Thursday, May 27th 2010
This is the beginning of a new adventure: Central America. I got the idea with Hubert a few months back, when we decided to go somewhere different than United States, where we spend the most of our time. I recall Hubert saying something like "we could go to Guatemala" and the whole idea grew from there.
Our plan is actually quite sophisticated: we are flying to Cancun, Mexico (with a stopover in San Salvador) and we are flying back from San Salvador. Actually I am not using my return flight and I'm going to Nuremberg for business right after the end of this trip (the company bought me a flight from San Salvador). After that, I am even visiting my family in Venice! So this promises to be a very eventful vacation.
We still do not have a complete picture of how we are getting from Cancun to San Salvador, but we have a few things we want to do for sure. Climbing some of the volcanos in Guatemala is sort of a must-do for us and we are definitely doing that, but we are pretty flexible on everything else.
This is the first time I take a "red-eye" flight, which is nothing but an overnight flight. At the moment of typing this I am waiting for takeoff in SFO and it's 1.15am.
I've read many different stories about criminality in Central America and I am quite sure most of what they say is just malicious; the same happened when I went to Baja California last year. Everybody warned us about the "drug cartel" war, but I found the nicest people in the world in those little coast towns.
Hubert does not speak a word of Spanish, so I guess I'll have fun trying to speak a language I never studied. This worked in the past, both in Mexico and before that in South America.
I never got such a slim backpack: I am going to be in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Germany and Italy and the scale at the checkin said "7 Kg": I am pretty proud of myself! I always overpacked and this time I tried to underpack: if anything is missing, I can buy it there.
It appears that before every epic trip I've done I've been invited for dinner and tonight was no exeption: our friend Alessio and his wife Monica made some (or I should say a lot of) pizza and the full belly in conjunction with the beer I drunk made me very sleepy (not because it's 1:23am...).
Anyway, I'll try to write an account day-by-day and I hope to find Internet once in a while, because it will also help with the planning. Okay, ready to takeoff.
Friday, May 28th 2010
The San Salvador airport was a lot smaller than I pictured, considering that it's one of the main in Central America. Taca 634 to Cancun was punctual and we got there at around 11.30 in the morning.
For the first time I got a passport stamp from Mexico (with so little ink it's hardly noticeable). It seems that military forces are always around in Mexico and even at the Cancun airport it was no difference; they even employed dogs to sniff for potential drugs and, after resulting obviously clear, we headed to the bus station.
We strongly intended to take the "regular" bus to Playa de Carmel; the company is called ADO. It's unbelievable how many of the small companies offer you a lift everywhere you want for... more money. This one dude insisted a lot to take us to Playa for $20, stating that $15 charged by ADO was an overkill. After negotiating a bit, he offered us the service for $15, but we still declined. It's insane how much he insisted: he walked with us for a little while and he spoke to a literally random person, saying he was working for ADO. Then he asked if it was true that ADO was charging $15 and the guy said yes. We still ignored them and continued to the real terminal. Fair enough, the price was $8.75 each, a big difference from the initial $30 for a 1-hour ride.
The bus was leaving after 20 minutes and we had some time to buy some water. Beware of the water prices at Cancun airport: they wanted to charge us $3.50 for a small bottle, but we got away with $2.50 for a big bottle inside a grocery store.
It's a lot hotter and more humid than I expected, I feel like I was back in Venice in the middle of the summer. I really was not used to have my skin so sticky, especially after living in San Francisco where the summers are particularly freezing.
Once at Playa de Carmen we had to change terminal; the taxi was supposedly very cheap, but we decided to walk the few blocks. On the way, we had an expensive ($6) but delicious icecream, which was the only "real" food beside the airplane junk (I must say that Taca is way nicer than I expected, too).
Playa de Carmen has a very nice town center with a bunch of shops and I don't blame people who spend there multiple days, but I'm just not the type for that kind of vacation. We had little time, but the beach, which we could see from maybe 300 meters, seemed to be paradise. The temperature was also fantastic, even though the high humidity is definitely not helping bearing it (and the mosquitos).
The bus to Chetumal was only $18 in first class and I had no problems sleeping at all; Hubert, on the other hand, didn't sleep much at all the whole time. partly because of his height that does not allow him to rest peacefully in the "normal"-sized first-class seats...
Roads in Mexico are in better conditions than one may think, perhaps because we drove a very common road. The only real bummer were the speed bumps, which made me and Hubert bus-sick because of the sudden breaks.
There is not a lot to say about Chetumal... it's just a border town. I asked in my broken spanish how to get to the other terminal, but all I understood was that the last bus left already. The alternative was taxi and so we did.
I am sure we paid a lot more than we should have: Chetumal to Corozal, Belize cost us $40 and involved changing 2 cabs (they cannot cross the international border). The first cab driver didn't speak much at all, whereas the second one would not stop a second, but he was very helpful.
The customs were a breeze and we noticed the 3 casinos in Belize right at the border (the driver told us casinos are illegal in Mexico).
Chetumal is a lot smaller than I pictured; the cab driver wanted us to go to a guest-house highly discouraged in my tourbook, but we still took a look at it. A double bed was $50, outside our budget, so we ended up in a cheaper (and nicer) place called Maya Guest House ($25 for a double bedroom).
We had dinner at a local place and I got Fajitas and I shared and Enchelada with Hubert, whose main course was chicken parmigiana. I also had 3 bottles of Belkin, a very tasty local beer from Belize. Food was fantastic and I was not surprised about it (even in Baja California I find food to be a step above Mexican food in California).
Tomorrow we intend to take a water taxi from San Pedro and it leaves the dock at 7.00 am, so we walked there to check it out. On the way back, we stopeed to two general markets trying to find breakfast and we discovered there is quite a big chinese population here in Belize. Hubert made me notice that the official language must be English, since everything aroun written in English (even the menu was in English, the street names, etc.).
It's only 10.00pm right now and I should really sleep, but the combination of heat and full stomach are kind of preventing me from doing it... I guess I'll watch some cartoons and maybe take a shower (Hubert used the only towel we had in the room).
Well, it's been a tour-de-force today (more than 350 Km in the bus) but it was worth it: tomorrow it will be a lot less stressful and supposedly a lot nicer.
Saturday, May 29th 2010
This morning didn't exactly start the right way; the water taxi from Chorozal to San Pedro was at 7.00am and we set the alarm clock at 6.00am. Hubert's alarm clock does not work and my clock was on the wrong time zone... I opened my eyes at 6.30 and told Hubert: "Dude, 6.30!". In less than 10 minutes we were on our way to "Thunderbolt", the company that runs the water taxi.
The night was tough because of the intense heat. Hubert is very sensitive to noise and he turned off the loud fan we had, which was the only source of fresh air in the room.
I started sweating like never before; I remember waking up at 2.30am because of the loud music from outside and the fan being off and telling Hubert to turn it on because I was passing out. After all, this was not a very relaxing night at all.
The water taxi was a lot more pleasant than I thought. We got at the dock at 6.50am and had enough time to enjoy an horchata (a coffee for Hubert) at the Thunderbolt cafe. I am so addicted by the Sierra Nevada that I immediatly thought of "Thunderbolt peak", one of the 14,000+ peaks in Sierra Nevada. I keep talking about mountains to Hubert, I really think at one point he will shut me down telling me "dude, we are in Guatemala now. Enjoy it...".
Just for the record, the water taxi was 20 belize dollars, i.e. 10 USD. Last year in Alaska I spent about 6 times as much for a 20-minute ride (this was a more-than-2-hour ride), so I'd say... good bang for the buck.
The water taxi was also a lot faster than I could imagine; I had a GPS on me and I was tracking exactly where we were going. Our speed was about 50 Km/h, not bad at all. When I asked Hubert to guess the speed, he was dead on at the first try...
There was was intermediate stop between Chorozal and San Pedro, but I don't remember the name. It seemed like a pretty minor destination and only one girl got on the boat. After some idle time we found ourself in San Pedro, a pretty nice little town.
The water taxi gets to the west part of the island, but walking to the main street is a breeze. The amount of golf carts around is simply odd (way more than cars) but, being all electric vehicles, it makes the walk much more pleasant.
While walking at the city center in San Pedro, I was singing "La Isla Bonita", that famous song from Madonna... I don't think Madonna was really talking about it on the song (she explicitely mentiones San Pedro), but I also saw a sign saying "San Pedro, La Isla Bonita", which makes me think there may be a connection... I need to investigate.
What to do in San Pedro? We discussed a little bit about it and then we said: "we are in the Caribbean, we should really hang out at the beach!". San Pedro is really tiny (I mean, really really tiny) and it takes about 20 minutes to go from one end to the other. On the way to the beach at the very south tip we stopped for a milk-shake (mine was kind of disgusting, it was a papaya milk-shake). Prices in San Pedro look pretty stiff (except beer) and I would compare those to American prices.
Obviously I forgot my swimming trunks, but fortunately shops are abundant in San Pedro. 25 BLD were enough for a pretty decent pair.
The beach was in "Ramons village", a pretty nice village but... with a pretty ugly beach, believe it or not. I always had a picture of the central-american beaches like something enchanting (like those we saw in playa de carmen, mexico), but this one was a very small strip of sand with docks everywhere, with very shallow water and a lot of algae. Not exactly what you would imagine...
There were some seats reserved for the hotel, but I manage to talk to the security guy who granted us the right to stay there during his shift, up to 12.30pm. Obviously, this cost us... but only 10 belize dollars (5 USD). He insisted we could stay there loneger, but we had to pay the next security guard as well, but we refused.
The water was literally perfect in terms of temperature. Although overcast and a little breezy, I was never so comfortable in the past years while at the beach, a real paradise. Hubert and later I walked a long dock and jumped in the water where it was already pretty high and clear. It's definitely pleasant to remove all the sweat and dirt you accumulate in few hours on these tropical places. I am so smart that I didn't see the obvious stairs going up the dock and I did a rock-climbing move to get to the wooden platform...
On the way back, we found a pretty cool bar where we had a couple of drinks. The bar was really rustic and Belikin was only 2 USD (it seems to be the universal price for beer here in Belize). Funny thing is that I had to convince the German to go for a beer... After a couple of Belikin we decided to take another water taxi to Caye Caulker, only a 45-minute ride from San Pedro.
The taxi would leave in 1 hour, so we had enough time for lunch. A front-beach bar nearby the dock was our place and it was particularly interesting, having sand everywhere indoors, including the restrooms. Again, very good tacos, but very stiff prices.
The short ride to Caye Caulker was used to continue the Sudoku I started while laying at the beach in San Pedro (I still didn't finish it). Caye Caulker is a lot smaller place.
Here, too, there are a lot of golf carts (they really seem to like them in Belize...).
We soon find a room for $20, totally acceptable in our budget, after turning down a bunch of hustlers offering "the best deals" in the village. At this point it was maybe 3.30pm and we had the entire afternoon in front of us. We used it for pretty serious drinking... starting at the very north of the island and moving south. I finally tried "Belikin Stout" and it's not a bad beer at all.
After the 4th or 5th Belikin and some appetizer (including a pretty good quesadilla) I told Hubert I wanted a... haircut! I really needed one and I decided to try this Belizean "Beauty salon". It's quite an experience: it was definitely family run and once inside I notice the bizarre layout. On the left, a:"regular" house, including a TV and a couch with this man watching TNT (the American channel). Another older woman hanging out and the younger cutting my hair... that seemed the most unprofessional place ever, but she did a good job.
I met Hubert shortly after in the southern-most tip of the village and we continued our drinking tour. Mosquitos exhausted our patience but, after yet another stop and another beer, we got dinner in a bargain restaurant where they had some mosquito repellent. Ah, by the way: if you ever visit this area bring your own mosquito repellent and sunblock, because they run at $15!
Dinner, as I mentioned, was a real bargain: USD10 for shrimp, fish fillet, rice, mashed potatos, garlic bread, chocolate cake and three rum punches (not very good IMO). We shared the tables with a German couple, forming our European squad in Belize...
On the way back, we still had one mojito (USD 4 on happy hour, but very good) and, after being at the room and realizing it was too early, we went for another one. On the way back, there seemed to be a pretty big basketball game with a bunch of spectator, but we were not too interested.
Very nice town after all, definitely recommended. Don't expect beautiful beaches... and price are pretty high compared to what I wish, but I guess all beautiful places in the world are getting expensive. Houses go for USD 200,000+ if they are beach-front, so that's not something that anybody can really afford...
It's very late and I should be sleeping by now (almost 12.00am with alarm clock at 6.00), but I finally god a refreshing shower. And now I'll watch a Dragonball episode...
Sunday, May 30th 2010
Waking up this morning has been a lot easier than yesterday despite the ridiculous amount of beers we imbibed during the entire day.
I am still surprised we were in Caye Caulker this morning, considering that now I'm writing from Flores, Guatemala.
We woke up with pretty heavy rain, but walking on it was not nearly as bad as I feared staying in bed. The night has been very pleasant and the fan was definitely enough, but all the mosquito bites I run up these days are starting to ruing my silhouette...
The boat left at 7.00 am and we got in Belize City at around 7.40am. Shamefully, we didn't pay the boat ride (10 USD each), but we tried to do so, they simply never asked for the money. The bus left at 9.30am from the same "terminal", giving us some time to "visit" the city. There were two major issues in this project that we did not consider: first of all, on Sunday most of the shops are closed in Belize. Second... at 7 in the morning everything is closed anyway!
There were definitly not many people hanging out in the streets and most of the ones we saw were "kind of scary", but I felt safe overall. We crossed the bridge to the tiny downtown (with a clear "downtown" sign) and we walked almost in complete solitude to the far north end of town. Kind of disappointed, we decided to go back to the terminal and have breakfast there.
Breakfast has been one of the worst ever: I got a toast, beans and scrambled eggs. The toast was okay, but the beans were unbelievably salty and the eggs didn't taste like eggs at all. Hubert got the same with some bacon, which also seemed artificial...
After fixing some accounting I rushed to the restroom and we finally left to Flores. For USD 25 I was expecting a "regular" bus, but what we got was a 12-seat minivan with 10 passenger (Hubert was lucky enough not to share his seat). I was in a 1-person seat, but it was awefully uncomfortable and I didn't really manage to sleep.
The border crossing was kind of essential, because sitting all that time in the van made me car-sick. The weather has been very rainy up to 12.00pm, when we roughly passed the border.
This time we had to pay both for leaving Belize (37.5 Belize dollars) and to enter Guatemala (20 Q, the local currency). Even from these numbers, one can deduct how much cheaper Guatemala actually is (8 Q = 1 USD).
The rest of the ride to Flores fom the border was much shorter, but the road was in worse conditions. During the whole time I watched Dragonball on my laptop, which was a very stupid idea after all and made my motion sickness worse.
I managed to fall asleep for few minutes when they woke me up saying "Welcome to Santa Elena", the town right before Flores. One very nice guide got in the minivan at this point and we left a few people down there. Those guys drove up to an ATM and then directly to the hotel. Prices here are a lot more reasonable than Belize and our hotel is only USD 10 per person; while chatting with the guide, he mentioned he is from Belize but Guatemala is much better and prices much lower.
Right after the check-in we purchased a guided tour for Tikal and an overnight ticket to Antigua. Tomorrow the bus to Tikal leaves at 4.30am, so it will be an early wake-up.
Apparently it gets very hot in Tikal, so they prefer to tour people in the morning and get back in the early afternoon, which I totally agree with.
It was only 2.00pm and we had the entire day to explore this tiny-tiny village. We went out to a coffee shop that was recommended in our guides, but it was closed (and a security guy with a machine gun was in front of the door...). We continued clockwise and quicky went around the entire island!
Shortly after the coffee shop, we met a Romanian girl that was in the bus with us and the three of us headed to a restaurant for some snacks (I got a glass of milk, one of the best I had in quite a long time, not the 0%!o(MISSING)r 2%!f(MISSING)at you always get in US).
We had quite a long conversation; this girl has literally visited half of the world and she told us quite interesting things (she lived in Cambodia for 3 months among the other things). I and Hubert decided to go jump in the lake while she watched after our stuff at the restaurant and that was the best swim I had in the last several years: the water temperature was spectacular and the water clean and calm, definitely a paradisiac situation.
Back at the restaurant we finally had dinner (the second real meal today). I decided to try their spaghetti carbonara and I'm totally impressed by the quality of the food I got: good job! The portion was obscene, but 5 USD is kind of big money compared to what a hotel costs.
We spent a good hour at the lakeshore talking about life; Hubert volounteered to go buy a few beers (I skipped, too much beer yesterday). Running out of ideas, we headed back here at the hotel and at the moment we are standing on the roof and it's a really beautiful place. This time I accepted the beer that Hubert bought to the top of a hill that he nicknamed "Mount Flores" just to get my attention.
I am pretty excited by the plans we made for the rest of the vacation. Today I just discovered there have been problems with some volcanos near Guatemala City and the airport is closed. Too bad, it will just be more exciting to get there. While drying from the swim, the guy that sold us the bus ticket told us the road to Guatemala City is closed today and there will no bus tonight, but maybe it will run tomorrow. Should we change our plans? We shall know tomorrow...
Monday, May 31st 2010
I cannot believe we made the same mistake again. I didn't change the time on my clock since it is only a 1-hour difference and I forgot to put set the alarm at 3.00am (it would have been 4am, having the bus at 4.30am). By pure chance I woke up at 4.15 and I shout to Hubert "Hubert, 4.15am!". Hubert said "no way" and I replied "wait, maybe it's the wrong time but the alarm is set to the right one. Then I thought it was impossible (Pacific time is one hour behind, not ahead), so I said "no, it's definitely late!".
Were were down in really few minutes, I am sure I never checked out from a hotel in such a short time. The hotel guys were very nice to us and they kept our big backpack in a locked room, so we didn't have any hastle while visiting Tecal.
The bus arrived a little late (4.50am) and that annoyed me quite a bit, considering the sort of pressure we went through right off the bed. After a few stops for picking up people, we started the drive to the national park. The tour cost us US20 including the bus ride, but the fee did not include the national park entrance (other 20USD).
Considering the cost of living in Guatemala, I'd call it an expensive outing.
While driving, I had the impression of going uphill, but in actuality the terrain was very flat and very green. I still cannot believe that thick green vegetation is jungle. The comparison is ridiculous, but some of those brushy hills remind me a little bit of coastal California (obviously this is an absurdity and the entire flora and fauna are drastically different, I am perfectly aware of it).
We got at the national park while it was still too early as they were opening at 6.00am. While awaiting for the opening time I purchased a map of the park for 20 Q, which proved to be a real waste of money...
Shortly after entering the park, the road comes to an end. The bus parked there, in front of a big facility with a restaurant where we had breakfast. The dude that sold us the tour told us to have breakfast in Tikal because it was cheaper, but this proved to be a lie (5 USD for a breakfast sandwich, I would not really call it inexpensive).
Our guide was a very nice Guatemalan fella named Caesar, who spoke excellent English. Actually he spoke so well that I kept wondering where he learned it, since I understood he always stayed in Guatemala.
I think he just followed a well-established routine with us, but he did a good job entertaining us from 7.00am to almost 11.30am.
I never realized what of a big civilization maya were; beside the ruins, which I didn't find particularly attractive, knowing many details about this ancient population has been very educating. I could not even place them in the timeline and now I know their empire extended from 1000 b.C. to around 700 a.C.
I don't know how much of the story is pure imagination and how much is genius intuition, but I cannot believe everything the guide was telling us. I can buy that some of the monuments were built following the big deeper and I can believe all the explanations about their weird calendar, but I don't believe about big mambo-jumbos about equinox and solstice... (also related to the location of the monuments).
I had the same feeling when I was studying poetry in school; I am a scientist and I always thought all the explanations that were given were much too subjective. More than once I had big arguments with my Italian teacher about Dante and what he really meant on his "Paradiso"... but that's another story.
It was not a good idea to wear flip flops the whole day, but I didn't realize we would actually walk in the jungle... We saw several monkeys and some other animals never seen before (I must confess, like most of my friends know, that I am an absolute beginner when talking about fauna). I never admired the agility of a monkey in its real environment; those animals are cool! I wonder what they could do in a 5.12 climb... would a monkey be better than a man?
There are supposedly snakes and tarantulas in the park and at the very end of the tour, right before catching the return bus, the guide captured one snake and was holding it for us to take pictures, but he said clearly it was not a poisonous snake. When he let it loose, he moved quickly in the grass and he erected to grab some low branches, showing that he was a pretty long creature after all.
We spoke to several people on the way and it was kind of cool. One of the pyramid (although they are not proper pyramids, since they are flat on top) was particularly steep and I didn't climb it because of my flip flops (I climbed the two previous ones). When Hubert came back from it, we started discussing about how steep the monument profile could be and we conveyed 45 degrees (100%!i(MISSING)ncline) is about the right number. Just to let you know what I keep thinking on my free time...
Toward the end of the tour, I was getting pretty sick of it (I was experiencing the same burn-off that jillion temples involved in Japan), but it was over shortly after.
The bus back was quicker than I remembered in the morning and we were back in Flores at around 2.00pm. We had another full day in front of us! Since we still didn't have any update about the volcano eruption and the flood in the north of Antigua, we went to a tourist office with a very helpful Spanish fella (actually Basque) who was also going to Antigua with the overnight bus.
Commuinication seems to be a major problem in Guatemala... and the guys at the office didn't know pretty much anything, but they assured us the overnight bus would be running in the evening (I am writing from the bus at the moment).
We deserved something to eat and we finally tried the coffee house where we wanted to go yesterday. I had a milk shake (delicious) and pancakes (not so good), but it was a real blast. We were in company of a Swiss couple that visited Tikal with us and showed us a few pictures of their long vacation. Pictures from snorkeling are great indeed, but I still prefer to hike or do other activities rather than that.
We returned to the hotel at about 3.45pm and suddenly decided to go for a kayak or boat adventure. Incidentally, we found a guy renting "boats" in front of the hotel. The thing was more than funny: he was standing in front of 3 decently-shaped boats, but when I asked how much they were he stated they were "broken". I was a little suspicious, but he claimed to have better boats right at the other shore of the lake. We went with him, after agreeing on paying 200Q for 2 hours and after buying some water and changing some money.
Once at his dock, we saw what we were renting: a wreck! He told us: sorry, but I need to remove some water that is inside! He jumped into this ugly wooden boat and he started taking off water with a huge sponge. I found that hilarious. The seats were missing and he gave us two pieces of wood, one of them about 15cm longer than the width of the boat with two rusty nails on it.
Hubert was shocked and he asked me to use myu powerful Spanish vocabulary to bargain the price a little bit. I offered 150Q and they guy accepted on the spot, meaning that we should have shot a lot lower (we still didn't learn how to negotiate prices, I am really not used and Hubert does not speak Spanish).
Our first destination has been a small island, not too far away from the dock, that said "museum". We had no clue what kind of musemum that could be and later discovered it's a maya archeological museum (and if I understood well it's also 100Q to get in, so we passed on it). It was 4.50 when we got there, quite a long time considering we left the dock at 4.11. But the initial coordination was totally missing and the two of us kept spinning quite a bit when we totally didn't intend to do so.
I also believe the current was a lot stronger than it looked, but that was some major inability to manouvre that little wreck! After sitting 5 minutes at the museum and taking a few pictures, we headed back to the dock, but somehow we sterted to go a lot faster. The configuration changed, since now Hubert was on the back and I was half way and Hubert was also using the longer pad.
We went a magnitude faster on the way back and, having so much more time available, we decided to be epic and circumnavigate the little island of Flores. We continued past our dock and went under the bridge, just to discover that the crossing is impossible. The water was very low and the terrain extremely muddy. I stepped to the very shallow water and found it incredibly gross; we walked on a metallic net and there were frogs and garbage around. We still insisted, but at one point we got really stuck and pushing the boat (which proved to be very heavy) was a no-go.
So we went back the same way and, incredibly, we returned it exactly 2 hours after we picked it up! That was a grand experience!
Our idea was to jump into the lake at some point of the excursion, but that's totally impossible (the wreck would have cap-sized for sure), so we were due for a nice swim and we filled the gap immediatly.
The refreshing water and the sunset were a combination hard to forget; the little town of Flores showed us once again how incredible Guatemala can be and I don't have words appropriate enough to describe what we really lived today.
We had dinner in a good restaurant where we got early enough for the happy hour. 15 Q for a Mojito (2 USD) and 10 Q for a beer (1.5 USD) was just our appetizer... but since I wasn't too hungry I had only a salad. The Swiss couple was again with us and they told us they shot a pictures of us while paddling inordinately in the lake: I am very curious to see that.
They were sad because their vacation is "almost over": they have other 10 days to spend in Yucatan! That's as long as OUR vacation! Damn European workers with tons of time off...
We got at the bus station early enough (they asked us to show up 40 minutes earlier, but that was a real overkill). We had assigned seats in the bus and we were not particualrly lucky. We hoped the seats would be bigger, but they are pretty much regular size and I have no idea how Hubert could be able to sleep in these.
I guess the only difference between the overnight bus and a regular bus are that the overnight bus runs at night (hehe) and that they shut all the lights (it's completely dark at the moment, except the light from my netbook).
We should be in Guatemala City at around 6.00am. One Canadian girl that took the tour with us today told us that few days ago they robbed one of these buses; there are several speed bumps and a car approached the bus while reducing its speed and... everybody got robbed. But I am sure that won't happen to us...
And now the usual epilogue of my day: one more episode of Dragonball...
Tuesday, June 1st 2010
Waking up in the bus was not really brilliant. There was a problem is the air conditioning and condensation kept dripping to my head. I found a provisional solution trying to dry it out with the blue curtain (also very annoying, because it was hitting me at every curve), but it would obviously not work when I was sleeping...
The bus was really full and Hubert, who tried to find a different seat, was eventually forced to come to the preassigned seat.
I managed to sleep at least 5 hours, not too bad after all. I woke up only when Hubert called me once in Guatemala City.
At the "Linea Dorada" bus terminal we asked when the next bus for Huehuetenango was; the answer was "right now"! The overnight bus arrived at 6.10am and, by the time we picked our luggage and figured what to do, it was well past 6.20am. The next bus departed at 6.30am from the same terminal.
We bought the ticket (wasting our Guatemala City to Antigua pre-paid ticket) and got to the identical-looking bus. So we started another 5+ hour ride after being for approximatly 9 hours already confined in a bus!
According to my GPS Guatemala City lies at about 1,400 meters above the sea level; the temperature there seems to be significantly chillier than Flores and the other places where we had been before. After getting out of the city traffic, we started climbing a beautiful road. Pretty soon we could identify Pacaya and Volcan del Fuego, which looked awesome and I am really looking forward to climb.
Shortly after I feel asleep, the bus stopped for 20 minutes in a big quick-stop restaurant, so we could have breakfast. We got eggs, beans, tortillas and a vegetable I could not recognize; breakfast included also a sort of cookie, not to sweet. Great deal if I think that I paid 20Q, less than 3 USD.
The road was very well paved, but there were a bunch of spots where the bus has to cross to the other side because of rock-falls. I guess that's why this highway was closed a couple of days ago. Overall, we were very lucky to get all the way up here today.
When the bus left again I finally finished the sudoku that kept me busy the previous days and fell asleep again: I never have problems sleeping in buses and airplanes, only when I really want to sleep early during the week this seems to be unachievable...
In Huehuetenango I woke up pretty abruptly and got off the bus. For the first time since we left Cancun, I was a bit chilly: what a strange feeling.
We asked at the ticket window where the other bus terminal was, because we needed to catch a bus for Todos Santos. The tour book we carried has a little map of the center of Huehue (many abbeviate the town name that way) and we asked the guy to point in the map where we were.
He claimed we were in the south-west side of town and this caused a bunch of issues. We walked on the right, exactly how he said, but my GPS said we were going west, not east. Hubert started saying my GPS is rubbish and it was definitely wrong, but I insisted the GPS could have a small margin of error but not confusing north with south! The compass indicated North exactly the opposite way as Hubert determined using the sun, maybe because the latitude changes a lot what we are accustomed to.
The problem turned to be that the guy gave us wrong directions and the town center which we had in the map was actually quite far (we were in zone 5). And we never had to go the town center!
We were running low in money, so we needed an ATM: I'd call this the ATM saga. We visited a bank and they told us the ATM was broken. They pointed another bank at us, but we never found it. On the way back to what seemed the town center, we found the bus terminal, but we still needed money. With that knowledge, we found another bank, but they told us they "didn't have a connection with Bank of America". Lord, we only wanted an ATM!
At the last bank they told us the "Banco Industrial" in the shopping mall would have an ATM. And - incredibly - they told us "make a right here, for 10 blocks". Stubborn as always, we made a left and asked to some guys; they told us "there's an ATM here at the shopping mall, only 4 blocks away". I bet the shopping mall was the same and we got wrong directions once again. And in this case language was not a barrier.
The shopping mall was very americanized (lot of shops of well-known american brands) but it was pretty good looking. Fair enough, they did have an ATM and we finally managed to withdraw 2000 Q. At the exit, we bargained the price with a cab driver; initially we asked for "Hotel Mary", because we found it on the little map and it showed it near our bus terminal. But then we told him we wanted to go to Todos Santos and he brought us back to the same terminal where we were before. He asked us 25Q for a very short ride (initially he asked us 35 Q for the hotel, which was several blocks away).
We immediatly found the bus for Todos Santos: finally we would experience the "chicken bus". There were 20 minutes to wait and Hubert went to buy some grapes and pineapple. When he got back he asked me to guess the price of the pineapple (two fresh slices). I said I would not know and he told me: 1 Q. Unbelievable! It's something like 13 cents of a dollar. Now that I know, I'll eat much more pineapple...
The chicken bus was better than it looks from outside, but definitely not comfortable because of the small seats. People get in and out inordinately, but everybody seems to be very polite. Overall, those buses have a lot of style: they always have fancy colors and even the steering wheel was wrapped with a very colorful thread. Inside, it was more than clean.
All the heavy bags are placed in the roof; when the driver got in, he plugged the radio and through the whole 2-hour trip he played music, sometimes very loud.
There were a bunch of school kids and even here cell phones seem to work. The road to Todos Santos is unpaved and I was not expecting that. Sometimes it was pretty steep, since it climbs up to 3,400 meters in La Ventosa and the chicken bus was using a lot low gears.
We arrived in Todos Santos more than 2 hours after we left. The scenery was immediatly beautiful. Almost all the population (about 3000 people) dress in traditional clothes and I've never seen anything like that in my entire life.
The travel guide recommended a hotel near the bus station (Casa Familia) and we had no problems finding it. For 200 Q a day we got the best room ever. We even have a kitchen and a refridgerator, this looks really awesome, like the rest of the town.
The room is well furnished (in the kitchen there is even a microwave oven). The small television, though, seems to be 1000 years old... it has two big dials on the front and a button for black and white settings... kind of outdated now.
The lady that rented us the room was super nice and she spoke very clear Spanish (I think Maya is the official language here). Beside the hotel, she runs a "coffee shop" and a general store. Passing by the counter I saw some topo maps and I asked them a copy: they are exactly the hikes we were looking for, but I'll write about them tomorrow, when we'll attempt them.
We still had enough time before dinner and so decided to take a walk. People seemed to stare us a lot, maybe because I am fairly sure we are the only tourists in town today! But this seems to be a very safe place, just a mountain town where people are not so accustomed to visitors.
Dinner was in a big restaurant right next to the hotel; we had carne asada (the only other options was "eggs"). The meal was good: a good portion of meat, beans, rice, tortillas and a coke. For two people, we paid 46 Q, less than 3.5 USD each: this is officially the cheapest dinner I ever had in my life.
We needed sandwiches and water for the hikes tomorrow and the panateria was still open; we also had dessert there, which was more than decent.
Water and snaks were bought at the store downstairs and in the small used books section Hubert found "learn Spanish in 30 days"... in German!! What are the chances?
The evening ended in our private terrace, where we had a beer (apparently there are almost no bars in town). Our kitchen has a lot of stuff we can use and then pay at the checkout (there is a small book where we can note down what we took: something like that would never work in Italy... showing that Guatemalan are more realiable than the Italian "furbetti").
Overall, we are really happy we came here. Out of the beaten path, this is an awesome place. And it has mountains... my passion (and Hubert's, too).
The plan is to hike around tomorrow, sleep here again, then hike to another town the day after tomorrow and leave with a chicken bus. It all seems feasible, let's see if we'll succeed in our intent.
Wednesday, June 2nd 2010
Waking up this morning has been hard. The alarm was set at 5.20am, in order to catch the bus to La Ventosa leaving at 6.00am. Yesterday I went to bed late, it was past midnight, and I didn't sleep much at all, but the sleep was of the best quality.
We managed to get to the bus at 6.00am sharp and the bus was already full; the only two remaining seats were far in the back and Hubert had to use a foldable seat. That's when we discovered we are not the only foreigners here: we met two nice fellas, one Australian named Liam and one American named Andrew.
Liam works at a local school and organizes Spanish classes, whereas Andrew works for a radio station. I wasn't sure about the Australian accent (I still confuse Australia with New Zealand and South Africa) but he was wearing a bandanna with the Australian flag, so I could have understood it myself without asking...
At any rate, they were going exactly to La Torre, our morning destination. The ride to La Ventosa has been a lot shorter the map we had stated and we got off the bus at 6.45am, ready to kick asses... The trail to the highest nonvolcanic point in Central America starts as a dirt road and it quickly deteriorates into a hiking trail. Liam knew one local and had a quick chat (he did this hike already few times). From this time on, a nice dog followed up all the way to the summit.
I was short of breath and my heart was beating quite fast; I thought how this could be possible, since I reckon I am in a quite good shape at the moment, but then realized we were at 3,500 meters of elevation and I was not acclimatized properly. The hike to the summit is only 2.5Km and the high point is about 3,820 meters. When we got on top at about 7.50am I and Hubert kind of smiled and Hubert said this was definitely the easiest peak of that height. If you think of it, 3,800 meters is quite a big elevation and in most of the countries in the world it would be snow-capped by now. Instead the temperature was awesome (a light jacket was just right).
At the summit there is an antenna and I sure wish they placed it somewhere else, but I guess business does not care about symbolic high points.
While trying to identify distant volcanos, a local got at the summit. His name is Marcelino and he seemed quite knowledgeable about the mountain we just climbed: he said "this is the highest point, it is 3,820 meters". He also could identify many of the volcanos we could see at the horizion. I was very impressed.
We had a 10-minute conversation with him and he is present in our summit-shot, definitely something unusual. He was asking where we were from and he was curious about our shoes (he was wearing fishermen plastic boots...).
After a sandwitch (mostly given to the starving dog that followed us) and some chocolate, we continued our adventure. I thought we would go back the same way, but Liam knew a different way back passing through "El sentier ecologico", a different trail that was also present in our topographic map. The hike was nice, but not exceptional.
The last part of the trail was a "real" trail and it was finished only a couple a weeks ago, but inclement weather already distroyed part of it, making me think that these nice Guatemalans don't have much of a clue how to blaze trails, although their houses seem to have a pretty nice architecture and be very solid.
It took a few hours to get to the main road and I guess it was 10.45am when we finally met it.
Along the way we had a very long conversation with the two guys who were a precious source of information. We also discovered that Liam lived in Bannf for a year! We are going there in one month! That makes me wonder how small the world actually is. He seems a very dedicated hiker and scrambler and he knows quite a bunch of mountains in that area, so we will definitely be relying on him when organizing that trip.
Liam was also telling us how turism in this town has gone downhill recently; only three years ago they had multiple spanish classes and now they are down to one which is probably going to be canceled as well because of the lack of students. Apparently people are scared after hearing of the murder of a Japanese tourist (locals thought he wanted to kidnap a kid for some reasons). This story is 10 years old, but apparently it took a while for it to spread; so sad to know people believe these sort of stories. I never felt more safe in my life than yesterday and today in this happy town.
From the road, the two of them got back by bus (they had no wait at all, since the bus was coincidentally passing by when we got down). I and Hubert continued through a trail that goes all the way down to the town. The trail was kind of nice and we had to cross a creek a few times; the first crossing required a little bit of route finding and it was fun, but the hike quickly became kind of dull.
Hubert was experiencing a headache and he was not talking much, I think he was just tired and sick to hear me talking non-stop for the entire duration of the trip. We took a break for lunch and I finished all the chocolate, leaving none for Hubert...
The hiking trail soon became a dirt road and lost all its charm. At one point, I really wanted to be in town; this happened pretty soon, as we were in our hotel room at 12.30pm. Along the way, even in the most remote parts, there were houses with small shops annexed and they were all selling the same goods: (warm) drinks, cell phone recharges and chips. Incredible the amount of junk food you can find in a pretty pure town like this.
Unfortunately these people seem not to understand the danger of plastic and they are badly polluting their own land. Liam and Andrew told us they are actually not accustomed to it and only fairly recently plastic wraps and bags appeared in this little community. Maybe somebody will have to tell them they are doing something they may regret in the future.
We had an appointment with Liam at the school at 5.30pm, so we had quite a lot of time to kill. We had a coffee/hot chocolate here in Casa Familiar, then we went to the main square for an icecream. The whole town seemed to be in front of the church for a funeral. The icecream was pretty bad and the icecream machine was actually switched off (they turn it on only when they have orders).
Having still a lot more time, we had a "super taco" for 10Q and we left for the library. Hubert and I had a long discussion on what we should do in our remaining days here and we could not completely agree (I was playing the Devil's advocate); lake Atitlan seems not to be in good shape because of mud slides, but we'll figure it out when we'll go there.
At the school they had internet and we checked a few trip reports on some of the volcanoes. We even thought about doing Tajumulco, the highest peak at 4,200 meters, but it would practically take two full days out of 4 remaining here in Guatemala, so we are going to pass on it.
One thing in for sure: we are going to skip the hike we wanted to do tomorrow, which was supposed to go from Todos Santos to San Juan. The hike is interesting because there is at the moment no road to connect the two towns and the only way to go from one end to another with a car is through a long dirt road. Things are changing though: we spoke to the husband of the woman that works here in casa familiar. He is a swiss-born that has been living here for more than 15 years and he told us the once beautiful hiking trail has been almost entirely converted into a dirt road and there are only few meters that are still trail for the mere reason that farmers cannot agree on who should give up the land for the road. Therefore there is no actual traffic, but the excursion is far less attractive than it used to be.
Andrew recommended us to try Chuc, a traditional sort of sauna that almost every family has. Liam arranged it for us in a private house (there are no public places that offer it) and it cost us 50Q. Definitely an experience: it's a very small stone building with some fire and three pots, one containing hot water, one tepid and one cold. Another box is used to mix the water at different temperatures and make it comfortable for washing the body. In order to keep the heat up, one is supposed to pour a little bit of water on the hot stones, like in the traditional sauna, although we overdid it and almost completely extinguished the fire.
I and Hubert lasted maybe 25 minutes and it was a pretty pleasant time, except for the initial smoke that went to my eyes and made me cry.. and for the cold I experienced once I got out of it.
We had dinner with Liam for the unbelievable price of 18Q with a drink (Fanta pineapple, never seen before) per person. I had chicken asado and for the first time they served us black tortillas, also very tasty. Back at the hotel, we are now having a beer and we are soon going to hit the bed (it's 10.00pm now and we are planning to wake up at 5.30 again).
Thursday, June 3rd 2010
I managed to fall asleep early enough yesterday and, when the alarm went off at 5.20am, I was not horrified. We had already packed the day before, so it took only a few minutes to get to the bus.
Hubert got some breakfast on a store that was opened before 6.00am (Guatemalans...) and the minibus was very punctual. As usual and, by this time, expected, the bus was full. During the whole time I was thinking where all those people were going; I thought that "commuting" was something that happened only in more industrialized countries, but this may not be the case.
Although the road was pretty bumpy, I still managed to get a good hour of sleep. Hubert, as usual, had hard time because space-constrained, but there's nothing I can do about it... He woke me up in Huehue a couple of hours later.
Our next destination was Panajachel and we found a bus right away. The red bus was in the same busy terminal at the Huehue market and it looked by far the best out there. We had 30 minutes before the departure and we went around the market and bought some fresh fruit.
Once back at the bus, it was only a matter of minutes before hitting the road.
I watched some cartoons on the laptop, but I was getting motion sickness and decided to take another nap... As it always happens, I was waken up at our destination, which was a major intersection in Las Pilas, between "CA1" and "1" (Guatemalan major highways have a logo identical to the American ones).
We catched a chicken bus right away (literally zero waiting time) to Solola' and we got there pretty quickly, considering that chicken buses are remarkably fast.
In Solola' there was a big market area where the bus dropped us off and we spent some time sorting out our stuff, then we catched another bus to Panajachel. The road was being fixed, so we had to wait a little while in the fantastic road to the lake. That stretch is a pretty steep downhill with some dramatic views of the lake, but in the afternoon weather is always cloudy and foggy.
It was lunch time for us and in the busy Calle Principal we found a nice cafe that served us a hot soup (not the ideal weather for it, but very tasty). I got bean soup, which is very typical in Italy as well.
The roads are dusty and there are plenty of american-goods shops. I even saw a place that was selling Frappuccino! While having lunch, there was a sort of parade that we didn't really understand, with a bunch of masked people.
We started to walked toward the lake and we took a pictures of two girls carrying loads on their heads. Every woman seem to do that and somehow they can balance apparently any load with ease, maybe I should learn how to do it... The picture was pretty nice, but the two girls wanted 5Q each for it! (a little more than half dollar).
Once at the shore, we were immediatly asked if we needed a boat ride and they persuaded us to take the first one to San Pedro (that was our intended destination anyway). We had to wait quite a bit in the shaky boat, since they were waiting for the critical mass. The lake was not as calm as I pictured it and the ride was quite intense; it took maybe 30 minutes to reach our destination.
San Pedro is a beautiful place, much better than busy Panajachel. At the dock, we were hustled by Juan, one local guy that claimed several times to work for the "municipalidad" and not to be a middle-man. Don't really care who he works for, but he helped us setting up the next couple of days. We first found a cheap room (120 Q) for two days (less than 4$ per person per day) and then we discussed about the hiking we want to do.
He convinced us not to do Volcan Atitlan because it's not in a National Park and it's much more dangerous; he claims whoever goes there needs a guide and some police to be escorted. San Pedro, on the other way, it's a much easier undertake and much closer, so we agreed to do it.
The program for Saturday is to climb "Indian nose" in the morning, then catch a bus to Antigua.
We toured around the town and I'm really glad we made it here today. Walking around the tiny streets, a kid asked us if we wanted to climb "la torre", a maybe 30-meter tower of a building that looked like a church. He charged us 1Q each for taking us there. We took pictures with him and he offered to take a picture of me and Hubert; seeing that little kid with the gigantic camera was a really funny moment.
We found an Internet Cafe (there are plenty in town) from which I am writing right now. The plan is now to get dinner and go to sleep early, tomorrow is another early bird day... Unfortunately I see a lot of lightnings, I hope the best for tomorrow.
Friday, June 4th 2010
Yesterday we finished the night at a nice bar next to our hostel, where Mojito is only 15Q. They had a pretty beat up pool table (free) and I could not resist to play a little bit, so I kind of forced Hubert to do so. We stayed at the bar till too late, we really needed to sleep. Back at the hostel we spent some time talking to two american girls from Colorado; one of them has the ideal life: ski intructor in winter and... free in summer, damn!
It's never fun to wake up at 5.00am, never. And this morning made no difference at all: opening my eyes was particularly painful and, keeping them pretty much closed, I started eating the carrot muffin I bought the day before. Somehow bread and muffins in Guatemala seem to be extremely dry and hard to swallow and I nearly chocked this morning.
Then I found the strenght to dress and brush my teeth; Hubert seemed to be in much better shape this morning, maybe because I stupidly watched cartoons on the computer before falling aspeep even though I was pretty tired.
Juan was really punctual and we left the hostel at 5.35am. He came with a minivan and another person and they drove us to the "San Pedro Volcan National Park". As negotiated the day before, we paid 210 Q for the two of us and this included the national park entrance and the ride at the trailhead, which they claimed to be free of charge.
We started the hike in very cloudy weather at around 6.50am. Juan told us that reaching the summit would take 3 hours, then he claimed he can make it in 2 hours 20 minutes when there are no tourists and he goes by himself. It took us around 2 hours (not counting a 10-minute stop), so I think we did pretty well.
The hike starts at around 1800 meters and it ends at 3000, so the elevation gain is no joke. The way up is steep and the trail was very muddy in several points, making it not particularly pleasant. When entering the rain forest area, wet plants were particularly annoying, but we are used to much worse conditions...
There is a lookout tower at 2,400 meters and the view would be really great in good weather conditions: all we could see were clouds and fog. They were moving so rapidly that the town would "appear" briefly and then disappearing again behind the white. We waited a few minutes, hoping for better weather, but nothing. Then we continued the climb, passing through some coffee cultivations (I had never seen coffee plants before in my life).
The trail to the summit is really well maintained and they built several wooden steps and, in some places, real ladders. The distance is fairly short, only 4Km from the trailhead, and we summited at 8.05am. We were both aware we never reached the real summit, which was behind us and standing at least 50 meters taller, but there was no easy way up, since everybody considers the summit a cluster of boulders in a local highpoint on the ridge.
There was a very muddy use-trail that seemed to go to the summit, but it had a big down and up and it looked like a hell of a buch-wacking just to get to a point that offered no better view and was completely into the fog. This would have been a nice challenge, but we decided to bail and go back to town.
On the descent, we still tried to find a trail to go to the real summit, but it was a no-go (we followed one for few meters and then it died). Getting down was not hard, but tiring for the knees. Near the trailhead we found two cops that asked us where we were coming from; they also asked us where we paid the entrance fee and they didn't have a smile on their face. I was able to find the receipt that Juan gave me this morning and they were happy with that, fortunately.
I thought we had to walk the boring road we drove to the trailhead, but on Hubert's suggestion we took a trail heading downhill and we got to town in less than 1 hour, a real score. A deserved shower was followed by lunch in a very fancy restaurant, definitely the most expensive of this little town. It's a spanish restaurant and I ordered spaghetti alla bolognese, which were not too bad (even though Hubert's chicken parmigiana looked a lot better).
We had to go back to the hostel because Hubert, somehow, got a tick bite and he had to remove it. Somehow, he seems to be pretty unlucky with ticks recently; fortunately he brought tweezers with him and the little insect was soon to be crushed on the floor.
We still had a lot of time in the afternoon, so we went for dessert (in two different placed, Hubert wanted a coffee and I wanted yogurt-granola). At around 5pm we had our second kayak experience, this time much more mellow than the one in Flores. Kayaking in this town is the cheapest I've ever seen; the "real" price is 10Q per hour per person (1.5 USD) but we got the "deal" from a local desperate who charged us 15Q each. When they were giving the kayaks to us he told me not to mention how much we paid, because he was keeping the difference. I could have bitched about it, but 10Q is less than 2 USD and I thought it was not necessary.
We got one kayak each: mine was yellow and very stable, Hubert's was blue and faster. The paddle was very light and we got a lot further than we thought in merely 20 minutes (we got to San Juan, another town on the lake). The entire kayaking thing was under steady rain, which definitely did not help enjoying it; fortunately the really heavy rain started right after we set foot at the shore.
The Mojito (named Freedom, for the record) was way to attractive and we got a quick round before dinner. At the place, we met an american woman, maybe in her late 50s, which was originally from San Francisco / Berkeley area; she was clearly a hippie and it was fun talking to her for a little while. She told us they are working on some environment classes and I am glad this is happening: the garbage these people are throwing around is literally starting to be a serious problem and they need education right now. Hubert even noticed a 5-year old kid throwing garbage out of the bus! This is totally a disaster.
We found a pretty good Internet Cafe and restaurant where we spent the last few hours and I'm writing from here at the moment. They are running a funky indie movie which probably is interesting, but I think we are pretty much to go to the hostel and sleep, since tomorrow we are going to hike "The Indian Nose" and it will be another early start.
Saturday, June 5th 2010
I thought we were early when I managed to stand up at around 5.10am; Hubert was coming back from the restroom (it's a shared one, outside) and he told me "Juan is already here". Damn it! He showed up at the door and told us "better earlier, the weather seems okay".
Somehow I thought we would catch a boat to the trailhead of Indian Nose, but that was not the case; they used the same minivan to drive up to the nearby town from where we would start the easy stroll. Starting at around 5.50am, we reached the summit by 7.00am. The views were nice, except for a thick cloud that was covering the upper part of Volcan San Pedro, the one we climbed the day before. So, after all, we never saw the peak that we climbed.
The small summit has a lookout tower and there were two fellas working there and taking great care of the small lawn with a machete (fun to say...). They were also selling drinks and chips! I guess my Spanish has improved a bit during this vacation and I was able to communicate a little bit with them. One of the two lives in Santa Clara, a little town we could see from the summit. Hubert insisted the route to Santa Clara would be a lot easier, so I asked and he said "it's only 30 minutes from here".
So we asked if we could go down that way and he said we sure could, but we had to pay 10Q (5 each) because... he was the "guardian". We accepted and he walked us down for a little bit; on the way, he had to open a locked gate, so we could not do it without paying...
The hike to town was quick and we were at the market by 8.00am. Obviously something had to happen and we realized we didn't have any money on us with the exception of 20 USD I still had in my wallet because they refused to change that bill (it has a small tear). We were pointed to a local bank and we headed there passing through the insanely busy market-place.
I was shocked by the line there was in the bank: one line had at least 8 people waiting, the other was fairly emtpy. In Guatemala they still use the "old" waiting system: the majority of the times there are multiple servants, there is just one line and the next available associate gets the first of the line. I was thinking I was doing something smart to go to the shorter line (3 people) but it took forever.
The guy in front of me had a thick bundle of banknotes and he was definitely doing more transactions; I waited more than 10 minutes for him alone. I noticed that most of the people were depositing either checks or cash and I think they are people from the market that safe their daily wage. The procedure for changing USD 20 is ridiculuous: they asked for a document (!) and I gave my passport, but they apparently had some problems inserting the number. Then she printed *at least* 4 receipts that all looked the same to me... Several minutes later I was able to leave the bank with more than 150Q in my pocket.
We needed to get back in San Pedro, so we looked for a "bus". Instead, we found a pick-up truck with many other people inside, standing on the trunk. The pick-up dropped us off in San Pablo for only 10Q (for both of us). The way down was steep and it would have definitely been closed in the US because of the severe mud slides, but the expert local drivers don't care too much about it. There are several people working on fixing the road (at veeery slow pace), but I'm sure it will be done soon.
We hoped San Pablo would have some sort of tourist attractions, but it did not, so we took the "tuc-tuc", the funny 3-wheeled taxi they use a lot around here. The driver, a youngster with western-style hair, asked us 30Q to our final destination and we accepted. The ride was nice and a few moments I thought the small vehicle would not make it uphill: at one point he had to zig-zag because of the steepness!
If you want to know how many people you can fit in one vehicle, come to Guatemala. He managed to pick up another person on the way to San Pedro.
Our bus was supposed to depart at 1.00pm and, although the checkout was at 11.00am, Juan told us there was no problem in leaving our stuff there until departure. So we had a deserved breakfast at La Puerta where I got a fantastic plate of fresh fruit, yogurt and granola (that place being one of the most expensive in town).
On the way back we found Juan who told us the road is still closed and we could not depart before 2.50pm, so we headed to the coffee shop where we spent the night yesterday and we started drinking...
The bus was really late and we left at 3.30pm instead of 3.00pm as promised. This was probably the longest wait we had during our entire vacation. The minivan was not comfortable, as usual, but I managed to lay on my back for most of the trip and I even got some sleep.
We got delayed on the road because of a few bathroom breaks and of an accident (we were not involved). Getting to this famous little town has been a real workout and we finally got dropped off at around 7.40pm, way after what we planned.
We had a few ideas of what hotels to look for, because the travel guide has a great coverage of Antigua. In the end we ended up at Hotel Santa Lucia which, for 300Q for 2 nights, is one of the best accommodations I ever had.
We walked in the town center and, although I didn't see much yet, I find it too much touristy. After a good and really expensive dinner we went to a busy "Irish" pub (which had nothing Irish in it) with very loud music and tons of people. Hubert would have stayed a lot longer, but I think I got burned off with pub-music, people and beer so I persuaded him to end the night quite early and go back to the hotel.
I'm looking forward to see Antigua on daylight, it's supposedly beautiful and I hope it's not going to disappoint me.
Sunday, June 6th 2010
For the first time this morning we could afford to wake up post-sunrise. The sleep was fantastic at the hotel and by far the best we had so far.
Breakfast plan was for the famous Valhalla macademia nut farm, just 20 minutes outside Antigua. We had a few things to sort out, for instance the bus to San Salvador and a possible tour to the Pacaya volcano which we really wanted to do.
We got out of the hotel slightly after 8.00am and went to check for the pacaya tour. We stepped into an agency where one guy told us the tour was technically illegal and it would cost us USD 40. We bought some time and said we would be back. He also said the tour would leave at around 2.00pm, which was ideal for us. Supposedly, the tour involved a 3 hour hike and it would extend till the evening, after sunset, giving beautiful views of lava.
We went to another place, just to have a comparison, but they told us they were not offering any tours to Pacaya because the government forbid it. So there was some truth in what he first guy said. At the second place we also asked the prices for San Salvador and they were all around USD 35-40.
Satisfied with the info, we headed to the bus station near the market and jumped into a chicken bus. A local called Antonio insisted in selling us the tickets for the shuttle bus to San Salvador for USD 30, but we were short of cash and we declined.
I had some printed directions to the macademia farm and the only thing I remember was "if you get to San Miguel, you got too far". Obviously I and Hubert found ourself in San Miguel... but that's because the ticket guy promised to tell us when to got off the bus, but never did it.
Walking from San Miguel to the farm was a 20-minute deal with pretty cool temperature, so it wasn't too bad. Once we saw the sign, we turned right into a dirt road and soon reached the restaurant area. The farm seems to be rather big and the parking lot size suggests a lot of visitors enjoy the place, but at 9.00am we were the only ones there.
The owner, an American fella named Lorenzo, sat with us at the table and started telling us the story of his life. I don't want to go into details, because I don't like to talk abouth other people's lives, but he's a very interesting character. Originally from California, he's been living in Guatemala for quite a while not (he's over 70, but he seems a lot younger).
The specialty of the house are macademia nut pancakes: the delicious pancakes are done with nut flour and are topped with macademia nut honey and blueberry jam (also the blueberry are grown there). Never had such awesome pancakes! The suggestion we got a few days earlier from Andrew in Todos Santos paid back.
After buying some nuts at the store, we rushed to the road because we had a long day in front of us. We reached town slightly after 11.00am and we went to the travel agency again. The guy didn't recognize us, but offered the same tour at the same price. We thought the price was fair, so we went to take some money at the bank.
Once back, we paid 300Q each.
Quite a few things went wrong: first of all, the person who sold us the tour was not actually giving the tour, but was parter with another guy who came there in a few minutes. Nothing wrong with that, except that the tour was not leaving at 2.00pm, but at 12.00, in just 20 minutes. We had to rush to the market and buy some food, then the bus showed up.
In the bus we talked to several people, just to discovered we were severely ripped off: two American guys that were sitting next to us paid only 120Q, almost 1/3 of what we did. Quite annoying. But more annoying to know that all the information we got was false: the hike was not 3 hours, but way less. The drive was about 2 hours and we got back well before sunset! Nothing promised corrisponded to truth.
To be very picky, we didn't even see Pacaya, but a new volcano that just formed (there is a new crater after the last explosion).
At the parking lot, local people asked for 10 extra quetales for local people who lost their houses because of the eruption and it seemed pretty fair.
We continued by foot; we walked for at least one hour coasting lava debris and I found it particularly uninteresting, although it's quite nice the first 5 minutes if you have never seen lava in your life (it was the first time for me). Towards the end, police stopped our group and said we could not continue because of rock-fall danger. That was the most ridiculous excuse ever, it was totally impossible to be hurt by a rock fall. Don't get me wrong, there may have been many other good reasons (toxic smoke, for instance), but just not rock fall.
In perfect style, our guide bribed the cops and they let us go through. We got to a spot where we could clearly see the lava flow and that was cool indeed. But beside that there were no other highlights. The elevation was particularly low and we could barely see Pacaya on the back.
The tour was unusual, because it wasn't Pacaya and we just got around it (normally the drive is a lot shorter). They kept saying we were the first party to go there after the park was closed and it appeared to be true, although a bunch of locals were enjoying the area on dirt bikes, 4wd cars and quads.
I am sure that all the smoke I breathed was not any good for my health, but fortunately I don't go to an erupting volcano every day...
Back to Antigua, we got a good shower and headed to dinner. We tried a couple of different places, one of them recommended to us by the American guys in the bus, but they were miserably failed (after 9 days our bar was pretty high). We ended up in a good sport bar after discovering the place where we had dinner yesterday was closed.
Hummus as appetizer and salad as main entree was enough for me, although I had some room for a chocolate crep. They were broadcasting pool on television (ESPN 2): Kelly Fisher vs Jasmine Oushan (the latter won). After the meal, we moved to the bar for a drink and seeing the end of the match, but right after it the bar closed. We were thinking were to go and the bartender overheard us and recommended one local place that had live music. She also offered to walk us there.
We waited for her and we went to this bar with other 2 girls. The bartender and one of the other two were from England, the last one from Argentina. Impressive the amount of Americans in that bar, but explainable by the fact that the owner is American. I was exhausted, but the bar was really nice and somehow I found room for another beer. Shortly after we went back to the hotel, walking an empty street past midnight... exactly what any tour book suggests not to do!
Monday, June 7th 2010
I shut off my laptop well after midnight, but I had a long time to sleep. Hubert, who proved to be a super-hero, woke up before sunrise once again and went around the town to take pictures; I proficiently used that time to sleep, hehe.
When he showed up at around 7.30am I was ready and we left shortly after. He didn't find the tickets to San Salvador, so we decided to take a chicken bus to Guatemala City and decide what to do from there.
The bus was moving slowly and it took a while before really leaving Antigua (it was probably waiting for more people). The one way trip, which normally takes only one hour, took nearly twice as much, partly because of the traffic and partly because of the road conditions (it has not been completely fixed yet).
In Guatemala City we had two tasks: send the postcards and find the bus terminal. We hired a taxi that brought us to the Correo first and then to the market area where the bus to San Salvador departs from.
Sadly, we got there a few minutes after 10.00 am and the previous bus had just left at 9.45 am. Next bus was at 12.00 pm, meaning that - in case everything went well - we would be at San Salvador international at around 5.00pm. This would have been acceptable, but a bit on the edge for Hubert's flight which departed at 7.07pm.
The ticket guy suggested to take another bus that brought us to the border and then to take a shuttle from there. We found that bus right away and we thought we were okay, because we phisically entered the bus at 10.25 and they told us it was "leaving now". In actuality, the bus left past 11.00am and was stuck for a really long time in a traffic jam (after all, Guatemala City is a real metropolis).
To complicate things further, the bus was stopping very frequently and sometimes even waiting for people. Hubert, who calmly said he never missed a flight in his entire life, was really starting to think he would not make it in time and so did I. We reached the "frontera" at 3.00pm! Hubert had to be at the airport by 6.00 at the most and that was impossible with any bus or shuttle.
The solution was to take a cab. After passing the Guatemalan's immigration, we did the "entrada" in El Salvador and an English-speaking border patrol called a taxi for us (this has been the nicest border patrol I ever dealt with). He told the old cab driver "these are my friends, they must be at the airport by 6.00pm or else they'll miss their flight". I wasn't really going to catch that flight, but Hubert was, so I felt quite a lot of pressure, too.
The driver asked for 75 USD (US dollar is the official currency in El Salvador), far less than we expected. Hubert said "how about 60?" and he nodded. Again, not a great negotiation. The price, on the other hand, was really a nice surprise. The taxi, on the other hand, was a wrek! Never seen such an ugly vehicle.
After the initial traffic jam due to the border (there were miles of trucks completely stalled on both ways) he started driving pretty fast, but because of the car (and the age of the driver...) I felt kind of unsafe. But then I thought "what the hell, this is a great adventure!". Hubert was following the road we were driving on the map of the tour book and after about 1 hour all the hopes of making it in time were revived.
I fell asleep for a little while and woke up just 30Km before the airport: the time was now 5.00pm. Hubert was dropped of at San Salvador International at 5.35pm, completing a ride which I would define epic. At the moment of writing, I don't know if he ever cought the airplane, but I'm sure he did.
I stayed on the cab and asked him to drive me to "San Salvador International", the hotel booked by Dolby for my overnight staying since the flight to Europe (via Miami) departs tomorrow morning at 8.55am. It took quite a while to get to the hotel, because of the traffic of the capital. I managed to withdraw some money and do the check-in in just a handful of minutes.
The hotel lays just in front of a shopping area with mostly American business (I saw pizza hut and Mc Donalds just to mention a few).
I walked through the reception with a big backpack and long beard (didn't shave for 10 days): everybody else appered to be rich business people and I had a smile on my face when I saw that.
That's the first time I stay in such a nice hotel: they took my backpack and brought it to the front desk. After the check-in, they escorted me to my room which looks simply incredible. There are 4 restaurants in the hotel and I got some sushi while browsing work emails, since tomorrow I will definitely have to catch up with everything I missed during my absence.
They told me there is a shuttle from the hotel to the airport early in the morning at at the moment of writing (10.50pm) I am passing out, so I will need some good rest.
This is the end of this terrific experience. I rank this trip as one of the best I ever did and, after all, I must say we were lucky on everything. Never waited for a bus for more that 10 minutes, avoided the tropical storm on the coast by hours, didn't get any rain except one day in the middle of the rain season, got to Todos Santos although the road was closed the day before. I doubt anything like this can happen twice. Once thing is sure: I'll be back in Central America, 's just a question of when.
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