The Girl Travels
A log of my recent adventures in Vietnam, Cambodia, Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Yesterday afternoon only Hannah, Ebony, Mark, Brandi, and I made it out for the volcano hike (and I only just barely made it...). Apparently after that long, crazy night, a lot of people weren´t in bed until 8AM, including Ben. He sent us off with a guide with almost no command of English. We drove about an hour and a half to a volcano that you actually can´t see from Antigua. After a very long, steep hike up what feels like a normal mountain, we came out on a cliff overlooking a field of dried lava, with the peak of the volcano rising beyond it. We were totally awestruck, and the guide was giddy that we were so amazed by it. Then, just when we thought it couldn´t get any better, he lead us out onto the lava. We climbed over sharp, steep rocks for at least the length of a football field. We felt intense heat coming out of the ground and at one point the guide threw some brush on a particularly hot area and it just burst into flame. He walked us all the way out to where two or three streams of lava were flowing (very, very slowly). We could walk in between them, and I thought my sneakers were going to melt... the heat coming out of the ground scorched my ankles and made my eyes tear. We got to see some dramatic lava movement, though, where a few large pieces fell over. It was definitely a huge highlight of the trip and well worth braving a hangover and four-hour´s sleep for. Who needs sleep anyway? I´ll sleep on the plane.
We spent so much time in the lava field that we literally ran back down the mountain... also, Brandi really had to use the bathroom and was not keen on 'el bano natural.' We had big plans for dinner... but then we all started dropping like flies. In the end, Katherine, Katie, Andrew, Mel, and Belinda all ordered pizza in Katherine and Katie´s room (again, the line was split between the 'oldies' and the 'newies'), Hannah and Ebony went to an Italian place, Nadia and Scott went to a Japanese place, and Mark, Brandi and I wimped out and veged in my room with more pizza and movies. At least this morning my room smelled like pizza instead of vodka and cigarettes.
I woke up a little early this morning to get some last-minute shopping and atmosphere in. I figured I really shouldn´t leave Guatemala without a little jade... so I bought a bunch. I have to head back to one of the shops again now to pick up a ring they are sizing for me.
The van picks me up at 11AM to take me back into Guatemala City and to the airport. None of us have high expectations for this airport... I just want my flight to be on time. I´m trying not to think about having to go back to work later this week, but this trip really relaxed me and re-energized me... for the next one!
Monday, May 28, 2007
I have nine - arms, feet, legs, hands, count them - NINE mosquito and other assorted flying/biting insect bites. Today is Malaria Pill Day (and, coincidentally, Memorial Day), and I´m almost excited to swallow that big, pink, acne-inducing pill.
The overnight bus to Guatemala City was uber-sketchy. While it was comfortable and air-conditioned, the driver kept stopping at these random checkpoints and then either leaving the bus idling as he had a cigarette, or honking the horn and having these random guys run out of the bushes and put mysterious sacks in the bottom of the bus. Boys and girls, this is how we smuggle illegal substances through Guatemala.
We got into Guatemala City around 6AM and this crazy van driver drove our group the 45 minutes to Antigua ('It´s necessary for him to take every turn that way,' Mark quipped as the van´s brakes squealed around yet another hairpin turn). We all passed out for another few hours, and then I met up with Hannah and Ebony for lunch and shopping.... I´ve purchased all of Antigua. At one point I made Brandi run with me back to the hotel so neither one of us would be sucked into buying yet another pair of earrings or beaded purse.
Antigua is a great little city. The streets are all cobblestone, the buildings are low and colorful, and beyond everything looms the three surrounding volcanoes, swallowed in mist and clouds. It´s so much cooler here - such a relief from Tikal the other day. There are markets everywhere, and also, tourists. Mark, Brandi and I are a little embarrassed by a lot of the American tourists - no matter the age, old and young alike, they are loud, obnoxious, refuse to try to speak any Spanish and get annoyed when shopkeepers don´t understand English... not all of them, but quite a few. Personally, I love that I´m understanding so much Spanish and am able to conduct transactions in Spanish. I feel like I get better and faster service... and Americans are always complaining about people coming to the U.S. who don´t understand English, so I´d rather not be a hypocrite.
Anyway, we had a crazy night last night. Despite the fact that it's 'winter' in this area, the bars are still pretty full. We had a nice dinner last night as a group, then most of us went out to a salsa bar called La Sala ('the living room'). Belinda made a few American friends - Joe and J.D., two medical students from Nebraska - so when the bar closed at 1AM, those three, me, Mel, Andrew, Katherine, Nadia, and Scott all went to the 'after hours' bar - literally, a barred window that looks out onto the street from which beer is sold. The streets were quiet, except for us and a surprising number of policemen. Our group walked back to the hotel together, Katherine and Mel went to bed, and we all hung out in my room until 3:30AM (when I got too tired and kicked them all out!). The hotel staff kept shushing us....
So Murphy´s Law - I couldn´t sleep this morning, so I went to this store where you can make international calls and tried to change my flight so I could stay another day, since almost everyone else is. That was way too expensive to do, though, so now I´m in a cute little cafe typing this and thinking about sitting in the park for a few minutes... or taking a nap. We are hiking up the volcano this afternoon... and then I´m not sure what´s on tap for our last night. I´m not sure we can handle another like the last one!
Everyone´s really awesome, despite all of the hassles of this trip. I kind of wish I could take them all back to New York with me... but my aparment´s too small. A few of them have plans to be in New York in the next year (Hannah, Nadia, Scott, Mark, Brandi), so hopefully we will get to meet up again! I really should do a tour of Australia, now that I know so many people there.
Oh, almost forgot, those funny Ozzies and their slang: I overheard Andrew telling someone, 'oy, Jaime, she´s cool as,' and all I could think was, cool as what? 'Cool as.' Fill in the blank.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
Belize to Guatemala: $30 to Leave, $10 to Get In
Sooo... not sure where I left off.
Our last night in Caye Caulker, a few of us went out to a bar on the end of the island owned by some American guy. Everyone went home around 10PM except me, Andrew, and Mel. We walked back into the main area and ran into three Americans - Caitlin, Scott, and Jay - and we all went to this little bar where they were doing karaoke. Andrew did a highly amusing ¨hard rock¨rendition of Michael Jackson´s ¨Beat It¨(video to come, oh yes), and then the American group convinced us to go to this other bar all the way down on the other end of the island (a 15-minute walk). It looked like a dark house from the outside, but upstairs was a bar with black lights and benches and swings all hanging from the ceiling. Up another flight was a great outdoor space.
We got kicked out of that bar at midnight (we weren´t naughty, it was just closing), said goodnight to the American group and ended up back at the karaoke bar, which was now a ¨dance party.¨ It wasn´t much of a party though - three or four overweight girls were dancing and the rest of us just watched and commented. We went home around 1:30AM, talked for a bit, and headed to bed.
While it was a great night, it turned out to be the wrong day for a hangover. After a very touch-and-go boat ride back to the mainland, we boarded the bus to Guatemala. Oh wait, did I say bus? I meant van. VAN WITH NO AIR CONDITIONING. We were stuffed into this thing with maybe five others who weren´t with our tour... it was the most miserable, uncomfortable, claustrophobic FIVE-HOUR journey of my life. It didn´t help that I didn´t have much breakfast and couldn´t really breathe through my stuffed nose and congested lungs. We were so shot from that journey that we all went back to the hotel around 10PM and collapsed. It really sucked... I wouldn´t mind Geckos adding another 25 bucks to the cost of the trip to find us or charter us a real bus with real, working A/C. I never thought I´d say this, but it seems like even Cambodia has quite the leg up on this place.
This morning we drove in a semi-air-conditioned van to the Mayan ruins at Tikal. Our local guide lead us through the jungle (yes, literally) to the sites. Every time I saw a sign that read, ¨Danger: Crocodiles¨or ¨No Pasar¨he was like, ¨Let´s go that way!¨ At one point we heard howler monkeys in the jungle and he wanted to show them to us. We walked through the jungle where there was not even the beginnings of a path... and two people walked out with bleeding feet from leaf-cutter ant bites.
The ruins were great though... I can´t even tell you how high I climbed and how scary it was at times. We saw a lot more monkeys, and a toucan as well. After about four hours, we were shot from all the heat, the climbing, the trekking, etc., and now we´re back in Flores... I´m hoping for a shower before we head onto the overnight bus to Antigua tonight because I am covered in dirt and dust from this morning. I don´t want to know what I smell like.
The last time I went on a trip like this, I wrote a lot about my roommate Carmen. You haven´t been hearing much about a roommate this trip because I don´t have one - usually. I was the last ¨single¨girl (i.e. not traveling with someone) to sign onto the tour, so in Cancun I got my own room. But remember that my name wasn´t originally on that list - Ben´s boss had to get the room for me. Well, when we went to Chetumal, it turns out that there wasn´t a room for me - or at least, not for me alone. Andrew is also traveling by himself, and there weren´t enough rooms available at the hotel, so we ended up in a room together (in hindsight, Ben should have shared a room with Andrew, but it was late and none of us were thinking of that at the time). The other girls on the trip all seem to adore and worship Andrew, so I figured he was a good and trustworthy guy, and that there were certainly worse roommate situations to be in (e.g. Shoshanna from Cambodia).
So we room together and it´s not a big deal because he was sick as a dog and was asleep 99% of the time I was in the room with him. We were leaving Chetumal for Belize early that morning anyway.
In Caye Caulker, we stayed in a small hotel with a view of the water. Due to some weird misunderstanding, Melanie, Belinda, Katie, and Katherine had to share one suite, I got my own room, and Andrew had to share with Ben. The problem was, the suite only had three beds - for four people. So I moved in with Mel in a room with one double and one single bed so that the remaining girls in the suite could have their own room.
We´ve been in Flores for a night, and both Andrew and I (and Ben, for that matter), got our own rooms. We´ll see what happens in Antigua.
Also, I totally got sick from that one night sharing the room with Andrew. Terrible cough, stuffy nose, sneezing, achy, the works. I had to mime coughing and sneezing for the woman in the farmacia so she could get me some (awful-tasting) medicine.
A bit more about Belize...
-Definitely the best food thus far on the trip
-The lady who did my laundry hung it out in her backyard to dry, so now my clothes smell like the sea and salt
-The medical clinic that they brought Brandi to after she fell ill the other day was literally a shack on stilts
-We woke up each morning to the sound of a parrot whistling at the ladies as they walked to the water
-There are little ants in the hotel rooms. Always. Everywhere. Every city, every country. I´ll be surprised when I don´t see them
-The Belize men love me (¨Hey shortyyyyyyyyy!¨)
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Sharks, Rays, and Barracudas - Oh My!
This morning we went on the most awesome snorkel trip to the reefs around Caye Caulker. After fitting us for equipment, we took a motorboat about ten minutes out and swam with nurse sharks, stingrays, etc. The Ozzies were freaking out about the rays, since all they could think about was how Steve Irwin died from being stung by a stingray, and those things were everywhere. Then we stopped at two other sites where we had free time to swim around the reefs on our own. I saw so many fish... at one point I was following a school of purple ones as they tried to get away from me - hehe. The corals were really beautiful and the fish were very cool - I couldn't believe how big some of them were. The whole experience kind of felt like flying over and eavesdropping in on little cities in the ocean. Brandi and Mark had an underwater camera, and I'm a little jealous that they got to take pictures of everything we saw.
On a side note, Brandi had to go to the hospital today because it looks like she got sunsick... she was very pale and lethargic after lunch today, and Ben had to run off and find a doctor for her. Thank god it's a small island!
Tomorrow we leave for Flores and Tikal in Guatemala. Today is our last beach day, which is probably a good thing. Even though I wore a t-shirt during the snorkeling, I still managed to burn the back of my legs and the lower part of my back. Five hours on the bus from Belize City to Flores tomorrow is not going to be much fun if I can't sit down!
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
More Belize Please
I haven't been able to get to a computer in a few days... but quite a lot has happened.
After an uneventful last night in Cancun, we boarded a three-hour bus to Tulum. There we saw the Mayan ruins and went to one of the loveliest beaches where we all just stood around in the water and got to know each other. Up until that moment in the water, I still really didn't feel a part of the group. The group is somewhat split up between the "oldies" (who have been on the tour together for twelve days) and the "newies," who joined the tour in Cancun. Katie and Katherine are part of the oldies, along with Andrew, Belinda, and Melanie. Sisters Hannah and Ebony (the only white girl on the planet with that name), and couples Nadia & Scott and Brandi & Mark round out the group. Our tour leader is Benjamin (Ben). Everyone is really great and really cool, even if the groups do split up sometimes along the oldie/newie line. The group is all Australian except for me, Mark, and Brandi (they're from Ohio), and Katherine, who's from England. And now that I think of it, technically Nadia is from New Zealand. Anyhoo.
So after the beach in Tulum, we boarded a bus to Chetumal, a city on Mexico's border with Belize. We had a late dinner, went to bed, then left this morning for Belize. Twelve of us shoved both our bags and ourselves into a small van that we drove across the border and into Belize City in. In Belize City we caught the water taxi to Caye Caulker - a bumpy 45-minute ride to a tiny and beautiful island out in the Caribbean. Our hotel is right across from the beach, though putting on the air conditioning adds another $30 U.S. to the bill... so we're praying for a cool night. We had a delicious lunch at Happy Lobster, then spent a good hour walking the island from end to end looking for a "good beach." The island doesn't have any sandy beaches, just a reinforced wall right before the water. The water is warm and beautiful though... naturally I'm already a bit burned and spent some serious pesos on aloe vera gel before we left Mexico.
I think the group is heading out tonight to experience the nightlife here... there are a lot of American and Australian tourists on the island, so that should be fun. I just dropped some laundry off with a woman down the road, and my fingers are crossed that I'm actually going to get it all back - a lot of the shops, restaurants, and stores appear to be run out of people's front yards. Also, it's not as cheap here as it was in Mexico.
Tomorrow morning we are going on a three-hour guided snorkeling trip to three different locations around the island. I think the afternoon is free - we may go back in the water or rent bikes or something. I have to look at my itinerary to see what's coming next - I've hardly bothered to look. I'm just really enjoying it out here and trying to relax after so many stressful weeks at work.
Monday, May 21, 2007
I often spend the last few weeks before a big trip like this imagining what the experience will be like - how cool my group will be, how awesome all the stuff I´m going to see will be, etc. There are a few things that don´t factor into these reveries: namely, disaster.
Oh come on, by now you know how much I love hyperbole. But a lot of what has happened in the last 24 hours was definitely not in the plan. My flight was fine, for the most part. We were delayed in Philadelphia for 40 minutes while the pilot went to look for the ¨necessary paperwork¨ in order to get the plane into Mexico, but other than that, things were running smoothly. I even made it to the gym Saturday morning for my long run! So I felt like a champ.
I finally get to Hotel Maria del Lourdes at 11:30PM and settle in for a long night of trying to ignore the incredibly loud air conditioner. I eventually put in some ear plugs and then slept through my alarm. I did make it onto the bus to Chichen Itza on time... barely. I made friends with the three guys from El Paso, Texas who were sitting next to me on the trip - Sergio, Guillermo, and Mario. The four of us hung out during most of the tour, and on the way home, they gave me their hotel name and room number in case I missed my tour group and was left alone for the night - since the group meeting was scheduled for 6:30 and I was definitely not back at the hotel until 8PM.
Well, thank God they did.
When I got to the hotel, they told me I had no reservation for that night. They did not have my name down on the list for the group. They barely spoke English. They didn´t understand the words ¨tour¨or ¨group.¨ It was eight o`clock, I was tired from a long day in the very hot sun, I hadn´t eaten since noon, I had to go to the bathroom... basically, all the makings of a totally ridiculous girly meltdown.
I almost forgot to mention Chichen Itza - really spectacular and amazing to see. You´re no longer allowed to climb up the main building (a woman fell and died not too long ago, and then they decided there was too much wear and tear from people going up there). There´s a lot of cool math and geometry built into the whole site, most of which centers around the number seven. Go look it up.
Anyway - back to me, in tears, at the front desk, being told I had to wait for the tour guide to get back from wherever he was because they weren´t going to give me a room.
So after losing it and yelling at the guy behind the desk (¨I have a f**king reservation!¨), I grabbed my things and sat in the hot lobby, searching for a Geckos emergency number. After trying to call them in Australia (and by the way, I´m very lucky that my phone has service down here, even if it is roaming), but finally realizing there was definitely a number missing, I found an after-hours number for someone in Mexico. I called, someone answered in English, and I immediately started crying. I couldn´t help it. I was just done. It felt like the worst night ever. He immediately assured me that there had been a paperwork mix-up, that he would call the hotel, and that everything would be sorted out in the morning. He called, the guy behind the desk came over all apologetic (and I was too, and now we´re best buds), and I got my room. Whew.
But now, I was all fired up. I called the guys at their hotel and we met up at a taco place. They treated me to dinner, ordering in Spanish for me (and real tacos are so much better than what Old El Paso sells), and then we went out to all of the ridiculous bars in Cancun. I didn´t get the incredibly-short-denim-miniskirt memo, thank God, though every other girl did. I saw so much underwear! Really, it should be illegal to drink and wear skirts that short at the same time. We bounced around to some of the more touristy places (painfully loud music, forced shots, confetti, ole!), and then I left them around 2:30AM and took a taxi back to my hotel. The last I saw them, Guillermo was trying to coax some girls into dancing with him on the stage, Mario was all cool and collected, and Sergio was giving me sad puppy eyes for leaving. BTW, that whole hipster/cool glasses/trucker hat thing that everyone in Brooklyn is trying so hard to do? Guillermo had the look down pat, and it was kind of refreshing not to see someone trying so hard to be cool.
Anyway, I´d left a note for the tour guide at the front desk of the hotel, but they told me that he still hadn´t returned by the time I got home. This morning, I got dressed for the beach. This is Cancun, for heaven´s sake. When I came downstairs, I started asking the girl at the front about my tour, but she didn´t know any English. It turns out my tour guide, Benjamin, was sitting at the internet terminal. I can´t tell you the waves of relief that I felt. I like traveling alone to these places, but I don´t like being alone while I´m here. There´s not much point in experiencing a new country if there´s no one to share it with. He and I had breakfast together at the hotel and we actually ran into two girls on the tour - Katie and Katherine - who are also interested in going to the beach today.
And that´s my incredibly long and detailed first day and a half in Cancun.
UPDATE: Never made it to the beach, but I got plenty of sun from walking around downtown Cancun today. My task for the evening is to convince people to go out... it is SO BORING in my room!
Monday, May 14, 2007
I've been a little remiss about writing about my trip preparations this time around... though they didn't involve much more than remembering to pack more tops than I did for Vietnam and Cambodia and to have my doctor write me another prescription for some preventative malaria pills (Side effect = acne. Joy.)
Per the usual I'll try to post as often as I can, but I don't know that I'll have the kind of constant internet access I had in Asia. I have a feeling they're a bit more tech-savvy vs. Central America. Anyway, here's where I'm going and what I'm doing:
Day 1: Chichen Itza
I paid for a day trip to Chichen Itza, some famous Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula. I return around the same time my tour group will be having its initial meeting, so I've yet to figure out how to convince them to wait for me to shower before they run off to do things. Perhaps one whiff of my sweaty, sunburned body will be enough.
[Note, the rest of this itinerary was taken right off the website.]
Day 2: Cancun
Cancun, situated on the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula - is renowned for its nearby beautiful Caribbean beaches and stunning Mayan Ruins, not to mention some of the finest diving and snorkeling sites in the world. Our Cancun hotel is located about 40 minutes away from the oasis beach of Playa del Carmen.
Day 3: Tulum - Chetumal
We have an early start this morning, taking the bus to Tulum. Here we visit the spectacular Mayan ruins. Perched on a cliff top, their setting is stunning. We explore these superb ruins with the help of a local guide, and then continue on to Chetumal where we spend the night.
Days 4 - 5: Caye Caulker
Today we arrive in Belize City, and then board a speedboat to the palm-fringed island of Caye Caulker. Situated only 33 kilometres north of Belize City, the island is just seven kilometres from north to south and home to the world's second largest barrier reef. Coconut palms will provide us with shade, while mangroves cover much of the shore. Our time is our own here to relax and enjoy all that this lovely sand-island has to offer. Some of the most exciting diving and snorkeling in the world is at your fingertips, as well there is the opportunity for discovering some amazing underwater caves. There is an abundance of superb tropical fish and coral reefs just waiting to be explored, or you may want to simply relax on a deck chair on the beach.
Days 6 - 7: Flores - Tikal Ruins
This morning we return to Belize City by speedboat and continue south to Guatemala and the small picturesque town of Flores, our gateway to the ancient city of Tikal – the deserted Mayan ruins in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle. Arriving at Flores, we enter one of the most scenic towns in the Peten, the island in the middle of Lake Peten Itza, with its cobble-stoned streets and brightly coloured houses. From here we embark upon our trek to the largest excavated Mayan Ruin site in the Americas. We penetrate the jungle of El Peten to visit the temples of the monumental ceremonial centre located in the midst of the immense Tikal National Park. As we approach, the lofty pyramids can be seen climbing high above the jungle’s leafy canopy. Passing beneath the rich rainforest and dense jungle vegetation, we are immersed in some spectacular jungle sounds: riotous parrots, toucans, macaws, tree frogs and howler monkeys offer a cacophonous backdrop to our trek to the ruins. Settled around 700BC by the Maya, the surviving temples of the resplendent and powerful city are rich examples of the Late Classic period. We pass through the sacred causeways to the main plaza and the central area with its five main temples, the scale of some climbing to over 50 metres. Beyond this, we have the option of wondering endlessly through the labyrinth of smaller uncovered structures and outlying complexes nestled within the dense jungle growth. If you have energy to spare, you can climb to the peak of Temple IV and take in the spectacular views. Or simply rest at the main plaza and marvel at the Mayan engineering of one of the most impressive archaeological religious sites yet discovered. On our final evening we board the overnight bus bound for Antigua.
Days 8 - 9: Antigua
Antigua is a small town that has a history plagued not with violence, but natural disaster. Antigua was established as the country's capital around 1541. After a great earthquake destroyed the city in 1773, the capital was transferred to present-day Guatemala City. The town slowly re-populated while maintaining its traditional character, architecture and cobblestone streets. In 1799 the city was re-named La Antigua Guatemala and in 1979 it was declared a world-heritage site. Much of Antigua’s architecture was constructed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. No expense was spared, and much of the magnificent architecture from this period remains today.
The setting of Antigua Guatemala is stunning. Amongst the oldest and most beautiful town in the Americas, it lays nestled in a valley dwarfed by three magnificent volcanoes. Volcano Fuego lights up the night sky with a red glow that can be seen from afar. We enjoy a walking tour of the city with our leader, and climb one of the nearby volcanoes.
Day 10: Antigua
Tour ends. I land at LaGuardia around midnight.