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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Travel Potpourri: Antigua, El Salvador, Honduras & Roatan

May - June 2010

Well, so much has happened since we last updated -- let´s jump right in:

Antigua, Guatemala

Our last stop in Guatemala was all together different from the rest of the country. A beautiful colonial city full of hostels and backpacker attractions, Antigua smothered us with its architectural and historical charm and allowed us to comfortably explore a big city in Central America.

All Central American towns, from the largest city down to the smallest village, have a plaza where people gather to gossip, eat street food, or just idly pass the time. And out of all the plazas in all the many towns we have have visited we can comfortably say that Antigua´s central plaza was our favorite. With an impressive fountain at its center, (adorned with life size statues of women shooting water from their nipples. thats right, their nipples.), and a dazzling cathedral towering along its edge, we spent several much of our days (and nights) sitting in the plaza people watching and soaking up the sun. At night, the face of the church was completely lit up, making for an ideal place to sit and drink beer. The rest of our time in Antigua was spent visiting historical landmarks, such as the ruins of an old colonial church which was decimated during the earthquake of 1773, buying fresh fruits and vegetables in the most immense and chaotic marketplace we´ve come across yet, and drinking coffee on the plaza.

When we´d had enough of walking the cobblestone streets and lazing around the plaza we decided to take the advice of all the signs we´d seen around town and attempt to hike one of the two (and active) volcanoes that loom over the city of Antigua. On advice from fellow travellers we chose to explore Volcan Pacaya on a guided tour. It took about an hour and a half arrive at the foot of the volcano about 2 hours to hike to the peak. We climbed through a changing landscape that went from forest, to vast grassy plains, to endless mounds and piles of black volcanic rocks. As we reached the peak we felt as though we´d landed on another planet. The heat emanating from the rocks below us was tangible and we could dip our walking sticks (which we purchased from kids at the bottom of the volcano for 25 cents) into glowing red pockets where they would burst into flames. People were roasting marshmallows and grilling their sandwiches on the rocks and the peaks behind us were constantly emitting smoke, like being on the open sea, we could feel that the Earth is just as alive as us.

Ruta De Flores - El Salvador

Originally we had planned to skip El Salvador, as we´d been turned off by stories of civil unrest and dangerous cities with no unique attractions to draw us there. However, after meeting some very helpful travellers in Lanquin who strongly endorsed a visit to El Salvador, in particular the Ruta De Flores (Route of the Flowers), we decided that in the spirit of going with the flow and the newfound knowledge that the best advice tends to come from other travellers and not from a book we decided to brave the unknown .

The Ruta De Flores is the name of a road which connects several small cities and coffee plantations in the highlands of Northwestern El Salvador. The Route is named for the many flowers that bloom along it´s edge during the month of May. The air is fresh and cool, the landscape lush in this part of the country: it was truly a spectacular sight as we bused from town to town along the Ruta.

Ataco, maybe the smalles, sleepiest town we have visited in all of our travels, was basically closed down completely when we arrived (we learned later that weekends are when the town comes to life). Luckily, after walking through town in search of lodging, with local villagers gawking at us as if we were from outer space, we were able to find a place to stay in a hotel perched at the top of a tall steep hill, (quite a hike with backpacks on but worth it for the view). We quickly learned a few things about El Salvador, and in particular these small mountain villages : 1. They use the American Dollar as currency, 2. The hotels/hostels are more expensive but everything else (food, transportation, etc) is much cheaper, and 3. They are not very accustomed to foreigners (we were definitely the only gringos in the whole town).

In Ataco we ate cheap street food, with all of our meals being under $1 each and
consisting mainly of the Salvadorean favorite, papusas: cheese, bean or meat filled corn patties. We enjoyed the peaceful central square, one of our all time favorite plazas in central america due to its lovely fountain and magnificent, moss covered trees (which max discovered to be great for climbing), and drank strong, fresh coffee. We also found a delicious Italian-owned restaurant and treated ourselves to plate of fantastic fettucini alfredo (a real treat after so many weeks of beans, corn and chicken.) Sadly, Max got a migraine on our last day in town and we spent most of the day resting in our room before moving on to the next town, Juayua, to catch the reknown weekend food festival.

In Juayua we stayed at a inviting hostel, called Hostel Anauac, which had a nice outdoor kitchen, a tv and great dvd selection and a lovely outdoor courtyard. Our primary motivation for visiting Juayua , being the food obsessed people that we are, was for the nationally known ¨Festival Gastronomico¨ which occur every weekend and which Salvadoreños from the capital and all over the country frequent. Hundreds of food stands from around the region line up along the plaza and sell everything from fresh seafood ceviche to grilled meats to corn pastries with cream. We ate, drank beer, watched Barcelona win a soccer game (amidst hundreds of cheering Salvadoreans), and enjoyed the various forms of entertainment in the plaza (like the hip-hop performace, where we joked about the two girls at who were basically bizarre-o Flora & Deirdre at age 13).

After enjoying the food fair on both Saturday and Sunday we decided to work off all the calories with a short hike to a nearby waterfall that lay just on the outskirts of town. Created by some kind of man-made damn for hydroelectric power, these seven towering waterfalls which tumbled from the rocks above us, were set in a secluded tropical forest. We were the only ones there, and we spent the day swimming in the pools at the bottom of the falls and breathing in our surroundings. An easy, relaxing day was topped off with the comforts of home back at our cozy hostel: a home-made dinner of pasta, salad and wine(!) and Curb Your Enthusiasm for the perfect end to a wonderful weekend.

Los Cobanos - El Salvador

On a whim, after deciding we needed more time in this welcoming country, we decided to pop down to a little town called Los Cobanos on the Pacific Coast. We were directed to Kalindigo a recently opened hostel, and the only one to be found in this miniscule beach village. We only stayed for 3 nights, but we thoroughly enjoyed our time at this homey, beach-side get-away. Other than one other backpacker who was painting an incredible mural on the wall of one of the buildings, and the owner, who embraced us like family of her own, we were the only people there. We swam in the saltwater pool, walked along the beach, waded in the ocean, played Scrabble & Yahtzee and loved on her puppy and her kitten -- Ishka & Ciatci, and Flora even got to help paint some of the mural. We also enjoyed some of the most delicious and affordable seafood we´ve had yet, whole fried fish, and yummy mussels and oysters spiced up with lime, worchestire, salt and hot sauce (we were first introduced to these by a table full of friendly Salvadoreños at a restaurant who generously gave us a plateful and taught us the best way to eat them). A relaxing, worthwhile beach stop before moving onto the city of Santa Ana.

Santa Ana - El Salvador

Santa Ana was supposed to be a quick stop in a big city, El Salvador´s second city after San Salvador, before moving onto Honduras, but we found ourselves staying for longer that we planned due to the relaxing atmosphere of our hostel Casa Frolaz which was a beautiful colonial style home that the gracious and friendly owner, Javier, had converted into an hospedaje. We stayed in a comfortable bed and enjoyed a huge shower with hot water (not very common), a massive kitchen, a courtyard with lime trees, and a comfortable living room with a great selection of DVDs. We explored the city´s Central Plaza and church, its huge market and its very US-like mall (we even ate a Wendy´s burger). We got a good vibe in this city and were able to really experience the night life in El Salvador when Javier´s nephew and his friends took us out for a night. We drank beer, listened to live music, bought a piece of art from a spray-paint artist and ended the night some intoxicated teens who were big fans of Max´s recently purchased Barcelona shirt. We spent the next day lazing around watching movies and planning our trip to Honduras.

Copan Ruinas - Honduras

After another harrowing day of border crossing and uncomfortable bus travel we made it to Copan Ruinas, a town aptly named because of its close vicinity to the Mayan Ruins of Copan.

Copan Ruinas was actually a nice place to stay while we took part in nearby excursions, despite the large amount of tourists in the town. We spent the first day visiting the Mayan Ruins at Copan, known for their engravings and sculptures which are extremely ornate and unique. Although an interesting cultural site, these ruins were a little underwhelming and over-priced, requiring side fees for nearly every exciting part of the park (and after experiencing the wonder of Tikal its hard to be impressed by any ruins). We did however catch our first glimpse of a Macaw, the largest and most stunning bird we have ever seen in the wild.

Thanks to that sighting and a recommendation from some German travellers that we met in El Salvador, we decided to visit the Macaw Mountain Animal Sanctuary. With a guided tour through the park we were intimately introduced to hundreds exotic birds who had been kept as pets but mistreated or unable to be cared for. Apparently macaws can live as long as humans and are difficult to care for, requiring a lifelong commitment that most aren´t ready for: thus the reserve exists for birds who have lived as domesticated pets for their entire lives and so are unable to live in the wild but no longer have homes. It was heartbreaking to see some of the most recently adopted birds who would bite out their own feathers, an indication of stress. But it was also uplifting to see the birds who had adjusted, how well cared for they were and how spacious and well-kept their cages were. In total we saw at least 3 different kinds of Macaws, 2 kinds of Toucans, parakeets, owls, hawks and even something called a monkey night (or night monkey, the guide might have been confused about the traslation). OK, so the monkey night isn´t a bird, but it is a wonderful monkey/lemur like creature that kept holding our hands and even howled when we left, it fell in love with us and gosh darn it we fell in love with it. We even got to hold the birds on our arms and shoulders (see picture at the link at the bottom of this post).

Lago de Yojoa - Honduras

We decided to stop off and visit the Lago De Yojoa, a magnificent lake located on our way to the Caribbean Coast, and motivated in part by the blurb in our book about a small microbrewery/hostel that we could visit in the area (and so far the only one we´ve seen in Central America). We stayed at the brewery in a very basic room, enjoyed some delicious, tangy and not sweet, Apricot and Raspberry ales, and took a nice hike to the lake. It was a short worthwhile visit for the best fruit beer we´ve ever had.

Trujillo - Honduras

It took us longer than expected to reach Trujillo and at first it seemed like it wasn´t worth the difficult trip. The beach was dirty and cloudy, the town was deserted and unfriendly and the room we stayed in was claustraphobic. Fortunately, after a couple days of wondering why we had bothered with the 6 hour chicken bus ride we found Casa Alemania, an inviting hostel and a second home, a little ways out of town. The owners comprised an entertaining duo: a large, stereo-typical German man and his small but stout Honduran wife who were hilarious and welcoming. The weather turned up, and we found some nicer beach with cleaner sand and calm waters, ate some delicious shrimp with rice and enjoyed one of the best sunsets ever.

Roatan - Honduras

Roatan is literally paradise: the waters are turquoise, crystal clear and unbelievably calm, the sand so fine and white that it actually shimmers. Tropical fish swim by your feet as you relax in the still waters and you don´t even need a snorkel to admire them. Roatan was so paradisical that we never wanted to leave, and we actually ended up staying on this amazing caribbean island for 17 days, longer than we have stayed anywhere else on this journey.

We were fortunate to find a great deal for our lodging: own little cabaña with a private bathroom, air conditioning (quite a luxury in this part of the world), a shared kitchen, our very own porch with a hammock and mango and coconut trees galore, and a place to call home after being on the move for nearly three months. We adjusted easily to island life (it was reeeeally hard) and our two and a half weeks felt like one long day as we passed our time soaking up the sun, snorkelling, reading and writing, eating lobster and seafood, playing cards, talking long walks on the beach, exercising, watching the NBA Finals at our favorite neighborhood bar, cooking, doing crossword puzzles, drinking piña coladas and rum and cokes, chopping coconuts...anyway, you get the idea- We felt like we were on a vacation from our vacation.

Unfortunately, we also got bed bugs about three-fourths of the way through our time on Roatan (for our first, and hopefully last time on this trip) and had to cope with some of the worst bug bites of our lives (mosquitos and sand flies too). But if there is one thing that we have learned on this trip it´s that traveling is like a rollercoaster, and for every up there is always a down. We tried not to let this experience bring us down too much. In the end, nothing could detract from our appreciation of the island or how fortunate we felt to be right where we were -- which was paradise, delicious paradise.

Since we visited these places we have been back to the United States for Jared & Anna´s wedding and through Nicaragua. We are now in Costa Rica having a wonderful time.

Always with love

Max & Flora

Picture Links

New pictures of Antigua at the end of the Guatemala album:

El Salvador and Honduras:

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Guatemala - Ups, downs and all arounds

Hello Again!

Welcome to post 3 of flormaxation: Guatemala.

We last left you in Flores, about to embark on an adventure to Tikal, one of the most talked about Mayan Ruins in all of Central America.

Tikal, Guatemala

This place did not disappoint, in fact it did the opposite of that... It appointed, no no, it surprised, stunned, amazed and was one of the most amazing places we´ve ever seen.

We woke up at dawn (around 4 AM) to try to get to Tikal before sunrise. The collectivo we took didn't make it there before sunrise, but when we did arrive we found that very few people were at the park, so we had a lot of time completely on our own to listen to the jungle wake up.

Tikal is an amazing set of enourmous ruins in the heart of the jungle. We decided to go off the beaten track first and visit an isolated temple which led us on a 35 minute walk through the jungle with no one else around for miles. It was exhilirating and terrifying! If you've never heard the scream of a howler monkey before, you might say it sounds suprisingly similar to the deep roar of a hungry Jaguar. As you can imagine, we thought we might die right then and there. Literally. Fortunately, we were able to persist through our impending heart attacks, and take in the magical jungle that surrounded us.

Our visit to Tikal made for one of the best days of our lives. Everyone should see this place before they die. Seriously.

Lanquin & Semuc Champey

After spending one night in the friendly, somewhat larger city of Coban we moved on to the mountain town of Lanquin where we stayed at a very cool hostel called ¨The Zephyr Lodge.¨ Lanquin is set in the lush highlands of Guatemala just above a gushing river and our hostel offered some of the most incredible vistas we've seen-the highlights being the outdoor shower with sunset views and the 4 puppies living there (hours of entertainment!) Lots of hammocks, reading and lazing and walks along the river.

Our reason for staying in Lanquin was to visit the neighboring national park Semuc Champey. The main attraction are a three tier set of crystal clear pools created by a river which flows through the park. The river goes underground and the pools are formed as the excess river water flows above it. During part of the year you can cliff jump here, but the water was too shallow for that as we were there in the dry season. We took a strenous hike up through the jungle to a point that looked down over the turquoise pools and then climbed down and went for a cool swim to wash off the sweat and catch our breath.

Although the pools were a spectactular sight, they paled in comparison the guided tour we had taken earlier that day through the Can Ba caves of Semuc Champèy- THE most exhilirating experiences of our lives. Our guide was named Carlos, and we put our lives and trust in his hands as he led us ¨safely¨through the adventure of our lives. We started at a tree swing that went over a ledge into the middle of a large river. We swung out about 20 ft into the air and had to jump off at just the right moment to make sure we landed in the deep part of the river- not a bad way to start out the day and a preview of things to come. Then we ventured into the pitch black ancient maya cave with only a waterproof candle in hand. The waterproof part was necessary as there were times when we were not be able to touch the ground and had to swim with one hand while maintaining the candle above water with the other. On our 2-3 kilomteres traverese into the side of a mountain we jumped 10 ft of a cave wall into a pool of water, we climbed over and through a waterfall using a rope, we scaled a 10 ft rock wall & we blew out our candles once we were up on a ledge to sit in complete silence and darkness for 5 minutes (to list a few things). It was a truly amazing day.

The Guat City Bus Fiasco

We decided that the day after our adventure we were ready to move on to Lago de Atitlan. Unfortunately we chose to travel on the final day of Semana Santa, the ony day in the whole year when there are no buses to the lake from Guatemala City. This was also our only experience with a tourist shuttle, which is like a mini-bus specifically for tourists. The other passengers and the driver got in to a bit of a scuffle and everyone ended up pissed off, so we had to stay in Guatemala City in an expensive hostel, where Max got a horrible stomach bug for 2 nights (when our original intention had been to bypass this city altogether). One thing we´ve learned on this trip- you have good days and bad days, you have amazing days and horrible ones. But then you move on.

San Pedro La Laguna and Santa Cruz La Laguna

After a day of travelling we made it to San Pedro, a city on Lago de Atitlan. We found some very cheap accomodation (like $6 for the 1st 2 nights and $3 for the 3rd night) and some fun places to eat. We had a good time in this grungy, party city drinking, relaxing and eating. Free movies were showing almost nightly at many local restaurants and we were able to catch Men Who Stare at Goats one night over dinner.

We then ran into an amazing, fortuitus opportunity and jumped on its back, riding it until we were rejuvenated and restored. A family friend of Flora´s hooked us up with the owner of a yoga retreat called Villa Sumaya on another town on the lake and she generously offered us free room and board at her 5-star yoga resort in exchange for volunteering some of our time to finish some projects and help out. Flora and I agreed to do it and after spending 2 nights at La Iguana Perdida (a wonderful hostel in Santa Cruz) we moved down the lake 10 minutes and spent 2 weeks living it up at Villa Sumaya. (for free!!!) Our timing was impeccable, as their head chef had just broken his hand and Flora was eager to help out in the kitchen, (which was basically like a free cooking class!). Max mostly helped out creating a marketable cookbook for the guests to purchase since the all natural vegetarian meals were so darn delightful and healthy. Besides that we swam in a heated pool and in the lake, got a cheap and very good massage (Max),spent time writing in our journals, reading some good books, had some hot showers (so nice), some very comfy beds and went on some nice nature walks. All in all a very relaxing and grounding experience that allowed our brains to catch up with our bodies. 2 weeks was just enough, so we said goodbye to our new friends and moved on to Antigua.

Thanks for reading, we are now moving through El Salvador and Honduras and will send out another update before we head back to the States for Jared´s wedding on June 11th.


Max & Flora

Link to pictures...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

mexico, belize and one foot in guatemala

Hello All,
We are having a wonderful trip so far. We are staying in our 5th city and 3rd country. We started on Isla Mujeres and moved through Tulum, Mexico in less than a week. It was somewhat hectic and more expensive than we wanted it to be, but the beaches were magical and we got to sleep in hammocks and cabanas that were less than ten steps from the ocean.

We then travelled to Belize and found a whole new vibe and culture from Mexico. We spent nearly a week on Caye Caulker: a tiny island with friendly, laid back, creole speaking locals where the motto was "go slow." We snorkelled there with giant fish, sting rays & nurse sharks. On the snorkelling trip we met a new friend from London named Alex. He travelled with us to Placencia, Belize.

After having such a relaxing time on Caye Caulker we took off to Placencia, a small town in Southern Belize with calm waters & beautiful beaches. We spent 3 nights relaxing and preparing for our voyage to Guatemala. We also met a local man who had made a baby racoon his pet, we brought the rum & he cut us some fresh cocos and we sat on his porch listening to stories from his life. After a short stay in Placencia we sadly parted ways with our new friend Alex, who was headed back to Mexico, and spent about 10 hours traveling to Flores, Guatemala.

We are now in Flores, staying at an environmentally and politically concsious youth hostel (with a delicious vegetarian restuarant) called Los Amigos, we plan to stay for the next four days. Tomrrow we will experience the magical Maya ruins of Tikal, set in the jungle of Guatemala.

After Flores we will visit some caves and pools in a place called Semuc Champey & Lanquin. This place has been reccommended to us by several fellow travellers and although we didn´t have it in our original plans, we are excited to go here. Then we will move onto Antigua, Panajachel & Lago de atitlan. Semana Santa willl be in full swing in Antigua, & we will try to catch a day of it if we can.

Traveling is wonderful and and elightening and we are great travel companions, in love as ever. There is so much to experience here, so you have to remeber to go slow and not get caught up in the little things. It is easy to miss the comforts of home and family, but at the same time we feel so fortunate and excited to be able to have such an experience.

We miss you all & hope that some of you can make it to visit at some point.

e-mail us anytime and we will give you more personal updates.

pictures will be posted on picasa and we will send out links to the albums, so you can see first hand everything we are doing.


Max & Flora

Link to pictures...

Sunday, March 7, 2010

March 7

Here we are, 16 hours to go, watching the Oscars in Los Angeles before our first flight South, and barely able to sit still. Our bellies are filled with the nerves and excitement of two people who are about to embark on a 6 month trip without the confines of a plan, a trip that can lead us anywhere and show us everything. And it's hard to believe that the time has finally come.

Tomorrow we will be on the beaches of Isla Mujeres off the coast of Cancun before heading off to Tulum! We hope to send out an update in a few weeks...

Our backpacks are filled to the brim but with only the necessary. Neither of us has ever lived so simply and that is part of the attraction. And for the next six months we will be embracing that which is outside of ourselves- off we go!

flora + max + exploration = flormaxation

Please visit the blog for updates and photos. :)


Max & Flora