A Travellerspoint blog

Wandering Around And Seeing Stuff

Wrapping up our trip in Antigua Guatemala and the Western Highlands, by Mirren and Fraser

sunny 24 °C

Our three weeks in Antigua have been very busy compared to most of the other stays on our trip. Here are some of the highlights:

Ailsa and Daddy went on a street food tour. The rest of us skipped it in case they had to eat yucky things. They didn't and said everything tasted really good!

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Daddy went to a cooking class when my mom took us into Guatemala City to pick Grandma Cable up at the airport.

We went to see an organic farm and had lunch there. It was up on top of a hill overlooking the town and we had a great view.

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Ailsa and Daddy went to see an organic co-op coffee farm on one of the volcanos nearby. She got to ride a bicycle to power the machine to remove the shells from the beans. She also got to drink her first cup of coffee. They didn't add sugar or milk, but she said it was 'still okay'.

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We went to Chichicastenango to the largest market in Central America. It was really busy! We got to buy some souvenirs to bring home to our new house.

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To celebrate Ailsa's 11th birthday we went to Lake Atitlan and rented a boat for the day to cruise around the lakeside villages. We saw some old churches but here they mix Catholicicsm with the Mayan traditions. We were taken to a vigil that was set up in a local's house. The Mayans give offerings of cigars and liquor. We paid to go in and see the display. It is a big honour to have the vigil in your family's home. In one of the villages Ailsa and I got our hair braided with a long embroidered thread that the local woman wear.

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We went to the weaving museum and learned about the messages and symbols that you can see in the weavings if you look close enough. Each village weaves different patterns and we were shown how to tell which village a Mayan woman comes from by what her outfit looks like. We also saw a display of back-strap looming.

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We went to some other museums and galleries but they were kind of boring. Our most favourite thing that we did in Antigua was to visit a church that had been ruined in an earthquake. We got to climb over all the boulders and broken down columns. My mom said that they would probably not let kids crawl all over a broken down place like this in Canada. We made a film when we were there with our new friends Lucia and Matteo from Peterborough. We pretended Fraser was an evil mastermind trying to destroy the earth and we had to find his secret plans before it was too late. We had lots of fun watching the clips over and over again. Here is a clip where Fraser is trying to look really evil.

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We head to the airport with Grandma Cable to fly home to Canada tomorrow morning. Daddy is staying on holiday for another two weeks before he has to go back to work. He is going to take more cooking classes in Mexico. We now have to think about our favourite places and activities on the whole trip. Lots to thinks about and big decisions to make....

Posted by Salsa Sojourns 21:48 Archived in Guatemala Comments (1)

Semana Santa

Easter Parades in Antigua Guatemala, by Ailsa

sunny 24 °C

Welcome to Antigua! We arrived during the week before Easter, known as Semana Santa in this part of the world. These are the largest Easter celebrations outside of Rome and the largest religious celebrations in the Americas. We were told that over 1,000,000 people come to Antigua each year to see the Easter parades. At home we do Easter egg hunts and the Easter Bunny visits but it is much more about Jesus here. We had to watch some videos online to remember all the details about the Easter Story (Fraser's favourite was a Lego one). They told the Christian story of Jesus being crucified and then coming back to life a few days later.

Nearly all of the people in Guatemala are Catholic (a specific type of Christian). Easter is the most important Catholic celebration, more important than Christmas. It celebrates the death of Jesus and when he rises from the dead. The celebration in Antigua includes three major parts; the vigils, processions and alfombras (carpets).

Vigils are held in all the churches with grand alfombras (carpets) and scenes from the last days of Jesus' life, like the Last Supper. They are very detailed and display lots of statues and vegetables and fruits and are changed every day.

The Processions are parades where the local men (Cucuruchos) and women (Cargadoras) carry floats called andas. To represent the time up until Christ was put on the cross, the men men wear purple robes and white coverings on their heads while the women wear white blouses and black veils. The purple represents that they feel bad for their sins (when they did something wrong). Several other members of the procession dress as Roman soldiers to act out the story.

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After 3pm on Good Friday afternoon, the parades change to show the time after Jesus died. The processions switch to wearing all black, both men and women. This represents grieving. The andas are made of wood and can weigh hundreds to thousands of pounds. They carry the religious statues from the local churches. The largest showed Jesus in a glass coffin and needed 100 carriers who switched every block. They would each take 2 or 3 turns. That parade was 10 hours long and needed over 3000 men to carry the anda! There were also bands playing a slow type of funeral music, and a lot of people spreading Frankincense so that we could hardly see through the smoke.

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In front of the procession people make carpets called alfombras. They take a very long time to make and are really detailed with dyed sawdust and flowers. The carpet designers built up beams so they can walk above the patterns and fill stencils with spoonfuls of colourful sawdust one at a time. Some of the alfombras looked like real carpets. Some had pictures of animals, flowers and religious symbols. People spend hours designing these only to have the procession destroy the carpet as they walk across in a matter of minutes.

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We watched a few processions until Good Friday and then helped make an alfombra with other kids in the neighbourhood. First we used wooden beams to form the outline and spread sawdust to create a level background on top of the cobble street. We also used stencils and dyed sawdust to create images for the carpet. Since there were lots of kids there was no organized design and we all just had fun spreading different colours of sawdust around. I put a special Canadian flag in one corner as a symbol of our family.

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During the week we saw three different parades. One was Jesus carrying the cross, one had Christ on the cross and the most important one was Jesus' body after he had died. We made the alfombra for the last and most important procession that went right by our Casa and we climbed onto the roof to watch it pass. There was so much incense that we could barely breath!

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My favourite part of Semana Santa was looking at the intricate alfombras and watching the efforts of the men and women as they swayed with the effort of carrying the huge floats. We also loved playing with the neighbourhood kids. Grandma Cable arrived the day before Good Friday to spend two weeks with us. It is so nice to spend Easter with family! Today we spent Easter Sunday going for a walk and listening to the music, church bells and fireworks of celebrations around the city. I think we will always remember this week and how much work the people of Antigua put into their amazing Easter celebrations.

Posted by Salsa Sojourns 17:32 Archived in Guatemala Comments (4)

And now for something completely different

Our last weeks in Nicaragua, by Norm

sunny 32 °C

Years ago, Shona converted my appreciation of Monty Python to the wider inclusion of Michael Palin's travelogues. His journeys off the usual tourist trail were one of the inspirations behind our own adventure. Thus, I can't go too long without some Python references... Apologies to any non-Monty Python fans who read this post. Stop us if we're all getting too silly!

So far our trip has included varied destinations: beautiful multi-coloured colonial cities, mystic ancient Mayan ruins, sun and sand filled beaches, and deep jungle or rainforests teeming with natural flora, fauna and geological wonders. Our last two stops in Nicaragua were week-long sojourns at a finca (farm) on the intriguing Isla Ometepe in Lago Nicaragua, and at a beach house in Pochomil, a quaint fishing village attempting to embrace Nica's up-and-coming surf culture on the Pacific coast.

We set off from Costa Rica to Nicaragua with our new temporary travel family, Peggy and Dave, who would visit with us on Ometepe for a few days. This was the final land-border crossing of our trip for Shona and the kids and once we had struggled through immigration with our limited Spanish we quietly congratulated ourselves that we had managed as well as we had.

Ometepe is one of the largest freshwater islands in the world. As the ferry pulled away from the mainland the imposing view of the island's two volcanoes increased the sense of adventure. The good karma started right off the boat, as we met Jose Luis, a friendly young baseball-obsessed taxi driver who would become our island guide over the following week. We planned our day-trips with him around his baseball schedule. He was the pitcher for his team and they were on a winning streak. We often saw groups of kids playing baseball, rather than soccer, improvising with oranges or rocks due to the lack of actual baseballs.

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The finca we rented for eight days on Ometepe was a large property with panoramic views of the beautiful lake and numerous fruit trees. We were located at the base of Volcán Concepción, an active volcano that last erupted in 2012. A fruit bowl full of oranges, limes, mangoes, carambola (starfruit) and tamarind from the property greeted us on arrival. A short walk revealed that there were also grapefruit, coconuts and avocado trees on the property. The fertile growing conditions in the volcanic soils and the high cost of importing pesticides to Ometepe, allow for almost all the delicious local produce to be organic. It was difficult to find many things that were not produced on the island, the best cheese shop was certainly uncontaminated by cheese. The caretakers of the property sourced us some lake fish which combined with the finca fruit was the start of a feast. Once again, the Nicaraguan Flor de Caña rum with limes from the tree outside made fabulous mojitos.

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Being on a farm did have its drawbacks. Several roosters could not tell the time, crowing at all hours of the day and night. We think one hen was also confused, as it continually growled like a howler monkey. Then there were the flocks of parakeets with beautiful plumage that liked to loudly squawk outside the window at daybreak, they were not Norwegian Blue parrots and had definitely not expired.

Our day trips around the island always included marvelling at the views of the volcanoes. Volcán Concepción is one of the best examples of a classic conical volcano shape. The top is almost always covered in a cloud dome as the emissions from the cone generate moisture that rolls down the steep slopes. None of us were willing to hike the volcano which requires a 4 am start and over 6 hours of ascension without much chance of unrestricted views inside a cloud. But we were lucky enough to view the bare peak with its ominous crater a couple times late in the afternoon when the heat burned off any humidity.

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During our stay on the island we enjoyed visits to Charco Verde Nature Reserve and Lagoon, (risking meeting Chico Largo - a devil that turns people into cows - there were an inordinate number of cattle roaming the island); San Ramón waterfall on Volcán Maderas, (where Jose Luis earned a big tip by piggy-backing Fraser all the way down the volcano trail); 3000 year old petroglyphs; bike rides; and swimming spots where we thoroughly enjoyed the salt-free water after weeks in the ocean.

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Isla Ometepe seems lost-in-time as the world speeds ahead. Change may be coming though, in the form of a massive new Chinese-financed canal across the country and Lago Nicaragua. The proposed project is already underway (although final studies, plans and approvals are incomplete!) to build a wider and deeper passage than the Panama Canal to accommodate supertankers. For those interested in further details of this controversial project, check out this article from the Guardian.

Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (behind Haiti) and the hopes are high that this project will lead to improvements in the standard of living. But most people we spoke with definitely seemed nervous. These ships will endanger flora and fauna reserves as well as jeopardize the tranquility of everyday life on Ometepe. Currently the main sources of income on the island are tourism and fishing, still done in small dug-out canoes and 2 person dinghies. While we hope for economic prosperity for the people of Isla Ometepe, the impact of the canal may have far reaching consequences that may negatively and permanently change the region. We are extremely glad to have seen the area before large ships rule the lake and hope that the friendly people we met will be able to adapt with few negative results.

From Ometepe, we headed up to Managua to pick up our rental car for the week. We fumbled our way through the chaotic un-signed streets of the capital and travelled to Pochomil, on the Pacific. We were searching for some pure relaxation as our trip begins to wind down. The break from active travel came at the right time as two of the kids began to feel under the weather. Fraser cried out that he was not dead yet, while Mirren insisted it was only a flesh wound. We used the week to recover on the beach and in the pool, and to just enjoy some pampering. One of the locals, a renown cook, came to our Casa twice to prepare some outstanding Nica tipico dinners for us: Pescado a la Pochomil and Ceviche. Upon finishing, we could eat no more, not even a teeny wafer thin mint!

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After almost 4 months of travelling and hearing multiple horror-stories about corrupt law enforcement officers, we were finally stopped by police for some nonsensical check. Unable to kick the ghastly habit, I am the only person in this country who signals a turn, yet still I got pulled over. In my pigeon Spanish, I managed to fumble my way through his interrogation. Ha! I had the required warning triangle in the vehicle (to my dismay, they did not care that I had a jack or tire irons), so no bribe was needed and they let me go. But remember... Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Posted by Salsa Sojourns 15:05 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (3)

These Turtles are Like Ninjas!

Nesting and hatching in Marino Las Baulas National Park, by Shona

sunny 35 °C

The beach at Playa Grande, which lies within the Marino Las Baulas National Park, provided an awesome opportunity for our family to hone their surfing, boogie-boarding and castle-building skills (or lack of skills!) during the day. But shortly after sundown each night the beach was closed and the true beauty of the national park designation revealed itself. Las Baulas National Park is the prime nesting site on the Pacific coast, and one of only a few remaining nesting sites in the world, for the massive Leatherback turtles. Slightly less endangered and somewhat smaller Olive Ridleys and Blacks (confusingly sometimes called Greens) also make their nests in this park.

When planning our visit to Playa Grande we thought we would catch the end of the Leatherback nesting season which is supposed to go until the end of March, but we were a bit dismayed to find out on our arrival that fewer Leatherbacks had come this year, and those that had nested had moved on a month or so earlier than usual. We were pretty disappointed, but were too lamely focused on our own bad luck to consider the poor turtles!

We regrouped and figured that if we were smart with our time and were very lucky we might get a chance to see one of the other types of turtles nesting and possibly see the hatching of some baby turtles. We all frantically crossed our fingers and signed up for a night-time turtle tour. These tours are run by guides who formerly harvested the turtle eggs and sold them to restaurants. Their nest hunting skills are now put to better use and the newfound tourism revenue has encouraged the locals to support turtle conservation efforts. A 30 minute bumpy jeep ride delivered us to another beach where there were reported nestings happening that night by Black turtles. We were not allowed lights of any kind (hence the lack of photos) and we had to stay very quiet while waiting and watching.

As nightfall arrived a mother turtle painstakingly hauled her gigantic body up the beach until she found a suitable spot to begin building her nest, and we left her in peace to do so. We would check on her after she was done digging the nest and was ready to lay her eggs. Once our eyes adjusted to the moonlit darkness we noticed a few sets of tracks coming from the water's edge. (These resemble the tracks from a very large tractor tire) so we knew there were a few other mothers laying at that moment. We waited on the sand for about an hour and despite their excitement the kids did a great job in staying silent and waiting to launch their hundred questions until we were safely away from the quiet of the beach and headed home. Instead we silently laid on our backs and gazed up at an unbelievable night sky so full of stars that it filled us with awe. During this time several other turtles had stealthily crept up from the beach to nest or had headed back to the ocean after laying their eggs. Two cute little coatis, which are similar to raccoons, ran along the beach.

Once a suitable spot was found, it took a mother turtle about an hour to use her back flippers to dig a hole close to one metre deep to lay about 100 eggs. The guides told us that there are usually 30 billiard-ball-sized fertilized eggs and the remaining eggs are ping-pong-sized, un-fertilized eggs. On the night of our tour things seemed to suddenly go haywire. The silence was broken by many Walkie-talkies going off and guides running around with their red, night-vision flashlights. Apparently those cute looking coatis we had spotted earlier had raided one of the newly laid nests!

The entire nesting process, though fascinating, looked entirely EXHAUSTING. But wait, there's more... These mothers nest every 15 DAYS throughout the 3-4 month-long nesting season and THEN swim all the way to the Galapogos Islands for a well deserved break. And IF they are able to avoid danger while out at sea (many die each year in fishing nets or from oil pollution!) they will return to the same beach (if there hasn't been too much beach development!) in a year or two to do it all again! Until they are 80. Years. Old. Good grief.... the nesting was amazing to witness but I silently but very sincerely thanked Mother Nature that I'm not a female sea turtle!

Several weeks after the eggs are laid the baby turtles are ready to hatch under the cover of darkness. The beach at Playa Grande reopens each morning at 5am so we tried our best to adjust our sleep schedule so that we were waking up very early each morning in an attempt to witness the final moments of a hatching. On most mornings we had the entire beach to ourselves except for a few other turtle loving tourists and a researcher from the marine biology station who would scan the beach for evidence of nestings or hatchings. Here's Mirren posing one morning beside some tracks left by a mother turtle the night before.

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One researcher we met was very informative. She was trailed by several American high school students who were visiting and shadowing her research for a week, (our kids: "OMG! I'm totally doing that when I'm their age!"). We learned from her that the temperature of the sand strongly influences the gender of the baby turtles. If it is higher than 29.5 degrees Celsius the turtles that hatch will more likely be female. Male turtles are more likely to hatch when the sand temperature is lower than 29.5 degrees. It was definitely on the higher side at Playa Grande so any newly hatched turtles would very likely be female.

One morning we noticed several Olive Ridley baby turtles (about the size of the previously mentioned billiard ball) trying to crawl out of a hole in the sand and make their way to the ocean. They were a little late to the party... The tide was quickly receding so that their journey to the edge of the ocean was now much longer than that faced by their siblings who hatched several hours earlier. To our kids' distress, two baby turtles were already dead in the nest by the time we arrived, either from exhaustion or overheating. The biologist gave us the job of trying to scare away the circling birds while the live babies tried to crawl to the ocean. The kids got to name one of the Olive Ridley baby turtles and chose 'Oliver' in honour of their cousin! Here is a short video of two turtles reaching the ocean and facing the surf.

The following morning as we walked along the beach at dawn we noticed several sets of miniature tracks heading to the ocean from another hole in the sand. There was one baby Leatherback turtle still making her way to the ocean! The kids immediately stood guard and chased the birds away. Norm captured this turtle's attempt at the epic journey from nest to sea. His sincere apologies go out to our family's film students, Teagan and Tyrell, as his camera work is more than a bit dodgy (especially at the end when he completely turns the iPad).

Our biologist friend came back and this time took the baby Leatherback back to the research station with plans to release her that night under the cover of darkness, to avoid the daytime birds and improve this Leatherback's chance of survival. During hatching and crawling to the ocean the texture and composition of the sand and the beach location gets imprinted into a turtle's brain and she will only return to the same exact location to nest in 25 years time when she reaches sexual maturity. The Leatherback turtles are too endangered for the researchers to sit back and watch as nature unfolds. Only one in one hundred Leatherback eggs produce a turtle that will reach adulthood! The biologist checked the nest and the tag told us that the nest was laid exactly eight weeks earlier. She let the kids name the baby Leatherback and this time they chose Negra Bella, Black Beauty, which was a very suitable name. She was positively stunning and we felt so grateful to have had a very minor hand in her start in the world.

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Would she be one of the lucky ones to survive? Again, we all frantically crossed our fingers. Except this time it was not for our own chance to witness something as amazing as a sea turtle nesting or hatching, instead we were all desperately hoping that these majestic creatures who have existed for millions of years will find a way to survive in an ever changing world.

Posted by Salsa Sojourns 22:34 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (4)

Pura Vida

Living the life... surfing and swimming at Playa Grande, by Mirren

sunny 35 °C

In Playa Grande we went to the beach twice every day. We would go for a fun swim in the morning, and to refreshingly cool off again and watch the sunset after a boiling hot afternoon. We were living the life; in Costa Rica that is what they call Pura Vida.

On the second day, Daddy, Ailsa and I took a surfing lesson with JJ from Frijoles Locos Surf Shop. We were told that it is easy to look like a professional with your surfboard on the sand, but a lot harder to look good in the water. So, here we are looking pretty good!

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JJ first showed us how to 'pop up' on the surf board while on the beach. In the water you have to paddle and then push up with your hands while you scoot your feet to the middle of the board. Then you have to bend your knees and keep your feet across the board to balance. The instructor helped us catch the right waves and told us when to try to get up. It takes most people a few days to get up on the board, but we did well and all got up on the first day. I got up on my first try! We decided to rent a surfboard for the week.

I told Fraser what to do, so he tried surfing too!

When we were not surfing we swam and played on the beach. We used a boogie board to catch waves. The waves were normally 0.5 - 1.0m high, but some were almost 2.0m! When we did not have the boogie board we tried to jump over the waves or swim with them. We had to be careful and watch for riptides, but we learned what to do in case we got caught in one and pulled out to sea.

The tide would rise 2m twice a day. Playa Grande was so flat that the beach was very wide at low tide - lots of room to play! We made a fort out of driftwood as a meeting place and to give us shade. We saw a blonde lady pull it apart one morning. She looked like a teen-ager from far away but when I saw her up close she was old and had wrinkles like my Mom. We called her the 'Party-Pooper' and made up a dance about it.

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Over two weeks on the beach we collected so many shells. Ailsa, Fraser and me each kept our favourite 25 shells to bring home. Mommy collected a pile that had little holes in them to take home to make a garland for the Christmas tree. Daddy does not like carrying the bags with the shells because he said they are too heavy... another Party-Pooper.

During our first week at the beach we met two girls from Ontario, Keiry and Kaia. ("Hi Guys!") We played with them and made sand castles each day until it was time to watch the beautiful sunset over the Pacific Ocean and say 'good night'. We really loved it here and want to come back in a few years with family and friends - when we are a bit older and can surf a bit easier. Do you want to come too? Pura Vida!

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Posted by Salsa Sojourns 14:24 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (3)

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