Wednesday, 28 May 2014


The guy working the reception at Tortuga Booluga is definitely either high, hungover, or both. Probably the former as he wasn't too bothered by "our" indecision over whether to take a private room or a dorm.

Following on from the sleeping debacle in Guatemala City, I can't believe it's even a discussion, and as we're quickly shown to our room, Carly declares "you decide". Fine, private room it is then. "Are you sure? It's your decision." Yup, we'll take this room. "Do you think we should see the dorm?" You can look at the dorm of it makes you feel better, I'll leave my bag in here though. We check the dorm, it looks fine, but I really want to be able to sleep and lay my stuff out everywhere, so as per the original decision... private room.

After a refreshing swing in the hammocks, and a near total unpack of our kit onto the 5 beds at our disposal, it's time to get out and see what Leon has to offer, and it's pretty nice - I'm already liking Nicaragua more than Guat. Plus it has free pancakes for breakfast...oh yeah!

After a couple of hours wandering, and sampling local drinks in plastic bags,

...and what appeared to be a massive supermarket shop completed for just $10, we make our way to the Myths and Traditions museum. Entrance to this former prison turned showcase of curious art is a mere $2, inclusive of an English speaking guide. That description is generous, as while our friendly guide had carefully learnt the speech for each display, he clearly had no understanding of what he was saying, and neither did Carly. Admittedly you had to work pretty hard as he was pronouncing each syllable the way that it would be in Spanish, which led to some pretty bizarre descriptions, the best one being the "shark of death" when we were looking at a papier-mâché model of a skeleton horse drawn carriage full of more skeletons. After checking 3 times what this was Carly accepted that it must somehow represent a shark of death, and only when the guide had stopped his little speech for this room could I translate for her - Chariot of Death (obviously!).

Few pics of the rest of the museum...highly entertaining!

This next one is only one third of her normal size, she is a puppet used in the parade where the woman represents the very tall, sexy and big busted Spanish women and he man, (see above) is short with a massive head (big brains)... Would love to be a part of any of those parades where the parody created by the local people laughing at the Spanish conquerors has become such a part of Nicaraguan festivals.

Next up, first haircut of the trip for RD, as up to this point I was in danger of turning into a fluff ball. Grade 2 all over, including the beard, and I'm much closer to being a smarter human being again, or I would be if I could remember the last time I showered, or if my process of selecting clothes for the day didn't include a hearty sniff of each item to test it's road worthiness.

As we leave the barbers, the heavens open and we retreat back inside for shelter. Enough rain is falling to set off car alarms, but every time we think we'll have to make a run for it, it suddenly rains even harder.

Eventually we can't wait any longer, and run as fast as flip flops will allow through the rivers that were formerly roads. Not to the hostel though, as we've spotted a bar on the corner called The Gecko which promises 2 for 1 happy hour margaritas. In Guat, happy hour basically meant that you paid the same price for 1 drink, but got 2 of them because they split it between 2 much smaller glasses. Here, it's done the way it should be, and we're quickly presented with 2 enormous frozen margaritas for £1.50. And half an hour later, 2 more. The barman doesn't even seem to mind that I'm openly wringing out my T-shirt over their recently cleaned floor.

We can't stay here drinking cocktails forever though (actually, we could!), we have plans for tomorrow and need a hearty meal, so we return to the hostel to cook up a feast with the shopping from earlier. Given the supplies and facilities available, the spag bol that CP conjures is nothing short of incredible, and the guacamole fashioned from the biggest avocado I've ever seen was a perfect accompaniment. It's been a long day, and there's just enough time to book us on to the activity for tomorrow - sandboarding down the volcano Cerro Negro...

We'd already booked on to a sandboarding tour through the hostel, but within 10 minutes we've met a couple of German girls also staying in the hostel, and they tell us about a different company, which does the same trip, but where all the profits go to special projects within the community... and you get a free t-shirt, which if we're honest, was the real deal breaker for us. By the time we're leaving in the morning (after an excellent breakfast of pancakes and fruit!), we realise that of the 12 people on the tour, 7 are from our little hostel.

We bundle into the back of a pickup truck, and pass the time on the hour long trip by spotting chickens, pigs, cows, and other fauna as we bounce around on dirt tracks, the dirt getting progressively more like volcanic rock as Cerro Negro looms ever larger in front of us. Our guide, Logan, tells us that he's only been here a week, and only done the sandboarding once, but we shouldn't be concerned...

They call it sandboarding but I'd call it sledging. There's no danger of standing up on this thing, which is essentially a piece of ply wood with a metal and/or formica sheet screwed on to one side. And this will carry us at "up to 70kph" down a rocky and steepening slope. First though, there's the hike up there. Spurred on by the excitement, we set a reasonable pace, stopping occasionally to allow any stragglers to catch up. Pretty quickly it's clear than one girl is struggling, whenever we move she's immediately 100m behind and going backwards. I stop, offer to carry her board, but she refuses. Another 100m later (for the rest of us) and she's barely moved, so I go back and take the board off her (hero mode), start walking with her, but she sends me on ahead.

While waiting some more, we tell the guide we don't think she will make it... he tells is that's bad news, because as there's only one guide, if one person turns back, we're all going back... er no!

It takes an hour to get everyone to the top, but we make it, views from the top are spectacular, both into the crater and out into the surrounding countryside. 

 This next one is for Caitlin as George took to the slopes...

Logan goes through the safety guff. Along with our boards we've also carried up a pack each which contains an ill fitting boiler suit, some gloves with holes in most of the fingers, and a set of goggles that you can't see much (anything) through but should at least stop the worst of the sand and rocks going into your eyes. At the top we see other tour groups, some of which have knee & elbow pads and a bandana to cover their faces. The bandana seems like a good idea, the rest isn't going to do anything to help if you crash anyway.

Final information from Logan - there's a left route and a right route, we'll be going from alternate sides depending on the signal he gives us from his position halfway down the mountain. I happen to be first to go down the left route... after an inauspicious start where the board repeatedly dug into to the deep stuff and I had to get off 6 times to empty the crap off it and try again, I got up what initially felt like some reasonable speed, before definitely getting off track and on to some much lumper stuff near the bottom. As I come to a stop having missed the run off area by about 30 metres, I'm thinking it was "alright" but nothing special. Then as I'm making my over to the run off zone I realised that my hearts going pretty fast so maybe it was pretty good?!

When the next guy comes down the left route he has the same troubles as me at the start but manages to stay on line to the end, at which point a guide from another tour company comes running over to tell that this is "CRAZY!" - what?! He explains that the "left route" that Logan has directed us to is a new pathway that has been made for people to walk swim, isn't safe (hardly any run off area, curved - hence me going off line, and hasn't been cleared of the larger rocks so it's too dangerous for us to be boarding), and that in 5 years of being a guide here he hasn't seen or heard of anyone boarding that route... FFS!

(Note the extreme lack of run off area, which is populated by some pretty chunky rocks...)

We can't do anything about alerting the others at the top, so we trudge off to the end of the correct routes where the run off area is massive, and the people there (including Carly) are busy revelling in the stories of their downhill adventure and passing around a couple of beers. 

CP had managed to acquire the beers by offering other group who had the beers any amount of money (which incidentally, she had none of and was hoping the others in our group had some), whatever it cost, in exchange for the beer, but money was not needed as they had seen her crash out spectacularly and gave three massive bottles of beer to us out the goodness of their hearts...we've never appreciated a beer so much!  Carly has managed to stack it spectacularly on the way down, after heading down straight after me on the right hand side. She got up some wicked speed and then slid off about half way down. The googles were doing nothing to keep the black rock and sands out and were actually a hinderance in seeing anything at all, so it was slide and hope at times!  After the first slide out, CP was back on and heading straight down at epic speeds.... So much so that about 15m from the bottom, she crashed out spectacturarly, including no less than 3 airborne somersaults, gloves being flung 20m, bag breaking and goggles lost, but other than a broken camera (thanks for that!) she has no noteworthy wounds to show for it and her sunglasses survived somehow - maybe the boiler suit did it's job after all?

Alright, so maybe my ride wasn't so bad - blazing a new trail including going off course, so yeah, I'll share that beer, celebrate our survival! When everyone's finished and back to the bus where we can get some lunch, we're asked if anyone wants another go - a couple of us from the wrong route had said we might do it, but no one really wanted to climb for an hour just for a few minutes of action. One by one we all said we weren't fussed, and it looked like it wouldn't happen, until I asked a guy from French Caledonia called Thibault who was staying at our hostel if he was keen, and he gave a very Gallic shrug and said "well....". My reply surprised even me: "fuck it then, let's go back up!"

Next thing there's 6 of us grabbing boards and heading for the climb. CP decides that she's probably used one of her 9 lives already and politely declines another chance to cheat death, so for once the roles are reversed, and CP stays behind as I head off for another dance with the devil.

With none of the slower climbers in the group, we're blasting up the climb, no stopping, no pissing about, and we're there is less than 30 minutes. We needn't have bothered as there a big group taking an age to get down the slope so we're in for a wait anyway. In the meantime Logan sets us a task - apparently there are 5 countries in the world which if you write their names in capital letters, you can't colour in any of the letters... Go!

Finally we're ready to go again, and having now seen the correct left/right runs, it all makes a lot more sense! Meanwhile a tour group of locals are doing the same thing, but with no safety kit. Instead the are going in short shorts and skimpy vest tops... predictably a woman wrecks as she hits the steepest part - from the top we see her disappear then an arm and a leg appear as she gets airborne and takes a big tumble... when she finally clears out the way, we launch ourselves down the volcano one by one, this is more like it! According to strava, I hit 48kph (vs a paltry 27 before crashing out and sliding for a while without the board, OUCH! Some decent wounds on an arm and a leg but I clamber back on and finish the run - no beer at the bottom this time, but I feel like I've earned that free t-shirt! CP definitely earned the shirt and we both felt very satisfied with our efforts, although I'm not sure CP liked waiting around with the "girls" whilst I went off to have more fun for the second run...

Back in Leon, and it's time for some more sedate pass times - we visit the cathedral, normally a place of peace in any city, but in this case a deafening echo chamber due to the ice cream truck bicycles that parade around Parque Central. 

Having seen (and heard) enough, and devoured the remaining spag bol from the day before, we retired to the gecko for more of the happy hour margaritas.

Spurred on by a couple of guys from the sandboarding, we made our way to another bar where we sampled a Michelada for the first time. This is a "beer cocktail" that I'd heard about before getting to Central America, but this was our first one... it's a beer, served with ice, in a salt rimmed glass, with salt, pepper and tabasco mixed in. It's an acquired taste, but now another thing added to the "stuff to try back home" list. CP was concerned about the fact that salt and pepper was being added to her beer and she was being charged for the privilege, but it had to be done.

After that, it was back to the hostel - we have an early start in the morning which should be a bike tour of the city, which we've been trying to organise since we arrived here. The bike tour comes with a 7am start, so we're up at 6:15am, missing breakfast, and RD is grouchy! Even more so when we get to the alleged start point of the tour to find it deserted, with no signs of life there off a very long time. We did at least get to experience the cathedral at its tranquilo best, and got back to the hostel for another pancake and fruit breakfast.

Since we were up early, we figured we'd make the most of the morning and check out the revolutionary museum before our bus to Granada. Here we managed to learn about the history of Nicaragua and Leon, the national war, and the civil war (as recent as 1979), and our guide was so good that we'd already decided to tip him when he told us that they didn't do tips, but we could buy the DVD that they make detailing the revolution, and featuring live footage of the assassination  of a deposed dictator, Samoza... we haven't watched that yet...

This was probably one of our most insightful activities, as not only did we leant about the very recent, and continuing struggles of the Nicaraguan people, but we saw the charity of the city of Leon first hand, with the museum also acting as a homeless shelter, giving basic food, shelter and medicine to those living on the streets. Our guide was even able to identify and give the stories of the various individuals we had seen on our explorations round the city, obviously knowing intimately their situations and lives (for example, we had given a bit of money that morning to a man who was pulling himself along the pavement with his bare hands as he had only one leg. He had not been asking for money but he definitely looked like he needed it. Our guide told us that the guy was homeless, but it was by choice and that he had lost he leg because he had fallen asleep drunk on a railway track and been run over. He had been given wheelchairs (no less than 7 over the years) and clothes but always sold them so he could buy more booze...still, the museum helped him out when he needed it and imposed strict rules when he slept inside, no alcohol etc. it's always the stories of a city that gives you the real insight...

Back to the hostel to meet the German girls (Michelle and Sabine) who we will travel to Granada with, and off we go!

Cameras broken: 1 (RDs camera, broken by CP)

Friday, 23 May 2014

Guatever, we're going to Nicaragua!

Having paid the princely sum of 80Q each (£6) for what is billed as a 6 hour bus journey from Rio Dulce to Guatemala City, we're expecting the usual el crappo tourist bus with bags launched and top and lashed to the roof rack with a length of rope. When Chris, our host at the roundhouse points at an actual coach and says "that's probably yours", my first thought is that he's probably been on the beers (very) early this morning.

I'm still dripping wet from the rainy boat ride when we slide our bags into a proper luggage compartment beneath the bus, and again check with the driver that this is correcto ("vamos a Guatemala City, si??"), and clamber on board to our allocated seats. The aircon (what is happening!?) is so good that I have to change out of my wet clothes.

When the coach leaves right on time, we're both shocked. At this point it's hard to tell which country we're in, as for the first time it's allocated seating, air con on max that I'm regretting not grabbing some warm clothes from my bag, footrests, cup holders. After an hour a film is put on, although admittedly it's a pirated DVD (a "Joshys entertainment" original), its badly dubbed into Spanish, and there's no subtitles, but we could be cruising along on a National Express coach on the M25 - except this bus is nicer.

5 and a bit hours later (ahead of time?! and we're rolling into Guatemala City. And it looks grim.

Park up at the bus station, and successfully navigate the throng of taxi drivers all trying to grab your attention, or failing that, just grab you. I go in to get directions to our humble abode for the night CP queues up while the drivers assistant (!) gets the bags out for us. With directions and bags sorted, we set off back thru the taxi drivers. If I've said "no, gracias" to the first 4 taxi drivers, what makes the next guy think that by stepping into my path and shouting "TAXI?" will get a positive response. Clearly the only acceptable method to deal with this is to walk straight through him.

Something about Guatemala City makes you feel quite uneasy, but we think that's more to do with the fact that everyone tells you in advance that it's dodgy, not to be out after dark, etc, that puts you on edge. We didn't see anything to make us feel threatened, but we did walk at quite a pace for the 3 blocks to our hostel. The Guats all seem to stare at us, but we figure that as long as you smile and look like you know where you're going then really they're just curious as to why a couple of gringos are frogmarching their way through the city.

Safely checked in, and we brave the mean streets of GC again to go to the supermarket, as for the first time so far we've managed to pick a place with a usable kitchen. Pasta, veggies, salami and a chicken burger (spontaneous decision) made for a great dinner.

Sleeping is a different story - as we have a taxi booked for 4:30am, we figure there is no need for the "expensive" private room, just go for the dorm rooms and roll out of bed when the alarm goes. The beds are fine, my pillow feels like 2 phonebooks stuffed into a potato sack but it will do, and we're soon asleep. At 1am we're awoken by what at first sounds like a walrus mating call, but is quickly identified as a snorer. After 10 minutes the entire dorm is awake and whispering (why?) about what to do - what is the etiquette here. After half an hour, CP and another guy are stood over the snorer and I have to laugh when they manage to wake him to say "Micheal! You're snoring mate!". His grunted response was not distinguishable as words but he stops snoring for all of 30 seconds.

By now I have one ear pressed tightly into my two phonebooks, with the bedsheet held against the other ear. But rather than using the occasional few seconds gap between snores, I find myself listening out to see if he is still snoring. Next thing we know, the guy that had helped wake him earlier is also asleep, and apparently responding to the walrus mating calls. In the Tikal blog entry we explained how the howler monkeys had provided the voices for the T-Rex is Jurassic Park - we have to assume that this pairing were on standby in case the howler monkeys got sick.

By 2am, we've had enough, I'm ready to go sleep in the main reception area but CP finds another dorm with big double beds and no noise. Bliss, until some revellers return at 3am and the guy spends 5 minutes trying to convince the girl to sleep with him - give it up mate, it's late / early / both. At this point I realise that at the tender age of 32, I'm too old to be pissing about with communal dorm rooms to save £4 on a nights accommodation.

4:15am, and after some very sketchy sleep the alarm goes off and I tip toe my way out of the room. I've barely got my shit together when there's s knock at the main door and I have to figure out how to open up the hostel to greet a little Guat man wearing a binbag - apparently it's bee raining. In my best Spanish I tell him we'll be out in a couple of minutes and go back to find CP. Instead I found this painted on the wall which brought a smile despite the hour:

Uneventful taxi and checkin at the airport, although I'm disappointed not to be directed to the business class lounge that our expensive tickets demand. Standard completion of the Guatemala exit forms, but then I'm even more disappointed at security when our sporks which are tucked away in my hand luggage are deemed to be a weapon and so not allowed through. I'd checked this beforehand and they've been cleared by TSA in the US, so I'm prepared to argue my case. I ask for the supervisor, and then the supervisors supervisor. Apparently it's a "new rule" and although we point out that airlines will give out cutlery on board they won't back down, so I'm forced to go back through immigration to the checkin desks and explain myself, then once the sporks are safely checked in, I'm back skipping queues at immigration and security, now suitably raged so throwing my shoes at an unsuspecting official.

We decide that a coffee is the best way to relax, so after spending our last Quetzalas on a cappuccino and 2 of the smallest sandwiches known to man we make our way to the gate. Travelling business class as they were the only tickets left, we're allowed to board the plane first and then get comfortable before the jokers in economy have have time to sully the plane. CP is reasonably happy with the seats but I am revelling in it, stretched out, wrapped up in the executive class blanket, waiting for my champagne.

Sadly the first delivery is the THREE forms required to enter Nicaragua - wtf?

Halfway through completing those and the hostess has pulled across the curtain protecting us top class travellers from the shitmunchers back in economy - the reason for this is so they can't see the breakfasts that will be cooked to order and delivered to us shortly.

Oh - and of course breakfast is served with a full set of metal cutlery, rending the security guys spork issues redundant.

Ok, so I'm denied the champagne, but it's not even 7am yet so I guess that would have been excessive. We notice that one of the other passengers opts for no breakfast or juice, and I feel like shouting across to her - "lady, you have paid $300 for that seat, why on earth are you refusing the breakfast?!".

The other perk of travelling as we are is that we're first off, and breeze through immigration with no queues, get our bags and swiftly jump in a taxi to the bus station which will then take us to Leon. The brief taxi ($15) is a shafting in comparison to the 1.5 hour bus ($2 each), but we get there, and then jump in a waiting bicycle wagon (€2 total) to our hostel - and we've arrived at La Tortuga Booluda (the lazy turtle!) by 11am, a mere 6 hours of travelling that went taxi, plane, taxi, bus, bike thingo!

Thursday, 22 May 2014

(Doctor) Livingston, I presume?

We're unexpectedly greeted as we got off the boat in Livingston by Yusef, who would be our friendly rep for a 2 night stay at Casa de la Iguana. It's unclear if it was a happy coincidence that Yusef was at the dock, or if he'd been heading down there to meet each boat in the hope of finding us. After showing us to our room (a lovely airy wooden cabin on the second floor with a hammock and family of ants outside), he got to explaining what goes on at the Iguana over a beer (traditionally this is the way that all hostels should greet their guests!).

Figuring out the options for activities for the next couple of days, we opt to walk the couple of hours to "Las Siete Altares" (The Seven Altars), and tomorrow will be the Garifuna cooking class. First though, the important business of lunch, and Yusef recommends a restaurant down the road which is rated #1 on TripAdvisor for Topado, and which will also deal with our growing collection of dirty laundry.

Topado is a giant bowl of coconut cream soup, with a big selection of prawns, squid, fish, and crab cooked in it. Served with their speciality Mexican lemonade (apparently they don't just squeeze the lemons, they launch the whole thing into a blender and then strain it), it was the best meal we've had so far (possible exception is the lobster tails aboard the sailing boat in Belize...). We'll be trying to make both when we get home, but my suspicion is that neither will taste as good as this!

Suitably fuelled up for a walk, we set off for Las Siete Altares. We're told varying lengths of time for the walk, but as a positive, it's impossible to get lost on the way. Most of the walk is along the beach, through Garifuna country, where we see any number of small bars (shacks selling beer), a couple of tourist restaurants (toilet stop), pigs roaming around on the beach (see pics), and occasionally big groups of little fish that are dying on the shore. CP decides that we must save them from this fate, by picking them up one by one and throwing them back into the water.... where most are quickly eaten by the eagerly waiting herons. Cp reckons of the 40 odd fish we threw back in, we saved at least 33%, give or take... we tried!

It turned out to be a little under 2 hours of walking before we got to the pools, and Rich was definitely having a sense of humour failure by the time we had started clambering our way overly the slipperiest rocks to get to the waterfall, which, as it isn't wet season yet, was not flowing. CP on the other hand was loving the "adventure" and clambering over the rocks giggling...typical! See pics.  The final pool was still decent enough to swim in - although having our swimwear in with the rest of our laundry, not relishing the though of a 2 hour walk back in wet undies, and figuring we were probably the last people to visit that day, we opted to go in 'au naturel'.

Which was fine, until as we were splashing around about to get out, 4 randoms came into view clambering over the pools and rocks. My first thought was to get back in and hide our state of undress, however CP quickly made the point that we couldn't wait in the water until they left, so I had to make a run for it. As it happens, when they got closer we realised they were French, so wouldn't have been even slightly fazed by the sight of our bare white bottoms exiting the pools.

As we left reached the entrance, there was a guy waiting with his boat - the pools officially close at 5pm, so this enterprising local seemingly turns up each day to see if any tourists don't fancy the 2 hour walk back to Livingston. CP is putting on a "we can walk it" face, with the original plan being to get to the restaurants about halfway along the beach, where taxis will pick you up. Since the boat guy was offering to take us all the way home for 20Q (£1.50) each, for me there was no hesitation - yes we will get in the boat!

On the short walk back from the dock to Casa Iguana, a local Garifuna starts chatting to us, and then shouting at us. Apparently us saying that Livingston is "a beautiful place" or that "the Garifuna population live a very simple life" were not the answers he wanted to the question involving our awareness of the garifuna way of life, and he implored us to take a walk to the "black country". The thing is, it is a very simple life. If we'd told him that they were living in shacks, and that an entire house was worth less than our phones, I doubt he'd have responded positively. He was still ranting when we walked away from him.

Anyway... we arrived back at our lodgings just in time to freshen up and head down for happy hour. There was also the usual "family dinner" which was a good option that evening as it was all you could eat tacos and meant we got to meet different people, before getting involved in a few games of "roll the dice". The premise is simple - someone decides they want a shot of tequila, and invites others to join them. Everyone then rolls a dice, and whoever scores lowest is buying the round. With about 8 people involved each time, the odds of a free drink are good, however Rich defied the odds and ended up losing 2 out of 3 times, and while he was keen to gamble on and place faith in the rules of probability, CP called a halt to our tequila based gambles.

Other games continued, classics such as Kings, and 5s. There was a memorable moment when having to bust-a-rhyme, CP tried to rhyme 'German' with 'woman'. The rest of us protested, and sought clarification from the German bartender who replied "GER and WO? Nooo!" - not sure he fully understands rhyming but either way, CP lost this one.

The next days activity was the Garifuna cooking class (back into black country, we should have told our new friend from yesterday...), and the first mistake was made before we left the Iguana. With Rich still in the bathroom, CP went to the reception to get directions, wrote the name of the place on a napkin, and then immediately lost it. (CP denies losing it, rather she says she placed it carefully with her bag, which did not come with us to the cooking class). We've now learnt that when Carly is given directions she must share them immediately, as what followed was a shambles. A 20 minute walk became 40 minutes, including walking along a dirt track which got progressively dirtier as it headed into the jungle. At least we got to see the "real" garifuna way of life...

We couldn't ask locals where it was as the napkin with the name of the restaurant was long gone, so the only detail we had was that it was somewhere near the cemetery, and the people we asked for guidance didn't even know where that was.

Somehow we made it to "Rasta Mesa" ("The Rasta Table", did that really need to be written on a napkin in the first place?!) in time for the cooking class, and it's lucky we did as we were the only participants. For a place that is kitchen, restaurant, and many other things combined, Rasta Mesa is tiny. One small table and a few plastic chairs in a room about as big as an average kitchen, and a stove in the corner that is either from the 1930's or perhaps fashioned by me from a gas bottle and an old wooden packing crate.

We get to work prepping a meal of fish, coconut rice, and some weird banana fritters. Check out the pics to see the process, but we basically grated the bananas, added salt, pepper and chicken stock cubes and made fritters. Then we extracted the flesh from fresh coconuts using vice and a medieval torture instrument and made coconut milk, then added it to the rice with salt, pepper and chicken stock cubes.  We made the salsa with tomorrow, onion salt, pepper and chicken stock cubes. Then finally, we gutted and scaled the fish and covered them with, yep you guessed it, salt, pepper and chicken stock cubes. We then deep fried the fish and fritters and viola, lunch was ready! We offered our chefs family to sit and eat with us as we had plenty and enjoyed a hearty, if nothing particularly special, meal the local way.

We learnt a lot from our chef, who was a very pretty 27 year old mother of two - apparently CP can say that but if Rich comments on that sort of thing he'll be in big trouble. The house we were in, housed her entire extended family and most worked for the business. She told us how her bother in law was shot dead at his front door in the middle of the day about a week ago and how her sister was currently in hospital after also having been shot a couple of days later. She also mentioned how a tourist got beaten up and raped recently near one of those lovely little beach bars we saw on our walk to the Seven Altars... confirming our decision not to go there that night!  We did get a very interesting insight into the locals world, the difficulties they experience, the early age that they become mothers, their indifference to marriage and commitment, the very simple life that they lead with limited opportunities for jobs and travel, but also love and loyalty they have for their family.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the lesser explored parts of Livingston and continued to eat mangos... and lots of them. They are so cheap and everywhere and Cp is addicted! We eventually ended up in another locals house for a bit of street foot for dinner. He happened to be an old rodeo and star football.player and had pictures and trophies up around his house which we discussed using a mix of Spanish and hand signals whilst we shared a massive plate of the standard meat, beans and rice on a massive tortilla.

We had unsuccessfully tried to find some of the local drink, "giffiti" that evening but without success.  We did, however, find it at our coffee shop the next morning just before our boat to the Roundhouse. As the coffee machine was broken, we duly ordered two long shots of giffiti at 9:30am. As it's basically rum "marinated" in a bottle with a mixture of spices, plant roots, and what looks like twigs, it was a solid breakfast!

Our next stop was the Roundhouse, a hostel that Chris and Lucy had recommended to us, and it didn't disappoint. Dani picked us up from the dock at the giffiti coffee shop in the speed boat and we traversed down the river dolce for 20 minutes until we reached our home for the next two nights. As the name suggests it's a massive round house, built on the shores of the river dolce. We had a private room and had many a random conversation with the two owners, Dani and Chris, Chris in particular, who loved a good rant and as a former London geezer, was occasionally hilarious. He remembered Chris and Lucy... and I can imagine the debates they would have had with him!

We spent a lot of time swimming in the river and relaxing. We signed up for the Jungle trek with one of the locals and explored the surrounding jungle for a couple of hours.  Each night was a family dinner style event which was always great fun. I tried to teach CP how to play chess at breakfast, but with limited success because whilst I knew the basic rules I have no idea of strategy, and we quickly reverted to playing shithead instead. 

We hired the kayaks for the day and spent four hours paddling up, down, and around the river dolce. We must have explored every little laneway of water and saw some beautiful local people living very simply, fishing, washing, swimming, entirely self sufficient and always with a big smile and a wave for us. We hit the hot springs, or should we say "aqua caliente", which a little section of the river that was boiling hot on the surface, and we mean boiling, but 10cm down was cold. Very strange sensation being in there but fun to splash around (read, necessary to splash around because if you stopped moving the water around you, you started to burn in the water!).  We also had a lovely old local man show us through the caves, where we explored underground labyrinths and saw bats, lots of bats, including tiny baby bats. The smell was...epic. We also got to sit in a naturally forming sauna under the ground, which when you think about it, is pretty amazing as the intense heat was all naturally occurring and created a sauna that westerners would pay a fortune for back home.

When we had tired of kayaking, and paddled back (somehow again against the current), we decided to try our luck fishing and see if we could catch us some dinner. After our successes on the sailing boat we were confident. However, with only bread and mango skin to use as bait, it was not to be, and after an hour or so of floating downstream in the kayak we called it a day and went in empty handed. Luckily, the family dinner was roast chicken, which one of the other guests was cooking up because the chef had decided that she couldn't be bothered coming in that day to work. CP was dishing out free employment advice to Chris about how to handle the issue of the belligerent chef, however it is a different world in Guatemala than Guernsey, where the practical impact of the law is almost debilitating on local businesses when things go wrong... CP would've liked to take on the case, but elected to drink Bloody Marys instead!

We left the next morning for Guatemala city and managed to get absolutely soaked during the one hour boat trip down the river dolce to the bus station at Rio Dolce. We were heading straight into the storm and it was amazing watching us become a part of nature in such fine form! Hilariously (for CP), Rich had his rain jacket in his little back pack and could have been significantly less soaked on the boat if he had realised!

We transitioned easily to a bus to Guatemala city, picking up the usual simple chicken and rice dish from the street and missing out on what we had heard was an epic avocado and chocolate soothie at the Sundog restaurant because they didn't serve anything until midday, but it has been added to the growing list of stuff to try out when we get home!

Once aboard the bus it's hard to tell which country we're in, as for the first time it's allocated seating, foot rests, cup holders, movie screens. air con on max so that we're regretting not grabbing some warm (or in Rich's case, even dry clothes from his bad). After an hour a film is put on, although admittedly it's an illegal copy, it's in Spanish, and there's no subtitles, but we could be cruising along on a National Express coach on the M25 - except this bus is nicer. Way nicer... 

We made it into Guatemala city with no further ado, found our mega cheap hotel for the evening and settled in for the night...

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Gone sailing: Caye Caulker to Placencia

Snorkelling stops, rum at midday, a deserted island (Goffs Caye), an army sleepover...and that's just the first day. We had booked ourselves onto a $300pp sailing boat tour from Caye Caulker to Placencia with a local boating company called Liberty. Another company called Raggamuffins were much better known (and more expensive) but we couldn't get a space on their party boat, which as things turned out, was a brilliant thing! Not only were we keeping things local but we were about to experience a once in a life time trip with a wonderful captain and his first mate who brought the seas alive for us.

The winds were strong today and so both sails were up and we cruised along at a good place. The sun was shining and the rum flowing, so all 8 of us quickly relaxed and got to know each other. Papa Jo was our all knowing, gentle and seriously amazing 72 year old captain and Raul was our quirky, rum drinking and hilarious first mate. Papa Jo is prepping Raul to take over as captain one day so he can finally hang up his sailing shoes and retire, but we reckon he'll stay on the seas until it is time to go...

We had a couple stops over the day for snorkelling (pretty average to be honest when compared to other places we have snorkelled and dived, although Rich did manage to see a little sting ray and a big turtle), but still cool to be in the Caribbean, diving off an old wooden sailing boat within just us and the ocean! Rum continued to flow, fresh fruit was cut up and our tans are coming along beautifully! As it turns out, we both managed to get some some lip burn, CP more so than Rich, not so cool, but a price worth paying for 3 days splashing about on the ocean.

In the distance, Papa Jo points out a tiny deserted island in the distance and advised that this is where we will be staying for the night. Our own island, with just us on it, how epic is that?! We arrive on our own little islands and are having to pinch ourselves just to make sure we are not dreaming, this has to be heaven!!! So we watch the sunset, set up our tents (which was a bit of fun in the wind that had decided to come up) and got ready to cook the snapper and jackfish that Raul had caught today on the boat for dinner.

The trip has been so so so good so far that even if Papa Jo had told us that we'd be having breakfast in the morning and then heading for home, it would still be money well spent and a 5-star experience.

CPs favourite pic, the moon rising over Goffs Caye:

Then, our tranquillity was slightly interrupted as two boat loads full of military personnel pull up, disembark and proceed to set up their hammocks, tents and gear in the remaining space on the island! Seriously, there are thousands of little islands in the water and they had to do their training exercises and patrols of the coast based from our desert island?! As they worked in shifts, they were up talking and laughing all night so our peaceful haven of an island was anything but! I'm pretty sure none of them slept, just stayed up all night like 13 year olds having a sleepover.

By the time they left in the morning, we had the island to ourselves for about 15 minutes before we were off by 8am for another day of sailing. Still, it was an awesome evening and we did feel nice and safe with 30 odd military men protecting our little island. NOTE, apparently, there had been some hijackings recently along the coast, so the Belize Defence Force presence was required, Raul assured us though that it was nothing to be concerned about...! 

The second day is spent sailing/motoring along, with the occasional snorkel and fishing stop. We get to fish for own lunch and dinner today and CP is particularly excited!  By now, Rich is slightly over the snorkelling because the holiday beard (going well by the way) prohibits the mask from making any kind of seal with my face. So when the strap snaps as I try to get the mask over my face at the days first stop, I'm not that bothered. "Luckily" Raul has a spare for me, and although it's better I still have to suffer the mask gradually filling with water which I then inhale... yay! CP on the other hand is loving it... first one in and happy to splash around taking pictures of anything and everything and giggling the whole time.

While others were diving down grabbing conch shells which we will later open up (or rather, Papa Jo will open up with a machete which is one errant swipe away from removing his left hand) to use the conch as bait to fish for dinner, or so we thought at the time (in fact some was bait but the good stuff was used to make us an epic conch salad for lunch which Raul whipped up without any ado), I was splashing around unable to find a single one... whatevs, I caught lots of fish later... ok, this is CP now having to interject... I found the biggest ever conch shell, others almost found one's as big but this one was monster! Almost drowned trying to get it back to the boat to Papa Jo, so perhaps Rich's technique was better..!

We also got to fish off the side of the boat for a couple of hours and caught lots of even managed to catch two at once! The fish were loving our conch bait and couldn't wait to be reeled in!

We also managed to catch some crab and lobsters which CP helped Raul catch by using a spear underwater! Tasted amazing!!

We arrive at Tobacco Caye (population <30), and are soon greeted by the Mayor (!) who, after a bit of bantz with Papa Jo, sets about cleaning and gutting the fish that we've caught. We're not sure what the electoral process is on Tobacco Caye, but the mayor is sporting a "vote Charles Leslie" T-shirt, presumably leftover from a hard fought election campaign. There is an epic conch graveyard surrounding the island which serves a dual purpose of looking errie and keeping the sand at bay around the island. It looks pretty epic when we snorkelled around, and this was probably some of the best snorkelling of our trip so far, with clear waters, mountains of fish and coral and human sized rays swimming casually past.

We set up the tents with a lot more ease than yesterday as there is no wind at all (for now...) and settle in for a feast of the fish we had caught earlier today, some rice, veggies, and of course - rum. We stay up for a while, mostly making use of the rum supplies and talking shit, until tiredness gets the better of us and we retire to the tents - which by now are suffering a little and the wind is picking up. And up some more.

Before long the winds are hitting hard, and we're soon woken by the noise of heavy rain hitting the tent, and then heavy rain pouring into the tent... anything decent is returned to the boat to keep it safe, but meanwhile our sleeping area is underwater. We attempt to move the tent to the more sheltered bar area but in the wind it's near impossible and as the rain is relenting we decide to stay where we are, adding a couple of guy ropes for support. What follows is an uncomfortable night of sleep trying to ignore the fact that we're lying in water, although I do reach the decision that if it starts raining again we'll be opening up the bar to keep dry until the morning, probably sinking a few rums with the mayor in the process.

Alas that didn't happen but the weather this morning has not eased, and it is no exaggeration to describe it as "robust". Raul looks concerned for the first time this trip, and taking down each tent is at least a 3 man process as we battle to pack them away without allowing them to launch into orbit. CP was not impressed by having to head out in those winds, but as the saying goes, the show must go on, so we loaded up the boat, the others took some sea sickness tablets and set off into the storm.

Had I been I charge, we would have been shipwrecked us instantly in 3 feet of water, another casualty to add to the conch graveyard. Papa Jo meanwhile, with Rauls assistance, is simultaneously steering with one foot whole attempting to unfurl and hoist the main sail. It's amazing how they navigate using only their experience, the land and the position of the Sun, no maps, no compass, no anything... Papa Jo is a real captain stalwart, having been on the waters since he was 16 (so now at age 72), that's a damn long time and we were more than grateful for his experience today!!

I don't know much about sailing, and there are no fancy weather / navigation instruments on board to tell me specifics about the conditions, but I know that if this was a Sunday morning back home in Guernsey, we'd look out the window and immediately abandon any plans to go out on the bike. That might not be saying much, so we'll clarify by adding that we'd also have to think long and hard about venturing out in the car.

Papa Jo & Raul are in charge tho, and they are thriving - bantering back and firth in indecipherable Creole, and occasionally a squeal of laughter. It's clearly hard work though, just holding the rudder steady is a much more strenuous effort than the previous days where a loose hold on the attached rope was enough to keep us cruising in the right direction. Live coverage from on board would have looked a bit like this Alright, not that bad, but there was definitely a fair bit of chop. There is some light entertainment when one of the guys on the trip, who has opted to lie down inside (dry, but hot and with much more rolling) is launched as we hit a particularly bouncy wave and ends up crashing to the floor with a bump and a pineapple.

After 2 hours of some pretty decent chop, it's like we have crossed a border into far nicer lands - the wind has calmed, the boat is flying along guided by the waves, and it's time to celebrate with a beer (10:45am). We kill the motor, hoist the jib, and rocket along the coast as nature intended.

A couple of hours later and we stop so people can have a swim - no snorkelling as the water is too cloudy and too deep. After the obligatory "jumping in" photos we spot a dolphin swimming close by to the boat - he does circles around the boat for a while and occasionally appears above the surface for air, but he won't go near any of the swimmers and the best view is from the boat, sipping on a rum and coke.

The perfect end to our trip (even if a couple of guys got jellyfish stings while attempting to swim with flipper), as we cruise into Placencia at 3pm.

We opted not to stay that night in Placencia as originally planned as the weather was not greatness jumped on a local boat to cross Mango Creek to Independence, a taxi to the bus station in the pouring rain, and then finally onto a chicken bus (Rich spent most of the 2 hour journey sat on the floor wedged between seats - sadly this won't be the least comfortable travel experience we have over the coming months) to Punta Gorda where we would crash for the night before jumping on another boat the next day to Puerto Barrios, which included paying combination of exit fees and conservation fees to leave Belize and then completing the token immigration effort as we cross back into Guatemala, before yet another boat to take us to Livingston.

We forgot to mention the epic lunches that Raul cooked up for us on board the ship, the beautiful fresh and juicy fruit and the never ending supply of rum.. wait, we mentioned the rum didn't we?!  All in all, an absolute must do trip and despite our two desert island layovers were not an deserted or relaxing as we had hoped, it was an amazing experience and one we will look back on with great memories.