Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Thursday 31st March 2011

San Ignacio in Belize, just past the Guatemala border, has to be one of the friendliest towns we've troubled over the last two months. Admittedly communication here was easier than in other Central American countries or Argentina, because English, not Spanish, is the official lanaguage in Belize. This meant an end to my halting and self-conscious Spanish and to George's resolute insistence that she is no good at lanaguages and should therefore be absolved from either trying to understand something or having to make herself understood. It was only when reading up on Belize a couple of days before crossing the border that I learnt that Belize had been a British colony until 1981 - as usual, my general ignorance continues to startle and worry me.

The centre of town contained a couple of good and cheap restaurants, a small bar behind which an excellent mixologist made me too many Long Island Ice Teas, and Pop's restaurant, a little cafe up a side street, which we were told served the best breakfast in town. My over easy eggs and toast leant weight to this opinion. After making short work of them I attempted a scribbled drawing of the place, including a surreptitious sketch of a rotund ruddy faced man with white hair and a beard. I showed my picture to a local a couple of days later and he confirmed that this was Pop himself. I wasn't sure whether to be more pleased that we had been in Pop's presence or that my scrawl was actually competent enough for someone to recognise who was in it.

I'm not sure George was as keen on San Igancio as me. At one point she decided to go for a stroll around the streets on her own. She came back a short time later complaining that it was impossible for her to go around alone because of the unwanted attention she got from men ("Hey lady", whistles, stares etc).

We stopped in San Igancio because we wanted to visit the Actun Tunichil Muknal (or "ATM") caves outside the town. This is a cave network in the middle of some jungle where numerous Mayan artefacts have been found. To get there, we hiked along a pleasant jungle path, wading through a river a couple of times, before getting to the mouth of the cave. There we put on our helmets, complete with head torch, and jumped into the water that fills the mouth of the cave, before swimming and climbing up a rock ledge inside. I have to be honest - I was more excited at the swimming, wading, squeezing through narrow holes in rocks, crawling up gushing channels of water etc etc that took us deeper into ATM than the Mayan history involved. But then, as if it couldn't get anymore Indiana Jones, we walked across a almighty stone chamber, deep underground, covered in glittering cauxite, eldritch rocks formations, stalactites and stalacmites, to find, amongst the ubiquitous broken Mayan pots, a skull lodged in the floor. And then another one further on. And then, deeper in still, an entire Mayan skeleton, furred in calcium built up over the hundreds of years its lain there.

The caves are very popular with tourists. However, our guide manaufactured it so we were the last into the caves that day, and so also the last out. As a result, as we took our leave from the gaping skeleton and begain the 20 minute swim/squeeze/scamble/slip/wade to daylight, we left the caves in total darkness and silence (apart from the occaisional drip). The best thing of all was to still to come through. We reached the stone ledge at the mouth of the cave, and I jumped in the pool to swim out. As I swam, I looked back at George splashing around behind me, so entranced by the excitement and novelty of the place that, as she spluttered through the water, she couldn't take the grin off her face.

Actun Tunichil Muknal

147 - posted at 18:39:32
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Tuesday 29th March 2011

Unfortunately I wandered off Roatan with the key to our little cottage still in my pocket, something I only realised as we were gliding back to the Honduran mainland on the ferry. Consequently, it accompanied George and me on the buses we took across the north of the country to Copan Ruinas, a small, attractive town, that the guidebooks invariably describe as "colonial". This means that it has cobbled streets, pretty, if slightly shabby low-rise villas and lots flowers and greenery poking through cracks in said cobbles and villas. The taxis are tuk-tuks, one of which rocketed us through the streets, bouncing up and down the steep hills in squeals both of breaks and George.

We were lucky in Liberia (Costa Rica) when we rocked up in town to find a Sabenero festival in full swing. And so we were in Copan. In the town square that evening, hundreds of people milled around, amongst steaming food stalls and, constructed in the middle of the square, a faux Mayan temple. Two men dressed only in loincloths and Mayan headgear stood awkwardly on the structure, while dreadful "new age" synthesizer music crackled out of a PA system.

The Mayan theme and our visit to the town were inspired by the Mayan ruins that lie just a kilometre outside Copan Ruinas. We walked there the next day and clambered over the ancient stones. A few small pyramids are dotted over the site (I observed one female tourist climb to the top of one, and sit cross-legged bowing occasionally, obviously attempting to commune with the ancient race who practiced blood-letting and human sacrifice) in between huge tree roots, and rubble, but it's the amazingly preserved hieroglyphics that are the real draw. Faces, skulls, animals and baffling pictograms are etched all over stelae, the tumble down buildings and a giant staircase.

We encountered the Mayans again a few days later in Guatemala. We were staying in a small lakeside village called El Remate in a cosy thatched bungalow. George's iPhone alarm cut into the darkness at 5:00am. "This was a dreadful mistake" were her first words as we struggled to get out of bed to meet the 5:30am minibus to Tikal. But it wasn't. The minibus got us to the Tikal site at around 6:15. Rejecting a guide we strolled into a deserted ancient city. The Mayan ruins at Tikal cover a huge area filled with magisterial ruined plazas and giant pyramids that poke up through the jungle canopy. We wandered around, climbing the tallest pyramids, admiring the view and then getting giddy with vertigo when we realised how high we were. As we fulfilled our Indiana Jones fantasies, the jungle woke up around us, birds letting off bizarre squawks, howlers monkeys groaning, and the odd spider monkey swinging around.

By the time we were ready to leave the park was starting to fill up with more visitors and tour groups, and the magic of having the place to ourselves had dissolved. But while it lasted it was amazing, and as we passed the incoming tourists on our way out we wore our best smug faces, knowing we'd had the best of the place.

Temple V, Tikal

146 - posted at 13:44:41
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Monday 21st March 2011

Apart from the complete absence of Lilt, Roatan is exactly what I would have expected from a Caribbean island: sparkling clear water, chaotic sandy streets, white beaches, a slightly self-conscious doctrine of "relax" and jerk chicken. It also boasts a population of expats and regulars who are fiercely proud of their adoption of "The Island", and we were involved in and eavesdropped on regular conversations establishing an interlocuter's credentials when it came to Roatan. Such an attitude rubbed off on us quickly, and, on occasion, it was with disapproval befitting grass-roots locals that we watched hundreds of tourists disgorged from the cruise ships swarm over the beaches.

The stay on Roatan felt like a holiday from our travels. We stayed in a too expensive hotel, with ocean views, swinging hammocks, a help yourself bar and tasty breakfasts. We wandered the little streets, eating lots, drinking cocktails, admiring the sunsets and listening to a soft-rock covers band. But best of all we went snorkelling over the coral at the end of West Bay.

West Bay is a huge white sanded beach. Most of its length is taken over by the guests of the resorts that line it, but at the end, where the coral is, and where there are fewer people (because the resorts and their sun beds don't stretch this far) we laid out our beach towels and headed into the sea. The water was incredibly clear, and populated by all sorts of fish, of all sorts of colours (the names of all of them a mystery to me). They clustered around the coral in large shoals, darted around on their own, or hung in the water in handfuls, completely ignoring us (apart from the one that bit George on the finger). After 100 metres or so, the coral abruptly dropped away and the seabed plunged to about 20 feet below us, but it was still perfectly clear and like being in a very deep swimming pool, albeit it one with a sand floor and through which squid and other weird creatures made their way. Back, nearer the shore, I spotted a couple of barracuda, menacingly motionless, and, best of all, a huge water turtle languidly flapping along, a couple of small fish attached to its shell.

I also had a traditional British roast on the beach, the ingredients being the sun, woefully inadequate factor 10 and my skin. After one day, my frazzled back was extremely sensitive, and my subsequent snorkelling had to be in a t-shirt, and after 2 days I was kept awake at night by the awful prickly itching. But it´s just not a holiday without some serious sun damage.

Roatan Pool

145 - posted at 16:30:18
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Thursday 17th March 2011

Our general plan (always vague and never particularised in much form until three or four days prior to the present) was to avoid big cities in Central America. However the necessities of transport led to us spending time in two such cities in as many days. Our grudging acceptance of this was made all the more reluctant by the bus companies' habit of locating their terminals in the most notorious barrios of these cities.

The need to catch a very early bus meant that we were obliged to spend the night in Managua, Nicaragua's capital. The bus being at 5am, we found a hotel a couple of blocks away from the terminal, located in Barrio Martha Quesada. A sense of unease hung over us as we checked into the guesthouse, cast by the array of comments on the internet and in guidebooks about the place, all marveling at its danger and population of petty thugs ("The place is full of thieves"..."Take a taxi after dark, even if you are just traveling a couple of blocks" etc etc). After we checked in, being growled at continually by a nasty off-white little poodle sittnig in the reception, we walked through the neighbourhood looking for an internet cafe. It is low level and run down, idlers lounge in doorways staring, boarded-up shacks sit on corners and the local grocery store was covered in thick bars (like our hotel and many other buildings) with service being offered through a small aperture amid the bars, even mid-afternoon. The place did seem heavy with a silent menace - but perhaps it was just the guidebooks creating that. We were fine and had gathered enough confidence to eat at a road side diner that evening, amongst a sizzling stove and plastic chairs scattered along the pavement. That said, we were gripped with a vague terror as the security guard let us out of the gate at 4am next morning and we half-ran along two blocks of darkness to the bus station.

The bus took us to Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital - or more specifically Comayagüela, a neighbourhood on the dodgy side of the river. The Lonely Planet goes to town on how dangerous this area is, with a long piece about keeping your hands on your luggage at all times, not waring shorts or sandals (so to stand out less - it is impossible, the book says, to not stand out at all)and how the Honduran Congress was suspended because members kept getting mugged on their way home. We didn't stick around to test the accuracy of the report - only a couple of hours, including a short journey in a clapped out taxi, along shambolic streets which sit under hundreds of tangled telephone lines, and past gangs of policemen gripping semi-automatic rifles and pump action shot guns. I did think it a shame though, driving out of Tegucigalpa and looking across the hill strewn valley in which it sits, not to see more of the city - but perhaps the better side of the river.

144 - posted at 15:13:28
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Sunday 13th March 2011

San Juan Del Sur is a funny little surf town on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua. Bars with names such as 'The Iguana Bar' and 'Big Wave Dave's' crowd around the beach front. Drinking in them, one can find middle-age American women with ankle-bracelets doing their own 'Shirley Valentine' ("I said goodbye to my Australian boy this morning, so sad, the sex was incredible" - this wasn't said directly to me, but it was conveyed throughout the bar at such volume receiving the information was unavoidable). Also hanging around are similarly aged faux-hippies (think long grey beard pony-tailed tied with an elastic band) who drive around town in their Land Cruisers and HiLuxes, and I think own the bars and restaurants.

These establishments convey a eco-tourististic, carbon neutral vibe through book exchanges and passive aggressive notes in their menus ("A note on why we do not supply coffee in cardboard cups: Too many people grab a coffee and jump in their car. This is wrong" and "Apologies for the slow service, Our kitchen is a converted laundrette - we never intended to become a full-blown restaurant".) The menu responsible for this also contained book reviews in the back, by the proprietor. I vowed never to return after reading the review of Lolita. The review noted that the book's subject matter had proved controversial when it was written. "Perhaps", the review continued, "if it had been released today, it wouldn't have caused such a stir." I wonder. It's still a book about a man who marries a woman simply so he can have his way with her 12 year old daughter (who he drugs with sleeping pills). And a note about the Ponzi style book exchange operated at this and other cafes. In summary - "give us 2 books, and take one. If you don't have any books to give us you can buy one from us for US$3."

Rant over, the town was actually a relaxing place to spend a few days before we headed off to the Isla de Ometepe, an island created around two volcanoes in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Here we stayed at a genuine eco-lodge, solar powered and complete with compost loo. The place was beautiful, and in the middle of nowhere. In the evening we stumbled down pitch black dirt tracks trying to find somewhere to eat, while marveling at the night sky, crammed full of stars. Our room was large hexagonal space, reached via a short wooden spiral staircase. Two of its six sides were completely open to the elements - no walls - and every night, smothered in DEET and under a tightly fitted mosquito net, we fell asleep to the weird and exotic sounds of the surrounding jungle. On the first night a loud screech in the middle of the night kept George awake in terror of vampires until morning. The screech didn't bother me. However the prospect of going to the loo in the middle of the night did. The compost loo was down the spiral staircase, out into the night and down to a hut a few metres away. As George had found a tarantula nestling in the area at the bottom of the stairs, I was reluctant to make the journey in the night. Consequently, I made my way to one of the open sides of our room, and relieved myself into the dark jungle. I think I can say it was the first time, and probably the last, that I have ever urinated out of a hotel window.

The island was lovely. We hiked around one of the volcanoes, under grunting howler monkeys, swam in a spring water pool, and canoed through wetland looking (in vain) for Cayman, before making our reluctant departure.

Volcano Concepcion

143 - posted at 15:21:08
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Wednesday 9th March 2011

Having been gone from Costa Rica for a few days, when I look back on it, I think of beautiful forested mountains, sun-scorched dusty streets, tough sabanero cowboys, and borderline dysentery.

It was sad to leave Argentina. George found it so hard to let go that she continued to attempt to spend Argentinian currency in Costa Rican establishments. However, the sun was shining when we landed in San Jose. We left that city straight away, and headed north, towards the cloud forests of Monteverde. The long drive to San Elena (the small main town in the area)came after the long flight from Buenos Aires via Lima, so it was lovely to arrive at our hotel, be shown to our room, a small cabin on the edge of the jungle, and watch the glow worms floating around in the dark outside.

"Eco-tourism" is big in Costa Rica, and particularly in Monteverde. I'm not sure exactly what Eco tourism is, but it always seems to involve zip-lining. And so it did here. The following morning we found ourselves in an eco theme park, occupying several thousand acres of the cloud forest. Our ticket first entitled us to walk a trail, a concreted path around part of the forest, occasionally interrupted by narrow footbridges, which took you over the forest at the top of the canopy. The forest itself was beautiful - the giant trees, dripping in moss, continued unceasing into the distance, the clouds breezed though, every now and again deigning to rain on us. But we wanted to see some animals - a couple of monkeys maybe, or one of those funny guinea pig things. Unfortunately, there wasn't a chance of this, owing mainly to the gangs of tourists who march up and down the path very loudly discussing the price of fish. Any wild creature has long since scarpered - even, I noticed, the birds.

In the afternoon came the inevitable zip line. A series of these send you speeding through and over the trees, giving you (if you're able to concentrate at such speed) amazing views of the forest. This was good fun - especially the 1km long line that George and I did in tandem over a huge valley - but it was tarnished by the fact that we were in a group of around 25 people, and spent much of the time sitting around waiting. On leaving the Eco theme park, we resolved to visit the nature reserve proper the following day, in order to avoid the other tourists and walk a proper trail.

Sadly our resolution did not take into account the painful and tenacious stomach bug with which I was struck down that evening. By morning, I had a fever. I made it with George to the nature reserve, but about 20 minutes into our walk I resolved to turn back, as I was feeling uncommonly cold, my teeth were chattering and my hands had turned blue. This was not before we spied a giant tarantula by the side of the path, all legs and hair. George carried on for another 7km or so, and said she had a lovely walk.

On our last night in Costa Rica, we found ourselves, after a day traveling north, in a town called Liberia. I was still suffering vile complications from the bug, and it was with reluctance that I stumbled out of our hotel behind George, in order to find some supper. But I'm glad I did. We got to the main street to find a huge festival underway, apparently celebrating the proud sabanero culture of Guanacaste, of which Liberia is the capital. The street was packed, in either direction as far as i could see, with hundreds of cowboys and girls on top of hundreds of very excitable horses, madly stamping their hooves up and town. I had the impression they were weirdly dancing to the music which blared from brass bands sat in the back of pick up trucks, slowly motoring between the horses. It was a spectacular sight.

Sabanero

142 - posted at 14:57:00
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Saturday 5th March 2011

Our return to Buenos Aires might only have been distinguished by more steak, shopping, a severe stomach bug for George and severer haircut for me, had it not been for George's insistence that we do something Polo related, whether that be watching or playing it. Apparently the gauchos all took to the sport with enthusiasm when it was introduced by British settlers in the 19th Century. I hadn't really appreciated the game´s popularity in Argentina before. Possibly that's because my connection with Polo is limited to ill-advised use of a Ralph Lauren aftershave aged 17.

There were no matches to watch that weekend, so we ended up traveling to a peaceful estancia outside the city for a lesson. We were in the company of two middle-aged American ladies and a couple of young London City lawyers. Apart from George, none of us had really ridden a horse at all. Naturally, this meant she was in her element.

Our teacher was Fernando, a slightly peculiar Argentinian, who insisted on warming up his horse before starting the lesson. This consisted of us having to watch him gallop back and forth up the Polo pitch, wresting the horse this way and that, before heading back towards us at full pelt and making the horse jump to a stop. I note that none of our horses required warming up.

George took to the game immediately, and was soon cantering up and down the pitch, knocking forward the ball with confidence. The rest of us found it rather less easy to master, our horses wandering around in disarray, mallets swinging chaotically. For me, the difficulty may have been caused by Fernando´s insistence that Polo can not be played left-handed. This put me at a bit of a disadvantage, something that Fernando failed to appreciate, telling me not to "invent things" when I complained to him that I was finding the mallet grip unusual.

However, I think my main problem was the bloody horse I was sat on. The trouble started when I tried to turn him in a particular direction. He simply refused - if I wanted to go right, I would shift my weight to the right, while kicking him with my left leg. In contemptuous response, he would head left. I would stubbornly persist with my "right command" pulling madly at the rein, with no consequence whatsoever. This was nothing however with the trick he decided to start pulling later in the day: stopping dead and refusing to move. I think I could have got into the Polo thing, had I not been sat on a stationary horse, a couple of metres away from the action, frantically and vainly hammering my legs up and down like an angry girl from a Thelwell cartoon.

141 - posted at 16:09:20
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