Offpeakers

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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!

 

 

Ediz Hook

We’re Baack!

Wow! It’s Finals week! Team Offpeakers survived our first quarter of being back to school! It is/was everything we had hoped for and more!

Peninsula College

Free coffee and muffins welcomed the students during the first day of the quarter.

Our experiences at Peninsula College proved to be nothing but wonderful right from the start. A picturesque campus with great facilities, combined with knowledgeable and caring staff. What a fun, satisfying and fulfilling experience. We also love that we get to ride our bikes to school!

Bike

We enjoy riding our bikes to school and exploring new trails  around the area.

Since it’s been so long since our last post, some of you may have already forgotten why we are back at school and what we are studying.  John is taking the Construction/Green Building Course and Terry is focusing on Multimedia Communications. Why are we doing this? Because it’s fun, challenging and serves as a preparation for our next adventures, wherever or whatever that may be.

Terry, PASC

Terry enjoyed teaching Facebook to members of Port Angeles Senior Center.

Terry has learned and done so much, she learned how to code using HTML, CSS and bootstrap. She developed and published 2 websites, a personal portfolio and a country website, where she focused on one of our favorite country, Colombia. Please click on the provided link to see her work.

Halloween, PC

The pirate and his sailor girl attended PC’s Halloween dance.

She also learned how to make animation, edit videos, create animated banners, multi-page publications, edit & enhance photographs.  She even took a photojournalism class and her photographs were published in the school’s award-winning newspaper!  Terry’s photography allowed us to become avid fans of our school’s championship women’s soccer team.  All of these on top of volunteering at our local Habitat for Humanity store and teaching Facebook classes at the Port Angeles Senior Center.

The green-builders figuring out the framing for the dog house.

John has been quite busy as well. He is now a member of the Construction Committee for our local Habitat for Humanity. They have built decks, install doors and siding, replaced a window with a slider and painted a volunteer’s home. On Saturday’s John volunteer’s at the Habitat store preparing donated furniture for sale as Terry works the cash register making the sale.  For his construction/green-building program, this first quarter focused on framing work and basic woodworking.  The class also built a media/photographer’s platform at the school’s soccer field and what may be the world’s strongest dog houses!

dog, green building

Ta daaa! They finished this and 4 others…lucky dogs will stay warm this winter.

We are really enjoying our Off-peak life in Port Angeles, which is the headquarters of the Olympic National Park. We don’t have cable so our entertainment nowadays are mostly books and the great outdoors. Our apartment is within walking distance of couple of hiking trails and grocery stores.

From the Salmon cascades near Sol Duc Hot Springs.

We get to walk to the beach almost everyday. A few weeks ago, we got to observe Salmon swimming upstream on a couple of occasions.  We’ve seen family of otters playing in the ocean and on the beach.  We’ve yet to see an Orca, but we will one day.

The school quarter went fast, we are wrapping up for finals this week. And we woke up to a winter wonderland this morning. The whole place looks magical with the fresh snow.

Snow covered Peninsula College looks magical.

Snow covered Peninsula College looks magical. Terry’s Media class is in that building.

It is a reminder that it is the holiday season.  Life goes by so fast, we are happy with our decision to downsize, pursue our dreams and live an Offpeaker life.  We are thankful that you are reading this post.  We hope you are all well, enjoying and  loving whatever you are doing. If not, we wish you the courage to pursue and live the life that you want.  We leave you with a line from one of Eminem’s song “Look, if you have one shot or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted, would you capture it or let it slip?”

 

 

Painted Hills Oregon

If you travel a bit in North Central Oregon, you might start to wonder who in the hell is John Day. There are the towns of John Day and Dayville, the John Day River, and the John Day Dam.  John Day was an early trapper and hunter that made this rugged country home in the 1810’s.

We have never heard of him until we looked closely at the map of Oregon.

We have never heard of him until we looked closely at the map of Oregon.

The Offpeakers were interested about John Day due to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.   This Monument is comprised of three separate geographical locations comprising 14,000 acres. The three sights are separated by 150 miles in a sparsely populated region with few services.

We see endless clouds while driving on the Oregon Scenic byway

We see endless clouds while driving on the Oregon Scenic byway

Only 140,000 people a year visit any of the Units.  Gas stations are few and far between, and even if you manage to find a store or restaurant, places close early.  Plan ahead for this visit.  Out of the way travel is fun.

Serpentine roads and gorgeous views on the way to the Fossil bed monuments

Serpentine roads and gorgeous views on the way to the Fossil bed monuments

The drive is interesting as it will be flat rolling plains and a few miles later it is climbing to a timbered forest and then down to a relatively lush river bottom.

Great view surrounds the museum/visitor center

Great view of the geologic formations surrounds the museum/visitor center

The Sheep Rock Unit (35 miles west of Mitchell, OR) is the headquarters for the John Day Monument and hosts a very nice Paleontology Center (or as I would call it, a Fossil Museum). Included are many specimens of early mammals as well as plant fossils.  Large murals offer guesses as to what the area looked like in earlier periods. This was a wet, humid place with terrific volcanic activity.

Near the end of the blue basin hike

Near the end of the blue basin hiking trail surrounded by 29 million year old volcanic formations

Volcano eruptions would spread lava over hundreds of miles, vastly larger than any eruption in recorded times. This lava and aggregate rock would erode at different rates, helping to form another draw to the area besides fossils, the colored rock formations.  Near the Sheep Rock Unit are the Blue Basin and Foree locations. These locations allow short hikes of ½ to 1 mile to see rocks of different hues.  Blue Basin in particular leads you into a deep gulley of light blue tinted stone. A ranger aptly described it as making you feel like you are on a Star Trek planet.

On our way to our favorite

On our way to our favorite, John Day Fossils Bed National Monument Painted Hills  Unit!

The John Day Unit we enjoyed the most was the Painted Hills, which we learned is listed as one of Oregon’s Seven Wonders!  Just eight miles west of Mitchell, you are in this brilliant colored vista with alternating layers. Have your camera ready. The Painted Hills Unit again has several locations such as Overlook Trail, Red Hill Trail, and Painted Cove Trail where a little walking will earn you unusual sights.

DSC05840

Pictures don’t do justice on how beautiful this location really is. Amazing!

In the same area, Leaf Hill trail shows were literally thousands of leaf specimens were earlier collected. A few are on display incorporated into a trail side sign.

No filter used on this photo. It looks like a painting

No filter used on this photo. It really looks like a painting or for those old enough to remember, sand art.

There is a picnic area and restrooms at the location. Do be warned that if you linger too long in the restroom, the other patrons do get quite antsy and impatient. Hold to your guns, as sometimes it takes a little time to do the job right.

Still

Clarno unit of the monument, not as big as the other two  units

The Clarno Unit of the Monument is the northernmost location. This Unit receives the fewest tourists and we would suggest you not visit . While this is a beautiful location, it is lacking in the “wow” factor as compared to so many other locations in the area. The Clarno unit is known for leaf fossils fused into a scattering of boulders. These fossils are hard to see.

The fossils are hard to see

The fossils are hard to see, I think I found an avocado leaf!

A few signs have directions such as “See the leaf fossil one foot to the left” and even with this help, we had difficulty seeing the specimen. There are two very short trails here, one ¼ mile, one ½ mile so you don’t get much of a hike in either.

I have used Mitchell, Oregon as a reference point for these visits. Mitchell is the closest this area has to a large town with a population of 140. There is no gas station but it does have a nice family run hotel/bed & breakfast, The Oregon Hotel.

Sam watched over us while we sleep. No one dared bother us!

Sam watched over us while we sleep. No one dared bother us!

A variety of rooms are available at a nice price.  Food options are limited.  Don’t wait too late even on a Saturday night, as the Little Pine Cafe closed promptly at 8 PM.  And it would have been a real shame to miss one of the finest Hamburger and Fries that we have EVER tried.  This alone would be worth the interesting drive.

We had the best burgers at Little Pine Cafe.

Little Pine Cafe (left) in Mitchell, Oregon, yummy food and friendly service, what a find!

Our meal was enhanced by a couple of tourists who snapped a picture of a wild animal on the town’s lone street. They refused to believe the waitress that the tan cat they photographed was her pet tom cat, insisting it was a cougar.  It made them happy and secretly pleased the locals, so no harm.

We are loving Oregon! We're glad it's our neighboring state!

We are loving Oregon! We’re glad it’s our neighboring state!

The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument was interesting and we enjoyed its remote location. However, if your travel days are limited, there are other sights in Oregon that might bring you more joy.  Let us know if you have travel suggestions for the Pacific Northwest.

Thank you for traveling along with the Offpeakers.

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. 

Lake Crescent

When the Offpeakers asked around for fun places to visit near our new home in Port Angeles, Washington, Lake Crescent was mentioned several times.  On a bright morning we drove 17 miles west on Highway 101 to see for ourselves.

Wow! Crescent lake is so beautiful!

Wow! Lake Crescent is so beautiful! Crystal clear cold water.

Lake Crescent is a deep vivid blue reminiscent of Caribbean Ocean water. The color is due to a lack of nitrogen that prevents the growth of algae that obscures other lakes. Crescent is large with a length of 12 miles and surface area of 5,000 acres as well as being one of the deepest lakes in Washington state.

Flowery fields by the visitor center.

Flowery field by the Lake Crescent Storm King visitor center.

This Olympic National Park lake is popular with boaters and kayakers. People drop in for a snapshot and linger, walking along the shore and going out on the pier to marvel at the clear water.

The water is so clear, we can see the bottom.

The water is so clear, we can see the bottom.

Our primary interest was the network of hiking trails leading from the lake. Our first trail was an easy but beautiful hike to Marymere Falls.

Beautiful trail leading to the falls

Beautiful trail leading to the waterfalls

A fast two mile trek, the Marymere Falls trail is one of the most well traveled paths in the region. The trail begins at the Storm King Ranger Stations, skirts the lake, ducks under the highway, and then takes you back in time. Huge moss covered trees and ferns remind you of the heavy rainfall this area receives.

Easy to imagine the time when dinosaur roam in the surroundings

Easy to imagine the time when the dinosaurs roam inside the ancient forest

The air is cool and heavy. The trail beckons you but there is so much to see in all directions. The more adventurous can branch off to other longer trails (Barnes Creek, Storm King), but we wanted to see Falls Creek plummet down its granite course.

One of the bridge leading up to the falls

One of the bridge leading up to the falls

A couple of fun bridges (you can alternatively bound from rock to rock if you choose) later and it is time for a brief ascent up switch backs and stairs. The payoff is a gentle but pleasing 90 foot high cascade.

We made it to the waterfalls

Climbing to the higher viewing area provides more exercise but a poorer photo opportunity. Now that this goal was achieved, we quickly followed the same route back to find our next adventure. We loved the hike and recommend that you include it in your Olympic National Park visit.

Paved bike path near the trail head.

Paved bike path near the trail head.

With this as a warm up, the Subaru took us to the east side of the lake’s East Beach Road in order to hike the Spruce Railroad Trail. The Spruce Railroad trail skirts the northern edge of Lake Crescent. This trail primarily follows the route of a railroad line worked on during World War I. This line was intended to open up new areas of spruce to log to support the war effort. Fortunately the war was ended before the route was fully complete, saving the forest but wasting all the hard work of the construction crews.

The trail

Step lightly Offpeaker!

The workers had even nearly finished a large tunnel through solid rock. While the work did not result in a usable rail line, it has evolved into a nice hiking path. The trail is an easy 8 mile round trip. As this was a railroad grade, there are few hills. The first people we saw on the trail were mountain bikers, followed by people with happy dogs. Several spots on the well groomed route accessed sandy beaches on Lake Crescent.

Near the area where we saw people swimming the frigid waters

Area where we saw people swimming the frigid waters

Just as we were wondering if the water was too cold for bathers, an impressive group of athletes appeared swimming smartly. Dressed in wet suits, this appears to be a normal occurrence as we saw two other (admittedly less rigorous) groups of swimmers.

Devil's punch bridge, we saw 2 people jumping off the cliff!

Devil’s punch bowl is to the right of the bridge, we saw people jumping off the cliff!

Further on, we crossed over a steel bridge next to the Devil’s Punch Bowl. Our timing was perfect as we saw a young lady scale the rock cliff along the lake and, after a big of preparation, jump at least 25 feet down into the mesmerizing blue water. As maybe expected, she surfaced sputtering “COLD!!!!” amid our applause. On our return, a motorboat full of anxious swimmers arrived and tied up at this popular point. Our hike continued. The tall timber shaded us from much of the direct sun.

We almost missed it.

We almost missed this impressive tunnel.

We almost walked right past the tunnel. It is nearly closed on the leading side and situated well above the foot path. A quick scramble got us a the edge of the tunnel and we just had to walk through it on the jumble of fallen rock and remnants of timbers. Much manual labor was expended for this relic. We cheered their achievement and our joy to be enjoying this beautiful area.

Beautiful trail from beginning to end

It’s  a scenic and fun trail from beginning to end

Overall the hike was fun and scenic, just as advertised. If we get active with our bikes this will be one of the early off road trails we will enjoy owing to its gentle grade, proximity to Port Angeles, and fun scenery. Hiking these Olympic Peninsula trails is great to get exercise and enjoy the outdoors. What are some of your favorite hiking areas? Share them with us, we promise not to litter!

Dungeness Spit

A record setting spit can brighten anyone’s Independence Day.  The Offpeaker’s Fourth of July centered around an 11 mile hike on the Dungeness Spit here on the northern edge of the Olympic Peninsula.

Caption here

Sure it’s only 5 miles each way! but nobody mentioned the stones!!

Yes, we are now in the beautiful Pacific Northwest!  If you have visited the area and love the great outdoors, you will understand why.  The Dungeness Spit, named by explorer George Vancouver, is the longest spit (a deposition sand bar or beach found off coasts) in North America.

At the start of the hike...wait, where's the lighthouse?

At the start of the hike…wait, where’s the lighthouse?

The Dungeness National Wildlife refuge contains the spit among its 770 acre holding just outside Sequim, Washington.  The refuge is home to more than 250 species of birds, 41 species of land mammals, a harbor seal birthing area, excellent infrastructure, an operational 1857 lighthouse, and a near constant powerful wind.  This wind, varying in strength from strong to wicked, was our hiking partner the entire day.

You can tell by the smiles that this is at the beginning of the hike :-)

Still smiling so this must be at the beginning of the hike 🙂

Our hike along the spit to the lighthouse would be 11 miles long including the return. The entrance fee is $3, which was waived as we are proud holders of a National Park Service Interagency Annual Pass. For $80, we get 12 months access to more than 2,000 sites governed by 5 federal agencies.

Are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

Now that the Olympic National Park is our new back yard, we needed affordable long term access. An early start was chosen to beat the holiday crowds. With a packed lunch and cameras, we hit the trail. The first half mile goes through heavy ferns and old growth cedar and spruce.

The heavily wooded path to the trail

The heavily wooded path that leads to the spit.

If you don’t have time for the full hike, you will enjoy the short walk and view from a nice platform over the beach. Our arrival coincided with low tide, so we had the maximum width of the spit (maybe 40 yards?) to travel.

The shore birds

Shore birds resting on huge tree stumps.

After the initial mile, hikers have to stay on the north side of the spit, leaving the south side for the many shore birds. We were impressed by the huge stumps and logs that had blown up on the spit. A few imprints in the sand and two cars in the parking lot told us we were not the first on the trail today.

Park ranger ATV bringing supplies to the lighhouse

Park ranger ATV bringing supplies to the light house and a container ship in the background.

A lone ATV passed us, taking supplies to the light house. We were walking along the Strait of San Juan de Fuca. Occasionally we saw large boat traffic heading for Seattle/Bremerton including container and cruise ships. Not many interesting shells to be found, but lots of well polished interesting stones.

John don't want these so T just made a cairn. Not as good as Matt's.

John didn’t want these rocks in his pocket so T just made a cairn. Not as good as Matt’s.

Terry excels at finding the rocks, John is judged to be the better carrier.  Orcas and seals are routinely spotted, we did not encounter any on this day. Although the walk was flat, it was a bit hard on the legs with spots of soft sand and shifting rocks.  About three and half miles in we rounded a long curve in the route and saw the distant light house.

Ya, there is a light house!

Yay, there is a light house!

This encouraged us to speed up and achieve our goal. Hikers are welcomed at the site with potable water, restrooms, and a nice picnic area. The Offpeakers took the opportunity to enjoy sandwiches and empty our boots of sand.

Great spot for a picnic!

Great spot for a picnic!

Although mostly overcast, it made the day special to enjoy the meal under our Stars and Stripes surrounded by coast and the light house structures. The New Dungeness Light House is not very new, having been activated in December of 1857. The Coast Guard removed its personnel in the early 1990’s. Staffing was resumed by a volunteer organization from Sequim.

In front of the light house

In front of the light house, feeling patriotic on Independence Day!

The volunteers maintain the site and host tours. We enjoyed the climb up the tower, but were disappointed that only the official volunteers are allowed out on the cat walk. We did get a nice (and warm) view from the interior of the tower. The old lamp and surrounding trim and railings are just some of the brass that needs continual polishing. If you sign up, you can experience a week long stint as a lighthouse keeper.

The small museum & light house behind us

The small museum & light house behind us

It is not cheap ($375), as the funds go towards conservation of the site. While we probably won’t be marooning ourselves here for seven days anytime in the future, we are grateful to those that do that allow our visit. Refreshed, we prepared to return to the mainland. Instead of warming up, the increasing wind had made it quite cold.

There are more hikers coming and going on our way back

There are more hikers coming and going on our way back

A fast pace (like yours Irena!) soon had us warmed up, where we could share greetings with the inbound hikers. As we search for an apartment to be the Offpeaker World Headquarters in the Peninsula while we go to school, we are enjoying putting downtime into fun outdoor activities. So far we love the area and we will share the special places we encounter. How did you spend your Fourth of July? Do you have a favorite lighthouse? Share with us in the comments below!

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 American Road-trip Travel Tips

Travel and adventure do not need to involve international border crossings or high expenditures. The Offpeakers just completed a 2-month combined house-sitting/road-trip where we visited 11 states, 20 US cities. We drove through 5 other states but were not included in the count since we didn’t make a significant stop. Believe it or not our budget averaged under $70 per day! That’s for 2 people. In the following slide-show we will share how we did it.

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