A Travellerspoint blog

El Salvador

In writing this blog I've always had huge difficulties in keeping anywhere close to up to date, but I've never been his behind. This is early October and I'm in Ireland, attempting to write about six days worth of experience in El Salvador last February. There is a part of me tempted to cut it out, but the larger part needs me to write it all down. Six days in El Salvador; so many experiences, so many complexities, so many contradictions. I loved it intensely and I hated it too. I didn't want to leave and I couldn't wait to get out! Where the hell do I begin?

I will begin at the start; the border, my first glimpse of a country and a culture. I saw big fleshy women, lots of them, adorned with lurid blue sparkly eye shadow, identical to the stuff I got free with Jackie magazine in 1978. And lots of trendy young'uns, decked out in street gear that wouldn't go amiss in a happening city anywhere in the world. Passing through the border was quick and courteous. In all my years of travelling I have never experienced the ease and courtesy of these Central American border crossings.

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First stop was the town of La Palma, a quiet calm place nestled in the mountains. La Palma is famous for its folk art, brightly painted Naïf style representations of people, village and farm life and religious scenes, painted on wood and pottery. You have probably seen some of the pieces, but never gave a second thought as to where they were from. I bought my first picture in the ferry shop on Cape Clear, County Cork of all places! I was keen to visit where they were made and maybe snap up a masterpiece, at Central American prices. Sadly I couldn't find any of the artesian workshops and the stuff in the shops were tacky and badly made. The afternoon was full of frustrations; the maps in my guidebook were next to useless, asking the locals for directions meant I was walking round in circles for hours and horror of horrors, the cash machine not accepting foreign cards. I was fit to be tied. This was not a total disaster though; the American dollar is the official currency in El Salvador and I had an emergency supply of 200 dollars hidden in my backpack. But accommodation and food were known to be expensive in El Salvador and I was nervous of travelling through a country with only a few Rubles to spare.

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Luckily solace was found in the Hotel La Palma, opened in 1952 and reputedly the oldest hotel in El Salvador. The hotel had been held tenderly through the civil war by the delightful Salvador, a man in his sixties who, as well as running the hotel, had been a potter, an attorney, a charity worker for an NGO and a chef, as well as spearheading Eco tourism in the region. Times were still tough for Salvador and the hotel. Next morning he was making a three hour drive to the capital San Salvador to buy meat and vegetables from a big supermarket as it cost him much less than buying locally. It went completely against his principles, but the hotel (which was delightful) had few visitors and he had to watch every penny. After insisting I took a free breakfast (which I refused) Salvador offered me a lift to a town near my next destination. He also took a detour to a business complex which had an ATM, one of only five machines outside the capital. I was eternally grateful. Salvador dropped me to the bus station in Aguilares, escorted me to my seat and waited till the bus pulled out before departing. What a lovely man. An hour of easy travel later I was in Suchitoto. This was all too easy!

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Cobbled and colonial Suchitoto was such a delight. A small, calm town with peaceful plazas and broad handsome streets lined with trees and low, red tiled adobe houses. The urban landscape seemed so spacious and airy under the big big blue sky. The intense heat and light created an almost otherworldly feel to the place, like time was ticking at a different speed to usual. As is my want, I spent most of my time aimlessly dandering around town, not quite believing that I had stumbled upon such a gem.

It was high summer in El Salvador and the heat sat on top of you like a lead weight, so it wasn't till late afternoon that I was able to head out of town and down to the lake, Lago de Suchitlan. The route through and out of town took me along cobblestones streets alive with people just living their drowsy, late afternoon lives. People sat outside their houses on makeshift deck chairs, chatting, painting their toenails, playing cards, plaiting hair, sucking mangos, drinking beer. Everyone greeted me with beautiful warm smiles and waves. Nothing moved at more than a snails pace. Except for the evangelical churches of course. Yes, saving souls is a frenetic business. One of the churches had a buffet outside on the street, another had a great guitar player and band, in fact I had initially assumed it was a wedding reception. I was impressed.

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By now, Suchitoto had me eating out of the palm of her hand. At twilight, beer in hand, I plonked myself on a bench in the main square. There was so much life around me; people chatting and chilling in the fading light. So many lovely smiles and greetings of hello. I would use the word warmth to convey the quality in these greetings, something which really stands out when you travel in Central America, but especially so in El Salvador.

I was fascinated by all the different Salvadorian faces. Some plump and really attractive, some skinny like in Honduras, and many with really pale skin. There seemed to be a disproportionate number of people with blue eyes and blond haired in the town and rather unusually, quite a number of extremely butch women. Dinner was a feast of fantastic pupusas (including prawn ones, a first for me) and numerous bottles of beer served up at a little stall on the main square. My limited Spanish allowed me to conduct some (limited) conversations with the fellow diners and yet another evening of gentleness ensued. Did I say gentle again. Did I say warm again? I bet warm and gentle would not be the first words that come to mind when you think of El Salvador. Images from the vicious civil war, or perhaps the gang violence of the 1990s are more likely to spring to mind. Well Suchitoto, gentle, gentrified, cultured Suchitoto was a different place in the 1980's. It was the scene of heavy fighting as the army struggled to dislodge FMLN guerrillas from their nearby mountain stronghold and right wing death squads waged terror campaigns on the population. Upwards of ninety percent of the inhabitants left the town, which was largely settled by ex guerrillas after the war. Such is El Salvador, a land of utter contradictions.

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I would have loved to stay longer, with hindsight I should have. But I had been on and was on a punishing schedule of pushing through Honduras and El Salvador, so it was with sadness that I tucked into to yet another huge Central American breakfast. Eggs, cheese, refried beans or gallo pinto (rice and beans), plantain and a corn tortilla. It might look disgusting, but it had the thumbs up from me, a life long lover of stodgy food. Another stodgy breakfast before moving on for another days hard travelling.

That day's travelling proved to be long (eleven hours), arduous, sweaty and full of frustration, themes which were to become themes for the rest of my time in El Salvador. The first bus of the day did not take me where it was supposed to and I ended up slap bang in the middle of the capital, San Salvador, a place I had wanted to escape like the plague. I was surrounded by a fair few hustlers as I tried to find my way around the numerous bus stations spread for a mile or so along a chaotic road,but thankfully I survived unscathed.

Four hours later I was in the city of San Miguel, with late afternoon temperatures so oven like I was tempted to douse myself in olive oil and roast myself for dinner. It was there I became unstuck. Cranky and very bothered, I wandered round he bus station trying to find a bus to Perquin, about three hours north. No one knew, no one was bothered, no one was interested. This was quite a shock. In my opinion, the most wonderful thing about Central America is the people; always at hand, always smiling, always keen to help. Whatever difficult situation I found myself in, one of those Central American angels would appear to help me. They must have been on strike in San Miguel that day. I plonked myself down on a metal seat and told myself to cool it. Twenty minutes later my angel arrived. She was a really poor looking woman, a street vendor selling packets of chewing gum. I had seen her earlier and smiled. She had youngish man with her; she had Sussed that he spoke English and had brought him over to rescue me. As luck would have it my rescuer, now a resident of Boston Massachusetts, originally came from outside Perquin. He was home on holidays to visit his relatives and suggested we take a bus to the next town up, where the family jeep was parked. It would then be his pleasure to drive me to Perquin.

That would be my second lift in three days. I was never offered a lift in the whole three months that preceded El Salvador, nor was I offered one after I left it. It's people are absolute darlings. I thought all my troubles were over when Jose dropped me at the bottom of very steep steps up to a lovely hotel. Sadly the lovely hotel was booked out by a NGO for the week and I was laughed at when I enquiries about a taxi. This really was the arse end of nowhere. So, nine hours and nine gallons of sweat after beginning my journey, I and my very heavy rucksack could be seen crawling up the main road; a full three miles of main road, dodging trucks, ill natured dogs and my own temper. When I finally decamped in the village's budget accommodation, the shower facilities aka a bucket of cold water, never caused me à bother. When your blood is at boiling point, both physically and psychologically, a bucket of cold water can do you the world of good.

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Perquin and the neighbouring village of El Mozote have a significant place in the history of the civil war. Perquin was the headquarters of the rebel FMLN-FDR and home place of radio Vencermos ('we will overcome'). It was almost obliterated on many occasions. I visited the revolutionary museum, set up by former guerrillas in the wake of the 1992 peace accord. To tell the truth I didn't get much out of it; given it was signed in Spanish, their angle on the civil war was lost on me and I'm not a fan of displays of weapons and artillery. I suppose the crater left by a 500lb bomb dropped on the village was a key 'exhibit', as was a disarmed bomb inside the museum, with 'made in the USA' stencilled on its side.

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My visit to El Mozote was different. But I need to give you a bit of background first. Apologies to those of you who are knowledgeable about what happened in the 80's, what follows is no doubt overtly simplified and inaccurate. In December 1981 an elite, US trained army battalion entered the village on the suspicion they were harbouring FMLN guerrillas. The mayor of the village had been tipped off on this event, but had been reassured by the government that the inhabitants would be safe staying put. This was not to be: orders came from the very same government to obtain information and set an example. This was done through three days of torture and rape before every single one of the villagers were executed, including all the children, who were shot in front of their parents. They reckon that a thousand people were executed on those three days, their bodies burnt or buried in mass graves. Apparently El Mozote gets quite a volume of war tourists; as a human being, a psychologist and a person who grew up during the troubles in Northern Ireland, I had really mixed feelings about visiting. But it would many many pages of writing to explain some of that; so I won't.

El Mozote is probably no more than a few kilometres from Perquin, but in keeping with the travel chaos of the previous day, my journey there took two hours and included a bus, a walk, a motorised scooter, a walk and then hitching a lift in the back of a pick up truck, perched on bags of cement. At the entrance to the village I was met by a group of women and brought to a little shop selling handicrafts and key rings, a purchase was obviously expected. From there I was taken by one of the women to the memorial garden, seen in the picture above. It was a very somber sight, simple and unavoidable in its message. The woman then began telling her story. Obviously she only spoke Spanish and I could hardly understood a word, but there was something about her demeanour and affect which seeped into me and before long I was weeping away. It wasn't just about her, it was about the village as it stood now, nothing really there but a memorial of an atrocity over thirty years ago, an atrocity which gets retold every time a tourist arrives. I wondered about my guide's life; a part of her day, every day is to tell a story of a massacre that happened over thirty years ago. What impact does is have on her? Does it help her process her grief, or keep her trapped in it? From both a work and personal perspective I know people whose loss becomes their identity; who never move on from loosing a loved one or become so wrapped up in the events surrounding a tragedy that it takes them over, They forget who they were before. El Mozote felt a bit like that; trapped in its past. It made me think of Northern Ireland a lot; yes there are many people moving forward into the light, but also many choosing to remain firmly rooted in the bitterness arising from their own personal and tribal injustices.

And so I was at the end of my time in El Salvador. The plan for the next day was to head south down towards San Miguel, take another bus east to the border with Honduras, and transit through Honduras for another four hours until I got to the Nicaraguan border. Given the chaos of each journey I had attempted the previous days, feeling nervous about the journey was pretty inevitable.

Five thirty the next morning I was standing in the village square, awaiting the departure of the bus to San Miguel. Three other backpackers were there. Although they had been staying at my hostel for a few nights, they had chosen to ignore me the entire time. The bus pulled up just after five thirty and we clambered onboard. The bus had a sign saying San Miguel on the front, so I didn't double check with the driver. Ten minutes later we took a right turn off the main road and I knew something was wrong. Five minutes later we were crawling along a dirt road, heading up into the mountains. Somehow I managed to ascertain that the bus had come from San Miguel, rather than going to it. In any other country I would have jumped off there and then and waited for something, anything to take me back. But my experiences of the previous few days had warned me against this, furthermore we were on a dirt track in the middle of nowhere and it was still dark outside. In desperation I stumbled down the isle to the other backpackers. Believe it or not the bus was heading to the Honduran border, a border I didn't know even existed, a border that would lead me to a part of Honduras that wasn't in my guidebook and that would add a roughly four hundred kilometre detour to my journey! Bugger.

The journey was horrific; an unpaved dirt road, twisting, turning and ascending all the time, the bus filled with red dust rising from the road. Three hours and a mere 25 kilometres later, we arrived at the border which was basically a shed at the side of the road. In that shed I was surprised to find a handsome and immaculately groomed customs official, who in perfect English, inquired as to how my trip to El Salvador had been. He stamped me out of the country, shook my hand and with a dazzling smile, wished me a pleasant journey in Honduras.

Two hours later the journey was over. I was in a big town, but I had no idea what part of Honduras I was in, what the town was called and how the hell I could get out of it. But first things first, I needed a big feed up and a very long wee. I headed to a decent looking cafe where I had the fortune to bump into three Aussies with a guide book! They had made the same journey on the previous day, having waited at the side of the road for six hours. they too had many tales of woe to tell about their bus journeys in El Salvador, in fact they had shortened their time in the country as they found it too stressful to travel around. With the help of a lovely waitress and a fifteen year old guidebook the Aussies had, I plotted my new route to Nicaragua. There was nothing for it, I had to head into the capital city Tegucigalpa.

Posted by noratheexplorer 05:46 Archived in El Salvador Tagged el_salvador suchitoto la_palma perquin el_mozote Comments (0)

Western Honduras

Despite the political unrest and civil war that has plagued many of its countries, Central America has been a popular backpacker destination for a very long time. Hence there are pretty well worn backpacker routes down through Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, as there are down through Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. However the bits in between, namely Honduras and El Salvador, seemed a more unexplored, darker continent. Nearly everyone I spoke to was either taking an expensive flight to avoid travelling through them by land, or booking themselves upon a luxury coach which would bomb through both countries without them even having to get off the bus. So, although the guide books said that in the main, it was safe to travel , there was definite sense of unease amongst my fellow backpackers.

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I pondered over what to do for quite some time; both countries seemed to offer lots of cracking places to visit, although admittedly there were some pretty dodgy spots also. I reckoned that as long as I avoided Honduras's nasty capital Tegucigalpa, as well as San Pedro Suala (famed for having the highest murder rate in the world, outside a war zone, in 2011, 2012 and 2013) I would be fine. I mapped a nice route through a small part of mountainous Western Honduras, then into El Salvador and through the rural eastern countryside, avoiding the capital San Salvador. Then back into Honduras for another day of bus travel to the border with Nicaragua. I was quite proud of this route and gave myself about seven days to get through it, i was rapidly running out of time and was keen to get to Nicaragua. Big mistake. But that is not a story for now.

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My first stop in Honduras was a really lovely place called Copan Ruinas, a charming town of steep cobbled streets and red tiled roofs set amongst green hills. On the long bus journey and border crossing into Honduras I had the company of Mel and Amy, also lone travellers, who were a great distraction and source of reassurance as I entered yet another country and culture. Within a few minutes of getting off the bus in Copan Ruinas we had found somewhere to stay, a restaurant to eat in and a cold pint of the local beer to sip on. Somehow, things seemed to happen with much greater ease when travelling with companions, so I was totally game to make the most of it. The next day was spent exploring the rather famous Copan Mayan ruins ( yes, more ruins!!!, but also the last ones of the journey) and mooching around the town and feeling sociable.

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The central market was a great spot for people watching as well as getting fed for next to nothing. Throughout Central America, the markets are where one finds the cheapest comedores, serving the typical almuerzos (lunch) of rice, beans, tortillas and a wee piece of meat or chicken. Copan's market also had a number of stalls selling pupusas; a traditional Salvadorian dish made of a thick handmade corn tortilla , stuffed with cheese, refried beans or pork and toasted hot and crispy on a hot metal griddle. They are always served with hot sauce and a dollop of pickled cabbage, beetroot and carrot. Yummmmmm! totally delicious and in my top ten of comfort food heaven. Whilst pupusas are typical street food from El Salavador, I had had my first bite of one in Belize. Subsequent to falling in love with the calorie laden tortilla of delight, I actively sought out pupuserias, becoming somewhat of a pupusa aficionado ( the word junkie might also come to mind). Much to my delight, the local speciality of the pupuserias of Copan was an asparagus and mushroom filling. Result.

For the past month I had mainly been in the highlands of Guatemala, where the majority of the population were Mayan. In Honduras, 85-90 percent of the population are 'ladino' a term used to describe people of mixed Spanish and indigenous origin. In those first few days in Copan, I was struck by how pale skinned the people were, as well as being smaller, skinnier and more angular than the guatemalans. I didn't get as many smiles as I had become accustomed to during my last few weeks of travel, but I felt comfortable there; a place where tourists were valued as contributing to the economy but not yet omnipresent. A place which remained essentially a place to meet local needs, rather than a Disney like stage set centred around the needs of tourists.

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After Mel left I treated myself to a day at Finca El Cisne, a working family farm involved in the production of coffee, cardamom and cacao, rearing cattle and horses, as well as showing tourists a good time, for a fee of course. Struggling farmers of Ireland take note, when in difficulties, diversify. Host for the day was the delectable Carlos; decked out in tight jeans, welly boots and cowboy hat. Carlos is the fourth generation of his family to run the farm. Having lived in the states for many years he returned to Honduras a while back and was working hard to develop the farm as an Agro-tourism project. He was bright, witty and dashingly handsome despite being a the size of a Smurf. Myself and three others spent a lovely day being taught about coffee and coco production from a sustainable agriculture perspective, got to poke around the gardens where they grew avocados, breadfruit, pineapples, guanábanas and the like before being treated to a lovely lunch of farm products in Carlos's mothers house. Then it was time to saddle up for a two hour horse ride through the estate, a green and lush gentle landscape. Sadly, Carlos seemed rather unimpressed by my free-style riding technique and the hollering noises I made as the horse broke into a gallop.

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The final part of the day was a visit to the nearby thermal baths, gloriously named Luna Jaguar hot springs. The entire spine of the continent of Central America is a chain of volcanos. This makes for some spectacular scenery; their perfect conical shapes seeming like an illustration from a story book rather than something real. But even greater delights are created under the surface; gorgeous warm, bubbling waters, perfect for the tired limbs of a weary travelling. I'd visited two or three thermal pools in Guatemala, but Luna Jaguar beat them hands down. A series of naturally landscaped hot pools of varying temperatures, surrounded by woodlands and paths. Unfortunately my attempts at relaxation were scuppered by the non stop neurotic whitterings of a girl on the tour and my disappointment that Carlos did not join us in his swimming trunks.

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I should have stayed a while in Copan Ruinas, it was a really gentle spot with lots of things to see and do. But such was my need to press on that at 4.30am on day three I was sitting on a bus ( a proper bus!) waiting for its departure for La Entrada, attempting to make a connection to Santa Rosa, Neuva Ocotopeque and then the border! Whilst this was a highly abnormal speed for Nora, it had to be accepted with good grace. The journey was was through gloriously green mountain scenery, my companions on the bus were delighful, kind and generous and I was a silly sausage to be leaving Honduras so soon.

Posted by noratheexplorer 07:16 Archived in Honduras Tagged honduras pupusas copan_ruinas Comments (0)

Lago de Atitlan

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My last ten days in Guatemala were spent in the villages surrounding the beautiful Lake Atitlan. The lake is eleven miles by four, surrounded by three perfect conically shaped volcanoes and beautifully lush, despite it still being in the highlands. Given the frequency of robberies on the roads surrounding the lake, the preferred mode of travel, even for locals, is by small boats called Lanchas. Before noon, the waters are very calm and the journey from village to village is magical. After noon it's a different story.

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While the natural beauty of the area is probably its biggest draw, for me, what drew me there was the different characters of the lakeside villages and the promise of locals still wearing traditional dress. The Highland Maya of Guatemala are famed as the most colourfully costumed in the Americas. While traditional native dress has disappeared in many parts of the world, Guatemala remains a place where a high percentage of the indigenous people still proudly wear their traditional dress called traje. Having travelled widely in Asia, seeing people in traditional dress is no big deal. In Asia, as was the case in Mexico, it is often only the really poor who remain dressed in the traditional form. Once money or any sense of prospect arrives, western fashion becomes king. What I respected about many of the Mayans I had already seen in Guatemala was that, rather than giving up their traditional dress as they 'progressed' many adapted their clothing to the modern modern lives they lead. Thus in Quetzaltenango, office workers paired their traditional skirt with a pair of kitten heels and a white shirt or cardigan, thus referencing both their traditional village identity and theirs identity as women in a modern workforce. I admired that.

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What I hadn't realised was that each piece of the Maya traje is specific to the village, or the language group the person originates from. So, a woman from Nebaj will wear an outfit with certain styles, colours, patterns or embellishments that will enable people from a hundred kilometres away to know where she is from Nebaj rather than Cotzal. Wowee. Apparently this system was originally devised by the Spanish colonists to distinguish one village from another. However what is crucial to understanding its continuance is that for Mayan people, their community identity far supersedes their individual identity. I guess that because I was interested, i got to be able to recognise a few from around the regions I travelled in. The guys above are from a village called Todos Santos Cuchumatan, much further north in the highlands, famed for many things including the striking dress of their men folk. By the way, of all the lovely photos of people in this chapter, only the two of the men in cowboy hats were taken by me. I'm just not comfortable taking pictures without asking people's permission, which means I return home with very few people shots.

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My first port of call was the village of San Marcos, home to legions of foreigners of an artistic and spiritual persuasion who perceive the place to have an energy that is conducive to creativity and healing. The higgledy piggledy lower village is crammed packed with centres for meditation, yoga, alternative therapies and all things esoteric. As a committed tree hugger, the offer of alternative therapies for a fraction of their cost in Europe was a very exciting one. So, within an hour of arriving I had myself booked for a wide variety of reasonably 'way out' treatments, all of which turned out to be fantastic. In the spirit of self nurturance, I checked out of my shabby first night accommodation and checked into the budget section of a rather cool, boutique Eco- hotel, where the joy of rolling around in crisp white cotton sheets was heavenly. Breakfast was also a bit of an occasion; tropical fruit, freshly brewed coffee,free range eggs, croissants served on a little terrace overlooking the lush gardens. I met such lovely people there, breakfast chats lasted right up to midday, after which I would excuse myself for a lie down, before heading out to my afternoon treatment. Oh it can be a hard life.

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Next stop was San Pedro La Laguna. San Pedro has the reputation of the party place on the lake, but I was there to say hello to my old classmate from the language school i attended in Mexico. For those of you interesting in learning spanish, the rates in Guatemala are even cheaper than in Mexico. I just googled some of the schools and their rates. Honestly, you can get twenty hours of one on one spanish classes, plus accommodation and all meals with a local family for a grand total of.... Less than a hundred quid a week. Was I tempted? I'm afraid not, it sounded too much like hard work, although of course I regret it now. It was nice being in San Pedro; I bumped into a load of people I knew as soon as I stepped off the boat and it was nice to check in with Brooke again, but it was not my sort of place.

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And then it was time to hit Santiago Atitlan, the largest and most workaday of the lake villages. Climbing off the lancha I was immediately set upon by a host of rather aggressive local women, laden with tourist goodies they were determined to sell me. They were something else and I as I walked up to where i was staying, I found the place a bit too pushy for my liking. So I did what I always do in times of confusion of stress, go for a snooze. After dark (after six in this part of the world), Santiagao was a different place. The smoky streets, bumper to bumper with stalls selling tacos, roasted chicken and sweet corn on a stick. People chatting, going to and from church, looking for a bargain while picking through the piles of second hand clothes, unceremoniously dumped on plastic dust sheets in the middle of the square. I plonked myself down in the middle of them, nibbling on this and that, offering things around, smiling. It was lovely. Once again I breathe a sigh of relief to find a spot where tourism is present yes, but not in an obtrusive way. The outfits were wonderful. Asides from the distinctive fabric the skirts were made of, it seemed that embroidered birds were another one of the identifying markers of the wearer being from Santiago. I was especially impressed by how the men dressed. Knee length white shorts with thick vertical stripes, red cumberband, white shirt, leather jacket and cowboy hat. I found them quite dashing, this blend of traditional and modern, and cowboy hats have always done it for me! The older men in full length trousers were even funkier, the lower third of the leg being embroidered with the same little birds as the women have on their hupiles.

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Posted by noratheexplorer 10:45 Archived in Guatemala Tagged guatemala santiago_atitlan san_marcos lake_atitlan Comments (0)

The joys of travelling on chicken buses

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One of the most iconic images of Central America is the chicken bus. Basically a chicken bus is a a retired American school bus; individualised, tarted up with bright colours and driven at full throttle, belching fumes, through the mean and pot holed streets of Central America. Apparently the chicken bit is a reference to the number of people crammed onboard, like chickens in a crate.

I had been told many times that it wasn't safe to travel on these buses, one of the sternest warnings coming from an American Paediatrician who I met on the Camino. She was a regular visitor to Guatemala, being a long term volunteer at one of the hospitals and also having adopted a son . Curious as to what was the big deal, I checked out a few websites. To be fair a few mentioned nothing whilst another few mentioned violent muggings ,assaults and rape. Lovely. From having travelled in South America I also knew the risk of being pick pocketed or having your bag slashed. And then the small issue of un- road worthy buses, maniac drivers and pot holed roads. This was all a huge drag. I have many years of travelling under my belt and have rarely given a second thought to issues of safety. Yet in Mexico and now Central America, it seemed like even clearing your throat came with a danger warning. In situations like this my natural tendency is to rebel, but I had reluctantly made promises to people that I would behave myself and refrain from taking unnecessary risks. Gggrrrhhh.

So, it was a wise, mature and safety conscious Jane that made her first two Guatemalan journeys by tourist shuttle bus. A tourist shuttle bus is a bashed up old minibus which takes backpackers crammed like sardines in a can, from one tourist spot to another touristy spot, charging them about six times the going rate for the privilege. For me, the physical discomfort of such a journey was considerable, but paled into insignificance to the mental anguish of having to listen to inane backpacker conversations for hours on end.

Where have you been? Where did you stay? Where are you going? Where are you going to stay? Yawn. They all went to the same places, stayed in the same places, did the same things, had the same bloody accountancy degrees for gods sake.The conversations were so dull, but they were told by young people with such a sense of their own importance I was flabbergasted. Despite being shuttled from one hostel to another, taking nothing but organised trips and hanging out only with other backpackers (who had the same haircuts and wore the same clothes as they did), they spoke with the authority of Christopher Colombus or Marco Polo. Age was definitely bound up within this dynamic. I've heard a number of people say that as they get older, they seem to become invisible to others, especially younger people. On this current trip I really did get that sense, that if you were over thirty you were deemed to be of no interest and generally ignored. At times I accepted this dynamic, took a deep breath and smiled a wise smile to myself. At other times I behaved like a brat, butting my way into a conversation with a "when I was in an earthquake on the tibetan plateau" or "when I was in Zaire in 1992" And then returned to staring out the window. The smile I gave to myself might not have been a wise one, but I certainly gained much pleasure from it.

No doubt you are wondering where this rant is this leading to. Fear not, is leading to me making an important decision. The decision is to either buy a small gun for my next journey, enabling me to exterminate each backpacker as they annoy me, or, take a chicken bus. Soooo, a few days later I stood by the side of the road in Antigua, feeling a tad nervous about what was about to unfold.

Three smoke belching chicken buses were heading my direction, all had destinations painted on the front none of which resembled where i wanted to go to. I stood rooted to the spot, mouth ajar, exuding incompetence. Then, like a mirage, I saw a young man descend from the bus and run towards me. He grabs my rucksack and runs off with it (no mean feat, it weighed a ton) gesturing that I close my gob, pick up some speed and get on the bus. I break into a trot, catch up with the bus and manage to hawk myself up the steps, clamber through the crowds and find myself a few centimetres of seat to sit on. A minute later the lad reappears with a wad of tickets. I ask him if he is going to Quetzaltenango (say that when you've had a few drinks). miraculously he says yes. When I ask where my bag might be, he tells me its on the roof. Phew. I relax into the scene; Guatemalan people of all shapes and sizes, lots of smiles and not a backpacker in sight, then I relax some more. Very soon a buzz kicks in, it feels like I have broken free, that anything is possible now, that my adventure is beginning. Forty five minutes later I hear some whistling. The lad up the front is waving at someone to get off. No one moves and I wonder what is going on. Then I realise it is me he is waving at, it's me who has to get off. What the hell is going on? I clamber over bodies to get to the top of the bus, where, in pigeon Spanish and sign language I learn that the bus only goes part of the way to Quetzaltenango. I must get off here and get on another bus. Dazed and confused I jump off the bus which is still moving. Once I hit the ground I panic about my rucksack, oh my god it was taking off without me! Of course by the time I took breath, yer man was beside me, rucksack in hand. then within a millisecond the bag was on the road and he had sped off to catch up with the bus. I hardly had time to scratch my head before I spotted another young one hurtling towards me. Quetzaltenango I said? Yes he nodded. I knew what would happen now; I ran to the front door and threw myself onboard, he ran to the back of the bus,delicately climbed up the ladder, tied my rucksack to the rails on the roof, came down the ladder, in through the back door and got out his book of tickets. All this when the bus was hurtling at a speed of knots.

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Early into this second leg of my journey, a rather slick looking Guatemalan stood up in the middle of the isle. Their was an air of polish about him; sunglasses, slicked back hair, a crisp white shirt with three pens in the top pocket. As the bus hurtled he stood erect, delivering an impassioned speech with a look of utter seriousness and sincerity. I paid him little attention, assuming he was an evangelical preacher, albeit a preacher with sunglasses. Ten minutes later he reaches for his carpet bag and I assume he is reaching for bibles or religious pamphlets. Instead, what is removed from the bag are small boxes of Korean Ginseng Tea. As if he has just pulled a rabbit out of a hat, he holds a big box at chest level whilst delivering further dramatic orations. As his sermon builds to the finale, each passenger person is handed a sample of three wrapped tea bags to examine. When finally the drama is over, no one wants to part with their tea bags. He sells out. Every god damn tea bag. What a pro.

The second salesman that day also had the white shirt with pens in the top pocket, but in my opinion he didn't have class. He obviously had gone to the same salesman school as the previous boyo, delivering the same dramatic oration with a look of 100% sincerity. Like previously, it was twenty minutes into his sermon before he whipped out his prop, this time it was a photo album containing pictures of people with terrible skin diseases, mutilated limbs and general gore. I was intrigued as to what he was going to try and sell us. It ended up it was a small pot of white cream, of the sudacream variety. He only sold a few, I felt a bit sorry for him. But the best performance was yet to come. Salesman number three was flogging a multi-purpose grater. He didn't need to do much talking, instead he stood crammed in between bodies as the buses lurched around bends, while he demonstrated grating carrots, cabbages and other vegetables. The passengers beside him were sprinkled with grated vegetables. They said nothing of course, the Guatemalans are ever so polite. I could feel the excitement in the bus, all those housewives who sensed this grater could change their lives forever. I would have bought one myself had there been room in my rucksack. Needless to say he did very very well.

All in all I had five changes of bus that day. Each one was a delight. The last bus even had a mega sound system on board; the overhead metal bag racks rattling to the sound of a base heavy J Lo dance mix. I was a total convert to chicken buses, how had I ever managed without them? Throughout my time in Guatemala they provided me with cheap efficient travel, often with built in entertainment of the local variety. The ticket boyos always watched out for me and despite numerous changes of buses, I always got to where I was going with ease and without a trace of anxiety. I felt safe and was safe. Fantastico! Such precious memories.

That first chicken bus journey proved to be a real turning point in my travels. I think I already said that I got a huge surge of, well I don't know what the right word is, but it's something between freedom, liberation and total inspiration. It's a feeling that anything is possible and that travelling around a strange country is the most wonderful, exhilarating gift a girl could ever wish for. There have been times in my travels around Asia and the Middle East when this feeling had been with me, almost as a constant companion, but that hadn't been the case for Mexico and Central America so far. While I'd had a lovely time, I could count on one hand the number of times I'd felt a little glimpse of that magic. But it arrived on that first chicken bus and came visiting many other times during the remainder of my stay in Guatemala.

Despite its reasonably drab appearance and its Arctic night time temperatures, I really liked Quetzaltenango. It seemed like a town that was proud of itself and had no need to wholeheartedly succumb to the seduction of Americanisation and tourism. I loved having breakfast at one of the little breakfast carts close to the main square. I never quite knew what was going to be served up to me, although the beverage was always the same, a warm concoction of milk and rice, like watery rice pudding! I would sit on a little plastic stool wrapped up like an Eskimo; filling my tummy, watching the world become clear as the morning mist evaporated and amusing myself with the goings on of the locals busying themselves for the coming day. I felt like the luckiest girl in the world.

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High on a hilltop overlooking Queltzaltenango is the small town of San Francisco El Alto, whose Friday market is regarded as the biggest and most authentic in the country. Sadly, being 'authentic' can often lead to small and special places becoming over run with bus loads of tourists armed with large cameras and a total lack of respect for the people they are photographing. It is one of the many examples of tourism becoming a toxic force in some communities in the developing world. And I do not exempt myself from being part of this process. So it was with trepidation that I approached San Francisco one cool misty morning. The market spread out for miles on a high, windy, dusty plain. Cloth, hupiles, pigs, plastic buckets, cowboy hats, goats, pot scrubbers, plastic sandals, all strewn, higgledy piggledy style, on the dusty soil. The bright light of the high altitude both intensified the strong colour and made everything else look bleached. It was glorious, really reminding me of the markets on the high plateaus of Yunnan province in South West China. I wandered around and around, did a bit of bartering for some cloth,drank something resembling tea in a filthy dirty little stall and prayed to the Mayan gods that I wouldn't have to pay the consequences.

Posted by noratheexplorer 06:15 Archived in Guatemala Tagged san francisco guatemala el alto quetzaltenango Comments (0)

Hello Guatemala

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To tell you the truth, I wasn't expecting too much from Guatemala. I had read that the Guatemalans were quite a reserved bunch, sometimes coming across as unfriendly plus I also had an inkling that the food wasn't up to much. Given that people and food are central to my enjoyment of a country and culture, i wasn't feeling particularly inspired when I waved bye bye to Belize.

When I crossed the border it was really evident I had entered a developing country. Signs of poverty were all around; women washing clothes in muddy streams and puddles, welly boot wearing men riding mules and scrawny horses, vendors popping up at every opportunity, trying to sell you everything but the kitchen sink. I have no doubt that the wealth of a country is directly correlated to how much effort you have to make to buy something. When you are in a rich country and you want, say, a can of coke, a toothbrush, a chicken or an industrial sized cheese grater, you have to go looking for him. Not in poor countries. In those countries the aforementioned items and many many others will be offered to you as you walk along the street, sit in a cafe, wait on a bus, queue up for the loo or go to church. So sitting in a crowded minibus that first day, items that were passed through the window and then through the bus were food, drink, books, socks, a transistor radio, lots of family sized tubes of Colgate toothpaste, some implement to do with horses, saucepans.... The list could go on. The vendor will initially fix you with a hard stare, shake the product in front of you and then look at you expectantly. When you offer a smile, a no thank you with a head shake to emphasis the no, you are looked at in an incredulous way. Surely you are not refusing, passing up the golden opportunity to buy the set of five tin saucepans. They must be mistaken about your intention. And so they begin shaking the saucepans again, a bit more loudly incase you didn't get it the first time. You shake your head, they shake the pans. After about five goes of this I am no long amused. Welcome to the developing world.

During those first few days in Guatemala, the other striking thing was the number of domesticated animals everywhere. Rather unusually, their favoured location seemed to be the middle of the road. Chickens, lots and lots of pigs, horses and mules, dogs and rather surprisingly turkeys, seemed to have a rather nice life of just hanging out with each other. Activities for the day included going for a walk, finding things to eat, sunning themselves and emptying their bladders on regular occasions. For excitement, two main activities prevailed, refusing to move from the middle of the road whilst a car hurtled towards them (forcing the car to swerve) or, finding a dog or turkey to have a fight with. I am unaware of the of psychology of turkeys, but i would hazard a guess they have anger management issues. It all seemed rather nice to me. In fact Guatemalan life seemed very nice to me.

Much to my delight, most of my travels took me to small places in the countryside, something I had been craving my entire time in Mexico. My first few nights were spent in the lakeside village of El Remate, a quiet little gathering of houses and small subsistence farms just off a lake. The famous Mayan Ruins of Tikal were not too far away, so the local people were accustomed to the odd scruffy looking traveller wandering past their front door. When I was able to lever myself out of the very comfy hammock in my BnB, I would wander through the little lanes and be absolutely charmed by the gaggle of chickens and piglets squabbling over something edible by the front gate, the granddad bent over something in the vegetable garden, the women having a bit of gossip over something in the porch. Wherever I go in the world I am charmed by scenes like these, people, just living their lives. Maybe what is different to life in northern Europe is the strict boundary between indoors and outdoors is not there, people do not live their lives behind a closed front door. The usual western boundary between animals and humans is also absent. They do not live behind gates or in a pen, they live a life entangled with humans. I like that. The people were lovely too; kind and gentle and welcoming, with a little wave or a smile.

After my evening ramblings I would return to the hammock with a can of Gallo, a Guatemalan beer that tastes of watery urine. I would swig and slurp and try not to think about the taste while listening to the terrible singing from the Kingdom Hall next door. The first time I heard such singing I assumed someone with anti-social tendencies had been bought a karaoke machine for their birthday. However after a while I notice a pattern; the terrible tuneless singing would be followed by a long speech, followed by frenzied clapping followed by more terrible singing. This would go on for hours, not every night, but almost every night. Whilst I knew that Evangelical Christianity was the whole rage in Central America I had somehow imagined the whole scene would be a bit more glamorous; people dressed in their Sunday best, choirs of robed singers, voices in unison. I think I got it wrong.

My next place of rest was the village of Lanquin, close to the famed natural wonder of Samuc Champey, a place a thousand times remoter and harder to get to than El Remate. So imagine my surprise when, after about eighteen hours of travel, I check into the only accommodation in the village and find myself surrounded by swarms of pissed and stoned backpackers, average age, nineteen and a half. And that was at 3 in the afternoon. I was duly informed that Zephyr Lodge was a party hostel and that all would be done to make sure I had a good time time. Oh dear God, what had i stumbled in to? To observers I no doubt looked absolutely horrified. I would say that fear, dread and utter panic were the most pronounced emotions I felt when i was told they only had space for me in the dorm. But somehow a miracle was performed and, for the price of the honeymoon suite in the Hilton Dubai, I was given a concrete square box called a room, which contained a bed and a curtain less window. it was also about ten minutes walk from the loo and shower area. But I am under selling it. It had an amazing view, a view which was sadly obscured by the torrential rain and mist which had been accompanying me on my journey for at least a week. I was royally pissed off. I couldn't face going out exploring as the weather was so ghastly and the whole village was knee deep in mud, as a brief glance at my rucksack, shoes and trousers would tell. So I sat in my cold, uncomfortable and depressing room and stewed until the appointed time for dinner. When I arrived, the party games had mercifully finished and the after dinner drinking games has not yet begun. I was faced by a mass of humanity; a total of 47 others, 46 of whom were completely engrossed in their own and each others gorgeousness, while being completely off their faces. It set my teeth on edge. Normally I would feel a bit left out and all insecure about being on my owneyo. But this time no, I was incensed. And so I sat up at the bar, facing the mob with my head held high. Of course no one noticed.

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The whole point in coming to Lanquin was to visit some of the 'really unique natural wonders' of the area', as they say in the guidebooks. So the next morning I jumped into a pick up truck and begin a tour with five other travellers. Two go in the truck with the driver and guide, myself and three others stand in the back, getting completely drenched by the rain and holding onto the bars for dear life. The road was not paved which made for a perilous ride, but despite the misery of the previous few days i was surprised to find myself laughing at being drenched to the skin and thrown about in the back of the truck. The road couldn't really be called a road and with all the water and mud everywhere I guess it felt a bit crazy, a bit wild, certainly exhilarating. It felt bloody good. After about 90 minutes of corkscrew bends we arrived at our first stop, the KAn'Ba caves.

Without ceremony we disrobe and emerge at the ticket gate wearing our swimming things and trainers. Not a pretty sight. Our guide hands us a white tapered candle. It will burn for one hour, long enough to explore a small part of the Kan’Ba River Cave, which extends fifteen kilometres underground. I gingerly step down the stones and into the cave, where cool water reaches my ankles. Jeepers it's cold! Am I going to be able to do this? I wade into into darkness, giggling, just a candle’s flame to light the way. The water quickly rises higher and higher until I am swimming, holding my candle aloft with one hand and paddling with the other. I am grinning from ear to ear, I cant believe I am doing this. Incredible formations surround me - stalactites and stalagmites, ripples and ribbons. Then I am out of the water; ladders and ropes help with the ascent and descent of steep and slippery segments of the rock. Then I'm back in the water again. I wade, swim, and climb my way into to a deep pool with a jumping ledge. Most of the other climb onto the ledge and jump in. There is absolutely no way I am going to do that, I am perfectly at home with being a chicken, but it is nice that another girl from Glasgow is chicken with me. More thrills are in store when we begin the journey back to the cave opening. At one point we we have to fall through a narrow gap between rocks, it's like being at the top of the waterside in a waterpark, I have to lie back, cross my arms across my chest and let the water take me down. I try to stop myself thinking about the slide being made of rock rather than plastic. I try to stop myself from remember the lectures i attended on brain injury. My nerves are slowly unravelling. My candle has gone out and I am swimming in the dark. But then we are back at the entrance. It is over, I cant believe what I've just done. I'm also completely relieved. One of the joys of travelling is that you take risks that you never ever would in your normal life. Health and safety is a dirty word.

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Then it was time for Semuc Champey. The pictures say it all really. First you climb to the mirador and get the tantalising view of the stepped turquoise pools. Then you climb down and climb in. The pools are shallow and warm and stunningly turquoise. There are lots of tiny little fish in them which nibble at your feet and make you feel all tickly. At this point the rain stopped and the sun came out and everyone felt very very happy. Fun was had descending down through the pools. They are limestone and very slippy, hence you might be perched on one, gingerly trying to edge your way down to the next one when whoosh, you were off. And thus began many comedic descents into the lower pools. It was lovely to be with a group; to share the gasps of seeing Semuc for the first time, to giggle at the fish nibbling our feet, to look at each other and know we were all privileged in being there

Posted by noratheexplorer 04:45 Archived in Guatemala Tagged guatemala lanquin el_remate samuc_champey Comments (1)

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