Bordersjust after I wrote about losing things, I lost something again. This time it was my wash-bag and at first I thought losing my toothbrush is not so wild. Then I remembered that this where I hid my spare credit card. Still, I thought I can notify the bank, not worth going back to Costa Rica for. I laid back on my bed, having retired early as I wanted to hike the volcano Baru the next day, just to sit up again.
My jewelry case was in that bag. And in that case the silver cross that used to belong to my mom. It was pretty much the only piece of jewelry she wore every day and there was no question that I would let it be lost, if I can go back to get it.
I crossed back into Costa Ricathe next day, and crossing the border I thought I could give a little insight about border crossing in Central America.
Going by foot over the border always follows the same system, one finds the immigration office of the country one comes from, gets an exit stamp, pays exit fees if applicable, crosses the border on foot, find the immigration on the other side and gets an entry stamp, again paying for tourist cards, or entry fees.
Having small dollar notes with you is handy, the money changers use a rate far from what is said on the net, but are often the only way to change currency from the country you are coming from(I was stuck with pesos all through Guatemala and finally changed then on the border to Honduras). Make sure you change after you have paid the exit fee...
Here are the borders I crossed.
Mexico to Guatemala over Rio Usumacinta
Mexico immigration is on one side of the river, Guatemala on the other. Get your passport stamped before going on the boat. As I described before the bus driver and border official extorted money from us. Slightly scary and frustrating.
Guatemala to Honduras in El Florido
Nothing special happened here, walkover border as described above. Fines were all the official fines, we got a receipt and everything. I think it was 2 dollar to leave and 3 to enter.
Honduras to Nicaragua at Las Manos
The border itself was the same as Guatemala to Honduras, nothing out of the ordinary. There was a 2 dollar exit fee from Honduras (if you go by plane this becomes 35!) and the tourist card to Nicaragua was staggering 10 dollars. I guess they need the money. We got a receipt, so it was legit.
I did meet the slowest border official in the world, instead of giving us the entrance forms to fill out (like at every other border) he filled them out himself, checking every entry three times. He even managed to stamp slowly. For some reason one does not get a stamp in the passport, but a bunch of papers.
The annoying thing about this border were the two British girls I crossed with. They complained about everything, having to wait, having to pay ("they should pay us for coming here" they said.).
When we got on the bus to Esteli I sat myself away from them, before I could say something rude.
Nicaragua to Costa Rica
This was the most stressful border, not because it is fuller than the others, but because everyone kept hassling me. As soon as I got out of the bus a tourist guide jumped on me, pulling me to the immigration, talking excitingly and pressing the exit form in my hand. Meanwhile money changers were waving wads of money at me.
After I got my exit stamp, I tipped the guide, hopeing to get rid of him, but he was replaced by a lady from the bus company, pulling me towards the bus. I was busy putting the money away I had exchanged, trying to follow her at the same time, missed a step and fell flat on my face.
Everything fell out of my hand, I was afraid for my passport for a second, but Nicaraguans are nice, everyone helped me up and was concerned I had hurt myself, passport and money all staying with me.
When I arrived at the bus I had to wait 15 min for it to leave.
On the Costa Rica side I had to buy a bus ticket back to Nicaragua to be allowed to enter, which I disgruntled me even more. The nice American lady sitting next to me on the bus told me to roll with it after all I was on holiday in a beautiful country and I can't change it anyway. I noticed I was turning into the English girls, which shut me up quickly.
Costa Rica to Panama
This is the border I will be crossing for the third time today, as just retrieved my wash-bag. And lucky it is. This border is fun, it is a free zone, which means it is riddled with malls, little shops and food stalls. The whole atmosphere has something of an amusement park, Costa Ricans and Panamians coming here to shop. And migration is quick and hassle free on both sides, border officials being used to people coming over for a day.
The ticket I had to buy in Costa Rica has been useful, to enter again into Costa Rica and also to enter into Panama, as I need a return ticket for that as well, and for some reason a ticket from San Jose (CR) to Managua (Nic) seems sufficient.
Pictures Lanquin and Semuc ChampeyThe city of Lanquin:
Traditional cloth at the market:
Lago AtitlanAs I mentioned in the previous post I met a Swiss Expat at lake Atitlan. I went to San Marcos as it seemed like a good place to walk to some of the villages on the shore. It is off-season at the lake in autumn, so I was pretty much alone in the hostel.
I walked around trying to find something to eat, but most restaurants were expensive and empty. San Marcos, as well as San Pedro just a bit up the lake, is divided into the poor local area up shore and the Gringolandia consisting of restaurants and hotels owned by a few rich locals and foreigners on the lake. No wonder the crime rate is high. I walked out of Gringlandia looking for a Comedore, but only found a small locally owned nice looking restaurant on the border between the town and Gringolandia.
They had fish fresh from the lake so I sat down to eat, just to immediately be joined by an attention seeking dog and a hungry, cheeky cat, trying to steal my food and the before mentioned expat. He told me he was working for a French guy running a bakery. I am jealous, I always wanted to found a bakery in some tropical place.
Ironically, though it is a "French" bakery, the famous chocolate or apple rolls are made by a local woman. The bread from the French guy is the typical self-made bread by someone who is not a baker and does not have a good recipe. To be honest (though it sounds conceited) it would be one of my worse ones.
Anyway, the Swiss expat was nice enough to show me around for one day, telling me how life at the lake was like. By the way, I did not forget everyones name, but as this blog is public, I don't want to use their names.
There is one town between San Marcos and San Pedro, which is not devided into Gringlandia and the rest of the village. Life seems to be a bit nicer there, I threw some loops with two local girls and we met another expat, who told about a therapy project for local children, maybe a volunteer opportunity for me, for when I have finished my trip.
Antigua and expatsAntigua looks very much like an old Spanish city, with a volcano looming over it and women from the surrounding villages selling "artisanos". It is a pretty town to hang out in and has a lot of infrastructure in terms of restaurants, hotels, travels agencies etc.
This is not only because of the large amount of tourists visiting, but also because it is a haven for Expats. It is somewhat of a self supporting system, Expats opening restaurants or bars to then spend the money they made on restaurants and bars.
I met one of them while I was waiting for the ATM to be free. He is a tourguide and has been in Antigua for a few years. He actually wasn't very happy about living there it seemed, some long distance relationship had just ended, he had difficulties making long term friends, as people are coming and going all the time and the people staying were, as he put it "useless drunks". I sympathised, until he started bitching about the locals. First he warned me about drinking tab water at lake Atitlan, because it is (obviously) not purified and the products of agriculture around the lake (read shit) end up in it. Because, as he put it, the locals are uneducated and backward. I did not mention that I had gotten sick from tab water in the USA. Jep, that is where he was from. Than he went on saying that Guatemalans had no culture, because when they open a coffee shop or a restaurant it isn't (surprise!) a western style coffee shop or restaurant. If you want something done "right" it has to be done by an Expat, apparently. I remembered why I sometimes have a dislike for Expats...
This night I shared a room with a much nicer Expat from Mexico. She was working on an anthropology project in a village in the mountains. We went out for dinner together and conversed as well as we could, considering her English was not very strong and my Spanish is basic. We spoke Spanish most of the time, which was good practice, she told me about the cultural differences a girl from Mexico City faces in the Guatemalan countryside. They were pretty much the same problems a Swiss (though Guatemalan on the mothers side), who I met at Lake Atitlan, mentioned. People in the Guatemalan countryside have strong traditional values, marrying early, family and strong gender roles, which can make it difficult for a more liberal person to adapt to. Despite their difficulties both of them expressed a respect for the culture the tourguide from Antigua was missing. Maybe not all Expats are arrogant.
I conclusion: Antigua is pretty, Expats can be annoying and my Spanish really needs improvement.
Hostels Flores and LanquinHostels recommended by the Lonely Planet can be a bit too much like Apple Products to me. One could be shepherded around Guatemala without once having to think for oneself, nor taking any kind of public transport or having to speak any local other than the people in the hostel (if they are local) bus drivers or guides. No knowledge of Spanish required. The Hostel (Las amigos) in Flores was like this. It feels very crammed, the dorms are just a tarped of "room" in the yard, but had its own restaurant, tours on offer, laundry service, internet, everything. One could be in Flores without seeing it as I said, no independent thinking required. There are two other Hostels in Flores, one (Dona Goya) which is actually cheaper and spacier. It has a really nice roof terrace with hammocks and a view and the other ( I forgot the name, it is just down the street from Dona Goya) which is slightly more expensive, but right next to the lake, with a view and a small terrace from every room. I like having to go out for my Coffee and other errands, because it makes me see the town, especially a town like Flores. I moved after the first night in the Lonely Planet hostel. Public transport is also cheaper, but this is not the main reason why I rather take it. If all tourists in Guatemala would take public transport a lot of revenue is created, which then will probably go into improving it, thus actually having a positive effect beyond sustaining tour companies. Plus, I think it is much more dangerous to be moving around in a poor country in a minivan marked "tourists" (no joke, it is marked) than being on a chicken bus. When i was in Tikal, I heard about a hold up of a "sunrise tour", a tour that leaves Flores at 3 at night to arrive in Tikal just after sunrise. It is not possible to see the sunrise in Tikal with these tours I do not understand the point of them, but I digress. This happened twice with the same bus driver and apparently the bus was stopped by a single guy holding a machete. Of course I feel sorry for the people that were robbed and am sure the experience was a scary one, my point is that I don't think building a parallel infrastructure for tourists, rather than extending the existing is a good idea for any parties involved.
The differences between places profiting from tourism, and those that don't could especially be seen in the town of Lanquin, close to Samuc Champey. I have to say it is a very nice Hostel, the dinner is awesome and it is located next to a river where one can swim in. When i went into Lanquin, just to look around, I did not see any other Gringo. I don't think any of the shops or restaurants in that town profit from tourism in any relevant way. And this is a town right next to one of the top tourist destinations in Guatemala. Most people I talked to took a tour to Samuc (why does someone need a tour to go swimming?) leaving the hostel in the morning (with a packed lunch) and returned in the evening for dinner. I guess the motivation for a tour is that it is boring to swiming alone, but Samuc is so small that you meet everyone from the hostel there. When I went there by pickup truck I met a group of Guatemalan girls, from Coban (next bigger city) and Guatemala city. In Samuc I met a Spanish couple who lives in Panama from the Hostel again and I had dinner with the girls. Although the conversation was a bit broken, due to my bad Spanish it was interesting to hear about Student live in Guatemala.
A little trip to heavenAfter recovering from camping in the jungle I was ready to go back to, namely to the area of Coban in central Guatemala. It is a hilly region, where the (very bad) dirt road runs up and down into valleys and up hills. small villages are scattered on the mountainsides, as are bat caves. In this area is the village of Lanquin and Semuc Champey, the paradise of Guatemala. It is a natural limestone bridge, under which passes the Cahabán River. Atop the bridge is a series of stepped, turquoise pools, with crystal clear water and little fishes, which like to tickle ones toes. But before I went there I decided to see the town of Lanquin and the caves next to it. The town is pretty untouched by tourist life, a good place to visit a market or just see normal Guatemalan village life. People are friendly and there is a nice view from the church next to the cemetery. The caves are somewhat spooky to go into alone. I climbed around in them happily and noticed the bats waking up (it was around dusk). When I came back to the entrance it was swarming with bats. They do obviously not fly into one and are not aggressive, but walking through a cloud of bats is quite a special feeling.
The next day I went to Samuc, by pick up truck. It is the only form of public transport available and on the way back we even had a chicken traveling with us. Samuc is as beautiful as the description makes you think it is. I swam, hiked a bit up the mountain to make a picture and went back to swim let the fishes tickle my toes for a bit and then rode back to the hostel with a group of laughing girls from Guatemala city.
Camping in TikalIt was time to try out my hammock! I decided to go in the afternoon to Tikal and stay there to see the sunrise, so I could avoid most of the crowds. Plus the site deserves at least two days, it is impressive and in the middle of the jungle, which means a lot of walking. I went to the campground next to the entrance and got out my hammock. I did not have extension ropes for it, so when i hung it up it was quite high from the ground. Then I added the inner part of my tent as a mosquito net. It took some scrambling to get in, but once inside it was quite comfy. Satisfied with my camping in the jungle skills I went to check out Tikal. I made a lot of pictures, but as I used a different film, with 400 light sensitivity instead of 200, I had to play around with the shutter speed and lens opening, not always with good results. It's a learning process... Anyway, the pictures that turned out ok-ish are here.
More will be added when I develop the next film.
Thanks to going into the park in late afternoon, I was pretty much by myself, which made the atmosphere quite eerie and at dusk all the jungle wildlife awoke, monkeys started howling and throwing shit at me, some weird rodent thing was running around and all the birds went wild.
The night was full of bugs. I had met a sister and brother from USA, who were also camping and when we returned to the campsite in the dark, giant grasshoppers and other bugs had been attracted by their white mosquito nets. A brown spider with blue mandibles had made its net right next to it. Full of anticipation I went to my campsite, but as all my equipment is in dark colours not even a cockroach was around. I climbed into my hammock, but did not sleep a lot as I was unused to it and kept being afraid of it coming down or me falling out. I heard the next morning that the brother had not slept at all, as he did not know the scream of the howler monkey and thought wild animals were about to attack. The howler monkey does have an impressive scream. At 4:30 we set out to see the sunrise from the highest pyramid (with a view on the main plaza). It is quite an experience to be sitting on top of a pyramid in the dark jungle and slowly hearing all the animals wake up, making out the ruins through the morning fog. Definitely worth the camping. Plus the next day, after walking around in Tikal some more I went back to Flores, finishing the day with a cold beer by the lake.
Going to GuatemalaMy bus was leaving at 6 in the morning to go to Rio Usumacinta, then by boat and then by bus on to Guatemala. For this reason, I ditched the partying Australians again and decided to go to bed early. Someone had left a kitten in a box under the stairs right in front of our room, I think just because it was not allowed inside, it did have some food and a blanket. But it was not happy, and let it be known loudly and consistently. After hours I gave up on sleeping and went to check on it, thinking that the box might have gotten wet as it was raining. It had wandered off into the jungle, not a good place for a few weeks old kitten, and it was very happy to see me, so I thought it might shut up if I let it sleep in my room. It insisted on sleeping on my face, which obviously was not helping me sleep. I gave up and wrapped it in one of my tops, going outside for some fresh air. I met an Irish guy who had been kicked out by his girlfriend and slept at the bus station. I listened to his woes a bit, tried to give him the cat and started pining for coffee. Of course nothing was open at 5:30, so I put the cat back in its box, got my stuff together and went to the bus. The Irish guy had been picked up by the still partying Australians and probably went to drink his troubles away, while I got on the bus to Guatemala. A bus ride, a boat ride and another bus ride later I was standing at the border, arguing with the official whether or not we have to pay an entrance fee (we don't, everyone in our bus knew that). The border was in the middle of nowhere, at some point the bus driver said if we insist on a receipt we have to walk to the next town (1 hour away) to get it, but he is not going to take us along, unless we pay. When we were all done, he went into the immigration office, getting his cut.
Welcome to Guatemala!
After the sleepless night I was desperate to arrive in Flores, all I knew about the town was that the bus ends there, there are a lot of hostels and it is a good place to go on to Tikal.
Imagine someone taking the nice historic centre of a town and putting it in the middle of a lake in the tropics, the lake being clean enough to swim in. Add some nice cafes on the promenade on the shore and people selling street food on the dock. Some little boats on the lake for good measure and.. you have Flores.
Welcome to Guatemala indeed!
Guatemala (around 12th of August to 22nd)Guatemala sounds awesome. I almost feel like I should see if I stay there for a while and work / volunteer. This is probably going to happen with every country I read about...
Maybe being there in the rainy season will make me change my mind, though
Things I likely will be doing there:
Antigua-Quetzaltenago (4 days)
In the highlands. I don't know if I have time for this, but this is the area, which sounds the prettiest to me (I don't like jungle very much and in Ghana preferred the highland region to it). And the two towns seem to be worth a visit, or even a longer stay. And there are active volcanoes nearby and a high risk for earthquakes (it is considered a miracle that Antigua still exists) So I should go there...
More Caves (I still love them, 2-3 days)
around Cobán there are caves (Grútas de Lanquín) which sound like a real adventure, one has to bring one's own flashlight, it is possible to get lost and there are thousand of bats. Oh and the caves are pretty and unspoilt. Bats are cool.
Paradise (Semuc Champey, 2-3 days)
the most beautiful spot in Nicaragua (says the LP), with the possibility of swimming in little pools in the jungle, hotpots, camping and just general postcard atmosphere
no way around that, I suppose, it is the most famous Maja ruin for a reason. I need to keep my tent with me, as it is possible to camp on site and avoid crowds plus being there at sunset as well as sunrise... Tikal is out of the way, though, so with time constraints it might drop out of the itinerary as I will be visiting ruins in Mexico and Honduras as well.
Buses go from Guatemala City to Copán Ruinas in Honduras, I should change money in El Florido (Honduras border town) as it is not possible in Copán? Sounds unlikely, but better save than sorry, I suppose.