Beach hopping

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After spending a few days in Tegucigalpa shopping for a replacement watch (a “Casio” watch for only $5), a new digital camera, contact lenses and other essential traveller items whilst avoiding being robbed again walking around the dodgy parts of town, I was picked up by members of the local World Vision office and taken to the steamy town of Choluteca, where my sponsor child Danny lives.

Danny is 7 years old and lives with his parents and 3 brothers in a house that World Vision sponsorship money helped to build.  I was taken around his community and shown the amazing work that they have been doing – building wells for drinking water, building a community centre,  installing water pipes to take away grey water, building more secure housing for the people, planting trees to stop erosion in the area, and promoting young people as mentors to encourage leadership in the community.  I definitely felt that my sponsorship money has made a world of difference already to the lives of the people in the area, so peeps, if you don’t already sponsor a child through World Vision…do it!

Leaving Honduras, I headed to the colonial town of Leon in Nicaragua.  After spending so much time in Tegucigalpa, it was such a relief to actually be in a traveller town where there are more eating options than just eggs, chicken, beans and rice!  Just to have fruit, yoghurt and granola for a healthy breakfast was like heaven!

I signed up for an afternoon of volcano boarding, which I thought wouldn’t be that daunting having had snowboarded a bit and also sandboarded in Peru.  With much excitement and a wee bit of trepidation, our group were dropped off at the bottom of the active volcano, Cerro Negro, and we had to hike about 45 minutes up gravelly volcanic rock and sand to the top.  It was only from the top looking down towards the foot of the volcano that the steepness really hit me, along with the images of having my skin sandpapered away by the abrasive volcanic sand if I wiped out. Ugh!

In the end, I managed to make it all the way down the mountain with all my limbs intact through some wise use of braking.  Much better result than the girl I had seen wandering around my hostel with a cast from a broken wrist!

From one colonial town to another, I bussed to the gorgeous town of Granada, which suits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua.  All the planets were aligned clearly because there just happened to be an Irish pub, O’Shea’s, in town in time for St Patrick’s Day!

From Granada, I made a few little excursions such as to the Laguna de Apoyo – a beautiful crater lake, Isla de Ometepe – where the largest volcano Concepcion erupted and spewed ash everywhere before my eyes, and the little islands just outside of Granada on the lake – where we saw spider monkeys.

Ed sadly left to go back to Australia, but I was not to be alone still – I went to Managua to pick up my mate Cheryl-Lee from the airport and also met up with our friend Jakkii.  We then headed to the beachside town of San Juan del Sur, not far from the Costa Rican border.  This place is well known for its surfing, and with that laid back vibe, it unsurprisingly was quite a good little party town too.  Jakkii and I got a ride to one of the local surf beaches, Playa El Remanso, but the surf wasn’t really happening and the sun was scorching hot, so we just retreated to the shade and cooled off with swims and cheap beer!  Still, it was nice to be reunited with the Pacific Ocean for the first time in over a year.  The beaches are still nicer in Australia though!

We sampled the San Juan del Sur night life at the local bar, Iguanas, which was packed with both locals, surfers and backpackers.  Cuba Libres for only $1 – you can imagine how that night turned out.  However it much worse for some – Blain was chased down the road by the bouncers of the club, tripped over and had a fight with the ground.  Sadly the ground won and he was nursing some nasty looking cuts the next day!

The border crossing into Costa Rica the next day was painful, which was not made any better by the searing heat and the lack of sleep.  It took us three hours to cross the border, then the bus driver from the border tried to rip us off, but after 14 hours of travelling we finally made it to the beachside town of Montezuma.

Everyone had warned us about how expensive Costa Rica was, and after 4 and a half months of cheap travelling, it was still a shock.  I kept converting everything from Costa Rican colones back to Nicaraguan cordobas and then back to Guatemalan quetzales and continually being outraged at how extortionately expensive things were!  Still, Montezuma is a really nice laid back place with a beautiful beach and a nice waterfall.  I climbed up some rocks on the side of the waterfall to make a 4m high jump into the pool below, but was so focussed on trying to jump out far enough so that I wouldn’t break my neck on the rocks that I didn’t actually pull my legs in enough and landed with a very ungraceful and painful slap on my thighs.  Oops!

We spent the Easter weekend chilling out on the Caribbean beach of Puerto Viejo, which had a nice vibe, even with the abundance of cliche reggae music blaring out everywhere.  There is a black sand beach here, creatively named Playa Negra.

The beach hopping has been quite a welcome way to deal with the intense heat here in Central America.  It’s so hot that I’m actually half looking forward to returning back to London and basking in some cold!

And then there were three…

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For a fiercely independent traveller who likes her own space, I have done pretty well over the last four weeks or so not to have strangled my travelling companions Ed and Steve.  And I’ve even been sober most of the time too!

I picked up Ed from Guatemala City airport and we met up with Steve in Antigua, Guatemala.  It’s a beautiful colonial town heaving with tourists.  One of the best touristy things to do here is to hike the nearby Pacaya volcano and we were in luck – lava was flowing!  Hiking through the lava field, it felt like I was Frodo plumbing the depths of Mordor.  When we finally reached the red hot flowing lava, it was so hot that you couldn’t get too close without feeling like all the hairs on your body were going to be singed off.  It was a really amazing experience – we even roasted marshmallows in the flowing lava!

We then headed up to Lanquín to visit the beautiful limestone pools of Semuc Champey.  Swimming in the pools was quite refreshing – really clear blue water – and there were some little fish in the pools that reminded me of those fish spas that I saw in Malaysia (they like to nibble on your dead skin!).

After another long bus ride, I was back in the lakeside town of Flores, where I had previously volunteered at the animal shelter.  The next morning, we awoke before the crack of dawn to visit the mighty Mayan ruins of Tikal.  We saw spider monkeys swinging through the trees and heard the roar of howler monkeys from miles around.  There were amazing views from the top of the famous Temple IV across the jungle canopy, where you can see the tops of other temples and pyramids poking out.  Apparently the Tikal ruins were the setting for one of the scenes from Return of the Jedi – anyone recognise it??

Leaving Flores for the steamy heat of Livingston, I didn’t even mind here that I hadn’t had a proper hot shower for something like 5 weeks.  We kicked back for a few days, chilling out by the pool and catching up on some holiday reading.  I even slept in a hammock for the first time!  Not entirely comfortable but if you were tired or drunk enough, I’m sure it would be more than adequate!

Finally, I said a sad goodbye to Guatemala and headed to the Bay Islands in Honduras for a week of scuba diving.  We picked up a trio of Swedes along the way and with our group negotiating power, I managed to get myself a really good deal for diving on the island of Utila – 10 fun dives, including all gear hire, and 8 nights accommodation for only US$200!!  The diving here in the Bay Islands is quite good and visibility ranged from 15-25 metres, although there was nowhere as much fish life in Utila as Cozumel, Mexico.  The highlight of the week was definitely coming face to face with a baby whale shark for the very first time.  The shark was around 5 metres long and a dusky blue grey colour, and it just looked so calm and serene.  Absolutely magic!

The lowlight of the whole trip so far was having our hotel room broken into in Utila.  Steve and I had literally just ducked out of the room for 15 minutes to grab some dinner when the thieves broke in through the window.  They nicked off with my iPhone, iPod, camera (with 4 months worth of photos!), my Suunto dive computer and all my spare contact lenses.  They even broke the lock on my backpack and found my passport but, strangely enough, just left it on my bed!  Unfortunately for me, I only bought travel insurance for medical expenses, so only my phone is insured through my UK bank account, but the most devastating thing is really the loss of my photos.  I guess I should’ve been more diligent in posting my photos to Facebook regularly!  Ed was probably more unlucky, with the thieves taking his passport and a credit card.

After leaving Utila, Ed headed to the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa whilst Steve and I headed to Lake Yojoa.  The region is apparently well known for the vast number of bird species that congregate here, but we were just here to stay at the D&D microbrewery.  My favourite brew was the Pale Ale over the Amber Ale, Raspberry Ale and the Porter, and the blueberry pancakes here are of epic proportions! And yes, I did finish them.

I am now in Tegucigalpa for a few days to shop for a replacement camera before I meet my World Vision sponsor child, Danny.  It will be interesting to see where my money goes!

Thanks to Ed for letting me borrow his photos for this post!  As for those bastard thieves, get a real job.

Spanish inquisition

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Before I arrived in Xela, I was trying to keep a “healthy” travelling lifestyle of two meals a day and no alcohol.  Of course, that all went out the window when I arrived in Xela – a great place to call home for a few weeks while I was studying Spanish and tear it up!

  • I kissed a very hot 22 year old Guatemalan chico, which was perfectly legit because he neatly satisfied the minimum age requirement of half your age plus seven
  • My host mum came out clubbing with me on quite a few occasions and was able to show me a thing or two about picking up younger men – she kissed one of my fellow students that was well below half her age plus seven!
  • I organised an Australia Day party, complete with Vegemite sandwiches and fairy bread, streamed Triple J’s Hottest 100, and even managed to get some random Aussies to show up too

  • I went to a cross dressing party on Lake Atitlan and had many people comment that a moustache looked great on me
  • I went to my first ever live football match – quite shameful considering that I’ve been living in the UK for the last two years
  • I think I may have even learnt some Spanish too!

I was speaking to my dad on my phone this week and telling him about how much I loved Xela.  He asked me what it was about the place that made it special and I just couldn’t put my finger on it.  It isn’t particularly picturesque, although there is a huge volcano that overlooks the city.  There are mangy stray dogs roaming the city, there is a lot of rubbish lining the streets, and I saw a guy wanking on the street at around 9pm at night.

But having said all that, it’s a great city with a fun vibe – not too many tourists, enough foreign students to have a good bars, cafes and restaurants, friendly locals, and a vibrant salsa scene.  Also, my Spanish has improved out of sight.  I would love to find a job or any sort of excuse to come back to Xela to live for another 6 months or so, but preferably during the summer – this Aussie bird can’t hack the highland cold!

I am now chilling out again on Lake Atitlan for a few days before my favourite ginger, Ed, arrives from Australia to travel with me for 6 weeks through Central America.  Keep an eye here for our travel shenanigans!

Monkeying around

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Originally when I planned this trip, I had intended to dive the Blue Hole in Belize on my 30th birthday.  However, I’d heard that it was a really short dive due to the depth so chose to dive in Cozumel instead.  Having now dived the Blue Hole, I have a tiny pang of regret at this change of plan.

The Blue Hole dive is just an amazingly different experience, even if I had to wake up at 5am (for two consecutive days even, since the dive was cancelled on the first day due to high winds!).  The Blue Hole itself was formerly a dome-shaped cave tens of thousands of years ago when the sea level was much lower.  Now, the roof of the cave has collapsed and the sea level has risen.  After rapidly descending to around 40 metres, I swam amongst hanging stalactites that were as thick and broad as old oak trees!  It made my mind boggle just thinking about how long these stalactites had been hanging for them to become so huge.  The hole is also protected from adverse weather conditions, so we had amazing visibility of around 40 metres, and we saw two large Caribbean reef sharks.

After a relatively short stay in Belize, I headed to Flores in Guatemala on the beautiful shores of Lake Petén.  I volunteered for a week at the ARCAS animal rescue centre with a United Nations cast of fellow volunteers from Germany, the UK, the US, Denmark, and Ireland.  It was quite an interesting experience, doing work that was completely different to my usual day job in an office!  I was cleaning animal cages, feeding lots of loud squawking parrots, raking sheep poo, carrying supplies up steep hills, but the most rewarding and fun task was bottlefeeding the baby howler monkeys, Tale and Carito.  They were just so incredibly cute that ARCAS were in danger of missing a baby howler when it was time for me to leave (fortunately for them, my backpack was already full!).

I am now in Quetzaltenango, or Xela, in the cold Guatemalan highlands, which is surrounded by many active and dormant volcanoes.  I will be here for the next 4 weeks intensively learning Spanish – 5 one-on-one hours a day, 5 days a week!  Thankfully, I have weekends off where I will be able to do weekend trips to some of the local Mayan towns and sights, and maybe even hiking up a volcano or two!

Fat Mexicans

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There are not many skinny Mexicans around, and when so much of their lovely food is deep fried and/or stuffed with cheese, it’s not really surprising.  And if it isn’t the cheesy morsels that tempt, the hot weather means that ice cream is always available and beckoning.  Thank god I’m nearing the end of the Mexico leg of my travels because I’m quite sure I’ve put on a couple of kilos since being here.  I must learn to say NO, rather than thinking “aah, but I’m on holidays!” because, for the sake of not only my figure but also my arteries, I can’t keep saying that for the next 5 months.

Of course, this was slightly relaxed for my 30th birthday, when I treated myself to a lovely, juicy ribeye steak at the fanciest place in Cozumel.  Heaven!

I did a couple of great dives in Cozumel off Punta Sur on the morning of my birthday, seeing a turtle, an eagle ray, and gorgeous reef fish and colourful corals.  I also tried to dive on Christmas Day, however it was pretty blowy out so the dives were cancelled.

All in all, the last few weeks in the Yucatan peninsula – Cancun (awful, awful place), Isla Mujeres (planned to stay here for 3 days and ended up here for 6 days) and Cozumel (nice diving, shame about the cruise ships) – have been pretty relaxing.  I arrived in Tulum yesterday to try some cenote diving, which were completely different to any diving that I’d done before and were a great experience.  The first dive was in Angelita, where we went through a halocline of hydrogen sulphate around 25m.  I couldn’t even see my buddy a metre in front of me through the cloud – really eerie feeling!  The second dive was in the cavern of the Grand Cenote, where the water was gin clear and we weaved our way through hanging stalactites.  Breathtaking dive!

Tomorrow is my last day in Mexico before I head off to Belize.  Adios amigos!

No mezcal for me, thanks

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After a manic week of people and pollution in Mexico City, it was a welcome relief to spend a few days in beautiful Oaxaca.  It’s a beautiful Spanish colonial town in the middle of three valleys, with a laid back and relaxed vibe.  There was a lot to do in the area – I wandered around the ruins of Monte Alban and Mitla, refreshed myself in the freezing cold springs of Hierve el Agua, saw the world’s widest tree (not as exciting as it sounds), and drank mezcal with a bunch of crazy Aussies from the hostel (the expensive golden stuff is OK, the clear stuff is like drinking paint stripper).

From there, I travelled to San Cristobal de las Casas, high up in the Chiapas mountains.  Being coffee country, I supercaffeinated myself and explored the hippie stores and lovely streets with alfresco dining and bars.

Despite desperate pleas from the Mexican manager of my hostel for me to change my ticket and stay in San Cristobal another night of salsa dancing (I’m clearly breaking hearts all over the country…ha!), I headed off to Palenque to see the amazing jungle ruins.  I had pretty high expectations of Palenque, since everyone told me how amazing they were, and I was not disappointed at all.  Our Spanish guide took us into the jungle to show us some unexcavated Mayan buildings, and gave us some fascinating background into the medicinal plants and the worshipping of Mayan deities.

 

For the last week or so, I’ve been chilling out in the Yucatan town of Merida, exploring the beautiful cenotes, the ruins of Uxmal, and indulging in some of the best pizza I’ve ever had (by Raffaello from Italy).  It’s a welcome break from the hectic travel schedule of the last two weeks, and is a bit of recuperation break before I head to the party towns of Cancun and Playa del Carmen next week.

Well, Merida is known for its all-weekend festivities, so I’m off to find some beer!

Men in lycra and other DF sights

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Mexico City is just buzzing with people.  Just when I thought that there could not possibly be any more people crammed into the streets or the metro, the weekend arrived!  I try to ignore the similarities to London’s Oxford Street on a weekend.

There is no shortage of interesting things to do and see in a city this big and with a history and culture so rich.  I’ve managed to cram in a lot of great tourist sights, such as awesome Teotihuacán, the National Palace, the Museum of Anthrolopogy (one of the best museums I’ve ever visited), the Catedral Metropolitana, the Templo Mayor, and the incredibly massive Chapultepec Forest and the Chapultepec Castle.

Some interesting or cool observations about Mexico City:

  • The mo’ is definitely still in!
  • Mexican men LOVE the “wet look”, and I have seen some absolutely enormous tubs of hair gel for sale in the markets
  • The Metro system is brilliant – regular and clean, and at less than 10p to anywhere
  • The smog and pollution here is slowly killing me
  • Looking like a backpacker, who doesn’t speak any Spanish, is enough to feign ignorance at all the touts or people trying to beg for money.

This evening, my mate Paul and I went to check out a fun family night out – the lucha libre!  It was much more entertaining than that WWE stuff that you occasionally glimpse whilst channel surfing (noone really admits to watching it right?), just because they don’t take themselves as seriously.  The star performer of the night was Místico, and he got us all whooping at his amazing acrobatics and amazing leg throws.

This was my super sneaky iPhone shot after my camera wasn’t allowed into the fight.

Of course, I was more than a little excited at all the lead up to the actual fight, with the wrestlers strutting out in their shiny jackets and capes, and then tearing off their velcro pants and tight tops, which had me swooning and squealing like a teenage girl at a Backstreet Boys concert.  At only 40 pesos, or less than 2 quid, for balcony tickets it has to be the cheapest strip show ever!

Tomorrow I am off to the beautiful city of Oaxaca.  Must remember to charge the iPod for the 6 hour bus ride.

‘Gators and tacos

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I spent my last few days in Miami soaking up the sun and hanging out with the fantastic people that I met at my hostel.  There are always some interesting characters that you meet when travelling – the strangest person I’ve met so far was an American bloke who fancied himself as a bit of a Che Guevara, anti-establishment type.  He was in Miami to buy a yacht so that he could sail to Cuba, despite not knowing at all how to sail.

But mostly, it’s been great meeting people from all around the world that I will probably never see again, but thanks to Facebook, we can keep in touch and perhaps cross paths in the future.

 

I also took the opportunity to visit the Everglades national park, since I’ve always fancied going on a ride on those air boats!  The trip to the Everglades was quite fun, getting up close and personal with alligators, seeing on of the park guides jump on top of a 6 foot ‘gator and the air boat ride out into the marshlands, zooming sideways over the shallow swamps and spotting turtles, little alligators and a few different varieties of birds.

I am now in Mexico City, enjoying the constant sounds and rhythms of this populous city.  There is music blaring constantly, drum beats, vibrant colours, and smells of street food!  I tried my first street taco yesterday at only M$10 each (less than US$1), which was was packed full of flavour and heat.  Being constantly surrounded by this amazing food, I think I will struggle to leave Mexico any less than 5 kilos heavier!!

Time is money

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For once, I am planning on not planning much of trip at all. I’m just going to play it by ear, go with the flow, take it as it comes.  It’s a bit tricky since there are certain things that I want or need to do at certain times – diving the Blue Hole in Belize on my birthday, studying Spanish at a school in Antigua, and visiting one of my World Vision sponsor children in Panama.

Then, my return flight from Bogota to London is at the end of April, although it is changeable.

A lot of people ask me how long I’ll be away for, and the details are always a bit sketchy. I figure that if I’m having a good time living out of a backpack then I can always extend my trip. But if my money runs out sooner from all the diving and partying, then I could be back in London before you can say “see ya later”.

Working out the budget for my trip has not been easy. I have a bit saved up, and I’m hoping that by the time I get my bonus (fingers crossed!), the bond from my current flat, and the money that my brother owes me, I’ll have a decent kitty to play with.

The Lonely Planet guide recommends around US$30 a day (Honduras and Nicaragua are cheap, Belize and Panama not so much) so I think I should be able to travel for a while! However, pressing on my mind is when I should move back to Australia and resume a more serious life. I do want to kick off my exciting business idea after all, and I’m definitely not a spring chicken anymore!

Oh well, plenty of time to ponder the rest of my life later. Only 8 working days left until unemployment!

Three decades already?

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I am turning the big 3-0 this year, and what better way is there to celebrate it than by chucking in my job and embracing unemployment? By doing this and throwing caution to the wind – backpacking alone through Central America whilst diving the beautiful Caribbean, learning Spanish, and working out what the hell it is that I want to do with the rest of my life.

I will be flying out of London on the 16th of November, spending a week diving in Florida, then starting my Central American adventures in Mexico City on the 23rd of November. I have a flight from Bogota back to London at the end of April but, who knows, if I’m loving it then I may stay a bit longer (and if I run out of money, then I will be back sooner!).
I’d really like to get to Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, but I may have to save those destinations for another trip.
Check back here for preparations, and blog entries and photos while I’m away.  Only 47 days to take off!