Run the equator: May 2007

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Crossing the imaginary line!

A ferry, one bus ride and three delayed flights later we are in Quito, Ecuador! (and technically, in the southern hemisphere.) And we've already seen Spiderman 3 on the bus in Honduras... who says the latest and greatest in terms of entertainment aren't available here straight from the flea market stalls?

For the first time since we left I am happy I didn't send home the last sweater, the long socks and the jacket (we have shipped stuff home twice, from Mexico and Guatemala, and some of you can finally utter the much expected "I told you so"... you know who you are).

The days here are spring-warm and a little rainy and the nights are cold. There is no need for a fan in the room - ah, heavens! - and you don't have to sweat just because you exist, some sort of physical effort may be needed.

I don't have yet any wise insights or strong opinions on Ecuador - I've only been here for a day - but I can't help mentioning the most peculiar thing about this country - their national currency is the US dollar. Sure, everybody loves the $$$, but how does one actually set up a whole country to officially run its economy on the currency of another? And doesn't the United States have to agree to this in order to give the whole endeavor some chance of success? How do international transactions work? And what prevents the dollars to be worth zilch in Ecuador (like their previous money, the Sucre) and run on an inflationary course? And how does one actually get enough dollars of all denominations to supply all businesses and ATMs across the country? - in fact, an answer may be provided by the fact that everybody here asks for exact change. And what exactly fuels their economy besides oil? It seems that every shop in this town sells batteries and cell phones...

Nonetheless, it is a good feeling to see that your dollar goes - literally - a long way: lunch costs $1.50, a cab ride across town $2, bus rides 25c, our hostel room is $14. It's only up to us to not fall into the tourist traps and pay ten times as much.

OK 'nuff said, I must go find the answers to all those questions now... or eat.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Non-descript central-american town

I was "voted off the island" and am back on the Honduras mainland, in San Pedro Sula, spending an afternoon and a night (or sort of, we must wake up at 3am) before taking a plane for Quito, Ecuador tomorrow morning. There is nothing to see here. Absolutely nothing. I swear.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

The island of the day before

Angela's ready for the dive
Angela's ready for the deep dive
Click on picture to see slide-show.

Home is where your heart is, says a word of wisdom, and so seems to be the case for many of the residents of the island of Roatan. An army of white, English-speaking dive masters, waiters and hotel attendants has invaded the island and they are here to stay. The divemasters who take you under water during the day are sometimes the waiters who serve you dinner in the evening. The ones who don’t have two jobs are busy spending their money at the many bars that line up the main drag of the idyllic West End village. They live here without any plans for the future, just dive, make some money, and spend the low season somewhere else where there’s work while things are slow in Roatan. They came here, fell in love with the place and decided to stay.

It’s easy to get caught by the web of magic that floats above the coconut trees… an island with white beaches, surrounded by coral reefs, sandy roads flanked by low-key bars and restaurants and the omnipresent dive shops, and a crowd you can always somehow relate to, because there’s at least one common subject everyone can talk about: diving. One can easily switch off the brain and just let the days go by: no rush hour traffic, no stress at the office, no taxes to pay, and no annoying authorities to deal with (mainly because there isn’t any enforcement on laws governing the residence of foreigners)

Roatan (and its sister island, Utila) are touted the cheapest places to dive in the world, and it may as well be true. Diving – a particularly expensive sport - goes as low as $20 for a dive, all equipment included. Certification packages are also cheap, around $200. But make no mistake, nothing else is cheap; although cabins and rooms aren’t overpriced – we got ours for $35, with a kitchen, and private bathroom with hot water (yes, hot water it not common around here) – food and drinks are right at US prices. The grocery stores are stacked with products made for and sold in the US market, undeniably in an attempt to make the American tourist feel like home. As one could expect, they cost double the price than the same you can buy at home. I looked into the baskets at the cashier lines; the locals, of course, don’t buy Cheerios, Ocean Spray cranberry juice and Uncle Ben’s rice – they stick to rice and flour by the pound, meat, milk, vegetables and the other basics.

Isn't it strange how enclaves like this, working in an economy of their own, come into existence in countries that are among the poorest in the world? Of course, it’s our fault, the tourists, and in many places that have succumbed to this trend, all the locals who cannot afford the new prices have been driven out, except for those directly involved in the industries catering to the visitors. However, Roatan still keeps its magic; despite the high prices it still has the “village at the end of the world” look, there is no over-the-top real estate development yet, and no throngs of college kids who go abroad because they cannot drink legally in their country. And the main road in West End is still unpaved… and I hope it stays this way.

And speaking of diving, I have to proudly announce that Angela and I got our advanced scuba diver certifications. It involved 5 specialty dives: underwater navigation, night diving, drift diving, peak performance buoyancy, and a deep dive, to 100 feet. Ready for tougher challenges?

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Real Banana Republic

Copan, Honduras
Copan Mask
Click on picture to see slide-show.

No words of praise are usually associated with this country but there are a few things that put Honduras on the map: it is the home of the famous Copan archaeological site and the cheapest place in the world for diving.

The ancient Mayan city of Copan, while not as grandiose as Tikal, Calakmul or Chichen Itza, is unique in the Mayan world due to its carvings and stelae, whose level of detail and expression is unequaled anywhere else. We took many photos of them; the pictures are not very interesting artistically, but we wanted to capture a bit of the artistry and sophistication of this long lost culture for ourselves.

While on the road from Antigua, we decided not to spend the night in Copan; therefore we only had a couple of hours between buses, which made our trip to the ruins very short. As in most places frequented by the rich American tourists, the locals have wised up and started charged admission prices that may equal the weekly life expenses of a local family: $15 to visit the ruins, $15 to enter the archaeological tunnels (to see a temple excavated from under a newer temple, leaving the newer one intact) and $7 for the small museum. We chose to see only the ruins. If we had seen Copan earlier in our trip, we would have spend more time here, but by now we have seen eighteen archaeological sites, so one more or less didn’t make any difference.

We reached La Ceiba on the Caribbean side of the country that evening and the town offered a bleak and ominous sight. For the curious traveler with an open attitude, this is just a place like any other with secrets to reveal and a particular - albeit hard to discern - charm. For the tourist with a destination in mind, there is nothing to see here. Indeed, most travelers use this town as a base to take the ferry to the Bay Islands, and do not spend more than a night here. They would spend even less, but the bus arrives too late to catch the ferry.

Honduras is a very poor country, ranking in certain statistics as the second poorest in the western hemisphere (just before the all-time winner Haiti). The western tourist has trouble understanding why there is so much garbage littering the streets, in the narrow alleys between houses or in the ditches along the roads. “Why don’t these people clean it? What’s wrong with them?” (almost literal quote from Angela.) Coming from a country that had – and still has – to fight the same problem, I’m sort of an unwilling “expert” in the matter… the demons that plague the Hondurans are all too familiar; they are called “Not my business!” and “It don’t really matter either way”. Garbage is ubiquitous because people think that their house ends at their porch and if they shove the garbage in the street it’s… somebody else’s problem. And if they clean it… somebody’s going to throw some more in the ditch tomorrow, so… it don’t really matter either way. It’s a long way from here to understanding that only respect - of self and others - can change things.

But none of this should deter the keen traveler – there’s a bit of paradise waiting at the end of the road: the islands Utila and Roatan.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Antigua - the town you wish you never had to leave

Masks
Wall of wood-carved masks
Click on picture to see slide-show.

After waking up very early twice in a row, after a few days loaded with physical activity and lots of walking, what would you do if you had to choose between an eight-to-nine-hour bus ride and a 45-minute flight to get from Flores (the town nearest to Tikal) to Guatemala City? That’s what I thought…

Our destination was actually the colonial town of Antigua Guatemala, about one hour away from the capital. The perspective of an overnight bus ride in a cramped seat wasn’t appealing to either of us, so we paid $125 each and jumped on the plane.

Taking a shuttle from the Guatemala City airport to Antigua was a bit of a shock. For three weeks now we have been visiting villages with dirt roads, small beach towns, and ruins hidden in the jungle; the sight of a six-lane highway packed with rush-hour stop-and-go traffic was something that I had almost forgotten. Throngs of people were crowding the sidewalks waiting for their rides home, mostly old American school-buses spitting thick, black smoke. Painted in vivid colors, this motley fleet of aged vehicles has been given a new lease on life in Central America and is the closest thing that can be called public transportation in Guatemala.

Antigua Guatemala, or short, Antigua, is the prettiest colonial gem in Central America. Once a former capital and prized jewel of the crown of Spain in the new world, it was nearly abandoned at one point because of the frequent floods and earthquakes that razed many of the buildings. This however seems to have actually been a stroke of “luck”. Had it not been the natural disasters, the town would look nowadays like present-day Guatemala City, a heap of non-descript architecture. Instead, at the beginning of the last century, under the auspices of an economic boom caused by the coffee trade, the town was gradually restored and kept its colonial character.

The streets are packed with hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, bars, cafes and – more recently – internet access points. Being one of the major tourist stops – and tourists, for sure, you will see everywhere – Antigua is not very cheap, but doesn’t hurt the wallet as bad as Belize. Most of its churches and convents are in ruin; they have never been rebuilt after the city was restored to its former glory. One notable landmark is the ruined convent of Santo Domingo which has been transformed in part into an upscale hotel, while the rest was kept as a museum. The ruin is covered with a protective canopy that shields it from the elements. Various crypts and chapels used nowadays as exhibition halls are open to the public – for quite a pricy fee – Q40 per person, which is more than we usually spend for lunch for both of us. The restoration is still in progress and it’s worth taking a look; you may even consider staying at the beautiful hotel if you’re not on a backpacking budget…

The first night we parked at the “Black Cat” hostel which has a funny and very diverse international crowd, but unfortunately the place seems to never sleep, the shared bathrooms are too few and too filthy, and the walls our tiny private room carried all the sounds from both the common area and the toilets. The next morning we moved across the street to the “Casa Rustica”, which, although more expensive (about $21) and lacking the party atmosphere, is more comfortable and quiet.

For the traveler coming from the jungle, getting to the highlands of Guatemala is a much welcome change. There’s no need to wear a hat and sun-block all the time for fear of burns and sun-stroke, no need for a noisy fan in the room to keep the temperature bearable at night, no pestering mosquitoes and no malaria. In a nutshell, you may feel a little like home. It’s no wonder those Spaniards built their colonial cities at higher altitudes in the Andes - Antigua enjoys a permanent spring-like climate.

For the amateur photographer Antigua and its surroundings is a challenging environment. The sky is covered most of the time, which makes for a very dull ambient light resulting in washed-up colors and unflattering pictures. Most of the surrounding volcanoes are active and regularly spew ash in the sky which mixes with the clouds, turning them darker and more ominous (although it never rained in the five days we spent here). To that, add the pollution caused by the predominantly old and decrepit vehicles and the passion of the Guatemalans to blow up fireworks at any time of the day on any day, and you get a nice smog cocktail. I spent an hour or so at the top of the Pacaya volcano hoping for a breach in the sky, but it wasn’t meant to happen on that day. I took some pictures anyway, but nothing to congratulate myself over.

While this town may not be the paradise of the photographers it is definitely the heaven for the American couples looking for cheap and speedy adoptions. The country’s adoptions system was (and still largely is) poorly regulated. This situation has lead to problems, fraud and deceived would-be parents, and has probably contributed to building up the popular opinion that Guatemalan babies can be simply “bought”. This is hopefully improving: the headline on today’s local newspaper says “This year 74% of adoption requests have been rejected. Last year only 9% were rejected”. The article goes on to say how a thorough and clear legal adoption procedure simply didn’t exist until recently.

There’s no shortage of monuments, museums and sights in this town or around, but I would consider the town itself as the main attraction. Between wandering up and down the “calles” and “avenidas”, stopping here and there in an artisan shop or at a market stall, looking at the people, taking pictures, or hiking up a volcano, your day will easily go by and you would want to stay another night. And another one… Many tourists remain fascinated by Antigua’s charm and easy-going atmosphere. We were too. But it’s soon time to leave again. Tomorrow at 4AM we leave for Honduras and back into the sweltering tropical lowlands. Another sleepless night…

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Tikal's got your wallet

Posting from Antigua, Guatemala. More about this enchanting town later.

On our last day in Belize we went horseback-riding. Before starting this trip I have sworn that I would go riding as often as I can, but only if I get to trot and gallop freely; otherwise, walking behind another horse for one hour would be too boring. No problem, our guide took us on a trail that cut across a plantation and a few villages and let us gallop full throttle and do our own thing. He even offered to share his joint with us when we stopped for a few minutes to rest but we declined. It was a nice ride, but Angela was sore for the next three days...

But despite all the fun we had (or maybe just because of it...) Belize was too expensive for our taste (we had already skipped Caye Caulker and postponed the diving until Honduras) and we had to leave. The next day we crossed the border into Guatemala and I got a chance to practice my Spanish by asking the immigration officer to apply the stamp on a page that already had one stamp. I've only forgotten to ask for this favor once, when exiting Mexico, and bang! a new page had been sacrificed. I must make this passport last until I reach Europe.

Skull
The Temple of the Jaguar
Click on picture to see slide-show.

The great Mayan ruins at Tikal are a memorable and rewarding sight, but they are in such a remote part of Guatemala that most tourists visit them by entering from Belize and go back the same or the next day. The nearest village is about 30 minutes away by car, but there are three upscale hotels at the site. Since we decided - for a reason that I can still not explain to myself - to see the sunrise atop of a Mayan temple, we stayed at the "Jungle Lodge", a mere couple of steps from the park entrance. For $40 a night we got a room without a bath, but the shared bathrooms were spotless. The electricity at the site runs only a few hours every morning and evening so we couldn't have the fan circulate the air in the room during the night, which made for quite a stifling sleep...

We entered the park after 3PM in order to avoid the heat and to be able to use the same ticket the next day. After wandering for a while on the long alleyways under the forest canopy and climbing aimlessly on some of the ruined temples we caught the sunset atop of the "Great Pyramid of the Lost World" together with a large group of very boisterous Spaniards who were having quite a party up there, drinking champagne and taking group pictures.

The next day we woke up at 4AM to catch the sunrise (or more exactly we were woken up by the howler monkeys who populate the treetops in the neighborhood), having hired a guide to take us into the park together with another couple that we had met the day before. You can't enter the park before 6AM without a "guide" (sunrise is around 5:45AM) so every masochistic tourist who wants to catch the sunrise (why? oh, why?) has to hire one for about $10 to $15 per person. It's quite a rip-off because the park is not that dark before the actual sunrise and we could have found our way easily. I wonder who gets a cut of that money...

We climbed the temple number IV (tallest in Tikal) and sat around with a group of people - in silence this time. For obvious reasons it seems that sunrises are to be watched in silence while sunsets are meant for partying. I took a lot of pictures, but since my picture-taking skills suck, nothing really impressive came out of it. Of one thing I'm sure, I was the first to leave the top, being bored of so much sunrise watching... For the next few hours, in the cool morning air, I explored the temples and the acropolis in the central zone while Angela rested under a tree (still hurting from all that trotting the day before). By 8:30AM we were out of the park and ready to leave.

So yes, Tikal is worth seeing but it's got your wallet squeezed tight. Transport in and out is not cheap, they will change your dollars at prices you'd hate yourself for accepting, and drinking water costs an arm and a leg... whatcha gonna do, drink the one at the showers?

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Yucatan Hostel/Hotel Reviews

Monkey Hostel, Campeche

This was one of our favorite hostels in the Yucatan. The staff was loads of fun our room was nice, bathrooms were clean and the best location we could ask for. It was a steal at 189 pesos a night/$18. We had a double room in which is a quieter choice over the dorm rooms in the main building. The hostel also has internet, a great patio above the building, washer dryer available for 25 pesos and a basic breakfast.

Nomadas Hostel, Merida

This too was a good hostel; it was clean, offered water for 1 peso for 1 liter. The downside was our room was scorching hot. It was a hot week though and we would suggest a room with some airflow. Nomadas offered internet, had a basic breakfast and free salsa lesson in the afternoon. The staff was nice and seemed very knowledgeable.

Rio Bec Dreams, Xpujil

Hmm, what can we say about this place...

Papaya Playa, Tulum

This was a decent place for the price $30 a night for a basic cabana on a nice beautiful stretch of beach. All bathrooms and showers are shared which needed a bit of cleaning. We also made the mistake of paying for all 4 nights in advance when we decided to leave a bit early. The manager didn’t want to give us the last nights. After much debate he decided to meet us ½ way. There were allot of options available in Tulum, but everything seemed to be $40 or over so we felt we got a good price.

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Mexico Budget

A lot of people ask us how much a trip like ours costs. Of course we saved some money, but beyond that, judicious money management is needed - picking the right accomodations, eating at the right places, chosing the tourist activities - all this must be tailored to fit one's budget. We'll try to give budget tips for all the coutries we go to. These are mostly based on Angela's estimates, adjusted to match the actual spending. Heh' we're not perfect...

Mexico was more expensive than we thought although we did keep to our budget. For the two of us the following is a list of what we averaged.

Accommodations: We averaged $18 to $22 a night. In Tulum or coastal towns this is a bit higher.

Food: For 2 people we averaged $30-$40 a day which is a bit expensive. You can definitely do it cheaper if you eat tacos and salbutes the entire time and get it down to $10 to $20 a day.

Car Rental/Gas: This is where we went over budget because we were forced to purchase Mexican car insurance (two of the three types of insurance they offered could be waived - and hence covered by our credit card - but the liability for damage to third parties couldn't). It was still a good deal at less than $25 a day. Gas seemed to be the same price as the U.S.

Activities: This is what we spent the most on and the days we did multiple Mayan Ruins it got more expensive. We loaded ourselves with activities and averaged about $20 to $30 a day.

Bus Tickets: Cheap, $5 to $10 each depending on where you go.

Other: This is what gets you: water, coffee, the occasional ice cream, internet access and more water... we averaged $10 or so a day for stuff like this. We drink allot of water, more so when we visited ruins in the scorching afternoon sun.

And here's more...

Budget tips

For those who are interested here are some tips to help you keep budget while in the Yucatan:

  • Calculate your bill while you order or keep the menu with you until you pay. Too many times you order and get a bill and then have no idea what the cost is. You end up paying 20 pesos instead of 15 for the soda and somehow two ended up on your bill when you ordered one. It took us 2 weeks to get this.
  • Make sure to review your bill – is service included? If so you don’t need to tip anymore, if it is not included 10% is enough, 15% when it is excellent. We found out we were over-tipping 2 weeks into our trip.
  • Restaurant portions are sometimes big. If you are travelling as 2 or more you can sometimes split a meal. One can order an entrĂ©e and the other can order an appetizer. The cost is cheaper and it is usually more than enough food.
  • When filling up on gas, you pay what the pump display says it is per liter not more. Our first gas fill we were told it was 9 pesos vs. what the gas tank said (6.85 pesos). He told us it had gone up, he even pulled a pocket calculator to give us the total. Since we didn’t know any better we paid. The next time and every time after that we were charged the price at the pump, which was indeed around 6.85.
  • Try to stick to hostels or hotels that provide breakfast, free water etc. This makes a huge difference!
  • If you can (and in most places you can) never pay for more than one night in the hotel. We ended up staying in a place in Tulum and paid for the 4 nights we planned on staying. We realized that we needed to leave after 3 days. They refused to give us back the money for the night we did not stay. Also, you never know the accommodation until you sleep there. It may look great on the outside but then after a night a sleep you may realize it is too loud, there are bedbugs… you never know. So if you can pay only for one night and then as you go.
Tipping
  • In a restaurant 10% (make sure it is not included in the bill), 15% if service is excellent.
  • Don’t tip Gas attendants who fill your tank. We did for a week or so before we found out locals don’t tip them
  • Make sure when filling up on gas, the pump has started at zero. We didn't have this one pulled on us but it seems that it's a common scam.
  • When kids or adults run to clean you windows on your car at the gas station you may get stuck having to tip 3 versus 1 person. Stand your ground and say no, or only tip 5-10 pesos and no more. One will start doing your window then when you turn your head sometimes another one will jump in and clean your back window. Then you get stuck feeling like you have to tip both.
  • For people who bag your groceries, 2-4 pesos at your discretion. We saw both some locals tipping and others not.
  • For room cleaning 2-5 pesos a day, if it was really cleaned nicely. We only used this is the mid range to higher end hotels. This didn’t seem to apply to hostels.
Happy travel!

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Gone cavin'

Skull
Sacrificed but not forgotten
Click on picture to see slide-show.

This is one of the best things we've done so far!

From the town of San Ignacio, the van takes you for a twenty minute drive on the highway, then for another thirty minutes on an unpaved road, until you hit the trail. From there on a moderate forty five-minute hike takes you alongside river banks, through the jungle and a few times across the river until you get to the cave.

The hike inside the Aktun Tunichil Muknal cave (such a long name, no wonder all touring shops call it ATM) is quite demanding: swimming is required a few times; for the rest you're wading through water or clambering up and down craggy stones carved either by the water, by the spelunkers or maybe by the ancient Mayans who used the cave as a temple for performing their sacred rituals.

Because this is what it's all about - at the end of the long cave trail you reach the crux of this adventurous experience: the grand hall where the Mayans carried out their holy rituals and gave offerings to the gods. Many pots with well preserved colors are scattered around deep in the guts of the mountain, partially buried by calcite deposits, intentionally broken by the Mayans at the end of the ceremonials. Among the pots there are skeletal remains, considered by the archaeologists, with reasonable certainty, as victims of human sacrifices. Perhaps sometimes the gods were not satisfied with the pottery...

It is a wonder that the cave is still open to visitors, although some of the rooms used by the Mayans are only accessible to the archaeologists. A few of the pots have been broken by careless tourists in the past, so the tour agencies have invented a trick: as soon as you leave the water trail and enter the dry area, they ask you to remove your shoes and walk in your socks (they tell you about this in advance). It seems that when they are walking in their socks only, tourists are more prone to listen to their guide and only step where they are allowed to. There are no elevated, enclosed alleyways (like there would be, if this place were in the US) so the cave looks eerily natural and caution is necessary when you walk around. They don't make you sign any liability waiver... Thank god, there still are some places in this world that haven't been taken over by lawyers.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Deeper into Belize

Posting this from San Ignacio, Belize

Lamanai bird
Orange Walk and Lamanai
Click on picture to see slide-show.

I wish I could say something interesting about the Lamanai ruins in Belize, but the Internet is so excruciatingly slow in this place that it would take too long to organize my flickr set (the place has air conditioning, however).

So all I'm going to say is that in Orange Walk is really not much to see - besides the garbage lying everywhere and the open sewers, and that the Lamanai ruins are not very impressive, although the trip up and down the river is nice, food is included, the guide was helpful, and if you're lucky you can see crocodiles (we did).

We left the place as soon as we could (the cockroaches in the hotel room didn't help either) and took the local buses westward to San Ignacio, enjoying the "air conditioning" through the open windows and the favorite music of the drivers. This little town is "cool" in all senses and we have plenty of activities lined up ahead of us: caving, horseback riding (only if they allow me to gallop) and hiking.

Now I have to Ctrl-C all this content just in case the connection breaks after I hit the "publish" button...

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Change of Venue

Today we crossed the border into Belize and arrived in Orange Walk, a sleepy and dirty little town. It seems that with every step we take we are farther and farther away from western civilization as we know it. Streets here are worse, garbage piles up in the alleys between the buildings and food choices are more limited. There’s a Caribbean air to the place; it reminds me more of Jamaica than of Mexico.

The population seems more diverse than in Mexico: there are Mayan descendants, whites, blacks and Asians in the streets. Out hotel is run by a Japanese family. People speak both English and Spanish. I wonder how the tiny nation of Belize, home to about 250,000 people, can keep things going and ensure social and racial equality for its citizens.

Our hotel is a nice change after the three nights we spent in Tulum “paradise” on the beach in a bungalow with no electricity, salty water at the showers, sand trickling in from everywhere and bugs crawling through our pierced mosquito-net. And let’s not forget the lizards eating our food… Other than that, everything was perfect, just like in the movies.

Now we lost the beach, but we have a decent shower and a room cool enough to sleep in.

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Monday, May 7, 2007

Oh heaven!

I am in Playa Del Carmen and we found... a Starbucks! God exists, after all...

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Sunday, May 6, 2007

You can hate me if you want..

Papaya Playa beach
Originally uploaded by fritz_da_kat.
I'm "here" - and it's just like in the picture.

a touristic paradise, less noisy, brash and expensive than Cancun, but not a total backwater without ATMs or good restaurants.

The perfect compromise for the beach lover.

Romanians: think Vama Veche with a little more class...

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Jewels in the Jungle

Calakmul
Calakmul
Click on picture to see slide-show.

Away from the main tourist circuit, the Mayan ruins of Calakmul, Becan and Chicanna (and other smaller ones which we have not visited) are less notorious with the common traveler, although well appreciated by the archaeological community. This actually makes a visit to these sites also more rewarding; having the whole place for yourself, with tree-canopied paths to follow and gigantic temples to climb, would give you a sudden feeling of how eerie and out-of-this-world these buildings are, surrounded by jungle, of how incredibly majestic these cities may have looked at the peak of their glory.

Becan and Chicanna
Becan and Chicanna
Click on picture to see slide-show.

No amount of photography or CGI processing can replace what your own imagination can wring out of the sight that you get when you are climbing up a pyramid and then for a few seconds you stop to catch your breath and then you take a look around and grasp the unfamiliar beauty that surrounds you. For a second, you could even imagine yourself on those steep stairs, a thousand years ago, attending to some mundane matter like trading precious stones for grains or to some more spiritually-elevated activity, like preparing all the necessities for the upcoming sacrificial ritual that will appease the gods and bring the much expected rainy season. For an instant you may feel like a Mayan. Then you raise your photo camera and the illusion disappears…

There is little else I can tell you about them, you have to see for yourself. You could also read the National Geographic account from 1990 which talks about the hardships of getting to Calakmul on an almost impracticable muddy road (the road has considerably improved since, but it’s still dangerous) and about the enthusiasm of the first archaeologists to dig in the area.

If you want to find out more about Calakmul look at the “Friends of Calakmul” web site http://www.calakmul.org/

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

Ah, the irony!

I am in a bungalow in the middle of the jungle on a forgotten truck road in Yucatan, near the tiny village of Xpujil. I have a wireless connection and Internet via satellite, the other couple that we share this restaurant patio with has two laptops, and Ian, an Englishman who, together with his wife, is traveling with no time frame or end in sight has just sent a fax.

There is no escaping technology on this trip. So far, everywhere we went the net was readily available: hostels, Internet cafes, wireless in coffee-shops. Most places would give me an Ethernet tap upon my explaining that I need to hook up my laptop. If they won't, I just walk across the street to the competition. And I can check my bank accounts online without worrying that every one of my keystrokes gets recorded.

So how are we doing so far? We've had our share of heat exhaustion already - no matter how much sunblock we use or how much water we drink or whether we're wearing hats, we are just not used to this insane Mexican summer heat. Occasional headaches are the most prevalent symptoms, but they should disappear as we're getting better accustomed with the weather.

Unfortunately, although I have taken many precautions, I wasn't able to avoid getting my stomach into trouble. After a few days of diarrhea, not wanting to take the kill-em-all antibiotic prescribed by the travel clinic, which we keep as a last resort, I decided to see a doctor today and bought some Metronidazole and some charcoal mixed with Furazolidone. They seem to do the job so far and hopefully they won't scorch me on the inside and kill the good together with the bad.

One thing that we realized so far is that we need more down-time days. A couple of consecutive days at the ruins or on the road in this heat would drain the last shreds of energy out of anybody... Hanging out on the fresh patio of this jungle lodge run by a crazy and sarcastic English lady is a welcome break from the loaded schedule that we prepared for ourselves.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Windows to a lost world

Uxmal - windows
Click on picture to see slide-show.

We did the "Puuc Route" on Monday and saw no less than five archaeological sites in a scorching heat. When we got to Uxmal, the most important of the sites, I was so beat that I could barely walk. But miraculously, a shot of espresso fixed the problem.

The route goes through a hilly region (Puuc means hills in Mayan), a welcome change after the boring flat plain of the northern Yucatan, making the driving a little more interesting and less prone to exhaustion caused by inactivity at the wheel.

We ended the trip in Campeche on the Western coast and found rock-star parking in front of the hostel we were going to stay at, which is not bad, has Internet access and sells beer.

The set of pictures is mainly made of "old stones", and is probably not as impressive as seeing the ruins in person, but I think there are a few good ones in there.


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Pilgrimage of the sinner

The church in Mani
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Posting again from Campeche. Internet access at the hostel is cheap - they seem to ask for 5 pesos no matter how long I use the computer.

The road unfolds in front of us mile by mile, flat and straight across the Yucatan plain. Village after village, town after town, you slow down and drive through the narrow streets, sometimes following signs but mostly just driving ahead, until you reach the place that every road which enters the village leads to - the town square and the church. Then Angela gets out of the car takes a few shots with the camera and then we move on. Sometimes, if the place looks more interesting, or if we´re hungry or we must go to the bathroom, we stay for a few more minutes.

All Mexican villages and towns in this area follow the same urban plan - it´s a street grid, where parallel streets with odd numbers cross the streets with even numbers. Like in the united states, it's pretty easy to find your way around. The center is always a square bordered on one side by a catholic church, usually a very large one. If the village is rich, the square is a park with trees and benches. If it's poorer (but that´s just my conjecture) the square is a very unappealing elevated concrete surface, which looks very bleak but probably comes alive during fiestas and dance nights...

Angela saw this thing in her Yucatan book called "The Convent Route" and put it on the travel itinerary - you follow a road through ten or so villages and look at their churches, which, for most part, are pretty impressive, although not very adorned inside with the exception of the altars. No matter how poor, the Mexicans like their churches big. You can't do this trip by bus; although these towns are linked by bus routes, they are impractical because it would take just to long. As expected, we did not see many other tourists on the road, except at the Mayapan archaeological site, which is near one of the villages we visited (if I could only remember which one...)

In the town Acanceh we ran into a couple of political rallies (Mexican elections are about to take place in May) and since we had already heard small but vocal protesters on the streets of Merida clamoring against Bush and calling him an assassin, we decided that if asked, we would say we are Canadians from Vancouver. Sure enough, we got into a conversation with an older guy who helped us find the bathrooms, and it turned out that he knew quite a few things about Canada and he's been to Germany and knew a few words of German. We concocted our lie quite well, but I had to make sure I stayed vague enough so I don't embarrass myself. Luckily, he didn't ask who the prime minister of Canada was; the last one I remember was Paul Martin, but I think his party lost the elections since... Next time we´re Romanians!

Angela was taking many pictures and soon we realized that since all villages looked alike, we wouldn't be able to tell the difference (in case it ever matters to us later), so she started writing down a few words about the pictures taken in each place, just to remember where each shot was from. That lead her to an idea for the next day, when we would be visiting four or five archaeological sites: to tell the ruins apart, we would take a picture of the entrance plaque bearing the name of the ruin before any other pictures at that site. Brilliant!

We spent the night in the town of Tikul in a room with air conditioning and TV, for 290 pesos ($27). After four nights in the sweltering room in the Merida hostel, it was about time we give ourselves a little treat...

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The Temple of the Seven Dolls


Temple of the seven dolls
Click on picture to see slide-show

Still in Campeche today, uploading pictures from the past days...

We took a day trip from Merida to the ruins at Dzibilchaltun and further on to Progreso. Dzibilchaltun is a less famous and somewhat underwhelming Mayan ruin a few kilometers north of Merida, mainly known for the fact that at the spring equinox (and only on that day), when the sun rises, it shines through one window of the Temple of the Seven Dolls and out through the other. This is yet another proof that although the Mayans didn’t know how to process metals and had apparently no knowledge of the wheel, they did, however, posses deep astronomical knowledge.

The Maya are largely still a mystery people, despite the advances made into understanding their hieroglyphs. Reading any tourist booklet about the Mayans, or the plaques with explications at the ruins will make you realize that the usage attributed to the various buildings and sometimes to entire sites is largely conjectural… Too bad the Spanish burned all those Mayan books…

Progreso… well, there’s not much to see there, except for the very long wharf and the beach. I’m not so much of a beach lover so I wasn’t impressed; besides, by the time we got there I was dead tired because of all the heat. We just had lunch (as usual the food was very good), and headed to our smoldering “home” in Merida.


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