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Rock On, Tommy

Liberia, Tamarindo, Santa Elena

all seasons in one day
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The border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica has a reputation for being a pain to cross, with several sources telling me to expect long queues and fussy officials. The two countries have had a bit of a tiff and apparently the best way to resolve the squabble is to make life difficult for tourists that want to leave one and enter the other.

As usual at border crossings, there were two stops - the customs desk of each of the countries involved, separated by a small bus journey. Leaving a country tends to be a formality - get your passport stamped, pay any exit fee and off you go, and so it proved here. The entry to Costa Rica was not the 4-hour nightmare experienced by a couple of Austrian girls in our dorm in Ometepe, but there was still a long queue and the stern fellow behind the desk demanded to see proof that I would leave the country. I didn't have any so he told me I could only stay a maximum of 10 days' stay - or actually, as it turned out he'd written in my passport for some reason, 15. After another queue to check my bag I was out of there and on the bus in an hour so I got off lightly.

The way it'd worked out a lot in recent weeks was that I'd end up in a ghost town and/or travelling on Friday/Saturday nights, and the same was true here. I stayed one night in a town not far from the border called Liberia, and met up with Irish Paul who had come here separately. After a tremendous local 'casado típica' meal (rice, beans, plantains, chicken, salad and cheese) we had a drink in the one pub/diner we saw and called it a night.

It's been a couple of months now since I left the US and as much as I'm enjoying dipping my toe in the local culture I've had enough of the fizzy nonsense on offer in the countries' pubs. Belikin in Belize, Gallo and Brahva in Guatemala, Pilsener in El Salvador, Toña and Victoria in Nicaragua and now Imperial here all taste the same and after the first one has gone down to quench my thirst, I'm pining for my real ales and IPAs. At least Imperial has a decent label.

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After a long day's travelling, it was another early start the next day as we'd arranged to go to Rincón de la Vieja National Park. There were various hiking trails here, and we chose a circular route in the morning encompassing several hot mud springs and another in the afternoon ending in a lovely waterfall and pool that others chose to swim in. I instead found a long flat rock and went to sleep.

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There was a disappointing return on the animal front; we saw a few butterflies but that was about it. The most common beasts we encountered were ticks that surreptitiously attached themselves to any exposed body part and drew blood before you noticed they were there. Normally insects give me a wide berth but here I was peppered by them - I don't think I've ever been bitten so much. One even got me in the middle of the palm of my hand. As I refuse to use insect repellent it was my own fault as I was warned beforehand.

At the exit from the park we saw a large iguana that was wild but presumably enticed to the area by staff scattering fruit around. After I'd finished filming the reptile I looked down and saw about five ticks on each of my legs.

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That afternoon Paul and I caught the bus to the resort of Tamarindo on the Pacific coast. We found a decent hostel called La Oveja Negra (Black Sheep) and went out on the town around 9 o'clock, determined to see somewhere lively as it was Saturday night. After a few hours at Sharky's Sports Bar and Aqua nightclub, chatting to a couple of Costa Ricans (Alejandra & Irene) and a few comedy Americans, it was time to call an end to another long day.

It was very hot and humid in Tamarindo - and, by Central American standards, very expensive, nearly up to London prices. Our second day here was a very lazy day indeed, the most interesting thing being we found a craft beer pub where we supped a couple of slightly disappointing locally-brewed 'ales' with a Canadian girl called Julie, who we'd seen in Rincón, whilst watching the sun go down and bats swooping around gobbling up the annoying insects.

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I did my bit for Anglo-Irish relations by edging past Paul in a captivating table tennis match that swung one way then the other, and three buses later we found ourselves in a town called Santa Elena on the edge of the Monteverde cloudforest. Not, however, before the third bus broke down and we found ourselves stranded in some random outpost for a couple of hours or so. Everyone else stood around chatting whilst Paul and I found the nearest pub. There we for some reason seemed to attract the local village idiots, one chap in particular fastidiously sanding his spanner (not a euphemism) in front of us for about half an hour.

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That night I arranged to go to a bar to meet Will, the other Irish lad I'd hung around with at various stops recently. I'd just eaten a below-average spag bol topped with plastic cheese slices when he arrived, and one of these events precipitated me feeling somewhat nauseous. It was hard to concentrate on our conversation as I was convinced I was going to be ill out of one end or the other (plus the bar was far too noisy) and, sure enough, within the hour I'd had the sort of 'anus explosion' Jovan promised me after eating the spicy sauce in Mexico City, and also chundered at the side of the road in the rain. Another trip low point.

Whatever the cause (and I was blaming the revolting cheese), I was laid up in bed for the next day whilst Paul went off for a hike in the cloudforest, the main reason people visit here. I was much better the following day so took a look around Santa Elena. It was drizzling and very windy all day (unsurprising since it's next to a cloudforest) so I didn't see much except this lovely rainbow.

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Costa Rica has a higher standard of infrastructure than the other Central American countries I've visited. For example, the tap water was drinkable, comfy buses ran promptly to a defined timetable and in some places you could even flush your bog roll rather than placing it in an accompanying basket. One reason it is so high is because it is hugely popular with tourists (reflected in its higher prices), mainly for its biodiversity. They take conservation very seriously here - a quarter of the country's area is protected and deforestation is practically zero. It is also #1 in the Happy Planet Index, a measure of countries' ability to "produce long, happy and sustainable lives for the people that live in them".

I got to the cloudforest eventually. One of the most sought-after animals in the forest is the Resplendent Quetzal, a colourful bird with a long tail that gives its name to the Guatemalan currency. Despite our excellent Bobby Ball-lookalike guide Adrian Mendez, there was no sign of it, or for that matter many other animals, but we did see a few hummingbirds and a white-nosed coati.

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Bobby was doing his best to explain about the birds and plants we did see, and he did such a great job that even though we didn't see much it was still a very enjoyable couple of hours. Beside the entrance to the forest there was a cafe, outside of which were half a dozen bird feeders, and surrounding these feeders were hummingbirds of various sizes. I stayed there for about an hour as they flew all around us (at up to 50mph according to Bobby) with no fear of humans at all. By holding a finger out next to one of the feeders, the birds would fly over and perch themselves so they could drink the liquid contained within. This was one of my favourite things I've done in my time away.

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To top it off we saw an armadildo outside the cafe.

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Hummingbird/armadildo pics taken by Natasha Lappos - mine were mostly blurred.

That's it for part 1 of Costa Rica. Thanks to recent rain, part 2 is mostly written already so hopefully you'll be bang up to date very soon.

Posted by LordGibil 13:29 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

Jesus Christ, Super Star

Ometepe, San Juan del Sur

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This is the third time I've started this entry thanks to the lying website on two occasions claiming to have saved it when it didn't.

My journey from Granada to the island of Ometepe was somewhat tortuous as I had to change my plans at the last minute. After humping my luggage to the harbour, it transpired the 2pm ferry crossing didn't exist. Instead, I had to walk to the bus station (by which time I was a sweaty mess), take a packed bus to Nandaime, another to Rivas and a taxi to San Jorge. I managed to get the last ferry from there with five minutes to spare. The delay at least meant I was able to get some decent sunset pictures from on board the boat.

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The ferry arrived in Ometepe at the small town of Moyogalpa, where I treated myself to a night in a private room with air con (still only $10). That night I had a pizza by candlelight due to a power cut and, by the time I left, the water pipes had burst under the road, turning it into a stream.

Ometepe is a twin volcanic island shaped like a wonky number 8 situated in Lake Cocibolca (a.k.a. Lake Nicaragua), almost bisected by the River Istián. On the north section is the perfectly conical volcano Concepción and on the south is the shorter and less spectacular Maderas. Unlike most places on the backpacker trail, and despite there being plenty to do, there is no great tourist infrastructure on the island. There were no ATMs or tourist information places and the village I headed to next, Santa Cruz, only had one tiny shop. Various farm animals such as horses, pigs and chickens (plus the obligatory stray dogs) wandered down the road alongside the vehicles.

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A lot of the places to stay in Santa Cruz seemed to be working farms that offered rooms and/or food, rather than hostels. I did find a very laid-back hostel with banana plants, pink chickens (no photo sadly) and an excellent bar area. The wildlife here extended to the bathroom, and on one visit I saw a tiny frog in the toilet, a gecko on the wall, a beetle in the sink and a grasshopper on the cistern.

I hired mountain bikes with a couple of Irish people Paul and Lisa and rode to a spring water pool in the forest called Ojo de Agua (Eye of Water). The setting was so beautiful I overcame my usual water-based reticence and had a swim, including jumping in off a swing. On the way back I saw a monkey in the treetops.

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The next day the three of us went kayaking up the Istián. This first meant paddling across the lake for 45 minutes or so up to the isthmus between the north and south parts of the island which marks the beginning of the river, and this gave a perfect view of the two cloud-topped volcanos. The river itself was more of a swamp, and growing within it were gnarled trees with overhanging branches which we had to negotiate. The trees and marshland contained various birds that flew off before I could get within photo range.

Our guide was a young lad who said about eight words the entire time, once to confirm his name and the others to point out the creatures he spotted - several turtles and a couple of quiescent caimans. We couldn't get that close to the caimans, and they were so still they could have been made of wood for all I knew, but the three hours or so we spent in such glorious natural surroundings were the highlight of my time on the island.

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I had to move rooms that night and I was rudely awoken at 6am the next morning as a couple of my new room-mates were packing up their stuff and arguing about what to do next, an argument which descended into a frenzy of insults and pushing and shoving. All very entertaining despite the ungodly hour.

My next port of call was back on the mainland at a place called San Juan del Sur, a town renowned as being a place to let your hair down. The hostel breakfast bar area looked out over the beach and gave a perfect vantage point to watch the sun set. I saw someone flyboarding, a pursuit that involves standing on a board that is pulled along by a motorboat; the board thrusts water out the bottom allowing the individual to fly around mid-air. The guy here was a master at it, zooming around all over the place and diving in and out the water like a dolphin.

The flyboarder is visible in this picture next to my head:

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I had a good couple of nights out here with Paul (the Irish lad, who had followed me here from Ometepe), another Irish girl called Claire and a lad from Manchester called Joe, a character so easy-going and suggestible he would have put his head in the oven if you'd asked him to.

At one stage I was playing pool against a local and, despite him inventing loads of strange rules, I won, at which point he kept telling me I was 'dead' and drawing his thumb across his neck. I am not sure whether he was saying he was going to slit my throat or just trying to tell me that I had in fact lost the game for some reason, but he left soon after and I never saw him again.

On the way back we met a lad who said he had just been hit by a car, punched in the face and robbed of his phone and wallet. Physically he was fine, just understandably a bit agitated. In Central America you are often told "don't go out alone after dark" and "use common sense", and here in one hostel I saw a sign saying "don't go to the beach at night - you will get robbed". However, apart from my pugilistic room-mates a few days ago, I've never seen any bother in any of the places I have been so far.

Overlooking San Juan del Sur is the second biggest statue of Jesus in the world (after the one in Rio), called Christ of the Mercy, and the one touristy thing I did here was to climb up to see it.

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That rounds up the Nicaraguan leg. Next up, Costa Rica.

Posted by LordGibil 18:47 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Bell Ends & Turtles' Heads

León, Las Peñitas, Granada

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The shuttle bus to León took us through Honduras, nowadays regarded as the most dangerous of the Central American countries. The four border stops we had to make - out of El Salvador, into/out of Honduras and into Nicaragua - were remarkably hassle-free. We were told to stay in the bus after handing our passports to the driver, but only to stop people wandering off rather than for safety reasons. Apart from gaze out the bus window I didn't do anything in Honduras, but I will still count it in my 'countries visited' list in any future discussions.

Just 5km outside León the traffic came to a standstill. Instead of patiently waiting in turn to pass the obstruction, here it was every man for himself. It was a single carriageway road but vehicles were driving down both lanes until the whole road was blocked, at which point they started overtaking down both verges and pushing in whenever they encountered an obstacle. Effectively now there were four lanes of traffic all going the same way. It was chaos and our driver was a maniac, but I was thankful in the end as he probably saved us an hour with his 'skilful' manoeuvring.

León is a Spanish colonial city with lots of colourful houses and impressive buildings. The main Parque Central was more of a square than a park, containing a small market and lots of seats giving a great view of the city's cathedral.

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Later I met up with my Irish mate Will from Antigua and, after chatting to a couple of entertaining oddball travellers, we ended up having a sing-song in a karaoke bar until the early hours.

The highlight of my time in León was a trip to the nearby Cerro Negro volcano for the purpose of ashboarding - climbing up on foot and sliding down on a wooden board. Cerro Negro (Black Hill) is one of the newest volcanos in Central America, first appearing in 1850, and also one of the most active, a major eruption occurring every 8 years on average since then. Thankfully, unlike Acatenango, it only took 45 minutes or so to climb although, very much like Acatenango, it was a steep ascent up volcanic tephra and extremely windy. We were also carrying our boards and a bag full of protective clothing.

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Once at the summit we, with great difficulty due to the wind, put on our lovely orange boiler suits, gloves and goggles and queued up for our turn to slide down. From the top it was not possible to see the angle of incline so it was a bit hairy setting off. As it turned out, the first half was gradual and the second half much steeper. Our guide was waiting about halfway down with a camera to catch us as we sped down - or, in my case, fell off.

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One of the previous night's oddballs claimed to have been measured at 70 km/h descending on his board, although he did admit to having been beaten by a deaf girl. Our speeds weren't measured but due to my innate clumsiness I wouldn't have come close to that mark. In fact, I fell off again three quarters of the way down. Still, great fun.

Before I left León I paid the 75 córdobas (nearly £2) fee to go to the top of the cathedral and it was well worth it due to its excellent views of the surrounding area, plus it had several gold bells and an unbelievably bright white roof. One particular bell was very shiny and of impressive girth, and there was nothing to stop me grabbing the end and having a good yank, but I didn't want to alarm the townsfolk with a massive dong.

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I was keen to take a boat trip in the Isla Juan Venado reserve by the Pacific coast, about half an hour away by bus, so I booked myself into the Bigfoot Hostel in a nearby town called Las Peñitas. Now, this was clearly identified as a party hostel but I took a risk anyway and soon wished I hadn't. It was full of boisterous cool youngsters who think the word 'party' is a verb - none of them really doing anything wrong but just being annoying to a grumpy old fogey like me. One gentleman in particular insisted on shouting every time he opened his mouth - which was often - and wherever I was in the hostel I could hear him. My dorm was right outside the bar area and there was loud music blaring out from mid-morning until around 3am both nights I was there.

The three hour boat trip provided a welcome relief from the Bigfoot racket. My guide took me along the river through a mangrove forest in a big wooden canoe with an outboard motor for an hour or so, pointing out any interesting animals he spotted on the way. Two interesting animals, to be precise - an iguana which it took me five minutes to see and a porcupine in a tree which I couldn't see at all until he climbed the tree himself to show me where it was. Reviewers of the excursion on TripAdvisor had seen crocodiles but they were all in hiding on this occasion.

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Eventually we stopped at what was billed as a turtle preserve - but in actuality was a thatched hut with nothing in it other than a box full of (incredibly cute) baby olive ridley turtles and a cooler full of beers. The gist of what they were telling me (in Spanish) was that there is a 22km stretch of beach on which turtles lay their eggs, and the function of the preserve is to protect them from poachers and attempt to ensure that as many of the eggs hatch as possible. It wasn't clear at what stage they remove them from the nest but the ones in the box were waiting to be released into the sea that evening.

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After an arduous journey in three hot packed chicken buses, via León and the capital Managua, I arrived at a town called Granada on the edge of the enormous Lago Cocibolca (Lake Cock and Bollock). As with a lot of towns I'd visited in Central America, the centrepiece was a lovely tree-lined square next to a cathedral. A line of mangy horses with carriages queued opposite the cathedral ready to ferry tourists around on a city tour. At dusk, jackdaws filled the trees and squawked for an hour or so before it fell silent again. A volcano is never too far away in this part of the world, and the one by Granada was called Mombacho.

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One street near the centre was full of restaurants with outdoor seating, and in the evening it was a lively place to eat as street entertainers kept everyone amused and mariachi bands wandered from table to table whilst diners waited awkwardly for them to go away. Apparently this street had been designed and built up to attract tourists by the Spanish to help atone for their treatment of the town in years gone by.

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I stayed at the Backyard Hostel, an excellent place with most boxes ticked of what to look for in a hostel - including a couple of parrots that happily spent a large part of the day outside their cages either on a perch in the bar area or on the shoulder of one of the staff or residents. There was a good bunch of people there as well and I had a very enjoyable boat trip out to the Isletas de Granada with about twenty of them.

The Isletas de Granada are a group of 365 small islands created when Mombacho erupted thousands of years ago. Some of the islands contain holiday homes of politicians and the wealthy but most are too small for that. Isla de los Monos (Monkey Island) is a tiny island home to four monkeys introduced there as a tourist attraction. The tour company had provided us with a bag full of bananas and tomatos which we hurled towards the hungry beasts - there is no natural food for them on the island, and they can't swim, so (we were told) this was their only source of sustenance.

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Included in the tour was a copious amount of local rum, which was drunk enthusiastically by all aboard. We had a cracking night out afterwards and the night ended in a blur.

Before I left Granada I went up one of the churches, Iglesia La Merced, for a view of the town. Two youngsters dressed in robes turned up when I was at the top and took turns to ring the bells; my eardrums are still recovering.

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I'm enjoying myself out here, seeing some incredible things and meeting some fun people in most places I've been. My concerns before I left about loneliness and not meeting anyone I wanted to spend time with have so far proved unfounded, especially in Central America. I think I'm making the most of my time away, keeping a good balance between having adventures and taking it easy.

Hope everyone got through Blue Monday with no problems. I certainly did.

Posted by LordGibil 12:02 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Surfin' US-eless

El Tunco

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A shorter post this time to cover my brief stay in El Salvador - 4 days in total.

After covering off most of the main backpacker stops in Guatemala, my first and, as it turned out, only destination in El Salvador was a beach resort 4 hours from Antigua called El Tunco. The trip was uneventful and the straightforward border crossing noteworthy only for the state of a car parked outside the office. A blog posting would not be complete without some mention of excrement, however this time it comes in photographic form.

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Whereas Antigua was hot in the day and cool in the evening, El Tunco was blazing hot (consistently reaching 95°) and humid 24 hours a day. There was no air conditioning in my hostel dorm (Tunco Lodge) and the solitary fan could only do so much to assuage my discomfort. The place was otherwise pretty good - no hot water (not that anyone was complaining) but thatched roofs, a swimming pool, a sociable communal area and a pool table.

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I travelled here with Will & Maelle from the hostel in Antigua. A Norwegian girl in our dorm it transpired, as well as being a keen surfer, was a world class sailor and had competed in world sailing championships. She also looked world class in her bikini, so the day always started off in uplifting fashion as she prepared to go for her early morning surf.

El Tunco itself is a small town that is nothing more than a series of hostels, restaurants, bars and surf shops, plus a rocky beach with coarse grey volcanic sand. It is one of the top 10 surf areas in the world according to HotelClub website, and was unsurprisingly full of surfer types from all over the world.

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My only previous attempt at surfing was a shambles. It was on Bondi beach in Sydney in 2003 and was highly memorable, not only because it had to be abandoned due to lightning and hail, but because I was utterly appalling at it. I could not get the hang of it at all and didn't come close to standing up on the board.

I don't like being in the sea but I reluctantly decided to have another stab at it, knowing full well what would happen. My instructor was a boy of about 12 called Manuel who spoke very little English, but I can't blame anything on him - I understood what he was telling me and he did his best. I found it very difficult to get on the board in the first place, and even whilst lying down on the damned thing I was constantly off balance. After 10 minutes of attempting to paddle out to sea I was knackered and had to get the tiny Manuel to tow me out to sea just so I could be in a position to give it a go.

Most of the hour I had was spent slipping off the board, struggling to clamber back on it and paddling hard only to go nowhere. And resting. I only caught a wave (i.e. happened to be pointing towards the beach when a wave came) five times, but miraculously did manage to stand up on the board twice, for a grand total of about four seconds. This alone marked it as more of a success than my Bondi experience, and I would definitely have settled for that beforehand, but there was no disguising my overall ineptitude.

I cut my feet on the rocks on the sea bed and at one point my surfboard hit me on the head. I did not enjoy it at all, despite those four seconds, and was delighted when the pantomime was over and I could get back to dry land, where humans belong. However, now realising the physical demands of the sport and the enormous amount of skill required, I did at least emerge with a new-found respect for surfers.

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The following day I caught the local bus for an afternoon in another beach resort called El Zonte. The beach here was much nicer, proper (grey) sand and almost deserted. It was again extremely hot so after a quick walk down the beach, where I made some new furry friends, I sat for a couple of beers overlooking the sea watching pelicans doing a spot of fishing.

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At this point I was undecided about where to go next. A possibility was one of the islands off the Caribbean coast of Honduras (Utila or Roatan), where I could learn to dive, but I decided against that as it was out of the way and a pain to get to, plus I'd had quite enough of the sea for the time being. A good gauge of what is worth visiting is where the shuttle bus companies go, and there were only really three locations - Antigua (where I'd just come from), the capital San Salvador (not recommended) and León in Nicaragua.

So it is from León that I write this. My teaser this time: the next episode will reveal something else I'm not very good at - ashboarding, this time with pictorial evidence. Take a look at the photos on Facebook if you can't wait that long.

Posted by LordGibil 21:19 Archived in El Salvador Comments (0)

Mi Gato Bebe Leche Pero No Come Arroz

San Pedro La Laguna, Antigua Guatemala

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Apologies for the long delay between posts - I hope this didn't spoil everyone's festivities. Last time we spoke I described San Pedro as one of my favourite places of the trip. Looking back, that may have been overstating it slightly but I did enjoy my three days there.

I'd picked a good hostel this time, the Mikaso, as it was overlooking the beautiful Lake Atitlan - the view from the terrace bar area was none too shoddy:

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San Pedro was set up for backpackers with plenty of bars, restaurants and tour operators to choose from. I went out for a few beers on my first night with Bronagh, who had accompanied me here from Lanquín. We found a great bar in the centre called Alegre, owned by a Geordie who had come here as a backpacker 16 years ago and ended up staying (I spoke to a few people in my time here that had done a similar thing - seemingly falling in love with the place for its natural beauty and laid-back vibe). Later on we popped into the Buddha Bar, shortly after which a group of six Brazilians came in and started banging out some tunes on their drums. The place went from being sparsely populated to packed with people dancing within a few minutes.

My fun with Central American toilets continued the following morning as the one in our hostel refused to clear away my previous day's meals. Upon flushing, water poured out the top and not only flooded the bathroom but cascaded into our dormitory, wetting people's bags. I tried to stem the flow with a towel to no avail; it took a special task force of three Guatemalan cleaning women half an hour to mop up the debris. I could hear them laughing. This marked a low point of my trip.

That night we went back to the English-themed Alegre for a magnificent Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding and thick gravy, and a pub quiz, where we came second, winning 50 quetzals (about 4 quid) with a bit of help from a couple of American expats.

The Alegre, in San Pedro town centre:

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Most my time here was spent lazing in Mikaso's peaceful terrace area and generally relaxing. There were plenty of activities on offer, but the only one I did was an hour's kayaking on the lake. Apparently the water level has risen significantly over the past few years and a house next to our hostel had to be abandoned.

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That night I went back to the Buddha Bar to show the locals how to play pool, staying on for nine games before I was finally beaten. Earlier, in the Alegre, we met a deaf old drunk from Hull who wistfully reminisced about "good times" as a sailor, fighting in pubs in and around Grimsby. Hard to think that someone in such a beautiful location was pining for 1970s Grimsby.

After a protracted 4 hour shuttle bus journey, at the start of which I had to stop the bus to sprint back to the hostel to collect my shoes only to discover they were actually in my bag, I was back in Antigua Guatemala. I had booked to stay for the duration of the Christmas/New Year period. Here are the highlights of my 10-day stay:

Hostels
My imaginatively-named hostel El Hostal was superb: sociable, friendly staff, comfy beds, hot water and a great brekky - all that was missing was a hostel dog. For New Year I had to move to another imaginatively-named place called Hostal Antigua, a much less convivial hostel but I did meet and hang around with a good fun Irish/French couple Will & Maelle.

Spanish lessons
I took five one-on-one lessons lasting 4 hours each with my teacher Anna-Silvia. Everything made sense at the time but there's only so much it's possible to learn without constant practice. I have an excellent app called DuoLingo to help so hopefully by the end of my trip I will be able to come out with phrases more useful than the one in the blog title ("my cat drinks milk but does not eat rice").

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Christmas
Christmas Eve was to say the least a disappointment as I had arranged to meet a Canadian girl from the hostel called Lori and some of her mates, but she didn't turn up so I went to some bars on my own and didn't speak to anyone all night. Guatemalans love a firework and they were on the go all evening. Local youths threw firecrackers around in the streets, a habit that persisted every day until I left Antigua. Later I realised I had waited for Lori at the wrong place. No turkey for me on Christmas Day but I entered into the spirit by wearing a Santa hat and Skypeing home to talk with my family in Louth.

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Cerro de la Cruz
As the name ("hill of the cross") suggests, a cross that overlooks the town, with Volcán de Agua in the background.

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Acatenango
This volcano is one of three in the surrounding area that it is possible to climb, and the most difficult. Four of us, a guide and a pair of dogs set off on the climb at just after midnight with the aim of reaching the summit in time for sunrise. Now I knew this would be difficult based on the state of people I'd talked to after they'd just got back, and so it proved. The ascent was around 6000 feet, a lot of which consisted of coarse volcanic sand (known as scree) a few inches deep meaning your foot would slide down on impact, making it tough on the legs. It was also very steep, making it tough on the lungs. On top of this it was dark and we couldn't see clearly where we were going despite our torches.

The final 45 minutes or so was the toughest of all as it was the most steep and the scree was at its deepest, plus it was very cold and very windy. When we finally reached the summit, after 4½ hours, all I wanted to do was come back down again as it was so cold but our excellent guide, who had been collecting wood on his way up, built a fire and made us all a cup of coffee. Before the sun rose we saw the volcano's nearby twin Volcán de Fuego erupt and spill bright red lava down the side and at that moment it all became worthwhile. It happened too quickly to get a photo sadly but it was truly spectacular. After an hour of huddling round the fire, the sun rose and we got to see the area in daylight for the first time. As it was so cold I was hardly able to hold the camera straight, hence the poor quality of some pics, but here are a couple of the best.

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Our guide told us he goes up at least once a day every day of the year. I have no intention of ever doing it again - it is right up there with the most difficult things I've ever done. After a 2½ hour descent, a one hour drive back and an enforced hostel change I was finally able to relax - and sleep for 11 hours.

New Year's Eve
Much better than Christmas Eve - went out with a good group of people (Derek, Jenny and Alex from California, China and Coventry respectively) and had a great night. At midnight the main square was packed with people watching the fireworks.

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On 2nd January I finally left Guatemala and headed for a surfer's resort in El Salvador called El Tunco. To hear exactly how shit I was at surfing, you will have to wait a few more days. Feliz año nuevo...

Posted by LordGibil 18:50 Archived in Guatemala Comments (1)

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