Rio de Janeiro is not a city that disappoints. The beaches are just as wide and white as the photos lead us to believe. The mountains that jut out from the ocean are no less impressive in real life as in National Geographic. As our final city in South and Central America, Rio made for a good grand finale.
We arrived very early in the morning and realized, upon checking in, that although hostels cost a fortune in Rio, they’re still total crap-holes. Luckily, there were nice people and a lot to do outside, so our time at the hostel was minimal.
Simon and I spent a good deal of time at Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Everything was just as I expected; thong bathing suit bottoms, very fit men in tiny shorts, and a lot of soccer. In case you weren’t aware, soccer is very big in Brazil😉 Although even Simon was surprised by what happened at Maracana stadium.
Once the biggest stadium in the world, Simon was keen to see a match inside the Maracana. We decided to go see a second division game, something calm, our first night in Rio. On our way to the stadium, the metro became packed with roaring fans. Already, I was becoming suspicious that even a second division game in Rio was a big deal. We got off the metro to find a massive line-up to buy tickets. There were literally thousands of people in line. We waited. The game started, and we were still waiting. We waited. And waited. When half time arrived and we were still in line, Simon decided to give up. We were never going to get into that stadium. Like I said, soccer’s a big deal in Brazil. Oh well, Simon was still happy to see the outside of the Maracana and was thrilled to find a real game on Copacabana beach complete with jerseys, nets, lines and even referees.
Rio de Janeiro isn’t just beaches and football, although less famous than its natural setting, Rio actually has a really nice old city centre with some charming little cobbled streets. We spent a day walking around with a nice couple, Mircili and Petr (sorry if I spelled your names wrong guys) from our hostel. After winding our way through the old city streets, we came to Lapa and the amazing staircase mosaic-ed by a Chilean artist who died not too long ago. The tiles are incredibly varied. I found some from Canada, France and even Israel. Apparently people from all over the world mailed the artist tiles from their homes. It’s extremely beautiful.
Perhaps the biggest attraction in Rio is Christ the Redeemer, a large statue of Jesus that sits perched upon a mountaintop overlooking the bays of the city. We got our first peek of it from Copacabana beach and I was very excited to see it. Maybe it’s a bit silly, but over the years of travelling I’ve unconsciously managed to see the New Seven Wonders of the World. Christ the Redeemer was my final wonder to see, and yes, it’s dumb, but I was pretty excited to complete the list. The Christ itself was nice, although very cold. We didn’t have a perfect cloudless day, so once in a while a cloud would envelope us, and we’d just have to wait in the sea of white until the cloud moved on. The view, when clear is very beautiful. Although Christ the Redeemer was not my favourite of the seven wonders, I was happy to visit it. Here I am at each wonder:
Chichen Itza, Mexico
Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
Taj Mahal, India
Great Wall of China, China
Machu Pichu, Peru
Christ the Redeemer, Brazil
We finished our days in Rio with a few great sunsets on the beach and headed off to Paraty, a small colonial town on the coast between Rio and Sao Paulo. The town was very pretty and the nearby beaches in Trindade were lovely, but to be honest, after one day we felt ready to move on. I suppose if we’d had great weather we would have stayed longer and checked out some more beaches and bays, but with the rain we decided to move on to San Jose dos Campos, were Simon had some friends.
After two nights of some real R & R, and recuperating from the terrible hostel in Paraty, one of the worst I’ve seen, Simon and I said goodbye to Aude’s parents (a friend of Simon’s from university), and got on a night bus to Iguacu.
While Rio de Janeiro was our city finale, the famous Iguazu Falls of Argentina and Brazil were our last natural wonder. Although I had to pay an arm and a leg to visit Argentina for one day, the falls themselves were impressive. We spent our first day on the Brazil side, where you get a full panorama of the falls, and our second day in Argentina, where you see more of the layering of the falls and explore them from top and bottom. I’m not sure which side I preferred, but the Brazilian side was definitely quieter. Our third day in Iguacu (the Brazil side) was quite different. Simon had been conspiring with his friend Galak to surprise a large group of his friends who were at Iguacu on vacation. I’d met all eleven (yes, eleven friends on vacation together!) friends in France in 2013, so it was nice for me as well. Some of their surprised faces truly made Simon’s day.
Although we only spent about 5 hours altogether, it was a really great end to our trip. The next day Simon and I got on a plane and headed to Spain, to visit his sister in Valencia. After a quick stop in Barcelona, the south of France and Paris, we’re now in Brittany, awaiting Simon’s family for Christmas.
Over the last few months I’ve found myself dreaming of a home. The stress of finding work every year or two, finding a temporary bed to sleep in and temporary friends has caught up with me. I no longer want to live the transient lifestyle that I’ve loved the past 5 years. Simon and I have decided to lay low for a while, and make a home somewhere. With that, perhaps this blog post is not only the grand finale of South and Central America, but something more. I still plan on travelling, I doubt I’ll ever stop completely, but in a new way, like most of you, on vacation. If you’ve followed this blog since 2009 then I must say thanks for taking the interest. Most importantly, my priority for our first permanent apartment is to have a second bedroom, so that all of you can visit me for a change, and I can host you!
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Vitoria isn’t on the main tourist route, although it is on the coast. A lot of travellers check out the Rio area and then fly to Salvador, skipping the entire state of Espirito Santo. This is a shame, because Vitoria is actually a really nice relaxed city. Perhaps it’s not the most exciting tourist destination in all of Brazil, but I didn’t see a better place to live in the country. Luckily for Grant, that’s just what he’s doing.
I met Grant back in 2010 while living in Tanzania for the second time. Even then he was already dreaming about moving to Brazil. Four years later, he not only moved there, but also married a Brazilian woman named Paula, who’s from Vitoria. It was great to see how well Grant was doing and to meet Paula. It was also wonderful to take a “break” from travelling. A pause from hostels, maps and figuring it all out on our own. In addition to Paula being a local, Grant works as a tour guide and had lots of great things to show us. Simon and I could sit back, relax, and let Grant make all the decisions😉
Now, when you let Grant make all the decisions, you’re bound to have a lot of acai. You might remember that Simon and I weren’t exactly taken by the acai that we tried in the market in Belem. This, we learned, was pure (or real) acai, which is completely different from the sugary ice cream like dessert they call acai in the south. Cover that in granola and pacoca (a powdery peanut treat that tastes like the inside of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup) and acai was suddenly delicious! I think we had acai everyday and continued to have it as a snack in Rio.
Grant and Paula not only introduced us to some Brazilian staple foods like acai, pacoca and pastels, but also brought us to a bunch of cool places in the area. Paula’s parents live beside a nature reserve with great views of Vitoria and the neighbouring cities, some of which, like Vitoria, are actually islands.
As Grant and Paula took care of all the details, I can’t really tell you where exactly we visited. There were some cool waterfalls, some nice beaches, and a great view from the top of an old convent that sits on the top of a hill. Perhaps the greatest place we went was a lake the colour of Coca Cola that lies about 10 meters away from the ocean. Apparently the plant roots give the lake its unique colour.
For me, the best part of our visit in Vitoria was just hanging out with people. A friend of Grant and Paula’s owns a hostel and invited us over one day to make moqueca capixaba, which is quite different from the moqueca in Bahia. After a quick trip to the market, where we picked up tons of tomatoes and onions as well as lots of fish and shrimp, we all got to the hostel and got to work. The Guanaani Hostel is an amazing place to visit. It was once a baron’s home and has been incredibly well preserved. The furniture is antique, the floors are hand-painted tiles and the ceilings are high with moldings of fruit and other decorations. It’s the only hostel I’ve ever seen that has a library room with antique books. If we hadn’t been staying with Grant and Paula, this place would have been a pleasure. The moqueca and pirao were made with a lot of tomatoes and onion as a base. The moqueca consisted of tomato, onion, cilantro and fish cooked in layers in a terracotta pot, a bit like a tagine. The pirao, which I liked best, is very similar, but cooked in a pot with fish heads and thickened with manioc flour. All in all, it was a pretty delicious meal.
After our great pause in Vitoria, Simon and I were ready to get back to hostels and take on Rio de Janeiro. Thanks again Grant and Paula for letting us check out Vitoria. Come visit us anytime!
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While living in Vancouver I started training in Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art developed by African slaves. It’s an amazing blend of fighting, dancing, music, community and Portuguese. Capoeira is played, not fought, between two people in a roda, a circle of players who take turns playing, singing and playing various instruments. One of my teachers once told me that Capoeira is a conversation. I really liked that.
The Mestre (master) and several instructors at the Ache Brasil academy in Vancouver are originally from Recife, in the northeast of Brazil. Naturally, I wanted to visit their home. The northeast of Brazil is known for its Afro-Brazilian culture, including dance styles, Capoeira, music and unique foods.
Unfortunately, the northeast of Brazil also has a bad reputation for crime. Even when I asked an instructor of mine to recommend some places to see in his city, he told me the places he liked weren’t safe for us without a local. We found Recife to be eerily quiet, with many storefronts boarded up. Apparently most tourists stop here for a day on cruise ships and then move on. Aside from visiting the Frevo Museum (a dance and music style), Simon and I were quite happy to get back to our base in the nearby town of Olinda.
Olinda is famous for its colonial architecture and local artists. It’s listed on nearly every “Top Places to Visit in Brazil,” but nobody tells you how tiny it is. You can walk the whole area in less than two hours. I’m not really sure if it’s “worth” going out of your way to see Olinda, but I did enjoy getting to know some of the locals, who were very friendly despite our very limited Portuguese.
Our hostel, Pousada Alquimia, was a site in itself. The owner, Djair has an artist’s studio in the front and a few rooms in the back of his home, which is covered in art and Carnival decorations. Our room was surrounded by coloured wooden fish and tropical birds. Djair makes you breakfast in the morning himself and is always eager to chat, again, despite the language barrier. While we were staying in Olinda the final election round for the president took place. It was interesting to learn a bit about Brazil politics.
The best time to be in Olinda was the weekend. The main square filled up with dancers practising for Carnival, musicians and soccer games. We saw many boys performing Frevo, a dance style performed with a little umbrella. Although I preferred the more African inspired dances of other groups in the main square, Frevo is unique to this part of Brazil and has an interesting origin.
Apparently it started with the marching band music popular during Carnival. Bands would compete with each other and Capoeiristas, equipped with knives, would clear the way through the crowds for the bands. When different groups met, the Capoeiristas would fight, often leading to injury and death. Police responded to this over the years by arresting the Capoeiristas. The latter reacted by trading in their knives for little umbrellas (an odd choice) and adjusting the Capoeira moves into a dance, thus giving birth to Frevo! Personally, I found Frevo to be more like Character dancing in ballet than Capoeira, but I’m no expert in Frevo, ballet or Capoeira, so I’ll just shut my mouth…
You can decide for yourself here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sti4NndqHmc
Although Simon and I had hoped to travel exclusively by bus from Recife, we found, yet again, that flying was easier and similarly priced. Unlike the bus from Recife to Salvador, there were flights doing the trip everyday, we could book online, and the airport was closer to town than the bus station. There was so little information on the buses that we decided to just forget the whole thing and booked a multi-city flight from Recife to Salvador and Salvador to Vitoria a week later. This meant we were committing to a certain amount of time in Salvador and Bahia, but it was a sacrifice we felt we had to make. We had a few extra days in Recife so we decided to pass the time lazing on the beach in Porto de Galinhas.
I was surprised to see so many people in the little beach town. So this is where everyone was hiding! No wonder Recife and Olinda were so quiet, everyone is here! While it was nice to finally meet a few backpackers and share info, the beach was totally packed. I suppose you can’t have your cake and eat it too. It was a bit sad to see the destroyed coral in the natural pools, which are stepped on daily by tourists who walk out in low tide to see the colourful fish that have been trapped in the pools of coral until the high tide frees them. Sigh. A few days later we were back on a plane, the “flying Brazilian bus,” and off to Salvador!
I can’t say enough good things about Salvador. To me it encompassed everything I imagined Brazil to be; drums, samba, the birthplace of Capoeira, beach, interesting food and colonial architecture. We spent our first few days in Barra, at the beach, eating acaraje, an Afro-Brazilian dish made of a ball of pea mush fried in palm oil and filled with shrimp, vatapa and caruru. I loved the vatapa, but preferred other Bahia foods to acaraje.
One great dish was moqueca bahiana, a fish (or in our case, shrimp) stew in coconut milk, tomatoes, onions, garlic, coriander and palm oil slowly cooked in a terracotta casserole. Simon and I had this dish one evening in a little restaurant on a small street in the historical centre of the city. While the food was great, I particularly liked the setting. All the tables were outside facing across the street to the various restaurants, which were all attached together. The waiter would take your order and then whistle loudly. From the second floor the chef would stick his head out, take your order and then slowly deliver your food from out the window in a basket via a rope pulley system. The waiter would take everything out of the basket and bring it to your table, it was very cute.
The historical centre of Salvador, Pelourinho, was where all the tourist action was happening, so Simon and I left Barra and stayed here for our last few days in the city. This place was alive. There’s no other way to put it. People were always out, music filled every corner of every street and the colonial architecture made a great backdrop. I loved following the sound of drums to discover another group of young people marching in the city playing amazing rhythms. The most famous of these groups is called Olodum, who played on Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Really Care About Us.”
Most of the music video for this song was shot in the triangular plaza Largo do Pelourinho. The view from here is beautiful, even with a life size Michael Jackson board standing on one of the balconies. This spot is also important for its history with slavery. Pelourinho actually means “whipping post,” and was the site of the Bahia slave market. I did not know this while visiting the area, and I am shocked that an area I found so happy and beautiful was once the site of so much pain. From this plaza, the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Pretos is just a short walk downhill. This church, easily identified by its sky blue colour was built by the African slaves on their “time off.” It amazes me that it was built overlooking the slave market. The inside of the church is definitely worth a visit. Jesus and many saints are portrayed as black and apparently the organ has been replaced by drums during sermons (although we didn’t see one). It is from this history of slavery that so much of Bahian culture originates. Without it, there would be no Capoeira or Samba… or perhaps these things would exist in a different form in Angola and other parts of Africa.
I found in Pelourinho the best thing to do was to just walk and see what you came across. Whenever Simon and I actively tried to attend an activity, such as a Samba party, we’d arrive and find nothing happening. However, we did come across a few percussionist groups by chance, as well as some Capoeiristas and a Samba gathering. The Capoeira was cool to see as Salvador is considered the birthplace of the art, but it was definitely “tourist-ified.” The rodas were more open, to allow tourists, like me, to take photos of the action, and the Capoeiristas didn’t really play each other, but took turns doing tricks front and centre. The Samba gathering, on the other hand, felt like it would have happened just the same in someone’s basement. A large group of old men and women were all seated at a table outside in a main square with a few microphones and speakers. Each person had at least one instrument. The table also contained their beer and their food. They sang, they danced, people came danced and left, and the party continued. Some of the men, often in fedora hats, seemed so relaxed I thought they might fall asleep. They all seemed to be loving it, and so did I.
To complete our time in Salvador, Simon and I decided to see the Bale Folclorico da Bahia dance show. I have to say it was incredible. The live music of drums, berimbau and two incredible female singers set the stage for some unforgettable dances. This company tours North America and Europe and I highly recommend you go if you get the chance. Our show started with some dances from the Candomble religion, which originates from Africa. The dancers were able to shake their shoulders in a way I cannot even begin to imitate. We also got to see some Samba and Capoeira, but my favourite by far was the Maculele. This dance, which is related to Capoeira, is performed with two sticks and celebrates the end of the sugarcane harvest. It was danced by the African slaves and, like Capoeira, was also used to defend themselves against their “owners.” I tried this dance once in Capoeira class and I almost died. It’s just incredible.
Check out this video. The Maculele starts at 5:20, don’t miss it!
We took a few dances out of time in Salvador to visit the national park Chapada Diamantina. Personally, I preferred the culture of the city, but the park was nice. We spent one day with an orchid researcher looking for orchids in the area. Our tour the following day was a bit underwhelming, but the weather wasn’t really cooperating. Although Bahia is known for its beautiful beaches, caves and mountains, it was the Afro-Brazilian culture that really blew me away. Thanks Salvador!
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We left French Guiana the easiest way: flying. Simon and I arrived in Belem, Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon. Here the Amazon river meets the Tocantins river and together they form a mouth so big that an island the size of Switzerland sits in the middle of it. We landed and thought, “great, we’re here, no more flying,” but we were so very wrong.
Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but Brazil is massive. Getting from point A to B can take ages. However, China and India are also huge landmasses and I never felt the need to fly, so why now? The big difference is Brazil has no trains. Your choices are either fly or take the bus. From Belem, the next point of interest was about 24 hours away by bus. Oddly, buses and flights are similarly priced and sometimes flying is actually cheaper. This doesn’t really mean that flights are cheap, but that buses are incredibly expensive. The average Brazilian cannot afford an intercity bus. In fact, I’d later learn that many Brazilians who leave home to work in Sao Paulo or Rio never return to their families because they simply cannot afford the bus fare. It’s really sad.
So Simon and I were in a new world. We were trying to learn some Portuguese, which was a lot harder than Spanish, and we were adjusting to the high prices of Brazil. We were out of our budget and realized that we’d only be able to afford to stay for a month or so rather than 2 months. We also realized that unlike most of our other trips, we’d have to plan this one. We needed to book flights in advance and guess how long we’d like to stay in one place or another. It was a big adjustment for me, but we finally decided to book a flight to Recife and spend 5 days in the area of Belem.
The city of Belem was interesting for a day or two. There wasn’t a ton of stuff to do, but the Ver o Peso market was impressive. Here the fertility of the Amazon was really on display. I’ve never seen such massive fruit in my life, everything looked like it was on steroids. The passion fruit, which is usually a bit bigger than your fist, was nearly the size of a small melon! The catfish were almost a meter long.
We noticed many locals eating bowls of a deep purple mush. We learned that this was acai, the famous energy berry. Simon and I shared a bowl. The acai was pure, served hot, and tasted like dirt. The locals at a neighbouring table laughed at my face after my first taste and recommended we add sugar and ground up wheat. It made it edible… just.
Aside from the market, Simon and I explored the botanical gardens and theatre, but found little else to do. Our flight wasn’t for another few days, so we decided to head out to the island of Marajo and pass the time there.
Marajo is famous for being the size of Switzerland and sitting in the middle of the mouth of the Amazon. To be honest, the geographical location of the island was the most exciting thing about it. There are nice white sand beaches that you’d swear were at the ocean, but the water is fresh. Oddly, there’s also a lot of fields filled with buffalo. After a few days, Simon and I headed back to Belem and finally said goodbye to the rainforest. We were off to Recife!
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The original plan was to island hop through the Caribbean and then fly from Trinidad to French Guiana, where Simon’s parents live. Unfortunately, our time was short and it was hurricane season, so we ended up flying the whole way. French Guiana is incredibly hard to reach from anywhere except Suriname or Paris, France, but we did it, via Miami, Trinidad and Suriname. It “only” took us 55 hours.
“La Guyane, personne ne vous croira…”
Guiana was a really interesting combination of French, Creole and Amazon culture. Although it is technically a part of France, everyone here can vote and has a French passport, Guiana often felt more like Belize than anywhere I’ve been in France. The architecture in particular seemed much more Creole inspired than French. The only major difference is that you can’t get salted butter and amazing crepes in Belize! Simon was quite happy to have his typical French breakfast.
French Guiana borders Brazil to south and shares a lot of Amazonian species and foods with its neighbour. It was here that we discovered “cerises acerola” (the Amazonian cherry), manioc and “atipa,” a small armoured fish, which we’d later find in the markets of Brazil. We spotted a lot of red ibis, monkeys, sea turtles and agouti, a medium sized rodent species.
Although the Creole architecture and Amazonian flora and fauna made French Guiana feel a world apart, the French side of “Guyane Francaise” came out in other ways. Due to France’s long history and relationship with Southeast Asia, French Guiana has a fairly large community of Hmong, who have a great market in Cacao. It was so nice to have a bit of Asian food! French Guiana was also used by the French as a prison from the 1850’s until 1953. While the prison was located on the mainland as well as some islands, les Iles du Salut and particularly Devil’s Island are the most famous. Devil’s Island is surrounded by an incredibly dangerous current, making escape next to impossible. Even today, tourists cannot visit Devil’s Island even though it is just a stone’s throw away from the Ile Royale. It was reserved for political prisoners who were sentenced to isolation. It was interesting to visit the Ile Royale’s old cells, the guards’ homes and see the cable car used to deliver food to the isolated prisoners on Devil’s Island. Perhaps the most amazing thing was that while this prison was infamous for it’s hellish conditions and tropical diseases, it now resembles a tropical paradise. Monkeys swing from the trees, sea turtles are in abundance along the rocky shores and the water is a beautiful turquoise.
We only stayed in Guyane Francaise a short time and spent most of it relaxing with Simon’s folks. It was nice to see where they were living and how French culture mixed with Creole and Amazonian ways of life. Thanks Anne and Michel for showing us around!
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“You Better Belize It!” is Belize’s slogan. Simon and I often saw it printed on stickers, usually printed on top of Rasta colours (red, yellow and green), rather than Belizean colours (red, white and blue) on shop windows, restaurants and buses. At first I was totally “Belizing” it. We arrived in San Ignacio, only 10 kilometers from Guatemala, at the perfect time. It was Saturday, the big market day, and the next day was Belizean Independence Day, complete with the most disorganized parade I’ve ever seen. As an added bonus, we found a great place to stay; J and R Guest House. I highly recommend it.
I was immediately struck by the multiculturalism of the country. The market in San Ignacio, the biggest in Belize, included a mosaic of cultures: Mestizos (mixed Spanish/Mayan ancestry), Creole (mixed African/European ancestry), Garifuna (mixed African/Indigenous Caribbean ancestry), Mayan, Hindu and even Mennonites (yep, like the Amish!). It was so odd and great to see men dressed in 1800s northern European clothing (Mennonite) interacting with total Rastas (hard to know if they’re Garifuna or Creole). I had no idea that Mennonites existed outside of the USA, let alone Belize, and I was dumbfounded to learn that most of Belizean Mennonites actually immigrated from Canada! This got me thinking about the “Who Knew?” moments in Central America. I’ll finish this blog with my Top 5.
Not only was the mixed culture of the market exciting, but the food was also fantastic. With all these different influences, the food in Belize was a nice change from the typical fried chicken and rice. Belize even has it’s own hot sauce called Marie Sharp that was quite unique and delicious.
Simon and I celebrated Belize Independence with a visit to the Iguana Conservatory. Apparently iguana eggs are commonly eaten in the area, so the conservatory basically finds as many eggs in the area as possible and raises the iguanas until it’s safe for them to return to the wild (when they’re full size). The hope is to increase the population and gene pool. In the meantime, it’s a fun place to have iguanas crawl all over you!
The visit to the conservatory was only an hour and left us plenty of time to catch the Independence Day parade. First, the parade was delayed a few hours due to the daily thunderstorms that hit around 2pm. Why San Ignacio had their parade start at this time, it must get rained out every year, I’ll never understand. Once the rain stopped, every single politician had to get up on a little stage and make a speech. I got really impatient, but Simon was not bothered. He said that small town politicians always take any excuse to give a speech, at least they did in his part of France. Ugh. Once everyone had had their five minutes of fame, the parade was finally started. It was so disorganized that cars and floats were entering from all possible directions. Simon and I didn’t stay for the whole affair. After all, we’d already been standing for about two or three hours before the parade actually started!
From San Igancio, things took a turn for the worse. We headed south to Dangriga and Hopkins, where we thought we’d spend a bit of time. Dangriga is known as the cultural center of Belize, particularly for the Garifuna, and Hopkins supposedly had the nicest beach in the country. We spent one night in each town. Dangriga was almost scarily unpleasant, with a large drunk population throughout the day. Convenient stores were blocked off with metal bars to prevent you from entering. You had to point at what you wanted and pay through the door (a la Baltimore). When we asked if we could just come inside, the woman working told us it was too dangerous for her to let people in. Yikes. When we found the “famous” Garifuna drum-maker’s workshop and asked if he could tell us a bit about his drums, the man barely looked away from his TV and told us he wasn’t working. After a moment, he handed us a drum and said “You can buy this.” We really hoped Hopkins would be better.
When we got to Hopkins, I wasn’t “Belizing” anything anymore. The beach was absolutely disgusting, as apparently it always is during the wet season. Garbage and plant foliage collect and sit on the shores until you can’t see sand anymore. Additionally, Hopkins is known to be a great place to hear people play Garifuna music (drums), but as it was low season, we were told we’d have to pay, a lot, to hear anyone play. It felt like the whole Garifuna culture was just a show for when tourists were around (high season). We left the whole area as quickly as we could and booked it all the way north to the island of Caye Caulker.
We reached Caye Caulker just in time, as everything (restaurants, tour agencies, and hostels) was closing in a few days for low season. Despite the expensive prices and the lack of any beach on the whole island, Caye Caulker was nice. There were people there. It was alive. After two days of rain, the sun came out and we could enjoy the beautiful turquoise waters of the Caribbean.
The highlight of Caye Caulker was our snorkeling trip out to the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Here we saw loads of nurse sharks, sting rays, green and loggerhead turtles, fish and some coral. The water was very clear and warm and our company Reef Friendly had good equipment. A major bonus for me was on our way back to Caye Caulker when Zack, our guide, spotted two manatees and we got to hop back into the water one last time and watch them a bit. Incredible! Zack let us take copies of his pictures from his GoPro. They don’t do the animals justice, but it’s better than nothing.
The other great thing about Caye Caulker was that there were other tourists to do nothing with. Despite Simon and I getting totally burnt backs while snorkeling, we still spent the rest of our days relaxing with people at The Split, one of the only places you can really swim on the island.
Our last stop in Belize was a downer, Orange Walk. The town is dusty and sad with nothing much going for it. The big draw is to go visit the Mayan ruins of Lamanai. Unfortunately, the only way to get there is by boat, which means with a tour. Lamanai is very interesting because unlike most other Mayan ruins, it was still a large city when the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. Regrettably, our guide at the site was terrible, so I didn’t learn much more than that. We did get to see some crocodiles though!
And so, overall, Central America was a bit disappointing. There were some great stops, like Copan Ruinas and Ometepe, but generally I felt like it was over hyped. In El Salvador, where the people were super nice, I wished there was more to do to give us a reason to stick around. In Guatemala, where there is lots to see, I found the people (except Carlos) to be difficult and always looking for a way to make a buck off you. After 55 hours of transport later, and two nights in airports, Simon and I are back in South America, and I can’t say I’m unhappy about it!
Nonetheless, Central America did have its surprises.
Top 5 Central America “Who Knew?!”
5. Although many people call them alligators, Central America only has crocodiles. Alligators are only found in the USA and China!
4. The country of Belize is only 3 years older than I am. They won their independence from England in 1981.
3. Water is often sold on buses in mini plastic bags (maybe 500mL). This means people have to tear the bag open with their teeth and drink it all right away. The bags inevitably end up out the window. Sigh.
2. The Amish. Who knew there were blonde, blue eyed, Dutch-speaking Mennonites in Central America?!
1. Chicken buses. Local buses in all of Central America from Nicaragua north, are old Blue Bird school buses (the stereotypical yellow school bus). Some still have their original seats that you can’t help sticking to, as well as the stop sign attached to the side of the bus to stop cars while kids are let off. Every trip felt like a Field Trip!
Filed under: Belize, Central America | Leave a Comment
An uneventful night in Flores, a bus ride around Lago Peten Itza to the village of El Remate, an early morning wake up and a short local bus ride finally brought us to Tikal, the mother of all Mayan ruins. Tikal was once the capital city of one of the richest and strongest Mayan kingdoms. Although other large Mayan ruins have been discovered, such as Caracol in Belize, Tikal seems to be the most popular with tourists, perhaps because it is so well excavated and sits within a national park of protected rainforest. While the ruins of Copan in Honduras were impressive for their sculpture and beautiful detailing, the message from Tikal was loud and clear: Go big or go home! The site is scattered with temples, many over 30 meters high. It was quite extraordinary to climb Temple IV and see many other temples peaking out of the jungle canopy. As it was low tourist season, Simon and I were fortunate enough to essentially have the whole park to ourselves. Aside from its dramatic architecture, Tikal is also a great place to check out the rainforest and wildlife. Many sections of ruins are separated by causeways or paths through the jungle, where we spotted many monkeys and birds. As we arrived at the site at 7am, the birds were still quite active and we were lucky enough to see a large group of Collared Aracaris (a type of toucan) fly across the Gran Plaza, hop along the ruin walls and pig out on some fruit in the trees nearby. Honestly, the wildlife was almost more exciting than the ruins. After reaching our threshold for sweating and over-heating, Simon and I headed back to El Remate to enjoy the sunset over the lake and get ready for our visit to Yaxha the following day. While nowhere near as majestic as Tikal, the ruins of Yaxha, which lie very close to the border with Belize, are interesting for their proximity to a laguna. As Tikal has no visible water sources, the environment around Yaxha was quite different. Unfortunately, the ruins themselves were not very exciting compared with Tikal and Copan… Look at us, Simon and I were already becoming Mayan ruin snobs!
Filed under: Central America, Guatemala | Leave a Comment