Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Guat’s News?

My trip to Guatemala began with the 8am boat from Caye Caulker to Belize City which was meant to connect with a 9.30am ‘express bus’ directly from the boat terminal to Flores across the border. Of course, being in Central America, we got to the terminal and were told the bus actually left at 10am, then at 10am were told ’Ten more minutes’ by several different people until at 11am the bus arrived. We then loaded our bags and sat sweating in the bus on the super droopy, dusty old seats til it finally left at 11.30 and the ‘window A/C’ kicked in. Eating a piece of milk cake smothered in caramel and sprinkles from the Caye Caulker cake man for breakfast was probably the highlight of my morning.

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At the border, Belize had the least enthusiastic immigration staff I’ve ever met. No hello, smile or eye contact, just a general look and tone of boredom as they checked each person through with the minimum amount of words they could. On the Guatemalan side, seeing a dog sleeping in front of the immigration counter made me smile, til a local came and kicked it and it ran away! 😦

I took the bus with a cool couple, Kerre from Texas and Alex from Finland. Once we arrived in Flores, a tiny island on Lake Petén Itzá not far from the border in the north of Guatemala, we were flogged by the bus company for tours and onward bus tickets. Flores is a popular jumping off point for the Mayan ruins at Tikal, and tours leave either at 3am or 4.30am so we kinda had to book that in at the time, but we got upsold for our next 2 bus tickets as well…That evening was spent wandering around the cute little island, discovering that Guatemala had tuk-tuks, randomly running into Kerre and Alex for dinner and getting to bed nice and early.

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Unfortunately with the early tours, nights in hostels in Flores aren’t the most restful. Someone in my dorm who was probably going on the 3am tour had an annoyingly jaunty piano accordion tune as their alarm, which went off at 2.30am and kept ringing and ringing and ringing! I was ready to kill… if I could have been bothered getting out of my top bunk. I did seriously contemplate throwing something at the inconsiderate *#$%$  but then  they finally turned it off.

I was up again at 4.15, and went out to sit on the front step to wait for my pick up. At 5am I was getting concerned I’d been fleeced by the tour company and they’d forgotten me, but a few minutes later 3 vans showed up. It was a couple of hours to Tikal, but I didn’t manage to catch too much more sleep as the drive was pretty bumpy resulting in my head just smashing repeatedly against the window if I tried! We had a big obnoxious group as we entered the site, but thankfully our guide was really good and listening to his wealth of knowledge helped make up for the incessant talking and giggling of several extremely annoying members of our party.

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Tikal was a very important Maya site until the decline of the entire civilisation, then it was swallowed by the jungle. The site is really spectacular, as it has the second tallest structures of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica- some of the temples are so tall, the tops can actually be seen above the ancient trees. The sheer area is enormous too, and many parts of the city have not even been excavated yet. You can’t climb many of the giant temples anymore as some people actually died falling down them because they are so steep and slippery, but we did climb one big one, Temple 4 and some of the smaller ones in an area called The Lost World.

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Because the ruins of Tikal are set deep in the jungle, despite the normal humidity of the area, it was nice and cool in the morning. We walked around on green and shady jungle trails and were also able to spot quite a bit of native wildlife, including  coatis (a cute furry 4-legged critter with a long tail), agoutis (big members of the rodent family- they look like a giant guinea pig), spider monkeys and even held a big hairy tarantula!

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One of my favourite areas of the site was called the acropolis. It used to be a residential area of the city so there were lots of small rooms to poke around in, but it was high up, so had amazing views over both the Gran Plaza and over the jungle.

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Our tour got back by 2 and I napped in a rooftop hammock overlooking the lake as the afternoon rain rolled by. Tough life! That evening it had cleared up and I hit some local food stalls by the lake and had my whole dinner and a drink for like $3!

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Kerre, Alex and I had another mammoth travel day from Flores to Lanquin- a small town in central Guatemala (east of Coban on the map above) just outside Semuc Champey, famous for its beautiful pools. It was meant to take 8 hours on the express shuttle, but was more like 10 with only 2 stops the whole way! When we arrived though, it was worth the trip, the views over the hills coming in were stunning.

El Retiro was a gorgeous hostel, right on the blue and icy cold river (which had quite a strong current!). There are some nearby caves in Lanquin that are home to many bats, and in the evening, they all fly out down the river to feed. It was about this time that we’d decided to go for a swim, and it was pretty crazy seeing so many bats flying at you! I felt like they were all going to fly right into my face, but not one did! Great echolocation little guys…

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The tour out to Semuc Champey the next day was definitely a highlight of the trip so far (thanks to Peter for all the pics from his intact waterproof camera!). We left in the morning- 15 of us piled in the back of a pick-up truck and a lucky 3 inside the cabin. We had to hang on for dear life for about 45 minutes so as not to fly out the back or into any of the metal bars, at the same time watching for overhead branches that might just smack you in the face. Our first stop was Grutas K’anba- we were instructed to get down to our bathers and either sneakers or nothing on our feet in prep for our cave adventure. At the cave entrance we were handed a candle each and helped each other light them before we entered the cold water in the bottom of the cave. These candles were to be our only source of light for the next 2 hours!

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The water was only knee deep at first but soon became too deep to stand. We were swimming either with one arm to paddle and the other out of the water holding the candle or with the candle in our mouths for several metres. There was some clambering up and down rocky parts, some bits with ladders to help and other parts just wading through shallower water as we travelled deeper into the cave. We came to a small waterfall which we rappelled up (ie- hauled ourselves up a vertical rockface with our candle in our mouth through the torrent of water splashing down on us) which was exciting! Relighting the candle after being drenched took some time, but luckily I hadn’t bitten right through my candle like poor Peter had!

The end of the journey was a small cavern with two pools which our guide got us to ‘light up’ by sticking several candles with wax around the walls. Then it was time for more adrenalin raising activities- a jump from a high ledge into the small pool below- aiming carefully in the dim light so as not to hit any of the rocks close to the sides! It took me a while to work up the nerve to do it, but I made it- it was terrifying!

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On the way out of the cavern was a small waterslide which we rode down with our arms high in the air to try and save our newly re-lit candles from going under. One other new adventure on the way out was dropping through a hole of gushing water with no idea what awaited on the other side. You  popped out into a small pool below where your candle then got handed through. It was an altogether incredible experience, I’ve never done anything like it.

The next activity for the afternoon was a giant rope swing into the river, which looked like fairly harmless fun, but you couldn’t actually control your fall very well when you came off, so many of us face-planted and belly-whacked into the river and came up winded, feeling like we’d smacked into a wall which was pretty rubbish! We got a small break from all the adrenalin by tubing down the river for a little way, before coming to a big bridge where of course we were invited to jump! When I first looked down, I was like ’NO WAY!’ It must have been at least 10 metres above the river and looked far too high for me, but after watching a few people go ahead of me I got FOMO and went for it. It was actually much better than the swing, because at least you could control your fall!

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After lunch we entered the Semuc Champey park and endured a hot and humid half hour hike up to the mirador (lookout) which gave us a spectacular view of the pools from above, and enough motivation to hike back down for a swim in the cool blue water to get out of the humidity for a bit!

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There were more jumps from these pools- some of the guides were climbing up tall trees and leaping from branches over hanging the pools, but I was spent! Too much adrenalin for one day! So I settled for a free fish spa in the shallower part of the pool (if you sat still enough, the fish just came and nibbled at your feet… People do actually pay for this you know! :-p) The pools were beautiful, refreshing and relaxing, but unfortunately the 45min ride back in the pick-up undid much of it! I ached all over and felt like I’d been hit by a bus on our return but what a day!

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The next day I had wanted to go to Antigua but with my stupid open ticket from Flores, hadn’t got to call in time after Semuc and the bus was full. I woke early and tried to weasel my way onto the bus with Kerre and Alex (who had cleverly called before Semuc) but despite my pleas of ‘Solo una persona pequena!’ (‘Only one small person!’), the lady was adamant the bus was full, so I stayed an extra day in Lanquin. Not a bad place to get stuck really! Our last evening got fairly rowdy with beer pong and drinking jenga which led to several people having to jump in the river, drink ‘mystery drinks’ or shots, take their underwear off without removing their pants or fashion hats out of various clothing items….

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Was again a bit rough for another long day of travel to Antigua after that, but pretty much slept the whole 9 hours. Someone was sure looking out for me because the place we stopped for lunch pretty much only sold burgers! Interestingly our bus dropped us on the side of a random street in Antigua, but luckily my friend Steve from Canada had been before and could orientate me!

Antigua used to be the Spanish capital of the whole of Central America, though why the Spanish picked the location at the bottom of an active volcano I am not sure… The city was destroyed several times from volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, the biggest of which in 1773 caused the Spanish to eventually move their capital to its present location in Guatemala City in 1776. Antigua was eventually restored and now remains a beautiful colonial town with ruins of many ancient churches and covents from the 1700s.

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That evening, Steve and I met up with Kerre and Alex again for dinner at a (literally) hole-in-the-wall comedor- you walked into this little shop and then passed through a small doorway out the back into a dining room with 2 meal options! It was great food, but perched next to me was a life-sized cardboard cut-out of a mustachio’d man which kept making me jump and feel like someone was watching me!

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The following day, Alex had booked a tour to the nearby active Pacaya volcano for the two of us. We took a big yellow chicken bus (old school bus from the US) which you can sure tell wasn’t made for adults!

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When we arrived at the start of the trail to the volcano, we were accosted by kids offering us walking sticks and horses. A few people got horses, but it was actually not a very steep climb and as our group was so massive, we were walking at a very leisurely (read: snail’s) pace. We passed some lookouts over the 3 big volcanoes outside Antigua- Fuego (fire), Agua (water) and Acatango. As we approached Pacaya, It was awesome to see the volcano’s surrounds, black and desolate, juxtaposed with the green of the surrounding landscape. You could also see the old lava flows approaching the nearby town- brave people living there!

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Eventually we reached Pacaya’s Zona de Riesgo (Risk Area), and once our ginormous group had reassembled we of course proceeded to walk straight past the sign and ‘stop’ light (hey, this is Guatemala right?).

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In this area, the ground was very hot and letting off steam in places. We didn’t see any lava as people have in previous years (I think the last time it erupted was 2010), but the steam was hot enough to roast some marshmallows on! It was tedious going with such a large group, but I was still glad to have seen an active volcano.

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The couple of days remaining in Antigua I spent exploring the town. I poked around the market, saw the most magnificent MacDonald’s restaurant I’ve ever seen (where Ronald MacDonald lazes on a bench overlooking the fountain in the tree-lined courtyard), discovered the ruins of a beautiful old capuchin convent from the 1700s and tried the ‘best coffee in Antigua’ at café barista on the plaza (pretty good!).

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One highlight was walking up a hill on the outskirts of town called Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross). There is obviously a big cross up there, and beautiful views over the city, but it’s not meant to be in a very safe area so it is recommended to go with a tourist police guide. There was meant to be a guide at 10, and so I went with 2 guys from the hostel, Josh from the US (who I’d met previously in Caye Caulker) and Leigh from Australia. We were a little late and couldn’t see a guide anywhere, so started to walk up thinking they wouldn’t be far ahead. We didn’t come across a guided group but it wasn’t a very long walk and there were armed security guards on the way up so it was all good! I’d think it is more of a problem going up for sunset and walking back in the dark perhaps… Anyway, there were loads of people at the top, and the views were definitely worth the short climb!

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On Sunday afternoon, I was off to San Pedro, a popular village on the shores of the stunning Lake Atitlan. It was 4 hours on a shuttle from Antigua accompanied by a fantastic range of 90s power ballads. San Pedro is well known for its Spanish schools, so I went there to study for another week with a homestay.

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On arrival at my school, La Co-operativa, I met my host dad Armando- he thought it was pretty hilarious that my name was Amanda, and said our names are almost the same! It was about a 10 minute walk across town to Armando’s house, where I met the rest of the family- his wife, Maria, and daughters Elenita (who is 9 years old) and Brenda (who is 4). The family were all very sweet and showed me to my big room with a double bed (a lot more then I was expecting!). The house itself was a reasonable size, made of concrete with 4 large rooms, a bathroom and a separate kitchen. Armando works in construction and Maria is a housewife, but the money from the homestays also supplements the family’s income.

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I started my classes on Monday, but had scheduled my 3 hours of class a day in the afternoon, as that’s when it had been tending to rain. Unfortunately the house was being renovated to add a second storey, so regardless I woke to the sweet sounds of drilling and banging overhead at 6am every day!

On my first day of school, I met my teacher, Ruben, who spoke to me in Spanish for a little while and then gave me a written test to see where I was at and what we should work on that week. The test was a bit scary! Showed me I had retained some things, but had also forgotten a fair bit of my grammar! 3 hours of class each day actually went really fast, next time I think the perfect amount of study per day would be around 4 hours- when I did 6 in Ensenada it was super exhausting.

My mornings were often spent helping Maria to prepare meals- chopping veggies, patting out thick tortillas by hand from the huge ball of masa (corn dough) which was prepared everyday, or pressing masa on the table between sheets of plastic with a small chopping board, filling it with potatoes and capsicum and frying it to make empanadas. The thick corn tortillas typical to Guatemala hadn’t really taken my fancy thus far during my stay, but Maria’s, fresh off the plancha (hot plate) tasted awesome!

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One morning I booked a trip to climb the nearby Volcán San Pedro which looms over the village. It’s about 3000m above sea level and was a tough walk! We (myself and 2 French Canadian girls) left town at 6am with our 18 year old guide Kenneth, picked up his 15 year old brother as we passed their house and then reached the volcano. It has apparently never erupted, so I guess it is really just a mountain, but volcano makes it sound a lot more exciting, doesn’t it? It was 3 hours of straight uphill climbing- we were dying and wishing for a bit of flat, but Kenneth and his brother were breathing normally and not even cracking a sweat the whole way! They actually looked quite amused at our exhaustion… The climb was rewarded with stunning morning views across the lake as we ascended and from the top. I was so tired I actually fell asleep on a rock at the top for a bit!

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On my last day at school I went with Ruben and his morning student Sonia to visit 2 local families. La Co-operativa  puts 10% of all the school fees back into the community which is great. As part of this they help support 28 families in need in San Pedro with food donations every fortnight, so we were going to deliver the food and meet them. The first family we met was Magdalena’s- she had 9 children, 2 grandchildren, and no husband. She worked as a weaver, spending 2-3 days to complete each tablecloth with her backstrap loom but then only getting ~30 Quetzales (~$4) for each one. So $1-2 income per day to feed all those people! Some of her older children work instead of going to school to help the family which is tough, though one of the girls works during the day as a nanny then still goes to night school. Their house consisted of 3 buildings- the kitchen which was I guess the common area and then 2 dormitories where they slept. It had dirt floors and walls of corn cane, which let water in if there is rain and wind.

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The second family was Pedro’s. Pedro is blind because of a work accident about 17 years ago, so he can no longer work. His wife Cecilia doesn’t work either. We also met their daughter Susan who no longer lives at home. She was married off at 17, and now at 28 has 3 kids of her own! We gave each family a package containing 6 eggs, rice, beans, sugar, oil, and detergent, which isn’t a lot but they were so grateful for it and said it really makes a difference for them. We had to speak to them via Ruben as they only spoke a Maya dialect and didn’t understand Spanish.

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Poverty is a huge problem in Guatemala (as in other parts of Mexico and Central America) and it was quite sad to see the hardships these families experienced on a day to day basis, and to see the cycle being propagated by the kids needing to drop out of school to go and work to help support their families. Ruben said education rates are actually higher in San Pedro than in the other lakeside villages because the tourism brings more money into the community and they have more public schools- apparently about 90% of kids finish primary school vs 30% in other villages. I’m sure the rates are lower for high school and only families with money can afford to send their kids to the city to get a tertiary education. Armando and Maria are doing pretty well for themselves and really value education so have Elenita in a private school which is great. Brenda starts next year.

On my last night, we celebrated Brenda’s 5th birthday. We had a big family dinner, with chicken, rice and tortillas, and then a giant cake for Brenda. The family sang ‘Ya queremos pastel!’ (We want cake!) and clapped to the tune of happy birthday, and then we did the mordida, where the birthday person takes a bite straight out of the cake (and in the process gets a lot of it on their face).

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It was a fun evening with Brenda wearing the birthday crown I’d bought her all night, and their little cousin Lorenzo wanting photo after photo taken! But he was very photogenic…

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Afterward, I went across town to the Buddha Bar, where I watched a game of AFL and had a beer while The Cat Empire blared over the speakers and got a little twinge of homesickness! Next day I had an early start, but Maria still managed to feed me before I left! I took a 7.30am shuttle back to Antigua to connect with the service for Copan in Honduras. 13 hours later I checked into my hostel in Copan!

So try and get myself a little more up to speed with these blogs I’ll just skim over the highlights reel of my two whirlwind weeks in Honduras and Nicaragua. The Mayan ruins at Copan are famous for their art, and the many sculptures there didn’t disappoint. It was a beautiful serene site compared to many of the overrun bigger sites.

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Diving the reef off the bay island of Utila was beautiful, and visiting the nearby Water Caye was also really nice. On my last night in Honduras I was blessed to have been very well looked after by my friend Ricky’s lovely family in Tegucigalpa before heading to Nicaragua.

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In Nicaragua, volcano boarding Cerro Negro just outside León was incredible- literally sliding down the side of an active volcano on a little piece of wood with only a pair of dodgy old plastic goggles and what appears to be a prison jumpsuit for protection. It’s listed as the #2 thing to do on CNN’s thrill seekers bucket list- tick!

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The other main event from my time in Nicaragua was climbing another still active volcano, Volcán Concepción on Lake Nicaragua’s Isla Ometepe, an island created by two volcanoes which have joined together. It was a challenging but awesome hike with incredible views over the island and across the lake to the mainland- except from the top where we were shrouded in clouds! I was quite sad to rush through Central America, but don’t regret any of the time spent in Mexico and am looking forward to the next part of my adventure with my good friends Laura and Hugo back up in the US. I’ll definitely be back again one day… 🙂

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Cruising the Caribbean Coast

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In the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, I took a night bus from hell from Mérida to Chiquila, on which I couldn’t sleep because of the sub-zero conditions normally incompatible with human life and the racket everyone would make getting on and off the bus whenever it stopped. Despite my hoodie and warm socks which normally suffice, my nose, fingers and toes felt like they were going to fall off, and I spent the night huddled in a ball shivering, nose running, barely sleeping a wink. I arrived at Chiquila around 5.30am, and waited with several other fatigued looking travellers for the boat across to Isla Holbox (pronounced Hol-bosh), a small island off the northern tip of the Yucatan peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo.

The boat only took about half an hour, but when we arrived on the island at 7, it was still sleeping. Our hostel reception didn’t open til 9… we went down to the beach and tried to nap but got eaten by mozzies, so decided to move into the yard at Hostel Tribu which was filled with hammocks… Much better! So we napped there until reception opened, checked in and went for some breakfast at the bakery around the corner. Tribu was an awesome hostel- the owner John told me his inspiration was a hostel in Katherine Australia of all places!

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I spent the first day lazing on the beautiful beach, doing a photo shoot with some pelicans and having a little bit of a wander in town. There isn’t actually a whole lot to do in Holbox… The island is pretty small. You can cover the whole town comfortably by foot, and if you want to go anywhere further, there’s golf buggies. There are no cars on the island!

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The main draw for Holbox is the whale sharks. It is peak whale shark season in July, so I had come in prime time to tick ‘swim with whale shark’ off my bucket list. The trip left at 7am- there were 8 of us on the boat, 4 other travellers, myself and a dad with his two young sons from Holland. The ride out to the site was long and rough, it took about 2 and a half hours of gripping the seat as we flew off the tops of the waves before we got there. We did get to see some dolphins frolicking alongside us though!

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By the time we arrived both of the little boys were seasick and crying, but there were whale sharks EVERYWHERE. I could believe the numbers of them. They are filter feeders and eat plankton which are right at the surface here in nice weather. We were only allowed to get in the water 2 at a time with the sharks and our guide Carlos, but all of us got to swim twice. They are huge, but swim super quickly! It was an incredible experience, not quite the same as seeing a random one out of the blue on a dive or something (still on my list!) but still amazing.

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The little boys both had a swim and were thankfully looking much more cheerful afterwards! We had a little snorkel over a small reef on our way back which wasn’t super spectacular, but just as I was about to go back to the boat I saw a sea turtle swim by which was awesome! I’ve never seen one in the wild before.

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By then it had started to rain, but we kept on to our next stop where we were fed some delicious fresh ceviche (Carlos had literally just caught the fish off the back of the boat with his hands!) and saw a whole lot of pelicans roosting. It poured with rain while we were there, but we all enjoyed sitting in the warm water and watching the storm.

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Unfortunately we caught the full brunt of the storm- it was intense! Carlos had doled out lifejackets just before we hit it to help keep us warm then we all squished ourselves in a huddle on the floor of the boat with a sarong around the back of us to protect us from the spiky rain! Carlos had put his wetsuit back on and our captain had taken off his shirt to keep it dry, so topless battled us through the tempest back into the sunshine! It was quite an experience!

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After, we stopped off to see the resident flamingos then headed back home. After all the rain, most of the islands roads had flooded, so much so that you basically had to take off your shoes to walk through the giant puddles that covered the entire street! My last day on the island was taken up much like the first with lazing on the beach and wandering about town.

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My next stop after Holbox was a small town down the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo called Tulum. I had to take the ferry back to Chiquila, get a bus to Cancun, then transfer buses there for Tulum. I had a pretty swift transfer so only saw Cancun’s bus station! But from what I’ve heard, despite the nice beaches it’s a pretty overcrowded and expensive place, so I wasn’t too worried. In Tulum I stayed in a little B&B kinda place called ‘Calm Cabins’. I was the only one in the dorm and there was only one other girl staying in a private room, so calm it was! The owner Dora was lovely, very friendly and helpful, and lived there with her 6 (!) cats. She cooked a different breakfast each day and served it to you in the garden. The only bad bit was the mozzies!

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For my first full day in Tulum I’d organised a cenote dive trip at a site called Dos Ojos (it means ‘Two Eyes’ in Spanish). In case you don’t remember, cenotes are natural sinkholes formed in limestone that are filled with fresh water. Dos Ojos, as its name suggests, has two caverns, both from the one entrance point and we dived both. Diving Dos Ojos was pretty exciting, as I have never done any diving in an overheard environment before (meaning you don’t have direct access to the surface). Cavern diving is different from cave diving in that you can always see a source of natural light- it gets reasonably dark in places, so you do have a torch, but it is never pitch black. It was pretty weird jumping in a truck from the dive shop instead of a boat! We drove a little way out through the jungle to get to the site. Once we’d had our briefing and geared up, in we went. The water was SO clear, they say 100m visibility down there! There wasn’t a heap of marine life to see, the cenote dives are more about the incredible rock formations and the colours created by the filtered light from the surface.  On our second dive, we surfaced at one point in Bat Cave, which obviously had some bats, but was also highly decorated and really cool to see before we descended again and headed out.

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As these dives were shallow, I’d taken my camera down, but sadly after the first dive to 8m, it crapped out and came up completely flooded 😦 sad times… Luckily one of the other guys from my dive Brian kindly donated me his pics. He also gave me desiccant sachets to hopefully dry out the camera, but even after I’d left it in a bowl of rice overnight it didn’t come back to life. My luck with cameras has not yet changed it seems…

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The next day, I met up with Brian again and we went to see Tulum’s Mayan ruins. It was so beautifully located, perched on a cliff top overlooking the superbly blue Caribbean Sea. Tulum is a very small site, so shortly after we had arrived and the tour groups came in, it seemed very crowded! It’s buildings aren’t as spectacular as some of the bigger sites, but I still really enjoyed it. I just couldn’t get over the setting and the amazing colour of the sea!

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From the ruins it was a short walk to the main beach, which was stunning! We went for a dip, and then got some sun lounges (which came with 2 free cocktails and an umbrella) just in time for happy hour at midday! We enjoyed some cocktails and lazed about til happy hour ended at 3pm then enjoyed  a late lunch of delicious shrimp ceviche. I could get used to this kinda life!

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That night I met up with some friends from earlier in the trip- Lisanna and Aida who I’d met on a tour in Oaxaca as well as Mike and Sebastian who I’d hiked with in Oaxaca were all in town. Brian and I caught dinner at a local street stall (and of course had some beers) with the German boys, and later I met the girls at their hostel for yet more drinks. It ended up being quite a late night!

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The next day I managed to get up in time for my 8am bus and was feeling ok, then slept the entire 4 hours to Chetumal where unfortunately the hangover caught up with me. Here I said goodbye to my breakfast, and then said goodbye to Mexico after a great 2 and a half months, and jumped on a boat to Belize.

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I actually did ok on the boat, again sleeping most of the way to San Pedro where we went through immigration- a little wooden booth on a pier staffed by the most softly spoken man in the world. I had to fully lean my head in his window to hear him. I got some new stamps and from there it was another short boat ride over to Caye Caulker.

Belize felt a world apart from Mexico. For starters, the official language is English (though many people also speak Spanish) and the culture is completely different. It is garifuna, very Caribbean and they also speak a Creole version of English (like Jamaica, man).

Caye Caulker is a very touristy but very chilled island just off the coast of Belize. A caye is technically ‘small, low-elevation, sandy island formed on the surface of a coral reef’ (thanks wiki). The place reminded me a bit of Holbox in the way that there was actually not a heap to do on the island itself so it was super laid back, and there were also only golf carts to kick around in, no cars. Caye Caulker is sheltered by the Mesoamerican barrier reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world (to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia). It runs over 1000km, all the way from the tip of the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico down to Honduras. Unlike the Great Barrier Reef however which is slowly dying, this reef is still growing. The Great Blue Hole (a huge ocean sinkhole) is also off the coast of Belize, so hearing about the great diving and snorkelling here resulted in me adding Caye Caulker to my itinerary.

I had a pretty lazy first day on the island, wandering around town with Karin, a lovely Dutch girl I met on the boat over. We thought about going canoeing in one of the boats that were free at our hostel, but it was really hot, so we went up to ‘The Split’ at the top of the island for a swim (a hurricane years ago tore through and left a channel of water down the middle of the caye). Caye Caulker doesn’t have any actual beaches, so you just swim off the piers and docks. The Split is also home to the Lazy Lizard bar so is always packed with people fighting for a piece of prime pier real estate.

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Needless to say, we got stuck there til sunset! No canoeing for us… That afternoon, someone had brought in some little fish and people were throwing them up in the air to feed the frigate birds which hovered above the pier. It was a very cool sight to see- they almost look like they are hanging ornaments magically suspended in the air; they barely need to move their wings!

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In the evening I was feeling up to experiencing Caye Caulker’s night life, so we had dinner at Enjoy Bar (which offered the cheapest lobster on the island – a whole one plus a whole plate of sides for US$10!) then hit up the Reggae Bar. After that closed at midnight, followed the crowd to Oceanside, a nightclub which also had karaoke! It was super hot inside with only fans to help quell the tropical humidity and hoards of people, but the karaoke was surprisingly good and didn’t make me want to run outside and jump off the pier so we danced up a storm anyway- it was lots of fun.

The next day Karin and I went on a snorkelling trip on a sailboat and ended up on a boat with two other girls we’d come across from Chetumal with, Greta and Cari. Our boat was called ‘Raggagal’ and our captain was Ramsey, with Sherwin as his second.

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We sailed a little way north and Ramsey had soon spotted a manatee. You could just see its little nose poking out of the water when it came up to breathe! We quickly got our gear and hopped in, and then noticed there was a pair of manatees. Apparently it was mating season so they were often hanging out in twos. They were so cute, one looked like it was kissing the other, butting its nose on the other’s face! They hung around for ages and we were the only group there, so we just watched them til Ramsey ushered us back to the boat. It was AMAZING! I was so shattered I didn’t have my camera, but again got donated some pics from a friend taken at the same sites which I’ll use to show you here…

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Our next stop was Shark and Ray Alley which was a bit crazy and hectic as there were quite a few boats there and lots of snorkelers. There were HEAPS of nurse sharks and rays, and people were throwing food off the boats to them so they were going nuts. It was cool to see, but felt a bit like a zoo, so I didn’t really enjoy it as much. The best thing i saw was a stingray trying to eat a giant conch shell!

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Our last stop was the reef, where we swum all the way out over some beautiful coral, saw lots of gorgeous fish and also the resident green moray (they are so creepy looking…). There was a small swim through down at about 5-6m which I did, but was worrying so much about whether I’d be able to hold my breath all that way that I didn’t probably appreciate what I was seeing so much!

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At this site we also saw 3 sea turtles swimming around munching on sea grass. The vis was a lot better than when I saw the one off Holbox, so I could appreciate the amazing patterns on their bodies and shells a lot more- just gorgeous.

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On the sail back, the crew pumped up the reggae and we were fed shrimp ceviche, thousands of corn tortilla chips and gallons of rum punch (very dangerous, as it tastes just like juice!) as the sun sank in the sky. It was a really awesome day!

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My last full day on the Caye was an early one- I had booked a dive trip to the Great Blue Hole. I had to go to the dive shop at 5.30am where luckily we were dosed up on fresh coffee and sweet breads (I definitely need some caffeine on board if I have to associate with anyone at that time of the morning!). There were about 13 divers and 3 staff on the small boat. The ride out to the blue hole was around 2 hours, and rough for much of the way like in Holbox, but this time with a couple of gentle breaks over the reefs. We got to the blue hole before 9- you can’t fully appreciate it from the surface, but you could see the azure colour of the Caribbean change to a deep blue as we cruised into it.

The aerial shots of the hole are unbeliezable (had to be said at least once!)- it is about 300m across and 120m deep. So the dive itself is really short because it is relatively deep- if you had your advanced certification you could go to 40m. We only spent 25 minutes under all together- a quick freefall to 40m, then just 8 minutes bottom time before spending the last 15 minutes or so ascending slowly. Before I went, some people had told me they were disappointed and didn’t think the dive was that great but I loved it and was so glad to have done it. From a marine life point of view you’re not going to see millions of fish and coral, but it’s a site unlike any I’ve ever seen. As we were dropping into the dark blue abyss, we were lucky enough to see a couple of grey reef sharks lurking around but they soon swam off into the blue. But then the rocky formations appear- giant stalactites above and a rocky ledge below at 50 metres drops straight down into the hole. It was incredible- makes you feel so tiny!

We had two more dives for the day, both gradually a little shallower. The first was called Half Moon Wall which was an amazing coral wall which seemed to go on forever- we dove to 18m, but the reef kept going deeper. There were some very curious reef sharks who came right up to us, and we also saw another sea turtle. We stopped at the gorgeous and quiet Half Moon Caye for lunch and spent our surface interval wandering around the white sand beaches and checked out the red footed booby (a rare type of bird) nesting area.

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The last dive was at the aptly named site, The Aquarium. It looked like an underwater forest with massive gorgonian fans and tree-like whip corals, and was teeming with tropical fish. I also saw a green moray actually swimming which was a first- he was so huge and fat! I’ve only ever seen them poking their heads out of small crevasses in the past. Of course on our boat back, we were given surprise rum punch, as well as corn chips, salsa and cookies as we looked over beautiful Turniffe Atoll… (wouldn’t mind a private island round here!)

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That evening I had a delightful feast at the hostel with Marijke and Pieter (from Belgium) and Josh (originally from Trinidad and Tobago but has lived in Australia for several years). As a side note, Josh is in the midst of sailing from Florida down the Caribbean Coast and eventually on to Australia– he has a great blog about his adventures at www.sailsandsandals.com. Josh had been spear fishing that day and caught 2 big snapper which we fired up on the grill with some veggies- it was lovely to do some cooking and dining on some delicious, fresh seafood was a perfect way to finish my island time before heading back inland!

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