Saturday 20 August 2011

I Don't Belize It!

Belize it or not, despite my last entry appearing barely two weeks ago, I've traversed three countries in the interim: exiting Guatemala, travelling through Belize, and finishing up on The Bay Islands in Honduras. This quick interchange through nations isn't something I've been used to on this trip - it took over a month to cover only half of Mexico and I ended up staying in Guatemala for nearly seven weeks. In comparison, I only spent four nights in Belize (although this didn't stop me from using the same terrible pun in the title and first line of this blog - I apologise for this now...).

There are a few reasons I rushed through Belize. It's the smallest country in Central America for a start (about the same size as Wales) but also the most expensive. The Belizean dollar always sits at 2 to 1 with the US dollar, and prices are about the same proportionately - a dorm bed here costs at least US$10, whereas you'll often spend US$3 in Guatemala and never more than US$5. I quickly realised that Belize would have to be a short term destination if I wanted to stay on budget.

Hostel doorstep on Caye Caulker
The money in Belize also provides a further insight into the distinct differences between this special little country and its neighbouring nations. Regardless of value, the use of the dollar hints at the closer political and social ties with North America, but the strangest thing for me was seeing the portrait that adorns every Belizean note and coin; the Queen's head - exactly the same as the UK (actually a much younger version of the old gal - the locals were very shocked to hear that 'Her Highness' is actually well into her 80's). It was oddly comforting to see our familiar figurehead again, and this small detail reveals the primary reason for Belize's obvious 'distance' from the rest of Central America. The Spaniards may have had control of all other CAm nations during colonial times, but the British managed to hold power in Belize (and with an iron grip - 'British Honduras' only gained independence in late 1981, changing to Belize in the process). As a result, the Latin influences that permeate the rest of Central America - leaving their mark on everything; the language, cuisine, music, lifestyle - are conspicuously absent in Belize. Instead, English is the official language here (although most inhabitants speak amongst themselves in a form of Creole). You may assume that travelling in an English-speaking country would be a welcome relief after all the Spanish communication required in Mexico and Guatemala. However, with the preference for Creole I often found it harder to understand the locals here, and found myself pining for a return to Spanish.

Another legacy left by the British is the genetic make-up of the population - especially where I was travelling, along the coast. Many of the people here are descended from Africans who were originally transported to the region as slaves. It was a real culture shock to be suddenly surrounded by tall, black people after the comparatively midget Maya population in Mexico.

The coastal regions of Belize feel more like a Caribbean island than the edge of Latin America: dread-locked Rastafarians wander the streets, adorned in green, yellow and red, some tending BBQ's offering Jerk Chicken, Rice & Beans, others just enjoying reggae at unhealthy volumes for extended periods of time (i.e. all day). Throw in an endless supply of rum and coke and you've got a real beachside Caribbean paradise, and all only a 2 hour drive from the Guatemalan border. Although these vibes don't quite reach every corner of the country - the south west, for example, retains a largely Mayan population, complete with ancient ruins and mountainous terrain - the dominant feel is definitely Caribbean. I've never before been welcomed to a country by a border guard declaring, "Enjoy yourself, man".

Although I did undoubtedly follow these instructions, I still felt a desire to return to the more Spanish CAm cultures - in which I'd been existing for the previous 2 1/2 months and as such felt like 'home'. I missed the Latin flavours and definitely felt a little guilty speaking no Spanish, especially after all the effort I'd invested in learning the language during my time in Guatemala. I didn't want to lose my new found linguistic skills (of which I still only have a tentative hold) and this, coupled with the increase in price and my need to actually get moving on this trip, fuelled my rapid progress through Belize.

Chilled hostel on Caye Caulker
My first (and only real) stop in the country was Caye Caulker. The coastline of Belize is peppered with Cayes - small islands (pronounced 'keys') - and Caye Caulker is the most popular. Only a couple of miles long and 1/4 mile wide, that doesn't stop it accommodating every type of traveller: from frugal backpackers to 'money is no object' all inclusive package holiday US vacationers. Fortunately, the development of the island infrastructure has been relatively restrained and intelligently executed; providing all the necessities - hotels, shops, internet cafes, restaurants, bars - while still retaining its laid back charm (possibly assisted by the impressive quantities of marijuana consumed by the rasta-locals).

The lack of any real beach is compensated by the abundance of marine life along the reef, just off the coast. On a half-day snorkelling trip, we were not only treated to a sparkling, coral-filled underwater kingdom, but also waded about in the shoulder-height shimmering Caribbean sea as four fully-grown Nurse Sharks and scores of giant Manta Rays glided around and between our legs - an experience that can't be repeated in many other places.

I'd been hanging out with another English guy, Alex, since Guatemala; each afternoon we greeted the returning fishermen on the dock, and each evening we feasted on incredibly succulent 'as-fresh-as-it-gets' home-cooked fish.

However, I conspired to make my time on the Caye a little less pleasant by venturing out on a badly-judged and ill-informed run around the island at sunset. Turns out it's not actually possible to circumnavigate the whole island and if you try you just end up in a mosquito-infested swamp: not a fun place to be at dusk, topless, without insect repellent. End result: around 100 incredibly irritating mosquito bites (although this did provide an extra excuse to drink more rum and spend more time lying in hammocks).

Sunrise on Caye Caulker
After three nights in Caye Caulker I started making tracks towards Honduras. First stage of my convoluted journey was a short boat trip to Belize City - quite possibly the dodgiest dwelling I've been to on the travels so far. Not a pretty place and home to plenty of shifty characters. I was a little nervous about spending any time here, especially alone, even if it was only for a trip from the ferry port to the bus station. Once I'd arrived at the National Bus Terminal (more of a wooden bus shack) and realised I had a good 45 minute wait, this uneasiness increased somewhat. Suddenly, a random old man appeared at my side, declaring, "You can't get no tickets here", expanding after he noticed my dumb look, "You gotta buy on the bus". Often when travelling, there is a certain level of alarm when someone approaches you for no obvious reason (even in a helpful manner) - 'What's their motivation for this approach?', 'What exactly do they want'. To be honest, a frequent suspicion is that they want money. This may sound like a hugely negative and presumptuous attitude, but it's something that happens very regularly, especially in the poorest areas. As such, I was slightly apprehensive about entering into any sort of exchange with this guy, even more so when his next statements were, "I'm waiting here because I gotto go court" and "My wife died down south two days ago, but I can't afford to get there".

"Here we go", I thought; the sorry routine, closely followed by a request for money.... but that request never came. Instead, this guy just sat with me and talked: about the country; the culture; colonisation; independence; crime problems. Before I knew it my bus had arrived (I actually didn't notice - my new friend had to notify me and then proceeded to escort me to the boarding area). Once I was safely aboard, he waved goodbye - with no awkwardness, no enquiries about money, no problems - and wandered off into town (presumably to court...).

It may not seem like much, but this was one of the loveliest random local encounters I've ever had while travelling - so genuine, interesting, helpful and unexpected. Even lovelier for the fact that I was alone, in a dangerous place, with everything I currently own, and not really sure what I was doing. My time with this OAP in shining armour was a great comfort and an important reminder that there are people everywhere, even in the world's most dangerous spots, that genuinely want to converse with and be of assistance to foreigners. Obviously it's foolish to be too complacent and over-trusting, but at the same time there's no reason to be overly suspicious of everyone (as many travellers - including myself - sometimes are). It's wise to use your common sense and avoid situations that clearly put you at risk, but don't move around with your guard constantly up. Do so and you'll miss out on experiences, encounters and conversations that will be among the most important and memorable of your trip.

Feeling a lot better about the rest of my solo journey through Belize, I headed 4 hours south to the coastal town of Placencia; arriving in the early afternoon with plenty of time to kill before the following day's ferry to Honduras.

Low-key Police Station on Caye Caulker
Placencia is an odd place; obviously earmarked as the next hotspot for Western expats, scores of huge mansions are currently under construction just north of town - many situated just off the beach and with man-made waterways flowing between the buildings. After this, you enter a shanty town of sorts that's occupied by many of the locals. The contrast is sharp and forced and I can't really see how the two communities will be able to integrate and empathise with one another. Closer to the dock, there are numerous hotels, shops and charming little cafes (mostly run by expats) but a distinct lack of any tourists. It was like a ghost town when I arrived - granted, it was the hottest part of the day and not particularly high season, but with all the tourist infrastructure you'd expect to see at least a couple of sunburnt foreigners. Possibly this is all just great foresight and advanced preparation and you'll soon be hearing about Placencia as the newest must-visit holiday destination... watch this space!

For me, and a rag-tag dozen or so other travellers, it was just a necessary stopover for the morning ferry departure. We were across the border (my first ever international sea crossing!) and docked on the Northern coast of Honduras by early afternoon the next day. It was still far from the end of the journey though: a further 2 hour taxi ride, 5 hour bus trip, another stopover in La Ceiba. and one more early morning ferry crossing were required to finally reach The Bay Islands. By the time I touched down on Utila, the total time elapsed since leaving Caye Caulker worked out at 52 hours: quite a trek!

Still, I was glad to have done it - it's great to be able to continue enjoying the exquisite Caribbean sea, and The Bay Islands are known for being the cheapest place in the world to learn to Scuba Dive. I've actually just completed my PADI Open Water course, but will save my magical experiences in this new-found underwater kingdom for the next blog.

Wrapping up Guatemala

So far I've only discussed my quick 5 day swing through Belize, and there's been no mention of my last two 'post-Xela' weeks in Guatemala. I realise this blog has already reached a 'healthy' length, so this would be a good point for a tea break :) and keep things brief from here on.

Luckily, my final couple of weeks in Guatemala were fairly lethargic, and only three distinct locations were explored after my 5 wonderful weeks in Xela - Lago de Atitlan, Lanquin and Flores.

San Pedro La Laguna
Lago de Atitlan is a picturesque lake (about 130km in surface area) surrounded by small towns and towering volcanoes. Panajachel is the largest settlement on the lake and a bit of a tourist trap. As such, I headed straight over to San Pedro La Laguna instead - a much smaller lakeside village known for being very cheap and very chilled-out, perfect! It turns out this 'chill-factor' is largely a result of the prolific level of marijuana consumption by tourists and locals alike - something they don't mention in the guide book....

It was very pleasant to spend a few days lounging in hammocks, kayaking around the lake, and knocking back rum and cokes at 3 for 1 pound every evening. I met a fun group at the hostel too - a couple of English girls and an Aussie couple - and we ended up travelling the rest of Guatemala together.

Our penultimate stop was Lanquin, which may be my favourite place of the whole trip so far (I can't say for sure though - there are too many options!). This was a little unexpected; as far as I was aware beforehand, Lanquin was just somewhere to stay for a couple of nights in order to reach the famed Guatemalan water attractions at Semuc Champey. The hostel we stayed at - Zephyr Lodge - made it so much more, though....

Zephyr Lodge
From the moment we arrived - trekking up a random hill at 11pm, blindly heading towards music and lights in the distance, only to be greeted by a party in full swing (literally, people were swinging from the rafters) - we knew we'd stumbled into somewhere special. The morning confirmed this suspicion: the lodge is perched on top of a hill, allowing 360 degree views over the surrounding valleys - lush, green, and beautiful - and the river that dissects them. The owners have secured one of the best hotel spots in the world, and managed to construct tastefully-designed accommodations that blend into the surrounding environment while still providing beds for over 50 bodies. The night-time party atmosphere is fuelled by the well-stocked onsite bar and restaurant, but everything is located far enough away from the main village so as not to disturb the locals.

During our extended stay here we spent one day at Semuc Champey. This is the place that everyone tells you you have to visit during your time in Guatemala... and they're not wrong. Semuc is a 300m long natural limestone bridge that traverses the raging waters of the Rio Cahabon; which flow under the bridge, before appearing and churning again, at the other end. All this occurs in a beautiful, secluded, forested setting. The bridge has created a series of perfect pools that contain cool, calm, swimmable water; shifting from azure blue, to turquoise, and finally to emerald green as it flows between the pools - a refreshing paradise in the middle of nowhere.

Semuc Champey
The nearby 'Grutas de Lanquin' provide even more entertainment. A water-filled cave system reaching several kilometres into the earth, the rivers inside are so deep that everyone has to swim - holding candles above their heads to light the way. There were about 20 of us on this visit; the multiple candles caused a golden shimmer across the water and cast a ghostly glow onto the solid walls and bemused faces of the candle-carriers. Looking back down the line of half-submerged bodies, it felt like some sort of ancient, pagan procession as we slowly made our way through the caves - swimming, climbing internal waterfalls and jumping from ledges into deep puddles of freezing water.

The end point in Guatemala for all of us was Flores - a tiny town floating on a small island in the middle of a lake (only reachable via the bridge from the mainland). Most travellers spend one night here in order to reach the nearby Mayan ruins of Tikal in time for their 6am opening. We were no exception to this rule, and were up at 4.30am on our first morning, ready for a guided tour around the complex. I've spoken before about my natural dislike of tour groups, but this time it was worth taking a guide. The buildings at Tikal number over 3000 and are spread across a huge area (16 sq. km). Our guide knew the best route to take in order to see all the main structures, and at the best time of the day (i.e. fewer other tourists).

We certainly got our moneys worth as well: the tour lasted almost five hours, with unlimited time at the end to explore more on your own. It was during these lone wanderings that I encountered dozens of Howler Monkeys - swinging through the trees just above my head. I developed a bit of a simian obsession during my trip through South East Asia in 2008/9 and I still love watching these enchanting animals in the wild. This was something unique to Tikal; it wasn't possibile to see monkeys at most of the other ruin sites I previously visited in Mexico.

The ruins themselves are also superior (in my humble opinion) to many of the Mexican options. The sheer size and scale of the structures (many reaching up above 60m), but also the surrounding jungle environment. The main plazas and temple sites have been largely cleared of vegetation, but the long trails between the ruins have been left at the mercy of the dense jungle: thick with trees, vines and wildlife. All this combines to create a wonderful, lost-world atmosphere, and somewhere I could quite happily wander around for a few days.

From Flores, me and my new-found travelling buddies went our separate ways - they headed north to Mexico, while I went east to Belize (where this blog began - feel free to scroll back up and read again.... :). As I mentioned before, I'm now in my 4th Central American nation, Honduras, and have just finished learning to dive on The Bay Islands. I have many praises to sing about this place already, but I'll save all that for the next entry...

Until then...

(More photos below - click any photo to enlarge)

Caye Caulker

Sunrise on Caye Caulker

Sunrise on Caye Caulker

My feet on Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan


Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey

Jumping into Semuc Champey

Sunset over the lake at Flores

Spider at Tikal


Wildlife at Tikal




Monkeys at Tikal!

Monkeys at Tikal

Monkeys at Tikal

Monday 1 August 2011

Other stuff I done in Xela....

I've finally departed Quetzaltenango; after four full weeks of studying and living there, and two failed attempts to leave in the fifth week, I'm now on the road again.

It was actually a lot harder to leave than I thought it would be (and not just because of the various ailments and injuries I suffered in the last few days). The final walk from my homestay into the centre of town - tracing the same route I'd taken pretty much every day the previous month - brought unexpected pangs of sadness and a real desire to stay longer... just another couple of days. Previously on my travels, I've not often spent much longer than a week or so in a single place, so saying goodbye to Xela felt different. I'd had enough time here to really get to know the city; where to go for the best or cheapest food, coffee and beer, what evenings offered the best nights out, market days in the surrounding villages, how much I should actually be paying for things, and many shortcuts and secrets around the town. With my own house, a school to attend and a temporary family to live with, Xela really felt like home. I also met a lot of great people who made my time here all the more memorable - you know who you are and thanks for the fun times!

I could have quite easily stayed for another five weeks (and beyond) but I still have a long way to go, and knowing that there are countless other incredible places to see, things to do and people to meet, helped me drag myself away from Xela: Adios amigo, fue muy divertido - te extranare!

My last blog was solely dedicated to the trials and tribulations of learning Spanish in Xela, and I didn't have time to mention any of the other activities I got up to during my time here. So, to address that now....

Volcano Climbing

I think I have a problem; something of an addiction. I've developed a slight obsession with scaling volcanoes - every time I see one now I have an urge to conquer it and stand on the summit - which can be difficult to deal with in a country with 30 of these natural wonders crammed into its relatively small landmass.

Base camp at Tajumulco
My problems began on my first week in Xela, when I decided to climb Volcan Tajumulco - at 4222m, the highest peak in Central America. I wasn't alone on this adventure; there were 20-odd other intrepid explorers too, all under the guidance of Quetzaltrekkers - a great, non-profit trekking organisation, run by volunteer guides and with all profits going to local schools and orphanages. I ended up spending quite a lot of time at various Quetzaltrekkers events - mostly parties and hikes - and developed quite a fondness for the organisation (and the people running it too!)

Tackling Tajumulco from Xela requires almost two full days - the first spent on a selection of 'chicken' buses to reach the starting point of the trek, and then climbing for five hours to reach base camp (approx 4000m). The next morning calls for a very early 3.30am start in order to scale the remaining 220m to the summit before sunrise. All in all, very hard work - especially while carrying the multiple layers of thick winter clothing that are required for the top, along with all the other necessities: sleeping bags, tents, food etc. I plotted to make it even harder for myself by swigging a fair amount of rum at base camp - a rather premature celebration and ill-advised behaviour at 4000m when you still have another 220m to climb.

However, sitting on the highest point in Central America, watching the sun slowly illuminate fluffy, candy-floss clouds; all the hard work, sweat and rum-induced altitude delusions were forgotten. Simply stunning; bloody freezing, but stunning.

Breakfast on Santa Maria
My next volcano outing with Quetzaltrekkers was of a completely different variety - an overnight 'full moon' hike to the summit of Xela's nearest peak; Santa Maria. At 'only' 3772m, Santa Maria isn't as tall as Tajumulco, but climbing to the top in one go, in the dark, provided more than enough new challenges to compensate. The path up is a lot steeper than TJ, and some of the 'switchbacks' (where the trail continuously cuts back on itself) seemed to go on forever. Still, with my head down, watching only the feet of the guide in front of me, I kept on trudging upwards, and actually made very good time - reaching the summit about 4.5 hours after our midnight departure. If TJ was 'bloody freezing', Santa Maria at 4.30am was phenomenally-bloody-freezing! Luckily, there was enough time before sunrise to put on every possible item of clothing - fleeces, jackets, hats, gloves - all wrapped up in a thermal sleeping bag.

What a sunrise it was (beating TJ hands down). We were extremely lucky with the weather conditions and the timing of the cloud dispersion; allowing a completely clear view of the sun as it first created a thick orange band across the tips of a distant Eastern mountain range, and then slowly appeared in all its fiery glory above the peaks. I have some great photographs that capture the moment almost as perfectly as when it occurred.

Starting to trek Volcan Chicabal
My final volcano experience in Xela was a solo expedition: I jumped in a minivan heading to the nearby town of San Martin Sacatepequez and, 2 hours later, was dropped off at the foot of Volcan Chicabal. The attraction here is not so much the volcano itself, but the lake - Laguna Chicabal - that has formed in the crater. This is a very sacred site for the Maya; priests and pilgrims make regular visits from all over the country.

Tajumulco trek
As such, I had it in my mind that I was visiting a lake rather than a volcano, and wasn't fully mentally prepared for what turned out to be quite a tough 2 1/2 hour hike. The phrase in the guidebook "Keep walking until you crest the hill" was extremely understated. When I'd finished descending the 615 steep steps down to the holy lake, all the hard work seemed to have been for nothing - a thick mist had descended and visibility was close to zero; I couldn't even see the water's edge. Twenty minutes later, with no improvement, I was ready to give up and trudge, dejectedly, back to town. But then, a small patch of blue penetrated through the gloom.... very gradually, the mist began to lift... and then completely cleared - allowing a few moments of perfect clarity - before rolling back in and encompassing the crater once again. Still, those short few minutes were more than enough time to take in the natural beauty of this wonderfully placid lagoon and I felt very pleased with the eventual success of my first solo trip; snatched from the jaws of seemingly inevitable disappointment. The trip back to Xela was a much happier journey as a result.

My self-assigned volcano-climbing mission has been derailed in the last couple of weeks - thanks to a combination of typical traveller illness and, more recently, a foot injury. However, I'm almost back to full fitness again now and will soon return to my new-found calling - no peak is safe! :)

Village Visiting

Xela is surrounded by a plethora of smaller towns and villages; fanning out in all directions from the much larger city. Each place hosts its own market on a particular day of the week and usually has at least one additional and unique point of interest - whether it be a comic-book church or a rum-swilling saint.

San Andreas church close-up
Hiring a bicycle or jumping on a chicken bus and heading out to one of these 'pueblos' for a half-day trip became another of my regular pastimes. I visited four dwellings of note - San Franciso El Alto, Zunil, Olintepeque and San Andreas Xecul. There were colourful, chaotic markets in full-swing at each of the first three, but the latter only had a church to offer for perusal. So, why did I cycle for over an hour - constantly eating bus fumes and slaloming past rabid dogs along the way - to reach this place? Well, this is no ordinary church. In fact, it's quite possibly the oddest church in the world: daubed with a sickly, bright-yellow facade and covered in crude, child-like carvings of saints, angels, tigers, monkeys, flowers and, of course, a smiling, disembodied head or two. No one is completely sure of the full story behind this structure - who built it, when, and why - but that mysterious past just adds to the allure. It's definitely not everyone's cup of tea though and could probably cause mild damage (visual and/or psychological) if stared at directly for too long.

En-route to Olintepeque
Just down the road from San Andreas is the smaller village of Olintepeque (home to a disappointingly normal church). I was visiting for a different reason, though; every Tuesday morning the village is swamped by inhabitants from the surrounding mountain towns, with their finest livestock in tow, for the weekly cattle market. I wasn't really sure what to expect and some aspects weren't to my liking - some of the more obvious displays of animal cruelty were unpleasant, as was the constant cacophony of squealing pigs as they were packed into crowded pick-ups and sent off to a fate of which they seemed all too aware. Myself and another girl from Xela were the only two 'tourists' to be seen as we navigated through the mud and sludge. It definitely wasn't glamorous, but it was real and allowed us a small window into authentic local life outside the student bubble of Xela.

Looking down on the market in San Francisco
San Francisco El Alto was the largest of the four towns I visited. Every Friday morning it plays host to the biggest general market in Guatemala. There's nothing particularly interesting for sale - mostly wholly unauthentic 'authentic American clothing' - and I had no intention of actually buying anything. However, I did want to witness the sheer size of the market and the overwhelming number of people crammed into every 'calle', every alleyway; every inch of space. It was fun just being part of the mayhem and getting swept along by the tumultuous crowd. I also visited the church - nothing as special as the wonder/monstrosity in San Andreas Xecul - but I'd heard it was possible to climb onto the roof and take in an outstanding 'vista' ('alto' means 'tall' in Spanish and San Francisco El Alto is perched way above Xela, on the top of a mountain). Sure enough, a quick word with the 12-year-old caretaker and a sly 5 quetzal bribe later, I was on top of the highest vantage point in town. Not only did this provide a great spot from which to observe the hubbub of the market below, but it also provided unbeatable panoramic views over the surrounding valleys and towns below.

San Simon & worshippers
My final half-day trip was to the smaller village of Zunil - another hill-side spot about an hour from the centre of Xela. Once again, I timed my visit to coincide with the weekly market - a much smaller affair than SFEA, but definitely the one I preferred. Everything was a lot more authentic; the people, the produce, the clothing - all very local and bursting with colour. My main reason for visiting Zunil, though, was to catch a glimpse of the infamous San Simon - a 'god' of sorts, worshipped throughout the Guatemalan highlands and believed to be a combination of Maya gods, a Spanish conquistador and Judas. Sounds odd already, but things get stranger still: In Zunil, San Simon is in wooden effigy (moved to a different local house every year) draped in scarves, wearing a tie and a cowboy hat, and constantly smoking cigarettes. There are always a couple of local people kneeling at his feet; praying and offering more cigarettes and his favourite brand of rum (which is poured down his open mouth at regular intervals by the adoring guards). Quite a mesmerising spectacle, but not to everybody's taste - my more conventionally Catholic 'house mum' described San Simon as "diabolico".

Hot Springs

Fuentes Georginas
The geography and geology of the hillsides surrounding Xela have combined to create a number of natural hot springs in close proximity to the city. I only found time to visit one of these organic baths, but I chose the most popular and most impressive of the group: Fuentes Georginas.

A number of steaming pools are positioned above hot sulphur vents in a gorgeous setting here - the irresistible 'agua' is framed by lush green vegetation that climbs high up the cliff faces. A recent landslide actually benefited the baths as it opened up a brand new vent; causing the main pool to become almost unbearably hot (almost, but not quite).

Salsa & Football

Enjoying a 'Cervaza Grande' at the Football
Two other activities that helped me pass the time during my five weeks in Xela were salsa and football. I first tried the former on a bit of a whim; knowing that I was going to be dragged to a salsa club later that day, I thought it might be sensible to have a quick lesson first (more to avoid the inevitability of me elbowing someone in the face or falling over my own, or someone else's, feet, rather than to learn any fancy moves). I enjoyed it so much that I actually ended up having five more private classes and strutting my stuff around 'La Parranda' (the Salsa club) every Wednesday evening. 'My stuff' is still a long way off from the 'good dancer' category, but I feel pretty confident that I've left the 'joke' category now, and firmly reside in the 'acceptable (for a Gringo)' camp. It's great fun and I hope to continue to practice and improve along with my Spanish-speaking abilities.

I have also become a follower of 'Xelaju' - the local football team. There were only two home games during my time in the city - and the standard of football often bordered on atrocious - but the atmosphere in the stadium was brilliant (intensified by the apparent lack of any health and safety regulations - check out my two recent videos on facebook to get a better idea of what I mean) and you can't really go wrong with £3.50 for a spot on the terraces and £4 for a replica shirt.

So, that's pretty much it - a summary of the more productive and worthwhile things I got up to outside of lessons during my five weeks of studying in a city that I have come to love. As I said, it was with a heavy heart that I eventually waved 'adios' to Xela, but it had to be done; I have a long way to go yet. The next week or so will be spent travelling around more of Guatemala, then I'll jump across the border into Belize.... and back to the Caribbean beaches! Something that might help me get over leaving Xela, I suppose.... :)

(Many, many more photos below.... click to enlarge!)

Start of Tajumulco trek

Close to the top of Tajumulco

VERY cold on the summit of Tajumulco

Sunrise starts on Tajumulco

Sunrise on Tajumulco - cloudy but spectacular

Still very cold....
Start of sunrise on Santa Maria

Sunrise on Santa Maria

Sunrise on Santa Maria

Sunrise on Santa Maria

View over Xela from the summit of Santa Maria

Cows (!?) on top of Santa Maria

Cow in the clouds!!
Before the mist cleared at Laguna Chicabal....

.... and after the mist cleared!....

.... and the mist rolling back in again.
Football pitch en route to San Andreas Xecul

The church in San Andreas Xecul

The church in San Andreas Xecul
Pretty colours in Olintepeque

Olintepeque cattle market

Olintepeque cattle market
San Francisco El Alto market

On top of the cathedral in San Francisco

View from the Cathedral roof in San Francisco

Zunil market

San Simon

San Simon
Secluded bath at Fuentes Georginas

Mountain backdrop to Xelaju stadium

Xelaju supporters in full-swing