Country after Country after Country!

It seems like a long time has passed since we last embarked on a long distance cycle ride. October 2019 to be precise, when we finished our trip down the Pacific Coast of The USA from Canada to Mexico. Since then we had spoken a few times about planning to do another one and now seemed as good a time as any.

We packed up our car, a different one to normal. Our old Mercedes had finally given up the ghost, not only electrically but also mechanically. We had hoped to get one more trip out of it but with the number of issues it had, and the difficulties in obtaining some parts, it became too much of a risk to drive long distances and too expensive to repair.

Loads of space!

We were taking the new car (well, new to us) and leaving it in Amsterdam as we plan to go straight on to another adventure immediately after this one. So we crossed The Channel by ferry, drove a little through France and made our first night stop in Ypres, Belgium.

The Menin Gate at Ypres

We were hoping to get to Ypres by 8pm in order to witness The Last Post at The Menin Gate. This is an impressive memorial in the town to the fallen soldiers who were killed in the area during World War One and never received a burial. Thousands and thousands of names of British, Australian, Canadian, South African and Indian soldiers are inscribed on the walls of the memorial. Every evening since the memorial was built in 1928 a bugler has played The Last Post at exactly 8pm. The only time this was interrupted was during the German occupation in WWII, when the ceremony was instead conducted at Brockwood Military Cemetery in The UK.

All sizes of buglers are available.

We were surprised at the number of people who came to witness it and a number of wreathes were laid. It is a moving ceremony and made even more poignant as The Last Post was played at Sarah’s father’s funeral earlier this year.

It is an impressive memorial.

After spending a comfortable night in our new ‘two man’ blackout tent we were on the road early the next morning across the border to Utrecht in The Netherlands. Our Dutch friends, Mark and Lisa, recommended it, describing it as “a mini Amsterdam”.

It definitely has an Amsterdam feel.

They were exactly right. Canals, cyclists, ‘Coffee Shops’ and similar architecture. We spent a relaxing afternoon meandering alongside the canals and drinking coffee.

After another night under canvas we embarked on what we knew would be two long and logistically difficult days.

Camping on a farm near Utrecht.

Firstly, we drove to Amsterdam Airport, parked up the car and left with our bikes in boxes and our luggage in panniers to board an early afternoon flight to Milan. It is never easy moving to and through an airport carrying bikes and luggage. There is a lot of lifting, maneuvering, cursing and getting in people’s way. By the time we were sitting down on the plane we were already feeling we had had a long day.

The source of The Rhine is way up high in The Alps, 7000 feet high! There are a few options to get there but the only realistic way for us with all the weight we are carrying was to arrive by train. Steve had mentioned the idea of cycling, however, he had only just started his ‘pitch’ before Sarah well and truly ended it for him. “If I have to cycle over 800 miles carrying this weight, I’m not starting with a 7000 foot mountain”. To be fair, Steve agreed!

We arrived at Milan Airport with luggage and bikes intact and set about assembling them in the arrivals hall. We were under a bit of time pressure as we had to cycle over 30 miles to our Airbnb before sunset at 9pm and we needed to make a small detour to pick up some camping gas at a Decathlon store on the outskirts of the city. We provided some intriguing entertainment for people who were waiting for arriving passengers and there was a sense of disappointment as their family or friends arrived before they were able to see the finished article.

Steve hard at work in ‘Arrivals’

We managed to get the bikes together and loaded securely and by 6pm we were out of the airport and rolling. Normally we would have covered the distance easily, but Steve hadn’t been on his bike at all in Central America and Sarah hadn’t been on hers much since she got off it at the Mexican border with sore everything in 2019! Also the panniers and camping equipment seemed much heavier than last time. Or are we just three years older?

We arrived at Decathlon and Steve rushed in and out to buy gas and we moved on again. It was a beautiful sunny evening as we wound our way up and down through rural Italian villages, with tight streets, sometimes cobbled. Normally it would have been an enjoyable route but all we really wanted was a long, straight, flat road to our destination.

We watched the sun drop lower and lower in the sky, the light started to ebb away and a chill appeared in the air as we cycled through the forest. Steve pushed on and Sarah stuck to his wheel. “Here we go again”, she thought, “Day one and it’s already a pain fest”.

We emerged from the forest, entered a small village and Steve took a sharp turn off a roundabout and at 9.03pm came to a stop outside the Airbnb!

We shovelled some microwave food into our mouths, had a lovely shower and collapsed into a comfy bed. “Were we really on a campsite in Utrecht in The Netherlands this morning?”.

The following morning we were up early and back on the bikes. It was going to be another long day. It started with a 30 minute cycle across the border into Switzerland where Sarah bought us some train tickets to the top of the Oberalp Pass, the source of The Rhine. “We have to catch four trains with some tight connections”, she said with a worried look.

Settling down on the train. (Thanks for all the cycling kit Mark!)

The first train arrived with true Swiss precision, on time, to the second. There was space for the bikes and straps to secure them. The train was modern, clean and comfortable and we settled down to enjoy the spectacular scenery.

Train number two arrived and departed with similar comfort and efficiency. Then things started to go wrong. A freight train had broken down and was blocking the line and the train we were on was returning to where it had started. We made the decision to get off in the small village where we had stopped and sit it out until the line was cleared and another train came along. We managed to get a baguette and some ham from the only shop in the village and sat on the deserted platform with our crudely made sandwiches.

Alone on a deserted platform.

An hour came and went and we were just starting to formulate plan “B” when a beautiful sleek looking train came into view. Luckily the line had been cleared and our journey continued, albeit an hour and a bit behind schedule. We then had a stroke of luck when the guard came to check our tickets. She was nothing short of amazing. We got chatting and she was intrigued with our story. She sat down and made herself comfortable. It turned out she was a tour guide before Covid and had to switch jobs to pay the bills. She obviously missed it and was just waiting for tourism to fully return before going back to it. She gave us an hour long commentary as we passed lakes and mountains and bridges and tunnels which were engineering marvels. She also gave us specific and precise directions as to how to cross the platforms and make our very tight connection to the next train. We followed them exactly and made it onto the train as the doors closed and we moved away. We saw several others who weren’t so lucky and were faced with an hours wait before the next train would arrive!

Sarah takes in the view.
The views were pretty special.

Our third train really started to make progress high into the Alps. So much so that we had to physically hang onto the bikes to stop the rolling back, it was that steep. The scenery though was becoming more and more impressive and with the fourth and final train it was even more so. This one was designed with skiers in mind with very few seats and hanging hooks for skis. This time we met a guard who gave Steve an update on the current Giro D’Italia cycle race. The train guards in Switzerland are super friendly.

Plenty of space for the bikes.

Eventually we reached the end of the line and stepped off into cooler, thinner air with plenty of snow on the ground. We were at Oberalp pass, the start of The Rhine and the beginning of our long journey back to Amsterdam. We had landed in Calais at 2pm on Sunday and it was now 2pm on Wednesday. “Have we really only been in Europe for three days”, said Steve. “Yep” said Sarah, “and we are in Country number FIVE”!!

There is a chill up here.

Coffee, Crocs and Crazy Buses.

So we found ourselves in Panama. We didn’t expect to get this far on this trip but it did seem to have a couple of places worth visiting. The town of David was certainly not one of them! It is, however, a good hub with a well connected bus station.

Waiting at the bus station in David.

So that was our first stop and after asking a few locals we were soon on a bus heading for the mountain town of Boquete. We have learned that if you have a question, about anything really, that it is essential to ask several different people and then take the most popular answer as it is very rarely that they are all the same! The other thing we are learning is that every bus ride in Panama is accompanied by constant, loud music of the driver’s choice! Which is OK if it’s your sort of music or you are just riding two stops down the road, but several hours of ‘Panama’s Greatest Techno Hits’ soon goes from being unbearable to torturous. Earplugs have become a travel essential and we have no idea how people sleep through it.

As soon as we got off the bus in Boquete we knew we would like it. It was quiet for a start. It was also quite a pretty looking town and at an altitude of about 5000 feet, it was fresher and cooler. We had been in the heat and humidity for quite a few weeks now so this was a refreshing change.

Boquete was in a lovely location.

The town is guarded over by another huge volcano, but unlike the perfectly looking one in Arenal, Volcan Baru looked just like the other mountains which surrounded the town. However, the pull of these slopes is that it is perfect for growing coffee and the area is littered with small coffee growing farms. One type of coffee bean in particular grows very well here and in the ‘World of coffee’ the Geisha bean is apparently very exclusive, ‘the Champagne of coffee’, some say. We did some research and found it regularly wins top coffee awards and in Dubai sells for upwards of $60 a cup!

We both like a cup of coffee so we decided to go on a coffee farm tasting tour. We were picked up from our accommodation by our great guide who told us there had been 13 on the tour the previous day, which was about normal, but for some reason that day we were the only two!

Sarah with the coffee beans.

We had a lovely walk around the farm, accompanied by the family avocado eating dog. We learnt so much about the coffee growing and roasting, as well as all the other fruit which was grown on the farm. We then had a tasting session of different types of coffee including the Geisha variety which we both put towards the bottom of our preferences.

The expert at work.

There were several coffee tour options available but we chose this one as at seemed more about sustainability and was also involved with coffee related projects in indigenous communities within Panama.

During the coffee harvest workers come to the region from indigenous communities for the seasonal work and are sometimes paid less than US$1 a day. They are also housed in some pretty poor accommodation, even by Panama standards, where rural housing is less than basic to start with. In fact, we actually thought the workers housing on some farms was the stabling for the horses! It reminded us of our Nicaraguan border experience……. One day we will write a retrospective post on that one!

On another day in Boquete we enjoyed an all day hike, high in the mountains. The trail was supposed to be one of the best locations in Panama to see the very elusive Quetzel bird. These birds are said by some to be one of the most beautiful in the World. We were lucky enough to see one in flight but from a distance in Monteverde so we were hopeful on this trail we would get up close enough for a good photo. It was after all mating season when they are at their most active.

There must be a Quetzal around here somewhere.

Umm.. best place in Panama, middle of the mating season, and five hours of walking. How many Quetzels did we see?……. zero, not even a feather! It was, however, an excellent scenic walk and we did see monkeys and a snake. So all was not lost.

After Boquete we decided we would head for some beach time as most of the last month we have been surrounded by hills and forests and we do like our time by the sea.

Bocas del Toro is one of the more accessible beach destinations in Panama but from Boquete it was still five hours, on two different buses, a short taxi ride, and a thirty minute water taxi. So it was still a long day.

The second bus of the day took us almost the whole way across the width of the country. We had to cross a mountain range in the middle, over which the road twisted and turned and the surface varied from smooth tarmac (not a lot) to pot hole ridden dirt (more than was comfortable). The scenery, however, was spectacular and was almost enough to make you forget about the blaring music and rough surface. Almost but not quite!

Steve gets close up with the locals!

After arriving at the water taxi port area, shaken but not stirred, we commenced our relaxed trip out to Bocas town. Well that is how it started out, however, two minutes into the trip and the driver engaged every horse power he could find. The front of the boat lifted way out of the water and we were soon skimming across the Caribbean Sea at a ridiculous pace. “At least he isn’t playing any music”, shouted Steve. “Maybe he is”, screamed Sarah. “We just can’t hear it”.

Steve in the water taxi.

Bocas del Toro is a group of islands just off the Panamanian coast in the Caribbean. It has a definite Caribbean vibe and the locals all speak Spanish with a strong Caribbean accent. There are water taxis connecting the different islands. Some of them are home to bigger style resorts, but Bocas Town (on the main island) is 100% backpacker land. Our accommodation was on the edge of town. It was a bit rough around the edges, with a few floorboards that needed resecuring, somethings worked, somethings didn’t, but it would do us for a few days and besides we had booked a ‘real’ hotel in Panama City for our next stop.

Arriving in Bocas Town.

We stayed on the main island on our first day and took a bus to the very north, about 45 minutes away, where we could access Starfish beach, which was reportedly one of the best beaches in the whole archipelago. It was awful!

At low tide the beach was at best 10 meters wide with compacted grey sand. Over half the beach had been taken over by ramshackle food and drink stalls, leaving virtually no usable beach. The whole scene looked like some building sites we have seen on this trip. Added to this, there were jet skis prowling the water’s edge with the drivers shouting out for potential customers for the inflatable tyres and bananas they were towing along.

Needless to say we didn’t hang around too long and made our way straight back to the bus stop for a return journey to Bocas Town where we boarded the bus with the worst music yet. It felt like a one minute repeat of the same music and played at a deafening level. Plus, the interior of the bus was decorated in bright green fabric. After 30 minutes we couldn’t stand it anymore so we got off the ‘Torture Bus’ and walked back to town instead. Our first day in Bocas had not been a success and we were struggling to work out what all the hype, that we had read and heard, was all about.

Inside “The Torture Bus”

Thankfully, the next day things improved when we took a water taxi to another island to visit Red Frog Beach. So called because there are apparently tiny red poisonous dart frogs that live near the beach. The beach wasn’t amazing but a definite improvement on the previous day. No one seemed interested in looking for the frogs, no one that is except Sarah who walked off into the rainforest at the end of the beach in search of small amphibians. Steve obviously had to follow for fear of missing out.

Unbelievably Sarah found four of them in the thick vegetation and the biggest was less than size of a thumb nail. They are apparently a little dangerous so we were careful not to touch them.

He looks a lot bigger in close up.

We spent the rest of the day laying on the beach and enjoying a dip in the warm water. It was probably back in Escondido, in Mexico, when we last spent so much time on the beach.

Ahhh. Back in the water!

The following day we hired a couple of dilapidated beach cruiser bikes and headed up the coast to Bluff Beach. It was an enjoyable ride, the road hugging the sea most of the way.

“You will be back on your own bike soon enough”

Bluff Beach was in our opinion easily the best of the three beaches we had seen. It reminded us very much of some of the beaches in Australia’s Far North Queensland where we have spent many happy times.

That’s more like it!

Bocas del Toro grew on us during the time we were there and we got back in the water taxi to leave feeling glad we had made the effort to get there. We made our way back on the ‘fun bus’ across the corkscrew road, back to the city of David, for a one night stop before we embarked on five days of luxury (for us anyway).

We were heading to Panama City, an eight hour (£15) bus journey away, or a one hour (£55) flight away. We decided that the cost to comfort ratio swung in favour of the flight on this occasion so we left our hotel in David and turned in the direction of the airport.

In what seemed like no time at all we were on a bus heading into the cosmopolitan capital city of Panama (we had to fit a bus in somewhere on the journey!).

In terms of modern architecture, infrastructure and general facilities, Panama City is way, way, way in front of everywhere else in Central America and it’s high-rise skyline is reminiscent of some of the great skylines of the World. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘Hong Kong of Latin America’. This modern city is a complete contrast to the rest of the country.

The Panama City skyline………and Sarah.

There are, however, constant reminders that you are still in Central America and the poverty is still there if you look, but it definitely has a different feel to anywhere else we have been on this trip.

This was our ‘treat time’ and our hotel was easily the best we have stayed in, not only on this trip but also since we finished work and for several years before that as well. Initially we felt a little out of place especially when we marched in with rucsacks on our front and backs, and clothes we had been wearing for a few days. There is a line from a James Bond film which amused us once and we employed it to good effect. “We are teachers on sabatical and we have won the lottery”.

“I think we might enjoy this”

Once again we put on our trainers and walked a good part of the city. We found a four kilometre cycle and walking path which followed the curve of the bay. It was a lovely walk with well kept gardens and was completely flat, which was an added bonus as it was very hot and humid, so we appreciated the lack of hills.

The path eventually led to the neighbourhood of Casa Viejo which was, at one time, one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the city. But it has been undergoing a complete transformation which looks 75% complete, but then most things in Central America look 75% complete…… at best!

The old……

To be fair Casa Viejo is beautiful. The majority of the buildings have been expertly restored and look immaculate. Some have a look of Raffles, the famous hotel in Singapore, about them. There are still the odd buildings in a state of ruin but you can see that in a few years time this will be a standout place in the region.

……and the new.

As we walked back through the city we crossed some small bridges over storm drains. As we crossed one of them Steve stopped dead in his tracks. “Look at that, am I seeing things?”, he asked. There basking in the sun only a few metres away was a huge crocodile. It was between three and four metres long and just looking around. It could easily have made it’s way up to where we were standing and continued on to Main Street, Panama City. Apparently it is quite unusual to see them there (in the storm drain not Main Street!).

A city croc.
He was quite a decent size.

On another day in Panama City we caught the subway and a bus out to the Panama Canal. We were lucky enough to pass through it 10 years ago so it was good to also see it from land side. Unfortunately, no ships were in the lock during our visit but it is still impressive to see and there is a small museum which shows the history of its construction and transition to Panama ownership in the year 2000. It goes a long way to explain the boom in wealth and construction the country has seen since then.

One of the locks at The Panama Canal.

The canal splits The Americas in two. The Trans America Highway, or Highway 1, runs all the way in various forms from Alaska, through Canada and The USA, Central America, and all the way to Ushuaia at the very tip of South America. It is a continuous road except for one small section. That section is just East of the Panama Canal leading to the Columbian Border. This area is known as ‘The Darien Gap’, a heavily forested area inhabited by drug cartels and Panamanian and Columbian rebel forces. Outside of war zones it is widely accepted as the most dangerous place on the planet. Access is strictly controlled by military checkpoints but it is possible to apply for permits to enter parts of it with an official guide. We decided not to bother and headed back to our luxury hotel to sit by the pool!

Our relaxing time in Panama City was over far too quickly and it was time to pack up the rucsacks and check out. Lottery winnings spent!

We now have two weeks to get back to Mexico for our flight home, so we have more crazy Panamanian buses to look forward to!

“Maybe we really should buy a lottery ticket”, said Sarah, as we walked out of the hotel into the mayhem!

Another Day Another Border.

On trips like the one we are doing now border crossings are a big part so we thought we would throw in an extra post specifically on this subject.

When we first looked at doing this trip the Omicron variant of Covid-19 was well and truly on the rise. Some countries around the World were re-establishing restrictions, while others were keeping restrictions in place that had been planned to be removed.

We were looking for somewhere interesting and warm to escape the European winter and Costa Rica had been our initial thought with travel still allowed for vaccinated travellers. However, as beautiful as Costa Rica is, we were concerned a country the size of Switzerland might not hold us for over three months so Mexico was added to the trip. Then a couple of weeks before we left we had the idea of adding Guatemala and Belize as they bordered Mexico and, with some Covid testing, travel there looked possible.

So with a few ups and downs we ticked off the planned countries and found ourselves in Manuel Antonio. We still had a few things to do that we had planned in Costa Rica but we weren’t that far from the border with Panama, so we decided to continue South to another Country.

A land border crossing, especially these days, takes a bit of planning and preparation. How do you physically get there? What documentation do you need? Are visas required? What vaccination level and testing do they require for Covid-19. Do I need proof of exit travel? What taxes do I need to pay? The list goes on.

From Manuel Antonio our crossing would be at Paso Canoas, which is reportedly the most chaotic border crossing in Central America. Since it is not on the regular tourist trail direct buses and shuttles are not available so we were going to have to do this the hard way.

We did some pre-planning by visiting the bus station in Quepos to try and buy a ticket to the border. Our first issue was finding a ticket outlet as they rarely look as you expect and are often not obvious. We have bought bus tickets in cafes, in the back of souvenir shops, in grocery stores and other unusual places.

The bus station in Quepos

Eventually, we located a ticket outlet which was a woman sitting behind a window protected by iron bars and no signage. She was very helpful and said there was a bus once a day to the border which passed by the hospital 10 miles out of town at about 10.15 in the morning. “Excellent”, we said. “Two tickets for tomorrow please”. She printed them off and we even had assigned seats so we left happy with our progress. All we had to do was to make our way to the hospital by 10.15am.

In the morning we left our accommodation at 8.30am and had no sooner walked to the road when a bus appeared. We flagged it down, it stopped, it was going our way, and it was relatively empty. “Maybe the hand of good fortune is with us today”, said Steve.

We arrived at the bus station in Quepos and searched for a bus towards the hospital. It was now a man in the heavily protected kiosk (who was not quite as helpful as the woman) and he directed us towards a green bus. We found the driver laying down across the front two passenger seats. He informed us the bus didn’t go to the hospital and he didn’t know where the bus went from. In fact, he didn’t care and he had bigger problems like squeezing in another nap!

After 45 minutes we eventually found a bus heading our way. It seemed to take in every street in the area but eventually we saw the hospital and jumped off. We still had plenty of time so we grabbed a coffee in a soda near the bus stop and sat on our bags pleased in the knowledge we had arrived for our main bus with time to spare …… oh did we have time to spare!

10.15am came and went. As did 10.30 and 10.45! We were starting to get a little worried that maybe the bus had been early or that it didn’t exist. Then a woman turned up who wanted to be chatty and spoke a little English so together with our little Spanish we sort of deduced the bus actually came at 11am.

11am came and went with no bus and the clock ticked on. It was getting very hot by now, a few inquisitive iguanas strolled by, and the clock ticked on. “We are going to have to start looking at plan B”, said Steve. “I didn’t think we had a plan B”, said Sarah. “We don’t”, said Steve!

“Are you waiting for the Paso Canoas bus too?”

Then, at 11.30am, a big pink bus came around the corner with ‘Paso Canoas’ on the front. We jumped up frantically waving it down and it pulled to a stop. The driver got off, checked our tickets, put our bags in the luggage compartment, and we boarded a completely full bus with the exception of our two assigned seats. The system worked albeit not to schedule. We also noticed that we appeared to be the only non Central Americans onboard. We were certainly heading off the regular tourist route.

The bus seats were very comfortable, however, there was no aircon and it was 35 degrees outside and opening windows just dragged in hot air. But we were thankful we were heading South, we stuck a film on our phone, plugged the earphones in and settled down for the three hour trip.

Forty minutes later we stopped! The bus had already been on the move for four hours before we got on and so the rest of the passengers were due a comfort break. To be fair we were ready ourselves as we had not wanted to leave the bus stop in case it showed up and we missed it.

Time for a break.

Thirty minutes later we were on the move again, watching Ben Aflick do his thing on the small screen. We passed through several small towns which looked pretty disheveled, dropping off and picking up passengers as we went. We noticed that some people didn’t get on they just handed the driver boxes which were then picked up by people at bus stops further along the route. It all looked a little suspicious to our eye but probably just the way things work here.

Eventually the bus came to a stop and everyone stood up. We followed them off and saw we had most definitely arrived at the border. We could see a big building in the distance painted like the Panamanian flag, so we loaded up our bags and headed in that direction.

Don’t forget that exit stamp.

It is entirely possible to walk straight along the road from Paso Canoas (Costa Rica) to Frontera (Panama) without speaking to any official or getting any stamps in your passport or showing any proof of vaccination. You could continue on and explore Panama to your hearts content … until …… you are either stopped by Police or you come to leave the country whereupon you are hit with a $1000 fine.

The thing is, it is quite easy to enter Panama by accident. Paso Canoas is a little chaotic with trucks and buses everywhere and everyone wants to “help” you or sell you something or both. Added to this the sky was turning ominously black, so it was quite natural for us to hurry on through.

We found the entrance to the Panama immigration, which was locked. Then a truck driver pointed to another door marked ‘salida’ (Exit) which was open. Steve walked in and immediately turned around and walked out saying, “What are we doing? We haven’t been stamped out of Costa Rica yet?”.

Back we went through the chaos of vehicles, people and stalls, past where the bus had dropped us off, and then further along the road. We found, sandwiched between a couple of bars, a small hut where we had to pay an $8 exit tax! This somehow became $9? We are getting used to the occasional dollar being added onto official business in Central America. Arguing it though gets you nowhere, only to the back of the queue. We have been advised by several people to just accept it. There is a definite feeling of some sort of corruption at every level. It is the way this part of the world works.

Sarah queuing to pay her tax.

With our receipt for $8 …. not £9 we walked across the dusty road to another building where an immigration official examined our passports and asked us some questions in Spanish. We just shrugged our shoulders, while he looked at us a little frustrated, then looked at his half eaten sandwich, looked back at us, back at the sandwich and stamped our passports!

Off we trudged back to Panama, just as the clouds split open and then rain started to fall. We went back in through the ‘out’ door and were directed to the end booth where the most miserable man in Panama was sitting. His job was to verify our vaccination status. I could write several paragraphs on this happy chappy, but suffice to say, he wouldn’t accept digital proof, photos of our certificate or photocopies. No he wanted the original!! Thankfully, Sarah was as organised as ever producing the certificate from her bag of tricks. Mr Miserable, took it and kept it and waved his hand towards another booth. At this booth we were met with what was apparently an immigration officer, no uniform in sight, just jeans and a cardigan. But with very few questions we exited the building into an absolute downpour with stamped passports.

Second time lucky. But that sky looks ominous.

Steve saw what looked like a bus station across the road, so we headed in that direction. Steve tried to squeeze between a parked car and a fence but unfortunately knocked an umbrella which was covering a cool box where a guy was selling drinks. The umbrella collapsed on Steve and the cool box, knocking it over and its entire contents spilled out and started rolling down the street through the river of rain water. The guy was going mad, we were trying to calm him down and catch the bottles and cans. We also had the workers from the bus station trying to take our bags and get them onto their bus to secure the fare. It was total chaos.

After a stressful five minutes we found ourselves, soaking wet through, sitting at the back of a bus next to our bags heading towards David, our final destination.

One hour later with the rain stopped and the sun back out, we pulled into the busy bus station. We walked the final kilometre through the town to our hotel. We checked in and jumped straight in the shower. Another day’s travel completed. We would be off again in the morning on what we hoped would be a slightly less arduous day!

Almost there!

Flying in the Forest

After a four hour transfer by bus, boat and bus we arrived in the small town of Santa Elena, which is the main service town for the Monteverde Cloud Forest area. Essentially, the difference between a Cloud Forest and a Rain Forest is altitude with the Cloud Forest being much higher and Monteverde sits around 5000 feet. This also drops the temperature by a few degrees making it, for us, a very comfortable 25 degrees.

The town of Santa Elena was much smaller than we had imagined. The area is well and truly on the ‘tourist route’, so we expected something along the lines of La Fortuna. It was, in fact, pretty much a one street town. It still had everything you needed, albeit on a smaller scale, including accommodation, bars, restaurants, supermarkets, souvenir shops etc. However, its main function appeared to be the organisation of tours to the Cloud Forest to walk at ground level, walk on hanging bridges through the trees, or zipline at speed above them. We ended up doing all three.

Steve wanders across one of the hanging bridges

The hanging bridges walk was pretty unusual as it gave you a different perspective of the forest as you walked through the thick canopy of trees. Some of the bridges were quite long, a few hundred metres, and when the wind picked up or there were more than a handful of people on them you could certainly see and feel them swinging. You could see one or two people who obviously had issues with the height really struggling.

We did our ground level walk through the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. The area had four different trails of varying difficulty and length which allowed at least some sort of access to most people. We were up for a bit of a hike so we covered all the trails, which added up to over eight miles. We probably enjoyed it more than the hanging bridges. Some of the trails were quite steep over uneven terrain and at the furthest points, where fewer people venture, you had a sense of being alone in the super dense forest. I think if you stepped a few metres off the track you would be lost very quickly.

Don’t stray from the path!

We didn’t see all that much wildlife in there but it was more about the atmosphere and location. At one point, quite high up, the forest opened up to a great view across the valley towards Arenal Volcano. It looked remarkably close and we couldn’t believe how it had taken four hours to travel from there. But then looking at the steep, rugged, dense carpet of trees stretching as far as you could see in every direction it was obviously a major achievement to get any sort of road in there at all.

How did it take over 4 hours to get from there?

Our final activity in Monteverde was to go ziplining. This is what many people come here for and so we had to give it a go. There are four different companies that offer the experience, all of which are similar but each one has something different to the others to try and entice the custom. We did our research and decided on one which included a couple of ‘Superman’ style sections, one of which went through a tunnel, an optional 50 metre high ‘Tarzan’ swing, plus it was the longest zipline trail in the area at almost three miles.

All dressed up and ready to go.

When we arrived we found it very busy and on our tour as there were 35 people. Our expectations of the day sunk pretty quickly as we had visions of long wait times between each zipline. However, we were completely wrong. We were kitted out with a harness, helmet and gloves and after a short safety brief, several members of staff set off along the route positioning themselves at the start and finish of each line. This meant that as soon as you finished each section you were unhooked and were free to walk through the forest to the next section where someone was waiting to hook you back on, and off you went again. This reduced waiting to a minimum and the whole experience was amazing.

Someone is enjoying herself

It was one of the best things we have done like this in a long time. All in all there were 14 lines to travel along. Most were seated, a couple of which we were able to do in tandem. It was a fantastic feeling flying through the canopy of trees, emerging into open sky then decending to just a few feet above the trees. The views and the feeling were amazing, we were loving it!

We were surprised how long each line was. Each one was a few hundred metres in length and with some steep forest trekking in between it was quite a strenuous day. Some people were really struggling towards the end, but the last two lines certainly took people’s minds off how tired they might have been feeling. These two were the ‘Superman’ lines, one of which went through a tunnel but the other one was a kilometre long line where your harness was rearranged and you were suspended like Superman under the line.

Off she goes!
You can just make out the line and the “Superman”

You were then sent off from inside the Forest, emerging just above the canopy for a few seconds before the trees disappeared and you were left flying across open sky at 60kph with the valley floor hundreds of feet below, before disappearing back into the forest and the awaiting finish platform. To say it was exhilarating would be an understatement.

Just when we thought it was all over we were presented with the option of doing a 50 metre high ‘Tarzan’ swing. Several people decided against this one including Sarah. She will jump out of an aeroplane, climb an ice covered volcano, zipline through the Cloud Forest and numerous other things but the whole ‘bungee’ thing is not for her. We did one 20 years ago in New Zealand, she ticked the box and retired from that experience. Steve on the other hand couldn’t resist and took on the free fall drop and swung through the canopy to finish a fantastic day.

Steve prepares for the drop!

We had four fabulous days in Monteverde and our expectations had been well and truly surpassed. It sounds ridiculous but we had been unfortunate to have beautiful weather during our stay, with blue skies most of the time and we were slightly disappointed that we had not seen hardly any cloud in the Cloud Forest. However, as we left Santa Elena and made our way down the mountain we were treated to a lovely view in the forest below as a huge cloud filled the tree covered valley. It was the icing on the cake!

A cloud in the Cloud Forest!

Another four and a half hour journey took us South from Santa Elena to the Manuel Antonio National Park. We are finding our current trip to be logistically different from a lot of our more recent trips. We have sort of got used to travelling with a certain amount of freedom to go when and where we want. Whether that is on our bikes, in a car, or in a campervan. On this trip we are bound by public transport constraints, mainly timings and routes. As such, without paying for expensive, private transfers or hire cars, those out of the way unusual places and secluded beaches are beyond us. We are tied pretty much to the main tourist points of interest. Don’t get us wrong, we are still seeing and doing some fantastic things, but we are noticing a certain lack of freedom and a definite increase in how busy some places are.

Manuel Antonio was busy. It is definitely a beautiful location and you can take a step back and imagine what it looked like 20 or 30 years ago. A rugged coast line with steep cliffs dropping into scenic bays. Then a long, crescent bay running into a rainforest peninsula with two lovely beaches, one on either side. It is understandable why it is popular.

You can understand why this place is popular.

But, as is the way with so many places in the world, a beautiful location is discovered and more and more people hear about it. Tourism infrastructure is set up, making it more and more accessible attracting more and more people and the expansion continues. Banana boats, jetskis, parasailing and the likes move in and the place becomes overwhelmed.

We had a pretty long walk and a good camera position for this shot!

I suppose you could look at it, that through this cycle of several years everybody has their own opportunity to sample their own idea of paradise. Whether that is being the only one in the newly discovered beach location, or flying out of control on a jetski or drinking your fill of the local beer with the latest techno music blasting out in the background …. all at the same time! The people who want the quieter time move out, find somewhere new and the cycle starts again.

Manuel Antonio is now a five mile stretch of restaurants, hotels, shops and tour operators stretching back from the National Park to the town of Quepos, with a constant stream of traffic filling the road.

We gave Manuel Antonio a couple of days, sat on all the beaches, and walked the National Park from top to bottom.

A mother and baby sloth….somewhere!
A bit of a cutie.

We saw some wildlife at close quarters and were lucky enough to see another sloth in motion. We enjoyed it but it would not be our number one stop on this trip.

So we packed our bags and headed off in search of something different.

She definitely played the part!

Caught with your pants down!

After our extended stay in Puerto Escondido we hit the road again, well actually we hit the air again. We flew back to Mexico City, stayed overnight in a hotel at the airport, and then caught an early morning flight to San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica.

As we were only staying overnight in San Jose we picked our hotel strategically within walking distance of the bus station. This strategy is always a gamble as more often than not the area around city bus and train stations is rarely the best part of town. San Jose was no exception.

We weren’t staying in the best part of town.

We spent the afternoon wandering around ‘downtown’ looking for something worth visiting but, to be honest, the whole the area was pretty awful. We decided to check our route to the bus station and maybe we would be able to buy a ticket in advance. Our route was lined with seedy bars, strip clubs and run down hotels which charged by the hour! We found the bus station and were told our bus to La Fortuna would leave at 8.40 the following morning. We weren’t able to buy a ticket in advance, but apparently it did not get too busy and if we turned up about 20 minutes before we would be fine.

Steve didn’t think too much of downtown San Jose

The following morning we headed to the bus station. As we got closer a woman rushed out of a doorway, still adjusting her miniscual dress and underwear as she went. She hobbled precariously along the cobbled street in high heeled, ill fitting shoes and make up smeared across her face. As we approached the doorway a man was standing there adjusting his trousers. He was laughing and said something in Spanish to Steve (who didn’t understand a word) but knew enough from the body language to shake his head and his hands and say, “No, no, no”. As we walked on Steve turned to Sarah and said, “We have to come back through San Jose in a month or so, on our way back to Mexico, maybe we will stay in a different part of town!”

We arrived at the bus station 40 minutes early and were greeted by a queue that wound it’s way like a snake around the waiting area. It was chaos. Steve did a quick head count and estimated there were about 70 people in front of us. “No way are we getting on that bus, not even in Central America”, he said. We slowly made our way to the front of the queue as the number of people behind us continued to grow. “Remind me not to believe anyone giving out information at a bus station again”, said Sarah. She also struck up a conversation with three Norwegian girls in the queue behind us and agreed that if we didn’t get on the bus we would all share a taxi together.

Closer and closer we edged to the front as the people and bags were wedged onto the bus. “Where are they putting everyone?”, said Sarah Then Steve got to the the turnstile at the front of the queue (we were next in line) only to be told in broken English, “Bus full. No more. Wait here”.

The man ‘organising’ the chaos disappeared and after about 10 minutes he came back, by which time our bus had left. The man pointed to a pink bus and let us through the turnstiles. The next five minutes involved a lot of people speaking Spanish, and a lot of arm waving, and furious discussion. We couldn’t work out where and when the bus was going, not even which country, never mind which town! Even the people among us who could speak a little Spanish were only guessing at what was happening. Eventually, a driver turned up for the bus and luckily not only was he a really nice guy but he spoke excellent English. He explained this bus would take us to a town part way to our destination and he would ring the bus company to organise another bus to meet us there, and this would take us the rest of the way to La Fortuna. “Sounds like a plan”, we thought and on we jumped along with 30 or so others who had joined the queue behind us.

A rickety bridge en route

The bus driver also explained that the bus would be making many stops along the way and all sorts of people would be getting on and off, some good, some not so good. He said every day someone has something stolen on the bus, including money, passports and credit cards. So he warned us to keep our personal possessions close and be vigilant.

“It’s only 9am, we have a five hour bus journey ahead of us and already today is turning into a bit of an adventure. Well worth the £4 fare”, said Steve!

The first bus was pretty comfortable and three hours passed quickly. The bus driver was right, all sorts of people got on and off the bus and sometimes it was packed. Sixty people was the busiest it got, many of whom were standing. It would have been very easy to take something from a bag in the overhead storage but we kept ours on our laps.

“Keep an eye on the bags Sarah, I’m just having a snooze”

We arrived at our first destination and the great bus driver organised the original 30 into a line and told us to wait there and a bus would be along shortly. Five minutes later, as promised, a bus arrived. It was much lower down the scale of comfortable buses but it went forward and the driver seemed to realise he had a clutch. It was already an improvement on Guatemala!

We left San Jose at 9am and after five hours, two buses, hundreds of passengers, £4 spent and one seriously dodgy bridge, we had covered the 85 miles and arrived in La Fortuna. Yes! You did read that right, only 85 miles. Luckily we had been to Costa Rica before and knew that travelling by public transport is not the quickest. In fact, travelling full stop is not quick. A lot of the country is very rugged and hilly, and often unpaved. Then when you throw in the ‘Central America’ element you really are not going anywhere fast.

But we were in La Fortuna in time for a late lunch, so we went to see if the town was worth the effort getting here.

We are lucky enough to have previously travelled to Costa Rica. But that time it was a break from work and so we spent most of the time relaxing on the beaches on the Pacific Coast. Although there was one night which we spent in a dilapidated old cow shed on the Nicaragua border, but that is another story from another trip! We had wanted to visit La Fortuna on that occasion but the beaches were so good we couldn’t pull ourselves away. So this time we were determined to get here.

La Fortuna, or The Fortunate, gets its name from the aftermath of a huge eruption in 1968 of the nearby volcano Arenal. El Burio, as the village was known then, was completely spared while other villages were destroyed and so its name was changed. Not only was it lucky to be spared but the eruption changed the whole geography of the area creating the beginings of a tourist industry that has gone from strength to strength, with the town becoming a centre for nature and adventure tours.

Arenal volcano high above the town of La Fortuna

It is now possible to view the volcano by almost every conceivable form of transport including on foot, bike, horse, kayak, SUP, plane, the list goes on. Unfortunately, you are only allowed to legally hike part of the way up, as it is still active and a constant flow of steam can be seen just to remind you.

On our hike up the Volcano, still a long way to go.
Walking through the rainforest

Arenal looks the part, it is the stereotypical conical shape and stands alone towering above the town.

We had a great time here. We hiked to the start of the now solid lava flow through the rain forest. We did a smaller but excellent walk in a small reserve near town and we took a trip to the Rio Celeste in Tonario Volcano National Park, where we again hiked through the rainforest to a ridiculously blue river and stunning waterfall.

The ridiculously blue water and waterfall at Rio Celeste
Amazing birds in La Fortuna

As has been the case for most of this trip it has been pretty hot. So one day we decided to cool off by taking a dip in the river on the edge of town. There was a rope hanging from one of the trees and a couple of people were swinging out to the middle of the water and making the several metre drop into the refreshing water. The longer we watched the more Steve was edging towards making the swing. Eventually he decided to go, stepped up, grabbed the rope and out he went straight into the water. He made his way back up the rocks and to his absolute complete surprise found Sarah stepping up to the rope. “Anything you can do” was the last thing he heard as she swung off the rocks and plummeted down. Steve held his breath until she surfaced with a big grin.

Steve going for a splash
Anything you can do I can do better!

At the end of one particular day we stopped off at some natural hot springs which are obviously very popular. The water flows down through the rainforest in a series of small cascading waterfalls which do create quite a strong flow. We got changed into our swim gear and found ourselves a nice position wedged in, protected from the flow. We relaxed and watched the sky go dark as the sun started to disappear, it was a great feeling as we thought about just where we were.

We decided to get out and head back to town for dinner. Steve found himself a safe place to drop his swim shorts and put his dry ones on. He trapped his wet shorts under his foot but as he went to put his leg in his dry shorts the flow of the water took his swimmers away. He was caught with his shorts half on and half off not knowing whether to go after his swimmers or protect his modesty. After a few seconds of hesitation he went for the latter and watched his swimmers float away. A few seconds later a girl a little way down the thermal pools jumped as something grabbed her leg. Her panic was short lived as she bent down and pulled up Steve’s shorts. You could see the confusion in her face as she looked around for the naked owner and saw Steve frantically waving at her. The shorts were retrieved by relay and everyone went home happy.

He is still in possession of his shorts at this point.

One of the major attractions of Costa Rica is the wildlife. There is a whole array of colourful birds here plus some glow in the dark frogs and good sized lizards. They even have tapir and jaguar although they are rarely seen. Add a few humpback whales into the mix and you have something for everyone. The real star of the show though is the sloth! Seeing one of these peculiar creatures is high on most people’s list. The last time we were here we saw one, high up and not very clear. This time we hoped for better.

We had only just arrived at our accommodation, when the guy who checked us in came over and asked if we wanted to see a sloth as there was one in a tree in the grounds. We trotted off with him with Steve muttering something about only been here five minutes and we had already seen a sloth, they must be everywhere.

We found the sloth quite low in the tree and very visible, then it started to move very, very slowly, hand over hand, for about two metres, whereupon it stopped obviously exhausted. Apparently they sleep up to 20 hours and move about 40 metres a day. Steve said he had known plenty of people with similar productivity!

We didn’t realise how lucky we were to get this shot.

Sarah managed to get a couple of good photos and a great video, and little did we know at the time how lucky we were. As we have travelled around since then we have met so many other people who have only glimpsed sloths from a distance, even the guides in the National Parks have been impressed with Sarah’s video.

There really was a ton of things to do in La Fortuna and from our experience and speaking to others it was pretty much all of a great standard. However, some of the activities are reportedly better in other locations, and ziplining was on our list. Apparently the place to do that is in The Cloud Forest at Monteverde.

So it’s Monteverde or bust for us!

“Are you coming to Monteverde Mr Green and Black Poisonous Dart Frog”?

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.

Back on the Beach.

So after a short visit back to the UK for Christmas, where we had a great catch up and plenty of laughs with family, we jumped on a plane on New Years Eve, destination Mexico. Our plan was to spend a month or so exploring the country, maybe a side trip into a couple of other Central American countries, before ending up in Costa Rica for about a month. At that point we would see how things are turning out and possibly head back to Mexico before returning to the UK in early April. We are pretty sure though that, like most of our plans in the last couple of years, something will come along and alter it. But for now it looks good, so lets go!

First stop, Cancun. Only because that was the easiest airport to access Mexico by direct flight, not because we wanted to party all night. Those days are well and truly behind us now. We used Cancun to stay for a couple of nights in order to get over the flight and pick up some essentials like the all important Mexican SIM card and we spent most of our one full day lying by the hotel pool enjoying being back in the hot weather.

“Happy New Year”

We also bought ourselves bus tickets to Playa del Carmen, a resort town further down the Yucatan Coast, where we planned to stay for a week and relax on the beach or by the pool.

Someone is happy!

We absolutely never feel hard done by, in fact just the opposite, and we truly appreciate how lucky we are to be living the life we do. But all this running around can sometimes get a bit tiring. Different time zones, long days of travelling, lots and lots of planning and organizing, and then more organising and planning. We use a tracking App called Polarsteps which is a great tool allowing you to load photographs and comments onto every stop you make on your travels. So far it shows in three years we have travelled over 120,000 miles and made over 300 stops. Did I mention there was a lot of organising and planning?

We settled into Playa del Carmen very quickly. We rented a small apartment in a block with a rooftop pool three blocks away from the main tourist hub.

“Three Amigos “

We are not normally too bothered about busy tourist areas but Playa had a nice feel to it. It had plenty of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, touristy outlets selling everything Mexican, many of which were linked to Mexico’s fascination with skeletons, skulls and The Day of the Dead. There was also apparently a ‘buzzing’ nightlife but our only involvement with this was when Steve went for an early morning run and had to dodge the last few ‘clubbers’ on their way home! We have enjoyed a beer or two in the past. In fact, Steve once got so drunk at a Christmas party that he pulled a huge 200 year old bookcase over, which landed on Sarah, deposited the contents of his stomach which included a bottle of Jagermeister and other similar drinks onto his and someone else’s dinner jacket, before being taken home practically unconscious in someone else’s clothes. But those days are over … well at least Sarah hopes they are!

The main square in Playa

Playa did a great job of allowing us to relax. It felt more like a holiday than travelling. In fact we decided to avoid as much planning as we could by joining a tour. This is something we haven’t done for three years and although it was only going to be for a couple of weeks, rather than a couple of months like the last one, it would be something different and allow us to sit back and have someone organise us rather than organise each other. Plus, last time we met some really great and interesting people, so hopefully it would be the same again.

“Let’s stay here for three months”

The trip was going to be based around visiting Mayan ruins in The Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. There were 13 of us travelling together, most of the time in a Mercedes Sprinter minibus, with a local Mexican leading the way. We would be staying in basic hotels and eating out, not camping and cooking for ourselves like the last time. Sounds quite luxurious we thought.

We all met up at a hotel in Playa and went out for a meal together. The make up of the group was varied to say the least. One born in Moldova but living in the USA, one born in Latvia but living in Germany, one born in Greece living in Germany, one born in Switzerland and has been living in Canada. Three more from Switzerland (The Swiss do seem to travel a lot). Three others from The US and two from The UK who don’t really live anywhere (that’s us by the way!). We also had a Mexican tour leader, Salvador.

Our first stop on the Mayan trail was Chichen Itza. This is probably the one most people have heard about. It is only a couple of hours drive from Cancun so is easily done on a day trip for anyone having a holiday there.

The main pyramid at Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza was our introduction to Mayan culture and construction. Salvador used to work as a guide there and so we benefited from his expertise. It was built over 1500 years ago and astronomy was very influential in its construction with the buildings and their design being strategically linked to the sun and the equinox. At specific times of the year the sun would shine through various parts of the pyramids and cast shadows which produced images including a snake running the height of the main building. All very impressive considering when they were constructed.

A ruined structure. (The building, not Sarah!)

The pyramids were also used as tombs for the Mayan rulers in much the same way as the Egyptian pyramids were used for the pharaohs. Some of them contained moveable stones to reveal hidden chambers and passages.

After Chichen Itza we made our way to the city of Merida, the largest city in Yucatan. We had a brief stop in the city of Izmal where the buildings are all painted yellow. It made for a nice photo opportunity, plus we got to climb one of the old pyramids for a great view of the area.

The yellow city.

We both really liked Merida. It had a relaxed feel to it, with a central main square which was busy in the evening with families, music and a few locals selling colourful items of clothing.

Dining out in Merida.

From Merida we made the trip to Uxmal, another Mayan City. This was amazing. Although we had enjoyed Chichen Itza, Uxmal was even better (in our opinion that is). We had a great guide, who was informative and funny, and there were much less people there.

Another impressive pyramid in Uxmal

In fact, at some points our group was the only one around. The site seemed to contain more buildings with more detailed decoration and in some ways more authentic. Plus, there were loads of good sized iguanas floating around which on occasion were in danger of stealing the show.

He doesn’t look to impressed.

After Uxmal we visited a couple of Cenotes. These are effectively water filled sink holes caused by a huge meteorite which hit the area 66 million years ago, the same one which some think wiped out the dinosaurs.

We really enjoyed Uxmal.

There are hundreds of cenotes in the Yucatan peninsula and fall into three main types. Ones which are completely underground, i.e in a cave, ones which are completely open and ones which have a small open air access leading to a large cave. We visited an open air one and one where we had to walk down into a cave. Both were fantastic but the cave was really special. Swimming around in crystal clear water among stalactites with the sun illuminating the area from a hole above was a first for us.

The cenotes were pretty cool places.

We now had a long nine hour drive South to our next stop to the jungle city of Palenque. By now the group was starting to bond and everyone was well travelled so it was great to swap stories with other people and get some ideas for the future. Although our life is pretty much based around travel, we never get tired of talking to people about it and listening to others who are very like minded.

Palenque was another stop for us to visit another Mayan site. This was different again to the previous two, primarily because of its location deep in the jungle. The weather was damp and wet (still nice and warm though) and the site had a real atmospheric feel to it. It wasn’t hard to imagine a scene from an Indiana Jones movie going on.

This place was pretty atmospheric….and wet!

Whilst in Palenque a few of us took the opportunity to visit Roberto Barrios waterfalls. Steve had seen this during his research for Mexico and had really fancied going. What he didn’t realise was when we got there we would have the opportunity to jump, swim and walk down a series of four waterfalls. Steve and four others jumped, literally, at the opportunity while the rest if the group followed a path alongside the river.

Steve had a great time. The guide spoke no English so we had to use body language to follow the instructions and it was a bit if a leap of faith into the unknown when he indicated for us to jump! We swam and walked through the water between the drops. We crawled into caves behind the falls and on one occasion we had to swim under the water into a small cave. It was quite exhilarating and when Steve and two Swiss girls, Aurora and Amanda, emerged into the cave they just burst out in uncontrollable laughter at what they were doing!

We made our way to the last jump and found some yellow tape blocking our way? The guide lifted it up, we went under, made the last jump into quite a reasonably strong current and swam to shore to join the others from the group. It was at this point that Sarah pointed out the Police on the other bank. “Our guide just told us someone died here two days ago and they are still investigating!”, she said. “Good job we had a guide who was able to give us thorough, clear instructions”, he replied!

Unfortunately the only photos we have are on Amanda’s ‘Go Pro’ so I will post them when she has sorted them out and passed them on.

It had been a fantastic day and we were really starting to enjoy this trip….. a lot. We were seeing some pretty impressive sights, meeting some interesting people and having a great laugh along the way.

Our travelling companions!

We are now due to leave Mexico and head into Guatemala, a new country for us, and hopefully a great time lies ahead.

“I’m so glad you had a good guide for the waterfall jumping Steve, I was a bit worried”.

“😉”

España por favor!

After our extended stay in good old Australia, we made our long awaited return back to The UK just as Covid restrictions were lifted.

We enjoyed a good Summer catching up with friends and family in Hampshire, Kent, Yorkshire and Wales. We did some house sitting in The New Forest looking after Steve’s best friend, Rupert the Working Cocker Spaniel, and did some walking in The Yorkshire Dales and Peak District.

Having missed several celebrations during our time down under we were thankful that we were back for Steve’s mother’s 80th birthday. We spent a fantastic few days away at a couple of locations in Hampshire. We stayed in some great hotels with plenty of character, we ate in some super restaurants, we saw some beautiful sights, but most of all we had a really fabulous time together with plenty of laughs.

Happy Birthday To You!

Also, while in the UK, Steve put all that training to good use and managed to get in a couple of Ironman races. He didn’t do too bad considering he is  getting on a bit. In fact, he came third in one and missed out on winning his category by just a few seconds in the other (he put his defeat down to stopping too long for a pee!).

You look like you need a pee mate!

So, although it wasn’t a spectacular Summer as far as the weather was concerned, we felt we made the most of our time in Blighty.

We also managed to get our Covid vaccinations which allowed us to resume our travelling. However, although the World is slowly opening up, our choice of destinations was somewhat limited. Taking into account the time of year and the weather we decided to head to Spain.

Spain had never really been featured in our original plan but then neither had a Worldwide pandemic! We have visited Spain many times in the past, predominantly to the Canary Islands and Majorca, mainly for some Winter sun and to cycle away from the UK wind and rain. Previous visits to mainland Spain had been a similar scenario but with stays of just a week we had never had time to venture too far from the major airports and tourist destinations. So our experience of Spain was limited and to be honest neither of us had fallen in love with the country. With approximately eight weeks to explore, maybe this time would be different.

We packed our car (with all its electrical issues) and jumped on a ferry to Bilbao in Northern Spain. We had a plan to head West through the Galicia region to Santiago de Compostela and then continue around the country anti- clockwise as far as Barcelona.

We are getting used to our plans going array but even for us this time was a record. We drove off the ferry, checked the weather and saw a week of storm clouds covering our planned route. So we turned East and headed for the foothills of the Pyrenees instead.

Our first stop was a campsite near the town of Balaguer. A beautiful location next to a lake and close to some seriously good walking. Probably the pick of the bunch was in a place called Congest de Mont Rebei. This walk had to be seen to be believed. Sheer drops only inches from the path which was carved through the rock, rope bridges across rivers, and an incredible decent on a rickety wooden staircase straight down the cliff face. Incredible.

Not one for vertigo sufferers
“Are you sure it is safe?”

Our campsite was also pretty good but we did wonder why there weren’t that many tents around. In fact, at one point, we were the only tent on the site. We quickly discovered that camping in Spain, especially the further South you travel, is predominantly campervan and motorhome based. The hard, sparsely vegetated ground is not conducive to comfortable and easy camping under canvas.

For our next stop we travelled South East towards the coast. We passed through a lot of rural Spain, with small towns and villages where the main occupation seemed to centre around farming. The places we passed through appeared relatively poor and we commented how it was sometimes not that easy to determine if buildings were being constructed, demolished or renovated!

We arrived on the coast at a place called Calpe, not too far from Benidorm but far enough for it to be out of sight and mind. We were trying to avoid the well known places along the various ‘Costa’s’ and see a different side of the country. Steve knew Calpe was a good area for cycling, but what he didn’t know was how good. When he found out that half of the professional cyclists in the World spend time here over the Winter, Sarah knew she wasn’t going to see much of him!

Up and up and up!

The hills and villages around Calpe were beautiful and Steve couldn’t let Sarah miss out, so she rented a top of the range electric road bike. This allowed her to keep up and on many of the steeper hills even leave Steve behind. We spent days out and about exploring, stopping for coffee in the villages, struggling up the mountains and flying down them.

“Can we go down now?”

The mountains were nearly always above 3000 feet and occasionally over 5000 feet. We did two or three a day and that is a lot of pedalling. Initially Sarah was understandably very hesitant about descending down miles of steep hairpin bend roads but by the end she really looked the part, full gas, knee out banking the bike around the bends, and she even overtook a couple of cars!

“I love my new bike”

The next six weeks followed a similar pattern as we drove South and then West through Andalucía. What a place. We loved it. Beautiful town after beautiful town. They are known as the ‘Pueblo Blanco’, White Towns, and they stand gleaming out in isolated pockets, sometimes in valleys, sometimes perched atop a hill, sometimes clinging precariously to the side of a cliff and on one occasion built into the cliff.

I quite like it here
Frigiliana. Often voted the prettiest village in Spain

We twisted our way through Mojacar, Orgiva, Arcos de la Frontera,  Grazalema, Zahara, Frigiliana, Bocairent and numerous others. Sometimes we camped, sometimes renting an apartment and occasionally staying in a hotel. We would always cycle, often walk, and sometimes just relax in the beautiful surroundings and amazing weather.

Sunset over our campsite in Bocairent

We also visited Granada, where the Alhambra Palace is. This palace is just too incredible for words. We walked around Ronda with its famous bridge, a favourite of many, and Jerez de la Frontera, the home of Sherry and also a centre for Andalusian horses.

The famous bridge in Ronda.
The view of Granada from The Alhambra Palace.

We went to a display at the riding school to see the impressive horsemanship and Sarah was in her element.

Sarah really wanted to join in!

Sarah found us some beautiful places to stay and with it being towards the end of the season, and tourism volumes still low, she was always able to find a great deal. One stipulation for accommodation was that we needed relatively secure parking. Unfortunately our aging car has a developed a few electrical problems. The long and short of it is, the battery drains overnight, and the dashboard lights up like a Christmas tree, which is obviously a problem! We know what the issue is, but in this world of supply chain issues we have been unable to obtain the part. So for now, in order to get around the problem, we have to disconnect the battery if the car is left for more than about 6 hours. This means we can’t operate the central locking and a separate issue means we can’t lock it manually.

As I am writing this it sounds ridiculous that we would embark on a 6000 mile trip, but we have just got so used to it, the whole process has become second nature. It is a little disconcerting sometimes when you are driving along with the warning lights on, there have been seven in total, but only ever a maximum of five at one time. Oh, plus the fuel gauge does not work and you can only open the boot from the inside!

Anyway back to the secure parking. Campsites and apartments are generally fine but hotels in cities where space is a premium can be a challenge, especially when they were built with much smaller cars in mind. A twelve point turn in an underground car park to get out was the record. That in itself was eclipsed when we turned up to a place with an underground car park with no ramp. You had to take the car in a lift!! We were crying with laughter as Steve maneuvered our bigger than average car into the small space as Sarah squeezed into a corner as she guided him into the lift. The front bumper had to touch the front lift door in order for the rear one to close!!

Of course it will fit!
Just!

We clung to the last rays and heat of the Autumn sun in a place called Torrox. But as the second week in November started we decided to head North and start our long drive home.

The last eight weeks had completely changed our view of Spain. Admittedly it had mainly been in Andalucía but it is a place we will undoubtedly return to…. many times.

Our time in Spain however was not over. In fact we still had another three weeks before we planned to return home. Before that we were due to visit our friends, Mark and Lisa, who we met in Australia. They live in the North of The Netherlands and that by anyone’s standards is a long drive from Torrox which sits on The Mediterranean in Southern Spain.

Here is a short precis of our stops and route:

Cordoba. Fabulous cathedral, small old town, a little touristy but worth a stop on any itinerary. We found it quite traditional when it came to restaurant eating times. If you want to eat dinner between 5pm and 8pm we suggest you take some sandwiches. As is the case in a much of Spain outside the familiar tourist areas, the evening doesn’t even start to get going until after 8pm.

The Cathedral started life as a Mosque!

Toledo. A top drawer place. Amazing. We loved it. It is visually striking both close up and from a distance.

Toledo was pretty special

It has a beautiful old town and a friendly atmosphere, good bars and coffee shops, and a lovely walk along the river below the city.

A walk along the river.

San Sebastian/Donostia. Food heaven! The town sits on the Bay of Biscay and has two main beaches. One is sheltered, huge, sandy and perfect for relaxing (unfortunately we were there in mid November so could only imagine it). The other beach was a surfer’s paradise and even at this time of year well over a hundred wetsuit clad surfers lined up like an army of seals jostling for position on the perfect wave.

Food glorious food.
Above the bay in San Sebastian.

Cognac (we are now in France). We thought we would stop here just for the sake of it. This small town in South West France, as its name suggests, is the home of the famous spirit. The town has several well known distilleries which even we had heard of. It is a pleasant place for a stroll along the river and if you are a Cognac fan there are tours of all the famous brands are on offer.

Montargis. Where? Sometimes you just have to stay somewhere to spend the night and then move on!

Epernay. Where? Well you may or may not have heard of this tiny French town in the North East. But you will certainly have heard of its main export and more than likely, on a special occasion, sampled its main export. Epernay is the epicentre for the production of Champagne. All the big Champagne houses and dozens of smaller ones are located in or around the town, including Moet et Chandon, probably the most famous one of all.

Down in the Champagne caves

We visited Mercier and did a fantastic tour which took us underground into the 18 kilometres of caves and storage rooms. Where we were transported around on a little train as the history and workings of the company were explained. The tour finished off with the obligatory Champagne tasting.

It would be foolish not to!

From Epernay we drove across Belgium and on a grey November day it was nothing to write home about. Our impression was one of a dark, closed in, cramped, cold place. However, as we crossed the border into the Netherlands we encountered a world that appeared clean and modern. The grey graffiti covered concrete surroundings and old industrial units and works, were replaced by open green spaces, light and airy new commercial premises, and a fresh clean feeling and we were struck by the stark contrast.

We couldn’t pass through The Netherlands without spending a couple of days in Amsterdam. We walked the entire city, what felt like at least three times, did all the tourist things, and had a really good time.

Typical Amsterdam.

However, that pesky old Covid thing was starting to loom again. Case numbers were starting to rise and the Dutch Government had installed an 8pm closing time on non essential shops and restaurants, bars and entertainment. This restricted Steve’s time in a certain part of the city!!

Finally, we made it to Friesland (where the cows come from), home to Mark and Lisa. In fact, they have two homes as they were renting a place on a farm and had also just got the keys to their new house which they are about to renovate. Now Sarah loves a good renovation project, having done a bit of it ourselves, and we were more than happy to help out for a few days. So armed with a sledgehammer, chisels, wallpaper strippers and such like we set about their new abode.

Sometimes being short helps!
Not bad for a mornings work.

We had a great time, laughing and joking, talking about our time together in Australia and although it was over a year since we had seen each other, it really did only feel like yesterday.

It wasn’t all hard work, we did manage some time out to see the local area and while visiting a market Mark persuaded Sarah to try a local delicacy of raw whole salted herring. It was a sight to behold, how she wasn’t sick we will never know. The sight and sound caused a few passers by to stop and watch!

Something seems a little fishy.

Steve and Mark also managed a cycle together. It wasn’t quite the same though as cycling in the 30 degree heat of the Far North Queensland rainforest!

This is going to be a cold one.

We left Mark and Lisa to continue with their substantial project and promised to return in the Spring to see the progress. “I hope it is finished by then”, joked Steve, as he examined the cuts on his hands! We can easily see Friesland being a regular stop on our travels. They really are a lovely couple.

So it was back to Dunkirk and the ferry to Dover. But we had one last stop to make. We had heard a lot about Bruges in Belgium and had decided to see what the talk was about. We were a bit dubious having not been overly impressed with the look of Belgium as we had driven through previously. But Bruges was a gem of a place. The weather was pretty cold with a few showers around but it is one of those places you can enjoy at any time of year.

It was a bit wet but Bruge was still lovely.

We strolled around the cobbled streets and alleys, soaked up the sights (literally) and gorged ourselves on beer, chocolate, waffles and other delicious treats. “Hey, come on Sarah. We have earned this on those mountains in Spain. One more waffle please….. with extra chocolate…. white AND milk!