving at the peak (this is El Salvador’s highest volcano standing proud at 2,381 metres).
L: Cerro Verde and Volcán Izalco; R: Volcán Izalco
From the summit, we got to see an amazing green lake in its crater on one side (such a striking colour) as well as the beautiful blue Lake Coatepeque on the other and, of course, views of its neighbouring volcanoes, Cerro Verde, and the perfectly shaped Volcán Izalco. Simply wonderful. A perfect trip and definitely worth making the final effort to push yourself to the top: any aches or pains that may have started on the climb up (a few of our group had been flagging) disappeared instantaneously on seeing the spectacular 360 degree view. Wowee!
L: the volcanic lake in Santa Ana; R: the super-blue Lake Coatepeque
Back in Antigua, we faced a greater challenge – the 2 day hike up Volcán Acatenango, Guatemala’s 3rd highest volcano (3,976m) including a night spent camping at altitude (over 3,500m). This was clearly the thing to do in Antigua and without exception, everyone who mentioned it, told us it was hard (“it hurts“), that you could get sick from the altitude even if you were super-fit and that it got very cold at night and especially when you start climbing on the second day to get to the summit in time for sunrise. Many said “it was good, but never again” which didn’t exactly fill me with confidence but hey, if there’s a volcano to be climbed, it looks like it’s something that we should be doing and so off we went. And here the altitude was lower than we’d reached in Nepal (5,416m) when we trekked the Annapurna Circuit so I was hoping that would stand us in good stead.
Magical morning views
In actual fact, for all the hype, I found the climb (which is pretty consistently uphill for the first 4 hours without any respite albeit it did then flatten out a little bit for an hour or so before a final killer push to basecamp) was actually ok. I was quite surprised but was also somewhat relieved that the final part of the climb was not how the whole walk had been as this was hard – here we were climbing very steeply on loose gravel/ash which was quite frustrating – 1 step forward and 2 back etc and at one point the tents of base camp seemed to be getting further away rather than closer as I felt I was walking through treacle! But this was only for a small part of that day’s climb and we arrived in good time at base camp. We had started as a group of 8 with 2 guides but unfortunately 1 guy had turned back finding it all a bit much – maybe it was the altitude or maybe it was the physical activity, I don’t know but he was puffing and panting almost from the off.
And again, we lucked out: the night spent in the tent wasn’t too bad: this was not something to which I’d been looking forward (camping is not really my thing although now I think about it, we do seem to have ended up camping with undue frequency on this trip). I’d also found it very difficult to decide what extra layers to take with me bearing in mind that anything I wanted to wear, I had to carry myself in addition to food and water etc. Obviously I didn’t want to be cold but a ridiculously heavy bag was not going to help my climb. In the end, I took lots and wore everything (including the additional down jackets that the trekking agency provided) and also utilised the spare sleeping bag that we had in our tent. But I wasn’t cold which was the main thing, even when it started chucking it down during the night: at this point, my focus turned to checking that the tent wasn’t leaking (and I was mightily relieved to find that it wasn’t thank goodness) and then spending most of the night curled up in as small a ball as possible to avoid my touching the side of the tent even inadvertently! So all in all it wasn’t the best night’s sleep but it could have been far worse!
Unfortunately although basecamp was positioned with beautiful views of Mount Fuego (3,763m), after the sun went down, the clouds completely enveloped us and so we had no view of Fuego’s regular eruptions although we could still hear them from 4 kilometres away. These were like extremely loud claps of thunder and were a little eerie especially when you couldn’t see the volcano itself: sometimes it sounded like the eruption was happening a lot closer than 4 kilometres away – I’m glad I’d seen Fuego in the daylight before the clouds covered it so I knew exactly where it was. Volcan Fuego is one of Guatemala’s most active volcanoes and is the one that erupted on 3 June 2018 killing a lot of people (some estimates suggest over 2,000 people were killed although government figures are lower). The relief work is still continuing.
The next morning, we were up at 3.30am and just after 4am set off for our final ascent on Acatenango. Unfortunately another of our group had altitude sickness and so only 6 of us made the final ascent which was harder going, having to climb over loose gravel and ash, but after about 1 hour and 10 minutes we successfully made it to the top. Fortunately, after all the rain overnight, the clouds had passed on and we finally had a night time view of Volcán Fuego (and some of her dramatic eruptions) and also of the wider area. Volcán Pacaya on the other side of Antigua was also busy putting on a own show for us as well with some minor eruptions as well. A truly magical moment (if a little chilly while we waited for sunrise trying to stay out of the wind).
Coming back down to base camp for breakfast was a whole heap of fun and very quick as essentially we just half ran down/half fell down the scree slopes and got back to base camp in less than 30 minutes! After breakfast, we had the long descent back down the volcano retracing our steps to yesterday’s starting point. This was the hardest part for me – it was a little slippery under foot in the loose gravel on the paths and was quite steep which is not a great combination for someone with my sense of (no) balance. However, all in all, the whole hike had not been too tough and if I’m honest, we felt quite proud of ourselves given some of the horror stories that we’d heard prior to the trek.
However, our (slightly smug/self satisfied) smiles disappeared abruptly the next day when we woke up with very stiff legs. It then took 4 complete days for all the stiffness to ease. It seems that no matter who you are, Volcán Acatenango will have the last laugh.
Our experience in the northern countries of Central America to date has led us to conclude that they each seem to have a somewhat complicated relationship with the US dollar.
In Guatemala, the US dollar is not widely accepted and in fact where it can be used, only absolutely pristine US$100 and US$50 dollar bills are accepted. Any other denomination or any damaged note will not be accepted at the banks (and therefore no one else can take it either by default). Bit odd since historically I had always understood it was the large denomination notes that were prone to counterfeiting. The main currency of Guatemala is the quetzal named after the brightly coloured national bird (which unfortunately we haven’t seen other than on the national flag and the bank-notes). Helpfully though while we have been in this part of the world, the FX rate has been about 10 quetzales to 1 pound which has made for some easy maths.
Contrast this to Honduras which again has its own currency, the lempira, but where prices are widely quoted in US dollars and all denominations of dollar bills (again without too much wear and tear) are widely accepted. This practice was even more extreme in the Bay Islands off the Caribbean coast where pretty much all hotel and transport bills and restaurant menus were quoted in US dollars (albeit some also gave the price in lempiras as well). In contrast to Guatemala, in Honduras it’s better to have small US dollar bills in case there are problems getting change.
Our guide at Copan Ruinas, Honduras, showing us that the site’s famous ball court features on the country’s smallest banknote, 1 lempira
El Salvador uses the US dollar as its own currency. However, here we came across signs in shops saying that only US dollar bills of US$20 or less would be accepted: I wasn’t sure if this was because giving out change for large bills might be difficult or because of potential counterfeiting of the larger notes (but was obviously in direct contradiction to Guatemala’s position). It’s obviously not sufficient in this part of the world just to carry US dollars, instead you have to ensure you are carrying the correct denominations, otherwise you could get stuck. Another quirk is that dollar coins are widely used in El Salvador (unlike in the US itself, albeit they are legal currency there too).
In El Salvador, the ATMs obviously spat out US dollars but even in Guatemala and Honduras, some ATMs give you the option of withdrawing US$ as an alternative to the local currency. That is of course if you can find an ATM which (a) is stocked with cash; (b) is compatible with your international card and (c) isn’t a machine that is prone to being skimmed. In reality, getting cash out from ATMs in Central America is always a bit of a challenge to say the least and frequently, we have come away from the machines frustrated and empty handed having been foiled in our attempts to get cash. Although to be fair we have had a far higher success rate than one poor British couple we met who literally had had zero success with ATMs and had therefore had to resort to complex money transfers via Western Union which were expensive, time-consuming and unnecessarily bureaucratic and complex and, even then, did not always result in a cash withdrawal: painful to say the least.
In addition, the ATM charges vary quite a bit even between VISA and Mastercard cards (albeit we didn’t come across ATM fees in either Honduras or El Salvador which was a pleasant surprise). Credit cards aren’t that widely accepted either and, where they are, there are typically some pretty hefty surcharges levied (often around 6% but we have also seen a whopping 15% surcharge in Guatemala although again, however, there seemed to be fewer charges in Honduras). These hidden charges can soon add up so we’ve gone pretty easy on our credit card it has to be said: certainly there’s no evidence of “contactless” out here!
Another thing we’ve had to get our heads around is the various additional sales taxes and other charges that are applied, somewhat randomly. Not only are these (unsurprisingly) different in each country (fair enough) but they also vary depending on what you are buying e.g. in Honduras you would typically face a 15% sales tax (or 18% on alcohol) and then quite often, there was another 4% tourist tax on top which increased your bill quite considerably. In Guatemala there is a standard 12% sales tax but in some cities an additional 10% “city tax” is also levied and in El Salvador, we faced a 13% sales tax although this did not seem to be universally levied (seemed to be slightly more discretionary). While I guess US visitors are all used to prices being quoted exclusive of sales taxes etc, it always seems to me to be an unnecessary sting in the tail that regularly catches me off guard. And this is before any service charges or tips of course….. (although in the more touristy places like Antigua, the restaurants are (very) quick to add a (strongly) suggested service charge anyway!)
And I guess one reason the money side of things has been pretty confusing has been because we are moving through the region relatively quickly. It sometimes feels that just as we get to grips with one currency, its FX rate, its sales taxes etc as well as which ATMs might do the decent thing and play ball and actually dispense cash (without charging us a fortune to do so), we are back at the border moving onto the next country.
Despite the fact that they are neighbours and there is a lot of traffic and trade going from one Central American country to the next, apart from on the border itself, it is almost impossible to change one currency into another (apart from the more universally accepted greenbacks of course). So you also have to try and plan your cash reserves so that you aren’t left with money that you can no longer spend once you’ve crossed the border. Fortunately there are usually enterprising money changers on the land borders although on the Honduras-Guatemala border, I wasn’t sure exactly how the money changer was making his money as he gave us a perfect flat rate for Honduran lempira-US dollars without any mark up at all: very strange given he definitely had the upper hand and we would have been left with a fistful of useless (but pretty) lempiras if we hadn’t been able to buy US dollars from him, particularly given the lateness of the hour when we hit that particular border.
A word of caution though about changing your money at the border: make sure you have definitely cleared all emigration, immigration, customs and any other similar “official” checks before changing out all your money. Who knows exactly how much it might cost you to get the official stamps and related documents? While there are no costs for visas in this part of the world, there still seemed to be unspecified fees levied somewhat randomly at the land borders. For example why did I have to pay 10 quetzales (about £1) to leave Guatemala and a further 30 quetzales (£3) to enter Honduras at the same land border whereas Peter only had to pay the 30 quetzales entry fee (and no exit fee)? And why 30 quetzales when the receipt you were given said US$3 and a more realistic exchange rate would have been about 23 quetzales? But best really to only muse over these questions well away from the border and its officials themselves: after all they are the ones with the official stamps we covet and you don’t have a lot of room for negotiation! The sums involved aren’t great anyway, rather it is just the randomness of it all and the headache of ensuring you have exactly the right amount of money (preferably in correct change only of course) in the right currency at all times!
In Antigua, there are large number of tiny shops, many of which operate only through a barred window – which necessitates the customer standing on the street giving his order while the shop owner behind finds the required goods. That’s all well and good but a little limiting since (a) you have to know exactly what you want (and, of course, be able to order it in Spanish) and (b) it limits the opportunity for browsing. So, in my view, as isn’t a great business model. But maybe it’s done like this for security reasons or because of space constraints: I’m not exactly sure.
Next size up from the “hole in the wall” shops are tiny stores where you can go in but frankly if there are more than 3 of you in there (including the shop owner) then it can all become rather a tight squeeze and so it’s normally better to wait on the pavement until it’s your turn. These stores tend to be ram jam full of goods from floor to ceiling and actually can be a bit overwhelming given the amount of stuff which is packed in so tightly. It’s also hard just to “browse” in here because essentially you are taking up space and getting in the way of other potential customers if you don’t engage immediately with the shop owner and get on with things.
There are supermakets too although not huge amounts of these (we found more in El Salvador). In any event, these tend to be a bit less slick than their European counterparts with which I’m familiar but still they are useful and (obviously) tend to stock the widest range of goods. Here prices are fixed and clearly marked which is also an advantage.
To celebrate our completion of what is probably our final week of Spanish school, we decided to buy a bottle of wine on our way home. When we popped into one of Antigua’s tiny stores, I couldn’t immediately see any alcohol on any of the shelves and was therefore just about to do an about turn when the young kid (probably aged about 10) jumped off the stool on which he had been standing while stacking higher shelves and asked if he could help. When I asked if there was any wine, he immediately disappeared behind the counter and produced a single bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and that was it – one bottle of wine – no choice of colour or type. However, as it was red wine that I was after, this all seemed to be going in the right direction so it was time to ask for the price.
It was at this point that the wheels of the transaction almost came off because for a second he looked at me a little blankly but then suddenly grabbed the phone on the counter and started dialling furiously and seemed very happy when the person on the other end of the phone (who turned out to be his father) answered so promptly! Price agreed, the sale was made to the delight (or relief maybe?) of both parties.
Obviously it appears that unlike in the UK, there are no laws about the age at which you are allowed to sell alcohol (or at least if there is a law, this is not one which is readily enforced!). Likewise with any laws relating to child labour as well…?
Thank goodness I started this trip with a clean passport as it is now getting filled up pretty quickly. In Asia, the authorities seemed rather keen on sticking full page rather grand visas in our passports and also giving us a whole host of associated stamps officially marking our point and date of entry and exit (and in India, we even got stamped in and out of individual states like Sikkim just to add to the bureaucracy). That is, apart from in Seoul where they chose not to stamp the passport at all, but instead gave us a separate loose leaf dated receipt when we arrived in South Korea so there’s no official record in our passport of that particular side-trip.
Here, in Central America, although there are no visas to buy, the pages of our passports are soon filling up. That’s not that surprising really as we are country hopping a bit, for example, on one trip from Roatan in Honduras to Santa Ana in El Salvador, we had to cross 2 borders (Honduras-Guatemala and Guatemala-El Salvador) in one day as the quickest route was to drive through Guatemala for an hour or so to get to our final destination in El Salvador.
As always, we’ve come across a few oddities (in addition to South Korea). When we entered Honduras, while they did stamp our passports, it only showed the date by which we had to exit the country (rather than the date of entry: instead this was stamped rather randomly on a separate piece of paper which apparently was a receipt for the entry fee).
But more curiously, on entry to El Salvador, no one stamped anything at all – an immigration official simply opened the door of our minibus and counted the number of passengers (which, let’s face it, wasn’t difficult as we were the only 2!) and then took a cursory look at our passports by the light of the minibus’s headlights (as we were crossing after dark at about 7.45pm). And that was it – no official record, no date of entry and no date by which we had to be out of the country either. I actually found this lack of an official stamp rather disconcerting although I had read that 4 of the Central American countries (Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador) have some sort of combined 90 day visa for the region: that’s fine in principle but the other countries had each happily stamped us in and out and in particular, Guatemala (the immediate country before) had also firmly stamped us out which, in my understanding, normally invalidated the permission to stay.
When we came to exit El Salvador a week later, again we received no stamp – this time an official climbed on our (full) coach and looked at everyone’s passports and then had to ask everyone individually the date on which they had entered El Salvador. It struck me that if he really wanted or needed this information, it would have made his life a lot easier if one of his colleagues had stamped us in on arrival. Still, having asked the question, he simply nodded and, seemingly satisfied, he handed us back our passports leaving us with a gap in our passport record for this short time which is just quite odd.
That’s not to say that the El Salvadorean officials didn’t take the border crossing seriously – the opposite in fact – we were held at the border for quite a long time while they completed a whole series of checks. As well as the immigration official who boarded our coach, we also had a health inspection although I would say that this was pretty light-touch and fairly random as essentially this comprised a lady boarding our bus and gently asking us if we were all well and/or if anyone had a fever. Given she didn’t use the coach’s microphone system, I’m not even sure that anyone sat in seats further back than the front 4 or so rows would have been able to hear anything she said anyway. She certainly had no one volunteering that they felt under the weather.
Then the anti-narcotics police boarded the coach and randomly selected 4 or so passengers who then had to get off the bus and have their luggage inspected etc. Fortunately we were not involved in this process and just had to sit it out patiently (am pleased to report that there didn’t seem to be any issues and the passengers all re-boarded the bus a short while later and then we were free to move on).
Having finally left El Salvador, we crossed back into Guatemala 50 metres down the road where the stamp-happy staff randomly gave Peter permission to stay for 40 days and me 85 days without any rhyme or reason (the maximum amount which is normally given to tourists (and had previously been given to us) is a 90 day stay and it wasn’t clear why we got less or indeed such random lengths but it didn’t matter too much as these were sufficient for our purposes). “Curiouser and curiouser”.
Someone we had met en route recommended we go to Cafe Cadek when we were in Santa Ana. We followed up on that recommendation but when we arrived at the place where we thought the cafe should be (according to maps.me) all we found was a shabby closed door and no sign. As it was 17.45, we figured we might be in the right place but perhaps it was just shut for the day. Certainly there were no obvious signs of life. So we wandered on.
On a second attempt, we returned to the same spot at about 15.00 again to be greeted by the same firmly closed door. Not wanting to end up sticking our beaks into private properties where they might not be wanted, at first we were reluctant to push on the door and were about to walk on by. But just as well we did give the door a little shove as it was then fully opened by a barista and we were ushered into a very cool coffee shop with great AC but no windows at all. A hidden gem. We are used to a lot of properties having small (and sometimes rather uninspiring) shop fronts but then once inside, they often open up to much larger spaces and often expansive courtyards. But this really took that concept to an extreme.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t exactly busy given its lack of ability to attract passing trade and its lack of self promotion. On the other hand it wasn’t completely empty either and a number of other customers knocked confidently on the door in a specific manner : perhaps there was even a secret knock for those in the know? Maybe in fact we had been recommended the latest hippest place. Who knows?
While there, we enjoyed delicious coffee and some afternoon treats too but I did think that Alan Sugar might have some thoughts on their business model as it’s fair to say there was probably room to improve their sales figures.
But then again, perhaps this is just how the Santanecos do things. Come to think of it, our hostel has no clear sign on the outside either! And that’s also excellent on the inside.
So in fact the only reason that El Salvador made it onto our “list” was because of the troubles in Nicaragua meaning a trip there is not viable at this present time. So instead, with a few days to spare in the schedule, we decided to head into El Salvador and, in particular, to base ourselves in the charming town of Santa Ana (and at one of our favourite hostels of the whole trip to date, Casa Verde). Well worth the effort especially when we day tripped on local buses to the charming Ruta de las Flores, a beautiful series of villages each with very colourful houses many of which were then adorned further with bright murals. Simply stunning.
We timed our visit well as we went on Sunday and thereby were able to indulge at the week-end food markets which made for interesting viewing as well as for tasting. There was a lively atmosphere and everyone seemed to be out enjoying the sunshine, food and generally have a nice time meandering around. Apart from 3 other back-packers on our first bus journey, we didn’t see any other foreign visitors all day which all added to the authentic and non-touristy experience.
We were lucky with the buses too – although they apparently only go every half an hour, we spectacularly timed each of our arrivals at the “bus stops” (aka places near the edge of town where other people seemed to be gathering (official bus stops are pretty non existent in this part of the world)) at the right time and were normally on a bus within only a few minutes taking us to the next village for the princely sum of 30 or 40 cents a head.
This area is the heart of El Salvador’s main coffee growing region and they take their coffee preparation very seriously in this part of the world – it is a process that it is to be enjoyed and not rushed in any way. I’m no coffee connoisseur but the final product (drunk black) tasted very good albeit it was incredibly strong: I found that one cup was sufficient for the whole day!
Our favourite village was Ataco where the local mural artists seems to have outdone themselves – it was so colourful and pretty. Here we were a million miles away from the harsh neon of so many modern cities – and it was simply charming.
All in all, a great day out albeit, thinking back, we didn’t actually see many (even any?) of the eponymous flowers but apparently we were visiting in the wrong season. Oh well, perhaps this gives us an excuse to return in the future?
As we travel around Central America, on the food front we are seeing a few variations on what is, let’s face it, a very strong theme. Eggs, beans and plantains (cooking bananas) continue to be staples of our diets as well as the ubiquitous corn tortillas although here there are a few local variations just to spice things up a bit. (Actually on that front, the delicious Pico Mas spicy sauce is widely available although with some versions being hotter than others, you can be taken a little by surprise if you don’t pay attention!)
In Honduras, there was no getting away from (nor would you want to) the national dish, a baleada, which is a plate size tortilla stuffed with beans, eggs and sometimes additional items like chicken or beef and salad. These were delicious, filling and very cost effective at around a dollar or two a piece depending on how upmarket the eating establishment was.
El Salvador’s reply to the baleada comes in the form of the pupusa which are circles of cornmeal dough (tortilla size but thicker) stuffed with cheese and one or two other toppings such as beans (of course!), carrot, pumpkin, chicken or pork, which are then fried on a large hot plate. They are served with curtido (a mixture of pickled cabbage and vegetables) and a spicyish tomato sauce (although Pico Mas sauce also works a treat here). They cost 40 to 50 cents a piece at road side pupuserias and 3 each usually filled us up.
Sometimes we ate in places where there were no set menus and so you just got the plate of the day or whatever was going. In our hotel in Trujillo, the restaurant was closed but they still managed to rustle us up a plate of comida tipica: beans, dry cheese, eggs, sour cream, tortillas and some sausage. Only 12 hours later we found ourselves having an identical meal for breakfast albeit the latter was served with the ubiquitous strong (but very good) black coffee and some fruit juice. It is fair to say that you do end up eating a lot of meals which are very similar, but so far so good!
In this whole region, you might be forgiven for thinking that fried chicken was the traditional food (rather than refried beans and plantains) as there are a vast number of chicken shops each one branded with its own super happy cartoon chicken beckoning you in. Thus far though, we’ve managed to resist that particular “temptation” fairly easily!
On the drinks’ front, there are lots of good local beers to sample – Honduras in particular had quite a number of local brands such as Imperial, Salva Vida, Port Royal and Barena and El Salvador had its own brand pilsner, simply called El Salvador in some places or in others, just Pilsner. When we were in the Lake Yogoa area in Honduras, we stayed in a micro-brewery (the highly recommended D&D brewery) and so we had a few nights sampling the very locally brewed beers. What’s not to like?
And just as our language skills are improving (allegedly anyway), we get thrown a few curve balls. For example a pupuseria in Santa Ana served pupusa con queso y mora. Having sampled various smoothies with “mora” in Guatemala, we thought the combination of cheese and blackberry might be a little odd. However undaunted, we still ordered it although were secretly relieved when it turned out to be a cheese and wild spinach pupusa which was in fact pretty tasty. We’ve also come across “salsa inglesa” which seems to be quite popular in Guatemala. This is in fact the old classic, Worcestershire sauce, albeit not the Lea & Perrins variety.
In Honduras, we probably spent more time exploring natural rather than historical sights. This trend kicked off early at our first stop in Honduras at Copán Ruinas, when we visited Macaw Mountain. This is a private bird reserve about 2½ km out of the beautiful colonial cobblestoned town itself. The park’s key aim is to save Central American macaws, parakeets, toucans and other birds, many of which were pets whose former owners tired of them and/or had enough of “paradise” and left the region to return to their home country leaving an unwanted bird, some of which apparently live to the grand old age of 100! Although the centre has various release programmes (through which birds are liberated back into their natural habitat), many unfortunately will never be able to be rehabilitated to this extent having become too domestic and reliant on humans meaning they will stay in the park forever. Visiting the park made for a fun few hours and a few comedy moments especially when I was completely taken by surprise when I thought I heard someone saying “hola” and “como estas?” and yet could see no one around: of course it was one of the parakeets who had been taught to say a few phrases!
Other birds at Macaw Mountain
Also in Copán Ruinas in the great outdoors, we visited the rather grandly titled Luna Jaguar Spa Resort for our latest dip in hot thermal springs. Boy are we staying clean on this trip! Once we’d been given the official tour (which we had somehow managed to miss when we first arrived), this made for a very relaxing afternoon and was a much better experience than our visit to their Guatemalan counterparts, Fuentes Georginas outside of Xela: mind you, to be fair, we had a much better day for it in Honduras. (see Blog Post “Back in hot water” dated 29 August 2018).
Banana plant and coffee plant (but I don’t know what the middle one is)
While in Copán Ruinas we did of course visit the Mayan archaeological site which, after all, gives its name to the town: this was home to one of the most important of all Mayan civilisations and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It wasn’t as grand as some of the sites we’ve previously visited in Guatemala, Belize and Mexico (some of which we plan to revisit on this trip) but was still interesting enough and it was very quiet and there weren’t many visitors making for a peaceful visit.
Back on the nature trail, in Lake Yojoa, we perhaps had far too close an encounter with the natural world when we got up early one morning before sunrise to go bird-watching on the lake. Having turned on a light to get dressed, suddenly our room filled with a swarm of rather angry wasps which took us somewhat by surprise and wasn’t an ideal start to the day. We managed to escape the room without being stung and fortunately a very peaceful rowing boat trip on Lake Yojoa restored our sense of well-being. We saw lots of herons as well as woodpeckers, egrets and kingfishers etc but unfortunately our eyes weren’t as sharp as those of our guide and sadly only he spotted the durante (flock) of toucans which was a little disappointing. But it was a very pleasant little trip out on the beautiful lake before the rest of the world woke up. And a quick change of room on return to the hostel meant we didn’t see our buzzing friends again fortunately.
Lago de Yojoa and some of its bird-life
In northern Honduras, we spent a couple of nights on the edge of the very picturesque Rio Cangrejal. Here we tubed down the river in an inflatable tyre across small rapids and then did some rather gentle hiking in the Pico Bonito National Park to a pretty waterfall although this was much smaller than the Pulhapanzak waterfall we had visited while staying in Lago de Yojoa (see Blog post “A splash of adrenaline” dated 20 September 2018).
Pico Bonito National Park and Rio Cangrejal
And then finally, before crossing to the Bay Islands (see Blog post “Island Life” dated 30 September 2018, we had time for an overnight stop in Trujillo, on the Caribbean coast. It was here where Christopher Columbus first set foot on the Central American mainland in August 1502 noting that the Bay of Trujillo had very deep waters. In the sixteenth century, it became an important port under Spanish rule even briefly becoming the capital of Honduras but its pre-eminence did not last long as it was always vulnerable to pirates and to attacks from other colonial powers (including the British) and so a century or so later on, the Spanish pretty much abandoned the city deeming it indefensible. Today it is a charming but very small and sleepy place and although interesting to wander around, it’s fair to say that there wasn’t a huge amount to see here. But it added another stop and a bit of variety to our 2 week trip to Honduras.
When we arrived on Roatan, the largest of Honduras’ Bay Islands about 40 miles off its northern coast, it was hard to remember we were still actually in Honduras. English was so widely spoken (more than Spanish) both by the Islanders and the vast (aging) ex pat community (mainly from North America and the UK) and the Islanders themselves looked very different from many of their mainland brothers, being chiefly of European and British-Afro-Caribbean descent. Almost all prices in hotels and restaurants (and even the water taxi fares) were quoted in US dollars and in fact at times, it almost seemed that paying with the local currency, lempiras, was more of a hassle!
There was also a different pace of life on the island. With the beautiful white sandy beaches and the amazing crystal clear turquoise shallow waters covering the world’s second largest coral reef, no one seemed to be in a hurry to do anything other than to strip off and get into the beautiful warm water kitted out with a snorkel mask and fins to start exploring under the surface of the water.
And off we went too into the Caribbean Sea. No underwater pictures to share I’m afraid but some of the fish were amazingly colourful and the coral was pretty impressive too. And you didn’t have to swim out that far to see lots especially as the water remained quite shallow. In fact, when you snorkelled back to the beach, you realised that people were literally standing around in the water at waist depth or less chatting to each other oblivious to all the fish life circling around them just under the water’s surface. All in all the snorkelling opportunities were fantastic. Apparently the diving is amazing too but we didn’t try our hand at that.
View from the water taxi route to West Bay
And then once all that hard exercise (!) was over, having to lie back on those pristine beaches wasn’t too much of a chore it has to be said. Obviously it was important to rest up a little in order to conserve sufficient energy so that you could be ready to watch the spectacular sunsets, beer in hand.
The only real negatives to the experience were (a) the pesky minute sand flies on some (not all) of the beaches which feasted on us and (b) getting on and off the island. The 1.5 hour catamaran ride was rather choppy to say the least and while we both managed to hold down the contents of our stomachs, unfortunately that wasn’t true for the majority of our fellow passengers especially on the afternoon crossing to the island. This trip did make me look seriously at alternative methods of getting off Roatan, namely flying, but such a last minute booking was a little on the pricey side so we had to take the boat again. Fortunately the morning crossing was a lot smoother than the evening one had been which was just as well.
Today we did a walk (or more accurately a half swim/climb) behind a 43 m waterfall. We were at Pulhapanzak in Honduras which had a high volume of water cascading over it (this being winter and the rainy season).
After a short walk along a slippery muddy path, we had to scramble over some wet rocks and then jump into a pool to the left of the main waterfall. After another clamber down some rocks (eyes down and mouth open as the water was coming directly towards us) followed by a half swim/walk across another rock pool, we were inside the relative dry of a cave with an impressive amount of water cascading down in front of us.
But then the next 60 seconds or so were the hardest as we had to pull ourselves along a cable attached to the cliff behind the main part of the waterfall with quite a bit of its heavy flow heading our way. It was just a case of feeling your way along the steel cable and didn’t really make any difference if you had your eyes open or shut as you couldn’t really see anything anyway and certainly not where you were meant to be putting your feet: all a case of holding the faith and feeling your way along/scrambling over the submerged and therefore hidden rocks until you got to the second cave at the other side of the waterfall. Here we could sit back and watch the water pour over our heads – an immense amount of power there. All pretty spectacular stuff to say the least but no real chance to relax as it began to dawn on us that the only way out was to reverse our route thus far! OMG!
Back on dry land again, I felt able to breathe once more particularly after I had released my straps on both my helmet and life jacket (which I had rather zealously tightened as much as possible!). Ziplining was also available at the waterfall but we determined we’d had enough excitement for one day and so gave that a pass.
The celebrations for Independence Day in Guatemala spanned two days: any excuse for a party or a parade here is grabbed with alacrity it appears.
On the eve of the big day itself, we were travelling from Lake Atitlán to Antigua, a journey which should have taken about 3 to 3½ hours by shuttle bus. However about half way through the journey, we hit significant delays as essentially the Inter-Americana Highway (the country’s main expressway) was taken over by groups of runners on the road, some carrying torches (like Olympic torches) and almost all decked out in blue and white (the colours of the flag).
However, the road wasn’t closed to traffic which made it all rather chaotic resulting in a build-up of traffic (as most of the road is not dual carriage way meaning the traffic had to slow to the pace of the slowest runner). But despite this, everyone seemed to be in high spirits – there was lots of horns honking in encouragement of the runners (our driver’s horn included) and the runners were also cheered on by vast numbers of people who had assembled on the sides of the roads to watch the spectacle (even though for large portions of time, the only thing they would have seen were traffic jams, making it perhaps not the most exciting of spectacles).
Rather like Happy Holi in India, the locals took to throwing water (albeit not paint as they do in India) at each other and, in particular, the runners to celebrate the eve of Independence Day. Our minibus of tourists was also too tempting a target to resist for some of these water “attacks” but it was all done in very good humour and anyway, we needed a bit of cooling down, given the lack of breeze while we were in stationary traffic.
In addition to the lengthier journey (we eventually arrived after 5½ or 6 hours), another negative was that our onward journey to Honduras had to be postponed. When booking our bus tickets, we’d previously specifically checked that the border would be open on Independence Day (15th September) but when it came to the crunch, somebody important obviously changed their mind (perhaps they wanted to join in the celebrations). This put our schedule (such as there is any schedule) behind by a day. Still there are worst places in the world to be stuck than the beautiful colonial city of Antigua with which we were already familiar having studied here previously.
The next morning, the parade through Antigua started early around 8am and continued for 4 hours or so as groups of drummers, dancers, bands and other flag bearers (each arranged by school) paraded through the cobbled streets. It was clear some people had practiced harder than others and that some were more enthusiastic than their colleagues but generally speaking, it was a good show and there was a lot of support from the local spectators. After all, they do do a good parade in this part of the world.
And of course, this being Antigua, there were plenty of “bombas” or firecrackers being set off all over the place. These are routinely set off in Antigua especially when there is a special event but often no excuse is required. When we first arrived in Guatemala a few weeks ago, all the loud bangs were somewhat perturbing to say the least but it is amazing how accustomed you become to them (despite their similarity to the sound of gun shots), so much so that I am sure there were many more being set off on Independence Day than I actually registered.
It seemed perfectly acceptable to break parade formation to pose for the odd photo or two!
The markets in Guatemala are great fun – both to visit and soak up the atmosphere as well as to buy everything you can possibly imagine from livestock to clothing, handicrafts to garden tools, food to shoes etc etc. Often the products are all slightly strangely positioned next to each other; for example, in the middle of a series of stalls selling super-brightly coloured textiles, you will find someone else selling soap, some dried fish or large lumps of chalk (which is ground to a powder, mixed with water and used to soften dried maize). And why not?
San Francisco El Alto
The small town of San Francisco El Alto (near Xela) plays host to Guatemala’s largest market on Friday while crowds of craft vendors and tour groups flock to Chichicastenango on Thursdays and Sundays for its twice-weekly large and well-known market. Villagers will walk for hours carrying their wares to reach these markets arriving at dawn when they spread out their merchandise and wait for their customers to arrive. And then the business (and hard bargaining) begins!
San Francisco El Alto
To feed the army of traders, hawkers and customers at Chichicastenango, many temporary comedores (canteens) are set up under awnings and the manufacture of tortillas seems incessant. Exactly how many tortillas can the population of this country consume? An awful lot it appears!
Comedores and tortilla making in progress, Chichicastenango Market
And once the shopping (and the eating) is done, it seems that the women load their purchases onto their heads and off they go, making the long return journey back to their villages. After all, there’s usually no room to carry their goods on their backs as this spot is often already occupied by a baby or a small toddler held in position with a piece of bright material. Even though I’ve watched ladies “load up” their babies in this way multiple times, I still don’t fully understand how the children don’t simply fall off before the material is fully tied up. I guess somehow the child knows not to wriggle off before he or she is secured. Impressive stuff.