And then there were three…

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

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!

Dive 227: Aguas Calientes, Lake Atitlan (Guatemala)

Dive time: 00:50:00
Max depth: 12.2 metres
Temperature: 21 C
Visibility: 3 metres
Buddy: Andy
Altitude dive A2

I wasn’t overly keen to dive in the lake in the first place after hearing about all the contamination and pollution in the lake, but I was assured it was fine. Plus I thought it might be interesting to see some of the volcanic rock formations and feel some hot water vents.

I was buddying with one of the DMs and the viz was quite poor. It wasn’t helped by the silty bottom and that we were swimming behind a bit of a newbie who kicked silt up constantly. Not many fish to speak of, quite a few small crabs scuttling on the bottom, lots of lines and fishing net hazards, and some big igneous rocks scattered around. At one point we put our hands in hot water vents, which looked like dark jelly patches in the sand and felt gooey. Just felt weird and made me giggle and flood my mask!

A fairly uninteresting dive so I decided not to do a second!

Monkeying around

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!