After studying Spanish in Xela for 2 months, Michael and I were keen to hit the road again. We had a month before I was meeting some mates in Cancun… until then we planned to play it by ear, with only a rough plan to head North into the Petén region of Guatemala.
Our first stop was Antigua, a pretty town only a few hours from Xela. I heard there was an active volcano not too far away called Volcan Pacaya. There were hikes up this volcano where you had the opportunity to see and roast marshmallows on fresh lava. Of course I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass. After conquering the highest point in Central America, Volcan Tajumulco (4220m) and then the steep Volcan Saint Maria (2330m); Pacaya was a doozy. We made it to the top in a couple of hours… and though we didn’t get to see any red flowing lava or eruptions like I hoped, we did get to roast some yummy marshmallows on some new(ish) lava from an eruption a few days previous.
From Antigua we headed North to Semuc Champa, a beautiful, jungle national park, with a river of strange, turquoise coloured water. We stayed at a hostel just outside of the park called ‘El Portal’ – I highly recommend this hostel to anyone that is looking at visiting Semuc!! Nice jungle lodges, great views and budget prices.
After Semuc we continued to head north. I had heard about a 5-day trek deep into the Petén Jungle in the North of Guatemala. Treks could be organized from a small town called Flores. The 5-day trek was to a relatively new archeological site, known as “El Mirador” – one of the largest Mayan cities ever discovered, with the biggest Mayan pyramid of them all, “La Danta”. It was very much off the tourist trail, with only a few hundred visitors to the site per year. I could not pass up this opportunity for an Indiana Jones adventure.
The trek was much harder than anticipated and extremely poorly organized. We endured swarms of mosquitos, waded through knee high mud and swampy water, and were feed next to nothing – considering the 9 hours of daily hiking we were doing. On day 3 we arrived at El Mirador, and climbed the partially excavated “La Danta” pyramid. When I looked out over the horizon from the top of La Danta, all I could see for miles and miles was green jungle – we truly were in the middle of nowhere. On the return trek some of the girls in our group were struggling and lagging behind (no surprises really, the trek was physically and mentally very demanding). Michael and I were leading the group and before we knew it we had lost the entire group and were trekking aimlessly through the Petén jungle by ourselves. Luckily we bumped into a local man that was trekking between two small settlements. He pointed us in the right direction and we eventually made it to camp. On the final day of the trek we all were looking forward to a hot shower, a comfortable bed and a good feed. When we eventually made it back to Carmelita (the village we started in), we discovered we were stranded, with absolutely no money and no way of returning to Flores. Luckily we were fortunate enough to be with some really kind people that helped us out.
Exploring the Mayan ruins and being some of the first people to set eyes on the newly excavated carvings and ruins was extremely rewarding, and definitely the highlight of the trek for me. I still however ask myself whether the hell we endured to get there and back was really worth it. My right foot is still recovering and if I get malaria from anywhere, I would be almost certain it would be from that hike.
From Guatemala Michael and I crossed the border into Belize. We had a quick stop in Belize City (sensed the sketchy vibe many people had warned us about)… and then caught the ferry to Caye Caulker Island – a beautiful, small sandy island paradise, and exactly what we needed after the “trek from hell”. We stayed at a hostel/ cat sanctuary called Pause Hostel. The cat sanctuary came first, the hostel came second to help fund the sanctuary, and by staying here your money will go straight to supporting the amazing work of the sanctuary. Mandy the owner is a real inspiration. She created the sanctuary 10 years ago after finding some abandoned kittens tidied up in a bag and left in the ocean to drown. She runs the hostel and sanctuary with her mother. If you happen to be heading to Caye Caulker, I cannot recommend this hostel enough. It is clean, cheap and has the most amazing sunset views. Mandy is also always on the look out for volunteers, so if you have the time to spare, you could always offer your help – we probably would have if we weren’t on such a tight time schedule.
From Caye Caulker we caught the ferry back to Belize City, then the night bus to Tulum. Tulum has 3 parts; the Tulum ruins (extremely touristic… a bit like walking through a golf course, with some old buildings scattered around); the Tulum resort area (mostly full of rich tourists from the States); and Tulum town center. We spent most of our time in Tulum town center… not much to report on – it rained a lot, we walked around a lot, and we drank a lot of coffee ice frappes from Oxxo (the Mexican version of 7-11).
I caught the bus from Tulum to Playa del Carmen –Playa is to the States, like Bali is to Australia and Tenerife is to England, only more expensive… I didn’t stay long. Merida was the next stop, and it was here Michael and I celebrated the Mexican Independence day – we had high hopes!! There were fireworks, live music and decorations… but no street drinking was allowed (surprising considering the previous Mexican wedding celebration which involved roaming the streets drinking copious amounts of tequila) and the party was over by midnight. Still it was very festive and we had a good night.
After the Mexican celebration, it was almost time for me to meet my crazy Aussie mates, Charlotte and Megan, in Cancun. So I said “adios” to Michael, and headed for party central, Cancun.
Cancun… what can I say about Cancun??? Well, it was fun, for the most part! If it weren’t for the touts, the sleaziness of the nightclubs, the people and the prices, it would be great. We also visited Chichen Itza (“Chicken Pizza”) one of the 7 wonders of the world, and spent a couple of nights on Isla Mujeres. The island was less touristic than Cancun and more beautiful – less touts, a laid back vibe, amazing beaches, and cheap drinks. Perfecto!!
When we returned to Cancun it was time to say “hasta luego” to my mates, and “buenos dias” to Cuba – the country of revolution, mojitos and fat cigars!!!