Offpeakers

Maximize living, minimize annoyances

Category: Central America

Aquaman and the Mermaid

For the vast majority of our adult life we were land bound. While we enjoyed the occasional paddle in a canoe, raft or kayak we never gave much thought to being in the water beyond regular showering. No prolonged soaks in a tub for us, unless its the hot bubbly kind. We have learned to appreciate the unknown and different which goes along with travelling and exploring new places.  As 75% of the globe is covered with water, it was time to go aquatic.

man on rock

Lets go exploring!

The beauty of the ocean, the sense of discovery, danger, anticipation as well as the previously unknown sense of fun splashing around weightlessly has made us shed our landlubber status.

2 divers

John during his open water dive course with our friend Silas in Roatan Island.

We were convinced by fellow travelers to visit Roatan Island, Honduras during previous travels. There we learned to dive and were entranced and coached on snorkeling by our great friends Naomi and Robert (thank you for your generosity and inspiration!) It was on Roatan we heard about Corn Island for the first time, having it be described as being “like Roatan was 30 years ago”. Preparing for an extended visit to Corn Island meant we would need to bring our own gear even though we want to travel light.  In this case, we got travel flippers to go along with our masks and snorkels.

Spotted eagle ray

This is a spotted eagle ray photographed by John. Mature rays can be up to 5 meters (16 ft) in length; the largest have a wingspan of up to 3 meters (10 ft) and a mass of 230 kilograms (507 lb).

My flippers in particular were abbreviated versions of the long flippers you typically would use for diving. Our friend (and diving instructor) Sherine loved to laugh and tease me about my little tiny flippers (try to imagine it in her French accent). Thankfully my wife has given me extensive experience handling good natured abuse from a beautiful talented lady. The proper response is to just walk away!  Big John is comfortable in his skin and his swim suit.  Unless it is cold.

Beach

After a fun day of snorkeling at Sally Peachy beach.

My little flippers accompanied us into the water almost every morning on Corn Island. The north portion of Corn Island, approximately 1 1/2 miles across, provides the best snorkeling. Comprised of two neighborhoods, Sally Peachie and the North End,this stretch, is completely open to swimmers (as is all of the island).  The beach is not fenced off for developments.  The road follows along the shore, providing great access. As we were on the island for an extended period, we explored to see our favorite spot. Our conclusion, hop into the water and enjoy.

Coral reef

A gorgeous reef complete with a Queen Angel fish and other fish friends. What a great find!

The coral follows the entire stretch with small, easily breached interruptions. Some spots had better soft coral.  In other areas the reef was closer to shore. Our favorite spot was the extreme northeast by the manta ray bus stop. There are examples of reef within 10 yards of shore, with the main reef 100 yards out.

staghorn_coral

John found and shot this beautiful healthy elkhorn coral off Sally Peachie

The snorkeling was great and there are no fishermen traveling through this area in motorized boats, just the occasional ocean going canoe. We had a couple close calls with motor boats in other locations.  In order to locate the reef, look for the white breaking waves offshore where the current coming in hits the reefs that are only submerged by 6-10 inches of water. Using a small GoPro camera, we enjoyed taking photos and short film clips of the underwater world. Unfortunately our camera died and apparently took the images on the SD card. Terry had saved a few we had captured with screen shots and those are primarily what we are sharing here.

golfball and brain corals

Some healthy golf-ball and brain corals.

Spending 2 to 3 hours in the water every day, we found the haunts of large eagle rays that would soar over and around the reef structures. Sherine taught us how to best view and interact. As excited are you are, if you swim out after the large rays in a frenzy, they will normally swim away from you and your thrashing little fins. If you act cool, the rays may very well swim around you, letting you watch in amazement as they swoop like a bird of prey. We also found favored retreats of nurse sharks. These are very skittish, and once they saw you were observing them, they would change time zones.

Nurse sharks

Nurse sharks spotted in their favorite hiding place.

The mermaid and I have different approaches to viewing the mysteries of the sea. I am in a rush to see what is ahead, around the corner, on the next reef. Terry preferred technique is an analytical approach. A slow swim while she studiously scans the contours and crevices.

A collage

Some of Terry’s finds. Top L – The Magnifica Anemone, Top R – a Puffer fish & a Four eye Butterfly fish, bottom L – inside of a broken Conch shell, Bottom R – A Spotted Sea Hare (Sea Slug) 

She sees coral worms, tiny crabs, and sea hares that eluded my more cursory review. Terry is a quick study on identifying what we have seen. Internet allowing, she enjoys researching the species and sharing the details. Her keen observational skills also extend to people passing on the road. I no longer was surprised to return to land to find us stocked with mangoes, avocados, fish or guava jelly that she had purchased from passing merchants.

Collage of Terry's scavenger finds

Other finds: 1) Avocados, 2) Fresh yellow-tail fish ready for dinner, 3) A bag of mangoes 4) Eggs with mango & avocado for breakfast

Terry’s best find was new friends. Special places attract special people. The beach at Sally Peachie introduced us to a fun couple from Germany on their honeymoon. Thomas and Angelina specialized in finding large eagle rays and generating smiles. Two good features to have in island friends. We wish them continued happiness.

Friends

With our friends Tom and Angie at the beach in Long Bay, Big Corn Island, Nicaragua.

Our view is that the reefs are easy and safe to find and you can explore them on their own. Of course not everyone has a great deal of time to get comfortable in the water. If you visit the island without snorkel gear or feel more comfortable with a guide, we see there are three options. We loved Sherine and Matteo at Corn Island Dive Center.

Friends

We miss our friends Sharine and Matteo.

Whether you are diving or snorkeling, they will get you in the water and make it a safe, fun, memorable time. If Corn Island Dive Center is booked, we also heard good things about Dos Tiburones Dive shop. Dorsey Campbell gives snorkeling tours and rents equipment based from his home on the Sally Peachie beach right next to the Victoria Comedor (and across the street from our favorite snorkel spot at Sally Peachie).

Terry at the beach

Another beach day. Crystal clear water and white sands with just us or in this case just Terry.

If you go to Yellowstone, you should see the Old Faithful geyser, if you visit Paris, you should see the Eiffel Tower. If you go to Corn Island, get in the water and enjoy the amazing work of nature. Beaches and warm weather are available all over the world. Isolated coral reefs are something special. You may discover your inner Aquaman and Mermaid. We are glad we made it part of our life and we will never forget the experience.

Do you have a favorite or suggested spot to see underwater beauty? Please share it with us, we’d love to hear all about it!

BCI beach at Long Bay

Introduction to Corn Island, Nicaragua

Opportunity Knocked

When we were kids, Terry and I both dreamed of living on a tropical island. The kind of place you see on TV with clean beaches, warm blue water, tropical fish and plenty of coconuts (can we include Ginger and Maryann?).  While you are at it, get rid of the tourist infrastructure, the people trying to sell you souvenirs and beaches choked with chaise lounges and incontinent kids. That dream came true when we found an opportunity to house sit on Corn Island.

A photo of a beach with a quote from H C Anderson

The background picture is the beach in front of the house we house sat.

Where is Corn Island?

Map of Corn Island

Corn Island is circled in Orange. Map c/o wikipedia

Corn Island is located 43 miles off of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.  The island is about 5 square miles (10 square kilometers) with a high point of 371 feet (Mount Pleasant Hill).

Picture of Long Bay in Big Corn Island

View of Long Bay, Big Corn Island, Nicaragua from Pleasant Hill.

This tropical isle is home to around 5,000 people, most of which are of a English speaking Creole background that could have you think you are in Jamaica with their distinctive accents and lively music (unless their second favorite music playing – classic old country.  What a surprise to see young people enjoying Conway Twitty’s greatest hits!)  The main driver to the economy is commercial lobster fishing.  This replaced the coconut farms that were destroyed 25 years ago in a major hurricane.

Lobsters and a queen triggerfish

Immature spiny lobster (or Langusta) and sadly a Queen Triggerfish caught by one of the locals.  Spiny lobster have no claws but a tasty tail.  There are size limitations for legal catch but these are seldom respected in our experience.

Island Life

Life is a bit isolated on Corn Island.  There is a twice a week ferry arriving from a remote Nicaraguan coastal community, Bluefields.  Most tourists arrive on a La Costeña flight.  People excitedly emerge from the little planes.

Guy and the planes

He thought we were riding the plane on his left…wrong! It was the tiny 8 seater on his right! Yikes!!!

This may be due to the intoxicating view of the Caribbean you enjoy in your approach or you know you pushed your luck in a rough sounding little single engine craft that is as easy to board and exit as a tight pair of jeans.  The airfield bisects the small island. Conveniently, in between the three daily flights you are allowed to short cut across the airfield to reach destinations on the other side of the island, saving over a mile in the process.

Crossing airfield

We crossed the airport runway to get to the other side of the island.

Island Transportation

Getting around the island is convenient.  There is a paved loop approximately 6 miles long that generally follows the beach.  Taxis, in the form of small economy cars, circle regularly.  Customers have a flat rate of 20 cordobas (66 cents US) for your destination.  The car will be shared with any other passengers the driver encounters.  An even more economical approach is to take the bus.  The bus circles in a clockwise direction, taking people for the rock bottom fare of 10 cordobas (33 cents).

Bus and taxis

Several modes of island transportation is pictured, 2 taxis, a motorcycle, a bicycle and the torquoise bus aptly labeled ‘My Bus” in the front.

The bus is a fun way to meet people as well as get the insider information on needed supplies or destination.  Dexter the bus driver knows the island like few others and will point out (and drop you off in front of) a barber, good hardware store, or yell out to fishermen unloading their canoe when you want VERY fresh fish.  Walking or riding a bike are also efficient ways to get around if you get started early or later in the day as the sun is intense.  There is always something to see with great views over the water, diverse fruit trees, and people that became friends.

Low hanging fruits

John showing off some of the island’s “low hanging fruits”! Not a metaphor but the real thing 🙂

Our Temporary Home

Home during our over 9-week stay is on the appropriately titled “Long Bay”. Beautiful sand and little development makes this half mile long beach facing the rising sun a lovely location to start the day.

Housesit front porch

Enjoying the front porch while listening to the waves.

This beach features bigger waves super for boogie boarding or a cool dip on an always hot day, but protected beaches with exceptional snorkeling and swimming are only a short distance away.  We are in a  comfortable home with not one but two cute lively beach dogs that enjoy treats even more than they want attention.

Girl and dog

Terry with one of our temporary pets Sweeney during one of our afternoon beach walks.

Sweeney and Brownie are great company with one small exception.  They feel the beach in front of the house is theirs, and any man, child, dog, horse or cow that attempts to walk past is chased and intimidated.

Chasing Cows

Here are Sweeney and Brownie in action against the cows!

Island life is relaxed and is unique from other places we have visited. Groceries are different. While there are many tiny stores here and a few markets/commisarios that would be similar to what we know, the choices are limited and it is common to run out of staple items in between boat arrivals.

Island stores

One of the local pulperia or variety store besides a clothing store.

Produce is mainly limited to old potatoes, cabbage that has had better days, onions, tomatoes, and squash.  Bananas surprisingly are one of the items not always available.  Sliced bread is at the store, but the island is blessed with home based bakeries that produce excellent coconut bread (pan de coco).  But without an official distribution cycle, you have to know where to knock to see if today is a baking day and what is still in stock.

Islanders are  passionate about baseball, and as small as the island is, it features one of the finest stadiums in Central America.  Home games are lively and are the center of island activity.  A great place to enjoy the loud fans, tasty treats, and cold Toña beer.  Terry watched over three innings before she gave up on baseball and headed home.  That is longer than she gave the New York Yankees.

Beach

After a fun day of snorkeling at Sally Peachy beach.

Our real passion is the water and its coral reefs.  Corn Island is a dream come true if your dreams involves warm water, private beaches with white sands, viewing abandoned ship wreck, tons of colorful fish, warm clear water and easily obtainable reefs. We will talk about that in our next post.

Have you been to to the Corn Islands?  Do you agree with our description? Let us know, we’d love to hear from you.

 

 

 

Olympic Mountains

Time to Say Goodbye to Port Angeles…for now

Leaving Port Angeles

Reluctant exits are in a way better than those times you are just glad to be down the road.  When we left New Jersey it was with glee to be on the road off to new adventures.  Our recent departure from the beautiful Olympic Peninsula was much more subdued.   Our year in Port Angeles, Washington was a wonderful experience.

School campus

The yellow/gold building is where Terry’s Multimedia classes are held.

Peninsula College provided challenging classes, new skills, fun activities, and dynamic class mates.  The small apartment we called home with its own ocean view actually came with extensive grounds.  Olympic National Park was a terrific back yard.  With tremendous hiking, snowshoeing, camping, biking, migrating salmon and scenic opportunities. We were never reluctant to go out for our required yard work.   The Pacific Ocean/Strait of Juan de Fuca was our front yard and gave us a chance to wander the coast, investigate tide pools, watch otters and seals, and even complete John’s first Marathon on the beautiful Olympic Discovery trail.

JB crossing the finish line

Under 5 1/2 hrs for his 1st full marathon! Amazing said his wife 🙂

Yes, there were LOTS of cloudy days (from November to March?) but the weather was mild and almost always allowed us to be outside, being neither too cold or too hot. Wanting to be more active, we tried to use the Subaru only one day a week, otherwise relying on our new found biking skills and walking.

Terry and classmates

Terry with her professor and classmates at the College’s Moving Pictures Festival

Through our classmates and the welcoming small town atmosphere we made fun interesting friends who we miss. As we exited Port Angeles, our Dad was kind enough to let us store our U-Haul trailer of belongings in his barn.

Uhaul and Subaru

The U-haul trailer is pack and we’re ready to go.

He also continues to provide an eight acre empire to our cat Milo who loves patrolling his world to control the mice and vole population.

Family

Fun times with our Montana family.familfriends,

While back in Montana we were happy to spend time with family (our nieces and nephews continue to amaze us with their skills and energy) and even utilize new carpentry skills on the back deck (Grandpa is ready for a big party).

Deck

Go to the light!

While we love the Olympic Peninsula, and may return in the future, we left to pursue wanderlust.  We have enjoyed our house-sitting adventures in Florida, Oregon, Washington, and Vancouver Island.  We made great friends with homeowners, neighbors and loved the pets as well as enjoyed new locations.

Collage

Some of our friends from Port Angeles

Next Stop Corn Island

The Offpeakers will now be going for a new adventure.  We will spend the next three 1/2 months on Big Corn Island. This five square mile isle is 50 miles off the east coast of Nicaragua in the Caribbean.  Growing up land locked, we did not feel we could pass up this opportunity to live next to warm (83 F) water and catch up on the diving and snorkeling of which we have been dreaming.  The plan is to use this blog as our trip scrapbook and perhaps share what we learn and special experiences.  We hope you travel along with the Offpeakers.

 

Panama Viejo

Panama 2016

Last year January 12 we celebrated Mr. Offpeaker’s birthday Off-peak style (meaning free or frugal, is there any other way?) in Panama City, Panama. After a restful sleep we enjoyed a sumptuous all-you-can-eat breakfast included with our stay at the beautiful hotel Country Inn Panama Canal Hotel.

Breakfast at the hotel

Our agenda for the day: 1)learn the bus system in preparation for our trip to the Miraflores Locks(Panama Canal) the following day 2)Explore Panama Viejo Ruins (more on this later) 3)Splurge on the birthday boy!

Dressed in our well-worn shorts, shirts and tennis shoes, we took the free hotel shuttle to Albrook Mall the largest mall in the Americas. The megamall happens to be right across the enormous regional bus terminal.

Buses of all kinds waiting for passenger at Panama City Bus Terminal

Public Transportation in Panama City

Taxis are plentiful in Panama City, they are convenient but you have to haggle and agree on the price first before you board the car otherwise you will be fleeced big time. Each ride will cost you anywhere from $5 to $25 depending on distance/destination. But if you’re looking for an adventure and you’re an Offpeaker like us, we suggest the public transportation. For $0.35 cents you can take any buses or the subway train, just make sure you do your homework and keep your city map handy.

Inside the Albrook Mall, it looks just like any mall in N. America.

Finding our way around the mall was easy, there were plenty of maps and directions are in Spanish and English. Once at the terminal, bus tickets are available via vending machine and ticket booths. Buses do not take cash. Finding the proper bus was facilitated by asking people “Donde esta el bus para Panama Viejo?”. Once we found the proper location we follow the queue.

The view of the modern city by bus.

The buses were nice, modern clean and air-conditioned. The ride to the old capital gave us a nice view of the very modern and vibrant city.

By a church ruins.

The Old Capital

Panama Viejo which is in the suburbs of the city, is the old capital of the country. The Spanish established the settlement in the 1500’s and was an important base where gold and silver from the south was sent to Spain. The city suffered a number of fires, earthquake and pirate attacks but it was believed that attack led by Welsh pirate Henry Morgan in 1671 led to the destruction of the city.

Ruins of the courtyard.

We enjoyed our visit to the UNESCO designated Heritage site.  Catching the bus back to the city was easy as there were plenty of bus stops along the way and we just head back where we came from. We have explored the city seafood market and have read reviews that the restaurant in the market is a must. Well we have been there twice already and today the birthday boy wanted to go back there again. The place is simple, but the food was fresh, tasty and reasonably priced. We both love the seafood soup, fried whole fish, yucca fries and coconut rice. Yum, my mouth is watering just thinking about it. We head back to the mall, catch our shuttle back to our hotel so we can hit the pool. Panama City is exciting, fun and full of history. We are excited for we are going to see the historical Locks tomorrow!

 

 

Lake Atitlan Adventures

The sleepy village of San Pablo on the shore of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala was a welcoming and comfortable home. We did manage to extricate ourselves from the hammocks to explore the surrounding area. One experience began with a ferry trip to the tourist hub of Panajachel.

All parts of the ferry gets used. We get a nice sprinkling of lake water

All parts of the ‘lanchas’ (small ferry boat) gets occupied

Catching the ferry was complicated due to the pier in San Pablo being out of service. This required a walk to San Marcos. While it was a short 35 minute walk, it involved a number of very steep hills. Again we were reminded of the tough, hard working people that live here when we saw the ice cream man pushing his heavy cart back and forth between the cities to find customers.

There seems to be no flat roads.

There seems to be no flat roads.

Just getting myself up the hill all of a sudden seemed much easier. Once we were at San Marcos’ pier, it is not as easy as getting on a boat. You have to determine where it goes and how much is the ride, as nothing is written. In many cases the prices rise for gringos, sometimes precipitously. You can ask the price ahead of time, where you will be quoted a high price. If there are other passengers, you can get in and then pay what they do as you get out. Or you can do what your wife tells you to do. Each of these steps have their own hazards.

The waters can get rough

The waters can get rough

It was an interesting and wet ride to Panajachel. A large number of tiny villages are serviced by the ferry. Kids would travel to school, vegetables shipped to the next community, supplies arrive for small farms, it is a real life line. Once we landed at our destination, numerous parties tried to sell us tours, rides, or souvenirs.

Nature reserve entrance sign

Nature reserve entrance sign

Our agenda was to visit the highly rated Reserva Natural Atitlan (Atitlan Nature Reserve). Leaving the dock, we found a local taxi to take us to the reserve. It was only a little more than a mile away from the dock, so we would be able to walk back now we knew the direction.

The reserve is a thick lush jungle!

The reserve is a thick lush jungle!

The reserve is huge, stretching from the shores of the lake up through the jungle to the mountainous heights. The reserve is composed of fantastic hiking trails that routinely go over hanging bridges right out of Indiana Jones films over jungle streams. Waterfalls majestically roar down the cliff face, creating a wet lush environment for the spectacular orchids and exotic flowers.

There are several hanging bridges...more than the visitors

There are several hanging bridges and hardly any visitors. 

The trails connect the key components of the reserve: the butterfly sanctuary, the snake/reptile area, the botanical gardens, zip lines, and the monos. Anytime you are in a jungle in a Spanish speaking country and you see the word mono, be excited because that is monkey! Early in the day as we were trying to shake each other off of a high swinging bridge, we encountered a gentleman carrying a large box of bananas.

Monkey with banana in hand

Monkey with banana in hand

Of course we had to follow him, and of course he was feeding the monkeys just like the cartoons. And if animated spider monkeys seem to enjoy bananas, then the real ones really are crazy about them. A bonus to the monkeys was a hungry swarm of coatis.

There are so many of these coatis, glad they are not aggressive at all.

There are so many of these coatis, glad they are not aggressive at all.

These cousins of the raccoon aggressively pressed for food. As happy as these animals were to get fed, they were a little annoyed when the bananas ran out. The man feeding the animals warned us of the danger, showing us a scar on his hand. This was a closer view of the monkeys than we had in Tikal. Every time we did see monkeys, it made us think back to watching Tarzan movies as kids wishing we had one for a pet. Once the food was gone the wildlife melted back into the trees.

a few of the butterflies in the mariposario.

A few of the butterflies in the mariposario.

Our journey continued through the paths to the butterfly sanctuary (mariposario). The large and colorful butterflies were on plants, flowers and feeding on slices of pineapple. Terry happily spent a great deal of time enjoying butterflies, studying their actions, looking for new varieties and nice photos. John was unsuccessfully searching for more monkeys or a jaguar.

There are several species of butterflies including this Zebra Longwing.

There are several species of butterflies including this Zebra Longwing.

A recurring theme in these attractions was we were left alone to enjoy the features. Very few or no other tourists and no rigorous supervision. We loved the reserve and only the time of day pushed us away. We still had to cross the lake, which is best undertaken during the daylight.

Indian Nose (Nariz del Indio) is a feature along the Lake Atitlan sky line where the top of a ridge looks like the profile of a reclining face. Viewing the sunrise from the top of the nose is a tourist tradition. We signed up for this guided tour so we could participate and get a different view of the lake we now loved. At the appointed time, 4:00 AM, we were out in the street to meet the guide.  As the minutes rolled by there was no sign of the guide, but the neighboring dogs did not like someone strange in the street so there was constant unwelcome commotion. Finally at 4:30 an old decrepit tuk tuk arrived.

It was dark when we arrived at the chin

It was dark when we arrived at the chin, the lights from various towns looks like stars around the lake.

The driver could not speak English, but indicated we should get in. As we often did on the journey, we took a leap of faith and got in the back seat. A tarp was pulled over to keep out the “cold” night air. As we continually saw, these tough people who could take any kind of oppressive heat become extremely uncomfortable with any kind of chill. Our tuk tuk headed down the road, only a tiny bit of windshield uncovered for the driver to see. It was claustrophobic in the back, and we had no idea how long or how far we were going.

Spectacular sunrise view from Indian Nose

Spectacular sunrise view from Indian Nose

So far we had not been successful in determining if this was our guide or our driver or had this been a bad mistake. 40 minutes later, we stopped in an unidentified village and then were introduced to our guide, Jorge. Jorge is a college student who spoke great English. He was troubled that we were late, we would have to hurry to be up the mountain top before sun rise. Jorge took off, with the Offpeakers trundling along behind him. First we were on the cobblestone street of the village. As we left the village this quickly turned into a gravel then dirt path. Our way was lit with the battery powered headlamps Terry had brought for us. Jorge lighted his way with the flashlight on his smart phone.

The view is spectacular

The view is spectacular

We quickly trotted along through the dark field. Soon we were climbing on steps cut into dirt and mud. It was too dark to see how far up we had to go, just Jorge’s repeated “Rapido” comments. Out of breath, tired, and slipping and sliding on the path, I was not very happy with our tardy taxi driver, blaming the late pick up for this dash. We could hear other parties behind us and ahead. Not everyone has a wife to remind you to bring a flashlight, and some parties were making their way in the dark as they had erroneously thought their guides would supply lights. Our group pressed on, not wanting to give way and we eventually made it to a flat area with a few benches. Whew, I was soaked with sweat and so grateful we were here while it was still dark. After a few gulps of water, I was a bit disappointed to understand that we had arrived at the Indian’s chin.

The muddy trails on our way down now visible in the daylight

The muddy trails on our way down now visible in the daylight

His nose was still a steep climb ahead. One final push got us to the nose ahead of the sun but behind several other parties. We found a good place to see the sun rise in the middle of an interesting mix of languages and home countries. Soon we were swapping stories with young travelers from around the globe. The talk stopped as the first light appeared in the east. Sun rises are normally pretty. Place one over a tranquil lake with surrounding volcanic peaks and it is sure to be memorable.

Sign

Photo op under the Indian Nose sign

It is good to be in a special place at a special time. While it was not an epic sun rise experience, we were glad to have done the climb. Fifteen minutes later we headed down, taking a brief stop for a few photos at the Indian’s chin, and then headed back to the village. The walk down the now illuminated path was much more enjoyable than the climb.

On the background is the mountain, the highest peak is the Indian Nose

On the background is the mountain we hiked, the highest peak is the Indian Nose

Our outings were not limited to just in Lake Atitlan. My broken dental crown necessitated two trips into the fantastic colonial town of Antigua. Antigua, a city of 35,000 was a former capital and retains much classic Spanish architecture as well as ruins of old churches decimated by earthquakes over the centuries.

Beautiful colonial city of Antigua

Beautiful colonial city of Antigua

Antigua is an easy town for tourists to get around, and many of the old comforts/trappings of home. We were told we just had to go to McDonalds. Assuming it was for the free wifi, we went. Gee, this place is nice! It has colonial architecture and a classic Spanish courtyard with a beautiful garden.

Possibly the most beautiful McDonalds! Unbelievable courtyard!

Possibly the most beautiful McDonalds! Unbelievable courtyard!

Best of all the centerpiece of the garden is not the fabulous fountain or landscaping, it is the wonderful view of an imposing volcano! Speaking of volcanoes, we were in Antigua and got our first view of an eruption, witnessing Volcano Fuego expel lava.

We were so excited to have witnessed a real volcano erupting!

We were so excited to have witnessed a real volcano erupting!

Fuego is 7 miles outside of town, but the orange glow lit up the night. Fuego has routine activity, but the mountain is normally covered by smoke and clouds. When Fuego shows fire at night, the town’s bars celebrate with eruption parties up on the open second floor decks. Antigua has a central plaza that is charming a fun place to watch people. Traditional handicrafts can be purchased here, elite consumer goods are available at fine boutiques, and similar looking counterfeit items are available in the town’s market.

One of several beautiful buildings in Antigua's plaza.

One of several beautiful buildings in Antigua’s plaza.

I was certainly happy with my dental care and could not expect a better price than the $265 I was charged for a new crown. I learned that people with extensive dental needs can fly to Antigua, get dental care, stay two weeks, enjoy a nice vacation, and return home for less than just what the dental care would have cost back in the USA. Many of the dentists even studied in the US!

The best part of any outing was the return to our little place in San Pablo. Here we would be greeted by “our” wolf pack of six dogs who all wanted to show us they missed us more than the other dogs.

Our pets in Lake Atitlan

Our pets in Lake Atitlan

It is good to be popular! Our welcoming party was not just the dogs, but happy little children as well. Terry had started the practice of carrying a few candies in her pocket to give particularly cute kids. She of course was now a favorite, but would sometimes run out of sweets. The little ones knew that if she had been in Antigua, she would have gone to the market and there would be goodies.

After almost three weeks, we were sad to leave San Pablo, but anxious to see more. Where have you traveled that made you want to stay?

NOTE: The Offpeakers visited Guatemala in November 2015. Guatemala was the third stop in their five month 10 country Latin America adventure.

Lake Atitlan Guatemala

The world would be a nicer place if we were all able to regularly use hammocks.  For a lot of North Americans, hammocks are just background scenery in beer commercials or hazards portrayed in slapstick comedies.  I have found hammocks, when used correctly, are a magic carpet ride to relaxation, peace, and maybe a little tropical wisdom.

We enjoyed our his & hers hammock

We enjoyed our  his & hers hammock

The hammock itself is not that important, they are all somewhat similar, but the location is key.   Successful hammock enjoyment requires warm weather, a shady spot, interesting background, and handy tropical refreshments.  Relaxing music, like minded company, and a good lazy dog all make excellent companions.

 

Beautiful and mesmerizing lake Atitlan.

Beautiful and mesmerizing Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan, a large lake in the Guatemalan highlands, is a perfect place to encounter, master, and enjoy the hammock.  Picturesque beyond description, the lake is situated a mile high in elevation deep within a collapsed volcanic crater.  Subsequent activity has elevated three newer volcanoes surrounding the lake, one of which is active.  The elevation and cool breezes moderate what would otherwise be a brutal heat.  Our setting is a small but well appointed cottage in a coffee field bordered by towering banana and avocado trees.

A sampling of the birds we see everyday

A sampling of the birds we would regularly see.

We have a large covered porch that houses table and chairs, two hammocks (thank God or there would have been battles), and anywhere up to six large dogs.  There is an epic view across the lake to the San Pedro Volcano, and around us are coffee plants, flowers, and a multitude of gorgeous birds.  This is a rich, indulgent life.  Extravagant hotels and rentals can be found around the lake, especially in the more populated villages.  But you do not have to be rich to enjoy this life.  At $21 a day for lodging and a little more for the simple but fabulous food items from the local markets it is a wonderful Offpeaker way to see a new part of the world and base your Lake Atitlan adventures.

A few of our home prepared meals

A few of our home prepared meals, no wonder we didn’t loose weight, we ate like royalty!

Lake Atitlan is surrounded by over a dozen villages, ranging from sizable towns with thriving tourist accommodations to tiny sleepy villages where you may be the only outsider. The more popular villages have their own reputation and cater to differing crowds. Panajachel is the most visited and the tourist transportation hub. San Pedro is the favorite with backpackers and those looking for a more active night life. San Marcos populated with yoga studios, a health food store, and meditation classes.

That street is uphill...seems like they all were.

That street is uphill…seems like they all were.

Located a brisk thirty-five minute walk away (25 if you are a Weaver!) is the town of San Pablo, our temporary home. San Pablo is really unknown to other tourists. We chose this from an Airbnb ad with beautiful pictures, a couple of strong reviews, and the aforementioned affordable price. There is not a complete road network surrounding the lake. Most intercity travel is accomplished with small ferries that transit the lake, holding 12-15 people (optimally) or 20-35 if the captains get lucky.

 

 

Tuk tuk is spacious

The tuk tuk is spacious for 2 people and their baggages. Usually someone rides by the driver side too.

The towns that are connected by road are serviced by tuk-tuks.  These are the local taxis, three wheeled under powered cycles that cost $1-$3. We arrived in San Pablo from Antigua.  A ride on the chicken bus would have cost us $6 and taken 6 hours.  Our collectivo was $9 and took 3 hours.  It was a relief to arrive as our collectivo van had seen better days.  Our van had not only a driver but an assistant.  The assistant’s primary job was to continually pour additional water into the van’s coolant reservoir.  He started out the trip in Antigua with two 5 gallon buckets of water and had to stop twice to fill these up.

The road leading to our small town nestled near the lake.

The road leading to the small towns nestled near the lake.

Besides the hole in the cooling system, the brakes seemed to be on the edge of failure.  This was bothersome in the city, not noticeable on the freeway, but it reared its ugly head when the heavily loaded van began its descent down the steep switchbacks to the town along this crater lake.  The brakes squealed loudly as did the more vocal passengers.  The driver horsed the big rig around, cursing and honking energetically before each turn.  Right of way always goes to the almost out of control bus.  Gratefully the first stop along the lake was San Pablo.  It was time to find our home.

Initially life in our village was intimidating.  No big stores, no tourist infrastructure like we had seen in other stops.  No other gringos or even hotels to be seen.  Our host’s excellent directions gave us an idea on where to go and we eventually found his home, a large impressive compound just outside of town.  Stuart, a British expat, has built this place over the years with a craftsman hand.

Our bedroom simple, comfortable and surrounded by windows

Our bedroom simple, comfortable and surrounded by large windows facing the lake

The complex comprises a road side restaurant (not yet open), a nice home for his family, and the guest cottage all located on a steeply inclined parcel of coffee, banana, and avocado trees allowing an excellent view of the lake for all. The cottage is great with a nice kitchen and living room with the bedroom and wall size window upstairs.

The views are priceless! We sleep and wake-up to this view!

The views are priceless! We sleep and wake-up to this and chirping birds!

The bathroom has a custom tile job and the treat of a fantastic shower with plenty of hot water supplied by a solar heated tank. The real important place is the patio on the side of the house. This is where we eat, bird watch, and overlook the lake and volcano from the addictively comfortable hammocks.

It's always a good time to be in a hammock.

It’s always a good time to be in a hammock.

Our arrival was punctuated by barks, growls, and howls. A roving mass of six guard dogs of varying size but equally exuberant attitude engulf us.  Outwardly fierce, we are quickly acknowledged as friends.  Over the next 17 days these beautiful animals found their way into our hearts.  Loud and rambunctious, these overgrown pups would clamor from one side of the property to the other to bark and chase at passersby.  We would share a smile and say, “there go our boys!”

Six well-behave dogs.

The six well-behaved dogs love to hang out with John in the porch

Terry includes them in evening plans, where she would bring out treats for all and make six equal portions, making them wait until her cue until they could eat in unison.  As cute as the dogs are, even more so were the host’s adorable and active kids.  These smart and friendly kids were busy with a variety of chores.

Green coffee beans.

Green coffee beans.

The primary chore was picking the coffee beans.  Coffee looks very much like a cherry on the plant.  These turn from green to a deep red as they mature.  It is best if the bean is completely red but not overripe when picked.  Daily the kids would go through the plants and see if the beans that were close the previous day were now ready.

The red ones, like a cranberry are ready for picking.

The ones with a uniform red color, almost red like a cranberry are ready for picking.

It is hard work, made more difficult in the hot sun and steep terrain.  It is amazing how affordable even our premium brands of coffee are when you factor in the significant labor, processing, and transportation that is required to get it in our stores.  Being curious about the process, we volunteered to help one day.  We were slow, and not selective enough between ripe and almost ripe.  Our big contribution was having the kids over that night for S’mores around the campfire and some intense Uno games.

It's fun for the first 13 minutes then it's hard work.

It’s fun for the first 13 minutes then it’s hard work.

By the time we arrived in Lake Atitlan we had been on the road for nearly a month.  We were becoming a little more comfortable with trying our crude Spanish.  It became a fun challenge to work through the open air markets to gather food.

They're only available for a day so they're always fresh

Meat is only available for a day so it is always fresh

Fresh pork or beef was available once or twice a week when an animal was butchered by the road side and portioned out.  Terry would get us meat to grill and then bones to crack and use in soup.  She impressively communicated what cuts she wanted or managed to get her ideas across.  Resourcefulness and self reliance was necessary as the only restaurants in town were two food stands with variable hours and disappointing results.  Primarily we enjoyed the beautiful fruit and vegetables grown locally.

Local trees loaded with fruit but nowhere to be found in the market.

Local avocado trees loaded with fruit but nowhere to be found in the market.

We would often see trucks carrying workers go through town in the early morning Much later in the day, the trucks would labor past heavily loaded with bags of avocados. The Offpeakers love avocados and we would seek them out in the market. Curiously we could not find them. When we asked, we were repeatedly told that people don’t like them here. So we did our best to create new demand.

Jose our fav fruit & veggie monger

Jose our fav fresh eggs, fruit & veggie monger

Our favorite fruit vendor was Jose, who had a wonderful stand in San Marcos. He would expressively describe the wonderful attributes of all his fruit. “Dulce and con much jugo” (sweet and very juicy) were commonly but accurately ascribed to his wares. We would not only venture around for food.

About an hour away is the town of San Juan

About an hour walk from San Pablo is the town of San Juan

San Juan was an hour long walk the opposite direction of San Marcos. San Juan has a thriving craft and art community. There is a cooperative for women that takes home made weavings and handicrafts and helps find a market. Beautiful workmanship could be purchased for just a few dollars.

If we go back San Juan would a fun place to stay

If we go back to Atitlan area, we might stay at San Juan

A lady we befriended in San Pablo is a participant in the cooperative. She runs a small store and while in between customers, she does needle work for baby shoes. Terry did buy a small coin purse. With our small backpacks, we just could not get any more of the interesting and affordable creations.

Handsome and cheap

Handsome Offpeaker getting an offpeaker priced haircut

I also took the opportunity to get a haircut. I don’t know if I will ever get a better deal than the 70 cent equivalent I was charged, but it is a shame to know that a man can get such a cheap hair cut and not look any less handsome.

We had a few memorable outings while at Atitlan, and we will share those in another post. Share your hammock memories and adventures with us below!

 

NOTE: The Offpeakers visited Guatemala in November 2015. Guatemala was the third stop in their five month 10 country Latin America adventure. 

Semuc Champey

I think all of us travelers love to see special places, and we enjoy them more if they are not inundated by others. When a site is a little harder to get to, it does not fit into a cruise ship day trip agenda or for people looking a quick visit. Semuc Champey is a unique and interesting view and an energizing swim 8-10 hours from other popular sites. This, like cold Montana winters, keeps out much of the riff raff!

View from the Mirador

The mini-waterfalls and pools of Semuc Champey. This view is from the Mirador

Semuc Champey, a Guatemalan National Monument, is a 300 meter long limestone bridge that covers the Cahabon River. Vivid turquoise water tumbles over the limestone, forming cascading pools set in a verdant jungle. Stunning to view, and even better this place is a natural water park.

The Offpeakers came to the Monument from our stay near Tikal. The 10 hour bus ride allowed us to visit a bit with the other occupants, a couple from France and another from Spain. Surprisingly, we were all over 40, a rarity in the youth dominated traveler scene in Guatemala.

Beautiful lush mountains on our way to Lanquin

Beautiful mountains & rolling hills on our way to Lanquin

The ride through the rolling hills was enjoyable, banana farms and small pastures hacked into thick forests. A brief stop in Copan allowed us to enjoy a late lunch, then two hours to Lanquin. The last 45 minutes over dirt roads was jarring as the vans struts had given up all resistance long ago. Showing up like a James Bond martini (shaken) we arrived in Lanquin, which had the vibe of an old west town.

Natives waiting for their collectivos

Natives with their supplies waiting for their collectivos

Natives were in town buying supplies ranging from groceries, chicks, feed, and fencing supplies. Reservations had been made with the hostel Gringos, and we saw a large truck with their logo parked by the main intersection. We met Golan, who we later were to find out was the owner and founder of Gringos. Golan is an interesting and welcoming host, in his own manner. He has the chiseled good looks, dark glasses and swagger of a bad guy from the Transporter movies. Golan, a native of Isreal, confidently handles a succession of business calls in a variety of languages. As we wait for another bus to arrive before we continue the last half hour to the hotel, we enjoy people watching and seeing Golan hold court.

That's our ride to the hotel. B-U-M-P-Y

That’s our ride. B-U-M-P-Y

Travelers are warned to keep an eye our luggage. This is difficult as we are crammed in the truck out of the sun, our bags are in the back with strangers. Craning around to glance through a small vent, it is a relief to finally head for the hostel which is a short walk from Semuc Champey. The road into Lanquin was a great foretelling of the next 30 minutes. While it is interesting to see the small farm holdings along the river, it is a rough ride. Eventually we do cross the Cohabon River, just before dark. The truck parks 150 yards from the Hostel’s compound. Our greeting committee are three adorable kids wanting to sell us locally made chocolate. I buy two from the little girl who bravely approaches. I soon find out two things: 1) the candy is terrible 2) The normal price is half what I paid. Two dollars poorer, but maybe a little smarter, we follow the path to Gringos.

Some of the pets at Gringos

Some of the happy pets at Gringos

What a neat place! Bright colors, fun music, and friendly people. Now here the natural order had returned and we are Old Timers, but everyone is so welcoming it does not matter. There are friendly travelers from most continents and the hostel’s own cats and dogs looking for love and attention.

Colorful A frame cottages

Colorful A frame cottages.

Our room is up a steep ladder at the top of an A-frame cabin. Very basic, but very comfortable and fun. Power is only available from 8 AM to 10 PM, all provided by generators. Our hungry stomachs lead us to the dining room for a great dinner of a shared Fried Rice platter and Gallo beer.

Volleyball court surrounded by tropical plants & trees

Volleyball court, ping-pong table, hammocks surrounded by tropical plants and Guatemalan mountain. So peaceful & heavenly.

Later we play beach volleyball and meet more of the other guests, signing up for the early morning tour of Semuc Champey. Eventually we head back to our room, ahead of the partying youngsters, intent to be ready for our upcoming adventure.

We start with a short hike to the park. Good walking sandals are a must.

We start with a short hike to the park. Good all-terrain walking sandals/shoes are a must.

The next morning is bright and beautiful. A good breakfast and strong local coffee has us alert and ready to join our guide. Guides are required to ensure safety from the occasional robberies we have read about at the site. Our guide is Esteban is a young man with excellent English who grew up in the area. We are joined by a young college couple from Washington DC. Quickly we cover the ¼ mile walk to the Monument.

Entrance to the park

Entrance to the park, lots of natives at the entrance.

Here we encounter a closed barrier and a large group. Esteban has a brief conversation in whispered Spanish and then tells us he can’t continue. Apparently local leaders are upset that the park administrators are not providing enough economic opportunities and have lobbied to close the park. It seems our guide is honoring the picket line. Esteban assures us he will refund our money to the hostel. We can enter the park to swim in the pool, but he says it would be too dangerous to hike to the overlook on our own. After a quick conference, the four of us decide to proceed, after all we put in some hard travel to get here. We push our way through some glum but not dangerous looking people and follow arrows down a path.

Path up to the river and hiking trail

Scenic and cool jungle path leading us to the river and hiking trail

Whatever the circumstances, traveling down a jungle path with new friends is fun and exciting. It is scenic and we are alert to our surroundings even more than would be normal due to the warning of bandits. The first person we see is a tiny Asian girl whom we cannot communicate with at all, but she falls in with us. Ten minutes later we see the first pool! Just the most intense color of blue. We travel to the upstream terminus, seeing many local kids enjoying the various pools.

Natural pools and waterfalls of Semuc

Natural clear pools and waterfalls of Semuc

Semuc Champey is a course of pools on a natural bridge. Start at the top of the bridge and follow its course as successive layers drop into pools. Take 4-8 foot plunges to the next layer or search and find polished smooth rock slides to zoom to the next pool. Large exotic trees and bushes line the edge, followed by steep cliffs. See large fish swim around you in the cool water that is so welcoming in the jungle heat. A little apprehensive? Follow the local kids as they bravely show off and enjoy this natural treasure.

Gringo enjoying the cool waters of the natural pool in the middle of jungle.

Gringo enjoying the cool waters of the natural pool in the middle of jungle.

The common language around the water is laughter.  The water feels great and we have fun in the top few levels.  After 30 minutes in the water, we see familiar faces, the French couple from yesterday’s van ride.  They had just climbed to the overlook (Mirador) with a guide from their hotel who crossed the picket line. This enterprising man offered to take us up as well for a price. Our quick agreement and $5 each get us moving up the mountain.  The guide is 19 years old and fast.  He is wearing a pair of slick bottomed dress shoes, but he moves like a mountain goat.

Hike up to the Mirador

Hike up to the Mirador (lookout), easy at first then it turn muddy and steep.

Our college age friends keep close to him, we fall behind. Twice they pause for us, waiting for us to almost catch up, and take off.  Forty-five minutes later we arrive at the look out.  Yes we are tired and hot, but boy was it worth it.  Below us the pools seem more like a surreal painting or jewelry rather than a body of water we were frolicking in just a short time before.

Sweaty and tired but so happy to made itto the top!

Sweaty and tired but so happy to made it to the top!

Refreshed by the view and some oranges we buy from an old lady who apparently lives nearby, we then charge down the path that is gratefully bandit free.  Back at the water our sweaty bodies plunge into the water.  With increasing bravery we dive and slide our way to where the river reappears. Such a memorable day, only slightly marred when John cracks a crown jumping from the road bridge into the river below. Not 25 anymore, but sometimes we can pretend and even fake it!

John again! He forgot to take a picture of me :(

John again! He was having so much fun that he forgot to take a picture of me in the water 🙁

A beautiful time at a memorable place.  Just a wonderful lively vibe where everyone gathers back at the hostel in the evening with excited versions of the days events.  What better way to share adventures than with the one you love and new traveler friends!

Have you had a similar experience? Did you discover a destination that you worked hard to achieve? Tell us about your special spot in the wild.

NOTE: The Offpeakers visited Guatemala in November 2015. Guatemala was the third stop in their five month 10 country Latin America adventure. 

Tikal

A memorable Halloween broke early in the tiny village of El Remate, Guatemala. Today, we get to not only go to the epic Mayan ruins of Tikal, but we also have arranged to be there to see the sun rise over the massive pyramid temples.  At 4:30 in the morning, T was assisted to fully awake by the AMAZINGLY powerful shower head that washed away the sleep and possibly any sins sticking to her. In a pinch it would fill in for a pressure washer. I made PB & J sandwiches with pineapple jam for breakfast and lunch (BTW – Pineapple jam is a highly recommended taste treat). We were met at our door right on time by Luisa, a hotel clerk.  Luisa unlocked the gate to allow us out on the street to await the collectivo. We have purchased passage to Tikal through the hotel. El Remate has the same sweet, sad and rarely intimidating street dogs as other towns, but in addition are pigs of various size that wander the streets approaching you for a pet and a handout. A collectivo minivan soon stopped and asked if we were going to Tikal. I tried to ask if they were the ones arranged through the hotel, but they pulled away and left.   We waited. After 20 minutes we only saw a motorcycle. We began to think I had chased away our ride when thankfully our correct collectivo appeared. Like all other people we have dealt with so far in Guatemala, there is no English spoken by our driver, Carlos. Our Toyota minivan has only one other passenger, a person that works at Tikal. It is about a 30 minute drive north to Tikal. We are truly in a distant location. This is the only road north and it extends about 3 miles past Tikal. From there, it is just jungle, no roads for 250 miles into remote southern Mexico. We had gone approximately 10 miles (no, I won’t calculate that in kilometers) when we were stopped in a small line of traffic in the little village of Yoba. 

Street protest in the small town of Yoba.

Street protest in the small town of Yoba.

Lots of animated Spanish is exchanged between our driver and a pedestrian. It is a “protesta”!  Our driver, Carlos, has a pained expression and tells us it is muy importante that we not leave the van. Es muy peligroso (It’s very dangerous). We not only stay in the van, we also sink a bit deeper into the not so luxurious seats, trying to keep a low profile. Oh why oh why do I have to be such an obvious gringo?! Curse my pasty skinned northern Italian ancestors! As people walked by, they would pause to look into the van. I pretended to be very interested in a Spanish language newspaper. Soon Carlos returned and indicated that it seems OK, but that is our interpretation of his rather lengthy and intense discourse. My contribution to the conversation was to repeatedly query “No es peligroso?”. Never quite got a clear answer. My previously jangled nerves calmed, my worry now was that we wanted to get to the site. The sun was well up, but we wanted to see as many jungle animals as possible and view the archaeological sites before the heat intensified.

STreet signs, they even have one made in English for the tourists!

Protest signs in English for the tourists. The town’s people need potable water! We can’t blame them!

Carlos looked in the mirror and sharedLa Policia es aqui!” A very impressive 4 door Toyota pickup that looked set up for off road racing motored past driving on the wrong side of the road. It was a big black lifted high performance truck with prominent badges. The pickup stopped, and out stepped four young men in black uniforms and knee-high black boots, who jogged up towards the protest. OK, I have to admit that I had images in my head of these guys forcefully ending the protest so we could get past and get some kind of early morning view of the ruins. But no billy clubs were used, as the police soon returned obviously enjoying plates of food. Curiosity and the increasing heat drew us out of the van. We soon were part of a mystified group of tourists from Canada (Quebec and damn proud of it), Germany, France,and Denmark trying to stitch together our predicament.

Local cowboy & horse

Local cowboy & horse

Even though we initially stayed away from the barricade it quickly became apparent we were in no physical danger so we approached the blockade. Branches and barrels blocked the road, and many signs were obvious. It had more the air of a yard sale than a dangerous gathering of rebels. The villagers were upset with the mayor. A change in the policy now did not provide for in home drinking water.   Blocking the road and preventing the tourist and service traffic was an effective way to escalate this with Mayor (Alcalde). It is not a busy road. Our van was the fourth car held up going north and over the next 2 1/2 hours there would be eight more. Several cars came and left and there were a lot of motorcycles. One local even came by on his horse as he was heading to the fields. Edwin was proud we wanted his picture. When I asked what his huge machete was for, he responded “Gringos” with a big grin. He visited a lot with us but we could only understand a little. One of the state police, Officer Armando, spoke with us. He is taking English classes and converses quite easily. Armando explained that there was delicious food available from the car in the front of the line. An enterprising woman who normally sold food at Tikal was trying to sell her hot fresh tamales wrapped in banana leaves and rice pudding at the protest. For a few Quetzals (Guatemalan currency 8Q = 1$), you got an expertly prepared delicious snack.

Fresh & yummy tamales wrapped in banana leaves

Fresh banana-leaf wrapped tamales

After several false alarms, the protest was over and the barricade cleared. It became a race to get up the road. Our driver had a turbo and little regard for highway safety so he did well. It cost us 300Q to get into Tikal. We did not spring for a guide but we did buy a 20Q map. Once through the gates we had another 5 mile drive to visitor parking area. We were amused and a little worried to see some of the warning signs along the street that included snakes and jaguars. The visitor area is very modern and nicely done.  It is a 20 minute walk from the visitor area to the closest part of the site. Many people waited to buy lunches, but we had our sandwiches so we hurried down the path.

 

 

Our interest in Tikal began on the first day of our Latin America adventure. On our way to Cancun, we read with great interest a great article called ‘Three Perfect Days: Guatemala‘ from the airline inflight magazine. We shared that we wished we could go to Tikal. After a brief thought, we agreed there was no reason NOT to go!

On the background is the most famous Tikal Pyramid

In the background is a famous view of one of the Tikal Pyramids


Tikal was at its peak from 200-900 AD. It is a large complex that was home to up to 90,000 residents in over 3,000 structures. This is a wet area with 80 inches of rainfall a year. Locally quarried limestone was used to stand up to the intense rains. The old site received all its water from rain saved in 10 massive cisterns that were situated where the limestone was removed. One of these has been cleared and continues to provide water to the site in current times. For most of us, our exposure to Tikal is limited to its use as a backdrop for shots in the classic first Star Wars movie. The Maya’s detailed historical inscriptions gives us much to know about their great capital city of the south. At least 33 leaders whose rule stretched from 90 – 870 AD are listed. The high light of the area are 6 massive pyramid temples. One of them, called Temple 4, was the America’s tallest Pre-Columbian structure at 230 feet high. Lets get to the site!

Big vines on tall trees!

Big vines on tall trees!

As we left the parking lot we are right in front of a large French-speaking group. Terry correctly has us speed up to put some distance so their noise won’t scare the animals. The walk in is exciting on its own.  Initially there are signs that identify significant types of trees that thankfully included English translations. One of the first was the chicle tree another was the national tree of Guatemala. Within a few minutes we see a tiny deer about the size of a cocker spaniel. We see big vines wishing we had a machete to see if water would trickle out as it does for Bear Grylls. I am thrilled when T excitedly points out movement in the tree tops. Monkeys!  Spider monkeys moving effortlessly far above us through the jungle canopy. These are our first wild monkey sightings. The initial joy of seeing jungle, monkeys, and ruins is tempered as Terry began getting a headache and it progressed. Eventually it became a migraine and she had to take medication. This slowed her a bit, but did not diminish our desire to take make the most of this rare opportunity.

There are more structures to be excavated!

There are more structures to be excavated!

Tikal is a huge complex. Soon there is a forked path with three routes into the ruins. All work their way back to the tallest pyramid, Temple 4.   As we walk the path, rock structures appear through the greenery. This must be what it was like for the early explorers. These initial ruins have not been restored A surprising amount of work is necessary to prepare and restore these ancient structures. Great amounts of manual labor go into clearing vines, trees, and feet of dirt from the site. . We go in further and get surprised by the size and extent of structures. We rarely see other people. There are scattered drink vendors and one photographer. It would be nice for a few more guests so we can get our photo taken together.

Wooden stairway to top of pyramid

Wooden stairway to top of pyramid

Temple 2 has a wooden stair case that takes us up to a great vantage point. It is impressive to see the other temple breaking through the jungle canopy and judging by their distance, get a feel for how big this central part of the city was (and continues to be). We can also see other public buildings and some of the five ball courts found in Tikal.

Temple 1 & surrounding buildings

Temple 1 & surrounding buildings

 Terry’s migraine is in full force. We sit in shade and I have some lunch and she drinks. There are nice bathrooms in a few locations and the paths are well maintained. We ventured further in. Temple 4 is at the back of the developed portion of Tikal and we were drawn there as it is the tallest pyramid here and in Latin America. We pass through beautiful and interesting neighborhoods. These are lost in the trees and vines until we round a corner in the improved trail, then suddenly appear. Even the paths are interesting as we see fascinating ferns, flowers, vines, and birds. A loud grunt and yell lets us know our first Howler monkey is in the area. John does his best imitation, and this happily has the desired effect and draws in the monkey. All of a sudden, the intense interest of a small but determined monkey does not seem like much fun. The continued presence of the Howler hastens our departure to find Temple 4.

Yep, there are no rails on these pyramids

Yep, there are no rails on these pyramids

As we continue fewer animals are visible in the growing heat and humidity. Once at the Temple 4 site John climbs the steep weathered stairs that are next to the stone structure, passing only one group on its way down. At the top, extended boards allow visitors to walk to the temple itself. Once again, we appreciate the lack of formalities at these sites, no guard rails, no fences. The wind is blowing with gusto, giving us a chance to dry out from the heat. It is a beautiful view over all of Tikal and the surrounding rain forest, but the height and open sides contribute to give a feeling of vertigo. Beautiful construction, the equal of the work of the Romans we witnessed in Italy.

In front of the great pyramid

In front of a smaller pyramid.  Note the lack of crowds and barriers.

Our tour now continues to circle around through neighborhoods we missed earlier in the day. Fortunately we find an enterprising water vendor and drink heavily to recover. The lack of other tourists really make this a special place. What few visitors who work their way into deep remote northern Guatemala are swallowed up by the sheer size of the complex. Amazing to have this experience in essentially our own rainforest city. We had recently visited Chichen Itza and while we loved the site, the crowds diminished the experience.

Pyramid tops taller than the canopies.

Pyramid tops taller than the canopies.

At the end of the day we found Carlos and the van at the appointed time. It was a long drive back to the hotel, but we had much to reflect on. Tikal is all you expect and more. You may have to earn your way via LONG bus rides and brave a protest, but it was all worth it. This is a treasure and if you are interested in archaeological sites and jungle hiking, it is rewarding and a place we will not forget.

Do you have any questions about our visit to Tikal? What were your travels to the end of the road?  Please write a comment or send us an email, we’d love to hear from you!

Note: The Offpeakers’ visit to Guatemala occurred in October 2015.  Guatemala was the third stop in the Offpeakers  five month, 10 country Latin America adventure. 

Tulum to Tikal

Snorkeling in Akumal, MX

Snorkeling in Akumal, MX

Each and every day of our journey is important and significant in ways big and small. I am still amazed at the general freedom we have to spend time as we choose. If we meet someone that gives an interesting description and endorsement, we can check it out (if it is reasonable).  The snorkeling at Akumal is an example. Today is special. Our incredible time in Mexico is over. But the adventure continues. We are going south.  South brings us to Belize , a new country, but also our first step into Central America, a new continent for the Offpeakers (a geography teacher would consider Central America to be part of North America, but geography teachers just are not very much fun!) As time passed in Mexico, we really did not identify a key site or activity that we wanted to accomplish in Belize. Caye Caulker has noted beaches, but we had seen those. There were outdoor activities (Actun Cave, jungle tours, Blue Hole tours) but these were quite expensive and also would require a car rental.

Guatemala called to us for several reasons.  Interesting activities are here as well as a system of buses, collectivos (mini vans running a set route picking up passengers for a small fare)and tuk tuks (motorcycle tricycle taxis , which make riding a shopping cart in heavy traffic seem safe and reasonable) give great access.  Ek Balam, Tolum, and Chichen Itza whetted our appetite for encountering the Mayan people in a primitive surrounding. That means Tikal. We had spoken of seeing Tikal in our planning stages, and this was cemented by an inspiring article in the inflight magazine on our way in to Cancun. Tikal is a massive building complex featuring six pyramids in the remote heavy jungle. (Heck, they had me at Jungle. I REALLY want to see wild monkeys and swing a machete in a purposeful manner, let alone historical and cultural significance! We want to hike, see coffee plantations. This would also allow us to subsequently spend time in more locations that are working communities and not all tourist hot spots. A prominent sign in the Tulum ADO bus terminal advertised an express bus service to Belize City. This would facilitate the border crossing at Chetumal and provide the relatively luxurious comfort of an ADO first class bus at only 500 pesos each. (About $31). Further investigation revealed there were a few options to then proceed from Belize City west to Peten, the northern zone of Guatemala and the home of Tikal.

Leaving Tulum at ADO bus station

Leaving Tulum at ADO bus station

One catch is that the Bus would leave Tulum at 1:00 AM, reaching Belize City at 7:00 AM. That is where having a spouse that is gung ho is critical!  About 8 PM we decided that we should hit the road in a few hours, reasoning that we could perhaps sleep on the bus and be in a staging area for Tikal by late the next afternoon. It is exciting and satisfying to be able to find, confirm, and execute travel plans in another language.We packed up and got ready. We had bought two extra tortas at dinner. That became a midnight snack with a cup of instant coffee.  Our bus was right on time. It was about 3/4 full with 25 passengers being an interesting split between Mexicans, and tourists from Israel, New Zealand, German, USA, and Belize nationals. There was even another guy named John from Montana (Whitefish). Apparently it is much cheaper to fly into Cancun and take the bus south than fly into Belize itself.   We had some nice conversations with fellow travelers on where we had been, where we are going and where we should/ shouldn’t go. Talks like these are a real high light. It seems you can become friendly in a very short time with just a few things in common.

Our bus in unknown road in Belize

Our bus in an unknown road somewhere in Belize

The bus ride went about as expected. It could have had a little colder AC. We had seats 7&8 up near the front. The driver was a young man that liked fun Music in English. So we rocked to Eminem, Linkin Park, Queen, Limp Bizkit, System of a Down, Dr. Dre and Avril Lavigne. Fun to have loud explicit lyrics in public. We had to stop twice to show documents to Mexican officials and a third time for Belizian authorities. Each stop gave ravenous mosquitoes an opportunity to feast on us outside and also join us in the bus. T, always a magnet was covered with insect induced welts.  We were charged 330 pesos ( $22 US) each by Mexico that we had not anticipated. We did not agree with the exit tax but at 4 AM in the middle of nowhere you don’t really have a viable appeal process.

Late night or very early morning at the border crossing?

Late night or very early morning at the border crossing?

As day broke, we were treated to a gorgeous sun rise that illuminated Belize. Green, lush, and often swampy were my initial thoughts. Even early, the residents of the small towns were busy. Primarily concrete construction from an earlier time with new or updated places occasionally standing out.  Two Belizians ladies were proud to offer suggestions (including phone numbers) or answer questions for tourists on the bus.  People make friends fast on the road.


We rolled into Belize City right on time at 7 am.   The Belize City bus station is not impressive. As opposed to the professional atmosphere we always encountered in Mexico, this was really a free for all. Dirty and dingy, we did not see any identified or uniformed employees. There were lots of men in street clothes selling cokes, trying to get you on board a bus, any bus. Several gentleman forcefully told us that we had to hurry onto a random bus or we would be stranded all day, even if the bus was going the wrong way. Don’t worry, you can catch a connection they explained! Our research and preparation paid off. We had made screen shots of potentially useful information via our wifi. We don’t have cell phone service, so we don’t have access on the fly if needed. We are learning to be Boy Scouts and be prepared in as many ways as possible. This plays more to T’s strengths than mine!


We asked numerous people, all stressed that this was the only terminal, no marine terminal. We would have to take a local bus to the town near the border, catch a taxi to the border, walk across, then find transport on to El Remate in the Guatemalan side. Not a comforting or stream lined process. We disengaged, went to a local taxi stand, and verified that there indeed were buses that ran from the marine terminal. The marine terminal is primarily the ferry station. We took a taxi ($10 Belize/$5 USD) to the marine terminal. The terminal was a nice clean modern building. Free bathrooms with paper towels and soap!  We found a convenience store that was the outlet for our desired “del Norte” express ride. The charge was $25 Us/50 Belize each. It was almost 8 so we had two hours to kill. We hydrated with a couple bottles of water, shared some Indian food and a coffee.

The Fuege Del Norte Bus schedule/fare

The Fuente Del Norte Bus schedule/fare


We were able to get wifi in the station and found an outlet to charge the devices.   We also changed out some US dollars for Guatemalan currency, Quetzals (7.5 to 8Q = 1$) at a less than stellar rate.  We understand it is initially difficult in Peten to get to an ATM.
The bus was about 20 minutes late. We are the only initial passengers.
The driver has some sort of assistant who is in a bad mood because the driver yelled at him for not getting his coffee filled in Belize City. The Belize countryside had a lot of coconut farms. As we approached the border we could see mountains in the distance. We stopped and paid 15 US each as exit fees from Belize. Good bye!

We walked through the Belize immigration building and into an unmarked lot with lots of shady characters offering to change money. We found our way to the Guatemalan officials and he stamped our passports.  The bus drove through separately. A couple women and kids then got on the bus. Due to the flirtatious way the driver interacted with the women, we initially thought these were the driver’s families. As the drive continued, it became more apparent the driver was just trying to get a date.


The bus does not go the hostel we made reservations for in El Remate, but it goes close (2 miles , 2 minutes, 2 kilometers, not really sure). Don’t show fear and after asking for clarification 3 or 4 times, nod smile and say si at least twice. So once we are sent from the bus we then walk or catch a ride. We lead exciting lives!

Driving into Guatemala we see the first military presence on the trip except for the friendly Mexican Navy sailors at the naval bar on Isla Mujeres. Very solemn young men in jungle fatigues manning machine gun nests at check points with assault rifles and light machine guns on tripods.  I did learn you are not supposed to take their picture.
The bus began laboring as we gained elevation.   We saw a few Cowboys moving a herd of 20 horses down the street. At one incline, our driver lost patience with a slow small motorcycle loaded down with a family of three. He got on their rear fender and stayed on the air horn.  The biker stubbornly/bravely/stupidly refused to move out of the way until the driver roared by him at a wider point. I am sure the words the driver was shrieking would have added some color to my vocabulary if I was able to remember them.  The driver is consistent. He gives slow motorists one brief polite honk. If they don’t immediately give him the road, he quickly becomes a very good proxy of a bad guy from the Road Warrior series.
The road started out blacktop, but now is a wide clay path. In the US it would look like the old asphalt was stripped off and this is being prepped for a new coat but there is no construction vehicles or materials in sight. After about ten miles of this we are back on pavement.  Several seedy looking characters were let on the bus. I hope they don’t get off at our stop which is supposed to be in the middle of nowhere.   Terry and I are seated across the aisle from each other so we can see the sights.  It is beautiful in every direction, with the gorgeous views of the green hills being worth the cost of the bus tickets.

Our home for 1 night in El Remate

Home for 1 night in El Remate


The bus driver has turned off the music and is singing quite a haunting song.   I could enjoy his surprising talent, but I now start to believe that this is either one last desperate attempt to woo the moms or it is his signal to his cronies that the time to assault the gringos is near!  Ultimately, we are dropped off at very humid junction. The bus driver has conveniently called a friend who wants to charge us an outrageous amount for the presumably short trip to the hotel. We engage in a “Lets make a deal” to get a ride to our destination.  Walking away down the hot road eventually got us to the recommended price.   Good thing because it is quite a distance to our surprisingly nice Hotel Las Gardenias.

Our cute private room is high lighted by a powerful and appreciated Air Conditioner. In 5 minutes the AC is now my second best friend on the continent.   We rested a bit, found and used the town’s ATM (got to love English subtitles) and confirmed our 5:30 am reservation for a van ride to Tikal (100 Guatemalan Qs for 2 round trips).   We have read quite a bit about the area so we are not paying for a private guide.

Fried chicken with potatoes

Food cart dining


Our hotel offers free breakfast, but we will leave before it is provided. There is a wifi connection in the lobby sufficient for checking email from the comfort of wonderful hammocks. There is not many eating options in this little village but we found a food cart selling fried chicken and French fries (two dinners for $30Q). It is one of those wonderful meals combining expertly prepared food and famished eaters! Our meal is enhanced with icy cold bottles of Gallo beer.

Beautiful sunset in Lago Peten Itza

Beautiful sunset in Lago Peten Itza

Seeing a clothes line in front of our room, we do laundry in the sink.  Feeling cramped and stiff from the long bus rides, we take a walk where T takes some great photos of the sun set over the large neighboring lake (Lago Peten Itza). The Offpeakers are refreshed and ready for adventure in the morning! Have you visited Guatemala? Were you as brave or crazy like us? We’d love to hear your experiences.  

 

Note: The Offpeakers’ visit to Guatemala occurred in October 2015.  Guatemala was the third stop in the Offpeakers  five month, 10 country Latin America adventure. 

Offpeakers Latin America Travels

One of the joys of early retirement and an Offpeaker lifestyle is the freedom to savor slow travel with a flexible agenda. Flexibility makes it possible to linger in locations we love or include (and maybe recover from) unplanned detours. Our five month trip to Latin America began in Cancun, Mexico October 2015. March 2016 found us flying home from Lima, Peru having visited ten countries in 152 days.

Chichen Itza, Mexico

Chichen Itza, Mexico

The Offpeakers are all about budget travel, looking to maximize the experience while minimizing the expense. The only initial travel arrangements were discount one-way plane tickets to Cancun and a two week rental of an AirBnB sourced efficiency apartment. Through the blessings of WiFi and fellow travelers, we made subsequent reservations on the road.

Summit at Naris del Indio, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Summit at Naris del Indio, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Ideally we wanted to travel light, travel slow, and travel far, taking time to see, taste, and experience the surroundings. We are happy that we did! We took advantage of local activities and attractions. Choosing the most economical but fun options.

Snorkeling at the West End Beach, Roatan, Honduras

Snorkeling at the West End Beach, Roatan Island, Honduras

We hiked, biked, swam, snorkeled, climbed, paddled, scuba dived, rode on trains, zip lined and took every manner of boat, bus and van.

Kayaking at Rio Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua.

Kayaking at Rio Istian, Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua.

Living in beach houses, hostels, a coffee plantation, an island finca, apartments, hotels, a pool house, private homes, and in the shadow of volcanoes we embraced slow travel, tried to live like a local and enjoyed new communities.

Rio Pacuare, Costa Rica

White water rafting break, Rio Pacuare, Costa Rica

Every day brought discoveries and experiences large and small. Shopping in the markets, relying heavily on our rudimentary Spanish skills and the understanding of strangers, we enjoyed the local products, sights, smells and cervezas.

Near Mercado de Marisco, Panama City, Panama

Near Mercado de Mariscos, Panama City, Panama

Besides the destinations, we enjoyed meeting locals and fellow travelers from around the world. Everyone has an interesting story. This journey gave us the opportunity to learn a great deal about the destinations, ourselves, and travel in general.

Mitad Del Mundo (Middle of the Earth) Quito, Ecuador

Mitad Del Mundo (Middle of the Earth) Quito, Ecuador

While on the road, we recorded our activities and adventures in a travel journal that we shared via email to a circle of friends. Now that we have Offpeakers.com we’d like to share it with you as well. We hope you can join us. Are you interested in travelling to Latin America? Do you have questions on how we did it? Please send us an email or message, we’d love to share our experiences with you.

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