We arrived into Cancun, Mexico to a scene of chaos! The queue through immigration was colossal and to make matters worse we picked the worst possible queue and seemed to wait for hours. We felt a little better when we saw that Ewan McGregor and his family had to wait in line as well. We headed straight on to Playa del Carmen for a night, then over the border into Belize and up to Sarteneja on the coast in the NE of the country. Sarteneja turned out to be pretty low key, we were the only visitors that month to the national park! It was easy to see why...as the hoardes of mosquitoes followed us around on our walk. We had been supposed to be searching for a lagoon...but our guide got us lost in a waterlogged swamp and instead we spent a couple of hours wandering through the waters cooking nicely in the sunshine! But they did have a great observation tower soaring above the canopy....
We only stayed a couple of days in Belize as we were eager to get to our Spanish course - so we headed straight onto Guatemala. We arrived into Flores on the 23rd December and breathed a sigh of relief. We'd pretty much been traveling continually south and moving every night since we left Portland a couple of weeks ago. We kicked back and spent Christmas Eve relaxing by the lake and wandering around the cute little streets.
Christmas Day was perfect....the morning spent watching a Christmas movie and then out for a slap up steak lunch. We managed to communicate with our halting Spanish that we wanted to drink our prized bottle of Napa red and also for them to cook our Christmas pudding that we'd been lugging around. I think they thought our Christmas pudding a little odd but the chef obligingly popped it in the microwave for us!
Boxing Day was a 5am start and off to the main sight in the area - the jungle shrouded Mayan temples of Tikal. We had a 4 hour guided tour around the temples with plenty of time for scambling up the temples to admire the view. Tikal was only rediscovered in the late 1800's - by chewing gum hunters, who having climbed up the gum trees were amazed to see the tops of the temples poking out the top of the canopy. It wasn't possible to see them from the ground as the jungle had swallowed them up. It was a pretty atmospheric place to wander round early in the morning without the tourist hoardes.
In a rush to commence our Spanish course we bravely boarded a night bus and arrived into Quetzaltanango or Xela in the Guatemalean highlands. We found a great language school called Miguel de Cervantes and we checked in there and signed up for classes! Xela is a perfect place to study Spanish - a city that didn't feel too big, full of nice bars and cafes and complete with beautiful architecture. We had fours hours of classes in the morning and then the afternoons free to enjoy Xela or head off on a trip.
Every Friday was a potluck lunch where everyone at the school got together and supposedly cooked specialities from home for each other - not quite sure about our contributions. Fond memories of our time there.
Day trips highlights included a walk up to the Laguna Chicabel where we had a lot of fun bantering with the locals in our baby Spanish.
We also set off bright and early one morning to Santa Maria - the massive volcano that had been quite literally looming over us and Xela for 2 weeks. The alarm buzzed into life at 5am and we headed into the centrale parque to try and negotiate a taxi to the base of the volcano. After negotiating a reasonable rate, we set off in probably the worst vehicle of the year....we squeeked, screeched and rattled our way across the dirt roads to the start point. It was still dark as we left the village and headed up through the veg fields. Probably just as well that it was too dark to see what we were going to be climbing up!
We couldn't see a whole lot what with the gloomy light and the morning cloud cover. It was a pretty unrelentingly steep upwards climb and thankfully after 3.5 hours going up we finally reached the summit at about 3770m - and found lots of locals ensconced up there already, many of them seemed to be involved in some sort of Mayan/Catholic religious ceremony. We headed over for a view down to Santaguito, one of three active volcanos in Guatemala, and arrived just in perfect time to enjoy a tuna sarnie whilst watching an eruption of steam travel high up into the sky.
After 2 weeks in Xela it was time to leave, other than Delhi this was the place we'd stayed the longest - and to be honest after 28 hours of lessons our heads were starting to fry with all the learning. We proudly eschewed the rip off tourist shuttle going direct to Antigua and instead got on a local long distance bus and changed half way onto a chicken bus for the final section. We arrived into Antigua and immediately felt a different vibe.....everyone was a tourist! A pretty place, with many of the buildings dating back to the Spanish colonial era, but a bit of a challenge on a backpacker budget. Arriving into Antigua we realised that Bryn had left all his laundry hung up back in Xela....we immediately set about coordinating the school in Xela, a shuttle company and a hostel in Antigua in order to get it back! Thankfully, for $5 Bryn's laundry was able to follow on behind us and be reunited!
The main reason for our visit to Antigua was actually as a base to visit Pacaya, another active volcano, but this time erupting a steady stream of lava. Visiting Pacaya is a bit of a tourist conveyer belt, what can you expect for a 6 hour trip for $7. As we arrived at the start point, there were hundreds of tourists there, being organised into groups and setting off up the path, and kicking up swirling clouds of ash as they went. Little Guatamalean kids were clamouring round us trying to get us to buy walking sticks and hombres on horses were trying to get us to pay for a ride. We gladly set off with our group and were immediately surprised at the breakneck pace at which we seemed to be setting off at! To begin with we were walking through some woods for about 40 minutes ...and then suddenly we rounded a corner and could see Pacaya for the first time!
We descended briefly onto the dark grey lava field, onto lava flows which were 2 and 4 years old. The path was pretty good to begin with....the main problem being that it was fine ash and it seemed a little bit like one step forward, two steps backwards. Soon we were picking our way over large chunks of lava...grateful for our gloves and long trousers as the lava was razor sharp. We got to the top about 10 minutes before the sun dipped below the horizon....and got to witness the magical transformation as the active lava flows started to glow with increased ferocity. We could see the lava literally oozing down the slope...large chunks falling off and tumbling down. As the light continued to dip, we realised that bits around us were glowing red hot, we were actually on the lava flow!! We had brought the obligatory marshmallows with us and Fi enjoyed toasting them....amazed that they were ready in about 5 seconds!! It really was quite an amazing experience....the beautiful sunset, other volcanoes silhouetted in the distance and all this whilst being on a glowing lava flow oneselves. As the light disappeared it was time to head down picking our way carefully across the lava boulders - we were pretty grateful for our head torches!
Enough volcanoes though for the time being....heading Honduras way for some diving and beach time