Guatemala

 

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It’s early New Years Day when I hit the border from Belize to Guatemala. Checking out of Belize goes smoothly, stamping out in immigration then cancelling my vehicle permit. Down the road to the Guatemalan border, no problem at immigration but at customs they need all the usual copies of my documents plus a copy of my passport page with the Guatemala stamp that they just stamped. Which I obviously do not have in advance. Usually there is a copy store right next to any place that you might need copies, but on New Year’s Day morning they are closed. I ask the lady behind the counter where to get a copy and she just shrugs. I grab one of the border fixers (who I usually avoid like the plague but I’m stuck) and ask where can I get a copy? We set off across the bridge towards Guatemala, when he says Bienvidos a Guatemala I realize that my Land Cruiser is in Belize but I’m in Guatemala. We walk along the main street in this border town looking for something open that makes copies. After almost a mile he flags down someone on a motorcycle heading the other way. I jump on the back of the motorcycle and we ride all the way back to the border bridge, where he opens up his internet cafe and makes the crucial copy. I give him and the helper a generous tip and walk back across the bridge with my copy and finally get my Temporary Import Permit for Guatemala. 10 meters further there are a couple of cones across the Official Border but nobody is around, being New Year’s Day morning. I just move the cones aside and escape into Guatemala.

First stop is the amazing ruins of Tikal, had lunch at a nice lakeside hotel on the way.

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At Tikal I camped in the parking lot of one of the fancy lodges just outside the gates. Early next morning I was off to the famous ruins.

As with most other ruins you walk a ways into the site, makes it much more dramatic. Lots of wildlife on the way, a little eerie hearing howler monkeys right overhead

Guatemala – Tikal Howler Monkeys

and plenty of Coatis walking around

Guatemala – Tikal Coatis

and an Agouti, looks like a giant guinea pig running around.

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Finally at the ruins the main temple of Tikal looms out of the mist

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This early nobody else is around, just a couple of guys and a turkey on the main plaza.

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After spending the morning at Tikal it’s off to western Guatemala. One road sign on the way from Tikal to the main highway.

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It takes a couple of days across Guatemala but finally I arrive at Lake Atitlan, the town of Panajachel. I spend three days here at a little hotel enjoying the views and tourist food.

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The hotel has secure parking in a little courtyard and rooms with a fan, but at first I thought there was a problem with the shower. It’s covered in a plastic bag. The lady at the hotel said no, that’s the shower head. OK I guess.

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Panajachel is the most touristy of towns around Lake Aititlan, after a few days I drive to San Pedro la Laguna which is known as more of a backpacker town. The roads up and down the volcanoes around the lake are crazy steep. This sign is not an exaggeration. The rim is around 9,000′ and the lake is around 5,000′ and the roads take the most direct route.

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Arriving at the Corazon Maya Spanish school in San Pedro I finally meet up with Todd and Chantelle, the Australian couple whom I picked up the package for back in Tulum. They treat me to dinner and many drinks. I’ve been meaning to get some Spanish lessons and this seems like a good place so I sign up for a couple of weeks.

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The weather here is amazing, between the altitude and geography every day is a perfect fall day, about 78 and sunny in the afternoon and low 60s overnight.

The school has some organized activities every week, first week we walk up into the hills to visit an ancient religious site in a cave. Along the way we see lots of coffee plants and people harvesting the ripened beans

Another evening we all pile into a van and drive around the lake to San Marcos de la Laguna for the basketball finals. Apparently there is a long standing rivalry between San Pedro and San Marcos and tonight is the big night. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a basketball final as your average Guatemalan is about 5′ 0″  but the teams were very good. The announcer made a special point of welcoming us gringos from San Pedro to the game. Pictures from below are from the first game, women’s teams, as once the men’s teams took the court we were so jammed in I couldn’t raise my arms to get a picture.  The San Pedro women’s team won but the men’s team lost.

Another weekly activity was cooking traditional Guatemalan dishes. I was pretty excited as the first week was pupusas, which I had always thought of as a Salvadoran dish. We learned how to pat out tortillas by hand, along with plenty of chopping for the salad and pico de gallo.

 

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The finished pupusas were delicious.

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I accompanied Todd and Chantelle to a nearby chocolate factory. It’s pretty simple. they take cacao beans roast and shell then add milk and flavorings.  They roll it out then add any flavorings. The best one was coffee, it had roasted coffee beans rolled in with the chocolate.

 

There is a central San Pedro which is pretty traditional, and a gringo San Pedro on the waterfront which caters to gringos. There’s a good market in central San Pedro on the weekends, although the main product seems to be shoes I found a guy who sells cheese with jalapeno (most Central American cheese is a pretty bland white cheese). He wraps up the block of cheese in a banana leaf. Along with some fresh bread it makes a good lunch.

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Another week at Corazon Maya we make tamales frijol. They roll out and flatten the corn meal mixture on a table top then spread black bean paste on top. After rolling and cutting the pieces are wrapped in banana leaves and steamed.

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You have to wash and tear the banana leafs to size first

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The steamed tamales with a little tomato sauce and parmesan.

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My bungalow at Corazon Maya. There are others with bathrooms and showers but for $35USD per week I can’t complain.

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A restaurant in gringolandia, great food and cheap drinks.

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A walk through gringolandia

Guatemala – San Pedro la Laguna

Nachos Americanos. Turns out nachos are a strictly American dish, no Mexican or Central American restaurant serves them, except for gringos. This plate had probably 1/2 lb of guacamole under the meat and salsa, very good.

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View from another restaurant near the docks

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The lake is fed only by rainfall, being so high up and surrounded by volcanoes. In the past the water level was much lower and there are ruins of buildings underwater. Lately the water has been receding and these ghost buildings are showing at the waterline.

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More gringo nachos, I can’t help myself.

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Finally, after four weeks at Corazon Maya it’s time to move along. I have learned a lot and feel much more comfortable with Spanish now. Time to test it in the real world.

Driving out the super steep road back to the PanAm highway, one last look back at Lake Aititlan. San Pedro on the right.

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I spent three days in Antigua. Camping at the Tourist Police compound, which is free but has no amenities whatsoever. Every day I was up early and walking the 3 blocks over to McDonalds for bathroom and breakfast. It’s the nicest McDonald’s I’ve seen, with a beautiful courtyard looking out over a ruined church and a volcano. Plus they have free wifi.

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One day the police brought in this guy that they had arrested and all took turns posing for pictures with him in cuffs. Not sure if he was a famous criminal or what.

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Antigua is a very picturesque town, with lots of modern amenities.

Nice to enjoy more modern places after a month in San Pedro, even though there were a lot of tourists they seem to have a good balance between tourism and local life.

There is a volcano on the outskirts of town that has been erupting for awhile. I wasn’t able to see it earlier but everything has been covered in volcanic ash all week. Finally on the way out of Antigua i was able to see the volcano in action.

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I’m headed for the small town of Cuidad Pedro de Alvarado on the border with El Salvador

 

 

 

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Belize

Back down to the Belize border outside Chetumal and actually leaving Mexico this time. Mexican immigration here is infamous for demanding the $20US tourist fee when it is not required, and they get me as well. I paid the $20US when I first entered Mexico, luckily I saved the receipt as when I flew back to Chicago from Cancun the ticket counter told me that I had to go to the immigration booth and get a stamp on the tourist card, otherwide I wouldn’t be able to get on the plane. At the airport immigration booth he looked at my tourist card and immediately said “You have to pay $20.” I reached into my pile of travel papers and pulled out the receipt. After some inspecting and scribbled notes on the receipt, tourist card, boarding pass he finally stamped my tourist card and I was free to leave. Upon returning I got a new tourist card but did not pay anything as I was planning to leave Mexico within 7 days, which should be free. But the immigration at Chetumal insists that the 7 day rule does not count when you fly in and drive out. Interestingly, the airport immigration guy tried to tell me that I had to pay $20 if I drove in and flew out. We argue for awhile but the line of honking cars is building up behind me so I finally give in and pay. When I ask for a receipt he gives me a tiny 2″ x 2″ copied paper that just says “2016 immigration $390 pesos”

Anyway, crossing into Belize is pretty easy apart from being caught in line behind a whole bus full of tourists at immigration. Importing the Land Cruiser goes smoothly and there is an insurance office right past the border where I buy a week’s worth of Belizean insurance. They give you a dated windshield sticker showing that you are insured.

I drive down to Orangewalk to a small river resort with camping and it immediately starts to pour down rain. I haven’t seen rain like this in a long time.

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Once the rain passes I go for a walk around Orangewalk. It’s Monday the day after Christmas which is an official holiday here so the whole town is closed up. After some wandering I find a Chinese-Belizean restaurant that is open and enjoy some stir fry.

Without the rain it is nice sitting on the river watching the crocodiles swim past.  It’s a popular place for boat trips to the nearby ruins and also for bird watching.

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Next day I drive to Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, an island on a lake that is famous for bird watching. It’s run by the Audobon Society and they tell me that there are over 300 species of birds here. Right at the ranger station there is a hummingbird feeder with probably a dozen hummingbirds hovering around it. They give me a map to the hiking trails and the village and I set out in pursuit of the famous Jabiru Stork, largest bird in the Americas. The map has several sites flagged but I don’t see any until on my way back through the village I finally spot one standing out in a field across from the police station.

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I drive through the village of Crooked Tree to a little restaurant for lunch. Inside they are all watching Supernatural reruns on TV. It doesn’t look like much but the BBQ chicken with beans and rice was great.

A drive through Crooked Tree

It’s still raining quite a bit, but at least each shower only lasts 20 minutes or so.

It’s very different here. The national language is English, although many people speak Spanish or Kriol. Signs are almost all in English and the two or three speed limit signs I have seen are in MPH. Gas is sold by the gallon and is very expensive, around $7US, but I filled up just before leaving Mexico and should be able to make it to Guatemala without having to stop at a gas station. There are exactly 2 Belizean dollars to 1 US dollar, and they use them interchangeably. I always have to think about it for a second, for example you have $6BZD coming in change they might hand you 2 USD and 2 BZD.

Leaving Crooked Tree I continue on to the Belize Zoo. It’s not a traditional zoo; all of the animals here are native Belize species and most of them are orphaned or rescued.

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They have a lot of tapirs which are great fun to watch. Tapirs are usually overlooked in American zoos next to the hippos, rhinos, elephants etc.

The zoo is just part of the jungle with some fences so they have a natural habitat.

It’s afternoon and quite hot so most of the animals are just hanging around taking a nap.

Some regular and albino coatis

The ocelot is not angry that’s just its everyday sound

Belize Zoo – Ocelot

I stayed for the night at TEC, kind of an eco lodge extension of the zoo. They asked if I would like a full guest house for $66 and I said why not. After driving to the back of the grounds and pulling up to the house I was amazed. It’s up on stilts with screens all around so it’s like a giant tree house in the jungle.  A huge porch on two sides with a giant bedroom and bathroom inside. At night it was completely dark all around, I had to grab a flashlight to make my way along the jungle paths to the main lodge for dinner.

Very sad to leave the guest house after only one night, next day I headed to the Caribbean coast. The most direct route is on the Manatee Highway, which turns out to be barely even a dirt road in most places, so the name of “Highway” is a little deceptive. With all of the rain it is full of huge potholes and water completely over the road in several places. There is one pothole in the middle of the road that somebody marked by sticking a huge tree branch into it, I look down but can’t see the bottom. I keep expecting to come around a corner and find the road completely washed out or under deep water, but I eventually make it to the town of Hopkins. Only 2.5 hours to go 40 miles. When I get there I mentioned to the lady who runs the beach hostel how crappy the road was, she said “Oh you didn’t take the Manatee Highway did you?”. Apparently everybody knows not to go that way; it’s actually much faster to go 20 miles out of the way west then east on a real highway. Talking to other people with rental cars they tell me that the rental company said that they could drive anywhere in Belize except the Manatee Highway, their rental car maps have big Xs through the length of the Manatee highway.

Hopkins has a very Caribbean feel, unlike Caribbean Mexico. Most of the houses are wood, built up on stilts and brightly painted.

The hostel is pretty basic, at least it has screens and a fan. But it’s right on the beach, above left is the view  from the front porch.

This is the best barbecued pork chop I have ever eaten.

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Driving the very scenic and well paved Hummingbird Highway toward the capital city of Belmopan I stopped at St Herman’s Cave and Blue Hole National Park for a day of caving with a visit to a hot sauce factory along the way. Unfortunately, due to all the recent rain, today the Blue Hole is now the Brown Hole and closed due to unsafe water levels. There are cave tubing trips and cave hikes in St Herman’s cave, but these are also on hold due to the water level. I was really looking forward to tubing through the caves on an underground river. They let me into the cave but you are only allowed up to 200 meters without a guide, and there are no guides today because of the high water.

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So it’s just a short cave tour today. Nobody else around, at the 200 meter mark I switch off my headlamp and it’s completely dark and silent.

Stayed for the night in Belmopan, which is a very unassuming place for a national capital.

Then off to Clarissa Falls, a resort with camping near the Guatemala border.

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It’s a beautiful spot, they have a small field for camping right on the river. The falls are not as impressive as you might think, but they have a large open air restaurant/bar overlooking the falls which is a great spot to hang out with good wifi and plenty of power outlets. The woman who runs the place is very friendly and also a great cook. I’m way behind on organizing pictures/movies and internet stuff in general so I spend two days here just relaxing. The second day is New Year’s Eve, which I spend drinking beer and playing cards with a Canadian couple and another American guy. All night, until 9 pm when everything closes up.

 

Quintana Roo – Mahahual Christmas

After Tulum I drove south along the coast back to Mahahual. It’s closing in on Christmas and it’s funny to see the decorations out on the beach.

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Lots of friendly street dogs. i guess they have to be friendly if they live on handouts.

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Camping in the Blue Kay resort again. The main reason I am back here is that there is a good dive shop next to the resort with a PADI Open Water dive course at a pretty reasonable rate. I walk into the dive shop at lunch time to ask about the course and they say sure, you can start right now. There is a group of three students who started the course this morning so they hand me the book and tell me to study chapter one. I can take the first written test after lunch and then continue on with the rest of the group. It takes about 3.5 days pretty solid work with studying, exercises off the beach, and four open water dives all day long then more studying and review in the evenings. The diving here is pretty good, in my limited experience. Lots of great reefs just offshore with cool canyons to swim through. I do the final dive and finish the final exam around lunchtime on Christmas Day. Nice Christmas present to myself, I have been wanting to do this for a long time.

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Unfortunately, just after finishing the course I come down with a pretty good cold so no more diving for awhile.

Evening at the Blue Kay restaurant/bar, it’s very relaxing. I take one day to rest after finishing the class then on to the next country, Belize.

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