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

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Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

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Petra, Jordan

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Taj Mahal, India

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Great Wall of China, China

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Machu Pichu, Peru

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Christ the Redeemer, Brazil

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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!


A Pause

04Dec14

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!


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!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mt6yMAKWzo

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!

 


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!


The Big U Turn

05Nov14

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!


“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!


Mayan Heartland

02Oct14

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!


Our first stop in Guatemala was Rio Dulce, a small town squished between the large lake Lago de Izabal and the city of Livingston on the Caribbean Sea. This area of Guatemala is odd geographically. It logically could be part of Belize to the north or Honduras to the south, but I suppose Guatemala fought hard to keep some access to the Atlantic Ocean.

Guatemala did not give off a good first impression. Rio Dulce is fairly dirty, very hot and humid, and does not have much going on. Luckily for us, after staying about 30 minutes in the Backpacker’s Hostel and discovering there was no electricity or running water, we demanded our money back and headed downriver for about 15 minutes to the hostel Casa Perico. As we left the Backpacker’s we told a Mexican couple about the lack of amenities and suggested they also go somewhere else to sleep.

Casa Perico is only accessible by boat and is set back into the marshes. Little cabins were connected by boardwalks to a central hut equipped with a bar, hammocks, couches and everything else you might need to relax. At the dock were little boats you could use to paddle out to the river where you can swim. Simon immediately paddled out and while swimming off the hostel’s little dock caught sight of the Mexican couple on route to Casa Perico. He yelled out “Mucho mejor!” and got a good laugh.

We found Tonio and Marlen, the couple from Tulum, Mexico, at the bar with Carlos, a Guatemalan-Italian guy who was spending a month in the area and working at the Casa Perico. The five of us immediately got along and thus began our 4 days in Rio Dulce, a much longer stay than expected.

After a day of much needed relaxing, Carlos took us all out on a boat to check out the small but fun Castillo de San Felipe de Lara. While not particularly intimidating from the water, this fort, which was originally built by the Spanish to block the entry of pirates, was filled with little passageways and viewpoints and was fun to visit. As Guatemalan Independence Day was the following day, there were a lot of families spending their long weekend in the area. On our way back to the hostel, Carlos pointed out some of the mansions in the area. There are some extremely rich Guatemalans, and they all have a home (or 5) in Rio Dulce. It’s a good place to store your yacht during the hurricane season. One house was owned by the CEO of Tigo Guatemala, the equivalent of Rogers or Bell in Canada. I’m sure they have similar “country homes” in Canada, in the Muskokas or something, but I guess they keep their yachts elsewhere. Too much money.

The other major attraction in the Rio Dulce area is the Finca Paraiso, a beautiful little spot where thermal hot water spills over a little cliff into a cool river. Basically, you can sit under a hot waterfall while swimming in cool river water. It’s pretty unique! You can also climb above the waterfall, sit in the hot water and cover yourself in thermal mud, which is supposedly very good for your skin. On our way to the Finca, we hung out in Rio Dulce long enough to catch the Independence Day parade. A nice bonus.

As Simon and I waited for Tonio and Marlen to finish up at the Finca, we heard the first clash of thunder and knew we were in trouble. It was the wet season in Rio Dulce and every late afternoon there would be a major storm. We’d lost track of time and had a long trip back to Rio Dulce, not to mention the boat ride back to our hostel. By the time Marlen and Tonio met us at the bus stop it was already pouring and they were drenched. The local bus arrived full and suggested we pay to sit on top of the minivan, hang on for dear life, and get completely soaked. We decided if we were going to be outside for the 45 min ride, we may as well do it for free. So we let the bus go by and hitched a ride in the back of a pickup truck. It was the right choice as we passed the bus and arrived in Rio Dulce much faster than we would have otherwise. We were, however, drenched to the bone and very cold. The town of Rio Dulce was flooded and we had to walk through garbage filled water to reach the main dock. We waited there shivering for over an hour before the owner of Casa Perico (not Carlos) came to get us. A wet end to the day, but we were allowed to use the dryer and the hot meal and tea never tasted so good.

After one more delicious breakfast (huevos rancheros, beans, fried plantains, bread, pancakes, fruit and a tea) Simon and I said goodbye to our friends, who I’m sure we’ll meet again, and headed north to the main attraction of Guatemala; Tikal.

Thanks to Carlos, Marlen and Tonio for the good company, rum, guacamole, and most important, the Mexican version of the Canadian Caesar: replace the vodka with beer, also delicious!

 


Simon and I got our first taste of Mayan ruins and history in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, which lies at the southern border of ancient Mayan territory. Although people tend to correlate Maya civilization with Mexico (maybe it’s the alliteration), Mayan ruins have also been found throughout Belize, Guatemala, northern El Salvador and the western corner of Honduras. In fact, some of the oldest Mayan ruins known are in Belize.

In my very primitive understanding of Central and South American history, I find myself comparing the Inca with the Romans and the Maya with ancient Greece. Unlike the Inca, who were ruled by one king, had massive armies and set out to conquer other peoples, the Maya were actually a network of independent city-states, who shared a similar culture and writing. Like Athens and Sparta, Mayan kingdoms formed alliances and fought against each other.

Although Mayan cities traded with each other and shared a hieroglyphic writing system, artistic styles and architecture differed from place to place. The ruins of Copan are renowned for their beautiful sculptured stelas, large amounts of writing, and particular affection for the scarlet macaw. Many stelas and altars are nearly three-dimensional and incredibly detailed. Altar Q is particularly special in that it depicts and names each ruler of Copan in chronological order. Temple walls and doorways are decorated with skulls, beautiful hieroglyphs, animals and gods. Tlaloc, the god of rain, is easily recognizable with his goggle-like eyes. One temple contains the Hieroglyphic Stairway; a large series of steps covered in writing. This stairway is the longest series of Mayan hieroglyphs found to date. The large ballcourt in the main plaza features huge stone heads of scarlet macaws. These birds are still found in the area. It was incredible to see them flying around the ruins in the late afternoon.

The ruins of Copan are not very big and easily visited in an afternoon. However, Simon and I really liked the town of Copan Ruinas and decided to stick around for a while. As we’d seen many exotic birds during our time in the Americas, but never had a chance to get any photos, Simon and I decided to spend a day at Macaw Mountain, a sanctuary for exotic birds that were either pets or hurt in the wild. The centre, which sits along a river in the jungle, concentrates on rehabilitation and actively works to introduce more scarlet macaws to the area. It’s thanks to Macaw Mountain that Simon and I were able to see so many parrots while visiting the ruins. As you can tell, I loved this place. But watch out, the one Keel-billed toucan that is allowed to wander freely actively seeks out your feet to stab with his beak!

Simon and I noticed that many of the stelas and altars in the ruins of Copan were actually replicas. We decided to check out the real ones in the Sculpture Museum. If you ever find yourself in Copan Ruinas, I wouldn’t miss this museum! You enter through a tunnel and arrive face-to-face with a full scale replica of the Rosalia temple, which lies well preserved inside the core of Temple 16. As the Maya built temples on top each other, archeologists create tunnels to explore older ruins. They really hit the jackpot when they found Rosalia. Even the colours were well preserved.

Aside from the temple that sits in the centre of the museum, I was most impressed with the stelas and altars. The originals are more detailed and clear than the replicas! It’s amazing.

For me, Copan Ruinas had it all, beautiful ruins, wildlife, and a great museum. I wonder if any other Mayan ruin will be able to top it!

 


After spending just a few days in El Salvador, my main thoughts were “Man, the people here are kind” and “Boy did the USA fuck up this country.” Although we only spent time in El Cuco, where surfing is the main attraction, and the capital San Salvador, I found the people to be really open, straightforward and non-intimidating. We could ask questions about the problems in El Salvador without worrying about offending anyone. In this way, we learned a lot of history in a very short visit.

The Civil War in El Salvador had been a long time coming. Groups of the poor and indigenous peoples had been fighting to end major economic disparities in the country. As PBS describes:

As opposition groups organized and grew stronger, so too did official repression on the part of the government. “Death squads” began assassinating “subversives” in an effort to curtail anti-government activities and protests. Unarmed anti-government demonstrators were fired upon by the military on two separate occasions. Flagrant ballot manipulation by the government continued, especially during presidential elections. By the early 1970s, several small guerilla groups had formed, believing change would only come through armed struggle.

When the outspoken Archbishop Romero (who incidentally called for the USA to stop all military assistance in El Salvador in 1980) was assassinated, a martyr was born and the civil war officially began.

The Reagan administration saw the struggles in El Salvador as a chance for Communist expansion and decided to increase military and economic aid to the Salvadorian government, effectively prolonging the conflict. In fact the US gave more aid money to El Salvador than any other country at this time. During the war the US-trained elite Atlacatl Battalion massacred villages. Mass graves are still being uncovered today.

In the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen, the history of the civil war greatly concentrates on the victors, the FMLN, who eventually defeated the government. Women and indigenous peoples fought alongside men in the FMLN, as can be seen in some of the photos, and played major roles in Radio Venceremos (we will overcome).

During the war, some Salvadorians were granted asylum in America. Here, the children learned English faster than their parents, and in the poor neighbourhoods of LA, found themselves unprotected and surrounded by fighting African American and Mexican gangs. The Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) was created as a protection crew, but soon became one of the most notorious gangs in the world.

Although most members of the MS-13 moved to America as toddlers, and didn’t speak Spanish, the Clinton administration decided to fight against the American gang culture by deporting gang convicts to El Salvador. El Salvador, only a decade out of civil war, was not prepared to deal with a well established gang, and thus the MS-13 grew. The gang is currently all over El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, the USA and even Toronto, Canada. As you can imagine, the murder rate in El Salvador (and Honduras) is incredibly high. Although most crime is gang-on-gang, and doesn’t affect tourists, any Salvadorian caught in the middle is out of luck, as a waiter in El Cuco told us.

Today, unfortunately, most of what you hear about El Salvador is gang related. Barbed wire, guns and guards are all over the city of San Salvador. I saw one guard with a big ass gun guarding a tiny, hole-in-the-wall bakery. Nothing quite says “unsafe” like that. With such a negative reputation, and few attractions unless you surf, El Salvador sees the fewest tourists in all of Central America. Even Honduras, where the MS-13 really runs the show and boasts the highest murder rate in the world, sees more tourist action. To me, the Salvadorian people have been by far and away the nicest people in Central America. I hope that one day the general public will think of this kindness instead of the tattooed faces of gang members when speaking about El Salvador.

 


I was immediately taken by how Nicaraguans of all ages (though mostly men) seemed to congregate in front of their shops or homes, and chat together while calmly swaying in their rocking chairs. To enter our hostel in Rivas, not far from the Costa Rican border, we had to awkwardly shift though rocking chairs to reach the doorway. As we moved further north in the country, where cowboy hats, belt buckles and cigars are rampant, the image of the ultra-relaxed cowboy only intensified. Welcome to Nicaragua!

On Ometepe island, a short ferry ride from Rivas, Simon and I had our first, and only, rocking chair placed right outside our room. I must admit it is almost as nice as relaxing in a hammock. Rocking chairs aside, Ometepe was by far and away the most interesting and beautiful spot Simon and I visited in Nicaragua. The island sits in the large Lake Nicaragua and is formed by two large volcanoes. Volcan Concepcion, the larger of the two, is quite beautiful and perfectly conical, like a child’s drawing of a volcano. It also happens to be fairly active, and last erupted in 2010. Interestingly, the Nicaraguan government seems to believe that this area would serve well to act as a competitor to the Panama Canal. Construction is due to start this December, though who knows what will happen. Not only would the area of Ometepe be completely destroyed, but the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions common to the area could be very damaging to the massive cargo ships crossing the country. But it will create temporary jobs..sigh.

Although you can climb either volcano, Simon and decided to take it easy and just walk to various parts of the island, swim in the lake when we got hot, and admire the beauty. Along with our private porch and rocking chair, our lovely hostel, El Porvenir, also had lots of hammocks, a flower garden and a killer view of Mt Concepcion. When the nightly rains held off long enough that we could actually have a sunset it was spectacular.

Aside from nice walks and quiet villages, Ometepe also has some ancient petroglyphs randomly scattered around the island and a nice protected park (Charco Verde) packed with howler monkeys… and mosquitoes! Those jerks definitely took advantage of my steady hands as I tried to catch the howler monkeys in action!

After four really nice days in Ometepe, Simon and I headed back across Lake Nicaragua to the colonial town of Granada. The town wasn’t of much interest, but we did meet some nice travellers to pass the time with.

Further north in Esteli, we were truly in cowboy-land and went to visit a cigar factory. I was surprised how much of the selection process is purely for aesthetics. Basically, pretty leaves are reserved for the final wrapping of the cigar. Men and women were working hard in the factory and I can’t say I envied them. Like most factories, the work seemed hard, long, and super repetitive. While most workers smoked away on cigars, I did catch one guy smoking cigarettes instead.

And so, with a few cigars packed away in Simon’s backpack, we left Nicaragua more quickly than expected. The Central American countries are quite small, after all, so I suppose it makes sense that we didn’t feel the need to hang around for a month, as was the norm in South America. Luckily for us, the cowboy fashion is just as strong in El Salvador, although I haven’t seen as many rocking chairs!


It wasn’t a problem with “political correctness”, no, this was a Panama-Colombia problem. Fellow travellers heading south hadn’t mentioned any problems, so Simon and I were surprised in Cartagena when we kept running into barriers trying to leave Colombia and enter Panama.

The first problem was how to do it. The border between Panama and Colombia is unsafe to pass through, so your only choices are by air or sea. There are fancy cruises that Simon thought about, but with my seasickness I opted out. There was also an option to take the bus as far as possible, followed by several bumpy boat rides and then once in Panama a flight (since you’ll arrive in a town with no roads). We thought about this for a while, but I was worried about the boats and decided I’d just go the “easy” way and fly.

Next problem was cost. Due to incredibly high airport taxes, the flight from Cartagena, Colombia to Panama was twice the price as the reverse. We found one cheap airline called Viva Colombia that had good prices from Medellin, but you can’t book online with a foreign credit card and you must book almost a week in advance to pay with cash. Simon and I learned all this at the Cartagena airport as we couldn’t get information anywhere else.

Okay, so cheap Viva Colombia was not an option, but since we were in the airport anyways we decided to ask some other airlines. Here came problem number 3. According to every airline except Viva, a return flight, or flight out of Panama, is required to board the flight! How ridiculous is that? One company, the most expensive, Copa Airlines, quoted us 400$ to fly to Panama (a one hour flight) and then 500$ for a flight to Costa Rica that we’d never use !

In the end we ended up flying Cartagena to Bogota, where we spent 12 hours in the airport, and then Bogota to Panama City. We arrived around midnight and slept on the airport floor. We also had to buy flights returning Panama City to Bogota that we’ll never use. All that, at least, cost less than the one Copa Airline flight Cartagena to Panama City. What a joke!

After all that mess Simon and I were finally in Central America. Panama City had a small colonial section, but nothing compared to Cartagena. The big star was the Panama Canal at the Miraflores Locks. There was an interesting museum about the canal’s construction and a busy view point to watch the locks in action as giant ships passed through. The engineer in Simon was quite pleased!

We arrived in Panama during the wet season and decided not to bother with the beaches. Instead we headed north through Boquete and on to Costa Rica.

 

PS Costa Rica by Bus

We thought we’d do one thing in Costa Rica, but we couldn’t find anything in our price range. Also, to be honest, a lot of the sites and wildlife in Panama and Costa Rica sounded very similar to Ecuador but much pricier. And so, Simon and I saw Costa Rica by bus. We slept one night in the capital city San Jose and entered Nicaragua the next afternoon. Maybe one day we’ll return. It looked very pretty and green, and the few people we met were very nice.


When Simon and I reached Otavalo, Ecuador, famous for its massive market, we’d officially crossed the equator into the northern hemisphere. That meant that it was no longer winter, but summer! Huzzah! Bring on Colombia and bring on the heat. I would later find myself sweating buckets and cursing this wish…

In Europe, summertime means vacation time, and so Simon’s parents, Anne and Michel, and his sister Elise, made the journey from French Guiana and Spain respectively to meet us in Colombia. We spent about three weeks together, during which time the trip was more about hanging out with the Le Bot’s than Colombia, luckily.

Sometimes other travellers hype up a place so much that when you actually explore it yourself you end up disappointed because your expectations have been massively inflated. This was my general feeling about Colombia. Statements like “The people are the nicest people in the world!” to me, seemed way out of line. Colombia was full of nice people, and also not so nice people. They did not seem like the nicest people in the world, or even in South America. Additionally, after the culture of Bolivia, the archaeology of Peru and the nature of Ecuador, Colombia had relatively little to offer. My Colombia experience had highlight bookends; Salento to start, and Cartagena to finish. The in between was a bit blah, but as I mentioned, I know when I look back, I’ll mostly remember hanging out with the Le Bot family anyways (minus Martin).

Salento is a little colourful village located in the coffee growing region of Colombia. Simon and I were able to bargain for two amazing rooms that we were happy to present to Anne and Michel after their long trip to meet us. While Salento itself is cute, I really enjoyed hiking in the nearby Valle de Cocora. The very tall palm trees looked odd and beautiful in the mountains and the variety of hummingbirds were fun photo subjects. A tour of a family-run organic coffee plantation the next day was also interesting. Banana trees were planted among the coffee plants to create shade, and other fruits, like pineapple plants, were used to attract insects. Yuca plants (cassava) gave the sloping ground more stability, which was particularly important near the younger coffee plants. The fact that all these plants can also provide the family food is an amazing bonus!

A long bus ride brought us to Bogota, our only real peak at what non-touristy Colombia may be like (basically poor). While waiting for Elise to arrive, we checked out the Botero museum, which displayed paintings and sculptures of obese people, animals and even fruit. I particularly liked the obese portraits of other famous artists, like Cezanne, and of course the obese Mona Lisa.

Botero_monalisa1

One of my favourite things about Colombia was their love of kites. When the five of us arrived in the colonial town of VIlla de Leyva, I was thrilled to see the main square packed with kids and adults flying kites. “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins was immediately stuck in my head. While Villa de Leyva, with its white houses with Spanish tiled roofs, is known for its architecture, marine reptile fossils and Pre-Columbian civilization, it’s the kites that I’ll remember most. Well, that and the ice cream that was square shaped on a stick 😉

Next up was Barichara, another small colonial town. Sometimes, it was hard to remember if I was in Colombia or Andalusia, Spain. Aside from walking along the ancient stone path to the town of Guane, there wasn’t much to do in Barichara except wander through the streets and drink peppermint lemonade. Could be worse.

After a quick, and noisy, stopover in the city of Bucaramanga, Simon and I finally left the Andes and along with Anne, Michel and Elise headed to Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast. Hello heat. It had been a long time since I’d felt such humidity. In Tayrona National Park, I sweated buckets and cursed as we hiked past glorious beaches that are too dangerous to swim in. When we finally did reach a safe beach it was hard to leave the water. Beautiful blue-faced lizards and curious monkeys made walking in the jungle a little bit easier as we headed to our campsite. Even at night I was so hot that Simon and I had to open all the doors of the tent and just pray for a breeze. Anne, Michel and Elise slept in hammocks and were already well adapted to the heat from French Guiana and Spain. Lucky them!

Tayrona NP is named after the Tayrona people, who inhabited the area before they were conquered by the Spanish. Some groups such as the Kogui, Wiwa, Arhuacos and Cancuamo are believed to be direct descendants of the Tayrona and still live inside the national park. The Tayrona are most famous for building the site known today as the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City), which is reached by a 4 day hike that was way too expensive for our budget. However, a similar site called Pueblito is located inside the Tayrona National Park and reached within a few hours walking. It was uphill with some major boulders to climb over, but I thought the site was worth the effort. The massive stones used to create the very wide road was quite impressive.

Once we’d washed off the sweat and dirt in Santa Marta, we all headed to one of Colombia’s real gems; Cartagena. Although the city is actually quite large, we stayed in the UNESCO old center, which is filled with churches, flowery balconies, small alleys and old external walls. The city was once the main port through which most gold passed on its way from South America to Spain. With all that booty, Cartagena was the target of many pirates, and was once conquered by Francis Drake, who apparently accepted a ransom to leave the city intact.

Today the city is filled with tourists, many taking horse carriage city tours through the cobbled streets. Cartagena was no different from other Colombian cities in their love for kites. Just outside the old city walls giant kites were flying high along the beach. It was great.

After a lot of research and flip flopping, which I’ll describe in my next post, Simon and I decided that Cartagena was the best place to begin the trip to Panama. The rest of the Le Bot’s left Cartagena without us, and are still in Colombia as I write this post from Panama City. Thanks Anne, Michel and Elise for a great month! You all made Colombia special 🙂


Cuyabeno Magic

25Jul14

We kept putting it off. We didn’t go in Bolivia, Southern Peru or Northern Peru. In Ecuador, we decided to give it a go. I imagined the Amazon jungle would be an “experience”; something to try once. I thought it would be unbearably humid, with so many mosquitoes that it would be a challenge to sit still to eat. Luckily, I was completely wrong.

Cuyabeno National Park is a protected area of over 603 000 hectares of primary rainforest located along the Ecuadorian border with Colombia to the north and Peru to the east. Home to over 550 bird species, 450 species of fish, hundreds of species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians and no less than 12 000 plant species, Cuyabeno is a great example of the biodiversity of the Amazon basin.

We spent 4 incredible days inside this park at Guacamayo Ecolodge. Just on route, travelling for two hours down the Cuyabeno River, we spotted 6 different species of monkeys including the howler monkey, a variety of reptiles including a caiman lizard and anaconda, loads of bird species including a white-throated toucan and even a three-toed sloth!

Over the next 4 days our list of animals and plants grew and grew. While walking in the primary rainforest by day, Joaquin, our fantastic guide, taught us a lot about the plant life of the jungle. We saw naturally growing Quinine, the tree used to cure malaria, tree vines strong enough to swing on, and the Lemon Ant Tree, whose millions of ants release acid on the ground around the tree to prevent close growing neighbours, and incidentally taste like lemon.

To go anywhere in the jungle, whether to go swim in Laguna Grande or go for a hike, we always travelled by boat. During these trips we always saw lots of animals. Some of my highlights, that I haven’t already mentioned, were seeing a pink river dolphin mother and baby swimming together, spotting a pygmy monkey, the smallest monkey on Earth, a two-toed sloth and many bats, which sometimes looked like birds flying as the sun set over Laguna Grande.

We also explored Cuyabeno at night, sometimes by boat and once on foot. We found lots of creepy crawlies, including many massive spider species like Tarantulas, Scorpion Spiders and Wolf Spiders. In the trees, Joaquin was able to spot snakes using a flashlight and the shine from the serpents’ eyes. It should be noted that Joaquin, and the other guides at the lodge, were incredible at spotting animals by day and night. Perhaps most impressive of all was when Joaquin was sure a caiman was nearby our boat. He began to slap the water with his hand and make “caiman noises”. Almost instantly a caiman rose up to the surface, very close to Joaquin’s hand, and stayed there for a few minutes before splashing off.

Out of four, we only had one day of rain. It is the rainforest after all, so I considered us lucky. Fortunately, our rainy day, and it really poured, was spent in a Siona village a few kilometres downriver. The Siona are one of three (I believe) indigenous groups living within the national park. Our visit was very peripheral and I felt a bit like I was in a tourist factory while learning to make casave (cassava) pancakes and exploring the crops. Overall, I was most impressed by the location of the village itself. To be fair to the Siona people living here, it was raining buckets, so I can understand people staying in their nice dry homes rather than coming to say hello to us. It was a bit sad that I never got to hear them speak their language though.

The shaman of the village lives about 10 minutes away by boat. Our visit with the shaman was very short, but he did do a treatment for my back using a very spiky plant called Ortiga colorada. I’d hurt my upper back (again) in Mindo and Joaquin had noticed that I couldn’t turn my neck properly. Like a shaman, Joaquin has a great knowledge of local medicinal plants and brought the Ortiga colorada himself for my treatment. The procedure itself, as far as I could tell, involved the shaman whipping my upper back with the plant. I think the plant contains a chemical that induces heat and perhaps helps muscle relaxation. It didn’t really help my back, but it was an interesting experience.

As though all the wildlife and culture around Guacamayo Ecolodge wasn’t enough, the lodge itself contains a large viewing tower, where you can look out over the jungle canopy. Like in Mindo, our last morning in Cuyabeno was not wasted as we spent it birdwatching with Joaquin. We saw lots of interesting birds including many macaws. The white-throated toucan did not show up, but we saw one fly across the river on our way back to the road and the town of Lago Agrio.

So now all my misconceptions about the Amazon have been corrected. Perhaps other areas of the basin are more humid and packed with mosquitoes, but Cuyabeno was lovely. I could have stayed longer and I would definitely go back. If you ever have the chance, I’d highly recommend it!


Lindo Mindo

24Jul14

I finally found a place in mainland Ecuador that I loved. Mindo is a small village about 2 to 3 hours west of Quito in the cloud forest. Sitting on the edge of a large cloud forest reserve, Mindo is known as being one of the best bird-watching sites in Ecuador and is filled with biodiversity. Hundreds (if not thousands) of species of orchids, butterflies and birds inhabit Mindo. Additionally, despite the town being rather touristy, I found the locals to be very nice and friendly, a real breathe of fresh air. Also, the air literally was fresh!

To see some of the amazing biodiversity of the area, Simon and I spent our first day in Mindo visiting a butterfly and orchid farm. On our walk to the butterfly farm, about 3 km outside of town, Simon and I were able to spot a lot of wild butterfly species, including the beautiful blue Morpho. The big draw for visiting the farm itself was to see the butterflies close up and also see a lot of the chrysalises. Some are perfect copies of dead leaves, others the form of flower buds and some even silvery water drops!  Adaptation to the extreme.

Next up was the orchid farm. Over 170 species of naturally occurring species are exhibited in the garden, though not all are in bloom at once. Our guide was very sweet and was very quick to spot some of the tiny species that require a magnifying glass to see properly! Although I only posted pictures of 6 orchid species (including the Dracula Orchid), we saw many more. Both farms were a great introduction to the Mindo cloud forest, and made us eager to visit the real thing.

As I mentioned, Mindo is a world-class birdwatching site. When Simon and I arrived at the gondola, the start of our hike, hours before it opened, we spent our time quietly walking around and spotting birds. Even without a guide I was able to find a Cock of the Rock, two toucans and a few species of hummingbirds. Not bad!

When the gondola finally opened, we were the first of the day to cross from one mountain to another to the beginning of the waterfall trail. Looking out over the valley far below and the rolling mountains of the cloud forest was both beautiful and terrifying! For the next four hours, Simon and I hiked through the cloud forest to a variety of waterfalls. As we were so early, we mostly had the place to ourselves, which is always nice. I wasn’t able to spot any orchids, but we did see lots of butterflies and a few hummingbirds on the way.

Our last morning in Mindo was not wasted. We were up at 4:45am and ready to go bird watching, this time with a guide. We were led about 500 meters away from the road to a lek site (mating and courtship site) of the Cock of the Rock. As we walked in the dark, our guide told us about how this area was considered devil territory by the Spaniards and native communities due to the rough calls and quick red streaks of the Cock of the Rock. I can imagine on a particularly cloudy and gloomy day a quick red flash across the path paired with a shrill shriek would be quite scary. The Spaniards ended up building a second path to avoid crossing the lek.

If only the Conquistadors  had had a clear view of the Cock of the Rock, they would have realized that perhaps the funniest looking bird ever was the cause of their fears. The Cock of the Rock is bright red with a tiny beak and a huge red puff on its head. We saw lots of them at the lek site, but they were too far away to photograph. Luckily, the guide had binoculars. Here’s a great picture I found online:

cock of the rock

We got back to Mindo with enough time for a quick nap and breakfast before our bus back to Quito. I really loved this little town and all the wildlife that surrounds it. Back in Quito, we were hoping to keep the biodiversity coming with a last minute trip to the Amazon!


Even though Simon and I were back on land, I still felt the rocking of the waves from our cruise in the Galapagos. Not being able to bear a bus ride, we stayed one night in Guayaquil before heading north to Riobamba and then Banos the next day.

Banos was a good place for Simon and I to relax, although our relaxation styles differed. For me, a relaxing day was spent sleeping in, eating yummy food, getting a lovely massage and enjoying the thermal bathes that the town is named after. Alternatively, Simon woke up early, went for a hike up a mountain and then went for a bike ride. He did join me at the bathes though, which were located at the base of a waterfall that is famous in the area for being sacred. The main church in Banos is covered in interesting murals, with dates, describing many of the miracles that occurred thanks to the Sacred Waters.

From Banos, Simon and I took a lovely bus ride, passing countless waterfalls, to the largest jungle town of Puyo. We thought this might be a good place to find a trip into the Amazon. Unfortunately we couldn’t find anything and ended up spending a very uneventful day in a pretty ugly city and then leaving the next day.

During this time in Ecuador, Simon and I felt like we had no real path in the country. Good information was hard to come by and I felt like we were wasting time stopping in places like Riobamba and Puyo. To top it off, we weren’t finding people particularly friendly either. We decided to cut our losses and head straight up to Quito, where we knew we could get some real information about what to do with the rest of our time in Ecuador.

Quito is a strange place. The city is about 30 km long and with bus stations on either end serving different cities, it’s a tough place to get in or out of. It’s really annoying to use as a transfer site. The historical centre is very beautiful, with a lot of churches covered in gold, and swarming with tourists. However, at night it shuts down and apparently becomes a bit unsafe, so most tourists don’t sleep here, but in La Mariscal, a 15-20 minute bus ride north.  La Mariscal is neither beautiful nor historic. It’s a little tourist Disneyland filled with bars, restaurants and travel agencies. At least here we could finally get some info on how to go to the Amazon. Although there’s a lot to do in Quito, such as museums and markets, Simon and I left after only two nights. We were eager to visit Mindo, a small town in the cloud forest with a great reputation.


In Guayaquil, Simon and I were lucky enough to find a last minute cruise to the Galapagos for 4 days. We spent 2 annoying days dealing with banks in the city, as Ecuador has a limit of a 300 dollar withdrawal per day and lord knows the cruise cost more than that! After an uneventful stop in the beach town of Montanita, we were back in Guayaquil and heading to the airport. Biology nerd-fest here we come!

At the airport in Baltra, we met the other 14 people on the cruise with us. I was surprised to find that I wasn’t the only Canadian; there was a lovely couple from Montreal who we had all our meals with, and a younger girl from Alberta. We didn’t stay at the port in Baltra long, and once we’d dropped our bags in our tiny bedroom onboard, we were off to the island of Bartolome.

Bartolome is an island made mostly of ash. Although the island itself is fairly barren, with only a few birds and lava lizards, the island’s volcanic geography is very pretty and its coastal waters were full of life. Our first wildlife encounter in the Galapagos was in the water. While snorkeling, Simon and I spotted a few Galapagos penguins, the only penguin species that lives at the equator. Simon was extremely pleased to see one swim right by him. They are speedy! We also saw lots of tropical fish and starfish as well as some pelicans and blue-footed boobies on the shore. After a great sunset from the volcanic peak, with a view of the Pinnacle rock and Santiago island, we were back on the boat for dinner and what was to be the first of 2 very long nights.

To ensure that our days in the Galapagos were spent exploring different islands, we sailed between islands overnight. If you get seasick like I do, the journey to the northern island of Genovesa is a tough ride. It was a long night of vomiting, shaking and cursing my own stupidity for doing a cruise.

Genovesa is a very remote island in the archipelago and is shaped like a horseshoe opening towards the south. It’s shape is due to the fact that like most islands here, Genovesa is a volcanic island, and in fact a caldera that is mostly submerged. We arrived at Darwin Bay by a wet landing. Normally this means that you get off the small motorized raft into about a foot or two of water and walk up to the beach. In my case, as the water was really rough that day, a wet landing meant being swept off my feet by a wave and arriving on the beach soaked. Luckily Simon had my camera! I’m sure the couple of seals on the beach were laughing at me.

Lizards have never colonized Genovesa, meaning that birds run the place without predators, except for about 10 short-eared owls. Within a few steps from the beach we could see loads of birds including Nazca boobies, Red-footed Boobies, Frigate birds and Swallow-tailed gulls. Most of these birds had nests at about waist height making them really visible and easy to photograph. Without natural predators they showed no signs of fear even when arms-reach away. Although we’d missed the mating season and the chance to see the male Frigate birds inflate their red “balloons,” we did get to see a lot of chicks.

The snorkeling around Genovesa was less exciting. The water hadn’t calmed down and although there was a chance of seeing hammerhead sharks, I saw little more than a few fish. Back on the boat I was already feeling seasick and dreading the journey back south to the rest of the archipelago. Although our guide had (needlessly) told us that the second night would be worse than the first, I managed to sleep more and awoke on the third day feeling a lot better than I did the previous morning.

Our third day started early on a white sand beach, Las Bachas, on the large island of Santa Cruz. As the sun came up, we watched pelicans and herons fishing. The beautifully coloured Sally Lightfoot crabs were also plentiful and fun to photograph. Slightly inland we saw a few flamingos in the brackish water.

A rare daytime journey, that I miraculously slept through, brought us to the island of Santa Fe 5 hours later. This island was by far my favourite. While snorkeling I saw a sea lion breastfeeding her pup, which was so graceful and sweet. I also saw a shark (white-tipped reef) for my first time in the water without a cage. It wasn’t as scary as I’d imagined. Also spotted were stingrays, a turtle and of course loads of tropical fish. It was fun to swim within the schools.

On land, we were greeted by a large number of sea lions relaxing on the perfect beach. A small walk inland, amongst the most amazing species of cactus, gave us the opportunity to see the Santa Fe land iguana and a few lava lizards. The land iguanas weren’t as big as I expected, but compared to the marine iguanas they were massive!

Aside from the beauty each island has to offer, visiting the Galapagos was important for me due to the importance Darwin’s visit had on the development of the study of evolution. There are so many endemic species here it’s incredible. While Darwin’s Finches were always used as the classic example in biology class, many animals and plants here provide great insight into the workings of evolution. For example, each island has a different species of cactus. Some look very different from others, but they all evolved from one ancestor, the prickly pear. Same goes for the land iguanas. While I only saw the Santa Fe species, the land iguanas of other islands have different colourings and sizes. To see just a little part of what inspired Darwin, and scientists today, is something I won’t forget.

Perhaps the most famous of all the Galapagos animals is the Giant Land Tortoise. I couldn’t wait to see them. Our last day in the Galapagos was spent in the highlands of Santa Cruz to see these giants in their “natural habitat.” Although it was interesting to see the lush greenery of the highlands, a stark contrast to the scorched red coast, I have to say that seeing the tortoises was a let down. I had no idea that these animals lived in mud pools. Honestly, we never saw one not head deep in mud. They are the endemic pigs of the Galapagos! With all that mud it was hard to really appreciate how big the tortoises were. Despite the seasickness, my biggest regret is not having time after to the tour to go to the tortoise breeding centre.

Before we knew it, Simon and I were back in Guayaquil and mainland Ecuador. Although we were finally off the boat and sleeping on land, I felt the waves for a few days more. Galapagos might not be the best place for the seasick, but what can a seasick biologist do!?


It wasn’t the beginning of a Monty Python movie, but it was the start of a new country. From Chachapoyas it took Simon and I one full day jumping from minibus to minibus, winding through the cloud forest, to reach the most relaxed border crossing I’ve ever seen. Between La Balsa in Peru and Ecuador lies a small bridge crossing a river in the middle of beautiful forest. We arrived there early in the morning (around 7:30) and had to run around looking for someone to stamp us out of Peru! We could have walked straight into Ecuador without anyone caring. At about 8am the guy stamping our passports on the Ecuador side was still in his pyjamas!

When we found out that the first bus leaving the border post wasn’t due until noon, we quickly understood why everyone sleeps in around here. Luckily we got a ride in the back of a truck container meant to transport livestock to the next town (Zumba) about 2 hours away. The driver left the door of the container open so that we wouldn’t be sitting in the dark, but as we starting climbing and descending the mountainsides, I was quickly rolling in the disgusting hay and a bit afraid of being flung out the door! I still have bruises from the hazardous but gorgeous trip.

Our next adventure arrived earlier than expected when we were told that a huge landslide had cut off the main road and that instead of a bus, we’d have to take a taxi on an alternate route. Luckily, here taxis are actually 4WD pickup trucks. About 2.5 hours later we were in another small town in the cloud forest and finally back on a bus route to Vilcabamba.

We spent a few days in Vilcabamba relaxing and watching the France-Ecuador soccer game. They tied so there were no hard feelings-ish. Even in this small town, I could already tell that Ecuador was very different from Peru and Bolivia. There were lots of English signs and expats. In Cuenca, a beautiful UNESCO city with a very nice central square and cathedral, Simon and I found ourselves in a bookshop owned by a man who admitted he spoke little Spanish.

So far Cuenca is the nicest place we’ve visited in mainland Ecuador. The main square is surrounded by markets selling sweets and flowers, the food is tasty and the architecture is pretty. Just a quick bus ride away is El Cajas National Park, a bizarre landscape of rolling hills and lakes. It looked a lot like Ireland (or how I imagine Ireland) but sits at 4,000 masl. After a few days of sitting on buses and watching soccer it was nice to get out and hike for a day.

From Cuenca, Simon and I headed to the big industrial city of Guayaquil. As we entered the city I saw fast food joints like Carl’s Jr that don’t even exist in Canada! Ecuador is definitely more closely linked with the USA than any other country I’ve visited in South America so far. Guayaquil wasn’t on our original itinerary, and with mostly shopping centres why would it be, but we’d heard there was an agency with good deals to the Galapagos… It was time to scope out our options!


The Others

27Jun14

When most people think about the ancient or Pre-Columbian cultures of Peru, their minds usually focus on the Inca. Perhaps after a few moments, they’ll remember the Nazca people as well. It’s odd, we always hear that the Inca conquered many peoples throughout the Andes, but we never stop to think about who those people were. The Nazca were long gone by the time of the Inca, so who were these other cultures? Before visiting northern Peru, I’d never given it much thought.

Our first stop was Trujillo, a nice city on the northern coast. A few kilometres from town are several important archaeological sites belonging to two major peoples; the Moche, who lived at the same time as the Nazca and were eventually succeeded by the Chimu, who were conquered by the Inca. Let’s start with the Moche.

The ancient capital city of the Moche was built between two large adobe brick pyramids, the Huaca del Sol, which has yet to be excavated, and the Huaca de la Luna, the religious centre that is partially excavated. Normally you can see archaeologists at work here, but we visited on a Sunday, so everyone was at home. Simon and I started off by visiting the museum to check out the pottery that was found at the site. The Moche ceramics are really incredible, and, luckily for us, tell us a lot about every aspect of Moche life. Through the imagery in the ceramics, including some of the most amazing portraits I’ve ever seen, we know that the Moche cultivated a variety of foods like maize, fruits, peanuts and potatoes, and domesticated dogs, ducks, llamas and guinea pigs. They had religious ceremonies around the coca leaf and drank a hallucinatory drink made from a fruit and used by shamans. Clay portraits of shamans often have their eyes bulging out, representing the effects of the drink.

Amazingly, all types of people were represented in beautiful ceremonial pottery. Check out the third image of the pottery that I grabbed from the internet (since photos weren’t allowed in the museum). This huge round pot shows the potter herself creating a bowl. The Moche ceramics are so all encompassing that some even show couples having sex, the birthing process, and even death.

With all this information, the Huaca de la Luna has been classified as a ceremonial centre were human sacrifice occurred. Warriors would fight each other and whoever was caught by another warrior was sacrificed. This was done in times of drought, El Nino and other natural disasters.

Although the site might have been very bloody, it was covered in beautiful murals, some of which have been preserved. The main god, Ayapec is often represented. Interestingly, the Huaca de la Luna was rebuilt on top of itself at least five times. This means that older murals and layouts can be found underneath other layers. Amazingly, the evolution of the depiction of Ayapec can be seen by looking at the murals from different centuries.

Huaca de la Luna gave me an idea about Moche architecture and ceramics, but not the people. Further north, near the crap city of Chiclayo, at the Royal Tombs Museum of Sipan, Simon and I got a glimpse of the gold that covered the Moche elite. Several tombs of high priests and lords have been found at the site of Sipan and really add to the picture of what the Moche were at their height. Basically, they were covered in gold and silver. At least the elite were. In the tomb of the Lord of Sipan, archaeologists found the lord himself, the bodies of his wife, concubines, guards and slaves, some animals, and a ridiculous amount of gold and silver jewellery, clothing and banners. Although Simon and I were reminded by our guide that all the items were hollow and therefore light weight, it was still extremely impressive. A Moche nose ring was the size of what I would consider a massive necklace pendant. For goodness sakes, the Lord of Sipan owned enormous earrings that depicted himself with his weapons and guards on each side! The truly world-class museum included a mock up at the end of the visit of what all these people might have looked like wearing just some of the items they were found with. It must have been beyond impressive. (Photos are from the internet since you can’t take pictures in the museum).

After 700 years (100 AD to 800 AD) the Moche culture faded. One guide told us they were wiped out by a particularly harsh El Nino that brought 30 years of rain and then 30 years of drought. Out of the ashes of the Moche rose the Chimu, one of the greatest rivals of the Inca. The Kingdom of Chimor, the empire of the Chimu culture, spread over 1000 km of Peruvian coastline and lasted from 900 AD to 1470 AD, when it was conquered by Inca Tupac Yupanqui.

On our way to the ancient capital city of Chan Chan, Simon and I stopped at a little seaside town called Huanchaco where small boats made of the reed totora are still used. Unlike Lake Titicaca, where we only saw totora items for tourists, in Huanchaco we were lucky enough to witness the fishermen coming back with their catch of the day. We met a scientist here who was telling us about the effects of climate change in the area. Twenty years ago the beach was about 100 meters before reaching the water. Now, as you can see in the photos, the ocean is easily reached in about 5 meters. Apparently the warmer currents are also driving away fish. The fishermen were telling us that there are very few fish left. Accurately, I believe, the scientist told Simon and I that Peru doesn’t contribute much to climate change, and that it’s up to our home countries to do something. It’s hard to hear these things when you feel so powerless over what your country does.

The city of Chan Chan itself was quite impressive, but also annoyingly restrictive in where you could walk. It is the largest adobe city in the world and the palace that we could visit was beautifully decorated. It was nice to see imagery of animals that are different from those often depicted in Inca culture, namely the condor, puma and snake. In Chan Chan, there is a wall covered in fish and pelicans and another in a strange squirrel-like animal. There was also a lot of abstract geometrical decoration. As the Chimu people lived by the sea and ate mostly marine animals like sea lions, crabs, sea birds, fish and mussels it makes sense that these were the animals decorating the palace. The Chimu are also known to have domesticated a hairless dog, which still exists in the area. Simon and I saw a couple; they almost look like hyenas!

Although the city of Chan Chan once housed about 30,000 people and many citadels and palaces, only a small portion has been excavated, making Chan Chan seem much smaller than other sites like Machu Picchu. However, many tall walls can be spotted coming out of the sand. Hopefully with more time archaeologists will reveal more of the city.