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01/01/2018

February 2004
We are travelling through Central America for a few months including Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama. Our journal is separated by country and while each stands alone they are part of one journey.

Antigua: At 3.00 am the Guatemala terminal is far from deserted. The hectic overnight flight from LA, is full of shoppers from Central America who fly to LA to buy electrical goods and fly home. Overhead lockers were full of microwaves, stoves, stereos even fridges – very crowded. A lot of confusion at the terminal, even for such an hour, we negotiated our way with English and sign language for transport to Antigua.

About 30 kilometres from the capital lies the old Spanish capital of Antigua, the heritage listed town is full of quaint houses, cobble stoned streets and surrounded by 3 volcanos which demolished the town in the 17th Century and again in the18th Century, which as good as any reason to move it. All around the town, church bells ring not quite every half hour starting at more or less 5am, but none of them seem to get it quite right. But wait, on further enquiry it seems the bell ringing is random as they are practising for the Easter celebrations.

On the weekend there are lots of local tourists and a lot of young international students studying Spanish. With over 70 language schools in town, the chance of someone practising Spanish on you is very high, ‘can’t understand, no problem just smile and move on’. The weather is a pleasant 20-25 degrees with clear skies, cool nights and the occasional scent of a burping volcano.

We started our Spanish lessons – 4 hours a day for the week. The letters J, H and Y are special sounds in Spanish, so we have adopted the names, Juan and Katerina which makes it much easier for the locals to pronounce. The people are really friendly, but we are surprised that their selling and negotiation skills are nothing like the Indonesians.

We stay at a little hotel (or otel) with some other travellers, it is pleasant with a small courtyard. So far, the food has been great, but interpreting the menu is not so easy, so what we eat is usually a surprise. However, the coffee is excellent, you can get espresso at every corner store, but it is very short and strong.

Assuming we graduate on Friday we are off to the Lake District and Highlands at Atitlan.

Panachej: We attend a very brief graduation ceremony from the AmericaSpan College of Espanol and full of confidence head to Panachjel a two hour bus ride west. Nestled in a caldera on a lake surrounded by four volcanos, it’s a high, misty and tranquil spot with small boats carrying people and produce to other lakeside villages. The road down into the town is a bit precarious with buses, trucks, locals and school children all vying for space on a winding and narrow track.

Chichicanstenago: is a market town about an hour further north into the mountains. A couple of days a week village people from the local districts get dressed up in their colourful costumes and head to the market to trade goods, which also makes it a popular tourist destination. A feature of the market is the local Shamans from each village who attend and parade through the market carrying their religious statues. One Quetzel (about 10 cents), gets a blessing that will last for 6 months. We passed on that one and go to the local church to observe mass where incense smoke fills the church, so we leave before we are overcome or blessed, there is no emission controls here.

We find an espresso cafe bar on the second storey overlooking the market and relax for a couple of hours to avoid the chaos and watch the hurly burly of the market. The vantage point proved quite entertaining as locals and tourists barter, push and squeeze their way between the stalls. Raw meat hangs in the open, next to clothes, underwear and hardware, a couple of cows and a few chooks watch on – a bit like a less regulated Melbourne Market really!

We return to Antigua before heading to the town of Flores and Tikal Ruins. Our transport options  – a two day local bus trip, an 8 hour express bus trip or a one hour flight…The next morning we catch the 4.00 am plane from Guatemala City to Flores, a quaint little island town in the middle of a lake about an hour from Tikal.

 Tikal: is the fabulous ancient Mayan ruins set in tropical rainforest in Northern Guatemala. The pyramids punch through the rainforest canopy and are often surrounded by mist; wildlife completes the magic with Howler monkeys screeching and parrots, iguanas and wildlife everywhere.

There are six temples, about 60-70 metres high. We hire a guide and climb the steep Temple 4 which has breathtaking views over the top of the rainforest canopy from the comfortable viewing platform.

We decide to stay a night at the ruins, so we could start exploring early more of the ruins without the guide. We spend all day wandering amongst the ruins and just before dusk we come across Temple 5. It is a very steep tower with a set of steps resembling multiple extension ladders, roped together and then precariously balanced against the side of the pyramid. There are not many visitors around and it seems even fewer climb it. Keen for a sunset view over the jungle canopy Cathy bounces up the ladders.

Now, at the top she notices the viewing platform was VERY narrow and the original stone steps VERY steep. After ten minutes viewing the monkeys and birds and as the sun sets over the forest canopy it’s starting to get darker, and there are even less people around. Fear sets in…there is a photo that shows this, it is noticeable in the leaning away from the edge, in her eyes and forced smile and of course the words – ‘I need to go down NOW’. She is on all fours crawling over the narrow platform to the ladder, this is followed by one of the most rapid descents ever recorded, including it would appear, even by virgins despatched from the top of the temple.

We return to Flores to relax and recover before deciding to move on. We have chatted to a few travellers who have highly recommend Cuba – a quick review of our schedule suggests we should include it, so we  decide to head to Cancun, Mexico by bus via Belize for a flight to Cuba.

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