Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Glorius Guatemala

Hi all! We are really spoiling you lately, right?

After the spectacular Belize blog posted recently we are already informing you about our stay in Guatemala! We hope we'll not say this with each country we visit, but Guatemala was really really nice and without a doubt a place we would like to visit again in more detail. There is so much to be seen and experienced here and the people are very nice. In general we saw that they were people who were happy with the simple things in life and who enjoyed a nice conversation.

So after a pretty annoying boarder crossing (we met a Czech couple travelling from North to South as well and they spend an hour to clear their car as the computer did not recognize the Czech Republic as a country) we were in Guatemala! We decided to travel together with Marek and Zuzana through some parts of Guatemala. Our first stop was Tikal, another Maya ruin (after this there is one more for us to visit and then we have visited enough ruins). The site was enormous and super impressive, pyramids were large and steep and again located in the jungle. We could camp near the site and were surrounded by so many animals in the morning. Going south we pass the famous island of Flores, located in a lake which was significantly higher than normal, flooding a large part of it. Heading further down we reach Coban via some rougher roads, here we spend Christmas eve together with the Czechs. 

From Coban we go into the direction of Nebaj, where we did a small hike to a waterfall. From this point, the Czechs went direction Atitlan and we headed direction Quetzaltenango, a nice small colonial town which is a starting point for many volcano hikes. After finding a safe spot to leave the car we made reservations to tackle the highest point in Central America, the volcano of Tajumulco at 4.200 meters. Our guide is Marvin, a super educated guide with lots of experience. To start our hike we first need to take a famous chicken bus, an experience we will not forget soon as we felt we would die any time due to the aggressive driving by the driver. Anyhow, we were a bit surprised when starting our hike. Normally you are rather alone on a mountain, but not here. We were surrounded by thousands of locals, which come here at the end of the year as Mayas consider the highest points to be closer to the gods. They didn't stop making noise all night long! Still the experience was very nice with amazing views of the surroundings. We spend the night there and enjoy a very nice sunset and sunrise.

After our surprisingly tiring hike we camp a night at the Fuentes Georgina, a set of natural therms where we can relax from the physical activity. The therms range from nice and warm to ridiculously hot, which we had to skip as we are not comfortable with being boiled. After being completely relaxed we went to the famous lake of Atitlán, for some, considered to be one of the nicest lakes in the world. The lake is rather big and has several villages around them which can be reached via quite steep roads. Our Tajumulco guide Marvin give us a great advise on a camping spot, as we had our backpacks left packed we were good to go for another camp. A local guide brought us to a small hill overlooking the whole lake with the volcanoes around where we were completely alone. We pitch our tent, make a fire and look the sunset. As dinner we have some pasta made previously and a rotten pineapple which we took :(. The place was quite idyllic all night long, till we got woken up by all the other tourists coming up in the morning to see the sunrise. Those last days we woke up too many times to see a sunrise, we got our dose of waking up early!

Enjoying the beautiful vistas here for a while we crawled back up to hills to go towards Antigua, a former capital of Guatemala but due to several natural disasters in the area it got moved to the current capital. Here we could camp on a free campsite secured by the tourist police of the city together with several other overlanders, some which we had met previously but there were also some new faces. Here we spent new years eve together with Erika and Michele, John and Betty, which turned out to be a fun night. From the campsite we could enjoy the fireworks (Guatemalans are crazy about fireworks, we couldn't sleep at Tajumulco due to the continuous fireworks banging around). The remaining days in Antigua we enjoyed to stroll around the charming city and enjoy the views from the city with the background volcanoes. One day we did do a one night trip from Antigua towards Guatemala city, skipped by mos people as there is not much to see and there is quite some crime. Although we can only agree with this, we were happy to have done our quick visit to see the different facets of the country. After returning to Antigua and relaxing a day we continued towards Honduras, stopping nearby the boarder in a government holiday resort where we got sleep and use all facilities for the night! From there we proceed to Honduras, a country about which we are a bit curious as most travelers we meet try to avoid Honduras due to recent crime stories.

But don't get worried about this, more to follow in due time! Till now we can only recommend Guatemala to everyone interested in a nice cultural and natural experience!

Mire and Alex

Here is where we left you the last time: Tikal. The place is very impressive and is absolutely enormous!

Reconstructed temples are very large and steep. Guatemala is actually home to the largest Maya temples - which we did not visit as they are a 5 day hike away in the jungle

Beautiful views on top from the jungle canvas

Caution is required to safe the wildlife

Our campsite was packed with wildlife including this bird making publicity for Belgium

It has been raining a lot lately, which can clearly be seen on Flores where a large part of the islands exterior roads are flooded. Still, observing the people, they were not to worried.

The many piers on the island were all flooded as well

Oeps, no more road. We got to take a ferry powered by two tiny engines.

It must be clear that driving is part of the adventures and often provided for the highlights of a day

We meet the first other Land cruiser like we have (HZJ75)! Very exiting to see how they were absolutely in love with their vehicle as well!

A very common way of transportation are these 'chicken buses' which are old American/Canadian school buses which are converted in Antigua - A more powerful engine, another gearbox and obviously some nice interior and exterior decoration. We found that we were paying for our death while taking these buses - the drivers are horrible!

The village of Nebaj and its surroundings are excellent for hiking and in general its an interesting place to see how Guatemalans are living. There is little tourism here and you can openly walk around town looking into peoples houses and gardens

Here we went for a short walk towards....a waterfall

Don't get me wrong, we love our car and wouldn't change it. We are very happy to have a solid 4x4 with lots of ground clearance, but often we have doubted if you really need it...

It seems like you pass by the office of the United Nations but in reality it are just the flags of FCB, Real and the USA

From Quetzaltenango we arrange our hike to the volcano of Tajumulco, for which we had to wake up eeearly

On the left you can see the volcano, which it the highest point in Central America at 4200 meters.

The hike was much harder than expected - we only started at 3200 meters but the large backpacks made it hard. So, as always, there were happy faces when we reached our base camp

Normally we do not like clouds - there are plenty of those in Belgium - but here we didn't mind to be fully surrounded by them, it is truly spectacular to be above them and having the sun on your face!

Obviously, the sunset was gorgeous

So was the sunrise - although we had to wake up super early again!

This called for a small celebrating jump together with our excellent guide Marvin - apologies again Marvin for jumping on your head with my butt!

After that we could go relax a bit in the Fuentes Georginas, a collection of therms

In this area we pass by some beautiful landscapes

We proceed to Lake Atitlan, a very popular destination. We were very lucky to have gotten some top advise from our guide Marvin: We could pitch our tent on top of hill, with no body else around us.

You can see it was quite worth to go there

Although it required us to wake up early again to see the sunrise

Some boys chilling near the lake

We have seen some traditional clothing in Mexico, but none of this could match the outfits from here

Beautiful colors everywhere!

The largest fountain - although not working - in Guatemala

Camping in the city of Antigua we shared the site we several other overlanders - some which we had met before. 

The city of Antigua with some volcanoes on the background

Everybody deserves a break - these guys were very inventive to find a comfortable position

Taking a chocolate class together with Zuzana - with whom we traveled together in the north of Guatemala

Obviously team VanBaelenGuillot won the competition and as a reward we got some chocolate!

Basic shot of the city of Guatemala, skipped by almost all travelers, but still worth to see in order to get a complete picture of the country

The national bank was pretty interesting

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Alright? Alright alright! You're in Belize!

Hi family and friends! We are happy to see you again on our blog! First of all, we hope that you all had a great end of the year! We currently are in Guatemala enjoying the volcanic landscapes and the friendly people here, but let’s not be too fast because today we’ll inform you on something else. After our unforgettable time in Mexico we first went to Belize a tiny country positioned at the Caribbean mostly famous for its blue hole, a diving spot which became extra famous when our hero Jacques Cousteau went there somewhere in the 60s (or 70s).

Although we have only spent five days there, we have been very pleasantly surprised. For us there are two reasons for this: first the people. Belize is a truly mixed country with people from Mexico, Guatemala, Mayas, Mennonites (Descendents from the Dutch living traditionally which have settled in Belize in the 50s after roaming the earth for several hundreds of years) and many Creoles (not to forget there is also a considerable Chinese community). What is interesting to see is that all these cultures get along very well and that all share the same Belizean spirit. The people are incredible friendly and it was nice for us to see that they were happy. Although we had met a lot of friendly Mexicans, we observed that very few Mexicans are smiling. The second reason why we had such a great time here was because of the nature and all of the animals we have seen (both in the wild as in the Belize Zoo – do not be confused by its name, this place does not really resemble a traditional zoo). We have seen howler monkeys, nurse sharks, eagle rays, more big turtles, toucans, jaguar, a cougar, a puma and many many fish.

So after this long introduction I can imagine that you are curious for what we have done there. Well after crossing the border we first went to a city called Orange Walk from where people generally take a boat tour to visit the ruins of Lamanai. As this was costing 100USD, for both of us, we decided to go there by car, although everybody advised us not to do so as the road was in to bad of a condition. It turned out to be no problem for us at all, even if it was raining heavily. The ruins were spectacular, even if we have seen many before, as they were located in a jungle setting. We did hurry up a bit because the mosquitoes were very hungry and ate about 15% of our meat. At the end we returned to Orange Walk where we camped at one of the agencies that organize the boat tours to Lamanai. Our host also lived there and had nothing to do instead of listing to music very loudly, which was funny as he was very keen on reggae. As the end of the year was approaching it was therefore time for some Reggae Christmas music!

From here we went in the direction of Belize City, the former capital of Belize (because Belize City was often the victim of storms). But before arriving there we visit the Baboon Sanctuary, consisting of a cooperative which tries to reinstall the natural habitat of the howler monkey. Here we had the great opportunity to feed a totally wild howler monkey, which was rather cool but also a bit unethical –not sure if the monkey was totally wild. From here we could continue to Belize City (passing by the totally disappointing Altun-Ha ruins) where we installed ourselves in the local Radisson hotel. The city itself does not have so much to offer and most of the buildings are in a bad state, nonetheless, it had some charm to it. From here we could take a watertaxi to Caye Caulker, one of many islands Belize has. The place was very nice with only basic houses and dirt roads, but with enough tourism to ensure a good variety of hotels, bars and restaurants. There is not much to do as the inhabited part of the island is maybe 3 kilometers long and maximum 200 meters wide and therefore it is a perfect spot to relax. Here we took a super snorkeling tour along the Belizean barrier reef, the second largest reef in the world Caulker (in the tour we meet the first Catalan girl of our trip, Marta and her boyfriend john). Our guide, Shaun, takes us past several spots. The main attraction is the Shark Ray Alley. Here you can swim with dozens of nurse sharks and even more eagle rays. Apparently they are centralized there because fisherman used to clean their daily catch at that spot, attracting them. Another stop was the coral gardens where we could swim with ‘aquarium type’ fishes and some turtles. Another nice place we went was entirely filled with conches (please have a look for a picture on the internet). The ocean in general is filled with these shells and fisherman search them for the meat inside. As with the shark ray alley, the fisherman came to this exact spot to remove the meat from the conches, throwing the shell itself in the water. The result is quite spectacular, as the entire bottom of the ocean is covered by the shell, you do not even see anything else on the ground.

After having had a good time at Caye we had to go back with the watertaxi, the rest of Central America was waiting for us and our time in Belize was limited as it is a pretty expensive country. From the city we headed direction the Guatemalan border, passing by the Belizean Zoo. We are not really big fans of zoos in general but this one was rather spectacular. To start, you can only find local animals and although they are living in closed areas, these areas resemble their natural habitat a lot (but when we say closed area don’t think of your traditional zoo – here you could easily lose a hand to a jaguar if you are stupid enough). In addition, the majority of the animals here are rescued and the staff is super friendly and very willing to improve your experience in the zoo.

From the Zoo we went to San Ignacio, one of the last villages before Guatemala. Here we met Paul and Amanda, an American Couple on holiday in Belize. We share a good meal and some drinks with them, before going to sleep and leaving Belize. Our experience here has been very positive although it is an expensive country.

Soon we’ll inform you on our experience in Guatemala. Now we can already say that it is truly worth to come here – beautiful landscapes and very nice people who enjoy the simple things in life.

Alex and Mire

The jungle ruins of Lamanai were well worth the dirt road

Belize only started the excavation of Maya ruins 40 years ago when they decided to focus more on tourism

One happy howler monkey

One very happy howler monkey

The good life in the Radisson in Belize City

Going to Caye Caulker we take the bikes in order to move easily

Although we had some rain during our stay in Belize, the weather did clear up from time to time to provide this beautiful shot from our hotel

Can it be more idyllic to have a beer?

Man sitting nearby the water

Many areas of the island do not have beaches and are filled with mangrove filled with crocodiles. For swimming people install docks so they can jump immediately in deep water.

Spider monkey at the Belize Zoo

A cougar (for those who have a camera, we use a 17 - 55 mm lens. You can therefore imagine how close we have been to the animal)

A Toucan family bird - pretty hard to spot in the nature

Mr Jaguar taking it easy...

.... 'I am so tired'

Beautiful fish spotted in the barrier reef

Please pay attention to the nurse shark and the large turtle - this is no photoshop

Whenever we are hungry Alex goes to fish - this was a particularly good day

This beautiful spot was filled with eagle rays

We even got the opportunity to hold them

Many fish together!

Look at all the shells together, a truly spectacular sight for us

And again we see a large turtle. This one was very funny as it was very used to people. It was always approaching us, and obviously we didn't want to be to close to it and tried to keep distance, but it was impossible!

Another eagle ray

The coral gardens were the perfect location to spot beautiful fishes

A sneak preview of Guatemala: the legendary site of Tikal