Zimbabwe.

I really enjoyed my time in South Africa and could easily have stayed another week. However, the plan had always been to spend a week in Zimbabwe – in order to ‘dip my toe’ into a country that I have heard so much about over the years.

Fortunately, I had carried out enough prior research to realise that things would not be easy in Zimbabwe, especially with regards to money. At the time of writing there are NO functioning ATM’s in Zimbabwe. This means that you need to take enough cash with you to finance the entire duration of your stay. This presents a number of challenges. 1. You are entering the country with a potentially serious amount of cash on your person. 2. You are entering a country where there is serious unemployment and serious poverty. Not to put too fine a point on it, you are a sitting duck!

The next challenge is what cash to carry. Presently, the following currencies are all accepted: South African Rand, UK Pound, Botswanan Pula, and most importantly the US Dollar. The dollar is king. To complicate matters still further, shops and supermarkets do NOT accept any of the above, they only accept the local currency, which is the Zimbabwe Bond, and this is not easy to get hold of as a foreigner. Confused?

Further challenges exist. Petrol is extremely hard to get hold of, queues to buy the stuff, lasting 8-hours or more, are a common sight. Electricity outages and water stoppages are also the norm.

It probably sounds like a pretty horrendous place to visit. However, once you get into the swing of things it all starts to fall into place. I have found the majority of the people of Zimbabwe to be polite, extremely helpful and very friendly. It’s a very interesting country to be in. I’m really glad I made the effort to come.

In 1980 the people of Rhodesia decided that they were not happy with their lot and voted for change. In the space of 10-years things went from bad to worse. After a further 10-years, just when things couldn’t possibly get any worse, they did. At this point the majority of the country were saying, “can’t we go back to the way things were before 1980?”

Bulawayo.

Wide tree-lined avenues, parks and charming colonial architecture make Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, an attractive one. It has a lovely historic feel to it, and a great place to spend a couple of nights, especially given it’s a gateway to Matobo National Park, and an ideal staging point for Hwange National Park and Victoria Falls.

The city was colonised by Cecil Rhodes in 1894. The grand colonial architecture that stands today soon followed. Bulawayo’s claim to fame is that it had electric lighting (switched on in 1897) before London did!

Bulawayo Natural History Museum.

Zimbabwe’s largest and best museum makes for an essential visit. Set over three floors, it offers a great overview of the country’s natural, anthropological and geological history. Its highlight is its taxidermy display, which includes a monster elephant, shot 160km south from here. There’s also an impressive collection of gemstones, showcasing the country’s astounding wealth of natural resources. At its centre is a collection of live snakes, including black mambas and cobras.

Bulawayo Railway Museum.

Whether you’re a train enthusiast or not, Bulwayo’s Railway Museum will not disappoint. Its passionate curator, Gordon Murray, will take you on a tour of the place, where you’ll get a fascinating insight into the colonial history of the country through Bulawayo’s extensive railway network.

Next stage: Victoria Falls.

Bulawayo.

Bulawayo.

Bulawayo.

Gordon Murray curator at the Bulawayo Railway Museum.

Bulawayo Railway Museum.

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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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New year, new continent, but where to start?

If the United States of America or Britain is having elections, they don’t ask for observers from Africa or from Asia. But when we have elections, they want observers. Nelson Mandela.

Having heard so much, over many years, about the country of South Africa it seemed a worthy place to start my journey in the continent of Africa. In addition, one of my neighbours, back in the UK, used to live here, he has waxed lyrical about the country for months and months. Thank you Gary, I doubt I would have done it without your help and enthusiasm.

Nothing could prepare me for Cape Town, it is a mind blowing city (for all the right reasons). I knew I was going to fall in love with it the moment I landed. Super friendly staff at the airport guided me through customs and made a concerted effort to ensure that my passage was both swift, comfortable and SAFE. Although the temperature probe placed on my forehead was a little disconcerting. Even the Uber driver was outstanding; he was super courteous and a wonderful ambassador for his city. The icing on the cake was when he insisted on waiting for me until I was safely encased inside the grounds of my high security Guesthouse.

Every property in Cape Town has security gates and electrified fencing along the tops of their high walls. Security (and safety) is obviously paramount on people’s minds. It’s something I have been reminded about constantly since I arrived in South Africa.

I had planned to stay in Cape Town (CT) for three nights, it quickly became apparent that this was far too short a time. My guest house (Altona Lodge) was awesome. At £30 a night (including breakfast) it was also excellent value for money. It has a great location, in a ‘safe’ part of town, close to great restaurants and a beautiful park. I ended up extending to 5-nights.

Day one was spent recovering from the 11-hour flight (Birmingham- Amsterdam – Cape Town) and the chance to formulate a plan, not an easy thing to do as it turned out – South Africa has so much to see and so much to do.

On my second day, filled with bags of energy and a hunger to explore I decided to climb Table Top mountain. By 9am it was already 25 deg C. Walking to the start of the trail I passed hoards of people who were queuing to get on the cable car. I snuggly walked past the long queues and made my way to the start of the trail, a 25 minutes walk away.

At the start of the climb I passed a young lady who was obviously preparing herself for the hike with some mind boggling leg stretches. I said good morning and wished her good luck.

The start of the hike was relatively easy but that quickly changed. I decided it might be wise to slow down the pace. It wasn’t very long before the young lady caught up with me. She also realised it was better to slow down. We matched each others pace and during frequent breaks shared a few words. It took us 2.5 hours to get to the top. It turned out to be a gruelling climb in the severe heat, by now 30 deg C.

My new companion and I spent an hour or so exploring the top of the mountain – taking in the incredible views across the city. This gave me the opportunity to discover that Bakesh was an air hostess (with Turkish Airlines) who lived in Istanbul. She gets a certain number of heavily discounted flights each year and had decided to endure the 11-hour flight and spend a few days in Cape Town. I was going to take the cable car back down but decided to join Bakesh on the hike back down.

The following three days were spent recovering from the ‘day before’! Taking it easy on the city tour bus – hopping on and off at various locations along the way. Every muscle in my body was in agony!

There are three routes on the city tour bus (red, blue, and yellow) so it made sense to buy the heavily discounted three day pass costing £20. The tour bus proved to be an excellent way to get a feel for the city and to learn about its history – thanks to the onboard multilingual commentary.

The list of things to see and do in CT is mind blowing. Some of the highlights (for me) included:

Kirstenboch botanical gardens, the city walking tour, the museums, the beaches, the harbour boat trip, the canal boat trip. I only managed to scratch the surface of things to do in CT. I honestly believe you could spend two weeks here and not get bored.

I did not have time for Roben Island, the wine tours, the penguins at Boulders Beach, or a visit to Cape Point. All great reasons to come back sometime in the near future.

Having agonised over whether to take a local bus, the BazBus or to drive along the garden route myself, I finally plucked up the courage and booked a hire car.

Next stage: The Garden Route – Cape Town to Port Elizabeth.

The original clock tower – Cape Town harbour.

Table Top Mountain – a constant back drop in Cape Town.

The last bit of the climb up Table Top mountain.

Enjoying a welcome break at the top.

Spectacular views across the city.

Our guide at the Botanical Gardens.

Even the Botanical Gardens have Table Top mountain as a back drop.

A section of the Berlin Wall in the historic centre of Cape Town.

The man himself – Nelson Mandela.

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The Garden Route (part one), Western Cape, South Africa.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Nelson Mandela.

High on my must-do list for South Africa was a journey along the Garden Route. I was extremely nervous about driving here but the Garden Route is probably one of the more ‘safer’ routes in South Africa. Caution is still required and I chose not to drive at night. It’s possible to do the journey on public transport but you are very much restricted with times and destinations. I preferred the freedom of a car and, with hindsight, I’m very pleased I did it this way.

You can’t help but be seduced by the glorious natural beauty of the Garden Route, it is probably one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. The distance from Mosel Bay in the west to Storms River in the east is just over 200km, yet the range of topography, vegetation, wildlife and outdoor activities are amazing.

The coast is dotted with excellent beaches, while inland there are picturesque lagoons and lakes, rolling hills and eventually the mountains of the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma ranges that divide the verdant Garden Route from the arid Little Karoo.

Mosel Bay. Pop 30,000.

Cape Town to Mosel Bay is about 390 kilometres; it was an easy and extremely enjoyable drive of about 4.5 hours.

At first glance Mossel Bay is the ugly sister of the Garden Route. It was a hugely popular destination until the 1980s, when the building of the world’s largest gas-to-oil refinery and the resultant industrial sprawl uglified it, and it fell into a slump. But beyond the unimpressive approach road, you find some fine beaches, gnarly surf spots, a wealth of activities and great places to stay – Mosel Bay Backpackers being one of them.

George. Pop 114,000.

George, founded in 1811, is the largest town on the Garden Route yet remains little more than a commercial centre and transport hub with not much to keep visitors for long. The only reason for my impromptu stop was to visit the transport museum.

Outeniqua Transport Museum is definitely worth a visit even if you remotely interested in trains. A dozen locomotives and 15 carriages, as well as many detailed models, have found a retirement home here, including a carriage used by the British royal family in the 1940s. There’s also an impressive collection of classic cars.

Oudtshoorn. Pop 29,000.

In the late 1860s, no self-respecting society lady in the Western world would be seen dead without an ostrich plume adorning her headgear. The fashion lasted until the slump of 1914 and during this time the ‘feather barons’ of Oudtshoorn made their fortunes.

You can still see their gracious homes, along with other architectural pointers to Oudtshoorn’s former wealth such as the CP Nel Museum (formerly a school). The town remains the ‘ostrich capital of the world’ and is now the prosperous tourist centre of the Little Karoo. I stayed in a glorious B&B – Villa Ora Guesthouse – great value for money and extremely enjoyable.

30 km north of Oudtshoorn are the Cango Caves. Named after the Khoe-San word for ‘a wet place’. The Cango Caves are quite possibly the most impressive that I have ever seen. The one-hour tour gives you just a glimpse, while the 90-minute ‘Adventure Tour’ lets you explore deeper into the caves. It does involve crawling through tight and damp places, so is not recommended for the claustrophobic or unfit. The caves are 30km north of Oudtshoorn.

It’s also well worth a visit to one of the nearby ostrich farms. I chose Safari Ostrich Show Farm.

Next stage: Garden Route (part two) Wilderness, Knysna, and Addo.

Mosel Bay.

Glorious beaches along the Garden Route.

The transport museum in George.

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Out of the frying pan….

“Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.” Nelson Mandela.

Having managed to survive the much spoken about dangers of beautiful South Africa (SA) I am now faced with the equally spoken about danger of contracting the Coronavirus. SA had it’s first case last week and the infected person travelled through Durban airport, where I find myself today – I’m on route to Zimbabwe. Most of the airport staff here are wearing face masks, and the people working in the many shops and restaurants are sanitising their hands constantly, in-between each and every cash transaction. Passing through Durban airport is both surreal and unnerving.

Unlike the previous leg of my journey, ‘The Garden Route’, which was both straight forward and obvious. The next stage of my journey, from Durban, proved to be far more challenging – where to go and what to see was far less ‘mapped out’. “What exactly do you want to see?” was the normal response to my question – concerning the matter,

The only places that kept resonating with the people I sought advise from were: St. Lucia, The Battlefields and The Drakensberg Mountains. Problem is these three regions are enormous. In hindsight I made the mistake of trying to cover all three.

St Lucia and iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, stretches for 220 glorious kilometres from the Mozambique border to Maphelane, at the southern end of Lake St Lucia. With the Indian Ocean on one side and a series of lakes (including Lake St Lucia) on the other, the 3280-sq-km park protects five distinct ecosystems, offering everything from off- shore reefs and beaches to lakes, wetlands, woodlands and coastal forests.

The pleasant village of St Lucia is a useful base from which to explore the park’s southern sections. In high season St Lucia is a hotbed of activity as the population swells with visitor numbers. The main drag, McKenzie St (a former hippo pathway), is packed with restaurants, lively hostels and bars, but the quieter avenues behind it offer a touch more hush and a good selection of B&Bs. Hippos sometimes amble down the town’s quieter streets. Guest house owner at check in: “It’s probably best if you don’t leave your car there, just in case a hippo sits on the bonnet.”

The Battlefields and Ladysmith.

Big wildlife, big mountains and big waves may top the agenda for many visitors to the province, but the history of KwaZulu-Natal is intrinsically linked to its battlefields, the stage on which many of South Africa’s bloodiest chapters were played out. The province’s northwestern region is where fewer than 600 Voortrekkers avenged the murder of their leader, Piet Retief, by defeating a force of 12,000 Zulu at Blood River, and where the British Empire was crushed by a Zulu army at Isandlwana. Here they subsequently staged the heroic defence of Rorke’s Drift, where the Boers and the Brits slogged it out at Ladysmith and Spioenkop.

Isandlwana & Rorke’s Drift.

If you’ve seen Zulu (1964), the film that made Michael Caine a star, you will doubtless have heard of Rorke’s Drift, a victory of the misty-eyed variety, where on 22 and 23 January 1879, 139 British soldiers successfully defended a small mission station from around 4000 Zulu warriors. Queen Victoria lavished 11 Victoria Crosses on the survivors and the battle was assured its dramatic place in British military history.

However, for the full picture you must travel 15km across the plain to Isandlwana, the precursor to Rorke’s Drift. It’s here that, only hours earlier, the Zulus dealt the Empire one of its great Battlefields disasters by annihilating the main body of the British force in devastating style.

See www.battlefields.kzn.org.za

The town of Ladysmith, where I based myself for a couple of nights, was named after the wife of Cape governor Sir Harry Smith. The town achieved fame during the 1899–1902 Anglo-Boer War, when it was besieged by Boer forces for 118 days. Musical group Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Paul Simon fame) has its roots here. Despite the fact that the town’s pretty colonial vestiges are looking somewhat tired now, I really enjoyed my stay here. I managed to find a lovely B&B and a fantastic restaurant serving first class curries.

The Siege Museum (Ladysmith). This excellent museum, next to the town hall, in the old Market House (built 1884), was used to store rations during the Anglo-Boer War siege. It has displays about the war, stocks information about the town and surrounds, and can provide a list of battlefield tour guides.

The Drakensberg Mountains.

If any landscape lives up to its airbrushed, publicity-shot alter ego, it is the jagged, green sweep of the Drakensberg’s tabletop peaks. This forms the boundary between South Africa and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, and offers some of the country’s most awe-inspiring landscapes.

Within the area is a vast 2430-sq-km sweep of basalt summits and buttresses; this section was formally granted World Heritage status in 2000, and was renamed uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park. Today, some of the vistas are recognisably South African, particularly the unforgettable curve of the Amphitheatre in Royal Natal National Park. I loved my time here.

Next stage: Zimbabwe.

My lovely little hire car – 1,400 kilometres in 6 days!

British memorial – Rorkes Drift.

Battlefield at Isandlwana.

Battle of Isandlwana.

Battle of Isandlwana.

Mass British grave & memorial at Spioenkop.

The breathtaking Drakensberg mountains.

A rare moment of relaxation.

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The Garden Route (part two).

“A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.” – Nelson Mandela.

Wilderness.

A charming little village, with great accommodation and restaurant options. One of my favourites places on the route.

The village is set very near a national park where you can enjoy some spectacular nature walks – including the Half Collared Kingfisher Trail.

The beach in Wilderness is absolutely stunning.

Knysna.

Embracing a beautiful lagoon and surrounded by ancient forests, Knysna (pronounced ny-znah) is probably the most famous town on the Garden Route. The lagoon is popular with sailing enthusiasts, and there are plenty of boat trips on offer. A drive up to The Heads lookout provides fantastic views back across the town and also out to sea. There are loads of restaurants along the waterfront. Stayed at another cracking B&B – Knysna Manor House. The owners are originally from Zimbabwe and gave me some great travel tips for my forthcoming trip.

Plettenberg Bay.

Plettenberg Bay, or ‘Plett’ as it’s more commonly known, is a resort town through and through, with mountains, white sand and crystal-blue water making it one of the country’s top local tourist spots. As a result, things can get very busy and somewhat overpriced, but the town retains a relaxed, friendly atmosphere and does have some very good-value hostels. The scenery to the east in particular is superb, with some of the best coast and indigenous forest in South Africa.

Birds Of Eden. This is one of the world’s largest free-flight aviaries with a 200-sq-m dome over the forest.

Addo Elephant National Park.

Located 70km north of Port Elizabeth, and encompassing both the Zuurberg mountains and the Sundays River Valley, South Africa’s third-largest national park www.sanparks.org; protects the remnants of the huge elephant herds that once roamed the Eastern Cape. When Addo was proclaimed a national park in 1931, there were only 11 elephants left; today there are more than 600 in the park. Addo, which was once farmland, now encompasses five biomes and about 1800 sq km, and extends to the coastline between the mouths of the Sundays and Bushman’s Rivers. I did the 2-hour sun down drive.

Kududu Guest house and citrus farm.

I stayed in a fantastic B&B, about 14 km from Addo Park. Kududu Guest House is connected to a working citrus farm. They also breed buffalo and have a small wildlife sanctuary, which includes giraffes and zebras. I got the opportunity to have a private tour with the owner of the farm – fascinating – well, if you don’t ask you don’t get.

From Addo I drove to Port Elizabeth and then flew to Durban.

The picturesque drive from Oudtshoorn to Wilderness.

The national park at Wilderness

Wilderness beach.

Birds of Eden.

Birds of Eden.

Addo Elephant Park.

Addo Elephant Park.

Bufalo herd at Kududu Guest House farm.

Kududu Guest House citrus farm.

Kududu Guest House citrus farm.

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Belize revisited.

The (2-hour) river boat journey from Rio Dulce to Livingston is spectacular. Livingston itself has little to offer apart from providing a border crossing to Punta Gorda (PG) in Belize, also by boat (1-hour).

I first visited Punta Gorda 3-years ago, and loved it. It’s an extremely laid back, small, town with a couple of excellent accommodation offers and a few great restaurants.

Having done some major journeys in the latter part of my time in Guatemala, I needed some time to relax. Punta Gorda was just the place. This return to Belize was purely to facilitate a reasonably quick run upto Cancun (Mexico) from where I fly back home.

Having spent three relaxing days in PG I plucked up the courage to do a 12-hour (bus) journey straight to Sarteneja, which had been recommended as a great place to visit. There were no other places in-between that really appealed to me. Placencia, and Hopkins, two possibilities, have become both touristy and expensive, so I was reliably informed by my British friend Joanne in PG.

The express bus to Belize City (BC) left PG at 6am, and arrived in BC at 11am. The next bus, heading for Orange Walk, left BC at 11.30am. Unfortunately, I missed the last connection (in Orange Walk) for Sarteneja and instead took the next bus to Corazol – 1 hour north.

I stayed the night in Corazol, a rather non-descript border town. Next morning there was a 7am boat (1/2 hour) direct to Sarteneja, on route to San Pedro. On the boat I met John – from Canada. We were both staying at Paradise Backpackers so we hooked up for breakfast. John was in search of a holiday home for he and his wife.

Sarteneja [sar-ten-eh-ha] is a fishing village on the northern tip of the Belizean mainland, and a hidden gem for those looking for a beautiful and inexpensive place from which to explore both the nautical and jungle treasures of the region. Sarteneja is also where you’ll find Backpackers Paradise an idyllic 27-acre (11-hectare) patch of unspoiled jungle and tropical farmland where you can spend a few days exploring the jungle, eating tropical fruit and swimming in the nearby ocean. It really is a great place to visit. The owner, Natalie, is the perfect host.

Having spent an overnight in Sarteneja, John and I took the last bust of the day (!) at 6.15 am (!) back to Orange Walk, where I took an excellent tour to Lamanai.

By far the most impressive (Mayan) site in this part of the country is Lamanai, in its own archaeological reserve on the New River Lagoon near the settlement of Indian Church. Though much of the site remains unexcavated and unrestored, the trip to Lamanai, by motorboat up the New River, is an adventure in itself. The wildlife that you get to see is spectacular.

As with most sites in northern Belize, Lamanai (‘Submerged Crocodile,’ the original Maya name) was occupied as early as 1500 BC, with the first stone buildings appearing between 800 and 600 BC. Lamanai flourished in late Preclassic times, growing into a major ceremonial center with immense temples long before most other Maya sites.

Welcome to Sarteneja.

My cabaña – Backpackers Paradise.

John’s ‘high-rise’ cabaña.

Sun set Sarteneja.

Backpackers Paradise.

Crocodile en route to Lamanai.

Mayan ruins at Lamanai.

View from the top of the tallest pyramid at Lamanai.

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Semuc Champey.

Eleven kilometers south of Lanquín, along a rough, bumpy, slow road, is Semuc Champey famed for its great natural limestone 300m-long bridge, on top of which is a stepped series of pools of cool, flowing river water that’s great for swimming.

The water is from the Río Cahabón, and much more of it passes underground, beneath the bridge. Although this bit of paradise is somewhat challenging to get to, the beauty of its setting and the perfection of the pools, which range from turquoise to emerald green, make it all worthwhile.

Getting to Semuc Champey is a gruelling journey, be in no doubt.

Cobán to Lanquín is a distance of about 60 kilometres but, due to the road conditions, it takes around 2-hours to travel between the two. It is then a further 11 kilometres journey, from Lanquín to Semuc Champey, which takes about an hour, rough riding, in the back of a four-wheel drive pick up truck.

It is well worth the pain and discomfort of getting here.

The cascading turquoise pools of Semuc Champey are set in a lush mountain valley deep in the Guatemalan jungle. Far from any major town or city, the area is completely different to anywhere else in Guatemala.

Once you enter the national park, which cost 50Q (£5.00), you follow a well marked circular path, which either takes you directly to the pools, or to the start of the relatively tough hike up to the mirador.

It takes about 30 minutes to get to the mirador viewing platform and it is definitely worth doing – the views are breathtaking. Once you have descended, a further 30 minutes, you can cool off and relax in one of the beautiful shallow pools.

There are plenty of accommodation opportunities in Lanquín, or indeed near Semuc Champey itself. I stayed at Utopia, an OK option – it’s quite basic.

View from the mirador.

Río Cahabón.

Beautiful pools.

Taking a refreshing dip.

View from the balcony at Utopia Hostel.

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Learning Spanish in Latin America.

“First you need to find the motivation, then you need to find the opportunity for total immersion.”

For the majority of people I have spoken to, learning a foreign language can be a challenging experience. The (self) pressure to succeed can cause immense anxiety. For me, it’s also proved to be an emotional rollercoaster of a ride. Some days you feel like you are making huge progress, other days you feel totally useless and even consider giving up. It’s certainly a journey and NOT a destination.

Let’s go back a ‘few’ years.

It must have been extremely frustrating for my parents each time I brought home my end of year school report, they rarely made for good reading. I just didn’t get school. Apart from Woodwork, Metalwork, Art & Design, all of which I excelled in, everything else was pretty much a disaster zone. Personal ineptness excelled itself in languages; exam results as low as 5% and 10% were quite common in Latin & French. As with all my low grade subjects, the worse my results got the more demotivated I became.

When I finally got to leave school and entered into the world of work, a revelation occurred. In this ‘new world’, things made sense and had a point to them. I became motivated and inspired. So much so that I started to attend night school (studying various subjects) in order to develop and improve myself. This finally culminated in gaining a BA (Hons) degree in Business Management, something I thought, in my early twenties, that I would never, ever achieve. My mum was extremely proud of me.

Now we need to return back to languages.

When I started travelling in Latin America, in 2014, I quickly realised two things: Number one, the majority of people in Latin America speak the same language. Number two, you definitely need to speak a certain level of their language if you want to survive. These two key factors were just the motivation that I needed to start learning Spanish.

Learning Spanish in Guatemala.

Attending a school in Guatemala, normally on a ‘one to one basis’, is a great way to learn Spanish. It’s relatively cheap, and there are an abundance of schools – across the country. However, in order to make it all sink in, you also need total immersion. This is when you really start to learn the lingo; putting into practise what you have agonised over in the classroom. In Guatemala there are loads of opportunities for total immersion.

Over the past four years I have attended three different schools. None of them are perfect, there are elements of each of the schools that, if amalgamated, could possibly make the perfect one.

Attending a school normally includes a ‘family home stay’; a great way to push your language skills to their limit!

After 5-years of visiting Latin America I know I should be fluent. Sadly I am not. It all goes to ‘rack and ruin’ when I return home to the UK each summer, and start normal life. Sometimes I don’t speak Spanish for up to 8-months. I really need to do something about this!

So here goes, the positives and negatives of each of the schools that I have so far visited:

La Unión spanish school in Antigua.

Positives:

Antigua is a delightful town, with loads of restaurants and places to stay.

It has a nice vibe.

The climate is perfect.

La Unión is a well run school and the classes are held in a beautiful courtyard with lovely trees and plants.

Negatives:

Antigua is VERY touristy.

You may not get to practice too much Spanish as everybody here speaks English.

SISAI Spanish school in Quetzaltenango (Xela).

Positives:

Xela is quite a large city with loads of restaurants and places to stay.

SISAI is a small and friendly school.

The owners (Yaneth and Marivel) are very accommodating and EXTREMELY helpful and friendly.

Nice home stay opportunities.

Negatives:

The school itself is quite small, and everybody is ‘on top’ of each other during classes.

It can be very cold in Xela in the evenings and mornings.

I did not particularly warm to Xela, it has a certain ‘edge’ to it.

Too many activities going on at the school. I did not attend any. For those people wanting to keep on top of their work it might be difficult – with potential ‘peer pressure’ to attend the tours. The people who did go on the tours raved about them so this is only a personal comment.

Jabel Tinamit Spanish school in Panajachel.

Positives:

EXTREMELY well run, professional school.

Lessons are held in various locations inside the school, nice surroundings, relaxed, and friendly.

EXTREMELY good teachers, loads of patience and loads of motivation.

Great home stay opportunities.

Negatives:

Pannajchel is an EXTREMELY touristy location with WAY TOO MUCH. Traffic.

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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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