After a great day for Caroline’s 21st birthday the previous day we set off from San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico in the morning with warnings from our lovely home-stay hosts to be careful as it was Guatemala and it could be dangerous. It was the last we needed to hear and made us question our decision to make a more independent way across the boarder to Guatemala than hopping on the easier but more expensive shuttle from town. In the interests of budget and experience we chose to do the following instead:
Take the 3 and a half hour bus to the Mexican boarder at Cuatamoç, do our immigration exits from Mexico, catch a taxi through no man’s land, do entrance immigration to Guatemala, change our remaining Mexican pesos with a boarder bandit, catch his brothers taxi to a bus station, board a chicken bus for 4 hours to random town’s (Huehuetentango) intersection (stand in the middle of a road looking like gringos!), catch another 2 hour chicken bus in the pitch black to Xela (Quitzemaltenago). It certainly wasn’t the easy option but it was interesting at least! We got some of the finest musical entertainment from a lad called Douglas who played the clarinet whilst his mate played the guitar and sang. Just to finish the day off when we got to the outskirts of town we jumped in one last minibus (collectivo) to the centre and landed on our feet when it dropped is within 100 meters of one of the hostels we were looking for. We booked a room for £12.50 and went and ate for the first time in 12 hours and demolished some pretty fine ribs.
Over the world’s biggest burrito breakfast we decided to head to San Pedro on Lake Atitlán and caught another chicken bus from the most chaotic bus station we’ve come across so far but £5 for the two of us to travel for 3 hours was a pretty good deal to say the least. Let me tell you a little about these chicken buses. They are the old style American yellow school buses that have been pimped up beyond belief with incredibly bright paint jobs and an insane amount of chrome on every available space. They really are quite a work of art. Inside they are not particularly glamorous but are pretty comfortable really. The only problem is that the roads are super bendy and the drivers pretty much go as fast as they can regardless of how high up a mountain they are or what’s coming in the opposite next direction. They are also never ever full so when all the seats have three people on each of them people then sit in the aisles and then stand. It was a fun experience but made typing this blog a bit more difficult.
We had heard Hostel Santa Fe was beautiful so we thought we’d got lucky when we managed to book the last two beds for a few nights. However, all was not as we hoped for as when we arrived at a fairly shabby looking hotel we were greeted by an 11 year boy working the reception shift. In broken Spanish I proved we had a reservation which he seemed confused about as the hotel was full! He said his boss was out Captaining a booze cruise and wouldn’t be back for 3 hours. All of a sudden he had a little change of heart or an idea and said we could have room number one. It sounded like a good room so I went to have a quick inspection and was suitably disappointed. It was pretty reminiscent of a prison cell as it was just 4 walls and single bed but it did have the luxury its own toilet and freezing shower. In the interests of budget and not being bothered with wandering the streets in the heat we agreed to take the room with a promise of a bigger bed being put in to the room later when the boss returned!!
Needless to say when the boss got back he was more than a little surprised we had been put into room 1 and it became evident we wouldn’t be getting a bigger bed, which was fine to be honest, all we needed was at least another pillow! To be fair to the boss (a young English guy) he was very nice to us and said we wouldn’t have to pay for the room and also said our first beers were on the house. So we just hung around in the great bar area overlooking the beautiful Lake with its enormous volcanoes surrounding us. Eventually we headed off to another bar called Buddha Bar were we had some pretty healthy food (for once) and more cheap beer. It sure has been nice to be back in countries that are cheap again after Australasia, beers here were back to being only a pound!! They certainly helped us get some sleep in our single bed for the night!
In the morning we decided to find somewhere slightly less chaotic to stay and went to check out. Amazingly enough they said it was all on the house! They didn’t even want us to pay for our 8 beers we’d had the previous night. It was a very kind gesture by them and even when I tried to give them some money the told me not to worry about and just enjoy our trip. The karma gods were back on our side again.
We had found a lovely hostel called Zoola which had a swimming pool over looking the lake, a really cool lounge area, big bar and a much more relaxed feel about the place. That night we settled into the bar and had a pretty fun night making friends with people from all over the world. Time got away from us and we had to make a late night food run and ended up eating some pretty tasty kebab style street food.
Our final day in San Pedro La Laguna was a lazy one. It probably had a lot to do with the free tequilas we’d been knocking back the night before. We did however manage to achieve something meaningful! We finally booked our flights out of Guatemala to Peru and most excitingly to a city called Iquitos where we would be entering the Amazon from for 5 days! It’s always been a place that has fascinated me and its a real life long ambition to go. Caroline is also very excited whilst at the same time absolutely petrified of the fact that we are pretty much guaranteed to see a few snakes!! The flights were super expensive and have taken a huge chunk of our budget but they were the only realistic way of getting down to South America quickly and will hopefully be worth every penny.
Next stop was Antigua (a city in Guatemala) so we got up early and caught a shuttle minibus at 7:30 am. We were staying at Basecamp Hostel and when we got there the nice American dude, Victor, upgraded us from a dorm to a nice double room instead. A nice touch. Antigua is a beautiful little city with cobbled streets and old Spanish Colonial architecture. There are lots of really old churches and convents and despite the now customary police and security guards with guns it had a very safe feel about and there were many more American tourists than we’d been used to for a while.
When we were in Playa Escondido the hostel we were staying in had some amazing material hammocks there and they had told us that their boss had brought them back from Guatemala and I promised to buy Caroline one for her birthday which we would send back to the UK somehow. We had failed to find them in Lake Atitlán but then found hundreds of them in the local handicrafts market in Antigua. After lots if haggling we left the market with a beautiful hand weaved blanket and hammock and a little pressie for my needle-skilled Mum! They are absolutely beautiful pieces of work and the vibrant colours will look great back in London if they survive the post and the bandits!!
Now, I’ve always enjoyed a cup of coffee and that love has only increased by visiting all these fantastic coffee producing countries so when we got to Guatemala I really wanted to go on a tour of a coffee plantation to see how they make this wondrous magic bean into the joyful drink! So we headed of to The Filadelphia Plantation just outside Antigua. Our guide then spent the next two hours telling us everything about their coffee starting with how the plants are grown and harvested by hand to ensure that the are 100% arabica beans and not the lower quality robust beans farmed more in Brazil. The level of detail he went into was ridiculous and it felt like we were on a biology field trip at times. It was however really interesting and good to see just how much work goes into making the beans. Next he took us around the mills, drying terraces, hand sorting rooms and roasting area. It was funny to hear that they only allow women to handle the baby plant cuttings as men’s fingers are too acidic and that only women were allowed to do the sorting of the final beans as men are more likely to be colourblind and therefore not spot a less than perfect bean. The best bit of the day however was the tasting session at the end. Caroline had an Americano and I had an espresso. The coffee was amazing and definitely the freshest we’d both every tasted. Unfortunately the R. Doltan coffee wasn’t for sale in England as it is nearly all entirely shipped over to Japan. At least next time I have a coffee I’ll know a lot more about what has gone into making it!
That evening we headed to a Welsh owned bar called The Ocelot as we’d seen they had a pub quiz on. After out disastrous last attempt at a pub quiz in New Zealand ended up in us coming last we thought things could only get better. They did. Only not much better. We managed to come second to last this time after a strong music and movies round. It was only a small progression but it progress nonetheless!!
We spent about an hour of the next morning trying to figure out exactly how to post all our beautiful blankets and hammocks back to Blighty. Eventually after skanking a box from a super market and buying two large bits of brown mailing paper from a random stationers we managed to get the big box of goodies on its way back to England but only once we’d proved to the lady at the post office that we weren’t smuggling anything back to the UK. In all it cost us about £35 to send back and was going to take a month to get there hopefully!! Still the prices we had paid for the stuff still made it a good deal!
Guatemala is famous for being volcanic and the volcano of Pacaya has been very active in the last two weeks so we decided it was a great time to climb up it and hopefully see some glowing red lava!! However after a pretty steep 2 hour trek to near the top our guide informed us that there was no lava to see at the moment, however, there had been a small eruption just two weeks ago. As we were so high we were right amongst the clouds wandering over lava (solid grey magma) in a misty white atmosphere. It was a cool place and felt a bit like being on a movie set somewhere between Star Trek and Lord of the Rings. As it was still a very active volcano we weren’t aloud up to the crater but we were treated to toasting marshmallows in the searing heat escaping from holes in the rocks. It was surreal but a great experience.
As we had a super early flight scheduled we decided we would be much better spending the night in Guatemala City than Antigua. After being told that it was a dangerous city and doing the wrong thing of reading the Internet stories we didn’t have great expectations of the city and after an hours chicken bus ride (for 25p) we jumped in a taxi to get to our hostel. It certainly was a pretty intimidating city, there were armed guards and police men outside most shops. We’ve kind of got used to seeing guards with guns in Mexico but the volume of them here was so much higher. Anyway we got to our hostel for the night which strange as we had to get passed an armed gate at the top of the road and then through more security gates. To be fair the house we stayed in was lovely even though the owner was pretty eccentric. There really wasn’t too much around and the lady told us the only food options were either take away or this little country club. So dressed like travelling tramps we went and grabbed some lunch whilst sat beside this posh club’s swimming pool. We felt a bit out of place although luckily there was nobody there.
That evening I visited Crossfit Sense and got truly destroyed by them and after a throughly average Chinese Takeaway we grabbed an early night as our flight was at 05:12 the next morning. However the local dogs and army barracks next door had other ideas about letting us get any sleep. We got to the airport about 3 am and thought we would just fly through check in. How wrong we were!!! The lady behind the desk insisted to see our onward ticket out of Peru. No problem we thought as we had our itinerary showing our flight out of Sau Paulo in April. She insisted this wasn’t enough and that she’d have to run it by her supervisor. This supervisor was a right jobsworth and said we weren’t going to be allowed on this flight without a ticket out of Peru as he said Peru Immigration can sometimes be funny about this. We had experienced this sort of thing before but as soon as we showed our round the world itinerary it normally had never been a problem. Today wasn’t going to be a normal day and they let us try and book a bus or flight on their computers upstairs. It however was to prove impossible to book a bus ticket from Peru to Bolivia online and flights were astronomically expensive. I asked them what time boarding was for our flight and they said in 20 minutes. It was at that point I realised they were going to make us miss this flight. We were not happy, not happy at all. They told us not to worry as they would put us on the next flight anyway but they still wanted proof of our exit out of Peru. At the end of our tether and with the check in lady also finding it impossible she had an idea. She basically temporarily reserved us a flight out of Peru in 4 days time. It was a solution to a problem they had created only now we knew we had to tell a white lie to immigration. Guess what, when we eventually got to Peru they never asked for proof of our onwards travel so all that stress and a missed flight was for nothing. We were however now in Iquitos, Peru and were off to The Amazon!!!
Hopefully won’t be too long before The Amazon blog is put up.
Tommy and Eccles