I arrived in Mexico City airport on the morning of 30 June (via Houston, Texas), Ben arrived in the afternoon (via Bogota, as planned) and my parents arrived in the evening, from Dublin. So now there were 4.
Backpacking was, I think, a relatively new experience for my parents, and on the whole I think they coped admirably (and even managed to enjoy themselves when they got time to draw a breath). Our 2 weeks together in Mexico covered Mexico City (including the nearby ruins of Teotihuacan and the obligatory mariachi session in Plaza Garibaldi), Oaxaca (where we ate fried grasshoppers in the Zocalo, zipped around the surrounding countryside in a bright red VW Beatle (where my mother hung on for dear life to the upholstery as Ben treated us to a fine display of Franco-Mexican driving skills) and toured the Zapotec site of Monte Alban accompanied by the strains of a random Mexican children's choir from atop one of the pyramids), Zipoliti beach (where the idyllic beach cabins we stayed in threatened to go up in smoke or be washed away in the wake of several fierce tropical thunderstorms), San Cristobal de las Casas (where we arrived after a harrowing series of 3 different night buses....there was no room on the direct bus so we had to improvise) and Palenque (which apart from the beautiful Mayan ruins located nearby, has little to recommend it other than the fact that Dad finally found his cigars here).
Back to being only 2 again, Ben and I decided to continue overland to Guatemala, via yet more Mayan ruins at Yakchilan and Bonampak on the Mexican-Guatemalan border and at Tikal in Guatemala. That made 6 archaeological sites in 2 weeks so we were more than ready for some quality beachtime. Belize beckoned.
We made our way to Caye Caulker, one of the white sand islands surrounded by turqouise Caribbean waters off the coast of Belize. The biggest culture shock was the language - Belizeans speak English (or rather a variant of English as the Bob Marleyesque accent was not often easy to decipher, and we were completely lost when they would lapse into their native Creole). Belizeans also seemed to have a particular difficulty with my Irish accent with the result that it was often much quicker to get Ben to ask any questions....very strange, I know. Add to that the fact that there are definitely similarities between the Belizean and Kerry accents in relation to certain words and you will understand why we were in such difficulties (I'll bring Freddie with me next time to translate). The highlight of Caye Caulker for me was diving the Blue Hole, a sinkhole of 33 metres wide and nearly 135 metres deep in the middle of a shallow reef. It is thought to have been formed by the collapse of the roof of an underwater cavern. When I got down to 40 metres, I was surrounded by huge ghostly stalagmite columns.....and some blacktip reef sharks on the way back up. The 2 shallower reef dives that followed were no less spectacular for the variety and vibrant colours of the hard and soft coral. Even better than the Red Sea and that takes some beating.
We decided to head for Honduras next as the sea crossing from Belize sounded like the most direct route. Not the case. We ended up stuck in a tiny village called Placencia (at the tip of a peninsula) for 3 days while waiting for a tropical wave to pass so our boat could leave for Honduras. On arriving in Honduras, we made for the town of Copan on the Guatemalan border, home to another major and very beautiful Mayan site. As we were running short on time, we paid the extra to get the express bus to Copan....said bus had "Servicio Rapido" plastered all over it and was called the Gama Express. Our superduper express service shuddered to a grinding halt at the side of the road about an hour away from Copan. At which point the Honduran passengers calmly left the bus and started disappearing into the fields on either side. Leads one to think that they might be used to this? I have to say though that our Express Driver redeemed himself in efficiently organising alternative transportation of the remaining 12 passengers to Copan - he flagged down a pickup truck and all 12 of us, together with a lot more than 12 bulky pieces of luggage, piled into the back of the truck, the passengers perching on the edges as the floorspace was completely taken up with the luggage. As our truck hared around the hairpin bends in the road, we clung precariously to the most firmly anchored bags we could lay our hands on and tried to ignore the severe muscular spasms that were setting in. It was fortunate that after about 20 minutes into the journey, we divested ourselves of 2 Hondurans and a very large watermelon thus providing some relief for our numb limbs.
The next afternoon (after a morning visiting the ruins in Copan) saw us on our way to Antigua in Guatemala. Honduras merits more time than a day and a half. But we wanted to get down as far as Nicaragua, so Honduras had to be shelved. Antigua is an extremely pretty, cobbledstoned, colourful town. It is also extremely full of tourists so 3 days there was enough. The less-travelled routes of El Salvador drove us onwards....
...Onto another "express" bus from Guatemala City to San Salvador. To be fair it wasn't the fault of the bus company that some truck on the Guatemalan side of the border had decided to block all traffic coming through for about 3 hours. In the interim we got talking to two nice nuns on our bus, one of whom was interrogated by customs officials as they tried to make her pay extra for whatever she was transporting in her innocent looking suitcase on wheels. I never did find out what she was trafficking but her prayers were obviously answered as she managed talk her way out of paying. Another bizarre sight we were treated to at the border build up (we had plenty of time to take in the sights) was the ingenuity of the numerous truck drivers, many of whom had hooked up a hammock to the underside of their truck, where they waited out the hours in relative comfort and enjoying some much sought after shade. We finally made it to the sleepy village of Suchitoto, about an hour north of San Salvador, late that night, by which time we were fully acquainted with our taxi driver's complete CD collection, the names and ages of his children and the religious tendencies of his wife (Evangelical). Indeed it would seem that the Evangelicals are hard at work in El Salvador....our hostel in Suchitoto was located right next to an Evangelical worshipping centre and do they like to worship! We still had chanting, singing and clapping going on at 4am!!!
After 2 days of eating pupusas in Suchitoto (nothing else to do as all the interesting museums supposed to be there had closed down) we headed for Nicaragua where we planned to spend the next 10 days. Rather than taking the well trodden bus route overland from San Salvador through Honduras and down to the Nicaraguan capital Managua, we went for an alternative route, yet another sea crossing, which turned out to be a lot more alternative than we had envisaged. We should have learned our lesson after the tropical wave in Belize....it must have been a sign. Anyway, we arrived in the out-of-the-way port town of La Union in the far southeast of El Salvador only to discover that the 10 dollar ferry service to Nicaragua mentioned in our guide book no longer existed. Instead we found a fisherman who offered to take us across for 100 dollars. While Ben chatted to the friendly immigration officials about his south american coin collection, I bargained hard with the fisherman and a deal was done. He would bring us across for 15 dollars each. When I saw the flimsy looking fishing boat (resembling a currach with a little motor attached) in which we were to make the 3 hour open sea crossing, I started to wish that my bargaining hadn't been so successful. About 2 hours into the journey (following a stopover at a nearby island for an hour while our fisherman went off to "chat" and we acquired 2 locals as extra passengers), the motor started to sputter and cut out. After some tinkering, one of the passengers got it started up again and took over the steering of the boat. We hoped he was at least a fisherman too. The sun was going down, we had about another hour to go and we were soaked through when our new skipper hit a wave at the wrong angle, the boat rocked precariously, nearly capsized.....and our fisherman was catapulted overboard. After rescuing the captain from the middle of the Pacific, we finished the rest of the journey guided by moonlight and starlight. Needless to say, our boat had no light. We arrived at the port of Potosi in Nicaragua, the most run-down and poorest little village that we have encountered on our travels yet, and quickly realised that hostels or any sort of tourist accomodation had not yet arrived in this place. Our fisherman's wife took pity on the 2 bedraggled specimens before her and offered us 2 hammocks in the outhouse where they kept the fishing nets....and a hen. It was perfect. We hung our dripping clothes from the rafters and tried to ignore the cobwebs above (which bore a striking resemblance to those featuring in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and our resident hen scuttling about on the rafters above our heads. See photo attached - and if you look closely, in the top left hand corner you can even see the hen about to make a run on our clothes.
We left early next morning for the colonial town of Leon by means of a grossly overcrowded chicken bus (we just couldn't seem to escape poultry since we had arrived in Nicaragua). On arriving at our hostel, we gave the entire contents of our rucksacks to one of the women working there to wash (as everything was soaked after our memorable sea crossing and laundries do not exist in Leon) as a result of which 5 of Ben's tshirts ended up tie-dyed. It seems we bought the wrong washing powder in the market, well, that was the washer woman's story. I'm just glad she started with Ben's clothes first.....mine escaped unscathed of course!! Leon is a pretty town but in need of much restoration and we decided to move on to San Juan del Sur in the south of Nicaragua to visit some of its much talked about beaches. The beaches were indeed spectacular, though we never managed to take any surfing lessons due to a combination of intermittent bad weather and the teacher being too hung over to take us out. However, we did find the "Chicken Lady" (honestly, that's what she is known as) just around the corner from where we were staying, who fed us the most delicious barbecued chicken I have ever tasted, accompanied by fried bananas (they love bananas in Nicaragua, it's a bit like the popcorn in Ecuador, they turn up everywhere).
Next stop Granada, which was to be our last destination in Nicaragua as we were tired of moving around. Granada, another colonial town, is infinitely more beautiful than Leon, if only because a lot more money has been spent restoring it and cleaning it up (and opening laundry services for tourists). We immediately signed up for a "Canopy Tour" on the slopes of the nearby Mombacho Volcano. What an experience. Our canopy tour involved an hour of whizzing along cables (to which we were attached by a harness) between platforms built around tree trunks about 18 metres off the ground. And then a final rappel down a tree trunk back to the ground - at turbo speed of course. That night (Friday), we witnessed the usual Friday night festivities in Granada's Parque Central - live music, food stalls (with more mouthwatering barbequed chicken and, of course, bananas "al gusto") surrounded by tables and chairs everywhere, and the local children climbing onto whatever raised spot they could find to dance. The Nicaraguans without doubt match the Brazilians when it comes to revelling in music, partying and dancing....the spirit of the Nicaraguans is all the more astounding given the hardships they have endured between civil wars and natural disasters such as Hurricane Mitch. And they are without a doubt the friendliest people I have come across so far.
Sunday saw us hitching to the dramatic and still active Santiago crater of the Masaya Volcano. The leaflet we were handed as we entered the national park and started the hike up to the crater was reassuring - "In the event of rocks being spat out of the crater, hide under your car for protection". Hikers and backpackers are obviously not protected species in this national park. Not to worry, all we got were sulphur fumes out of the crater....not an airborne rock in sight.
Arriving back in Granada's Parque Central that afternoon, there was definitely some other festival in full swing. But we were puzzled as to why people appeared to be converging at high points around the square, thronging behind railings and hanging out of trees. And there were streamer-bedecked horses with riders everywhere. We made our way across the square trying to avoid getting trampled by the horses when suddenly the crowd on the ground began to surge, scream, run - and climb where possible. We had no choice but to run with them. When things had calmed down again, we asked a local what was going on and were informed that this Sunday was the festival whereby several bulls were let loose in the town and then rounded up later by the horseback riders. More screams (this time we understood the cry "toro! toro!" as a charging bull appeared) and I promptly jumped up onto the nearest pillar I could find. In this fashion, we slowly made our way back to our hostel without being gored by one of the random bulls rampaging the city. This place is crazy but I want to come back.
Next on the agenda is New Zealand via California's Gold Country. Update at the end of September.