Friday, July 24, 2009

Summer travels: Into Honduras (part 4)

As Dan and I were traveling through Guatemala, we were not sure if we would make it to Honduras because of the political situation...but we met several travelers who had come from there, and they felt that it was completely safe. We also were scheduled to fly home from Roatan, so ultimately we decided to go for it! We took a bus from Rio Dulce to the border, and arrived in Copan Ruinas on a warm afternoon. We were greeted with hammocks and iced tea at Casa de Cafe B&B,...so far, so good! I spent a lot of time lounging in the hammock, reading, and admiring the garden and view of the Guatemalan hills.

Our room at Casa de Cafe B & B
Idyllic Casa de Cafe B&B

View of Guatemala hillside
Guatemalan hills

We ate yummy pupusas at Comedor Mary's and wandered around the cobblestone streets of town. After a delicious breakfast the next morning with Francesca the kitty, we walked to the Mayan ruins site of Copan, where there are many impressive and intricate carvings, and tall trees growing out of the piles of stones. We also saw brilliant scarlet macaws and capybara-like critters at the entrance to the site.

Stela & hieroglyphic staircase
Stela & hieroglyphic staircase

Skull & hieroglyphics
Skulls & glyphs

Dan & large head
Big head

Huge foot at Copan
Big foot

Dan & animal altar
Watch out!

Sleepy carving at Copan
Nap time

After more hammocking and relaxing in the garden, and another tasty breakfast the next morning, we planned to take a morning bus to San Pedro Sula, then catch a plane to the island of Roatan. Not so fast! The bus did not leave because of road closures...due to demonstrations...and it was not clear when the roads would re-open. After some sulking on my part (it was my birthday) and several calls by the B&B owners, we learned an afternoon bus was departing, so we got on it while we had the chance. Unfortunately there were no more flights that day, instead we took another bus to La Ceiba, spent the night, and took the ferry to Roatan the next morning. So we spent a lot more time traveling than I would have liked, and missed a day of fun...but we arrived at our destination safely! A delicious lobster avocado salad lunch at the Lighthouse cheered me up considerably.

View from the Lighthouse
View from the Lighthouse restaurant


It was really hot and humid on the island. After lunch we went snorkeling in Half Moon Bay, where we saw lots of fish, conches, and a hawksbill turtle! I love sea turtles.

Half Moon Bay, Roatan
Half Moon Bay

It was nice to relax and enjoy the view of the Carribean as the sun set outside our room at Luna Beach, especially after all the effort to get there! Then we walked down the beach to the Lobster Pot, where I had grilled shrimp in rum butter sauce for dinner...yum! They also served homemade key lime pie on the house. It was my new favorite restaurant.

Luna Beach Resort
Luna Beach

Sunset our first night on Roatan
Sun setting over Carribean

The next morning we took a water taxi to West Bay, which is a beautiful beach. It was so quiet...very few travelers...and this was during the high season. We went snorkeling in the bay; the coral seemed healthier here than in Half Moon Bay. We saw more fish, and about ten little squid all hanging out in a neat row...so cute! During our lunch on the beach, we saw an impressive display of balance...a woman walking with a cooler on her head!

Glass bottom boat in West Bay
West Bay

West Bay, Roatan
Turquoise & blue

Walking in West Bay
Balancing act

Later in the afternoon we went out with a dive boat and snorkeled some more...the water is much choppier out there! In one spot there was a huge school of fish...seemed like hundreds...it was amazing to be so close to so many. It was also neat to see the divers go overboard and descend into the deep waters. I'm still too scared to dive though!

After watching the sunset from the dock, we returned to the Lobster Pot, where Dan and I treated ourselves to surf 'n turf (steak and lobster!) for our last dinner of the trip. And more key lime pie! The people at the restaurant were so nice. Dan asked to see the menu after discovering they serve breakfast...but then found out the restaurant is closed on Sunday! So we bought a loaf of their delicious coconut bread, and they gave us a jar of homemade mango jam to eat with it! We really enjoyed our time in Honduras, and hope the political situtation is resolved peacefully...and soon. The livelihood of so many people on the island depends on tourism. We were glad we were able to visit, and hope that others can too.

We had a wonderful trip on our first visit to Central America, but it was great to come home to the foggy city by the bay!

Summer travels: Jungle & river (part 3)

Our journey through Guatemala continues...there was a beautiful mist covering the treetops our last morning in the Verapaz mountains...

Mist in the morning
Misty green in the morning

Dan and I made our way north to the jungle of Peten, taking a "shuttle" that involved first riding a pick-up truck through the twisty-turny, bumpy, muddy roads to Lanquin, where we switched to a van with more passengers...then we actually backtracked to Coban, which we had visited days earlier...argh! But after that, the driver went very, very fast...one of our fellow travelers called the ride "terrifying," and I would have to agree. But we arrived safely, and it was nearly dusk when Dan and I walked to the shore of Lake Peten Itza in El Remate.

Blue of Lake Peten Itza
Shades of blue

There were people swimming in the lake, and we went for a dip before dark as well...the water was quite warm.

Swimming in Lake Peten Itza
Swimmers in the lake

The next morning we went to Tikal, where walked through the jungle and climbed several tall Mayan ruins.

A pyramid at Tikal
Tall pyramid in the Gran Plaza

Other pyramids at Tikal
Pyramids in the jungle

Carol at Tikal
Atop a pyramid, more in the distance

Even more exciting, we saw toucans! One toucan turned its head from side to side, showing off its colorfull bill...it was so cute! We also saw monkeys swinging in the treetops, oscillated turkeys pecking on the ground, and many Montezuma's oropendolas with their bright yellow tail feathers and long, woven nests hanging from the tree branches.

After a big rainstorm in the afternoon, we walked along the shore of Lake Peten Itza, looking for birds and other wildlife. Other than the occasional rooster crowing and motorcycle speeding by, it is very quiet and serene.

Horses on Lake Peten Itza
Horses by the lake

Lake Peten Itza
Palapa on a pier

The next morning we headed south to Rio Dulce, near the Carribean coast. Many lodges and hotels are located along the river, where fancy boats are docked as well...we stayed in a bungalow at Tortugal.

Rio Dulce
Rio Dulce

Tortugal
Approaching Tortugal from the water taxi

The afternoon we arrived, we took a bus from town to the hot springs at Finca El Paraiso. A guide showed us the way through the forested trails to the source of the hot springs...there had been rain in recent days, so the river was silty and not a beautiful emerald green...but the hot springs were still amazing...waterfalls of hot water flowing over a cave into the cold water of the river. The guide pointed above the waterfall, where there were pools of hot water, so we climbed up the rocks over the cave to soak in the hot pools...it started to rain, and we could smell the sulfur in the air...I also heard bats squeaking in the cave...it was so fun!

Carol & Dan at Finca el Paraiso
Refreshed from the hot springs

We saw a lot of cattle and banana plantations on the bus ride back to town. Dan was reading Bananas: How The United Fruit Company Shaped the World on our trip, so it was interesting to actually see the reality...in some places, bananas as far as the eye can see.

The next morning we took a boat trip down the Rio Dulce to the coastal town of Livingston. On the way we passed Castillo de San Felipe, an island where egrets and cormorants nest, lots of water lilies, local fisherman's boats, and we soaked in another spot where hot springs flow into the river...ahhh...

Rio Dulce
Shades of green

We had lunch in Livingston, where we tried the local specialty tapado, a coconut seafood stew, with plantains, crab, fish, and big shrimp... sooo yummy!

Dan eating tapado
Big bowl of yumminess

We walked around town after lunch and saw kids playing soccer on the beach. We also got coconut bread, coconut cookie bars, and coconut popsicles...then, after the boat ride back, we cooled off with a swim outside Tortugal.

Kids playing soccer in Livingston
Soccer by the Carribean

Carol eating coconut popsicle
Yay, a popsicle shop!

Dan swimming in Rio Dulce
Dan swimming in Rio Dulce

We enjoyed Rio Dulce, but it was time to move on...next up, crossing the border to Honduras!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Summer travels: Las Verapaces (part 2)

Continuing on our journey through Guatemala...Dan and I took a "chicken bus" from Santiago Atitlan to Guatemala City. Waiting for the bus to leave, we saw piles of avocados in the streets of the village...so many avocados!

Avocados
Mmm...avocado...

For those of you who may not know, chicken buses are the primary mode of transportation for many Guatemalans. They are old schoolbuses painted bright colors, and they are notoriously fast. I was so enthralled by the avocados that I did not think to take a photo of the shiny red and yellow one we rode. Dan and I heard various statistics...every month a bus goes off a cliff...on average a chicken bus driver is shot monthly...luckily we heard these stories after we rode the chicken bus. (Also, they are known as chicken buses because one may encounter chickens riding on the bus. This happened to us twice, both times it was a box of chirping chickies.) After three hours of more twisty-turny roads, a miracle drug sales pitch, passing by many coffee plantations and corn fields, with lively music the entire way, we arrived in Guatemala City, and rode the Muni (really!) to the bus station for the first-class bus (former Greyhound) to the mountain town of Coban. Finally, we arrived at Casa Duranta, where the rooms surround a beautiful courtyard garden.

Casa Duranta
Outside our room

Garden at Casa Duranta
Pretty courtyard

While in Coban, Dan and I visited the Finca Santa Margarita coffee plantation. We saw different varieties of coffee plants and tasted ripe coffee berries during the tour...they are sweet! We also learned what cardomam plants look like, crushed allspice leaves to release the aroma, saw coffee beans being roasted, enjoyed a tasty cup of coffee, and even played with a dashchund! The farm also had two pet peccaries, who did a mutual double-nuzzle that was so cute.

Finca Santa Margarita
Shade-grown coffee

Dan and I explored the town a bit, and climbed a great many steps up to the old temple to see the view of the city. There was a large group of local people gathered outside the temple...not sure why, but we felt like we were intruding, so we headed back down the steps. Dan spotted a Logitech logo outside a shop, so he had to get a picture!

View of Coban
View of Coban from atop the steps

Logitech in Coban
Dan and Logitech logo

In the afternoon we went to the orchid nursery just outside of town, Vivero Verapaz...their collection includes hundreds of orchids native to Guatemala. Most of them bloom between November and February, but we did see some incredibly teeny-tiny orchids...you care barely see the flower! So amazing. There also were several tall pink bromeliads growing on the trees that Dan had never seen before.

From Coban, we took yet another twisty-turn bus ride to Semuc Champey. It was a bumpy ride too, though the views of the lush green hills of the Verapaces were quite lovely. And we saw many, many cornfields in the hills. The Guatemalans seem to grow corn in every available space possible.

We stayed in a cabin at Hostal El Portal, which overlooks the Rio Cahabon. Many of the travelers staying there enjoyed jumping off the bridge into the river...it is a long way down. I wanted to, but was a scaredy-cat. Dan jumped though! The local boys also jumped off, and one little boy named Julio who was selling chocolate was especially impressive...he was so quick and nimble climbing up a tree to get back up to the bridge from the river. Many children in the area sell chocolate that their families have made...we even saw a cacao plant at the entrance of El Portal. I had four round bars during our stay...flavored with cardomam, cinnamon, or vanilla...the chocolate had a slightly grainy texture from the cacao nibs and sugar. So yummy.

Hostal El Portal
Our cabin on the left, bridge in the background

Cacao tree near Semuc Champey
Big pink cacao beans

We heard some other travelers discussing a cave tour the afternoon we arrived, so we decided to join them on a tour of the river-filled caves of K'anba. We were each given a candle, and waded through water to enter the cave. We climbed up and down the rock formations, behind a waterfall, and swam along the way...seeing incredible stalactites and the rushing water of the Rio Cahabon, as well as an occasional bat! It was an unforgettable experience.

The next morning we hiked up a steep, muddy trail to the lookout point, and saw the limestone pools of Semuc Champey, surrounded by the lush green cloudforest...such a lovely setting. The water from Rio Cahabon flows over the pools, as well as through a cave underneath the pools. We walked down to the first series of pools, where we saw the rushing water beneath the limestone caves. Then we made our way through the pools, swimming and jumping from pool to pool...so fun! At the end of the pools, Dan climbed down a rope ladder through a waterfall into the cave beneath, but I was too scared. He actually went underneath Semuc Champey...so amazing!

Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey from the lookout

Fast flowing Rio Cahabon
Fast-flowing Rio into the cave

Close-up of the pools
Each pool flows down to another layer

More pools
Another pool close-up

Dan and I both loved Semuc Champey, and thought the long haul to get there was worth it. We enjoyed the communal meals and meeting fellow travelers...it would have been nice to stay longer, but it was time for our next destination...the jungle of Peten comes up next!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Summer travels: Antigua & Lake Atitlan (part 1)

I am back in the foggy city after nearly three weeks in Central America! Dan and I went to Guatemala and Honduras for the first time...our friends who have visited both places gave rave reviews, so I decided we should go...I planned the trip as a distraction during the hovel horridness. It was a bit nerve-wracking because we left the day after the news broke about the political situation in Honduras, but in the end we made it there and had a safe trip.

We started our trip in Antigua, the old capital of Guatemala. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so the old cobblestone streets and faded pastel buildings are preserved. We stayed at Casa Cristina, near La Merced and the Arch at Santa Catalina. We had breakfast each morning on the rooftop garden, which had a great view of the yellow church and Volcan Agua.


Our room at Casa Cristina
Our room at Casa Cristina

La Merced
La Merced

Arch of Santa Catalina
Arch of Santa Catalina

We visited the ruins of the Cathedral, La Merced, and Las Capuchinas; sampled tasty street food; climbed 333 steps to take in the view from Cerro de la Cruz; and even saw two beagles!

Sculpted figures
Ruins of the old Cathedral

Fuente de Pescados
Fuente de Pescados at La Merced

Arched doorways of cloisters
Cloisters at Las Capuchinas

Cerro de la Cruz
Cerro de la Cruz

Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes...there are over thirty volcanoes in Guatemala! We climbed one of them, Volcan Pacaya, on a day trip from Antigua. After an early rise and a twisty-turny drive, we were greeted by children selling walking sticks and the services of horses at the trailhead. Dan is allergic to horses. The children were persistent, following our group for what seemed like half of the hike up...though finally they returned to the trailhead after one person in the group accepted the services of a horse. I was worried because we didn't bring Benadryl, and the hike was very steep without having to worry about horse-induced anaphylaxis! We saw views of the volcanoes Agua, Fuego, and Acatenengo on our way up the trail.

Volcanoes
Three volcanoes

Eventually though the trail ended, and the crater of Pacaya was in view! It was quite exciting, until I realized we had to scale piles of lava rock the rest of the way.

Carol, Dan & Volcan Pacaya crater!
Posing with the crater

It was a difficult climb up, but even harder getting down. We were stepping on loose piles of lava rock that would move and slip as we climbed...but we made it to the top and felt the heat of the lava beneath the rocks. And then!

Lava!
Red hot flowing lava!

The thick slow-moving lava was a sight to behold, and the heat was so intense. Also a bit scary though, as the rock surface we were standing on was very porous and fragile, and the lava was right beneath us...people even roasted marshmallows in the heat vents! I ate a roasted marshmallow on a volcano! It was definitely a memorable hike.

From Antigua, we took another twisty-turny drive through the Western Highlands to Lake Atitlan, a huge crater lake ringed by several volcanoes. We barely made the last ferry across the lake...the boat had left the dock and actually came back to get us...phew! Dusk was falling when we arrived in Santiago Atitlan.

Dusk on Volcan San Pedro
Volcan San Pedro

We went canoeing on the lake; visited the textile museum, cathedral, and Sunday market in the village; swam and lounged by the pool; feasted at a Fourth of July BBQ; rode bikes along the lake; hiked the hanging bridges at Reserva Natural Atitlan...and just relaxed and enjoyed the view from the mirador lookout of the hotel, one of my favorite spots during our stay there.

Dan canoeing on Lake Atitlan
Dan canoeing

Stone cottage at Posada de Santiago
Angel, our stone cottage

Women doing their washing
Women washing in the morning

Another scene from the Sunday market
Sunday market in the village

Roast pig
Fourth of July BBQ pig

Santiago Atitlan mural
Mural at the village entrance

Another hanging bridge
Crossing a hanging bridge

Lake Atitlan
Volcan San Pedro looms over the lake

Late afternoon lake view
View from the mirador

The lake is beautiful, but it was time for our next adventure...onto the Verapaces...stay tuned!