A Travellerspoint blog

...THIS is why we travel!

The Guatemala Highlands, by Shona

sunny 27 °C

The few days that followed our visit to Tikal were rough. Ironically, as we travelled higher into the rainy Guatemalan Highlands things started to go downhill. Despite rockslide remnants that sprung up behind switchback corners, our easily distracted kamikaze minibus driver somehow delivered us safely to our next destination. We were some of the lucky passengers... others hung to the roof rails in the rain! But the tarp that covered the bags on the roof of the van didn't work very well and we arrived in the crossroads mountain town of Coban, Guatemala with bags full of wet clothes. It was cold. Not 'Canada in January' cold, but the temperature inched toward freezing at night, our things were all wet and there was no heating in our hotel. We huddled under blankets and tried to stay warm while our clothes were at the laundromat but things began to unravel... Mirren was inconsolable after seeing a run-over dog. Ailsa threw teenager-worthy stink-eyes in everyone's direction. Fraser refused to stop bouncing. Norm and I began to bicker with each other. We all started to show signs of homesickness and/or boredom. Something weird was going on... this did not feel like the first part of our trip.

At dinner Norm tried to order a local dish but it was not available so he took a chance on the unknown menu item listed just below. When our meal arrived he quickly declared his inedible. Not possible, I thought. I have witnessed him eat unmentionables at Dim Sum in Chinatown and fried ginea pig in Peru. The man can literally eat any meat... But not this dish. He said he thought he saw an eyeball in it. The kids rolled their eyes and told him not to be rude or to waste food (ooh, karma!) but when we got back to the freezing hotel that night a Google search showed he had unfortunately ordered pig head and menudo (intestine) soup. Yup, it was official. Our travelling luck had run out. We had lost our mojo.

As soon as all our things had dried out we decided to get out of Dodge! If we changed things up, we reasoned, then maybe our luck would improve. We headed out to the legendary picturesque river spot called Semuc Champey which the guidebooks called the prettiest spot in Guatemala. At this point in our travels we wanted 'pretty'.

The long journey there was an adventure in itself, the last part of which was a 9km, one hour long, bone-jarring upright ride in the back of a truck. The kids loved that! In our last minute scramble to change our plans we had booked accommodation at the Utopia Eco Lodge. I know, I know... the name itself was a red flag. It's like naming a baby boy Caesar or Napoleon or even Fabio!! Such high expectations from the name alone... Utopia! Besides, this 'Eco lodge' was going to cost us a mere $6 each for the night. I braced myself for disappointment.

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How wrong I was to doubt this place. It was amazing! The young international volunteer staff could not have been more welcoming. There were vistas to view, board games to play and other travellers to chat with. But the best part of the lodge was that it was an hour-long tube ride down river from Semuc Champey. Yes please! We quickly found our little cabin, threw down our bags, hopped into the back of the pick-up truck again and bumped our way to the park entrance.

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Semuc Champey is unbelievably stunning! I have never seen anything as beautiful! We had the most amazing day there and then floated home on our tubes in time for a delicious family-style vegetarian dinner. Not surprisingly Norm did not complain about the lack of meat! :)

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What a perfect day. And I got to spend it with my most favourite people in the world. Floating along in my tube I tried to freeze the moment in my mind as we meandered over gentle rapids back to Utopia. Ailsa, soon to be 11 years old, and Norm and I were witnessing her final few months of real childhood. Mirren, 9 years old, and so curious and compassionate. And Fraser, six years old, and desperately trying to keep up with his sisters. What a gift to be able to spend these precious days together. Maybe we hadn't lost our mojo or our travelling luck - only our perspective. As it turned out, 'Utopia' was the perfect name for this spot... THIS is why we travel!

Posted by Salsa Sojourns 11:54 Archived in Guatemala Comments (6)

I ❤️ (The Mayan) New York

Tikal, by Norm

sunny 25 °C

We have met several types of travellers so far. They range from users of 5 star hotels doing excursions with all the bells and whistles, to those on the cheapest budget, some needing to work along the way to cover their travel costs, and all types in between. Along the way, we have learned that since we travel with our kids in tow a combination of these travelling styles works best for us. Also, our best sightseeing tours have definitely occurred first thing in the morning after staying nearby and getting our sightseeing all finished before the tour buses even arrive.

That was the case in Tikal. The Mayan City is deep in the jungle of northern Guatemala. The nearest small town is over an hour away.
We stayed at the lovely Tikal Inn on the national park property which allowed us to do both the sunset and sunrise tours. We saw most of the park with nobody else in sight!

Tikal is frequently described as the Mayan New York, the city of skyscrapers, while Copan (later in the trip in Honduras) is more artistic and is known as the Mayan Paris. Many of the towering structures at Tikal can be very carefully climbed (Ailsa's spectacular head-first tumble miraculously turned out fine and we were actually able to laugh about it minutes later), allowing for beautiful sight lines, especially during quiet times without the tour bus crowds. There are 6 main temples and several pyramids, residential and administration buildings. The Gran Plaza has 2 temples on opposite sides that are lined up such that one temple's shadow completely covers the other temple on each Equinox. On our sunset tour were able to relax and watch darkness set in and the wildlife emerge. The pairs of parrots taking flight were especially impressive.

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We had to wake up early for the sunrise tour departure at 4am, but this was not an issue as some howler monkeys decided to declare the nearby forest canopy as their property at 2:30am, ensuring everyone heard and was already awake. We climbed Temple IV (which was also the lookout post for the rebel base in the original Star Wars movie -cool!) to watch the sun rise over the Gran Plaza and Temple III.

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As we strolled back to the hotel for breakfast and a swim in the pool our guide pointed out many of the native flora and fauna. The ceiba tree is the national tree and is fiercely protected. All the ones we saw were immense as shown in the picture of the kids around the trunk. He offered us a black pepper leaf to chew, an old Mayan dental remedy with an anaesthetic similar to xylocaine. Mirren could not feel her tongue for half an hour after that. She was later looking for another leaf when she noticed a wiggly tooth!

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As we left the park, the tour buses were just unloading, and we were gearing up for one of the most difficult travel days of the trip so far. Away we go!

Posted by Salsa Sojourns 15:04 Archived in Guatemala Comments (1)

Into the Belize Jungle

Animals, caves and chocolate, by Fraser

sunny 28 °C

There was lots to do in San Ignacio, Belize! We were there for three days.

My favourite part was making chocolate the Mayan way. We had to peel the skins from the cacao beans and grind the beans until they were a powder or paste. The grinding stone had a rough side and a smooth side and was rubbed against a slab of volcanic rock. Then we had hot chocolate. It was yucky without sugar. We added sugar or honey to make it better, but I still gave it to Daddy. The lady mixed in some cinnamon, allspice, and sugar to make Mayan chocolate. Daddy bought some finished chocolate that was made with Chile peppers. We got Snickers instead.

The next morning we went to the Barton Creek Caves. We went in a canoe through a cave with stalactites and bats. I sat in the front and held the light. The guide told us that the Mayans thought this was part of their underworld, called Xibalba. I liked the bats, but Mommy freaked out!

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Later, we went to the Green Iguana Sanctuary. They hatch female iguanas because they need protection. They only have a few males, the boss was orange and they called him Oscar. We got to hold the iguanas and I had the longest one. Ailsa got to hold the first one, they like to grab on to the girls braided hair. The guide put all the babies on Mirren and Daddy. It was really fun!

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Our last adventure was a chicken bus ride to the Blue Hole National Park. We hiked through the rain forest. We arrived to see a light bright blue pool that was very deep at one end. It was surrounded by rock cliffs. We swam with the fishes. It was refreshing.

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Tomorrow we say goodbye to Belize and walk across the border to Guatemala.

Posted by Salsa Sojourns 12:15 Archived in Belize Comments (1)

Happy Go Luckie in Hopkins

Garifuna Drumming and Snorkelling on my birthday, by Mirren

sunny 32 °C

Happy Birthday to me! We just finished two weeks on the beach in Hopkins, Belize. It is a small coastal fishing village of a few thousand people. It is a Garifuna settlement, the people are descendents of shipwrecked African slaves and Island Caribs with a distinct culture, language and music; especially drumming. I am going to write about our experience in Hopkins while my Daddy helps with the details.

The day after we arrived in Hopkins, Ailsa and I had our hair braided. It took 5 hours! That night we had Miss Marva's Hudut - a Garifuna stew of fish, coconut milk and mashed plantains (we all helped them mash the plantains) - while we listened to a drumming concert. Our family got called to the front and had to do a dance that showed something we do at home, so we did a conga line pretending to shovel snow.

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On most days we enjoyed swimming in the ocean at least once if not more, reading books and relaxing. It was very hot, but there is no ice cream store. Daddy made dairy-free sorbets for us. He made Coconut, Mint Dark Chocolate, and Pineapple flavours. My favourite was the Coconut.

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On my birthday, we went on a snorkelling adventure to see the second largest barrier reef in the world. Our guide was Luckie from Happy Go Luckie Tours while Beaver drove the boat. They spoke Garifunian to each other. First we saw Bird Island, where the Frigate birds puffed up their red gullet sacks like a balloon to attract a mate. Then we went snorkelling near Carrie Bow Caye. We saw starfish, stingrays, a nurse shark, eel, sea cucumber, anemones, barracuda, and tonnes of colourful fish and reef corals. We saw hundreds of conch shells, and Luckie found a live one so we could feel the rubbery conch while it was still in its shell! We had a BBQ on Bread and Butter Caye for lunch before snorkelling again at Wee Wee Caye. It was my favourite experience so far on the trip.

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On our last day, we all took a drumming lesson. Jabbar taught us different punta rhythms and beats. We still need a lot of practice.

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Before we left we were each given a Horse-eye seed. In some cultures they believe the seeds are lucky. I think we were lucky to be in Hopkins.

Posted by Salsa Sojourns 06:03 Archived in Belize Comments (4)

Different as Day and Night

The Belize Zoo, by Norm

rain 26 °C

The Belize Zoo was high on the list of things to see on our trip. The 'Best Little Zoo in the World' is actually a rehabilitation and conservation effort. The Zoo exhibits indigenous animals only once it has been determined that they cannot be released back into the wild. Many of the animals were rescued from road accidents or as orphaned young. They run a Problem Jaguar Rehabilitation program to relocate nuisance animals away from populated areas to an area they will have a greater chance at survival.

We saw cats, tapirs, monkeys, and numerous birds and rodents (Shona's favourite!).

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Fraser was excited to see Junior Buddy, a jaguar born into captivity who was ineligible for release into the wild. One of the first Early Reader books that Fraser loved was a several year old hand-me-down book about Junior Buddy's birth and first year of life at the Belize Zoo. After reading the book to Fraser at bedtime again and again and again... we wondered if Junior Buddy may still be alive and staying in the public viewing area of the zoo when we came to visit. How excited we all were when a georgeous adult male jaguar came sauntering out from behind a tree in the enclosure and the guide said "hello Junior Buddy!". He acts as a giant playful housecat that likes to lick bald people's heads (you could sit in cage inside his enclosure and have your head licked) and does somersaults. He did not fail to entertain us.

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What made the difference at the Zoo was the night tour. Guides from the Zoo took us through the grounds at night to see the nocturnal animals. There were several animals that were active and visible that were curled up during our day trip. The animals know that the zookeepers give them snacks at night, so they came right up to the fence for feeding and a closer look. The guide also howled for a response from the howler monkeys, who made noise the rest of the night. Mirren held a boa constrictor, Ailsa fed and petted a tapir, and Fraser got to see Junior Buddy the jaguar up close.

We spent the night at the Tropical Education Center, run by the Zoo. We stayed in a pond house over water that is home to turtles and alligators. Mirren bravely and adamantly slept the night in a hammock in the screen-enclosed porch but did not see any alligators. (Shona did not sleep that night.)

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This place was so impressive. We met a few people who were living and interning at the Tropical Education Centre. Ailsa is already planning her return trip when she is their age.

Next stop, the Beach!

Posted by Salsa Sojourns 20:56 Archived in Belize Comments (0)

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