Monday, 29 July 2013

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

View of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala
View of Lake Atitlan from San Pedro
From the north of Guatemala, most roads lead to Guatemala City, this most populated city in Central America and something of a crime hotspot, or so everyone tells me since arriving in Belize.

Considering there wasn't a whole lot that interested me there I took a pass and after a short stop in Antigua (a quaint little colonial town worthy of a couple days exploring) before heading to the shores of Lake Atitlan or some rest and relaxation.

The shoreline of the lake is peppered with small towns, with Panajachel being the easiest access point from surrounding towns, however there isn't a whole lot to do there. Other towns such as San Marcos, San Pedro and San Juan are much more tourist friendly with San Pedro being the most popular among travellers and expats alike. Santiago (as seen in the picture above) is the biggest town around the lake.

San Pedro is home to plenty of Spanish schools, cheap accommodation and cafes offering the usual tourist fodder along with traditional food indigenous to the area. Most tour operators have horse riding tours, kayaks for rental and hikes up the surrounding volcanoes with San Pedro volcano being one of the more popular given it's close proximity to the town. Volunteering in local schools with projects run by other expats is a possibility too. All in all, it's not difficult to see why many people end up staying here much longer than planned.
View of Lake Atitlan from a kayak

Visitors entrance to Volcan San Pedro by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala

View of Lake Atitlan from Volcan San Pedro in Guatemala

Steps leading the way up Volcan San Pedro in Guatemala by Lake Atitlan

View of Lake Atitlan from San Pedro in Guatemala (Grattan Maslin)

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Lagoons and Caves of Semuc Champey, Guatemala

Getting around Guatemala is pretty easy, there are the chicken buses which everyone knows about, these take all day however and if you get a seat not next to a crying child or an animal you are doing well for yourself. The alternative is to take a minibus between towns, these are also a dime a dozen, not to mention much quicker (not on time, just quicker) and you're guaranteed a seat. By and large you'll get lazy and take one of these everytime but if you have a short journey somewhere the chicken bus is an interesting experience.

From Tikal, if you don't have a whole lot of time to spare or you want something different to Mayan ruins, the next logical destination is either Lanquin (which is just a stones throw away from the lagoons and cave of Semuc Champey), or Semuc Champey itself where there are a couple self sufficient hostels right on the river's edge, this was my preferred choice.

The setting is beautiful and well worth the bus ride down which can be a little bit of a pain, the final 12km from Lanquin to Semuc Champey are bumpy to say the least. The water down stream is a murky turquoise but further up where the lagoons are it is crystal clear, with about seven or so lagoons running into one another.

The lagoons are part of a park so you have to pay an entrance fee to enter, this is 50Q. Once in you can either walk parallel to the river or up the hill next door to the look out point before descending to the lagoons. This isn't too strenuous a hike and the view is well worth it.

Semuc Champey lagoons in Guatemala

Semuc Champey lagoons

Semuc Champey lagoons

Semuc Champey lagoons

Semuc Champey lagoons

If you go on your own steam you can just hang about in the pools, but if you go with a guide, which only costs a little more, they take you to the waterfall downstream and you can check out the cave behind it which is pretty cool. To get back to the hostel in Semuc just hug the riverbed, once there if you need to go back to Lanquin just hop on the back of someones pickup.

If you do the tour, you can also get to go tubing at the end of the day and go to one of the local caves with the group. This is a fun experience as you go through the cave with nothing but a candle to help you lead the way. The cave walk is mostly in water too deep to walk through takes you into the back of the cave where you can climb up the walls and jump into a pool but you have to go out the same way you came in, through waterfalls and tiny cracks.

This is a cool experience but best when done in small groups, there were 24 people in the group I was in and as a result it takes ages to get through the cave, it also gets a little chilly as you wait for everyone else. All in all this is a cracking day out but try to do it on a day when there are limited people around to get the most out of it. 

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Introduction to the Mayan Civilization: Tikal, Guatemala

Just across the border from Belize, some 2 hours by minivan, is the little township of Flores which is an island connected to the nearby town of Santa Elena by a bridge. Flores is a small area where you can find a cheap hostel with a view of the lake and close to plenty of tour operators where you can book a Tikal tour, as well as onward travel and other tours.

Tikal is one of the largest Mayan sites in Mesoamerica and has been a World Heritage Site since 1979, as a result, restoration is now slow as it has to be all done by hand and not one of the buildings can be restored by more than 25%. Tikal National Park is some 576km2 and using infra red, NASA says there are between 16000 -17400 buildings in the park. Obviously not all of these are restored and when you to the park only a few temples and buildings are accessible in a 4km2 area in the centre of the park.

Getting here is easy if you book transport through a tour company, expect to pay around 60Q for round trip transport or 100Q for trasportation and an English speaking guide, totally worth it so you actually have an idea of what you are looking at. You can always try to get to Tikal on your own steam but unless you have your own vehicle, it's a lot of hassle when you could pay just a fraction more and get a shuttle bus there.

Entry at the park is 150Q and if you arrive before 6am it is an additional 100Q, no point trying to get here early for the sunrise, didn't hear anyone raving about it and you have to pay more for the priviledge. If you paid for a guide, he/ she will meet you and the rest of your group in the park and from here you proceed to Complex Q. If you don't have a guide then all you have to do is walk around the park at your own leisure, but as mentioned before it is better, in my opinion to see some of the highlights of the park whilst gaining some knowledge about it. You can always walk around after the guided tour has finished.

Most of the complexes comprise of similar buildings ranging from sacrifical pyramids with underground tombs to residences, from palaces to administritive buildings and stelae with carvings. The numbers 9 and 13 were very important in Mayan culture, with Complex Q, for example, having 9 stone stelae with sacrificial alters, to respresent the Gods (there are 22 in total), and four buildings (incuding two pyramids) to make up a total of 13, representing the underworld.

Temple at Tikal in Guatemala

After here it's a short walk to the Great Plaza which houses the famous pyrmaids of Tikal, there are two that face each other, built in honour of a past monarch. The main pyramid, Temple I, standing at 45m in height, is in honour of King Jasaw Chan K'awil and the one directly opposite, Temple 2, is to commemorate his wife, this one stands at 38m in height. They are no longer accessible to tourists but the Northern Acropolis and Central Acropolis adjacent to them are free to be roamed on, the Northern one has some 278 rooms and you could easily lose yourself wandering around.

Close by are Temples III. IV and V, along with the El Mundo Perdido (The Lost World) and the Seven Temples Plaza. Temple IV is 70m tall and said to be the tallest structure in the Mayan world, Temple III is 57m tall and the second tallest in the park. From the top of Temple IV there are great panoramic views of the Great Plaza and Temple III, you aren't able to climb up Temple IV however. The Lost World has a few buildings but the Pyramid there dwarfes everything else, not so much in height but it is very wide. Whislt seeing these structures, the guide provides useful information and history at each spot.

Temple at Tikal in Guatemala

Temple at Tikal in Guatemala

Main plaza of Tikal in Guatemala

Main plaza at Tikal in Guatemala

Temple at Tikal in Guatemala

Temple at Tikal in Guatemala

Temple at Tikal in Guatemala

Temple at Tikal in Guatemala

Temple at Tikal in Guatemala (Grattan Maslin)

Main plaza at Tikal in Guatemala

Temple at Tikal in Guatemala (Grattan Maslin)

Temple at Tikal in Guatemala

Temple at Tikal in Guatemala

Getting back to Flores is easy, by purchasing a ticket with a tour company there are various shuttles that go back to FLores and drop you off at your hostel at 1100, 1230, 1500 and 1700. A 0430 start is early for most people so many opt for the 1100 bus back, there's only so much you can take in and close to five hours in the park is plenty to see the highlights and more. I would definitley recommend doing this through a tour agency as it just makes things easier, especially as it is better to get to the park early before the crowds, and to pay just that little extra for a guide as it will make the experience that little more enjoyable.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Another Quick and Easy Border Crossing: Belize to Guatemala

Belize to Guatemala is a super easy border crossing with the main one being through Benque Viejo del Carmen in Belize to Melchor de Mencos in Guatemala. It's possible to take shuttle buses from Belize City to Flores ( for Tikal) or to Guatemala City itself but these are through private companies and much more expensive than doing it on your own steam. Also, if you go straight from Belize City you miss out on the attractions closer to the border in San Ignacio and the Cayo district itself.

Coming from San Ignacio and heading to the border is simple. There are a couple options available: you can either take a bus from the town to the border town of Benque Viejo del Carmen (Benque for short) and from there take a taxi from the bus station to the border, or you can just take a taxi from San Ignacio to the border which is much easier and less hassle. The second option is a $5 per person and takes less than 20 minutes.

Once at the border, proceedings are quick. After getting your exit stamp for Belize there is a short walk with your bag(s) to the Guatemalan entry point. Once your passport is stamped  there is a bridge to walk over and from here you can take buses to Guatemala City or shuttles to Flores (30 Questzales, Guatemalan currency) which takes about three hours. Be careful with these as they like to try to overcharge tourists and they don't go to Flores. They stop in Santa Elena and then a 10Q per person tuk-tuk is required to take you through to Flores which is just over the bridge, about 2k away. Of course you can walk this but if you are feeling lazy then the tuk-tuk is the simplest option.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Stepping back in time: Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Tour, Belize

Located about an hour away from the town of San Ignacio by the Belize - Guatemalan border is the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, or ATM cave for short. In English it translates to 'Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre' and locals know it as Xibalba, or for the uninitiated, Hell. This can possibly be attributed to the fact that it was a holy place for the Mayans and only the most important members of society, royalty for example, or those ready to face death and their fears could enter.

The cave was mainly used to make sacrifices to the Gods, with animal and human remains found among the pottery and stoneware. As a result of the pristine condition of some of the artifacts, the fact that everything is in such good condition and nothing else like this exists in the country or anywhere else for that matter, it is only a matter of time before this place is off limits to the public. Steps are already in place to ensure this happens so best make it down here quickly.

In Belize, if you have your own means of transport, most places can be visited without the aid of a guide but given the nature of this UNESCO World Heritage Site you can only visit on a tour with a registered guide with groups not allowed to exceed more than eight, excluding the guide. This allows for a more intimate tour and also ensures safety.

Once at the park entrance you have a 45 minute walk through the jungle where you cross streams but beyond that it isn't too taxing. At the rest stop you drop off your bags and head to the cave entrance, you don't need anything else with you at this stage. Cameras are banned from the tour now for two reasons: firstly, when in the cave many tourists were too preoccupied with taking photos and weren't looking where they were going which resulted in accidents, and secondly, last November someone dropped their camera onto a relic and broke it, nice one. As a result, no cameras are allowed, so the photos below are from past tours.

From the entrance you have to swim across to the other side and from here you are walking through the cave, checking out the giant stalactites and stalagmites, squeezing through tiny gaps, swimming through passages and making your way deeper into the cave. Around 45% of the tour is in water so expect to get a little cold. A helmet and flashlight are provided and sometimes the guide will tell you to switch off your lights: one, to show you just how dark it is in the cave, and two, to cast shadows with his own light where he would show us where the Mayans had carved into the stalagmites to create shadows which would have looked freaky back in the day with nothing but a torch to light the way.

After a short climb you enter the main chamber known as 'The Cathedral' where there are sacrificial alters and pottery at the beginning, the deeper you go you come across bones and skulls along with calcified pottery remains. Right at the back in an alcove lie the calcified remains of what is believed to have been a teenage girl who was sacrificed, she is known as 'The Crystal Maiden' and is one of the best preserved skeletons from the Mayan late period. She was also the last of 16 found bodies to have been sacrificed here and is also located in one of the most sacred spots which leads archaeologists to believe that she was someone important and that her sacrifice was a last ditch effort to appease the Gods. It is likely that it was drought that was these Mayans' downfall and not long after the caves were abandoned.

There are plenty of caves in the Cayo District in Belize, too many to see in one trip but if you get the chance to ever come here and the ATM cave is still open for business, I would strongly recommend going. I thought it was a little pricey at $90 (US this time) but definitely felt the experience was well worth it, after all, who doesn't like a bit of spelunking and steping back in time to a place even the Mayans were scared of?

Chilling in the Breeze in Caye Caulker, Belize

As far as most major cities go in a country, Belize City moves at pretty slow pace but even that seems like a rushed affair in comparison to the laid back mentality adopted on the island of Caye Caulker, Belize's backpacking island mecca. With no cars and only golf buggies and bikes to get around, it's a relaxing place which holds true to it's mantra of 'Go Slow'. With world class diving, fresh catch of the day for dinner and hammocks to swing in the breeze, it's no wonder most people make a beeline for this place when they first come to Belize.

Getting to the island is easy, most people don't spend any time in Belize City itself and are dropped off across the road from the water taxi jetty, so all you have to do is walk in, buy your return ticket for $25 (Belizean dollars on this page) and hop on the next boat to Caye Caulker. If you are wanting to go to San Pedro on Ambergis Caye, there are boats from here too. If you come into the city via the main bus terminal, then you can either get a taxi to the jetty or walk 15 minutes, it's not a strenuous walk but it depends on how safe you feel walking there. Personally, I had no problems in the city and even the guys asking for change were friendly.

Once on the island, it is pretty easy to just walk around and find some accommodation that suits your needs: there are dorms, private rooms and cabins so there is a wealth of options for all budgets.The are really only three main roads running down the spine of the island, Front, Middle and Back, with most of the action on Front Road, the same side you arrive on. There are plenty of restaurants, mini markets and too many to count tour operators, and at the northern end of the island there is 'The Split'. This is where the island was cut in two by dredging to aid the fishermen back in the '50s and then after Hurricane Hattie ripped through the area in 1961, it was widened and since then has had to be maintained. There is no beach area per say, but you can chill out up her, snorkel, drink some beers and chill in the sun on the decking.

As mentioned, there are plenty of tour operators with various offers, these range from scuba diving to snorkeling, from sailing to fishing, as well as other options. One place that caught my eye was E-Z Boy Tours which offered a sailing day out with three snorkel stops for $140 (remember, Belizean dollars), this included snorkeling, park entry fee, lunch, ceviche and all you can drink rum punch for the journey back.

The three stops were Hol Chan Marine Reserve where we saw turtles, rays and a  baby shark (plenty of coral and fish but we're after the big stuff here), the second stop was Shark Ray Alley which as you can guess from the name was a site teeming with nurse sharks and sting rays. The guide on the boat threw loads of sardines in the water to attract them and when we were all in the water, to our amazement, he just scooped up one of the sharks and then a ray for us to pet. Brilliant. After here, our final stop was at Coral Garden but it was pretty lacklustre in comparison to the two previous sites. In between the second and third stop we had lunch and on the way back the wind picked up so we were able to sail in whilst enjoying the delights of happy hour. This was a great day out and something I would recommend to anyone.

As well as snorkeling, Belize is also home to some of the world's most famous dive sites, namely the Blue Hole. This was a big one for me and one that I was anxious to do on this trip so we booked through a company called Frenchies, these guys turned out to be a good company. For $450 you got boat transport and three dives, kind of pricey but that's what you have to pay.

It takes two hours to get out to the Blue Hole and once there you quickly descend down to 130ft/40m where you then swim between columns, avoid the Caribbean Reef sharks and slowly ascend. Given the depth, there is only a bottom time of 8 minutes and total dive time of 25 minutes. When we all got back on the boat, we realised that one of the girls in the group had narked and bolted to the top from 40m, the guide tried to stop her but she panicked and there was nothing anyone could do. We had to get back to the islands to get her to San Pedro where Belize's only decompression chamber is located to make sure she was alright, this meant that the other two dives were cancelled. This was obviously disappointing but it was good to see that the company dealt with the situation well, it also helped that they were really cool about telling us about the girl's expected recovery and they then sorted out refunds for everyone. I would love to have done more diving, but with time pressing I had no more time, I was just glad I got the Blue Hole in.

Sadly no pictures from the Blue Hole (not sure my 5m underwater camera could handle it) but it was an awesome experience and as it was my first dive in about a year has made me want to get some more in before I leave, hopefully up around the Cancun area before I go home if I have time. As for Caye Caulker, if you are coming into Belize but not sure whether you should hang around in Belize City for a day (or two) before heading to the island here is some sage and most certainly bias advise: don't bother, head straight for the islands, that's where all the fun is because even when you're not on a tour, there's nothing better than relaxing in the sun with a beer and the water lapping at your feet..