Thursday, March 31, 2016

-- Mesoamerican Odyssey: Guate! (Part 1) --

It's just seconds past 09:45am, the temperature is already rising over the 30 degree mark and loud (even louder than Belize or Mexico) reggaeton music slowly hurt my ears as they are played through the black loudspeakers placed outside the several fake goods and electric appliances shops.

This is Melchor de Mencos, our gateway to famously troublesome 'Guate', as the locals affectionately call Guatemala, one of the largest in Central America.

A two-hour cramped minibus ride through round hills covered in corn fields takes us to the city of Santa Elena, a large Guatemalan town and a focus point for the Peten region.
Just a fifteen minute walk away, sitting on a small island embedded in the blue waters of Lake Peten Itza and linked through a man-made causeway is the town of Flores (literally 'flowers' in English), our first layover in this country.
The small island was first visited by the Spaniards in the year 1541 and finally conquered in 1697, time in which all the local Itzas ran away to hid in the forest.
From the ruins of this civilization, the town of Flores 'flourished' in a combination of colorful colonial facades that rise up the slightly inclined hills to the main square where the whitewashed cathedral sits enjoying a privileged view of the surroundings narrow streets, only negotiated by brave red tuk-tuks who swerve around the stone-laid alleyways.

Flores is indeed Santa Elena's pretty sister, as verified with a short visit to the hot and dusty streets of this transportation hub and dormitory town in order to buy a bus ticket to Guatemala City and refuel at the intricate yet charming street market where a crimson spicy beef stew served with a bit of rice and three corn tortillas can be purchased for under an US dollar.
The Lake Peten Itza is an attraction on its own, with the dramatic rays of sunshine penetrating the clear navy blue waters at sunset, whilst savoring local and slightly overpriced delicacies such as deep-fried enchiladas, fresh empanadas, bulky tamales or what I would call the best chocolate cake in the world at the street market that sets in at what seems to be the 'main boardwalk' shortly after the sun has finished punishing the hot jungle and the temperatures are slightly more bearable.

As the town sleeps, numb memories of an early morning bus ride North take me to the protected area of Tikal National Park, clearly defined by a wall that separates the human settlements/corn crops on one side from a dense lush jungle on the other.
'Another Mayan archeological site' I think, and this is a thought that vanishes almost immediately by the exuberance and remoteness of Tikal's mirage unfolding just in front of me. Unlike tourist-plagued Chichen Itza, Tikal still remains as one of Central America's best kept secrets.

Several pyramids towering to up to 70 meters tall seem to challenge the dense jungle around them , with the their tops graciously crowning the top of the tallest trees, enchanting the minds of many visitors who rush towards this complex before sunrise to witness a unique start of the day.
It is a misty morning, so instead of dyeing our sight with some orange-colored visual show, we delight our hearing with a loud symphonic performance of early morning howler monkeys clinging atop robust mahogany trees.
An over-stimulation of senses whilst skipping between old pyramids and carved stoned squares, just as the day sets in and the intense morning heat strikes minutes after we reach the top of Templo IV, setting of adoration in Mayan times and, recently serving as a filming spot for Star Wars (don't ask me which one), setting of the surreal in current times.

Kayaking at Lake Peten Itza is the chosen activity for the afternoon, appeasing the heat of the day whilst bagging some much needed exercise and enjoying privileged views of the small island-town and surroundings.
Flores is left behind at night, under the scrutiny of dodgy characters which plague the long avenue separating the safe tourist haven of colonial Flores and the bus station at Santa Elena at night.

Splurging for the first time in days, we board the 'Maya de Oro' double-decker bus (at USD 35, it is the most expensive we could get) taking advantage of the mobile wi-fi and the comfortable reclining seats until finally falling asleep. It doesn't last long.
Four hours later, I am awoken by the Arctic-like air conditioning now freezing up my legs and by the G forces applied to my body with every single turn the bus makes, readily checking on my iPhone's GPS only to find out that we are entering the mountainous region, ending my hopes of ever falling sleep on this journey for good.

Seven hours after having left the hot plains of Peten, the lugubriously lit slums of Guatemala City rapidly mushroom outside my bus window. We have made it to the largest city in the country an hour and a half ahead of schedule, which in the end might explain the stomach-wrenching ride.
Tired, starving and slightly clueless, we arrive at the bus company's own terminal and are advised not to leave the premises until the sun has risen.

Welcome to Guatemala City!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

-- Mesoamerican Odyssey: Un-Belize-able --

Working as a buffer country between the touristy Mexico and the slightly daunting Guatemala, my expectations of Belize were just as small as its territory.

On approach to the Belize City, the largest city in the country, colonial-style crumbling wooden houses seem to cram onto one another alongside dusty avenues,  a place every single guidebook will tell you to avoid.
Hot, dusty and buzzing with a mixture of loud music and the smell of ripe fruit, we venture out of our air conditioned bus to the dingy terminal, walk just around the corner to withdraw some Belizean pounds and have some street side tacos smothered with a large cup of black coffee.
Plans of continuing to tourist-haven Caye Caulker were dwarfed by the idea of taking a turn West into the lush greenery of inland Belize and the intention of avoiding the strong sunshine, much to my sunburned skin's appreciation.
And at 09:30am, despite the some 30-something degrees Celsius already burning the hot morning, my proper public transport journey begins by taking my first 'chicken bus' out of the city.

A 'chicken bus' is a foreign name given to old American 'Bluebird-style' school buses, which find a second life in the depths of the sinuous roads of Central America.
Once brought here, these banana-yellow rolling fortresses are provided with gearboxes, a higher suspension kit and some bright colors. Some owners of course would add extra features such as high definition screens, DVD players, LED lights, etc.
However, the bus I take to Western Belize is rather old and the suspension has definitely seen better days. A summer downpour begins to fall shortly after we leave the busy city and the soothing aroma of humid turf invades the crowded bus.
Off we rocket West, squeezed in an old school bus, with my every organ trembling at the jump of each pothole hit at over 80 kph, pouring rain outside, mist windows and hot inside. Yet wherever I look, a wide warm smile is given to me, reassuring the thought of having landed in no man's land.

This is when Belizeans strike me with their personality,  something perhaps inherited from the creole inhabitants, a true Caribbean mix of two distant continents.
A reflection of Belize's main motto: 'just relax' and, despite the violent reputation of this small nation, an invite to literally just 'enjoy the (bumpy) ride'.

A few miles after passing through the unremarkable capital of Belize, the town of Belmopan, we finally reach our destination for the day, the town of San Ignacio.
Overhanging on both sides of a narrow green valley and linked by two precarious bridges, the town exudes one main thing: quaintness.
I spot the main market where used American clothes are offered in an array of (only) large sizes, and a small covered area where ripe fruit is offered in a symphony of colors and aromas.

The bus pull off by the main square and a walk through the narrow streets of San Ignacio suddenly bring memories of other equally precarious yet exciting towns such as Aguas Calientes in Peru or Kyaktiyo in Myanmar.
The hostel, an old and large Colonial wooden house perched at the top of a hill, invites to simply sit down in the colorful cushions carefully placed in the large open balcony, whilst contemplating the brewing distant thunderstorms merciless punishing the colonial villages at moments, and enjoying the fullness of a cup of strong local coffee.

Our several meals consist in constant visits to a typical food joint down the road to enjoy lustful platters of freshly grilled fish, or pots of tangy Belizean-style beef stew, always accompanied by an order of bittersweet fried plantains, comforting coconut rice and an array of freshly diced vegetables.

At some stage we venture to the border town of Benque Viejo, since my Chinese travel companion needs to arrange a visa for Guatemala and in the attempt, we find ourselves discovering a country which surprises us at every corner.
A short ferry crossing across a majestic light green colored river and a 20-minute steep uphill walk bring us to the Xunantunich, or Stone Lady.
A series of pyramids that seem to erupt from a pristine lime green grassland and raise over 40 meters tall at El Castillo, its highest point. Climbable I am told. Climbing I go.

From the top, the beauty of the Belizean landscape strikes with full power, and the fertile lands of this small country seem to never end in a horizon of tall tropical trees and soft hills.

Our dose of Belizean reality is infused whilst roaming around the empty and heat-charred streets of Benque Viejo, in between quaint houses with doors half open, taking a rest from the world and the weather at the shadow of the local school resting area, where kids are heard loudly repeating their lessons though the striking colorful wooden windows embedded in a white building and good free Wifi is available.
Once my friend is handed her visa by a friendly Guatemalan consul, we leave for San Ignacio whilst the sun sets behind us turning the hills and crops into a tropical orange rhapsody.

A few days later, my Chinese friend, a newly met Australian guy and I leave the sleepy village shortly after sunrise by taking our one-dollar 'chicken bus' to the border town of Benque Viejo, later walking for five kilometers amidst sleepy commuters and merchandise traders and finally crossing the border to messy Melchor de Mencos in the Guatemalan side, ending a short yet eventful stay in a country that impressed me with the beauty of both its landscape and its people, seen through the green color of both their soft fertile hills and their deep starry eyes.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

-- Mesoamerican Odyssey: Mexico --

I step out of the deserted terminal to be greeted by a loud pack of shuttle and taxi drivers offering their transfer services to every imaginable corner in Yucatan.

Sleep-deprived and slightly grumpy, my mood further deteriorates when such drivers tell me almost at unison that the next bus into the city will only run at around 09:00am, some three hour wait in the heat with no amenities or wifi.
Stares are exchanged between myself and some three other stranded tourists carrying heavy backpacks facing the same predicament. Should we team up and try to take a transfer together to soften the fall of the hefty fare?

Ten minutes later, like a shiny carriage coming from heaven, an 'Autobuses del Oriente (ADO)' bus pulls into the driveway with a large clear sign on the front windshield: CANCUN.

   - Is this going to Cancun? Yes.
   - Is it in service? Yes.

And in a matter of seconds, the thought of having landed in Latin America sinks in.
Through the 'criollo' idiosyncrasy, through the small white lie with the intention of generating extra revenue. Could you blame them?, in the end, they are trying to make a living at the expense of the rich clueless tourists Cancun is a magnet for.

As the bus cruises through a straight-lined motorway, the sight of distant hotel monstrosities can be seen in the background whilst around us, a dry landscape of white sand dotted with market stalls merges into a sea of minivans and brand new cars.
This is the Cancun most tourists arriving in Yucatan see: the resorts dominating the turquoise coast line, splashing shiny signs and promising a time of carefully designed and scheduled fun.

I arrive at the modern central bus station and the thought of spending much time in an environment as the one mentioned above sickens my stomach and just as a departure is announced over the loudspeaker repetitively, I buy a bus ticket to what I decide will be my base of operations for the next days.
Two hours later, a loudly dubbed Jackie Chan movie and one failed attempt at falling sleep, my stop is finally announced: the town of Tulum.

Tulum is what one would describe as a 'one-street town'. A town designed to cater for the needs of the less 'budget-blessed' travelers wanting to equally enjoy the goodness of the Caribbean blue waters. An agglomeration of buildings crammed into a series of cheap (and not so cheap) Mexican restaurants, an equal array of accommodation options and a row of colourful souvenir shops.
Stepping two blocks away from the main road, the scenery changes to simple one-story houses with very tall walls laid on a grid-like layout of unfinished pavements and potholes-doomed roads.

The walk to the hostel I had in mind seems to take ages under the midday heat and jet-lag combination, yet the wide smile of the receptionist wearing surf-style clothing and messy hair reassures the thought of having made the right decision in choosing Tulum at the time of checkin.

Once settled in my 12-bed dorm, I ditch my shoes, which I'd only see weeks later, and walk through a long mixed pedestrian/cycle track to meet the Caribbean.
The usually-calm sea is momentarily battered by a heavy cumulonimbus which seem to both refresh the heat and scare a few tourists away, whilst I place my blue towel in the soft white sand and disregard the heavy drops of rain falling, almost instantly succumbing to the thought of a power nap on the beach.
My dinner plans consist on a stroll around the town on my own, buying a cheap straw hat and find the cheapest 'quesadillas' restaurant possible, because nothing could go wrong with a place proudly displaying a 'Solo 12 pesitos' ('Only 10 pesitos', some 40 cents of an Euro) slogan in their billboard.

My first night in Mexico unfolds as a drowsy riddle of banned screaming guests, mild hostel staff drama and a very sick Australian girl who did not have enough time to make it to the bathroom.
Wide awake before the sun rises, I grab a cup of coffee and some burned toast and catch the first ADO bus heading inland.
Once I reach Valladolid, the change of buses to a less glamorous one sparks a conversation between myself and a Chinese girl: 'the seats are broken and they can not be placed upright'.

The beauty of travelling unfolds again: a chat about our own trips and an exchange of past experiences begin, whilst the bus picks up more passengers and rapidly reaches Piste, stop for a widely-known World Wonder.
A World Wonder visit could not be started without paying a hefty sum of money for the entrance fee which, despite the price, creates a more intense expectation of what lies behind the thick concrete walls protecting the park.
I am lucky. The place is empty and the vendors are still setting their stalls up on the dirt shaded road.

My new friend and I gasp in awe. It is right in front of us: sturdy, perfectly geometrically designed and almost as it was placed in a flat grassland by magic: The pyramid of El Castillo at Chichen Itza.

The whole complex of ruins which extends for over 740 acres, works as a rich playground for hardcore historians and clueless tourists alike and, remarkable buildings such as the Temple of the Warriors with its numerous rows of monoliths, each one carved with homage to remarkable Mayan warriors motifs, will definitely catch the attention of even the most 'museum-phobic' person in the world.
Around the corner, I walk through the main courtyard where a skilful sort of football featuring leather balls, protruding stone rings and human sacrifices was once played, and where now tourists stand in awe repetitively clapping and whispering in order to prove yet another Mayan architecture wonder: the perfect management of acoustics within its ceremonial complexes.

By 11:00am, sunburned hungover tourists arrive in a convoy of luxurious coaches and the place fills up with selfie sticks,  becoming almost unbearable to walk through.
It's time to retreat back to Valladolid for a light lunch and some fresh tangerines interestingly seasoned with a combination of chillies and sea salt.
My new travel companion from Chongqing, a heavy thunderstorm and I return to the coast at Tulum for the night.

The last day in Mexico is spent riding worn out rented bikes, tropical wind in the face and bottles of water in hand, starting with a visit to the Mayan complex of Tulum, a place that synchronises the gloomy grey rocks that now support the abandoned ruins with the dramatic backdrop of the bluest sea one can see in life.
Just a few meters below the ridge, the waves crash onto white sand, refreshing the arid landscape mostly populated by poisonous snakes and large iguanas.

A long afternoon slowly cooking the skin at the beach in Playa Paraiso is next, crowned by a dinner of fresh avocado/seafood tacos and a relaxing evening staring at the clear sky (and my iPhone screen), whilst laying on a comfortable hammock at the hostel lobby.

At midnight, we walk across a Tulum transformed into of row of dark deserted streets, where drunk locals stumble around at the echo of distant brothels with gloomy neon lights playing loud norteƱas and rancheras.

I remember very little of the bus ride, having fallen asleep shortly after leaving the terminal at Tulum, and only waking up at 03:25am when the darkness of the strongly air conditioned coach is interrupted.
The lights are swiftly turned on and chants of 'Pasaporte! Frontera!' finally end the lethargic journey to the border post of Chetumal.
We queue just outside of the coach and are called one by one into a dingy little office in which two immigration officers demand USD 25 to leave the country, leaving no opportunity to explain that such tourist tax was paid on arrival or any other possible excuse for that matter.
No receipt is given either and once my passport is reluctantly adorned with a dim green stamp upon paying the hefty 'departure fee', I can only think of the uniformed pair indulging on beers and street food whilst counting the loot gathered from over 25 tourists.

A few meters away, a well-organised border post in which tourists are heavily scrutinised works as the entry point to Belize.
Without not knowing what to expect of one of the youngest countries in America, I enter former British Honduras in the middle of complete darkness, only to wake up at 06:00am with the shake of the coach trying to constantly avoid potholes whilst the sunrise unveils a fertile green land splattered with colourful colonial houses to me.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

-- California, here we come! --

My long absence from the Republic of Ireland begins almost at midday of a rainy day, for a departure on one of the many daily flights into the depths of the always-chaotic London Heathrow Airport.

Once our green baby Airbus docks at the shiny 'Queen's Terminal', I decide to follow a series of recently added purple signs promising a direct connection between terminals, surprisingly transferring from my arriving gate in Terminal 2 to my departure gate in Terminal 3 in no more than 15 minutes. Brownie points for the improved passenger experience in what it was always known as 'Hell on Earth' by frequent travellers.

A streamed lined and elegant Airbus 340-600 is then boarded, almost a privilege to fly them at this stage and, with a load of only 80 passengers on a some 280-something capacity aircraft,  our quad-engine jet clears the web of runways in West London and sets course towards Scotland and the North Atlantic in one of the most pleasant flights I have had.

The plane is chasing the sunset, which finally catches up with us whilst flying over the Rockies and only an hour before starting our descent into the San Bernardino mountains, finishing a 12-hour flight which took me over Greenland, Hudson Bay and Winnipeg.
Shortly after landing at 'LAX', we are assigned the old arrivals hall at Terminal 2, taking nearly an hour to clear the immigration and customs queue. Not a pleasant experience after having flown for several hours and with a body clock telling you it's nearly 4:00am and you haven't slept in almost 21 hours.

The news of a friend from my swimming times in Bolivia now living in California with his family came as a pleasant social media surprise, creating an invite which turned my time in the West Coast into a very memorable experience.
An experience starting with a friendly face waiting for me at the Arrivals Hall (in this case, his sister), an instant shock of temperature when leaving the air conditioned terminal and feeling the warm dry Californian evening, and a drive through congested motorways and crowded neighborhoods, across the soft hills of Santa Clarita (with a stop at the oh-so-Californian 'In-n-Out' burger joint) and finally, a long straight section of the road leading to Bakersfield, or so I remember it whilst desperately trying to engage into conversation with my mind half asleep.

I reach their home in Bakersfield and head straight to bed, only to wake up in the epitome of Californian suburbia: spotless streets and perfectly manicured gardens in an endless sequence of one-storey houses leading to broad avenues.
We go for a walk to explore the city, a conglomerate of suburban housing estates broadly spread out through the San Joaquin Valley.

The city works as a focus point in Central California (I was told several times: San Francisco, Las Vegas and Los Angeles are equidistant from this spot) and its economy revolves around oil and agriculture, an obvious feature when walking around the long Panorama Drive, surrounded by a bone-dry horizon spotted with a few houses and many small oil fields.

With a cultural background revolving around oil, the city also has a broad (and proud) heritage in horse-related activities such as rodeos and most importantly, a fixation with country music.

In the evening, I am treated to a show of country music at the famous Buck Owen's Crystal Palace, where overly eager waiting staff take our orders whilst we chug on copious amounts of soft drinks and enjoy the tunes of the rather melancholic yet upbeat tunes of a proper country show. 
The meals follow next, served in the largest portions/plates I have ever seen in my life, making me feel like the United States is probably the only country in the world in which one eats without even being hungry. 
Finally, the night ends at the rhythm of some Latin American reggaeton , before surrendering to fatigue and almost collapsing in sleep whilst on an Uber ride.

With my body finally getting used to the time zone, we take the motorway South cutting through interminable vineyards in the early morning,  leaving the safety and quaintness of Bakersfield to face the concrete jungle of Los Angeles and so , a day of visiting targeted cliches unfolds, almost in a synchronised sequence.

Under the bluest of the skies, Griffith Park is reached first (once parking is sorted), providing one of the best views of both the Hollywood sign embedded in the dry nearby mountains, and Downtown Los Angeles, almost completely covered in a dense mist.
We rapidly glance through the small yet interesting astronomical exhibition at the Observatory before facing the crowds and drive through palm tree-lined avenues in a landscape that seems to have been taken from every TV show I have seen when younger. 
Indeed, we are driving through Beverly Hills, which is almost a separate entity within the City of Los Angeles with its spotless Mexican-style mansions, tall gates and luxurious cars parked in every driveway.

Next in the sequence is Hollywood Boulevard, where an army of tourists clumsily walk in a path dotted with stars and famous names, the 'Hollywood Walk of Fame' alright.
It's crowded, it's plastic, it's cliche, it's so beautifully compelling.

A trip to Beverly Hills would not be complete without a stop in Rodeo Drive for a glance of 'how the other half lives', manifested in a parade of fit and tanned locals wearing large sunglasses, juggling several shopping bags on each hand and driving off in a selection of spotless SUVs,  Lamborghinis and Ferraris.
Hunger attacks and is quickly smothered by a luscious lunch at the Cheesecake Factory just in time for an unsuccessful attempt to visit Santa Monica, thanks to the infamously heavy Californian traffic, and a drastic U-turn in order to reach the airport.

I say good-bye to my top notch hosts (also writing these lines, so my gratitude is forever registered in time) for my amazing first time in California and , not yet ended with the day of 'Cali' cliches, I watch the orange-tinted sun setting over the busy runways whilst sitting on the grass by Sepulveda Boulevard with airplanes landing some 10 meters above my head.

My Delta Airlines flight departs a few hours later. The wifi doesn't work and the four-hour route is dotted with bumpy segments.
Just short of 06:00am local time, kind and patient flight attendants run a show on 'How to fill out a customs form written in Spanish only', moments before we start our final approach into the world-famous holiday city of Cancun in the Mexican Caribbean.

A friendly 'O.C.' couple ask about the details of the trip I have embarked upon whilst queuing at the immigration and customs point, and also question my capacity of travelling with a small hand luggage-only backpack for a number of weeks.
The not-so-amused customs officer swiftly stamps my passport, marking my entry into Mexico, my 77th visited country and the starting point of my Central American Odyssey.