Guatemala, probably one of the most underrated countries in Latin America.

Guatemala: a land of colourful wildlife, dense exotic jungle, and authentic coffee that will have you running up mountains on a next-level caffeine high. You’ll find no Mayan ruins as tall and no people as welcoming as in this Central American paradise.

Time is definitely a great healer. More than two years have elapsed since I last visited Guatemala, and I had forgotten just how physically demanding (read extremely uncomfortable) it can be travelling here using public transport. My route to Cobán (central Guatemala) from San Ignacio (western Belize) took two days. It’s is a distance of about 367 kilometres (228 miles), in theory it should only take about 8- hours.

A short change of microbus in Flores facilitated a trip to the supermarket for provisions (comfort food), and a visit to a mobile phone company (Claro) to buy a SIM card (chip). Having easy access to the internet is essential for booking accommodation and other relevant travel resources.

My next (mid way to Cobán) stop was in Sayaxché. A ‘rough and ready’ sort of town, little more than a transportation halt between Flores and Cobán. What Sayaxché does offer is a welcome overnight respite after 7-hours of being squashed inside a microbus. There’s also a river ferry crossing here, so you normally have to change vehicles. It is therefore a logical place to break up a journey.

During the first leg of this journey, Flores to Sayaxché, the impossible was finally achieved when the jubilant ‘conductor’ successfully crammed a total of 40 adults into a ’15-seater’ microbus. Nearly 50% of these adults were women armed with babies or small children. Does this therefore equate to 60 people? If so, is it a world record in such a vehicle?

When any woman climbed on board, with a baby in their arms, the men folk dutifully gave up their seat and resorted to standing bent double, thanks to the somewhat restricted head room. This act of respect is a common occurrence in Guatemala. During the entire journey none of the children on board misbehaved or cried once; on the rare occasion that a baby became restless, out popped a breast and the suckling infant was swiftly pacified and fell asleep. In Guatemala breast feeding in public is a normal everyday occurrence.

Travelling in such a manner (using public transport) provides a fascinating window into every day life in this very much underrated country. I wouldn’t travel any other way.

Next stage: Cobán for New Year.

Independent Traveller Tips.

San Ignacio to Cobán (vía Flores – for Tikal):

    San Ignacio to Benque (nearest Belize town to border crossing) – local bus – every half hour – 2 Belize Dollars
    Benque to the border crossing – shared taxi – plentiful – 5 Belize Dollars
    From the Guatemala side of the border to Flores – microbús – regular (once full) – 30Q
    Flores to Sayaxché – microbús – regular – 30Q
    Sayaxché to Cobàn – microbús – regular – 30Q

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Belize/Belice (British Honduras).

In 1859 Britain and Guatemala signed a treaty that gave Britain sole rights to the land of Belize, provided that the British built a road from Guatemala to the Caribbean coast. The treaty still stands, and the road, long ignored, is only now being constructed.

In 1973 British Honduras was renamed Belize and in 1981 it managed to gain full independence.

Sitting smack dab between Spanish-speaking Central America and the Caribbean (geographically and culturally), Central America’s youngest nation definitely dances to its own beat. Belize’s 240 miles of coastline and uncountable islands offer swimming and beachcombing, and its barrier reef (the northern hemisphere’s largest) is a diver’s paradise. Belize’s jungles are dotted with ancient structures built in the days when Belize was but a small part of the greater Maya kingdom.

Culturally, Belize is surprisingly diverse. Though officially an English-speaking nation, you often hear Spanish, Kriol, Garifuna and Maya, with perhaps a bit of Cantonese and Mennonite German thrown in for good measure.

My personal opinion of Belize, when I first visited in 2017, was one of disappointment. Perhaps my expectations were set too high. It’s a very poor country with a crumbling infrastructure. Not at all what I was expecting. It’s also (surprisingly) a very expensive place to visit.

On a positive note; I really liked Hopkins, and Plasencia (both on the east coast), and San Ignacio (near the border with Guatemala), which is where I am heading now. I’m also led to believe that the islands of Caye Caulker and San Pedro are truly beautiful and great places to visit.

Next stage: ATM.

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The Crystal Maiden of Belize.

Ever since my travels in Latin America began, in late 2013, in nearly every place that I have visited, I have tried to leave something undone. Belize was no exception. What I left undone in Belize turned out to be something fairly major. I just didn’t know it at the time.

According to everybody I’ve talked to, a visit to the cave complex of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) turned out to be the highlight of their trip to Belize. At nearly £75.00 ($95.00 USD) it’s not a cheap tour, which is the main reason why I didn’t do it when I visited Belize in 2017. I knew that one day I would return.

ATM takes you deep into the underworld that the ancient Maya knew as Xibalba. The entrance to the three-mile-long cave lies in the northern foothills of the Maya Mountains. The trip takes about 8 hours from San Ignacio, including a one-hour drive each way. It’s not a tour for the faint hearted. You spend much of the time wading through water and/or squeezing through narrow passageways.

At the wide, hourglass-shaped entrance to the cave, you don a life jacket and safety helmet – complete with headlamp. To reach the cave entrance, you start with a frosty swim across a deep pool (about 15ft across). From here, you follow a guide, walking, climbing, twisting and turning your way through the blackness of the cave for about an hour before reaching a huge chamber.

The many ceramics you see at the site are very significant, partly because they are marked with “kill holes”, which indicate that they were used for sacrificial purposes. Most of the pottery dates from between 700 and 900 AD, which is when the bodies found here were most likely sacrificed.

Farther into the cave is perhaps the most famous of these long-dead Maya, the skeleton of an eighteen-year-old girl known as the “The Crystal Maiden.” She is unique in her positioning and the fact that two of her vertebrae are crushed. Because of this researchers believe she may have died in a particularly violent manner and then been thrown or tossed onto the ground, where she has lain for at least the last 1,100 years.

If you ever find yourself in Belize and want to leave something undone, leave out something other than the ATM tour. It’s an incredible adventure, and I highly recommend it.

FOOTNOTE.

MayaWalk Tours were the tour company that I went with.

For an interesting overview of what to expect, check out this You Tube video.

For in depth information about the history of the cave complex, check out this article from the website atlas obscura.

Next stage: Guatemala.

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Sink or swim.

The biggest thing that I have learnt from my year living as an extrovert is the advice – ‘nobody waves, but everybody waves back’.

Sorry I’m late, I didn’t want to come – by Jessica Pan.

I recently read a fascinating article, on the British Broadcasting Company’s web site, about a young lady called Jessica Pan. Have you ever thought about going against your natural personality patterns for a year? That’s exactly what Jessica did when she embarked upon a year of ‘extroversion’ (she identifies as a shy introvert). She made a list of all the things that she had been scared of doing and faced each and everyone of them ‘head on’.

I can identify with her story. Being a naturally reserved individual, especially around strangers and large groups of people, I really have to make a concerted effort to break through my shyness. [Cautionary note; look out once I have broken through this barrier, I know I can be outspoken and a tad overwhelming!]

This type of personality is probably not that well suited to travelling round the world solo?But here’s the bonus factor. As well as satisfying my passion for travel, it’s also the vehicle by which to push myself out of my comfort zone; to confront my fears – ‘head on’. Last week, in Xcalak, was no exception. Sink or swim! It usually works out just fine!

Xcalak is located in the backend of nowhere – in the south east corner of Mexico, on a small peninsula, just north of Belize. The reason for my visit here – the excellent diving.

XTC Dive Center is at the centre of a Great Maya Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world. Scuba diving around Xcalak offers incredible diversity. There are deep and shallow walls, unique geographical formations, vast canyons between spur and groove reef systems, swim-throughs, caverns, and an exotic array of Caribbean marine reef creatures. I got to see them all during my week long visit.

I also got the chance to meet some amazing people – visitors and staff. I took inspiration from Jessica and tried to make the first move (most of the time). I made sure that I introduced myself to everybody, memorised all of their names, and genuinely showed an interest in their fascinating and sometimes complex lives. It was a hugely rewarding experience and I was definitely pushed out of my comfort zone.

As well as practicing my Spanish and improving my scuba diving skills (considerably), I made some great friends and I was extremely sad when I had to bid my farewells. One of the inevitable dangers of travelling!

Next stage: Chetumal > Belize.

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It’s finally happened.

The excitement of flying to a vacation destination has always been enough to get me through pretty much any duration of flight. That is up until now.

My flight from BHX to Frankfurt was fine. I sat next to a very attractive and chatty language teacher – her passion was teaching and travelling. We had a lot in common; the time flew by.

The next flight, Frankfurt to Cancun, was an agonising ordeal. Nothing to do with the excellent and extremely hospitable staff of Lufthansa, it just seemed to take forever. I usually avoid looking at the location map on the inflight entertainment screen but I couldn’t take my eyes of it on this particular flight! Perhaps it’s time not to be so tight and splash out on a premium class seat?

The situation was aggravated even more by the annoying German/Italian guy who sat next to me. His vain attempts to bore me to death were finally abated when I placed my head phones on and politely ignored him. Things got even worse when, towards the end of the flight, aforementioned bore asked if he could join me on the ADO bus from the airport to the centre of town. I reluctantly agreed.

Passport control was yet another opportunity for him to babble on about nothing of any interest and it was with much relief that we swept through passport control with relative ease.

We then had to wait an eternity for his bags (note the plural) to land on the carrousel and then, when we finally made it to security, we were both called to one side for a bag check. Thankfully I pretended not to be his fellow traveler.

His bag check unearthed a plethora of contraband and it wasn’t long before a team of security police surrounded both him and the spewed out contents of his suitcases.

Having safely cleared the security check myself, I quickly made a solo B line for the nearest exit and hot footed it to the ADO bus stop.

I just hope the return flight is somewhat more enjoyable.

Next stage: Cancun > Bacalar > Xcalak.

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“If you don’t have a Lebanese friend, go and find one.”

Lebanon, home to a glorious national cuisine, a string of sexy beach resorts and the Middle East’s most glamorous, hedonistic city (Beirut), this is also a country where the fiery orators and fierce foot soldiers of Hezbollah are based, and where huge populations of Palestinian and Syrian refugees currently shelter. Damaged by decades of civil war and the invasions and interventions of neighbouring nations, Lebanon is nonetheless blessed with magnificent mountain vistas, majestic ancient ruins and an indomitable, hospitable people. Lonely Planet Publications.

Byblos POP 35,000.

A pretty fishing port with an ancient harbour, medieval town centre, Crusader-era castle and atmospheric archaeological site, Byblos is a wonderful choice if you want a night or two out of Beirut, but it’s also an easy and enjoyable day trip. The seaside, good accommodation and eating options, and a lively party scene in the old souq make it a likeably hedonistic place that packs out in summer.

Baalbek POP 35,000.

Known as the Heliopolis or ‘Sun City’ of the ancient world, Baalbek’s ruins comprise the most impressive ancient site in Lebanon and are said to be the best preserved in the Middle East. The temples here, which were built on an extravagant scale, have enjoyed a stellar reputation throughout the centuries, yet still manage to maintain the appealing air of an undiscovered wonder because of their semi-rural setting.

Journey time from Beirut: allow 3-hours one way to take into account traffic and minibus changes. Route (from Hamra district): take minibus 24 to Cola, then a minibus to Choudra (saht shtwra) then a minibus to Baalbek. This last minibus may drop you off on the highway turning for Baalbek, in which case you will need to take another minibus for the final few kilometres. Total cost, for the whole trip, should be no more than 8,000 Lebanese Pounds ($5.00 USD). Entrance fee to the Baalbek archeological site is currently 15,000 Lebanese Pounds ($10.00 USD).

Where in the world.

Lebanon.

The Lebanese flag.

The old harbour in Byblos.

Byblos.

The Souk area of Byblos.

Baalbek.

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Food for thought and a feast for the senses (& the stomach).

The diminutive Mediterranean country of Lebanon is a fascinating nexus point of the Middle East and the West; of Christianity and Islam; of tradition and modernity. It’s a place where culture, family and religion are all-important, but where sectarian violence can too often erupt – claiming lives and scarring both the landscape and the national psyche.

BEIRUT – POP 2.2 MILLION

If you’re looking for the real East-meets-West so talked about in the Middle East, you need look no further than Beirut. Fast-paced, fashion-conscious and overwhelmingly friendly, it’s not a relaxing city to spend time in – it’s too crowded, polluted and chaotic for that – but its energy, soul, diversity and intoxicating atmosphere make it a vital, addictive city. A couple of excellent museums are the key sights, but exploring the character of the different districts, strolling the waterfront and diving into the city’s wonderful restaurant and nightlife scene are major attractions. As Lebanon is so small, and day trips easy, I based myself in the capital for the entire visit – apart from one night in Byblos.

Highly recommended in Beirut city:-

Accommodation: J Hotel and Spa – located in the Hamra district of the city. Great location, super clean hotel with great facilities, and extremely friendly and engaging staff. Mini-bus connections, to all parts of the city, are close by.

Sightseeing: Free Walking Tour Beirut – a great way to get to know the history and layout of Beirut. Our tour guide Elisa was knowledgeable and tremendously animated. The tour itself proved to be both informative and thought provoking.

Museum: Beirut National Museum – fascinating and a ‘must see’.

TRIPOLI – POP 315,000

Captivating Tripoli (Trablous in Arabic), Lebanon’s second-largest city, is famous for its medieval Mamluk architecture, including a bustling and labyrinthine souq that is the best in the country and full of atmosphere. The city is also blessed with incredible examples of Crusader and Ottoman era architecture.

Next stage: Byblos and Baalbek.

The Corniche Beirut.

New & Old Beirut.

Scars from the civil war – The Holiday Inn Beirut.

The National Museum Beirut.

The National Museum Beirut.

Remains of Roman Beirut.

The Great Mosque Beirut.

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Puerto Rico Public Transport – the lack of!

Apart from the excellent bus and metro systems in San Juan, transportation in Puerto Rico is heavily dependent on the motor car. Road congestion, all over the island, at peak times, is horrific.

Rail transport in Puerto Rico can be traced back to the mid-19th century. Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Puerto Rico’s rail transport system expanded significantly, becoming one of the largest rail systems in the Caribbean. However, the entire system was soon overshadowed by the arrival of the automobile, and by the 1950’s was completely abandoned.

Bus transportation between large towns is now non existent, something I found extremely hard to understand – considering the shear volume of traffic and the level of congestion. Arecibo and Ponce each have a building that once housed a very large bus terminal. Both buildings are now derelict and falling apart.

This leaves only three ways to get around the island; hire a car, hire a taxi, or find a público. The first two options are not cheap and don’t facilitate the opportunity to meet locals.

Públicos, or public cars, are a unique choice for getting around the island of Puerto Rico. A cross between taxis and buses, públicos are privately owned vans designed to take travelers into hard-to-reach urban areas. A one-way trip from San Juan to Ponce runs about $25 USD, making públicos less expensive than taxis and a great way to meet locals. One drawback is that they tend to make frequent stops, so they are not the most time-efficient mode of transportation, but if you’re not in a big hurry, the price and experience can more than make up for this inconvenience. In theory you should be able to circumnavigate the whole island on a Público.

I struggled to get from Arecibo to Ponce and ended up paying an American guy £60.00 ($75USD) to drive me there. The other option would have been to pay a taxi £100.00 ($130USD). Uber is possible though the service is a little sketchy.

San Juan to Arecibo to Ponce to San Juan.

Top card: San Juan to Ponce ($25USD). Bottom card: Ponce to San Juan ($30USD).

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Puerto Rico.

Old San Juan.

“Puerto Rico: Scented by slow roasted pork and sea breezes, and coloured by swashbuckling history: this sun-washed medley of Spanish and American influences is a paradise-seeker’s pleasure dome.” Lonely Planet – Puerto Rico.

My route: San Juan to Arecibo to Ponce to San Juan.

San Juan.

Old San Juan is a colourful kaleidoscope of life, music, legend and history. It’s an unmissable sight, the crown jewel of Puerto Rico. From the blue-toned, cobblestoned streets to 400-plus historically listed buildings to the stunning ocean views, the visual treats seem boundless.

The best place to base yourself is Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan). Accommodation wise, you don’t get much for your buck here – but this is more than made up for by the sights, sounds, and smells of this incredible location.

Balcony at Hotel CasaTripGoGo – Old San Juan.

Old San Juan.

Sunday afternoon flying kites.

Banco Popular building – art-deco.

Hotel El Convento.

Bar scene – Old San Juan.

Fort El Morro.

Arecibo.

As you approach Arecibo, in the crawl of traffic, it’s hard to imagine that this sprawling municipality of nearly 100,000 people is Puerto Rico’s third-oldest city (founded in 1556). The major attractions lay outside of town. The colosal Birth of the New World Monument represents the explorer Christopher Columbus sailing for the Americas. Other spectacular sights include the the world’s largest radio telescope, the Observatorio de Arecibo – as featured in the James Bond movie – The world is not enough. Also very much worth a visit is Cueva del Indio where impressive cave formations have been chiselled and hollowed out by the elements.

Arecibo.

Observatorio de Arecibo.

Birth of the New World Monument.

Cueva del Indio.

Ponce.

Strolling around the sparkling fountains and narrow architecturally ornamented streets of the historic centre certainly evokes Puerto Rico’s stately past. Unfortunately the neighbourhoods that surround the central square exhibit woeful characteristics of Puerto Rico’s present: irreducible snarls of congested traffic, economic stagnation and urban sprawl. However, if you stick to the centre with its outstanding colonial architecture and the dozen or so excellent museums you only need to experience Ponce’s elegant side.

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La República Dominicana – part one.

Catedral primada de América.

Last year (2018) I visited Cuba, a country which shares many similarities to The Dominican Republic. This will probably come as no surprise as they are obviously, geographically speaking, very close to each other.

As with both countries, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. With both countries I was completely wrong. My opinion on both would probably be very different had I stayed in an ‘all inclusive’ hotel. However, I wanted to ‘back pack’ round these two islands to try and get a better understanding of the culture and it’s people. This I failed to do, both countries proved extremely complex.

The Dominican Republic – my route (highlighted in green).

Santo Domingo or “La Capital” as it’s typically called, is a collage of cultures and neighbourhoods. It’s where the sounds of life – domino pieces slapped on tables, backfiring mufflers and horns from chaotic traffic, merengue and bachata blasting from corner stores – are most intense.

At the heart of the city is Zona Colonial, where you’ll find one of the oldest churches and the oldest surviving European fortress, among other New World firsts. It’s an easy place to explore on foot. 3-days is enough to visit the many attractions that are on offer.

A Caribe Tours bus comfortably whisked me north to the delightful town of Jarabacoa (pronounced arabacoa), where I enjoyed a visit to the waterfall – as featured in one of the Jurassic Park movies. I also went white water rafting – a truly exhilarating and ‘white knuckle’ experience.

I then travelled further north to the coastal town of Cabarete. My hotel was gorgeous, as were the beaches. The town itself was hideous – VERY touristy and VERY expensive.

I then moved on to Río San Juan, a small town with a lovely hotel (Bahia Blanca), a nice beach, and a multi national (middle aged) clientele who were extremely sociable. After a day relaxing and a day scuba diving I traveled further east to my next port of call – Las Terrenas.

If I thought Cabarete was bad, well ratchet things up considerably. Traffic here was on another level. As well as a plethora of motorbikes, we also had overweight tourists ripping up and down the street on quad bikes.

Some positives: the beach in Las Terrenas is very long and very nice. I stayed in a lovely boutique B&B, very clean and very spacious. Again, there was a multi national clientele. Breakfast was served in a communal area, which proved to be a great place to meet and chat with fellow guests. It also had a gorgeous garden in which to relax. My hosts were an Italian wife and Dominican husband. The B&B was unfortunately a 20 minute walk from the beach but this suited me just fine – it was well away from the noise and pollution of the town centre.

Travel around the island of The DR is relatively straightforward, and cheap – using buses, GuaGua’s (mini buses) or Moto Concho’s (motor bike taxis).

Some negatives: I have witnessed complacency, for a country that relies so heavily on tourism, on a level that I never thought possible. Whether in a hotel, a restaurant or in a shop, it felt like that my very presence was really just a major inconvenience. As for pollution (garbage); I thought India was bad. The DR is not far behind. I guess if you are bubble wrapped in an all inclusive hotel you would think quite highly of this country (?).

The goose that lays those golden eggs, tourists filled with dollars, could well be on her last legs.

Next stage: Puerto Rico.

Art work for sale in Santo Domingo.

Museo Alcázar de Colón.

Faro a Colón (Columbus Lighthouse).

Waterfall in Jarabacoa with my Moto Concho driver.

Cabarete.

Río San Juan.

Hotel Bahía Blanca – Río San Juan.

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