We arrived in Panama on foot, having travelled via bus from Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, to the frontier.
Another bus and a rickety speed boat ride later and we set foot on dry land on the main island of the Bocas del Toro, Archipelago, a group of islands in the Caribbean Sea in northwest Panama. Here we stayed here for just 3 days as planned, before our trip down to Panama City via night bus, to catch a cheap onward flight to Colombia.
Bocas del Toro had been mentioned to us by a few fellow travelers and we are glad we made the trip, the town of clapboard houses was built by the United Fruit Company in the early 20th century. The port town of Bocas sits looking over the channel and neighbouring island of Colon. As we pulled in on our taxi boat, we got first site of the colourfully painted wooden buildings, that sit perched out across the sea, and date back from the fruit trading era. Most of the buildings along the seafront are now hostels, bars or surf shops, so we strolled along and managed to get ourselves a room with a view on the cheap. The ‘hotel’, which was marked up as ‘se vende’ (for sale) had furniture which looked like it dated back as long as the building had been standing. It had an old deck that looked out across the channel and we wiled away a few hours here, drinking Panama lager.
The town of Bocas had plenty to offer, in the day time boat excursions to go diving, surfing and to explore hidden beaches were the main attraction. We headed over to the picturesque Red Frog Beach and had a chilled day soaking up the sun and cooling off in the sea – it was like a Robinson Crusoe beach. There were a handful of other travelers on the beach, plus some Rastafarian locals who were there to surf, but did more smoking than surfing. On our taxi boat to the beach the driver cut the engine and told us to look at the side of the boat, there was two dolphins popping up to say hello, and because the water was so clear you could see every detail on them and their coy facial expressions, it was amazing – a complete highlight for me!
For the rest of our time in Bocas, we dedicated our time to our favourite past time, eating and drinking. Speaking to our Caribbean host, with his laid back endearing voice, I could’ve spoken to him all night, anyway, he recommended some places where we could pick up some proper creole cuisine, morning, noon and night, of course we headed straight there. Bocas is switched on to tourism and therefore does offer a lot of options to avoid the local food, but from the Caribbean food we’d sampled, we knew we wanted more.
We had Jonny Cakes again for breakfast, numerous times, that we’d first tried in Belize, whole fish fried and tried several different stews/curries from canteens. Nothing disappointed and the prices were approx. £3-5 per main.
We worked the happy hours around the town and ended up in a bar run by a Californian, who was extremely liberal with his local rum, pouring shouts down our throat as the night went on, there was a great atmosphere here as well, a Spanish guy and a guy on a guitar entertained us all night with some classic eagles. Special shout out to the bartender who served us two of the best Pina colada’s and Bloody Mary’s, we’ve EVER consumed!
We could easily have stayed longer. Speaking to a couple of expats who had made the decision to relocate here permanently, we can’t say we blame them, life on the Caribbean coast lives up to the laid back pre-conception it rightly has.
Onwards from Bocas del Toro we traveled via night bus, the driver of which was a mad man and the mountain roads made for a bumpy and windy ride – at one point I honestly thought the bus was going to end up on its side. We’d both forgot to leave out some warm clothes, as the aircon on board makes the bus get like a fridge, so we were both freezing, and resulted in a serious lack of sleep.
We’d picked a luxury hotel by the trips standards for our one night in Panama City, for the reason it had early check in’s and late check out’s available, plus a rooftop pool with a great vista of the city.
We arrived at 5am and managed to check straight into our room! Highlights of our brief stay in Panama City were a tour of the old town, which felt a lot like a renovated mini-Havana and a trip to the phone repair shop so we could fix Tom’s mobile he’d smashed while we were volcano boarding in Nicaragua. Functional times!!!
After stocking up on street food, we jumped on an early morning bus back to Rivas and then changed to get on a bus to the Fronterier (the border Nicaragua – Costa Rica) once there we changed up our Nicraguan Cordobas for Costa Rican Colones, paid our exit fee, got our passports checked then walked across the border – border crossings are such strange expeiences, never stress free, always some hassle to deal with.. On the Costa Rica side, we managed to get a bus that would take us to Irma, as i’d read online that, there’s a connecting bus that goes from Irma to Monte Verde. After two hours on the bus, we were dropped of at Irma, now Irma is literally a road in the middle of nowhere, and it just so happened the bus times had changed, so me and tom were quite literally stranded – Oh dear!
After trying to hitch a lift, to no success, and fighting off the taxi drivers who wanted in excess of $75 to go 22km – we ended up getting the bus to the nearest town en route to Monte Verde.. The town was called Las Junta, after arriving and roaming the streets for what felt like ages with the heat of the day and the weight of our bags draining all our energy, a policeman pointed us in the direction of a cabina (hotel), the only one in town…. basic but clean we dropped our bags and went out for a well earned Cerveza.
Our cabina owner told us the next bus to Monte Verde was the following morning at 09.45, so the next day after finding a traditional cheap breakfast (the cheap restaurants in Costa Rica which serve up traditional Costarican cuisines, are called Soda’s) bellies filled, we jumped on the bus, which took two hours, to go 22km, as we were heading far up into the mountains, the journey was steep and winding, and the road was literally a dirt road so it took quite a while. Now Monte Verde is famous for its cloud forest, biological reserve, as well as its canopy tours above the forest, we’d heard off a few travelers it was a must if you were passing through Costa Rica, so we added it to our list.
After checking into our hostel, we were greeted with bunk beds – Tom bagged the top bunk, it was like being a kid again.
The guy who worked there was really helpful and offered us lots of advise for our onward journeys etc, we booked onto a coffee, chocolate and sugar tour for that afternoon at El Trapiche, a Costarican family business, here the tour was split into three parts, first up was the coffee section of the tour. Here we were shown around the plantations, however the harvesting season runs November to February, so we didn’t get to see the red berries or flowers.. but we were explained and shown the coffee process of crushing, peeling and roasting the beans by hand and also through using their machinery.
Next we were shown a step by step cocoa processes and the different stages: starting with a brief explanation of how the tree develops, pollination of it, how to get the fruit – we were given the fruit to eat, however not realising we’d already tasting it before on a fruit plate we’d had in Leon, Nicaragua. We were also shown the seed fermentation, drying, roasting and grinding cocoa, as well as how to make chocolate – we off course got to sample plenty.
We were also shown the process involved in sugarcane cultivation, natural history and also the opportunity to taste the sugar cane and its derivatives, rum – my god it was like drinking nail polish remover! yuk… The juices from the sugar canes were boiled and we were shown the sugars, brown sugar, traditional costarican “perica” or “sobado”(fudge like) and caramel. The hot sugar liquid was placed on a traditional wooden surface and with a spatula we were told to mix heavily until it formed a paste and changed colour – once finished you had made molasses.We were also shown the process involved in sugarcane cultivation, natural history and also the opportunity to taste the sugar cane and its derivatives, rum – my god it was like drinking nail polish remover! yuk… The juices from the sugar canes were boiled and we were shown the sugars, brown sugar, traditional costarican “perica” or “sobado”(fudge like) and caramel. The hot sugar liquid was placed on a traditional wooden surface and with a spatula we were told to mix heavily until it formed a paste and changed colour – once finished you had made molasses.
At the end of the tour we were also given the opportunity to sample “gallo de arracache” a root vegetable that is only usually consumed on very special occasions, such as weddings – it was delicious, quite similar to ‘yucca root’ but sweeter, we also got to sample espresso and freshly brewed coffee..
The tour was great, and we even got to see a sloth just hanging out on the trees, and a beautiful Blue Morpho butterfly which had become trapped in one of the roasting rooms – so was set free..
The next day it was an early start, as we had booked a canopy tour, which has one of the most beautiful views of the area, where we could admire the rich natural beauty of the forest and its treasures. The tour saw us ride fourteen cables, of which four are extremely long: 1-1410 ft, 2-1275 ft, 3-1800 ft, 4-2250 ft, with the cables having an approximate height of between 225 ft and 450ft – you could do some of the cables with a partner, some on your own, and there was also an option on the highest and longest to do superman, where you were strapped in dangling face down – the thrill was amazing…
There was also the option to do the Tarzan Swing,on approaching, I was pretty nervous, after been harnessed up, you literally just have to jump off yourself not easy with the drop your facing, instinct takes over and tells you not to. Wow my stomach lunged and I actually let out a scream, something I thought I wasn’t capable of, after that feeling subsided you got the rush of swinging through the trees a couple of times, before being caught by an inflatable band that cushioned the land and stopped us swinging further…
At the end of the tour we got to see a parrot close up and personal – it didn’t particularly like it when i tried to take a selfie with it!!
In the afternoon we took a bus up to Santa Elana Cloud forest, ironically it was wet and rainy and warm, however we decided on the 3.5 km trek through the park, however we only managed to spot a giant centipede, a hummingbird and a few butterflies….
The next day we took a bus from Monte Verde to Puntarenas, then from Puntarenas to Quepos, then we jumped on a bus to Manual Antonio, the whole journey took around five hours. Manuel Antonio is an area of rain forest where you really can get up close and personal with some marvelous wildlife. We’d booked an apartment through Airbnb for two nights, which was in walking distance to the national park, a stones throw from the beach and situated within some the outskirts of a jungle, for this reason we were told not to leave any food out on the balcony, or leave the kitchen door open, as the monkey’s will be in, in a flash running off with the food – of course we intentionally left some food out, as we wanted the monkeys to come….. but, they didn’t come… However, on the last morning, we were awoken at around 5am to these loud bangs, which sounded like they were coming from the roof, I went out to inspect… On the balcony there was a pack of white faced monkeys (like Maurcel off friends) they were fighting on the roof, and swinging from the trees, it was great to watch and I managed to grab a quick photo (although not in great focus)
We booked onto one of the night tours around the Si Como No Resort Wildlife Refuge , as most of the creatures are nocturnal, so they come out at night, therefore it’s the best time to see them in their natural habitat. On arrival, we were given flash lights, and a quick run down on safety etc… our guide, had worked for the National Geographic and was extremely knowledgeable, throughout the tour, we saw the red eyed tree frog, which is native to Costa Rica and takes prime position on the front cover of most guide books, and one of the creatures I was most keen to see. Other sites included the most deadliest spider in the world, which we were told not to get bitten by as there is no anti venom in Costa Rica, it was called the Brazilian banana spider, it was grey in colour and about the size of my hand, it was lying around on a banana leaf would you believe… Next up was an abundance of other frogs, the rain frog, the XXX frog, we saw a yellow snake, albeit only small, a tarantula, lots of insects, a sloth and a Kinkajou, which sort of resembles a raccoon cross between a monkey – very cute.. During the tour he told us to turn our flash lights out, on readjusting our eyes the whole floor was lit up in patches, we were told it was bio luminous fungi, it was beautiful, just like the scene from Avatar. Other aspects of the tour included seeing snapping turtles, Caimans and crocodiles…
The next day we wondered around Manuel Antonio park, when you stood still the heat seemed to intensify more, and you were quite literally damp and dripping with sweat in an instance, the camera was even steaming up as well as my sunglasses… During our walk we saw howlers monkeys, white faced monkeys and cappuchin monkeys, wondering onto the beach there was a hype of activity, we saw numerous packs of howler monkeys, raccoons and even an Agouti – it was great, we got some good photos too, albeit it being quite tricky in the dark.
Wanting to sample Caribbean life, as we’d frequented the Pacific coast the most on our travels, about from our taster in Cuba, we planned out our bus journey – it was long! The bus included, a 30 minute ride from Manuel Antonio to Quepos, then Quepos to San Jose (the capital) then San Jose to Puerto Viejo – in total, I think it took us 9 hours. On arrival it was pitch black, but it was lively and straight away you got that Caribbean vibe…
The weather was overcast, rainy and of course, as always, humid, after all it was the rainy/hurricane season! So I am afraid we didn’t get those fabulous travel brochure pictures, however from the photos below, you can get a flavour for what the Caribbean coast looked like… Idyllic…
The people were extremely friendly, a memory I’ll take away from Puerto Viejo is the chilled out beach lifestyle, and rastas leisurely cycling around on cruiser bikes, their baskets filled with bananas.. We found some authentic food places and gorged on Caribbean foods, coconut chicken curry, beef creole and coconut rice – just delicious – we could get used to life here!
We had heard from several backpackers en route, about this amazing animal sanctuary in Puerto Viejo, called the Jaguar Rescue Centre – a non for profit business. Most of the animals their have lost their mothers, or gone through traumatic experiences, and they nurture them back to health and then release them back into the wild – some of the stories we were told, reduced me to tears. It was amazing, the work they do is second to none, it inst a petting zoo, so you can’t touch the animals… On entering the sanctuary, we were arms length away from a two toed sloth, just hanging from a branch in one of the trees, then we saw a pelican who was just walking around, toucans would fly past within centimeters of your head – it was fabulous.. We saw an abundance of animals, baby sloths, monkeys and snakes.
The piece de la resistance, was… watching as one of the sloths they had taken care of, was reintroduced back into the wild, it was fantastic, a real pleasure to see..
Summarising on our whirlwind trip to Costa Rica, our caviet is that the places we visited were the most touristy, or on the pack backer trail, therefore in the short time we were there, six nights, we didn’t stray off the beaten track, as we went to do certain activities, see certain sights, so we were well aware that these places were going to come with hoards of tourist and hiked up prices – which they did. Rounding up our trip to Costa Rica, it is was a great place, and the sheer abundance of wildlife and rain forest was something to be seen..
For our journey from Guatemala to Nicaragua, we’d booked a premium bus, the company called, ‘King Quality’ purely because we were going through two countries (Honduras being particularly dangerous) and also because the journey time was 22-hours – a long journey by anyone’s standards – anyway the bus was great – it was like being in business class – leaving Guatemala and entering El Salvador was a doddle, as the operator handled all your paper work and documentation, the same applied for Hondurans. Except after crossing the border, the bus was stopped and all the men were asked to get out the bus, heavily armed with guns by their side, the Policia lined up all the men, including Tom and carefully double checked all the men’s passports with their photos. Now presumably the prison escapees they were hunting aren’t Caucasian, but they still studied Tom’s passport for a good 30 seconds. Thankfully he didn’t fit the profile and safely back on the bus, he told me he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry with a face full of machine gun!
Entering Nicaragua, we all had to get off while the bus was checked, then we had to all line up individually whilst all our bags were checked, we had were all told to line our bags up on a long table and open them, now we both have backpacks, which are so stuffed with items you can’t rummage around in them, anyway when it was our turn the Policia literally patted the bag – there was no way he could’ve found anything from doing that – they also failed to look through my handbag which was still on my shoulder and also Tom’s rucksack which was still on his back… After crossing the border, it was then another four hour drive before we arrived in Managua at gone midnight.
As we were arriving so late, we’d arranged for the guy (Jose) we were staying with through Airbnb that night to meet us at the bus station, as we didn’t know where we were going, and from what we’d read the city was meant to be riddled with crime. After meeting us we walked a few blocks to where he lived, and he assured us that Managua was a safe city, one of the safest in Central America.
The next day we got to know Jose, a fascinating guy from Costa Rica, who has lived all over the world, and now works in Coffee – designing an online platform where farmers can easily sell their coffee beans themselves to manufacturers, hence cutting out the middleman, so more money goes to the farmer – we could have spoken to him all day. After a few cups of coffee tea made for us by his daughters- yes you heard me right ‘coffee tea’, we sampled two varieties, the coffee leaves themselves, and just the blossom from the flowers of the coffee plant, they were both lovely, light and refreshing with a hint of coffee. He ran some errands with us, so we didn’t get lost in the city, getting food and money then directed us to the local bus station, where we picked up a bus to take us to Leon – we worked out it cost us around two dollars each for a two hour journey – so cheap!!!
Leon is the second largest city in Nicaragua and the oldest, with colonial streets and the infamous Leon Cathedral – it was a bustling city, with a really quaint feel to the place.
Tom had read about Volcano boarding, which if you haven’t already figured out is racing down an active volcano, which could erupt at ANY time on a piece of wood, it’s basically like riding down a sand dune, however you slide on dust and rock. The most popular place to do this is Cerro Negro, born in 1850, it is Central America’s youngest volcano and one of Nicaragua’s most active volcanoes. Rising out of emerald green forest, the black slopes of Cerro Negro create a bizarre contrast with the surroundings.
Arriving at base camp, we were given a backpack which had our protective jump suit in, googles and gloves, we had decided to do the activity/trip with Quetzaltrekkers – a not for profit organisation – with all the proceeds going to helping disadvantaged kids in the area! We were then passed our boards, so with our boards placed behind our backpacks on our backs, we set off on the 50 minute walk to the top of the volcano – it had stunning vistas, and it was a little on the windy side, so windy in fact you were knocked off your feet a number of times.
At the top we put on our jumpsuits and lined up to go down the volcano – now for some reason in my mind, I thought it wouldn’t be steep – my god, how wrong I was – it was steep – very steep… We watched as others went down first, some picking up speeds of 30kph or more – by the way, the record is 90kph – now if you come off at that speed you are going to do some serious damage, as you’re basically boarding on fragments of rock… Taking my turn, I tried to go down at a steady pace, but it was so easy to pick up speed regardless of how much you dug your feet into the ground – problem being, the more you dig your feet in the ground, the more spray of dust and rocks you get in your face and at that speed it was like glass hitting your face. On stopping my whole face was black, it was in my eyes, my nose, my bra every orifice you could image – Tom had a similar experience, however he returned up the volcano again for a second go, which he says was much better than the first, as the path had been well trodden from all of our previous runs down….. We both agreed that it was an experience – and it’s not everyday you get to say that you’ve boarded down an active volcano!!! The downsides, Tom cracked the screen of his phone, rendering it unworkable and I broke my sunglasses (luckily the cheap ones)
Returning back to Leon we jumped on a bus to Leon’s nearest beach, to a small fishing village called Las Penitas, Tom had sourced an airbnb that boasted the best views on the beach – it didn’t disappoint – wow it was simply stunning, I honestly think I found a little slice of heaven… we were right on the beach, with our door opening right onto the sand, with our own private terrace with hammocks and rocking chairs, and our bedroom windows opening right onto the ocean view… Of all the coastlines we have visited, we agreed that this was definitely one of the most stunning – the rolling waves of the pacific ocean never got tiring.
On one of my many cool offs in the sea, I wandered in with my RayBans on, BIG mistake, turning my back for a second, a huge sneaker wave, swept me off my feet, the RayBan disappeared… lost to the ocean – may I add that’s two pairs of sunglasses down in two days. Luckily I was OK, a scratch to the chin, but nothing more – however for the next few days, I kept my eyes peeled thinking they’d wash up on the shore – they didn’t!
Whilst on the beach we bumped into Eric, a San Francisco dweller, we’d met on the volcano boarding trip – apart from dipping in the ocean, attempting to surf, all three of us just sat at a hotel called Hotel Playa Roca (also a place we ended up staying for two nights, after being turfed out the airbnb, because they were booked up) for the four days, gazing out onto the ocean, drinking Tona (Nicaraguan’s national beer) and watching as the colours of the sky changed with each sunset we watched set in the sky…
After tearing ourselves away from the beautiful beach and surf of Las Penitas, we jumped on a bus to Esteli, renowned for its political conflict, mass demonstrations and a place where the most blood was shed during the revolution.
The buses are brilliant in Nicaragua, old USA school buses, that are now used as public buses. The drivers pump out the tunes, we’ve had everything from an 80’s ballad journey to a Celine Dion journey. Tickets are purchased on the bus, and you are packed in like sardines – at every stop, street vendors jump on board and try to sell you things, shouting down your ears, startling you – selling everything from cakes, plates of home cooked meals, popcorn, nuts, bags of juices, you name it, you could probably get it. On most occasions I opted for the salty popcorn at 0.05 pence a bag, tom of course opted for the cakes…
The street food in Nicaragua was amazing, one day we sampled, yucca root in a cheesy like sauce, served with shredded salad and pork, all wrapped in a banana leaf, other delights included a pastry that was deep fried and inside was rice and meat, again this was served with shredded salad an a spicy sauce.
Eric joined us for the trip North, and we used the place as a base to get to Somoto Canyon, a two hour bus journey north, where we bouldered, jumped, swam and walked through the idyllic 12km canyon, it was beautiful.
It took a bit of courage to jump off the the sheer rock faces, but once you’d done the first, they got easier. There was a 20 metre cliff you could jump off, but our guide advised us against it, as he said you can do damage to your back, not that I was going to do it anyway, but Tom was game. On completion we went to a home-stay, where we were cooked a traditional Nicaraguan food, chicken, and Gallopinto beans… Dreading the long bus journey home, we were offered a ride on in the back of someones pick up as he was heading through Esteli, we all accepted and jumped in the back, the wind rushing in our hair… he drove fast, and overtook, it was a hair raising experience.
On returning to Esteili, we stayed another night and then headed further North to Matagalpa, famous for growing coffee, and known as the “Pearl of the North”. It was refreshing cool, as it was high up in the mountains, we didn’t do a great deal here, chilled and worked, as well as visiting the coffee museum to read the history of Matagalapa coffee producers …
All seemed safe in the the town of Matagalapa, until one morning we bumped in to a guy from the States, who was living out there, owned a coffee plantation in the hills and had just planted his first crop. Anyway he was telling us about him having to buy a gun, as burglaries of farms was high, as was the stealing of working cattle – he’d come across many machete wielding maniacs – anyway that wasn’t the half of it, he then went on to tell us that a bus, just last week, was held up by a man with an AK47, he took the money from the bus driver, and anything the passengers/tourists had, whilst also telling them to all take their trousers off… Crazy hey… anyway we lived to tell the tale…
On talking to him, we spoke of a walk we were planning to do, however he advised us a against it, as it went through some pretty poor barrios, instead he recommended one he does frequently, so when the rain past we set out up one of the hills to get a view of the town, a great vista that overlooked coffee plantations and dwellings as far as the eye can see – and thankfully we got back in one piece…
After saying goodbye to Eric who was heading back to the states the next day, we jumped on a bus to Granada, a city with colonial-era architecture, we stayed here for only one night using it as a base to visit we used this as a base to visit Masaya volcano, an active volcano which last erupted in 2003 and continually emits large amounts of sulfur dioxide gas.
We contemplated going to Ometepe, an island formed by two volcanoes rising from Lake Nicaragua, however the 5 hour boat ride put us off, and the surroundings would’ve been similar to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, so we decided to take a bus down to Rivas, and then onto San Juan del Sur… Straight away we arrived here, we were back on the backpackers route, having strayed off it for the past week, lots of bars, lots of tours, lots of gringos and an inflation in prices… We stayed in some mid range accommodation for one night, as we were planning to head to Playa Maderas so we could get a final glimpse of the Pacific and take to the surf a few more times. On entering the accommodation, there was a toilet in the middle of the room, and on drawing the curtains, we realised there was non, instead there was reflective glass in them, however they’d managed to put them on the wrong way round, so we could’t see out, but everyone could see through… how we laughed!
The next day we got the local shuttle to Casa Maderas, an eco lodge, where we stayed for 4 days, it was the nicest accommodation we’d stayed in for a while, it had a pool and we stayed in the bungalow suite a the top of the hill overlooking the jungle, it was bliss and in the morning the howler monkeys were on hand to wake you up and remind you where you were. They had a pavilion that overlooked the jungle, so I manged to squeeze in some early morning yoga class, whilst my body woke up to the sounds of the jungle. The beach was a 15 minute walk away and the surf was good, so we spent most of our days there sharing a board and being in the sea (Tom more so than me!).
After four glorious days here, we thought it was time we headed to Costa Rica!!
Flores, is a town in Peten, Guatemala. The town is an island on Lago Petén Itzá, connected to land by a causeway, it was a beautiful setting, and we stayed in accomodation right on the lake, the best thing was the breeze off the lake – it was the coolest we’d felt in a few weeks….
The food was great too, it had some Mexican influences, but it just tasted better in my opinion anyway- for breakfast we had huevos rancheros, and it came with fried plantains, it was delicious, I also had a bowl of wholemeal oats made with coconut milk, also delicious…
The following day, we’d booked a tour to Tikal, the ruins of an ancient city found in a rain forest in Northern Guatemala, archaeologist estimate that the Maya settled in the area now known as Tikal in around 900 BC. We’d booked a sunrise tour, so we got picked up at 3am, which gave us enough time to get to the park, climb the highest ruin – Tikal Temple IV before dawn broke – however mine and Tom’s luck must have ran dry that particular day, as it was misty, so we never saw the sunrise, however it was a great time to be there, away from the hoard of crowds, and at a time when the rain forest was just beginning to wake up, hearing the birds chirp their dawn chorus, see the leave cutter ants carrying on their duties come light or dark, and hearing the howler monkey’s screech to protect their territory – it was spectacular.
Our tour guide was amazing too, spoke impeccable English, and was a rain forest biodiversity guide for a living, working with the national geographic and the TV show survivor. Whilst showing us the ruins and its history, he talked us through the biodiversity of the rain forest and the animals and creatures that live in it.
When we first arrived me and tom had commented on the smell – it smelt like chicken soup, our guide, later informed us that the smell only occurs once a year, when the flowers from the Sequoia tree falls. He showed us wild celantro, which the Mayan’s used in their cooking, due to its vast presence; showed us a termites nest, where he told us to grab a few and eat them, telling us “they taste like carrots” – he wasn’t wrong.
Next on the list was a tarantula, our tour guide, went into the forest and came out holding one, so of course me and Tom both held it (when in Rome), it was really soft and gentle, not what you’d expect… however it was only a baby.
After three days in Flores, we jumped on an overnight bus from Flores to Guatemala city, then a taxi from Guatemala city to Antigua. Antigua is a city in the central highlands of Guatemala, famous for its well-preserved Spanish Baroque influenced architecture, as well as a number of ruins of colonial churches.
On the two days we were there we went to Pacaya – a volcano which is still active, but hasn’t errupted since 2010
Guatamela has 33 volcanoes spread throughout its highlands… We walked up halfway to where the lava had once flowed, despite it last errupting in 2010 heat was still admitting from it – our guide pulled out a bag of marshmellows and we toasted them on the lava rocks – not something you do everyday!
Guatemala, also has numerous cocoa plantations, although we didn’t go out to one of the plantations, we did go to the Choco Museo, and take part in a two hour workshop, which went through the history of chocolate and how it was deeply routed in Mayan culture, before being shipped off and altered by the Spanish colonial rulers. We also went through the process, how the beans are cultivated for making chocolate. With our aprons on, we set about making our own chocolate, roasting the beans, skinning them, crushing them into nips and then grinding them to make a paste, it was really good fun and our teacher Edwin was brilliant. We made chocolate tea, as well as traditional Mayan hot chocolate – it was quite literally from bean to cup, and a great experience…
After being shown the technique, we were each given some melted chocolate and various molds, and set about making our own chocolate, using flavours such as, chili, salt, ginger, orange, coconut, macadamia etc. After leaving them in the fridge for 45 minutes they were packaged up and given back to us – they looked impressive – me and Tom were really pleased with the outcomes, and they tasted delicious – only downside was we didn’t have a fridge back at our hostel, so we had to eat them pretty quick.
After three days in Antigua we headed to Lake Atitlan, a beautiful volcanic lake in the Western Highlands, ringed by small quaint towns.
Arriving at Panajachel (the main port) we got a boat to take us to San Marcos La Laguna, as Valerie had recommended a hotel – it didn’t disappoint, the hotel was set in these spectacular tropical gardens, teaming with hummingbirds, blue dragonfly’s and butterflies, it was lovely to relax in the cooler climate, because we were at altitude – pure bliss. We opted for the budget accomodation $8 a night, wow, it was like 4-star accomodation, just lovely… The town itself, reminded us of Varkala in India, really chilled out, geared towards yoga and meditation, with quaint paths leading to hippy’esq cafes and shops.
The food was great, we ate a curry one night – our first curry in 5-months, very satisfying for the taste buds… One morning we headed out to breakfast and I was intrigued as to what one of the waiters was eating at the spot we’d picked to eat – he told me it was potato croquettes – but they looked more like potato cakes, anyway he said they were just for staff usually, but he’d see if they might be able to knock me some up. Anyway they did, it was delcious, served with salad, mashed avocado and a salsa…
Next to our hotel was a nature reserve, which had maintained trails to high vistas, so you could look over the lake and see the trio of volcanoes, on hiking we bumped into a guy, Tim from Texas who was staying at our hotel, we swapped stories and then we all headed to the trampolin, a wooden platform, high up, allowing you to jump into the lake, Tom was first up, followed by Tim, them me – after jumping, about a quarter way down, you got that “ah shit” moment – anyway it was good fun, the lake was lovely to swim in, so refreshing… After a few beers back at the hotel we all headed out to eat – a comforting Pizza and a bottle of Chilean red wine.
The next day we got up early, and jumped on a boat to the neighbouring town on the lake, called San Pedro – a notorious party town – it was much more built up than quaint San Marcos, however had a lot more going for it! After checking into some budget accommodation Tim had recommended, we jumped on a Tuc-Tuc up to the base of San Pedro Volcano – on paying the entrance fee, you have the option of getting a guide to accompany you in with the price – we opted for one, although we instantly regretted it, Jose, was in a mad rush to get back for football for 3pm, we started the walk at 11.50am and the walk takes on average 3-4 hours. With that in mind, he was trying to put us off walking to the top, saying it’s possible etc, saying it is better to walk for 30 minutes to the first viewing platform. Anyway after much debate, him saying that “chica (as in me) isn’t going to make it” and us telling him “we didn’t need him, he could go back down, as we are going to walk to the top regardless” he phoned the office to see if this was possible, however they said it wasn’t, so low and behold we were stuck with him. After a few conversations on his phone, he managed to postpone the football to 4pm, which you could tell he was happy about, as his whole attitude and persona changed. He also managed to rope Tom into playing, as well. Regardless of the football time change, he still frogmarched us up a volcano 3,020 metres above sea level in the record time of two hours. Determined to prove him wrong, that I could make it to the top, I carried on at his pace.The top was spectacular – it was a little hazy – but the climb was worth the vista and that feel of achievement….
After racing back down – no exaggeration, Jose, was practically running down, after an hour, to my relief we got back to base, as Tom was playing football, all three of us jumped into a waiting Tuc-Tuc which took us to the 5-aside pitch… It was a game of tour guides vs the Policia – Tom was given his shirt and took his position on the pitch – now Jose, failed to mentioned that his team had no substitutes and he was only playing in net – Tom after climbing a volcano non stop for three hours then had to play football for 1 hour, with no water to hand, as they’d ran out and only a 5 minute half time – he was shattered, but still managed to score four times…
After a carb loaded dinner to restore our depleted energy levels, we hit the hay early and slept the clock round. Running a few errands the next morning, oh and finding a crab lurking around in our room, we left San Pedro and got a shuttle back to Antiqua, where we stayed ready for an early 4am pick up for our bus to Nicaragua.
Arriving back in Mexico from Cuba, we got on a bus and headed south to Playa del Carmen – a touristy, concrete place on the Yucatan peninsula, a place we wanted to get away from as quickly as possible. After staying a night, we got on a ferry to Cozumel, an island 30 minutes of Mexico, we were told it was less touristy, and the snorkeling was good as the waters were so clear.
We’d booked a hostel (renown for divers), which was right on the beach, to the North of the island where the white sandy beaches were, it was a great spot, and was good to have access to a kitchen again to make our own meals, as eating three meals out a day was becoming a bit monotonous.
The heat was unbearable, it was 32 degrees, and 64% humidity, me and tom had never felt anything like it, just sitting down was an effort – the room had no AC so we slept with the fan, about an inch from our face, and that still didn’t do the trick.
The beaches on the peninsula of Mexico and Cozumel were suffering from a huge bout of seaweed, large amounts washed up on the beach, making the most prettiest of white beaches look less tropical, more Mediterranean – apparently it normally occurs February to April, but something was happening in the water to prolong its stay!!!
On the island, we rented a scooter and rode round the island to find some of the best spots to snorkel. The snorkeling was amazing, the reef was so colourful and breathtaking I could’ve stayed under the water for ages just watching the tropical fish following out their day-to-day routine. The name of the beach was Sky reef, it was by far the best on the island, just off shore, although there was also tropical fish to be seen right on the shore at our hostel.
Leaving Cozumel, we had a full day of transport planned out, as we wanted to get away from the touristy Cancun peninsula and move onto Guatemala. After getting a ferry to the Mexican mainland, we then jumped on a bus to take us south to Tulum, where we spent the day taking in the ruins – however it was so hot, we were quite literally dancing from shade to shade and in the end had to take shelter from the unbearable sun on the beach with the ocean breeze and shade of a rock to make us feel human again. We hung around Tulum until our bus for Belize was ready to board at 00.11am – it was a long wait…
After 3 hours on the bus, we were woken when we got to the Mexican border – it was a hairy experience, we were told to get out of the bus and in the dark, in the middle of nowhere we formed a queue while officials checked our passports with torches, we were then individually led into a room, where an official asked us to pay $35 each, well we had no money, after asking for official documentation to show the we owed the exit fee he just kept saying no, no, then the official looked at us and said ‘’you will have to wait here until 8am, for when the ATM/bank opens’’ – well if we’d stayed we’d have missed the bus, and there was definitely no ATM in the vicinity, i’ll stress we were in the middle of nowhere. He then said, “you’ll have to ask someone on the bus for money, otherwise you’re staying here.” Luckily there was a guy who had a wad of dollars, who kindly paid for us, until we paid him back in on arriving in Belize – thank god he was there, as we would’ve still been at the border!! The border official just tossed the money in a top drawer, stamped our passports and that was it – crazy thing when we got back on the bus, people had been charged different amounts – it seems you are at an unfair disadvantage at night, where the border officials get you by the short and curly, and they can try and run whatever scam they want on you – I personally wont be crossing that border alone, or at night again!
We got our stamp to enter Belize and on arrival, we headed to buy our tickets for our shuttle from Belize to Flores, Guatemala – yes you guessed it another border crossing. The uproar of the Mexican border hassle got us talking to a Guatemalan, Valerie – she too was going to Flores, so she took us under her wing and helped us get there – our first mission was to fill our ravenous bellies – it’s a shame, we weren’t staying in Belize as the people were really friendly, they had this Caribbean/Creole laid back accent going on, and because it was originally part of the British Empire, they typically speak English. Finding a cafe we ordered up a sandwich and a Jonny cake – now the sandwich was good but the Jonny cake wow – it was delicious , a cornmeal flat bread, fried in coconut oil and stuffed with a black bean paste, stocked up on water we awaited our shuttle.
The shuttle arrived, it was basically a transit van and it was packed to the rafters with people, we were quite literally squeezed in, it was hot and we were bothered… After two hours of taking in the countryside we hit the border, we paid our exit fee and then walked across from Belize into Guatemala… another two hours later we arrived in Flores.
Having previously written off Cuba, purely because the flights were too expensive and the internet too limited to cope with our work demands… on staying with Daphne in Mexico City, she managed to twist our arm, saying, you’ve got to go sooner, rather than later, as the place is changing – especially since the US is opening an embassy and outsiders are talking of fast change within Cuba. With this, we booked flights to allow a flying visit, and here we are now, and I write this on a plane back from Cuba having spent five glorious days there.
We spent what felt like forever on transfers – leaving Oaxaca, flying back to Mexico City, to pick up a connecting flight to Cancun, an overnight stop in Cancun, which involved us hiring a car, as it worked out cheaper than a taxi from the airport, then an early flight the next day from Cancun to Cuba, we eventually arrived in the Caribbean Island.
From the air we got a better view of Cuba and first impressions were that it’s a big Island, approximately the same size as England. We therefore decided to focus our trip around the capital of Havana, rather than rushing around… as it turns out, rushing around isn’t really possible in Cuba anyway, unless you can afford a hire car at a whopping $90 a day. Upon landing our first task was to change up some of our currency into CuC’s, one of two Cuban currencies in circulation (Peso being the other, USD is now worthless even on the black market). There to help us with this first task was a happy chappy going by the name of Charlie, well that was his English name. Charlie also happened to own a 1957 Opel, made in Germany, and he offered to taxi us to Old Havana where we had booked a stay through Daphne’s friend, in a traditional Casa.
The old cars are obviously one of the most recognisable icons of Cuba and we were pleased to find out that most of the cars on the roads still date back to the 1950’s, with a few newer Lada’s driving about, courtesy of the USSR. Photography wise, the crumbling buildings in Havana along with the hordes of vibrantly painted 1950’s Cadillac’s, are a sight like no where else.
Casa’s are traditional Cuban housing, which in the last few years have become legally available places to stay for foreigners. This is Cuba’s version of Airbnb, however booking one prior to arrival will give you your first taste of how far behind Cuba is on this kind of thing, it’s tough and even when you think you have one booked, upon arrival they are often fully booked. ‘Ah, Cuba’ is a common expression here. Thankfully, we’d been promised a luxury Casa by Daphne’s friend Rocia and when we got there it didn’t disappoint; the interior looked like it hadn’t changed in a 100 years in a shabby chic kind of way and the only downside was the showers. The showers weren’t just cold like most showers in Central America, the water barely trickled out. We later realised that a lot of other Casa’s that surrounded ours don’t actually have there own water supply at all. Some less fortunate Cuban’s have to haul buckets of water from street pumps into their homes.
Once we had moved in and met our welcoming host, Mercy, we headed out to one of the restaurants in Old Havana, which Rocia had recommended. On the way, as we walked the streets of Havana we were asking ourselves why there weren’t many restaurants. Having booked our flights last minute and without doing a whole lot of research on the current state of play in Cuba, we quickly realised that private business ownership is still heavily regulated and this does make finding a place to eat a tough task! This is changing quickly and not so long ago, the tourist option would have been eating at your hotel.
We got settled into a Tapas bar which Earnest Hemingway had frequented and almost immediately became acquainted with three Cuban’s; Alex (1), Alex (2) and the one that didn’t speak much as he was too hung over from the night before, they had just graduated from University. Several daiquiris, mojitos – of course made with Havana Club rum, and national beers later, we’d been questioned by Alex about the Royal’s, British Wars and the internet, plus a whole lot more. In exchange, we managed to get an insight into a few Cuban opinions on politics, their way of life and how their socialist system works. It turns out government owned hotels and restaurants profits go into a fund for building restoration, however judging by the state of a lot of buildings which are quite literally falling down, this is not enough to keep Havana standing.
Alex (1) told us that he understands why there are changes coming and that slow change is good, because for socialism to succeed, it has to work, while the more intoxicated Alex (2) summarised his opinion by yelling “F@CK CASTRO!”… leaving Alex (1) looking worried and looking over his shoulder. To finish the night off, we were taken to Floridita, which is the famous haunt Cuban’s go, to cut some serious Salsa shapes. We got a crash course from Alex (2) on how to do the basics and woke up with sore heads ready for our tour the next day at 9:30.
Our tour with Rocia was excellent. She walked us around all the significant old areas of Havana, from market squares, colonial rulers accommodation (which had wooden roads to dampen the noise of horse drawn carts outside so they could get a good night’s sleep), to the most significant buildings and hotels that were occupied and used during the revolution. We got a feel for Cuban day to day living by riding in Cuban taxi’s, which only run one way down a single street and are shared by about 6 other Cuban’s, visiting bodegas where Cuban’s pick up their rations and we took a look around a mall of foreign imports. A combination of taxation and import costs, makes it literally impossible for any normal Cuban to pick up the most basic of white goods (basic microwaves are $200+). We also discussed politics and the outside world with Rocia, a topic all Cuban’s are understandably keen to talk with foreigners about, and her stance was that while Cuba has big problems and there system has not worked as intended (the US did shoulder some of the blame for this!), the sense of togetherness and caring for everyone is what makes the place special. There was a contradiction in that a lot people we spoke to who told us they were pro Castro, however there was a black market for pretty much everything and even those who believed strongly in the socialist model, operated within this black market to subsidise what they received from the state. Understandable though considering the poor living conditions a lot of Cuban’s endure! We got a taste of the black market as we went on our cigar tour of one of the government factories. As we finished the tour our guide, a 40 year old woman who smoked a cigar all the while, locked the door to the cloakroom and sold us a few cigars at a knock-down price!
We had planned to get a hire car with Rocia and her boyfriend and head in-land to ride on one of the trains that goes through a sugar plantation, however because of the price, we had to postpone! So instead we headed to the nearest beach on the public bus. Upon arrival we weren’t disappointed. The water was as aqua and the sand as white, as any beach you see on a picture postcard. As the day wore on more and more Cuban’s arrived on the beach to the point where there must have been 1’000’s of people and almost every man and woman and were drinking rum. To top it off, as we headed back to the bus stop on our way home, we spotted a young Cuban man washing the sand off his feet with a bottle of Havana Club rum, before getting into his 1950’s car. Sadly we couldn’t grab the camera quickly enough!
As we left Cuba after just 5 days we had a lot of unanswered questions and we’d certainly love to return for a longer trip. We both agreed this is one of the most interesting but also beautiful and friendly countries in the world.
Oaxaca, pronounced Wah-hac-a, is a state in southern Mexico known for its indigenous cultures its rich Moles – mole is a traditional sauce made with a lot of different ingredients, and Oaxaca boasts seven different types of mole. We stayed in the heart of the old town, with brightly painted colonial buildings, cobbled narrow streets and the stunning baroque Catedral de Oaxaca taking centre stage, it was beautiful – great for taking pictures…
During our stay, we visited a number of sites within the region, these included: Hierve el Agua – A series of small natural pools that have been excavated to form an “amphitheater”, from which you can admire the amazing scenery, whilst taking a dunk in the cool waters. Due to the variety and high concentrations of mineral salts, a pre hispanic irrigation system and various waterfalls that fell from the pool have been petrified.
Mitla. Its name in Nahuatl means “Place of the Dead”, while the Zapotecs called it lyobaa, meaning “Place of burials” Mitla was a place of residence for the Zapotec priestly class. It was inhabited from the classic period of Monte Albán (100 to 650 AD) , and reached its peak in the post-classical period (750 to 1521 AD). The layout of the city was probably planned with structures grouped in five sets, currently called the Columns, the Church, the Stream, the Adobes and the South. Santa María El Tule.
Among the natural beauties of this region is the huge, ahuehuete cypress called “El Árbol del Tule”. The tree is a wonderful example of Oaxacan flora, 40 meters high with a diameter of 52.58 meters, it weighs around 509 tons and is approximately 2000 years old.
Teotitlán del Valle. This town is where woolen rugs are made on domestic looms. The artisans here use natural dyes such as indigo, moss and grana cochinilla. We visited an artisan’s house to see the process of making a rug, it was fascinating, the time and effort that goes into making one – it was a shame we couldn’t bring one home with us…
Finally we visited a Mezkal Factory. Perhaps the most famous drink to come out of Mexico is one made from the agave plant: tequila. But there’s another drink derived from the agave, one less known but just as potent: Mezcal. And lately, it is moving on up among the hip and the chic, not only in Mexico but also abroad. We visited the distillery, where they showed us the processes, and how the roots are burnt and then fermented, and then we were giving the chance to sample a number of differently aged Mezcals…. they even had the worm floating in there to flavour the drink (something that tequilas don’t have anymore). We ended up buying a bottle of their 9 year aged, as that was pleasant on the taste buds – however we’re yet to sample it at home!
Arriving in Mexico city, we got a taxi and headed to the place we were staying at in Roma Notre, a trendy area with nice bars and restaurants in. The first thing we noticed was the sheer volume of Policia, pretty much on every road and every corner – I guess it once was the drug capital of the world, anyway we arrived safe and sound at our accommodation.
Daphne who we were staying with recommended a place for breakfast, she informed us that Mexico City has quite a french influence, especially within cooking, giving a french/mexico infusion. Walking around, it felt like we were in Madrid, really cosmopolitan, wonderful old buildings and plazas – it didn’t feel like the Mexico City the newspapers had created in my mind.
Walking through Alameda Central, a park downtown that is adjacent to the Palacio de Bellas Artes; it is the oldest public park in the city; we headed to the museum of Anthropology, an amazing museum, which showcased all the history of Mexico, how it came to be, the different inhabitants, Mayas, Olmecas, Aztecs etc and their varying patterns which represented their unique tribes.
On leaving the museum, we saw some dancers, who all climbed this huge pole, and then wrapped some rope around the top of the pole, which was attached to them, they then hung down, and started spinning, round and round the pole, whilst playing their instruments, before completing on the ground – it made us dizzy just watching it!
That night we headed to an indoor food market called Mercado 9 (if you’ve ever been to Madrid, it’s a bit like St Miguel market), where you get a taster of what Mexico has to offer, we grabbed a few Cervaza’s and got our taste buds flowing, tasting tostados, pickled, sauteed mushrooms, tamales, empinadas, churros with Mexican chocolate and a chirozo sandwich – was all delicious.
On our final day we ambled up Paseo de la Reforma (a grand street that runs through the centre of Mexico City) and sucked up the architecture and history, visiting; The Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) which is considered the most important cultural centre in Mexico City as well as the rest of the country of Mexico; The Zocalo – which is the main square, and one of the largest city squares in the world. It is bordered by the Cathedral, the National Palace and the Federal District buildings and the Old Portal de Mercaderes.