Thursday, November 26, 2009

Guatemala and the Amazing Technicolour Chicken Buses (& Nicaragua too)

After a long bus journey from Monteverde we arrived in Granada, Nicaragua. It was a really pretty little colonial city, but there wasn't really much to do there. We spent a day just chilling out in hammocks at Laguna Apoyo, a volcanic crater lake and then headed on to Esteli. It#s a real cowboy town that was significant in the civil war because it was the last town to fall, and forced the end of the Samoza rule, bringing democracy to the country.
Then we had to fly over Honduras becuase the political situation there isn't the greatest and they suspended all civil liberties about a month ago for a while, and we didn't fancy getting stuck there. It wasn't too bad though because we flew Business Class, it was US$50 cheaper than economy.
We spent only spent the one day in Guatemala city because of all the warnings about how dangerous it was. Our next stop was Antigua. It was so nice we stayed there a bit longer than we intended. It was all cobbled streets, cute little houses, and an overload of churches, some of them in ruins. The highlight there was probably the trip to visit volcan Pacaya. It's one of 3 active volcanoes in Guatemala. We weren't allowed to hike to the crater because it was so active when we were there, but we did get to within about 5m of a lava flow. It was amazing. About 20m up hill from where we were standing we could see red hot molten lava oozing out of the volcano.

It cooled quickly and lost it's redness but was still hot enough to toast marshmallows over by the time it reached us.

Our trip was cut a bit short when the wind picked up and sent some rocks/mini-boulders hurtling in our direction.

From Antigua we headed to Chichicastengo for the famous market there. We arrived the day before the market so we got to see all the vendors arriving from the nearby villages. They were carrying all their wares on their backs, as well as the sticks to assemble their stalls. They have such hard lives, we wouldn't work animals as hard at home. Most of the stuff there was handmade, there were some really amazing weavings and textiles. You'd be ashamed when you see gringos (like us) bargaing the prices down to a pittance, and you wonder how the people manage to survive on that sort of income at all.

From Chichi, it was a very long night bus to Flores, to see the Mayan ruins in Tikal. They were really impressive, some of them were huge. When you climbed up the tall ones all you could see was the jungle canopy with the tops of some of the other ruins poking out, real Indiana Jones stuff.

Ok so the chicken buses...
Chicken buses are what becomes of US school buses when they get too old or unsafe to transport American kids around. Central America is like the graveyard for these deathtraps, but somehow they manage to resusitate them and pimp them up to the last. Think lots of chrome, brightly colored paintjobs, and so many lights that at night time they're like a crazy funfair ride. Actually getting on one at night wouldn't be too different from a crazy funfair ride. They're bad enough by day.
Once they're all done up they're paired with drivers, whose only neccessary qualification for the job is that they were boy racers in former lives.
Anyway inside these beauties there are no individual seats, but two rows of bench type seats. Originally, one row was made for 3 schoolkids, but in reality only takes 2 and a half adult sized rears. The other would probably have fit 2 children but is only big enough for one and a half fully grown (or overgrown) behinds.
In Guatemala it seems to be the fashion to remove the smaller benches and replace them with the larger ones. This makes the aisle ridiculously narrow, and impossibly so if you've got a big backpack on, as we found out when we literally could fit on the bus from Guatemala City to Antigua. That was fun.
Anyway on our way back from Chichi, the bus was fairly full by the time it picked us up. This meant that we were the 3rd people on the 2 and a half seater benches. So only one ass cheek got a seat. There was 3 people on the bench opposite me so that meant myself and the guy on the opposite bench were actually propping each other up and stopping each other from sliding of the bench and crashing into the aisle, as our crazy driver sped around the hairpin bends without even considering slowing down. My hands actually cramped up from gripping the rail in front of me so hard.
But some people manage to get quite comfy on the buses. About an hour into the journey, the guy in the seat across the aisle from me, who is actually sitting next to me, decides he knows me well enough to fall asleep on my shoulder. I woke him up when I started laughing at him.
However, the real beauty of the chicken buses is that they have an unlimited capacity for passengers. Just when you think they're full (i.e. at least 3 people crammed into every seat and the tiny aisle full of people) they manage to squeeze another 20 people in. The upside to this is that you don't have to worry about sliding off the bench anymore, becuase you are jammed in so tightly that you couldn't move even if you wanted too. The downside is having someone's ass in your face for the last hour and a half of the journey.
I suppose for €2.50 for a 3 hour journey, we probably shouldn't complain!

Jan and Paul.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Panama and Costa Rica

Well after the Inca Trail we said goodbye to South America and boarded a plane to Panama. While we were in the city we went to see the Panama Canal. The whole set-up there was very impressive. We went to the Miraflores locks nearest the city. There's 2 lanes and both have 4 gates and 3 separate sections to change the water level. We got to see 2 big boats passing through them and were surprised how quickly they got from the first gate out to the ocean at the other side, only took about half an hour. Most boats pass through the whole canal in less than 24 hours.

You can see how the water changes level here.

After that we headed to a little town called Boquete in the Panamanian highlands. Apparently it grows the best coffee in the world (since the gold medal for coffee has been won by Boquete coffee farms for the last number of years.) We couldn't miss the chance to do a coffee tour there. We were both surprised by how interesting it was to learn about and see the whole process from picking the coffee fruit to grinding and packaging the beans. Needless to say we're both coffee experts now ( though I still take mine with milk and sugar, much to our guide's disappointment), so there'll be no more No-es-Cafe for us. (No-es-Cafe is the nickname for Nescafe, it literally means 'it's not coffee', they use the reject beans for that.)

Next it was on to San Jose (Costa Rica), obviously humming Do You Know the Way to San Jose all the way there. Didn't get up to too much there, just had a bit of a wander around the city.

From there we got a bus to La Fortuna to see the Arenal Volcano. It's the most active volcano in Costa Rica, a land full of them. But of course the night we went to see it it was too cloudy to catch a glimpse of anything, not to mind see lava pouring froming the crater like it had been the night before. At least we got to see some wildlife and nice plants on the way there.

See it smoking?

Part of that tour was to visit hot springs in the area too. Our tour company took the cheap option though, so we actually ended up in a hot river. It was something else altogether. In the darkness we made our way down to the river's edge, waded under a bridge and ended up beneath the canopy of trees with lightening flashing overhead, while we sat in the hot water of the river. It was such an unusual experience. All the more unusual when one girl shone her torch around and I spotted something on the tree trunk that had fallen over into the river. I very calmly got up and moved away (although Foss says my face dropped.) But when she screamed SNAKE Fossie was out of there like a shot - the fastest he moved since we've been away. Anyway the rest of us stayed there a while more, feeling a bit more reassured when the guide explained that snakes being cold blooded meant they wouldn't come into the hot water of the river.

From Fortuna we made our way across the lake to Monteverde, a town known for its cloud forest reserves. Last night we did a guided night tour through one of the forests. Unfortunately we didn't see all that much wildlife, I think the heavy rain scared them all away. We did get to see an Orange-Kneed Tarantula though.

We were told they sell for $100 as pets. As if that would be enough to make me put my hand into a hole like that and try to catch one!

This morning we headed to a different forest to do a Canopy Tour. This was sooo much fun. It's basically a series of ziplines through the tree tops. There were 12 cables altogether, the longest one was 1km, the highest 540ft, and there was a 90ft rappel too. We were like Tarzan flying through the forest.

Because we only have 5 weeks in Central America to get from Panama city to Mexico city we're moving quite fast. Tomorrow we have a bus to Granada in Nicaragua. Let's hope the roads aren't too bad.

Jan and Fossie.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Inca Trail

4 days - 23 hours trekking - 46 km - but worth every aching muscle to see Machu Picchu and some of the other amazing Incan sites along the way.
Our first day we got as bus as far as Kilometer 82 (on the railway line) where the trail begins.

We started off mostly flat that day with a few gentle uphill bits. It was nice to break us in gradually. After lunch was a different story though, especially the last 2 hours, they were tough going. But at least we knew we were finished for the day when we arrived at our campsite.

It was an early start the next day. Wake up call was at 5.30am and we were on the trail by 6.15am. I don't think I've ever been up and active that early in my life before! This was definitely the hardest section. About 3 1/2 hours to the top of Dead Woman's Pass (4215m above sea level). It was torturous. By the time we could see the top I was so worn out and it was so steep it was literally 20 steps, take a break, 20 more, catch my breath ...

We made it to the top just in time to admire the view before the clouds set in.

After the struggle to get to the top, what else would you do only go back down. We had about 2 hours of really steep down hill to our lunch spot.And of course that was followed by another massive climb to the second highest pass of the trek, where we had a break

before yet another descent. Crazy stuff! Why the Inca's couldn't just flatten it out a bit is beyond me.

It poured rain that night, but luckily we woke up to clear skies and a great view of the valley in the morning.

We started off with a nice gentle section that would have been easy if our legs weren't in bits after all the up and down the previous day. Luckily it was only a half day of walking until we got to the Intipata site, and our campsite was very close.

That afternoon we visited Winaywayna. This was my favourite site along the trail. we just rounded a bend and there it was. Really outstanding. All the terraces were for farming. Our guide told us they layered gravel, then sand, then soil to make it more fertile and improve drainage. At the top of the site is a natural spring and they built a seies of fountains and channels to bring the water down as far as the houses.

On the last morning we were up before the sun and started the final leg at 5am. At Intipunku (Sungate) we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu through the cloud cover.

We hung around for a bit and luckily it cleared up.

By the time we got down there it was scorching. We had a guided tour of the site first and then had some free time to wander around ourselves. It's a really amazing site. It's hard to comprehend the scale of it from the photo's and even in real life. They reckon that maybe 500 people lived there in the Incan period.

So that was the Inca Trail. A challenging but fantastic experience.

Jan and Paul