Saturday, March 31, 2007

Mileage so far

Oaxaca - Tuxtepec (147m) - Ciudad del Carmen (354m!!) - Campeche (139m) - Chichen Itza/Piste (187m) - Playa del Carmen (189m) - Tulum (52m) - Mahahual (143m) - INTO BELIZE - Corozal (123m) - Caye Caulker - Corozal - Orange Walk (36m) - Dangriga (165m) - Hopkins (29m) - San Igancio (104m) - INTO GUATEMALA - Flores (104m)

Friday, March 30, 2007

Tikal, Guatemala

Arrived in Guatemala yesterday. Everything at the border went smoothly and we made our way the 100km towards Flores in the north of the country. Roads are 'interesting'. The first 35km were a dusty, pot-holed track that someone seemed to have concreted over - bumps and all. So although 'paved' we did an average 20mph! It improved, but we can't pick up speed because at any given moment an enormous pot-hole appears trying to wreck havoc with the wheels.

Flores is a great little town. It's actually an island, no more than about 500m in either direction, and its full of little cobblestone streets and interesting shops. Straight away we've noticed the change in prices of things - it's SO much cheaper here in Guatemala, and it certainly is welcome to our budget! Now dealing in quetzals which feels like monopoly money to us its such good value after Belize & the Yucatan!

Got up at stupid o'clock this morning (alarm went off at 2am - it was hardly worth going to bed!) Were on a tour to Tikal for sunrise. Glad of the bus ride, as we wouldn't have wanted to do the trip on the bike at that time of the morning - it was about 1.5 hours (time to sleep!) We arrived at the ruins about an hour before sunrise giving us just enough time to walk 1.5km through the jungle and climb Templo IV (Tikal's highest building at 64m). We were completly above the trees at that height and we watched as it got lighter and the jungle 'awakened'. There was lots of mist so not the greatest of sunrise moments, but it did lend itself well to the intrigue of the place as the tops of temples and ruins poked out above the mist from time to time. We heard lots of howler monkeys and birds and then we did see a spider monkey swinging its way to breakfast (I can only assume - that's where I'd be heading!). Tikal covers a huge area. I think we walked about 10km today and climbed several of the buildings (there's only one you can't). It's in quite thick jungle so you just suddenly stumble into a clearing and are faced with this whacking great temple or something. Apparently all the stones used to build the city were hand quarried and hauled, no peice of rock used to build with is larger than about 30-40kg so it was 'manageable' to the workers - it's some feat! There are over 4000 structures in what is now Tikal National Park - needless to say we barely scratched the surface.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Actun Tunichil Muknal

Spent the last week lazing around in a little village on the coast called Hopkins. There's not a lot to do, but then that was half the point. Did another dive out on the reef, visited the Cockscomb Wildlife Sanctaury where we did some hiking through the jungle and spent the rest of the time strolling up and down the one dusty, pot-holed street that IS Hopkins!

Today we went to the Actun Tunichil Muknal caves. Touted as one of 'the most incredible & adventurous tours you can take in Bellize' it was pretty much as good as hyped. The caves were 'discovered' in the 70's but weren't fully investigated till the 90's. Hundreds of pottery pieces along with 14 skeletal remains were found there and to date very few of the finds have been taken from the cave, leaving it as a 'living natural museum'. 1993 it was the topic of a National Geographic video series and again featured in the magazine in 2001. Since then research has more or less stopped and now it is the destination of these 'ATM' (because no-one can pronounce the full name!) tours with people like us on them.

It starts with a long drive along a VERY bumpy track up into the jungle, then a 45 minute hike through the jungle, wading across the same river 3 times (now you'd have thought they'd have sorted that admin out a bit better wouldn't you?!) to the cave entrance. The only way to get into the cave was a 15 foot swim, then the rest of the 3 hours spent inside the cave system were anything from full body swim to ankle deep so we were wet all day! The main area where the remains were found was above the water line so we climbed up on the ledge and walked around looking at the finds. Much of the pottery is embedded, having been calcified over the years and some of the bones were misplaced possible from flow of water in the caves at some time. It was all so interesting and the guide was hugely knowledgeable on the subject (it's a shame we can't remember it all!) Most of the skeletons were human sacrifice, a couple more were buried here, all by the Mayans. As well as all the history, there were also dozens of spectacular rock formations - more stalactites & mites than you could shake a stick at!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Belize Zoo & Howler Monkeys

Today we got wet!

For the first time in almost 3,500 miles, (165 today) it actually rained on us; it has threatened in the past but after just a few drops it’s always stopped – until today! I know we're in the middle of a rain forest and tropical storms are to be expected, but this is 'supposed' to be the dry season!!! Thankfully it was after we’d done all we wanted to do and were on the last leg to Dangriga; although we didn’t know we were coming here when it first started raining at the zoo. (More of that later!) Bearing in mind that it is soft warm rain that is actually really quite pleasant to ride in; the clouds were low, the jungle impossibly green, (in more shades than I knew there were!) and shining in what little sun was breaking through. And then there’s the traffic; there isn’t any! Here it’s the pedestrians and the cyclists who rule the road, it's the vehicles that have to fit in – how cool. Road rage – hah!!!

It started just as we were about to the zoo so we stopped and had an ice cream and the most expensive bottle of water in the world, ($4 for a litre compared to the usual 1:50) while it passed over. A woman from the zoo came to let me know there was rain coming and as the bike was loaded up with our luggage, I should put it under one of the picnic shelters; how nice of her! Looking up at the black sky we had the option of staying there in the 'Rustic Cabanas' or head on - we set off.

Of course it soon started again when we were too far to turn back; the first time we stopped at a visitor’s centre for one of the local Cenotes, (caves) and got going again a few minutes later. But it started again with a vengeance; I had to stop coz I couldn’t see to ride! We pulled into a bus shelter and got Donkey under cover whilst I swam to the B&B that just happened to be on the corner, but at $40 each for a room with no light and a cold shower in a bathroom with no light and single beds, I thought I’d rather get wet. We hung on for a bit longer till the rain calmed off again and then made a final dash; which in the end was fine coz as wild as the rain was, it stopped early enough for most of our clothes to dry off(ish)! Helen had my waterproof over her and her bag while her jacket was wrapped round the lap-top in my bag, (for once we didn’t have spare polly bags everywhere - obviously we'd got to used to the sunny weather!) our waterproof trousers however had been pinched off the front of the bike – only the day before, (someone obviously knew the rain was coming – dry season or not!) typical; the first time we needed them in six weeks! Somewhere there'll be a couple of very unslylishly dressed, but dry, Belizeans!
So rain aside - today we rode to the baboon sanctuary; of course Belize doesn’t actually have baboons – these were Howler Monkeys that have had their natural environment protected by a voluntary agreement between surrounding land owners! You can do tours and as some of the monkeys see humans all the time you can get right up close to them and even feed them bits of leaves or banana; however they’re not tame and they don’t assume humans will feed them so they do live perfectly normal monkey lives. To prove the point, one of them did take a fancy to the camera Helen was aiming!

We were heading for Dangriga, which took us past the zoo. We weren't sure we were that bothered by 'the zoo'; it all sounded a bit sanitised – all these caged animals for our pleasure however... they’re certainly not there for our pleasure; in 1983 there was a documentary called ‘Path of the Rain Gods’ filmed in Belize and when it was finished Sharon Matola, (from the film) was concerned that the animals had become partly tame and wouldn’t survive back in the wilds. So she founded the zoo which now only houses local animals in their own natural environment; all of which are either confiscated illegal 'pets', orphans, injured animals or ones now born in the zoo. I was really impressed with the place; all the cages were huge, spacious, clean and full of jungle. There were informative signs everywhere, (‘written’ by the animals) that explained where they'd come from, their predicament in the wilds and how they needed the jungle to survive and stuff.

So, we saw; Jaguars, Keel Billed Toucans, (the national bird of Belize) Scarlet Macaws that are on the verge of extinction, a Harpy Eagle which is the biggest eagle in the world and the national bird of Panama, Spider and Howler Monkeys, oodles of other cats, birds, beasts, thingies and of course the Mountain Cow, (Tapir) which is the national animal of Belize; looking very much like an overgrown anteater, it is actually related to the horse and rhino! All in all a very cool place and a worthwhile visit.

Something I’ve noticed about Belize is that there are millions of kids – everywhere! They all play outside all day and most of the night, and they never cry! All they do is laugh and have a good time; in fact considering they have very little money, they also have very little crime and the whole country has an incredibly 'safe' feel to it; just full of happy, laid back, friendly people – like nowhere else I’ve been! And they talk about 'developing countries' as if we've somehow got it so right!!!

When we got here we hung around the hostel doing laundry and watching TV; because it’s an English speaking country they have English speaking TV, and I guess they don’t have their own networks so they get cable from the states; so we’ve enjoyed having something to watch for the first time since I don’t know when! James Bond on a wet afternoon - what could be better???

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Swimming with Sharks!

Yesterday we swam with sharks!! Never thought I'd hear myself say that, but it's not as scary as it sounds. These were nurse sharks so not exactly prone to human attacks for a start! We saw dozens of them, and they were quite content with us swimming amongst them. The largest we saw were probably about 8 feet long, most were smaller. This was all on our dive today from Caye Caulker. Went to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve which is located on the barrier reef. The reef here is the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world, 2nd only to the Great Barrier reef off Australia. As well as the sharks we saw barracuda, green moray eel (who are unbeliveably ugly buggers!), lots of angelfish, a two eyed buttlerflyfish and dozens more I couldn't begin to identify (but I'm already learning - eh?!) Dived down to 70 feet in amongst fingers of coral. There were these huge 'banks' of coral with sandy 'paths' in between them - it felt like we were on a trail! Great, great stuff - I'm loving this diving thing!

Today we did a snorkel trip out to the reef. It's so shallow on the crest there's little point in diving that particular area. We were stood in waist deep water about 1.4km off shore. We went to a shark/ray neighbourhood. More nurse sharks and this time we were swimming around with sting-rays! (Yes those ones that Steve Urwin played around with!).

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Belize - yeh mon!

Hey Mon! Dah son ez shinin' an we ez chillin mon. We dah en Belize mon!. Well, something like that anyhow. Dis ez the Caribbean mon!! After 3200 miles in Mexico we crossed the border this morning and got ourselves shockingly organised and all the way to the Cayes (pronounced Keys) by the afternoon. Border formalities took us about an hour and that was mainly because we did everything wrong, back to front and had to go back and forth sorting this that and the other. Got there in the end and 15 miles down the road to Corozol. From here we sorted out some pasture for Donkey to stay in for a few days while we travel over to the cayes. We then hopped a flight to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye (this has got to be one of very few times I've actually got in an Islander and stayed in it for landing and more impressively not had to sit on the floor! - they gave me a real seat with a seatbelt - can you imagine!?!) It was a 20 minute flight and gave us some great views as we flew out to the Cayes. It was also pretty good value - worked out to 15 UK pounds!! and was only 5 pounds more than the boat which took 2.5 hours to do the same journey!! From San Pedro it was a 1/2 hour water taxi ride on to Caye Caulker. Caye Caulker is a chilled out place. There's no motorised vehicles - just bicyles and golf carts to get around and all the streets are sandy. It takes about 10 minutes to walk from one end of town to the other and there plenty of great cafes and bars and dozens of dive and snorkel trip operations. We've got a reasonable place to stay - the rooms not great but the view is - right on the sea and with great sea breezes in the evening which should keep us lovely and cool.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Diving in Playa

While in Playa del Carmen we finally got around to doing our Open Water Scuba course. I might have a brother in the business of dive instruction but I can't wait forever to get him to teach me!! Great dive shop called Ocean Quest, it was a pretty straight-forward 3 day course - diving first in the pool learning all the drills. 2nd day in confined water in a Cenote, then finally our 3rd day doing open water dives out in the Caribbean Sea. We'd had miserable weather - rain even on the first day but it came through for us for our boat dives - glorious weather and excellent visibility under water. Saw lots of turtles and hundreds of fish - now I'm going to HAVE to start learning to identify them and know their names (I know there was lots of Angelfish!!) I think I surprised myself how much fun diving is (I'd always worried beforehand about having to do all these drills taking off the mask underwater etc, I'd stopped realising that it was all supposed to be about having fun!!)(Chris wants me to mention at this point that of course he is a super-dude, had none of these worries having dabbled with a BSAC diving course some years ago and (I quote him)...'took to it like a fish to water' and was more concerned with where he might find the bikini clad snorkellists!) It is awesome and now we just want to dive!! We are in a pretty special part of the world right now as far as diving goes so we might blow the budget a bit here!!!

The day after getting our certification we were straight in there. Booked on a 2-dive trip to one of the many Cenotes in the area - we visited 'Dos Ojos' cenote (which is '2 Eyes' in Spanish). Cenotes are unique to the Yucatan and are natural limestone sinkholes filled with fresh water. Many have spectacular stalactities and stalagmites and it's a really popular diving choice. I think we were still a bit green to appreiciate it at it's best - we spent more time worrying about 'nuetral buoyancy' and having to do this funny kick with our feet to avoid knocking the walls or kicking up silt! But it is awesome. Very dark, we had to carry flashlights, it's a maximum group of 4 per guide. There are lines to follow underwater so you don't loose your way but the cavern system goes on for miles and miles. It wasn't partiucarly deep but it was such a maze of tunnels and caverns adn really quite confined and tight in places. We surfaced in 'the bat cave' which was home guessed it - bats! and we went deep enough at one point to where the fresh water mixed with salt water creating this weird swirly misty water - called a halocline apparently - weird stuff it seemed like your mask was clouded up! Such a great experience!
By now we'd done 6 nights in Playa - our longest stop so far, so it really was time to get moving - not far though - just 50 miles down the road to Tulum. There's a small town on the highway but we headed for the beach area. A small road running paralell with the shore splattered with beach cabanas and mini-resorts. We had a lovely cabana in a small eco-resort - very rustic and stylish (read basic and expensive) but it was stylish too and on a gorgeous white sand beach. This really was the guidebook image - perfect white sand, turquoise waters and pretty quiet and tranquil.

Our final stop in Mexico (for now!) is Mahahual. Supposedly a 'sleepy 'lil old place on the coast' there's a dirt road through one main street and lots of cabanas for rent. Recently though the cruise ships have found their way to shore here so during the day it's heaving with spring-breakers. By night it's as dead as can be! We'll be leaving tomorrow!!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Doesn't time fly when you're having fun?! Seemed like ages since I last managed a blog entry!

We left Oaxaca a week ago and did some serious riding for a couple of days. More stunning roads from Oaxaca for 130 miles of riding, up over the mountains towards the Gulf of Mexico coast. It was another hot ride that day, but we managed to break it up a little but stopping at a great little swimming hole we'd read about. Difficult to find (in fact we'd all but given up and were driving off when we stumbled into it!), it had a few locals in it. Some kids playing around and several women doing their washing there! Very peaceful and wonderfully refreshing!

There wasn't much en route that we really wanted to stop for, so it was a case of riding each day till we got tired then just finding somewhere, anywhere to crash for the night. Stayed in a miserable town called Tuxtepec which I didn't like at all, topped off by the fact we couldn't find anywhere to eat that night so had some suspect food from a street vendor in the local square (now if that isn't the best way to contract Hep A I don't know what is!?!). The following day we got as far as Ciudad del Carmen on the coast. It was a pretty large town, again nothing to get exciting about in terms of things to do or see, but that day we broke all our riding records and had done 354 miles - at 3.30pm we were ready to stop! Tiredness had crept up quickly and we weren't in the mood for trolling around town looking for somewhere to stay, expecially after I'd already spied the billboards for the local HOliday Inn hotel!! (I am my mother's daughter after all and it was calling for me!) So given that it was my birthday the next day it was a great treat to stay in a quality 5 star hotel - hoorah! (no dripping electric fittings, a toilet seat, floors I didn't mind walking barefoot on, thick luxourious cotton sheets, hot water showers and toilet paper on a roll fastened to the wall - it was great not having to carry it around with me! - ah it was bliss!!

We then spent a couple of days in Campeche. It's a lovely old colonial walled city and is on the list of World Heritage sites. Actually there's not a lot of the old wall left - they knocked it down yonks ago but several of the bastions are still there, most housing museums of some sort. The wall was 2.5km and took 18 years to build (obviously a lot less bother to knock down!) The streets are full of old colonial building, many are well restored now and painted in cheerful pastel colours. We were staying in a hostel right on the town square where there was town entertainment, dancing and singing both nights we were there. Since leaving Oaxaca we had our first 'less than perfect' weather. Our first night in Campeche it rained - poured in fact. We had a day off in Campeche which was the first miserable weather we'd seen since being on the mainland. Thankfully the roads were dry when we set off the next morning. (Oh and quite by accident we ended up with a great shot of the town catherdral with the solar eclipse in the background! We just thought the moon was looking a bit perculiar - we were SURE it had been full the night before! It was only the day after we'd read there'd been a solar eclipse and it was that we'd witnessed!)

As far as the weather goes it hasn't been great since. So much for the lovely Carribben setting we were expecting! Since being in the Yucatan we've actually made use of the spare pairs of long trousers we both brought and even the sweatshirts have had an airing on one occasion!
Next stop was Chichen Itza. It's the most famous and the best restored of this area's Mayan sites. Very impressive and so different to Monte Alban (different period, different settlers I guess). It's huge centrepeice is El Castillo, a 25m tall pyramid. We had thought we'd be able to climb it (pictures and our guidebook had said you could, but we later found out that only about 7 months ago some Canadian tourist had taken a tumble and so health and safety had arrived in Chichen Itza - bah-humbugs). Spent 2 or 3 hours wandering around the site, then went back again that evening for a sound and light show - very cool though we missed out a bit as there was a commentary in Spanish.

And so that brings us to date...we're in Playa del Carmen now. The Carribben sea. And still lousy weather, but ho-hum - maybe perfect white sand beaches and turquiose waters AND the good weather to enjoy them would be too much to ask for!!