Dave ‘n’ Zed.

We should have got off the bus in Balacar. Instead we continued on the bus back to Playa del Carmen for one last evening out at another community project in one of the neighbourhoods on the edge of town.

Before we were travelling full time we didn’t really get involved at all in that sort of aspect of travelling. It was all about enjoying our holidays and time away from work. But now we have more time we do, on occasion, try to see and visit different areas in order to get a better understanding of how people live and see a little of the ‘bigger picture’.

Sometimes they are really enjoyable and sometimes it’s difficult to completely understand what they are all about. The visit in Playa fell, for us, into the second category. The project was certainly about helping young kids, educate them, keep them off the streets, give them guidance and a better start in life. The guy who spoke to us was very passionate, almost excessively so, but it might have been better to do the visit when the kids were there to maybe have an interaction with them.

“My stomach doesn’t feel that great”

Anyway, the project had a small kitchen and they cooked dinner for us, after which we headed back to the hotel with the intention of having a few drinks on our last night. However, on the way back Steve suddenly felt quite ill and made a quick dash to the toilet where his meal came back the way it had gone in!!! No one else suffered any adverse effects at all so Steve put it down to his allergy to fish and although he had explained this to the staff on the evening, who knows what can be lost in translation!

His bout of sickness completely wiped him out and it took him the best part of the following week to get back fully on his feet. Luckily we had booked a lovely apartment and like he said, “If I was going to be unwell anywhere this was the place to be”.

A great place to recover!

We did manage a couple of walks along the beach, but most of the week was recovering in bed or by the pool. Considering some of the places we have visited in the past, we have been very fortunate not to have had more periods of sickness so we are not complaining.

We came on this trip with only a vague plan of what we would do and after Playa we had no firm plans at all. We fancied going on to Costa Rica and possibly Panama but we had plenty of time and we were in no real hurry to get there. We both fancied seeing Mexico City so we jumped on a flight and headed there.

Apparently it’s the biggest city by population in the Western Hemisphere and fourth biggest in The World. Flying in we could see a vast ocean of buildings spreading to the horizon at every point of the compass. With over 22 million people knocking about we were expecting a chaotic scene and, yes, there were parts on the outskirts which resembled that image very well. But our time was concentrated in the city centre, which was busy but certainly not overwhelming and we enjoyed three great days there.

Sarah in Zocala Square. Looking very Mexican.

As we almost always do in big cities we put on our walking shoes to see as much of the sights as we can on foot. It’s a great way to see the neighbourhoods which connect the major sights and Mexico City, like other great cities, has a varied mixture of neighbourhoods.

We started off in The Historic Centre and wandered through the sometimes cobbled streets until we emerged at the entrance to Zocala square. We have been in some central squares which have been big, some that have been huge, and then there is Zocala Square. It can apparently hold 100,000 people which, when you have 22 million residents, you need a big square.

She gets a new friend everywhere she goes.

When you first see the square it almost stops you in your stride. It is not particularly pretty, just an enormous open concrete space with a huge Mexican flag in the middle, the cathedral at one end and a series of three and four story important looking buildings running the length of the other three sides. It is the vastness of the square which is impressive.

We made our way out of the Historical Centre out onto the main thoroughfare of the city. We were fortunate to be doing this walk on a Sunday because the road is completely closed to traffic and instead is packed with walkers, runners, cyclists, people on roller blades and people on skateboards. This happens every Sunday and we had encountered a similar occurrence in Santiago de Chile a few years ago. So like we did there, we stepped off the pavement into the road and joined the procession for about three miles to the city’s major park, Chapultepec.

No room for cars today.

In the park we found the Sunday market which had easily over 300 stalls but it was really a repeat of 10 or so different stalls 30 times over. But it didn’t matter, we weren’t buying, and it was the colour of it all and the atmosphere that we enjoyed.

After the park we wandered through a couple of neighbourhoods on our way back to the hotel. Probably the best was Roma Norte with its tree lined streets and cafes and restaurants spilling out onto the pavement.

We also ended up in a more dusty, run down part of town and as we walked next to a high, long wall we noticed people walking through a gap ahead. When we got there we saw it was the entrance to a market. It was so colourful and huge with a maze of stalls. We only went in to see what was there and emerged nearly an hour later. This time Sarah was buying! It was so colourful it was hard not buy something.

One stall in a colourful market

The following day we had planned to visit a couple of museums. The National Anthropology Museum had been recommended to us by a few people. But, unfortunately, the majority of museums were closed on Monday so we had to make do with viewing the buildings themselves. Bad planning on our part but it was still worth it.

Another fabulous building in Mexico City.

We did manage to check out the Post Office which was open and although not a museum, with it’s amazing interior design it should be!

We had a fantastic time in Mexico City and it certainly exceeded our expectations. We wouldn’t say it’s the best city we have ever visited but on the list it, would certainly appear closer to the top than the bottom.

Now it was time to move on again and with Steve having been unwell in Playa we decided we were both in need of some time at the beach.

We were going to head North West towards Puerto Vallarta and beyond but our friend, Géraldine had really been singing the praises of a small town called Puerto Escondido in the South West so we decided to head there. When she heard we were going she extended her stay so our visits overlapped and we were able to catch up and go to dinner.

We have met some really great people over the last three years or so of travelling and it is special when we meet up with them again. Géraldine was heading off to Columbia before going home to Switzerland and we have already arranged to meet up again in Zurich in the summer.

Did we like Puerto Escondido? Well it was OK I suppose. Initially we had planned to stay for about a week, then we extended this to 10 days. As we write this, it is day 18 and we are still here! We are eventually leaving this evening, but you bet we like it.

Puerto is fab. Exactly what we were looking for. Well done Géraldine, great call. The town itself is spread over about seven miles or so, although what is and what isn’t Escondido is up for debate. It technically lies in two regions, which creates problems regarding who pays taxes to who. This in turn leads to demonstrations, protests and the odd mayor or two being kidnapped. Which is all not that surprising for Mexico!

Looking out over Puerto Escondido.

Mexican politics aside, Puerto is a laid back surf town with a bohemian feel and a string of eight beaches. The beaches are all different in one way or another and cater for the differing people who live or visit here.

The stretch from La Punta to Downtown is physically one long stretch of sand but is four different beaches defined by the state of the water at each point and the make up of the town behind it.

La Punta is the backpacker part of town with a dirt road, lots of small restaurants and bars which all seem to have rooms above for rent. The beach here is for beginner surfers and at this time of year is packed to the point of chaos with surf schools and newly graduated surfers. We loved to sit and watch while literally dozens of bodies scramble for the same wave only to crash and burn. It’s a source of amusement for us as all the surfboards are thrown into the air with not a single body in sight!

Walking through La Punta

We will point out at this stage that neither of us can surf. We have tried and we have definitely been among the ones retrieving their boards and clearing sand from every orifice known to man.

Next stop on the beach is Zicatela. The town here is more swepped up. More cafes, beach bars and restaurants, tourist shops etc. Zicatela is why Puerto Escondido exists. The waves here are famous in the World of surfing, comparable to North Shore on Oahu, Jeffries Bay in South Africa, Bells Beach in Australia and other places of ridiculous wave notoriety. ‘The Mexican Pipeline’ rolls in here and even at this time of year the wave height is up to 15 feet. When the big waves arrive in July they exceed 40 feet and that is a big powerful wave.

“I don’t think you are up to that level Steve”

Steve can testify first hand how powerful they are even at 15 feet when he went out swimming. He got caught out by the current and misjudged the swell, then he found himself under a big one just as it was breaking. He felt the full force of tons of water as it crashed down on him and put him through a washing machine cycle! Luckily he is a decent swimmer and knew the wave would throw out of the back and eventually he would hit the surface. Which is what happened, (although he was minus his goggles now) and he was able to swim out beyond the break before the next one arrived. Sarah, on the other hand, wasn’t so confident and spent the best part of half an hour feeling sick as Steve bobbed about like a cork making his way parallel to the shore before eventually getting out!

Sarah in the barrel………in her dreams maybe!

The next beach is Playa Principal and this is more of a relaxed sunbathing beach. ‘The Pipeline’ has finished by now and it is much more of a swimming beach. This is where Steve will swim from now on!

Playa Principal merges where the bay curves with Bahia Marinero, which is where the locals seem to gather. This part of the bay is full of small fishing boats and is the origin of the town. It is particularly busy at weekends and the town behind the beach is more rustic but has some great traditional Mexican goods for sale.

It could be argued that Escondido finishes here and a smaller separate town of Ricondada starts. Some would agree, some wouldn’t. A protest might start, then a demonstration, then possibly a mayor might get kidnapped. By which time most most people would get fed up and go back into the surf!

Ricondada/Escondido is home to four more beaches. The first three are all small and set in wonderfully scenic coves. They can be a bit of a trek to access, either by a steep track or numerous steps. Actually 169 down to Carrazalillio (It took us 2 weeks to learn the pronunciation for that one) but they are so worth the effort. All great swimming and snorkeling beaches.

Looking down on Carrazalillio from the top of the steps.

The final beach of the eight is Bacocio. We loved this beach at Sunset. It is almost three kilometres of unbroken white sand and most of the time practically deserted. However at sunset things change. The sight of the sun disappearing in a blaze of orange and red is a great sight but it isn’t the main attraction.

Not a bad scene!

Bacocio beach is home to a charity which protects turtle eggs. The beach is a major nesting site for three species of turtles, however as sometimes happens in some parts of the World a market appears for the illegal purchase of certain items and in this area it is turtle eggs. Four members of the charity keep guard each night, they watch for the turtles coming ashore wait for them to lay the eggs then collect them and take them to a secure hatchery on the beach. Then during the day two Police Officers patrol the beach from the hatchery.

Every evening just before sunset people can go down to the hatchery and pay 100 pesos (£3.50) and they are given half a jaciara shell. This is a hard shell about the size of a tea cup. You then walk onto the beach and a tiny baby turtle is placed in the shell which you then take close to the water and tip it out. Then by instinct the baby turtle shuffles off into the ocean. You are encouraged to have a handful of wet sand to throw at and deter any birds that might fancy a baby turtle for supper. Although while we were there we didn’t see any of them come to grief.

Sarah with the turtles.

You are also encouraged to give your turtle a name to create some sort of bond. Steve decided to call his turtle “Zed”. Sarah was far more thoughtful and called her turtle “Dave” after her father who very sadly passed away recently. It was a lovely moment when she let “Dave” out of his jaciara shell and off he went into the water. A new life beginning.

Dave ‘n’ Zed.

We strolled along the beach and sat down to watch the sunset and reminisce. We then got one more surprise as a humpback whale appeared and gave us a display of slapping and one big breach with the setting sun as a back drop.

I suppose we don’t really have to explain why we are still here after 18 days.

But now our time is up. This evening we are on a flight back to Mexico City and in the morning we are on a flight to Costa Rica, for some “Pura Vida” as they say there!

“Come on Steve, we have other places to explore”

You better Belize it!

San Ignacio, Belize, was shall we say, underwhelming. It was more like the Central American towns we had expected to encounter. It was a working town, a little run down and sorry looking. It had plenty of small shops and business that didn’t seem to sell or do a lot. The people were on the whole very friendly and seemed to be out to please. We were approached by a handful of people as we wandered the town who would ask for money, but there was never any nastiness with it. We have been in places which have a far bigger problem in that department. The town and the country are pretty poor. Some people just accept that, and some don’t and try to do something about it. We met people from both camps.

There are a few things to do around San Igancio, mainly based around the caves and the river in the area. We realised a long time ago that as much as we would like we can’t do everything, both from a financial and energy point of view as we don’t have an endless supply of either. So having had cave and river based activity experience in the past we decided to use our time to find a good cafe, settle in and catch up on a backlog of admin that was ever growing. Unfortunately we couldn’t find a good cafe so we settled for a mediocre one instead!

Sarah surveys the town of San Iganacio

In the evening we met up with a new tour leader who the company had dispatched from the other side of the country. Marlon was a Belize national and seemed like a pretty good guy. He had arranged for us to visit a village a few miles outside of San Ignacio, where the women had set up a cooperative making embroidered products and pottery, using some of the traditional methods, which they then sold in the local area. The project was becoming a success and starting to appear on the edge of the tourist radar. They had opened a small gift shop which also served coffee, and when the demand was there they would open the kitchen and serve meals (one choice only).

We were treated to a pottery making display which included how it used to be done before demand for the products forced them into utilising a potter’s wheel.

Steve and a couple of his new Swiss friends, Aurora and Melanie, volunteered to have a go and somehow, with a bit of encouragement and corrective measures from the professional, they managed to produce three pots of varying shape.

Pure concentration.

The evening was finished off with a tasty meal and, for us, the visit was the highlight of San Ignacio.

We did well.

The next day was a travel day across the width of the country. Luckily Belize is not very big so the journey was only about three hours. We passed through Bemlopan which, with a population of around 12,000, is the smallest Capital city in Central America. Belize City used to be the Capital but was apparently constantly being flooded causing chaos in making national decisions in a country where chaos seems the day to day norm.

We only drove through Belize City and from our perspective it looked just like a bigger San Ignacio so not too much to write home about. We arrived at the city dock and boarded a small passenger ferry for the one hour trip to Caye Caulker.

Leaving for Caye Caulker

Caye Caulker is a small island in the Caribbean Sea off mainland Belize. It is only a handful of kilometres long and a couple of hundred metres wide. There are no paved roads, no cars and the main form of transport are golf buggies and even they are not necessary as it only takes 10 minutes to walk the length of the main road (track).

A walk along Main Street

We have visited quite a few Caribbean islands over the years and Caye Caulker has the reggae, pastel coloured buildings, beach shacks, turquoise waters and overall laid back atmosphere to rival the best of them. It would probably not suit most people to stay for long periods of time because it is so small. But you can see why it is popular for a week or so holiday.

We spent the afternoon on the beach, watching pelicans fish and the stingrays gather in numbers for what is apparently a daily 4pm feed. The sun slowly disappeared and within just a few hours of being on the island we were already back in the beach way of life.

A pelican…
….. and his friends.
Time for dinner!
Time for a snooze!

Belize, and in particular Caye Caulker, is one of the best places in the World for diving and snorkeling. Our entire group was up for sampling some of it. So the following morning we strolled together down the sand of Main Street to our boat for the day. Pretty soon though it was clear something wasn’t quite right. Marlon was in serious conversation with the boat owner, then he was on his phone, then his conversation with the boat owner turned heated. Although English is the national language in Belize, the dialect and accent sometimes make it difficult to understand. This is always exaggerated when things heat up.

Eventually Marlon rounded us up and with a face like thunder marched us back down Main Street to another company. Apparently the first guy was trying to squeeze us on to an already full boat and had effectively double booked trying to cash in.

The new guy quickly sorted us out with fins, mask and snorkel, then walked us to our boat, a lovely new catamaran. As we sailed out of the dock we passed our original boat which was still frantically trying to load up and looking a bit tired. “Great call Marlon”, was the general feeling.

My boat’s better than yours!

Initially though we did feel a little bad as the only other people on the boat were an American couple on holiday from Michigan, who would have effectively had a private charter but for our invasion. However, as the day and evening wore on, it became apparent we enhanced their day rather than ruined it.

It’s already a great day

The trip was essentially designed for three snorkeling stops, each one slightly different, with lunch in the middle, and a couple of drinks on the way home.

We sailed out into the Caribbean, spreading ourselves out on the deck of the catamaran. You could tell the atmosphere was good and people’s expectations were high. We effectively had a great boat to ourselves. Those poor Americans!

After about an hour we made our first stop. We have been lucky enough in the past to do a bit of diving and a fair bit of snorkeling in some pretty amazing places and seen some pretty amazing things. On most snorkeling trips the good old turtle is the one most people want to see. We spent four days diving on the Great Barrier Reef seven years ago and, believe it or not, only saw one turtle. (We saw plenty of other things though). Here we had been in the water five minutes and seen two of them.

Hello Mr Turtle.

The water was clear, warm and there were lots of fish and corals to see. Two big stingrays came swimming past, then an eagle ray. They are the ones that fly out of the water every so often. When a big one does it they are quite impressive.

Two rays float by.
“Anyone seen a turtle around here?”

After about 40 minutes in the water we were back in the boat and off to another site, ‘Shark Alley’, as it is known. Umm … I wonder what we will find there? The boat stopped, we dropped anchor and immediately were surrounded by about a dozen sharks, some at least 10 feet long.

“In there? You have to be kidding me!”

Now we know the crew are not going to throw us in with a bunch of man eating sharks and we knew the sharks were nursery sharks and completely safe, but when you jump off the boat and are completely surrounded by a bunch of sharks, most of which are bigger than you, it does cause a few seconds of apprehension. Once those few seconds have past and they haven’t ripped you apart it does become a fabulous experience. After a while you can almost forget that they are there as you go in search of other sea creatures. Then one swims past or underneath you and you quickly remember where you are.

All brave now.

Steve in particular could have stayed in there for hours. Once he gets in and gets immersed underwater it’s hard to get him back on the boat.

After ‘Shark Alley’ it was back on board for lunch and everyone was sharing their personal encounters and swapping footage from GoPros and cameras and before long we were at the next site, ‘Coral Garden’. Not everyone ventured back in at this site. Possibly a little tired after an hour and half of snorkeling already or too much chicken and rice, prompted some to enjoy the afternoon sun and lay on the deck instead. Steve was back in though along with Christos and Geraldine, who were both on their first snorkeling trip. ‘Coral Garden’ was beautiful and the area was much deeper. We saw more rays, another turtle and countless species of fish. Because it was deeper it allowed Steve to dive down and explore a few holes and crevices. He quickly backed off though when a conger eel stuck his head out and gave Steve a close up of his shiny teeth!

“Stop hiding and get back on the boat”

With everyone back onboard it was time to head home. Everyone was in a great mood after such a brilliant day and when a huge barrel of rum punch was brought out the good mood quickly improved even more. It was being drunk at a swift rate and soon the singing started.

Someone is having a good time!
“Can I have a hat like Geraldine?”

We have had a couple of singing stints already as we have travelled along on the bus. “Shotgun”, by GeorgeEzra, introduced by Sarah is a particular favourite. To be fair there aren’t many great singers onboard, with the exception of Amanda who is quite frankly brilliant. I know she reads the blog and she will hate us for saying it as she keeps her talent pretty much to herself, but she has an amazing voice. However, the rest of us with varying degree of talent enjoy a good screech!

I’m sure they were all full not long ago.

The rum punch flowed faster, the rum bottle was being passed around neat and the singing got louder. Then, when Bohemian Raphsody came out of the speakers, we hit our peak. We have had a couple of previous attempts at this one and it’s amazing how people all over the World know all the words. Suddenly the boat was full of Freddy Mercurys, even the Americans were going for it. Somehow, without any organising, we had even split into groups to sing the operatic section. I think they could have heard us on the beach in Miami. Then Sarah took control of the wheel without the Captain knowing and suddenly we were heading for Miami!!

“You’re going the wrong way”

Eventually, with an empty barrel of rum punch, we pulled up back at the dock and wandered back through the sand of Main Street for showers before heading to dinner.

What a great day.

About ten of us had dinner at a shack on the beach with sand as the floor. We love those places. The sound of the waves rolling in and the warm evening air makes us realise even more how lucky we are. Most of the time it doesn’t matter what the food is like, it’s just the atmosphere and the location.

As we were finishing dinner the two Americans from the boat wandered in and sat at the bar. “Oh no, we ruined their private charter and now they can’t get rid of us”, Sarah said. They saw us and came over and asked if they could join us. It turns out they had a great day and were fascinated as we all told stories of this trip and previous ones we had done. They bought us cocktails and the stories kept on coming.

On a day to day basis we never see ourselves as doing anything out of the ordinary. We had a plan, we worked to make it happen and now we are living it. It’s what most people do, make a plan, work at it and live it. Our’s is just a different plan to what most people set out to achieve. However, because of what we do and where we go, we meet loads of people with the same or similar plan to ourselves. So it is not until we sit down and chat to people outside of “our world” and hear and see their reaction that we are reminded that in the grand scheme of things what we are doing is well and truly out of the ordinary and we are so very lucky to be doing it.

Today we were snorkeling with Sharks in Belize. Last week we were walking around Mayan ruins in Guatemala. Next week we will be sitting on a beach in Mexico and who knows where we will be the week after that. Like we said, very, very lucky.

The following day was a huge travel day all the way from Caye Caulker back to where the trip started in Playa del Carmen. We started before sunrise with breakfast on the beach before catching the ferry back to the mainland. Then we were back on the bus North through Belize to the Mexican border. Another border, another fiasco! We arrived at the Belize Border control and filled out the necessary paperwork, paid our exit fee and made our way through, one by one. Marlon was last to go. Or at least he thought he was! To summarise the conversation went something like this:

Border Official: “Where do you think you are going?” Marlon: “Mexico” Border Official: “Sorry mate you are a Belize National. Only foreigners are allowed to leave the country by land whilst this new Omicron variant is on the loose”

Once again we were on our own carrying our bags across ‘No man’s land’, with Marlon shouting after us that the company would organise someone to meet us in Playa!

“Hey Christina, what is the answer to question 2?”

The whole thing was now comical and most of us found the whole thing funny. We breezed through Mexican immigration and continued on our long day. We stopped for lunch in the small town of Bacalar which is set on a spectacular lagoon. It had been a place we had considered stopping at later down the line, so when three of the group decided to get off the bus and stay there we were very tempted to join them. After some serious thought we decided to continue on as we had accommodation booked in Playa in two days time and felt we might need more time than that to explore Bacalar.

This would turn out to be the wrong decision. But yet again, as we thought, we have waffled on too long about our time in Belize. So we will explain why next time. For now we will say we arrived in Playa after dark and 12 hours of travel, tired and ready for food and bed!

Positives and Negatives.

So a new country beckoned and we started our journey from Pelanque to the Mexico/Guatemala border.

With the pandemic still being very much a part of life, what used to be a straight forward transition from one country to another has become less smooth, more drawn out and with more hurdles to jump.

As well as the normal passports, exit fees and entrance fees, we had to provide vaccination certificates and a negative antigen test for entry into Guatemala. This would not even have been a slight problem back in Playa del Carmen, where testing stations were everywhere, but as the test could be no older than 72 hours Pelanque was our only possible place to test.

One of the reasons we came on this trip was to let someone else do the organising for a change. Over the last couple of Covid affected years we have arranged multiple state and country border crossings (14 to be precise). All requiring slightly different combinations of passes, visas and/or tests. So it was nice to let someone else sort out the paperwork for this one. Salvador, our guide, arranged for a couple of nurses from the nearest town, about 5 miles away to set up office at our hotel. We were then marched in one by one to carry out our tests. Thirty minutes later we all had negative results, so all we had to do was hand over our Mexican pesos. Easy! Everyone was a little relieved as no one wanted to miss the chance to see Guatemala.

Not a bad setting to get a Covid test.

Crossing land borders between countries who don’t have some form of formal agreement is generally quite interesting. When you fly from The UK on your holidays you negotiate passport control in a sterile orderly environment without even a stamp. You then fly over a few countries, enjoying a gin and tonic and watching a movie, before landing in another sterile, sometimes less orderly environment. You collect your luggage, pass through immigration where sometimes you get your passport stamped depending on where you have landed, and then it’s off to the beach. Even travelling around The EU there have, until recently, been virtually no obstacles at border points.

Travelling overland in other parts of the World can sometimes be different. The principle is always the same but the execution is sometimes different. As travellers we always find border crossings a sort of exciting day. Mexico to Guatemala was a pretty standard by Latin American standards.

We drove the three hours to the border. The closer we got, the more people we saw in groups walking towards us on the roadside. Salvador explained these were immigrants who started their journey at some point in Central America and were making their way to The USA. They had initially been part of “Immigrant Caravans” several thousand strong. Mexican law allows them free, uninhibited passage as long as they stay moving, on foot, on the highway. No public transport and no cutting across countryside is allowed. Some of them do take the risk and board ‘El Bestia’, The Beast. This is a freight train that runs from Southern Mexico to The US. It is also know as ‘El tren de la muerte’, The train of death, where kidnapping, rape and murder are commonplace. The whole scenario is one of sheer desperation.

Once we arrived at the Mexican border our transport was not licensed to continue so we loaded our luggage on our backs and lined up outside the small immigration office. As is the case a lot in Mexico nothing happens very quickly. One by one we entered the office and answered a few questions in broken Spanish and English. We were pre warned there might be an exit fee to pay (but if it was not asked for, don’t offer it). It generally depends on the immigration officer!

With passports stamped and no fees paid, we picked up our luggage and set off across ‘no man’s land’. This is the area between the two border posts, generally only a few hundred metres. We did a crossing between Chile and Argentina once which was a few miles apart!

We chose to walk to Guatemala although there were a few “tuk tuk” taxis for those who didn’t fancy it. Due to the nature of the region we are in, both ends of ‘No man’s land’ have a considerable armoured militiary presence. But, to be honest, we are starting to get quite used to military uniforms and automatic rifles being present on most street corners!

They really are on most street corners!

We walked carefully through the potholes and up the hill to a portacabin, beyond which was another stretch of unmaintained road leading to a fence topped with barbed wire and a large gate. The portacabin was the immigration office where one person took your $US1.50 entry fee, another person checked your documents, vaccination certificate and negative test and a third person stamped your passport. Central American efficiency ….. not!

We were one of the first through and were happy to see our Guatamalen transport waiting for us outside.

Welcome to Guatemala.

Sarah started to get the call of nature so decided to look for a toilet. She still hadn’t returned from the other side of the barbed wire fence when everyone was through immigration. “Where is Sarah”, asked Salvador. “She has just popped into Guatemala for a pee”, replied Steve. “We can pick her up on the way through”. You don’t get to say that everyday!

They have colourful buses here.

Guatemala was immediately different from Mexico. First of all our modern Mercedes sprinter van was now replaced by a 1950’s style bus, decorated inside in true Guatemalan colour. The bus had no storage so the luggage had to be loaded through a side window, and piled on the back few seats. But it started and travelled forward ……. for now at least.

On board with the luggage.

With Sarah on board we chugged our way into a new country and towards the town of Flores on Lake Peten.

To be honest, we weren’t expecting much from Guatemala. There are lots of places in The World where we want to go, and some we feel we should go just to experience them. Guatemala was one of the latter. Surprise surprise, Flores turned out to be better than expected.

Flores from the lake.

The small town is on an island in the lake, connected to the mainland by a bridge. Our hotel was small and clean, and right on the lake front. The lake itself was a beautiful setting and the whole place had a holiday feel to it. The shops, bars and restaurants were plentiful and modern and so colourful. It was all so much better than we had expected.

Lake Peten was a beautiful setting.

A few of us jumped on a wooden long boat and the driver took us across the lake to a beach with Howler Monkeys in the trees. Some of the group had a swim in the warm water and then we made our way back drinking rum punch as the sun went down. A long day but a memorable one.

Rum punch on the boat……..
….with accompanying sunset.

The following day we visited Tikal. This is probably the most visited attraction in Guatemala. It is a huge Mayan city in the jungle and was the fourth Mayan city we have visited and they have all been different in some way. Tikal was the biggest and had some impressive structures.

Tikal was both impressive and beautiful.
“It’s good here, don’t you think?”

The day involved a lot of walking and our guide had a vast amount of knowledge which he wanted to pass on to us. To be honest, it was too much and everyone agreed the constant facts and figures was overwhelming. In the end we wandered off and just enjoyed the atmosphere of the beautiful setting.

Probably the highlight of Tikal was the temple where some of the Star Wars movies were filmed. It was a bit of fun to watch a clip on ‘Youtube’ and then position ourselves where the actors were stood ….. We couldn’t work out how Han Solo managed to land The Millennium Falcon in that thick jungle though!

How do you land a space ship here?
Our group relax on a Mayan temple.

On our way back to town our less than plush bus was really starting to sound awful. Steve was convinced the driver was unaware he had a clutch as he rammed the gears into place. Eventually, something fell off the underside of the bus with a loud bang and the bus coasted to a stop!! To be fair, it was inevitable, it was just a matter of time before it gave up the ghost. The driver made a few calls, another bus was dispatched and on the side of the road we did a luggage switch, out of one window and into another, and off we went again as if it was an everyday occurrence.

Loading up again!

Our brief trip into Guatemala was over far too quickly. Steve in particular could have spent another couple of days in Flores for sure. But that is one of the downsides to tours. One of the upsides though is the great and interesting people you meet.

Our travel day to Belize began in a very unexpected manner. Again, we had to provide a negative antigen test to enter but this time it had to be done at the border. This caused a few slight concerns for some as it was unclear what would happen if a positive result was obtained. Belize would definitely not allow entry but would Guatemala let you back in after being stamped out, having tested positive? No one could find a definite answer.

It’s probably a good time to point out that the tour we were on was only the second time it had been run in over two years (due to the pandemic). The first time, five of the group had tested positive in Mexico, at which point it was cancelled. We were now effectively acting as Guinea pigs. So, when we were gathered in the hotel reception at 5.30am ready to depart to Belize, it came as a bit of a shock when Salvador emerged wrapped in a blanket. He told us all to go outside and stand on the other side of the street and revealed to us he had felt unwell the previous evening and self tested with a positive result!! He now had to self isolate in the hotel and we had to move onto Belize without him.

We were sad to leave Guatemala.

We piled our luggage through the windows of the bus, in what was becoming a familiar routine, and set off on the three hour trip to the border. Another stamp out of Guatemala and a trek across ‘No Man’s Land’ and we arrived at the barbed wire fence, gate and automatic machine gun carrying guards that was Belize immigration.

The reason for our very early start was the land border was only open between 9am and 12 noon, so we needed to be nearer the front of the queue than the rear to be of sure of getting in. Luckily there was only a handful of people before us and we joined the queue for an antigen test. There was certainly a small amount of apprehension as one by one we stepped forward to have our test and wait for a result. A positive test would bring with it some uncertainty. Which country would we end up in?Where would we do our quarantine? Where would we go afterwards?

Queuing at the Belize border.

One by one we were called forward for our results. “Geraldine negative”, “Amanda negative”, “Christos negative” “Steve negative”, “Sarah positive”………”Oh no, sorry, negative”

We all received negative tests even though Salvador had tested positive the previous evening. We jumped into our new transport with the ink from our Belize passport stamp still wet and drove the 15 minutes to San Ignacio, the second largest town in Belize.

We were going to cover Belize in this post but we have waffled on too long and we did have one very special day in Belize which will take even more waffling, so we will leave it until next time.