Category Archives: Guatemala

You Better Belize It

Bee Says: Once we had mopped up our tears over Craig’s departure, we spent two more days in Flores. There was a lot of charm on this tiny island; however the boom industry is tourism as it’s one of the closest places to stay in order to visit Tikal. It was slightly grating that every building front we passed we were heckled to buy various tours and tickets, and every street is lined with identikit “artisan” gift shops. Once you get off the main drag however, it is possible to snatch some peace and quiet to appreciate the quaint cobbled streets, multi-coloured stacked buildings and pokey little alleyways leading back to the lake. We finally got a taste of authentic local life on our last evening, when we stumbled across an incredible dusk street market. Trestle tables shrouded the lake front, manned by cheery local ladies selling everything your stomach could desire and at gulp-inducingly cheap prices.

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We opted for a heap of tostados and tacos, smothered in guacamole, pepper sauce and sour cream, followed by doorstop wedges of chocolate cake. We sat on the wall watching children swimming as the sun set and the sky seeped from pink to mauve to navy. As I sat with a gob full of avocado, I heard someone say “Bee!”, and I turned to see my friend Eleanor Jane beaming at me from across the street. I have to confess this wasn’t an entirely chance meeting, as I did know in advance that she would be in our neck of the woods. Eleanor Jane and her lovely boyfriend Chris were on a G Adventures Tour of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. After swapping a few messages before they flew out, we worked out that our dates matched up in Belize, so had plans to meet for Pina Colada’s in Caye Caulker. It was a lovely surprise to bump into her by chance beforehand and get some extra time to compare notes and swap scary creature stories!

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It was nearly time to head to Belize and we were most excited about one thing… food! Neil, our Belizean hostel owner, took his job in educating us on what to look for VERY seriously. He emailed me an illustrated PDF of all his favourite local dishes (!) and where to eat them. He also gave us amazing instructions such as, “the best jerk chicken on the island is served on plastic tables opposite the Chinese supermarket. You’ll know it’s the right woman if she’s surrounded by kids that she keeps yelling at!” Neil was a fantastic character, but his Chaltunha Hostel on Flores (rather than San Miguel where we stayed with Craig) was an absolute flea-pit. We couldn’t believe the difference in quality. He had only taken it over a few months before, and it clearly needs a lot of work. We felt pretty cheesed off that our shabby, stinky hostel room was the same price as our dreamy jungle cabin. The experience was summed up when we woke at 3.30am to catch our shuttle to Belize City. I stretched, blinked, and pulled back my cover…. revealing a giant cockroach who had must have been snuggled up to me all night. Waaaahhhhh!

Nick Says: Disgusting creatures aside, we had loved our time in Guatemala. But with Craig gone, and our next country looming, it started to dawn on us that our trip was nearing its end stage. So we decided to make sure we made the most of it in Belize, despite our swiftly dwindling bank accounts! The super early bus to Belize was uneventful, apart from the Guatemalan border lady demanding $3 each from me and Bee. We’d never had to pay on any of the other Guatemalan border crossings (this was my 4th) so refused. So she kept our passports and tried to intimidate us this way. Knowing that we would get them back (she had already stamped them) but not wanting to keep everybody else waiting, we fished around in our packs for any spare change, eventually presenting her with about $2 in total. She didn’t look particularly happy at being denied her bribe, but seeing as she was raking it in from other backpackers she grudgingly let us on our way. So semi-success I guess! On the theme of not getting ripped off, for those doing this trip from Flores to Caye Caulker, DON’T buy your boat ticket in Flores. It’s way more expensive. Instead, wait until a guy from one of the ferry companies gets on board your bus at the border and gives you a half-price voucher for your ticket. Should save you around $15.

We pulled into Belize City with hours to spare until our water taxi across to Caye Caulker. We’d heard some stories about the place, but on first impression it looked welcoming and charming. On this however, I was sorely mistaken. I decided to go for a quick walk around the local area, and within 5 minutes had been offered pretty much any drug I could think of, plus a massive knife a guy had in his bag. I also was pretty glad I looked like a poor backpacker as I rounded one corner (in a place called the tourist village no less) and felt about twenty pairs of eyes on me, sizing me up. I quickly scurried back. We later heard a story from Eleanor Jane and Chris about how minutes before they arrived at the water taxi terminal, the entire place was sealed off as a crime scene. Apparently there had been an accidental shooting. Except the gun went off twice with apparent deadly accuracy… However, it wasn’t all danger to look out for. Sometimes you just need to be a bit less forgetful with your belongings. Not long after we arrived a French girl who had been travelling with us told us her bag had been taken from the bus, and had we seen it all? She then rang the company in a state of rage. After we chatted about it to a few other people from the bus, it turned out the French girl had just left her bag in the car park and walked off. Oops.

We seem to spend a lot of our time on boats, and consider ourselves salty sea dogs now. So we gave a lot of knowing nods and smiles as people shrieked at the tiniest bumps on our 45min journey over to Caye Caulker. We were the same once. Then we got a panga in Colombia.

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Stepping off the boat, we breathed the fresh sea air of Caye Caulker. It was good to be back on another island. Tropical islands are and always will be the ultimate representation of getting away from it all. So that’s why we’ve made sure to visit plenty on this trip. We politely declined the offers of a golf buggy taxi (we’d been correctly warned they’d tell you your hotel was miles away, when actually it was a 5 min walk – Caye Caulker is tiny) and arrived at Tropical Paradise, the by-our-standards swanky hotel we were going to stay at for a couple of nights. We’d had cockroaches, now it was time for hopefully our first hot shower in several months. Or so we thought. Now I’m not entirely sure what the deal was here, as the hotel seemed confused themselves, but it turned out the website we’d booked through wasn’t affiliated with the hotel. Despite having the URL and all the details? But it turned out the room we thought we’d booked didn’t exist, and considering the lack of rooms available when we’d looked a few days previously, this left us in a sticky situation. The staff couldn’t really give less of a shit though, and when asked if they knew of somewhere else to stay, recommended us a place called China Town round the corner. This is the type of hotel China Town was – it stank of smoke as soon as you entered, the yellowing interior looking like it had last been updated in the 80s. We were offered a choice of two incredibly expensive rooms, and when we were shown one it was pretty clear that it had just been used for by some guy and a prostitute. Without being cleaned up. It stank. We hurriedly walked out of there. No vacancy signs were up everywhere, and we began to think we might have to sleep on the street!

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It’s been an unexpected development having to book rooms in advance. We were used to just turning up and getting somewhere in South America, and mostly through Central America too, even in high season. But in Guatemala, Belize (and Mexico as we discovered) this would prove impossible. Now I’m not sure the reason why, but I suspect it’s something to do with these three places popularity as destinations for tour groups. There were 3 from G Adventures alone on Caye Cauler while we were there. Organised groups travelling a route which seems to be gaining in numbers visiting is a potential problem for solo backpackers – so be advised that you may have to be a bit more organised if visiting over here.

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Anyway, after trawling round a few places (and cowardly sneaking away from one guy who had put us in his shed, which we tentatively accepted in desperation then thought better of), we finally arrived at a place called Ignacio’s, which is quite far south of all the other guesthouses and hotels. A collection of ramshackle beach huts run by Ignacio and his son, it was basic, relaxed and cheap. It was perfect. We took one of the huts near the back of the lot, which lacked its own porch, but still had a sea view. We could finally relax and enjoy Caye Caulker.

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Bee Says: Caye Caulker is picture postcard beautiful. Being an Instagram-addict, the iPhone barely left my sweaty mit as every street we turned into revealed a new candy coloured bakery or hilarious painted sign or paradise view.

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Beneath the attractive veneer however, were some seedier elements. Caye Caulker is hyped up to personify the relaxed Caribbean attitude of a slow pace of life, so we were a little surprised by just how many rules there were. We went for breakfast, and a snotty sign informed us we couldn’t use the bathroom unless spending over $10. We walked down the street and regular signs told us not to litter, not to touch things, not walk here or there. We went to a cute little ice cream parlour and next to the flavours was a stern warning don’t lean on the counter, don’t put your bag on the counter, don’t don’t don’t. It felt like a constant ticking off, when we hadn’t even committed any of these heinous crimes. We went to a café with wifi for some juice and so I could Skype my parents, and despite there being only one other diner (at the opposite side of the vast table set up) the staff gave me side eyed stares and bitchy mutterings until I hung up. The rule we found most laughable was the police stations anti-drugs warning:

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Considering that we could barely walk three metres without being offered drugs under various guises, e.g. shady men muttering “pharmacy” into my ear or telling Nick he wanted their sweet buds we found this really, really tedious, and don’t believe that the police are doing much to follow through on their drugs threat. At almost every hotel, next to the constant barrage of No Vacancies, we also spotted “No Soliciting” signs. After our harrowing China Town experience, this is clearly another problem on the island, which sort of ruins the whole tropical-escape chilled out vibes. My last whinge was that a lot of the people we met were quite… odd. Igancio’s son for example was mute when we first arrived, mono syllabic and gruff the next day, then by the end he was talking our ear off at every opportunity and had blossomed into the most charming chap you can imagine. We experienced many of these mood swings from the people in the places we popped into regularly, and without drawing any conclusions… perhaps it’s somehow related to those sweet buds Nick was being offered?!  I’ll confess though, my bratty list of dislikes is slightly born from the fact that we have been totally spoilt by the Corn Islands. We are completely besotted with them and so Caye Caulker was already on a back foot, as another Caribbean island was never going to live up to our fortnight of Corn Island perfection.

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Nick Says: If you had money, Caye Caulker would probably be one of the best holiday destinations you could visit. Great value sea-front lodging, a huge variety of tasty dining options, plus the opportunity to take any number of incredible trips. Fancy diving the Blue Hole, an amazing ocean sinkhole that is home to hammerheads and other beasties? Easy, it’s right on the door step. Manatee spotting, kite-surfing, sailing trips, they’re all here and easy to do. For us however, with a somewhat more limited budget, we had to discover another side of Caye Caulker. But fear not, as even being the poor relations (figuratively speaking, I mean we’re still richer than most Belizeans) Caye Caulker had an ample amount of charms. We quickly settled into a daily routine. We found a cheap breakfast spot which promised the best fry jacks on the island. What they didn’t tell us it that they also made the most incredible breakfast burrito too. So each morning we’d stop by and get one of these for a grand total of $6 for the both of us, then stop by another place for a delicious iced coffee or juice. Then we’d stroll along the beach path until we hit the Split, the main social hub of the island, and the point where a hurricane actually split Caye Caulker in two! Despite being an island paradise, there’s not actually much beach to sit on – everything is either developed up to the shoreline or claimed by the hotels. However at the Split, there’s a deck where we would laze around reading in the sun, before cooling off by diving into some of the most dazzling turquoise waters of the trip. One morning as I lay there, I saw Bee swimming round the corner towards me. She was bronzed and beautiful, and the sea shimmered around her. She looked like a model. Then a wave swept over her, and in a loud Bradford accent she bellowed, ‘I’m getting biffed by the sea!’ somewhat breaking the spell. If you remember those Boddington adverts with Mel Sykes, you’ll know what I mean…

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It was easy to fall into the rhythm of the island. Despite our bumpy start, we learned to love the quirkiness of the place and succumb to its charms. We just had to spend a little time getting to know it. It’s the type of place where you can hear a hundred different brilliant conversations, all delivered in a delightful Caribbean English accent. While waiting for breakfast one morning I heard a neighbour tell everyone that passed that today he was going to ‘drink a Pepsi and take my boat out’. It was a place where I could spend afternoons playing baseball outside our beach hut with Hernando, the little boy who lived there. And it was the type of place where a dog leaping into the ocean to chase a man swimming wasn’t a weird sight.

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Bee Says: I was really glad we had five nights on Caye Caulker, because it gave me chance to shrug off my initial reservations and hunt out a few local treasures, plus track down all that food Neil had tempted us with. Possibly the best culinary find was a man who Neil described as “fat and with a bike” (upon further prompting he added “oh and wearing a chef’s hat”, that’s better!) who allegedly sold the best cakes known to man. We visited him three times and after sampling carrot cake and banana loaf, we became obsessed with his bread pudding which is similar to bread & butter pudding and came in huge, hefty slices which never lasted more than a few minutes before we devoured them! Our cake mate was basically the real life Chef from South Park. He had swagger by the bucket load and constantly dazzled us into buying WAY more than we needed, and chomping extra items like multiple meat pattys. He also loved the ladies. When we visited him the first time, and informed him we’d be back later, he told me to put Nick to bed and come back by myself!!! I blushed so much that I think I stayed beetroot for about half an hour afterwards.

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There was also the local bakery, whose $1 cinnamon buns with frosting are so popular that a line forms at 7.30am and they are often sold out within 30 minutes.

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A surprising business on the island is a gorgeous outdoor cinema, that wouldn’t be out of place in one of the hipster hangs of London or New York. Showing the latest releases (on slightly less hip Chinese pirate DVD copies complete with shaky subtitles!) we opted to see Captain Phillips. The set up gave us a whole wooden sofa covered in cushions to snuggle up on, with a few of my favourite Lighthouse lagers for refreshment. The film was so intense that I doubt I breathed for the entire thing, and this must have been obvious as when we walked down the main street a random local shouted “You’re just been to the movies! I can tell! It’s written all over your faces” I don’t know why but this really cracked us up. I think we must have looked extra traumatised, as travelling has been a huge shield from the nasties of the world and given us the opportunity to barely read the news for five months, so something as harrowing as Captain Phillips was a bit of a shock to our delicate systems!

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The Split, which we found so relaxing in the mornings, takes a wild turn at night. Offering the best view of the sunset (nope, we’re still not over beautiful sunsets!) and the Lazy Lizard bar serving up extra strong rum punch to get everyone dancing, it’s somewhere you have to go at least once. Locals and tourists alike get grooving, there’s amazing steel drum, calypso, reggae and hiphop music and the air is alive with happy holiday feeling.

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We left The Split to go and meet Eleanor Jane and Chris again. It was so special to have some friendly faces to socialise with, as since Craig left we realised what a boost it had been to hear some news from rainy Britain and hang out with some people who knew us before we embarked on this epic! We headed to a nifty little pizza parlour and instantly bonded over all being pineapple-topping-lovers, which is serious business.  It was a fantastic evening, full of laughs and funny anecdotes. It was especially interesting for us to swap notes on Eleanor and Chris’s experience of Guatemala and Belize, as we had visited similar places as solo travelers whilst they were on an organised tour. We quickly discovered there are pros and cons to both ways, and definitely want to write more about this in a future blog post. Eleanor and Chris were really sparkling company, and we were gutted when the night seemed to zip by way too quickly.

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On our last night in Caye Caulker we celebrated our five months travelling anniversary. These occasions are always special as we remember where we have been for each monthly landmark and how much we’re seen and achieved since (such as getting engaged!). Five months seemed especially huge, as with only a month left (and most of that being a USA “holiday” rather than Latin America backpacking) we wanted to appreciate every last minute of our trip. We ate at a place that the Lonely Planet described as “very hard to find” (how hard can anything be to find on such a tiny island?) which we actually stumbled across on day one without even trying. The Little Kitchen is a total family affair, run from a roof terrace you have to clamber up to but which offers rewarding views of the ocean. The food is all cooked by the el jefe… the mum of course… and it was a tough choice but we got jerk chicken and ginger butter shrimps which were both mouth wateringly wonderful. Our tight budget had meant that every other night we just ate snacks from the supermarket, but I was glad we saved ourselves for somewhere this tasty.

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The son of our chef was visiting with his family, and came over to learn about us and our travels and tell us all about what life is like in Caye Caulker and San Pedro, where he lives and works. After a rocky start, this was a really special experience and we both left feeling like our hearts had definitely thawed a little. Sure it has the problems that come along with being a huge US tourist destination, but Caye Caulker still has a lot of genuine Caribbean magic to hunt out if you look for it.

Nick Says: One of the more exotic aspects of our trip so far has been the constant companionship of animals not found in the UK. We’ve grown particularly fond of all the gecko-sized lizards that usually end up in our room, or nearby, making chirruping calls to each other and generally scampering about. In fact, we’d taken to calling them our lizard friends. But perhaps we’d gotten too friendly with them. Upon returning one day to our beach shack, Bee saw something large scuttle across the floor of our bathroom. Thinking it might be a rat, she went to investigate, and discovered a massive 3ft zebra striped iguana lurking behind our shower!

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The thing was bloody huge, and terrified. We’d obviously disturbed his stately progression across our room. How had it got in? We could only think of the hole in the shower, which led directly to the beach floor. But why?! Had the lizard king come to show his respect for our lizard loving ways? Escaping outside, we found Ignacio’s son and explained our problem. He obviously thought we were just a couple of foolish Brits who’d never seen anything like this before, so he swaggered into our bathroom telling us he’d just grab the thing. Then he spotted the iguana and let go a cry of ‘fuck that’s a big lizard’ before scarpering. We politely refused his suggestion of sending tiny Hernando behind the shower later to coax it out, and instead let him be. Every time we got a shower we could hear his angry hissing at us. How dare we enter his domain!

After a few days though, he seemed to have found his way out. The lizard attack was over. After being out for the day, we came back in the afternoon towards the end of our stay and were promptly startled by the sight of yet another giant iguana hanging out in our hut.

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Slightly smaller in stature, this one had managed to get into the main room, and climb up on the side beside the bed. Once again we called for back-up. After refusing the suggestion that we kill it, Ignacio’s son wrapped his hands in a jumper and in a ninja like move grabbed the beast. It immediately opened its jaws in a hissing, biting motion, and kept them impotently open as he was carried from the room. If a reptile could feel emotions, this iguana would be feeling absolutely outraged.

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As much as we had enjoyed the basic charms of our beach hut, we were starting to feel 5 months of less than stellar accommodation. With a final week in Mexico before heading up to the States and some home comforts, we were unashamedly looking forward to a nice hotel that we had nabbed on a cheap lastminute deal. Bring on Cancun!

Bee & Nick Say: If you haven’t spotted it yet, we were interviewed by the lovely gang over at the Gap Travel Guide about what it was like deciding to quit London, travelling as a couple and revealing a few behind the scenes bits and bobs. Take a look here!

 

Semuc Champey to Tikal – Guatemala’s Gems

Nick Says: Our first day at Utopia lived up to the promise of the night-time arrival. It really was the most incredible place to stay. A super relaxed vibe, beautiful scenery, and super friendly staff who by the end of our stay felt more like friends then people fetching you a beer. All in all, it was one of the best places we’ve stayed on the trip. John, the owner, greeted us over breakfast and chatted for awhile, before uttering the ominous phrase, ‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news’. Turned out they had double-booked our super swanky river-front lodge we’d stayed in, so we had to move. However, and this summed up the whole ethos of the place, they comped us the second night for free to say sorry. In the end though I think this may have been some sort of genius ploy on John’s part, as we celebrated our cash windfall by blowing the lot (plus change) on a LOT of beers and brownies (the most delicious blonde brownies I’ve ever tasted) that night. Oops.

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But our decadent beer and brownie splurge was still to come. First of all we had some serious relaxing to do around the grounds of Utopia. Situated on the bend of an outrageously photogenic river, you don’t even have to go very far to experience some outdoor adventure. Still a bit bruised by our ride in the back of the pick-up, we headed down to the river to show Craig one of our favourite activities on the trip, wild swimming. Despite assurances that the swimming hole was protected from the fast flowing currents of the rest of the river, we were either lied to or the rains of the previous days had changed things. After swimming out a bit, we were almost swept away (much to the amusement of a fisherman on the far shore). Things didn’t get too much better when we came in to the shallows as first Craig slipped on a rock and almost brained himself (3 days and we broke him), and then we came under attack from an unexpected source. Sitting and chatting, a small object  suddenly flew in between us at great speed, splashing water. At first we thought it was a nut or something that had fallen from the tree, but on closer inspection we saw it was a pebble! What the hell? We looked up, and saw a furious monkey in the tree, who quickly scampered off following his failed assault. I’ve no idea what we did to enrage him, but he wasn’t happy…

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As well as the aforementioned beer and brownies, nights at Utopia also revolved around the ‘family’ style dinner they serve. With no other dining options nearby, you’re basically forced to eat there or go hungry, but luckily they make the food tasty and the dining experience worth your time and money. Family style means you’re all served the same dinner, and sit round long tables which ensures you get friendly with your neighbours. I’ve always liked this way of eating, as it means you get to know everyone very quickly. You can’t really be friends with someone until you’ve eaten with them can you? And at a place like Utopia, there’s always someone fascinating to share stories with over your tea. In our time there, we met Tom the micro-brewer from Minnesota, his French girlfriend who had been relocated to the States, the flooded family from Cornwall whose daughter was volunteering in Guatemala, plus a whole host of other characters (including a very posh mosaic artist who travelled with a young girl we assumed was his daughter, before finding out she was his girlfriend! The fact she spent most of the time flirting with some teenage German boys does not bode well for their future…). As I mentioned before, we also got on brilliantly with all the staff including a very crazy  funny German girl named Pia who left us a very sweet note when we left, a Northerner called Alex who dreamed of setting up a photography tour in the area, and my favourite, a mysterious Frenchman who loved Doctor Who, made chocolate on-site and dressed like a wizard. I never did find out his name, but he seemed to like it when I drunkenly referred to him as the ‘chocolate wizard’. Sounds a bit like a euphemism though.

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As lovely as Utopia was, the main reason we had come to this hard to reach part of Guatemala was to explore the caves and pools of Semuc Champey. We’d heard so much about the place, we were starting to wonder if it could live up to the hype. We set out the next day to see for ourselves. Most of the hostels in the area offer a full day tour for about 180Q (which is about $23 or 13 quid). For this you get a morning exploring a cave system, and then the afternoon in Semuc Champey itself, before some optional river tubing. Not being overly fond of small, dark spaces, Bee opted not to do the cave part of the tour. Me and Craig however, took the plunge.

Stripping down to our boardies and socks (essential for keeping your balance on slippy rocks – we learnt this in the waterfalls of Venezuela), we followed our guide to the entrance of the caves. One of the first things he did was describe himself as ‘muy loco’ which means ‘very crazy’, which possibly didn’t bode well for a man about to lead you into a dark space with him responsible for your safety! With no lights to guide you, you’re given candles for the tour, which is actually a very cool and atmospheric way to explore underground. We quickly became experts in learning how to relight a damp wick (bite and fray the ends my friends!), and edged our way through the rock formations. For those budding geologists out there, you will learn NOTHING about the cave system on this tour. It is a full-on action tour pure and simple. Being as I enjoy that type of tour, it was perfect for me. Not long into the tour, we quickly plunged into waist deep water. It was pretty chilly, but this was only the beginning. The waist deep water then became chest-deep, and then we couldn’t touch the bottom. So we all quickly learnt how to swim one-handed while holding a sputtering candle in the other. We trekked almost a kilometere into the dark, clambering up gushing waterfalls along the way, sliding down mysterious holes, and finally leaping off a 3m high ledge into a pool of water (which you must hit in one exact spot, or it’s game over). For those wondering, there is no real health and safety down here, which makes up a lot of the fun. However, it’s probably not for the faint of heart! It can also get pretty crowded down there when one or more tour groups come together, and on the way out prepare to be abandoned for long stretches by your guide as they herd everyone out. It got pretty dark and lonely for me and Craig at the back, until he remembered he had a head torch with him…

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Bee Says: I confess, my kryptnonite is small spaces. I can handle vast heights, tiny tin can planes, the roughest oceans and various other hairy scary moments, but the idea of wriggling around tiny dark damp caverns is not something I would spend my precious Quetzales on. Instead I got to laze by the river spotting the hugest, most exotic butterflies of the trip (with a few even making a home on my dress) so I had a very different Disney-movie morning whilst the boys chucked themselves off scary cave ledges. We were then reunited for an action-packed afternoon, starting with a hike to the viewing platform that would give us the iconic (and first) view of the Semuc Champey pools. The sign marking the footpath to the hike stated that it should take 1 hour 30 minutes. Our guide announced we would do it in 20 minutes and with that he marched off into the wilderness leaving us huffing and puffing in his dust. Hmm, what an attentive guide! The trek to the viewing platform was vertical. Steep slippery jungle paths soon dwindled to nothing and were replaced by rickety wooden steps that snaked around the side of the mountain at jutting angles. Luckily the tree canopy hid the full extent of the drop below, but the creaking and juddering of the structure ensured that we kept a fast pace and completed the hike in the alloted time, mainly with terror spurring us on! The moment I walked out onto the (equally rickety) wooden viewing platform will be a memory I clutch to once we are back in the world of fulltime jobs and zzz commutes. Firstly I saw Craig beaming bigger than I have ever seen before, then behind him the source of his glee: the most dramatic green, turquoise and aqua pools, surrounded by lucious green trees and backed by a gushing waterfall. Beautiful is a word I cannot help but overuse, but of every single place we have visited, this is the single most beautiful place on earth I have ever seen. We’ve seen more than our fair share of dramatic, stunning, otherworldy places and had beautiful experiences, but Semuc Champey definitely tops out in terms of pinch-yourself-am-I-really-seeing-this-or-am-I-dreaming?-ness.

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As we stood taking in the spectacular view, we were sweating profusely as a result of the vertical trekking and the intense jungle humidity. Before every snap we had to wipe our faces on our tee-shirts; a nice behind the scenes tidbit for you! It was hot hot hot, so you can imagine how tempting, cool and refreshing the pools looked, to the point I could have dived off that viewing platform into them right there and then (and with Guatemala´s lack of health and safety, I´d have probably been cheered on by my guide!) A quick march/run back down the mountain took us right up to the pools where we stripped off and raced into the lapping water. Semuc Champey is an entirely unique natural formation. It is a limestone ´bridge´ under which a ferocious river races. We started off our tour of the pools standing at the top, watching the river-turned-waterfall gushing, then vanishing underground. The limestone bridge is covered in these natural pools, which end when the river reappears (a bit you certainly wouldn’t want to bathe in).

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As you relax in the tranquil waters, it is hard to believe there is a furious swell of a rapids racing beneath you! The first pool was perfect for reclining, sunbathing and letting little fish suckle on our toes. The pools then increased in terms of deepness, distance to clamber in and size of the fish. In the last pool lived a fish that was so big when it brushed against my leg, I thought it was a human. You can imagine how much Craig enjoyed this element, given that his kryptonite is…. yup, fish! By far the most fun part of our day of pool-hopping was the fact that to move from one pool to another, we had to use the mini waterfalls connecting them, with the super-slippery limestone making nifty natural water slides. The biggest one was 8 foot, sending me shooting out into freefall before waterbombing into the pool (and Nick, whoops) below. I hadn´t really given any thought to how we would get back out of the pools… you guessed it, I had to scale the super-slippery waterfalls. This bit was slightly trickier than zooming down on my bum.

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Nick Says: I won’t lie, I was a bit worried about how Bee would cope with all the leaping around slippery waterfalls. But any fears I had about her being too scared were dispelled as I turned around to see her arms and legs akimbo flying through the air with a look of unadulterated glee on her face. A priceless memory!

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Bee Says: On our final morning in Heaven… I mean Utopia, we set our alarms and sat out on the deck from 5.15am watching the sunrise, milking every last misty magical moment. Then it was time to be herded into the back of yet another jeep (our fouth time, so by now we were experts at which bits of padding to shove against the bars to avoid bashing and bruising) and dumped in Lanquin to await a tourist shuttle to zoom us to Flores. As we waited for the shuttle, I overheard the type of conversation that makes me despair at the attitude of some fellow travellers. A British guy was also waiting for the shuttle, and made a point of going up to the Guatemalan driver and asking “will there be any locals on the shuttle?”, to which the man answered that yes, sometimes locals use the service. At this, the British guy recoiled and annuonced “well I was ensured that there would be no locals on the transport. I only want to travel with other tourists”. (!!!!) The driver, through gritted teeth, informed the guy that the services are so expensive that only wealthy locals use them. I guess this was meant to reassure him that they wouldn´t be interested in him or his luggage, but personally I don´t think he should have justified the Brits complete ignorance with a response. How dare that he travel to a country and then demand he doesn´t interact with the local people?! The reasons that this is beyond offensive are too many to list, and my blood pressure is raising just recalling it! I didn´t go and have it out with the idiot, because we were about to spend 10 hours in a tiny mini-bus together, but I really wish now that I had said something. We have used public transport for 99% of our journeys, and have much preferred travelling with locals to masses of fellow tourists. The local people have constantly been informative, with impeccible manners (as long haul buses are a regular part of life) who make no fuss about the lack of air con, or bumpy roads or lack of bathroom stops. Even new born babies and toddlers seem to fall in line, as we have shared buses with up to 10 tots who barely make a sound for hours! As if to highlight this point, the very same shuttle that the Brtish guy had kicked off about, was one of our most unpleasant travel experiences. The shuttle set off from Lanquin with us onboard and stopped at a local hostel to pick up more passengers. As they boarded, they noticed there were some jackets splayed on some seats, so moved them off and took their seats. The bus then returned to where we had set off from, picking up a Dutch couple had stayed on to finish their breakfast. As they boarded, they realised their jackets (reserving their places apparently) had been moved, and that they would have to sit seperately on different seats. Immediately they started screeching, yelling, swearing and being SO aggresive to the girls that had sat in their seats. The women from the couple then proceeded to sit on the girls!! Saying she would stay there until they moved. It was so awkward and un-necessary and appaulling to witness. How can you have such a loss of perspective when you are travelling around one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere?? Get me back on that public transport, stat!

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Once the Jeremy-Kyle style scrapping had ended, we drove off to Flores. The road got bumpier, and bumpier, and our teeth were audibly clattering as we reached a sudden stop. The driver vanished and eventually we snuck out to investigate what was happening. As I enquired Que Pasa to the workmen who had stopped our shuttle, I was informed that the road we were driving on was actually still being built! We couldn´t help but chuckle. With a few hurried phone calls, some bribes and sweet talking our driver persueded the workmen to let us drive on the muddy not-yet-a-road and we were soon back en route. After 4 hours of pot-hole rattling I couldn´t hold in the call of nature anymore and asked the driver to stop for a bano naturale (natures toilet!) I found myself a great shady spot amongst some long (prickly, ouch) grass and did my business… before turning round and finding a family of Guatemalan women watching me from a house that I had failed to spot when I started. Smooth! Shortly after this, we finally rejoined a tarmacced road, and the shuttle errupted in cheers and applause! The last surprise of the journey was when we stopped suddenly again, this time at a large river. It´s been a while since we had the joy of some bus-on-barge action and were so thrilled that we got to share this surreal experience with Craig.

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On arrival in Flores, there was a lot of faffing around and being moved onto another bus, and general confusion, before eventually arriving in Isla Flores. Craig had been in charge of booking this bit of accommodation (such a treat), and had opted for a hostel on San Miguel which is a region on the mainland with a view over Flores. To get there we had one final trip to make, a quick water-taxi across to San Miguel. As we stepped onto the water taxi Craig announced that he felt just like James Bon….. then promptly lost his balance and fell over! As opposed to touristy Flores, San Miguel is a peaceful residential area and Craig had excelled himself in accomodation choosing! Neil, our chatty Belizean hostel owner, led us from the bar/restaurant terrace out along a winding path through ornate gardens and past hammocks and a pool, to our private wooden jungle cabin. It almost rivalled Utopia for amazing accomodation, and was a gorgeous place to spend our last few days together. The thing I loved/hated the most about our cabin, was that as it was on stilts and in the middle of the Guatemalan wilderness, the nature noise at night was almost deafening. It was a constant onslaught of chirrups, caws, and clattering as beasties raced around beneath us. I learnt that the local monkeys make haunting baby-like midnight cries to each other, and at times the soundscape resembled some sort of jungle horror movie. I couldn´t help but lay prone, listening to the noises though, and actually loving it, because I knew that it wouldn´t be long before the night noises return to sirens and blaring cars.

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Nick Says: Ensconced in the comforting silence of my earplugs, I slept soundly through the night jungle. Not that we slept much though, as it was time for yet another early start. Today was the day we were off to visit Tikal, the mightiest of all the Mayan ruins and the jewel in Guatemala’s tourism industry. As the heat and humidity becomes unbearable throughout the day, we left Flores at 4.30am to visit the site in the morning. It takes about an hour to drive there, and then another half hour to actually reach the ruins from the park entrance. What makes Tikal so unique and inspiring is the fact that the temples are surrounded by jungle still, and the place seems locked in constant combat against the onslaught of nature – as if at any moment it will be swallowed up again by the jungle, where it remained hidden for hundreds of years after the collapse of the Maya.

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We had opted to go on a tour of the place, and while it was interesting and informative, the group was too massive to really get a personal guide of what we were seeing. But that didn’t matter too much though, as the ruins really do speak for themselves. While Copan in Honduras  was a masterpiece in elagant carvings and artistic vision, Tikal impressed by its sheer scale and awesomeness of what you were seeing. It wasn’t enough it seems to just have one epically scaled Mayan temple for the kings that ruled there, they wanted dozens! Clambering around and taking it all in was amazing, as was hearing the guttural roar of the howler monkeys that call this place home. Yet another Jurassic Park moment on this trip.

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While all of it was magnificent, my one particular moment of ‘eeeeeeee I’m really here!’ came while standing at the top of Temple IV. incredible as a piece of engineering, it is also famous for appearing in Star Wars. Now having grown up on those films, and assuming as a kid that this amazing Rebel base/temple was some kind of set, it gave me nerd goosebumps to be looking out over Yavin IV.

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Bee Says: It took me a while to warm up to Tikal. In my head I couldn´t help comparing it to Machu Picchu, which really packs a punch when you arrive, as the view takes your breath away. With Tikal, it´s a slow burn, as you visit the smaller temples first and have to walk for half an hour or so between each monument. Once I had reached the Main Plaza however, the scale of what I was seeing finally sunk in, and I was completely overwhelmed by the awesomeness of what was around me. The part that, for me, meant I massively preferred Tikal to Machu Picchu overall, was the space. The size of the site, added to the fact it isn´t the top tourist trap like Peru, meant we could regularly sit at one of the sites and be alone with our thoughts and experiences.

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It gave us some precious time to take a seat (at the love hotel apparently, where Mayans kept their babes!) which provided a spectacular view of the plaza and residential area. It felt like I could just scrunch my eyes and imagine exactly what life used to be like there. Tikal has been so well preserved and maintained, I wasn´t expecting to be able to clamber up and around so many of the temples. This made the experience extra special, as the views from high in the sky with the temples poking out of the jungle canopy were enough to set my heart fluttering. We visited Tikal on Valentines Day, and I know it´s cheesy but I felt like the luckiest girl alive to share it with my fiance and my incredible, inspiring and all-round bestest of friends Craig, clambering around ruins and sharing such a special adventure. I think it´s pretty un-beatable!

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It was over too soon though, and back in Flores there was just time for one more spectacular sunset on the lake and a boozy pizza dinner… then it was time for Craig to jet back to London and finish this amazing chapter of our trip.

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Craig Says: As a lover of travel and miss-er of best friend I could never refuse the chance to join Bee and Nick on their adventure of a lifetime. “Guatemala?” they asked.”Why not” I replied. And booked the flights. Nick and Bee had the itinerary planned and it was truly astonishing – volcano? Check. Ancient Mayan ruins? Check. Jungle paradise? Check. I couldn’t argue with that so it was just a matter of preparing and packing. This was the most distant and thrilling travel destination for me to date but the guys useful packing blog post was referenced scrupulously. Armed with a backpack 75% full of fresh clothes and British foodie treats for the guys I was off.

I hadn’t given much thought to joining two backpackers part way through a trip – would we have different aims? Would we be on different budgets? Would a fresh-off-the-plane Londoner drive them mad?! The truth is it was inspiring, exhilarating, fascinating – and so much fun. If you are thinking of doing something similar – do. I guess you could compare it to going to a really great party at the time it’s really great. The passion and enthusiasm for their trip was addictive and infectious; over the last five months Bee and Nick have seen all of life and I could’ve listened to them narrate their stories and scrapes endlessly.

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What I didn’t expect was how incredibly humbling it would be to know my presence was a boost to them as they neared the end. Five months on the road is tough to say the least so it’s easy to understand how revitalizing a familiar face from home is but I was quite overwhelmed by their excitement at my arrival.

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Practicalities aside on a personal level this was a hugely special, personal voyage. To spend ten exclusive days with my lovely best friend and her equally as lovely fiancée was exceptional. We laughed constantly, ate a lot and talked for hours. The three of us will have some amazing memories of this trip that we’ll be talking about when we’re old and wrinkly in our arm chairs.

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The Guatemala Express: Antigua to Lanquin

Bee Says: Antigua is one of the most breath-taking cities we’ve visited. Multi-coloured, weathered buildings line the cobbled streets, horse & cart is a more popular method of transport than car and indigenous locals sell beautiful tapestries, gems and trinkets from the pavements. The city is stunning in it’s own right, but the real beauty is in the active volcanoes that surround Antigua and are visible from everywhere you walk. They watch over locals and tourists bustling about their daily lives, a constant reminder of the power of mother nature (also very handy for navigation after a few margaritas e.g.  I think my hostel is in the direction of that massive smokey one). It’s one of those places that I thought “I wish we could share this with someone” and luckily for me, I could!

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Our hostel choice here was Hostel Holistico, which was one of the best we’ve stayed in. A rooftop deck gave dramatic views of Volcan de Agua, an airy open garden area, hefty range of free breakfast options and constant free tea, coffee and snacks (this never happens, we’re usually lucky to get electricity and loo paper) and the staff were really welcoming and full of local knowledge. Our fellow guests were also super friendly, which actually was the last thing I wanted on this occasion. I knew Craig would arrive at 11pm-ish and I wanted to sit quietly by myself with an ear out for the doorbell, but my plan was foiled as a pair of chatty South Africans instantly bought me a beer and we started chatting. The next thing I knew Craig was peering over me and he said he knew he’d got the right hostel as he could here my loud northern nattering from outside!

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We had a day to explore Antigua whilst Nick was off scampering around Mayan ruins and avoiding fiery protests. I have to confess that the priority of the day was to get all our gossiping and five months of news out of the way, so we started off sitting in the central plaza talking a mile a minute, before stopping into a secret cafe that is hidden in caverns behind a bookshop for some hot chocolate and giant cake sustenance.

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Antigua has beautiful churches in excess, some just crumbling clutches of old tiles and coloured glass, whereas others are still in use and open to peek in to and investigate inside. They are dotted around the outskirts of the city, so make an easy walking tour. That said, it’s a slow walk, as around every corner we were bombarded with delicious smells of a) coffee or b) chocolate to lure us into various shops and houses, cartoon-style, as we were led by our noses rather than our feet.

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Nick Says: After avoiding being caught up indefinitely in my first Latin American protest, it was a relief to finally roll back into Guatemala after another slow 8 hours of driving. I expected Bee & Craig to be chatting away when I arrived at Holistico, but obviously their day of chatting had caught up with them and they were both having a nap! That didn’t last long though, and we were soon taking Craig out on his first evening in Guatemala. We wanted him to be plunged into the life we’ve been leading these last 5 months, and I think we achieved that – we took him to a taco place just round the corner, where he was able to enjoy 50p beers, incredible Mexican food, and then the highlight of the evening, the owner of the place leading the diners in a rendition of 4 Non-Blondes ‘What’s Going On’. The night was balmy, both locals and tourists were happy, and it made us realise just how fun everything is at the moment. Sure we’ve had some ups and downs, but occasionally you get a moment where it all clicks, and it was great to have someone to share it with. We couldn’t have paid to set up a better introduction to our Latin American experience than hours after Craig arriving, for us to be merrily bellowing along to a guitar with a crowd of strangers. Sadly the rest of the night which involved visiting a ‘genuine’ Irish bar, and then some rooftop bar, didn’t quite live up to the beginning, but I think we’ll blame that on the fact we were all ready for bed around 10pm!

The next day Bee’s recurring dodgy stomach struck again. Maybe the cocktails of the night before played their part, but it’s a regular blight which puts her out of action for a day or two, and is one of the less enjoyable parts of this trip for her. However, having an extra person with us meant that Bee wanted us to still go and explore, and knew that me & Craig could entertain ourselves while she rested up. So being as we were in Central America, land of volcanoes, and in a city surrounded by them, it seemed rude not to go and take a closer look. The easiest one to reach from Antigua is Pacaya. Most tour agencies will run twice daily trips (morning and afternoon) to hike up and down the 3km summit, and some even do night tours, where you can appreciate the glowing lava.

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We opted for the sunset tour, in order to take advantage of the light at the top of the peak. You certainly won’t be alone if you decide to do this trip (there were about 15 in our group alone – several of them loud and obnoxious) but it definitely makes for a fun and cheap excursion. The hike itself is pretty arduous, as the volcano is covered in slippy volcanic ash, a legacy of its eruption in 2010, a blast which destroyed the top 100m of Pacaya itself. To help you climb up though, hundreds of tiny Guatemalan children will offer to sell you sticks for about 3Q, or 25p, and despite making you look a bit like a wizard (is that a bad thing?) it’s a worthwhile investment. If you’re super lazy then you can hire a ‘taxi’ up. The taxi is a slightly skinny looking horse.

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Once up the top though, the views were spectacular. We definitely arrived during the magic hour, and every shot I took looked great. Steam poured from vents in the ground, you could clamber into holes where the temperature was sauna-like (it was pretty cold up on the volcano by this point), and look towards the heights where you could just make out lava slowly pouring down. We also got to take part in the grand Pacaya tradition of toasting marshmallows on a volcano. Sure it’s a gimmick, but there’s no denying that eating a delicious gooey marshmallow freshly toasted on volcanic heat is a blast (sorry). After that it was time to clamber around and basically revel in the fact that we had climbed a volcano like it was a normal everyday thing. I think Craig was slowly but surely starting to realise he was no longer in London…

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Bee Says: Bah! My stupid tummy! I think I have some sort of pet amoeba, as for the last couple of months about once every fortnight I wake up in the early hours with the familiar sinking stomach cramps and then descend into a day of loo loitering. I can’t really complain, as after a tried-and-tested day of chugging electrolytes and snoozing I am always back to fighting fit form, but I was sad to miss out on Pacaya. That said, we had done volcano hiking in Galapagos, so I knew I needed to just sulk it out and save my strength for the rest of our time with Craig. It also gave Nick some quality lad-banter time, which I think he was severely missing and Craig provided in spades. Having got used to shuttles leaving at 2.30am or 4am (neither being much fun) we were treated to a decadent 8am departure from Antigua, whizzing off via Guatemala City and on for the 8 hour trip to Lanquin (where we would transfer to travel on a further hour to Semuc Champey). Unfortunately fate waited for Craig to be on-board when we had our first proper near-miss road accident of the trip. Our driver was rammed out of the lane by a maniac, completely lost control of the van and hit the grass verge… luckily nothing was behind us and we were absolutely fine, but there were a few white knuckles visible. The rest of the journey was a total joy, my description of Guatemala being all killer no filler. You would think we might have got bored of views and landscapes by now, but the drive to Lanquin took us through highlands with cotton-wool clouds hugging the road, dense jungle with wet heat and noisy creatures and up into the mountains on winding roads where rain rattled against the windows. I spent most of the journey with my nose shoved to the glass, just drinking it in.

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We arrived into Lanquin and were met by a representative of our hostel, who marched us to our next mode of Transport. A Toyota jeep… with an open back, where we were instructed to get onboard and cling on for dear life!

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We were soon heading out into the luscious green hills towards Semuc Champey, but after 10 minutes of potholes and rattling bones, I decided that my still-sore tummy might benefit from a seat up front. I hopped out and asked our driver if I could ride with him in the passenger seat. As he begrudgingly said yes and opened the door, he happened to drop something… a knuckle-duster! I could see Craig and Nick giving me wide-EEK-eyes as I settled in and started to think I might have been safer in the back after all. My ride with Darwin was surreal to say the least. Firstly, once he found out I spoke Spanish, he refused to use English which gave my language skills a real workout since the drive was 45 minutes long. I doubt I can ever do it justice here, but after reassuring me he had only used his knuckle-duster once (although the guy apparently went ka put… whatever that means) he went on to tell me that he can’t understand the Spanish spoken outside of Guatemala. This was actually very reassuring as I find it so tricky adapting to each different countries accent and slang and different sounds and styles. After a bit of small talk, he leant over and connected his ipod to the Jeep radio and then announced loudly “Roq Romantica!!”. I politely listened to a few tracks before suggesting that this would be good music to dance to. At this Darwin errupted, “NO, NO BAILER. NUNCA BAILER. Roq Romantica es solomente bebir cerveza y escuchar. NO BAILER!!!!” (Basically: No dancing. Never dancing. Roq Romantica is only for drinking beer and listening. NO DANCING!!) Oh dear. I forgot how passionately Latin Americans feel about their musical genres. Once we had moved on from this slight mishap, Darwin (true to his name perhaps) spent the next ten minutes naming every animal we saw in English and Spanish. We then chatted about my favourite Latin American superstar and soundtrack to our trip, Prince Royce. He told me that I should really get with the times, Prince Royce is apparently SO last season and now it’s all about Romeo Santos – the younger, hotter, lustier replacement. Darwin then helpfully added that at 23, Romeo would be way too young for me! He then leaned in conspiratorially and added that Prince Royce was rumoured to be g-a-y (he spelt it out!). Guatemala has a long way to come in terms of their attitudes in this area, so I was interested to see where this conversation would lead. Prince Royce’s big hit tune is about a kiss, so Darwin dramatically added that it meant the song was all about boys kissing. I said, surely you would consider kissing him if it meant you got to listen to that beautiful voice all day and to my surprise Darwin paused for a long moment then said, yes, actually I would! Success! I was exhausted by my quirky 45 minute Spanish school by the time we reached Semuc Champey, but enjoyed recounting the experience to Craig and Nick, who had been able to hear us gabbing away up front and wondered what on earth was going on.

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It’s always a promising sign when you are contacting your future accommodation and the email signature on the reply is “sent from heaven”. Little did I know, that this would be 100% accurate. We arrive to Utopia Eco Hotel after darkfall, so despite not being able to see the endless exotic flora and fauna that the hotels main wooden structure is built into, we could already tell we were somewhere entirely unique. True to the claims, there was a little piece of heaven for each of us to welcome us in: brawling dogs for Nick, a hot chocolate with Baileys for me… and an extremely handsome topless man checking us in for Craig! We had finally arrived at a remote, jungle paradise in the middle of nowhere and were excited to see what more Utopia had to offer.

Nick and Bee Say: If you still want to read more from us, then check out our latest piece of brand partnership work. The brilliant guys at Invasion, a 18-35 travel specialist and sister-brand to AmeriCamp, invited us to blog for them. Here’s how we think going travelling will make you more employable… 

 

4 Countries in 1 Day & Other Stories

Bee Says: We’re back! And we’re way behind… so let me cast my thoughts back to where we left you last, kissing goodbye to our beloved Corn Islands in Nicaragua. We had slightly overstayed our allotted time slot on this Caribbean dream, and now had a limited few days to travel up to Guatemala where we were meeting our friend Craig. To do this we needed to travel from Big Corn to Leon in one day, an epic cross-Nicaragua trip that everyone told us was impossible. We boarded our old friend Capitan D and took up a couple of bunks, ready to set sail at 11pm. This time there was a serious lack of pigs, cows… and any other backpackers! Locals told us that most tourists get the boat there, but fly back, after inevitably hating the chaos of the Capitan. We had however gained the company of two cockerels, which crowed constantly, and a stowaway cat that the crew told us suffered seasickness. 11pm passed into midnight and there seemed to be no hurry to leave. The horn eventually tooted our exit at 3AM. ARGH, so before we had even departed Big Corn we were 4 hours behind, on a very tight schedule.

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Around 9am we arrived in Bluefields, and rushed off the boat and straight into a town that looked like a set from Pirates of the Caribbean! Stacked multicoloured houses lean perilously in huge colomns, creating cramped alleyways filled with sewage, children and animals. We had to race over stepping stones through one of these narrow snickets until we eventually found the dock where we could board a panga (small speedboat) to take us down the river to El Rama. This journey was incredible; 2 hours of James-Bond-style zooming down the Rio Escondido past tiny riverside communities whilst being swooped at by birds of every colour.

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At El Rama, we knew our plan had come unstuck because we had missed the bus that would get us to Managua (the capital city) in time to make a connection to a bus to Leon. We now faced the bleak prospect of turning up to Managua late at night and having to wander around hunting out a hostel in one of the most dangerous cities in Central America. Luckily, a man working on the docks, came to the rescue. By pure chance Nick overheard him telling some other passengers that he had a friend who was driving from El Rama to Managua in his jeep and was looking for passengers to cover his petrol costs. Usually we wouldn’t get in a car with a complete stranger (travel safety 101) but as this was being organised by an official, plus we were being buddied up with a lovely pair of Nicaraguan ladies, we felt pretty safe. We were also stuck between a rock and a hard place in terms of dodgy scenarios. The driver was a smiley chap, although he did have an air of Tony Soprano about him and didn’t utter a word for the entire trip. What he did do was drive so fast that he covered a 6 hour journey in 4 hours… and also dropped us right at the bus terminal where we ran onto the last chicken bus of the day to Leon and it set off 30 seconds later!

You would think this is the end of the story, that our mission to reach Leon was over… but you would be wrong. The problem with chicken buses (the name given to the super cheap, old American school buses that run between towns in Central America) is that they are unpredictable and severely lacking in customer service. Despite us asking the driver to tell us when we got to Leon, he didn’t. A creeping gut-instinct that something was wrong hit me when we passed two signs to Leon Centro (city centre) with arrows facing the opposite direction. I eventually mustered up the courage to go and have it out with the driver in Spanish, and yes… it turned out we had passed Leon 3k previously and that he forgot to tell us. Despite the outcries of the other passengers (who I think felt really sorry for this pair of lost, bedraggled gringos) we were unceremoniously dumped on the side of the motorway. Did I mention by now it was nightime? With our backpacks on we set off on a very hairy dark walk back to Leon, having no real idea where we were even walking to. Considering we had now been on the road via boat, panga, jeep and bus for about 20 hours… we were in pretty foul moods. After a 2k trek we spotted the holy sight of a taxi who, smelling the desperation on us, charged us quadruple what it should have been, but I think we would have paid ANYTHING to get to our hostel at that point! Finally we were safely in a bed, in Leon, in one day. HOOOORAYYYYYY.

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Nick Says: Waking up in the actually quite lovely surrounds of Lazybones Hostel (set up and run by local people), we felt mainly relief that our ambitious cross-country mission had been a success, and bar a minor late night motorway walk, had actually gone surprisingly smoothly! But now it was time for a last day in Nicaragua, and where better to spend it then Leon? If there’s one thing Latin America does not lack, it’s beautiful colonial cities. Cartagena, Cusco, parts of Panama City, Granada, and now Leon. Unlike it´s lakeside rival to the south we had visited a few weeks earlier, Leon seemed more built for people living there, with us tourists as a welcome after-thought. It is also the cultural home of many Nicarguan poets, artists and musicians, as well as acting as a hot-bed of left-leaning political thought and a home of the revolution. You could see this legacy everywhere, with paintings of various ‘heroes and martyrs’ on the walls, pictures of the great and the good of the arts world in the cafes, and a heap of museums to explore. We also heard an amazing story about the beautiful cathedral (below) which is that the architect had a plan signed off that was significantly more modest that the final creation. On the day of building, he switched his approved plan with the plan of Lima cathedral, and so got theirs instead!

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Sadly for us, the museum we most wanted to see (the gallery of heroes and martyrs, run by mothers of the revolution) was closed for some sort of refurbishment. So instead we took to wandering the slightly raffish but alluring streets of Leon until we stumbled across the intriguing sounding museum of traditions and folktales. If you ever find yourself in Leon, then I guess I would recommend a visit to this place. Especially if you like your museums incredibly weird, like us (details in this Peru blog entry). Housed in a former prison of the Somoza regime, our guide Wilbur took us on a eclectic tour of the place, which mixes in, well whatever the hell they feel like mixing in to be honest. One room had some incredible black and white photography of the 1979 revolution (think young idealists on the streets wearing flares and holding machine guns and bazookas), while the next had giant papier-mache models of famous Nicaraguans, before another was a hall of giant heads and cultural dances. Oh, and in every room there were drawings on the wall of the tortures the prisoners used to suffer.

After being led to a room which seemed to contain the embalmed corpse of the lady who founded the museum (nb. it may have just been another model), we then got to go to the horror section of the tour. With a background tape playing the chilling sounds of people screaming, and very limited light, Wilbur told us a selection of his favourite ghost folk tales. Amongst them were the golden crab, the three witches, the child-stealing gnome, and the mighty witch-pig. However, my favourite (and Wilbur’s) was the legend of the ‘big busters’. This concerned a poor lady who was so hideously ugly that apparently could only attract a man because of her aforementioned big busters. Driven mad with rage, she then became a deadly spirit who lured drunk men to her before crushing them to death with her boobs. Just in case we were in any doubt about how big these busters were, there was another detailed model to demonstrate their size…

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After that, we were finally led back into the sunshine before being allowed to climb up and roam the walls of the prison, the section of the tour where we could pretend to be prison guards apparently. Excellent.

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That evening, we were able to call on some friends in Leon. While on the magical Little Corn, we had been caught in a morning rain-storm during breakfast. To help everyone escape the rain, we ended up sharing our table with two American ladies named Deborah and Kate. They turned out to be some of the most interesting and inspirational people we’ve met on the entire trip. They live and work in Leon, running a non-profit charity called Project Opportunity which seeks to teach skills to the poorest members of Nicaraguan society. Unlike a lot of other charities we’ve seen down here, it’s not about making the Westerners feel better about themselves, but rather empowering those who were born in a less fortunate situation then us. They make sure they work equally with their Nicaraguan partners on every project, and all the money donated goes straight to these projects, rather than anywhere else. They had just finished building a toilet block for a local school when we met them, providing clean sanitation to these children for the first time. With Nicaragua being the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, it was a breath of fresh air to meet people trying to make a difference, and not just a quick dollar. We are both hoping to fundraise for this charity in the future, and hopefully work with them once we are settled back in the UK. As well as doing good, they were also excellent company, and helped us celebrate our engagement (again) with beer and pizza. But then all too soon our time in Nicaragua was up.

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We had a hell of a journey in front of us, where we would attempt to cross 4 countires in one day, with a different meal in each one. It would be the type of trip to rival my infamous Euro Man Voyage of 2011, where I ate breakfast in Switzerland, lunch in Liechtenstein, and dinner in Austria…

Bee Says: A huge difference in Central America has been the introduction of the wonderous shuttle. We spent SO many hours in South America negotiating bus stations, bus routes and setting off on journies to places that involved 3 different changes of transport and never really knowing if it would actually work. I admit this was a huge part of the fun and satisfaction of roughing it, but now that we are slightly weary and getting to the end of the trip, shuttles have made life a hell of a lot easier and safer. Shuttles basically run from Nicaragua right up to Mexico and link up every tourist destination you could dream of travelling to. They are a door to door service, taking you right from hostel to hostel, in a zippy little mini bus. You pay slightly more but it takes out every possible stress. Our first shuttle experience collected us at 2.30am from Leon and after many miles and border entry & exits, finally dropped us in Antigua at 7pm. We had coffee in Nicaragua, breakfast in Honduras, lunch in San Salvador (capital of El Salvador, which was actually really nice) and dinner in Guatemala. We used Gecko Tours, who were professional, friendly and even had wifi / showed movies onboard (even if one was a slightly dodgy choice about friends having an orgy. Hmm, the driver claimed it was cultural as it was set in Costa Rica.)

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Nick was immediately off on his “solo travel” adventure to Copan giving me a day alone in Antigua, as Craig’s flight didn’t land until the evening. I have to admit, after spending every second with Nick for 5 months, I woke up alone and really had no idea what to do with myself. So, like all rounded 29 year old women, I rang my parents. After some nice nattering and a great chat with my dad about Moby Dick, I then ventured out for my day of being a lone wolf. I wanted to save the best bits for when Craig was with me, so it mostly consisted of Guatemalan hot chocolate, chatting Spanish to locals (maybe a little too keen-ly, as I got asked out for a drink by a tourist policeman and I suspect that’s a little over and above his job description. I declined, obviously!), clambering around some old church ruins and cake. Oh, and stalking Craig’s impending arriving on Flight View!

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Nick Says: While Bee was seducing the locals, I was up for yet another early shuttle, this time at 4am. I had originally planned to go off to El Salvador for a few days, and while a lunch-time visit definitely wasn’t enough, it was still far more than the 2 hours we got while passing through Honduras. I also really wanted to see the Mayan ruins of Copan, and so in the end I booked my place and set off to the so-called ‘bad boy’ of Central America. Known for being the murder capital of the world, and the subject of countless horror stories from other travellers who had passed through, I was interested to see what I would make of it. Granted my view is a very limited one, and of their major mainland tourist site, but from what I experienced Honduras seemed to have an unjustifiably bad rep.

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Copan Ruinas is a pretty town near the border of Guatemala. It was a long trip there (8 hours) but so worth the effort. However, we’d heard that tourism was in a serious crisis in Honduras, and the evidence was here. The place was practically deserted, apart from a few backpackers and many, many armed soldiers patrolling the main square. Which is a shame, as the Hondurans themselves seemed super friendly, and really keen to show off their country. Unlike most of the other places we’d been to, no-one bothered you in the street to buy things, or visit somewhere with them, but if you approached them then they were a wealth of helpful knowledge.

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From the town, it was an easy 15 minute walk to the Mayan ruins. Located in a gorgeous valley, they were some of the most impressive temples I’d ever seen. You approach the main site through a valley filled with screeching and swooping scarlet macaws, before entering the grand plaza. Copan was famed for its craftsmanship and skill at carving, and everywhere exquistely detailed ancient monuments towered above me, including the ceremonial staircase, one of the finest workd of art in the ancient world. The main thing I took away from Copan was the knowledge that Mayan temples were actually painted in bright colours – here and there you could see the remains of red or blue. It’s something I had never considered before. However, the true draw of Copan is the fact you can basically have the entire site to yourself. In my day there the most crowded it became was when I saw about 9 other people on a tour. Yep, it was deserted. You could clamber to the top of a Mayan pyramid and gaze down on the rest of the Acropolis without seeing a single other soul. I sat on one for hours, perfectly at peace. Compared to the crowds you had to elbow out of your way at Machu Picchu, this was a welcome relief. In it’s own way more impressive than that more famous Inca site, Copan is a must-see for any visitor to Central America.

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With only one night to enjoy in town before heading back to Bee, I ended up a German micro-brewery called Sol de Copan. Before being joined by other people from the shuttle here, I managed to sample several of owner Thomas’s excellent beers (all in the name of research of course) before eating the best schnitzel I’ve ever had in my life. Married to a Honduran, Thomas taught me chess (and beat me easily, even when trying to take it easy) and discussed how Honduras was struggling. It was a beautiful country which was being dragged down by the endless bad press. Lack of tourism was creating a new cycle of poverty, which was making an already desperate situation worse. He loved raising his family here, but felt terribly at how the country was suffering. So I would say to you, go and visit Honduras! Probably avoid the big cities, but check out the rest of this beautiful and friendly country.

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While I often go and do a solo adventure on all my travels, this one had been truly eye-opening. However, I really did miss Bee and couldn’t wait to get back to her. We were close to the home straight now, but I almost had to spend a few extra days in Honduras. So far we’d been incredibly lucky criss-crossing countries, so it was perhaps inevitable that I would run into trouble. This trouble took the form of a protest in Guatemala just across the border. A crowd had gathered to make their unhappiness about power cuts known, and were burning a load of stuff and blocking the road to make their point. But just as it looked like we would have to turn back and return to Copan, an ice cream truck arrived, everyone got ice-cream, and then the protest was over. I’m not saying the two things were related, but I’ll just let that coincidence sit there.

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What mattered was that we were off, and I was ready to rejoin Bee, and welcome Craig for 10 days of Guatemalan adventure.