Caye Caulker, Belize – Impressions

Belize is a small country on the edge of the Yucatan peninsula. Unlike the countries that surround it, where they speak spanish, Belize’s primary language is english. After a year in spanish speaking countries where I couldn’t fully understand the everyday conversations around me, on arriving in an english speaking country it was a little overwhelming. It was like suddenly being able to read the thoughts of everyone around you.

As I’m nearing the end of my Latin American journey, I’ve chosen to spend only three days in Belize and all of that time on the island of Caye Caulker. Thirty kilometres from Belize City by water taxi, Caye Caulker was made popular by hippies travelling through the area in the 1970s. Since then the tourism industry along the coast has blossomed.

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On first impressions, arriving in Caye Caulker feels like arriving in Jamaica. There’s a strong reggae groove, plenty of locals with dreadlocks wearing rastafarian style clothing and that familiar accent: ‘yeh mon,’ and ‘want some gunga mon.’

One end of the eight kilometre long island is criss-crossed with white sand roads while the other is still claimed by mangroves. There is an estimated 40 hotels, hostels and boarding houses on the island, with fresh fish on the menu of the many waterfront restaurants.

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One of the more popular activities in the region is diving with divers hoping to swim in the infamous Great Blue Hole, an underwater sinkhole 300 metres across and 124 metres deep.

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But as I don’t dive, I chose to snorkel along the Great Barrier Reef and in Shark Alley. So, booking a tour, I set out with a group of fellow snorkelers for a day in the sun on a boat. And what a day it was… We began in Hol Chan marine reserve where the fish knew our arrival meant feeding time. Schools of large fish swum around the boat as our guide took us on a swim around the reef, spying a lone barracuda, sea turtles and even managing to lure a Moray Eel out from its hole in the rocks.

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Along shark alley the Nurse sharks came looking for food. There were probably a dozen of them, some more than three metres long. We were able to ‘pet’ one of them although their scales felt hard to the touch. Then came the Eagle Rays, allowing us to write our names upon their back.

A german girl in a bikini, I mean, a friendly three metre Nurse shark swimming past.

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Back on the island, there are several ways to get around. Most people hire cycles and ride around the unsealed, potholed sandy roads but I chose to hire a golf cart, the only powered land vehicle on the island.

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With my ‘wheels’, I toured the quieter end of the island where there were only a few secluded homes and hotels among the plentiful mangroves.

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Overall, Caye Caulker is a great place to spend a few days if you like water activities, seafood, partying or just hanging around with well-tanned beach clad people.

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Next I head into Mexico, my final Latin American country as I follow the trail of the Mayan Ruins.

The World Wanderer

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Flores, El Petén, Guatemala – Impressions

Why the northern province of Guatemala between Mexico and Belize looks like Bart Simpson’s head is anyone’s guess…

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But about where Bart’s eye would be is a lake called Lago de Petén Itzá. And on that lake is the island of Flores.

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Connected to the mainland by a causeway, Flores is a popular tourist destination with plentiful hotels, hostels, restaurants and bars. The island isn’t that large and is easily walked around in about ten minutes, but unfortunately before my arrival substantial rains had caused the lake’s level to rise, flooding the road that runs around the island in several places.

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But flooded or not, water taxis transport locals and tourists alike from the island to many locations including the small colourful settlements around the edges of the lake…

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You can also visit the small island of Santa Barbara which holds the local museum, which was unfortunately also flooded when I arrived.

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On one side of the lake is a lookout, which after a stiff climb provides impressive views of both the island of Flores and other portions of the lake.

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A short Tuk Tuk ride from Flores is Las Cuevas Actun Kan, a natural system of caves being set up as a tourist attraction. When I visited the complex, which stretch through many caverns both large and small, I was the only one there. The silence underground and the sometimes misleading signs had me walking in circles, which I’m sure would be nerve-wracking for some, but something I thoroughly enjoyed as I eventually navigated my way out.

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But Flores isn’t the primary reason most people come to this part of Guatemala. Barely an hour by bus north of Flores in the depths of the jungle is Tikal, a set of Mayan temples and ruins dating back before the birth of Christ.

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I chose to take a tour beginning at lunchtime and ending well after dark, walking for several kilometres to various structures in the spread out complex that once housed around ninety thousand people.
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The tour also included encounters with spider monkeys and this cute little guy, a tarantula…

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Then as it began to grow dark we climbed one of the pyramids to watch the sun set across the jungle and the monumental temples rising from the trees.

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The many temples are a wonder to behold and add to the rich history of Latin America in a similar way as the ruins of Macchu Pichu in Peru, Incapirca in Ecuador and Ciudad Perdida in Colombia.

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My visit to Tikal is the first in a series of Mayan ruins I plan to visit in my last weeks in Latin America.

Next, I travel to the island of Caye Caulker in Belize.

The World Wanderer.

San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala – Impressions

Four hours west of Antigua is Lake Atitlán, the deepest lake in Central America. It was formed 84,000 years ago when a massive volcano collapsed in on itself. There are still three lava filled mounds running along the southern flank of the picturesque lake as part of Volcano Alley.

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Of the dozen communities surrounding the lake, of which Santiago Atitlán is the largest, many are not reachable by road.

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San Pedro la Laguna was the community I chose to visit, but it’s no less touristy than Santiago Atitlán. San Pedro la Laguna has a defined hippy feel to it. Many of the younger locals and long-term visitors not only run art stalls, but in general sport loose-fitting tie-dyed clothing, bare feet, dreadlocks and tattoos. This was due to an influx of ‘hippies’ into the area in the 1960s from the US.

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The streets of San Pedro la Laguna are thin and most don’t accommodate cars or larger vehicles. This leaves the constant sounds of Tuk Tuks and motorbikes zooming about.

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As a quieter means to see some of the sites of the lake I rented a horse and guide…

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We rode for several hours away from the Tuk Tuk horns and the tourists to take in some of the more picturesque sites…

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And of course, no view of the lake would be complete without a volcano in the background… Volcán San Pedro.

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After a couple of days relaxing on the lake, I head back to Antigua to plan my trip north to the township of Flores and the Mayan ruins of Tikal.

The World Wanderer

Antigua, Guatemala – Impressions

Nestled under Volcán de Agua in the Guatemalan highlands is the colonial city of Antigua. The city was once capital of Guatemala but has had a rocky history, literally. In 1717 an earthquake destroyed 3000 buildings, then in 1783 another earthquake decimated more of the city, causing those in power to move the capital to the safer Guatemala City.

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Because of its location Antigua is a hub to explore Guatemala, with Guatemala City only 45km to the east, the port of San Jose on the Pacific coast an hour south and Lago Atitlan to the west. For those keen enough, a long shuttle ride to the famous Mayan ruins of Tikal far to the north of the country can be organised.

Volcán de Agua…

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The streets themselves are cobbled. But not the perfect jigsaw of cobbles seen in some modern streets, instead a crazy mash of rounded stones that make driving on them in Tuk Tuks a bumpy experience. The city is flat, however, so unless you’re carrying a lot of baggage or just lazy, walking is the best way to get around.

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Beyond climbing the volcano it’s the scattered colonial buildings and churches that draw the most interest in the city. While some of the old churches survived the earthquakes…

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… some were not so lucky although still usable.

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Those that didn’t fare so well have been cordoned off and for good reason.

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The city does have a touristy feel about to it and because of this it’s more expensive than other places in Guatemala. Around the central park there are many fine restaurants and bars. And for the first time in Central America, a working fountain!

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Next I head west to San Pedro la Laguna on the shores of Lago Atitlan.

The World Wanderer

León, Nicaragaua – Impressions and Volcano Boarding

León Nicaragua’s second largest city and was at one point the country’s capital. However, in the 1840s and 50s the capital changed back and forth between León and Granada depending on the political regime at the time. Eventually the capital moved to the city of Managua between the two other cities.

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León is similar to Granada in that there’s a large tourist element. While Granada has its central park with a long road of restaurants and bar stretching down to the lake, León bars, restaurants and cafés dot the city, almost hidden among the markets and shops.

The centre point of the city is the cathedral but at present it doesn’t appear well maintained.

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The building is, however, being restored from the roof down. Tourists are able to climb to the newly refurbished rooftop to see the transformation.

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There are several other churches around the city and many are all need of restoration. From the roof of the cathedral there’s a good view across the city and along volcano alley. The shorter dark mound on the left is Nicaragua’s newest volcano and the location of León’s most popular outdoor activity.

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Volcano Boarding
Birthed in the 1850s the small volcano has caused much distress for León, but has also provided the city with a source of tourism – Volcano Boarding.

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The volcano is only 750m high and made primarily from small rocks and black sands. The summit is inaccessible by vehicle, so getting to the top means climbing though the shifting sands with the volcano board on your back and a bag containing overalls, gloves and goggles. The ascent takes only 45 minutes and climbs through the old crater where stains of sulphur surround smouldering rocks.

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From the top there are magnificent views of the surrounding area, including a view to the Pacific coast and along volcano alley.

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We waited for another group to go down slowly before we donned out red overalls and got our 5 minute training lesson. Then our guide waited for us half way down with camera at the ready. One at a time we pushed over the lip and began the slide down, trying not to collect stones as we went. The first part is moderately steep and allows momentum to be built…

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Then about half way down it gets steeper. The quickest time riding on boards is 93 km/h for men and 80 km/h for women. I managed a meagre 60 km/h and even that was exhilarating. The sand dust flowing behind adds a good effect.

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Then at the bottom we are back in the 4WD given a beer and driven back to town.

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Good dirty fun and even though we wore overalls, the dirt and stones get everywhere.

Next, I head north to Guatemala and the colonial city of Antigua.

The World Wanderer

Granada, Nicaragua – Impressions

Situated at the northern end of Lake Nicaragua, the city of Granada claims to be the first city in mainland America settled by Europeans. And while it’s inland and close to the Pacific Ocean it’s still considered a Caribbean port city. This is due to Lake Nicaragua being accessible from the Caribbean Sea by the San Juan river, which runs along the Costa Rican. Indeed, this was the path taken by Caribbean pirates on three separate occasions to attack the city.

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Like many Latin American cities, Granada has dual natures. There is the classic touristy area which sees influxes of people from the US during the northern winter months. Then only a couple of blocks from the tourist centre is the poor market quarter with ramshackle stalls lining the streets.

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The tourist area begins in the city’s central square which is a well maintained plaza area two blocks long, with cafe’s at each corner.

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Across from the square is the cathedral.

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Alongside the cathedral there is a long tourist road, with six blocks of bars and restaurants in hope of catching the tourist dollar.

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Because of the road’s length, it’s not uncommon to see a horse-drawn carriage laden with tourists traversing it…

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…past a not so well maintained church…

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…to Córdoba Plaza celebrating the city’s founder…

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…to end at the Lake Nicaragua where ferries leave for Isla de Ometepe twice a week.

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A visit to Granada wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Nicaragua’s most active volcano, Volcán Masaya. While it’s fairly short for a volcano at 600m above sea level, it’s one of 19 volcanoes that make up Nicaragua’s volcano alley. Volcán Masaya weeps acrid smoke constantly from its crater.

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The land around the volcano shows plentiful signs of the devastation it has caused over the years. Around the main crater there are four other craters that were once active, but have since closed over.

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Often a trip to the crater at night gives the sight of glowing lava in the crater, but with the lack of wind at sundown, the fumes made it too dangerous to get close enough. Nearby there is, however, a large lava tunnel over 200 metres long which is now inhabited by several varieties of bats.

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With about twenty of us walking into the caves the bats get stirred and you can see them flying about and whipping past your ears. It’s exhilarating for those of us who love bats, but terrifying for those that who don’t.

This is but a small section of things that can be done in and about Granada.

Next I’m off to the city of Léon in northern Nicaragua to slide down the black sands of a volcano on a snowboard…

The World Wanderer

Volcán Concepción, Nicaragua

The towering cone of Volcán Concepción on Isla Ometepe looks imposing when crossing Lake Nicaragua towards it. The closer the perspective, the more intimidating the peak, which usually has a cap of cloud atop it…

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But on the rare occasion when the clouds do disappear the full cone is visible in all it’s splendour. This was how it was the day before we were due to climb it.

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When looking to climb one of the two volcanos on Isla de Ometepe, I’d decided on Volcán Maderas, Volcán Concepción’s little sister. I was told that both volcanoes take the same amount of time to climb, but Volcán Maderas was muddier and less fun. So, eight of us from the hostel booked Volcán Concepción instead. We hoped for another beautifully clear day but we were to have no such luck.

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We met our guide during breakfast in the town of Moyogalpa and caught a chicken bus for 20 minutes to the trailhead where we began walking along the trail strewn with rocks and sand.

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We followed the track for 30 minutes, stopping to peer up at a group of Howler Monkey’s in the trees. It’s amazing how much noise these small monkeys actually make.

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The trail abruptly became steeper and our climb began. The trail began fairly steeply through the trees on roots and dirt steps. While the climb wasn’t overly hard, it seemed harder because of the humidity. We stopped regularly for 5-minute breaks, although there were no views available through the trees.

The only forewarning we had of coming to the tree line was the cool wind, a godsend in the humidity. When we did break the tree line we emerged into the clouds which again obscured our view. We stopped in a windy spot to decide our next course of action and managed to get a cloudy shot of the island below us.

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Then came the difficult decision: continue climbing to the top covered in cloud the entire time with no visibility or head down to a more scenic viewpoint. We decided to climb a little further but after ten minutes and being battered by cold winds in the dense clouds we turned back, deciding to take the scenic path instead. This upset two of the climbers, both of whom wanted to get to the top no matter what.

We followed a thin trail around the side of the volcano and dropped below the cloud line to a point where we could finally get some decent photographs of the island below and the lake around it.

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We continued climbing around to a large crack running down the volcano where lava had flowed years earlier. We took a break on the hardened lava.

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The lower we climbed, the more the mainland of Nicaragua could be seen on the other side of the lake and beyond that in the distance, the Pacific Ocean.

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As we neared the bottom, we looked back up the great crack in the side of the mountain.

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And because we hadn’t come back down the same way we’d climbed, we had to walk ninety minutes back across the island to Moyogalpa.

Overall, the hike was not as difficult as expected, although it may have grown more so had we pushed on through the clouds to the top. I’m not unhappy to not have made it to the top, as without pictures it would have been an empty victory.

The Lone Trail Wanderer