Lake Titikaka is enormous and stunning. By sheer volume of water, it is the largest lake in South America and forms part of the border between Bolivia and Peru.
I went to Copacabana from Cusco ny night bus, passing through quite an easy border control to find myself in the small Bolivian town. My main reason for visiting Copacabana was to head to the Islas de Sol y Luna – two islands which were beleived by the Incas to be the birthplaces of the sun and the moon.
The boat out of Copacabana was cheap and very rickety. There are waves on this lake, and big ones, so it’s probably not advisable if you get sea sick. Honestly, the islands are just islands, but it was nice having a walk around them, especially when it was sunny.
Back on mainland and I took a collectivo from Copacabana to La Paz.
Once again I have to be honest with you here; I did not like La Paz. The highest recognised capital in the world, the Bolivian city’s altitude made me feel quite dizzy, the weather was so grey and horrible that I was unable to see the famous Mount for the time that I was there. Perhaps a trip down Death Road would have cheered me up, but with the trusted tour guides charging over $100, such a thing wasn’t possible.
So I was cold and grumpy, and thought I would cheer myself up by going to the curious sounding “Witches Market”. But, oh god, there were dead llama foetuses hanging off the walls!
It could probably go unwritten that I got out of there as soon as I could.
Off the shore of Belize lie a number of Cayes, or small islands with their own communities and rich marine life. I took a ferry from Belize City to Caye Caulker, a very small Caye with only one main street.
My time here was mixed. Some of the locals act a bit oddly towards tourists – some of them were high and drunk some of the time and one got very angry when I refused a spliff at two in the afternoon.
The beach is small, but the water is clear and beautiful and very refreshing to swim in. Lots of snorkelling tours go out from the island with chances to sea sharks, dolphins and even manatees among other colourful coral fish.
The island is quite expensive compared to the rest of the country, but I did have a great time going out to the Sports Bar on Saturday – where most of the island seems to go. Furthermore, I met a very hippy, spiritual guy in my hostel room who played a ukelele with whom I stayed up to about 4am talking about everything, from experience of consciousness to how his father reacted when he chose to move to the jungle. Very weird, very surreal, I was somewhat relieved to get back on the mainland and continue my journey north to Mexico.
A long journey north, through the many twisting mountain roads of the Highlands and cramped into many a local shuttle bus, I finally made it to Flores. A small island in Lake Peten Itza joined by a causeway to the mainland, Flores is a peculiar little place with little much going on and some moody shop keepers. There’s a square and a cathedral up on a hill, and some nice places to sit out and eat your lunch looking over the waters, but apart from that there’s little else to do.
It was interesting to watch a thunder storm brew over the lake though – I caught glimpses of actual veins of electricity darting through the night sky. And the hostelLos Amigos is definitely recommended with a good atmosphere, fairylights, a good many and cocktail list.
The real reason I ventured here was to head to Tikal, one of the finest Mayan civilisations that has been preserved. Tours can be booked across the island for sunrise, though it can be expensive and not always worth it if it’s cloudy. Indeed entrance to the park alone costs 150 Queatzales after 6am.
Tikal literally means “Place where the Gods Speak” and is a vast set of ruins stretching over an area of 26km squared. The main square in the middle has two great temples – you are able to climb up the Temple of the Queen which is little effort and gives you good views.
Furthermore, if one stands in the plaza and claps, the echo from the pyramid buildings sends of an odd “ca-caw” sound which is peculiarly similar to the national bird the Quetzal which was worshiped by the Mayas.
Mayas are famous for their human sacrifice and there are many stone circles present at the sight where the sacrifices apparently took place. Mayas also tend to build their temples in pairs facing east to west – the civilization was very astronomical and aligning their holy places with sunrise and sunset was important to them.
Perhaps the most impressive view from the top of a pyramid was from Temple 4, also the furthest away from the park entrance. When at the top, the view is spectacular across Tikal whch is now mainly reclaimed by forest – much of it is green but for the two other peaks of the main plaza peaking through.
Well worth a visit, this set of ruins is a treasure trove for discovery about a once great civilisation that fell to the hands of the Spanish invaders in the late 1400s
About 3 hours west of Antigua and you get to Lago de Atitlan, one of the most visited destinations on the Guatemalan backpacking trail. Indeed my guidebook tells me that Aldous Huxley, the author of one of my favourite dystopian novels Brave New World described it as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, and coming down the mountainside on a chicken bus from Solala, it is easy to see why.
The lake is vast – there are a number of destinations which one could visit. I found a cheap room in Panajachel, but had I had more time I think I would have ventured further – I have heard good things about San Pedro and hippy things about San Marcos.
The lake itself is not the best for swimming – especially around the town it was quite full of rubbish. But I went on a 20min boat ride from the jetty which gave me good views of the three volcanoes the lake is famous for. As it was Easter Sunday, the place was buzzing with locals and the shore side was filled with vendors – people trying to sell tourist items, but also locals frying up tortillas and various pieces of indescript meats on smoky BBQs.
Kayaks are available for hire on the lake with the morning being advised as the water is less choppy. I also saw paragliders from the boat – if only I were a billionnaire…
A short stay at the lake, but it was time to head north through the highlands to the ancient centre of the Mayas
Having reached Antigua earlier than expected and wishing to sample more of the city that weekend when it would be Semana Santa (Easter weekend), I took a chicken bus out of town on my first day and visited the nearby town of Santa Maria de Jesus about 30mins away.
The town is charming itself. Many of the women wear traditional colonial dresses, huipiles, which are constructed from the most beautiful patterned material which gives the town a very distinct feel – that and that the town was completely void of other tourists, I believe I was the only gringa there.
Sitting high above the town is Volcan Agua, a distinct peak rising more than 3500m above sea level. The volcano is very impressive and is covered in the most beautiful green foliage. Attracted towards a good hike as I always am, I headed towards the base of the volcano to find a guard standing at a dilapidated church near the start of the volcano track. He told me I needed to pay 40 Quetzales for a guide, I told him I only had 3 Quetzales and I just wanted to look. He said that was ok.
The base tracks of the volcano were filled with farmers, horses, mules and stray dogs. The volcanic soil makes the place a very fertile place to plant crops and it was rather intriguing seeing all these people in colonial dress carrying what looked like extremely heavy sacks on their back. They were all very nice and greeted me “buenas!”
The track was dusty and strewn with rubbish, and I followed a sign pointing me towards a “crater”.
I don’t know when the idea to climb the volcano popped into my head. I had originally planned to only walk for an hour or so and return. This turned into a 5-6 hour trek up a very lonely hillside.
The tracks began to get steeper and steeper. And suddenly I was out of farmland and into the deep, dark wilderness. Well, not quite, the track was actually quite nice, bordered by green trees which shaded me from the sun. I even managed to purchase a banana at about 2500m from a Tienda which consisted of a shack and a very nice old man.
Honestly, I have to admit that climbing this volcano on my own without much water or food was one of the stupidest things I have ever done. I carried on up the mountain and soon found that I was the only one on the tracks – the farms disappeared and so did some of the groups of Guatemalans who were also hiking the volcano. But I kept on going. “You can’t stop now” I thought, “almost there”.
It got very cold at about 3250m and the air got quite thin. The view was the most extraordinary thing, I literally felt so high up and I think I was slightly delirious which made it all the more impressive.
Becoming slightly hysterical at around 3550m, and realising that it was actually quite late and I needed to get back to the town before the last bus left to Antigua, I called it quits. Coming down again, I met a lot of the groups I had passed before – they were going to camp out overnight, so I didn’t feel too bad for ascending and descending as far as I did all in one day. I basically ran most of the way down too, slipping and falling sometimes. To put it in perspective, Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales is 1500m. Indeed the guard at the dilapidated church was very impressed with my efforts and congratulated me upon my return.
Passing back through the sweet little town, I ran into a procession with a brass band and drums for Semana Santa, but unfortunately could not stay long to watch it and had to run for the chicken bus.
Upon reaching my hostel back in Antigua with aching legs, I decided to look up Volcan Agua. About the third result down on google was a post on the Lonely Planet Forum “DON’T HIKE VOLCAN AGUA – ROBBERIES”.
It turns out Volcan Agua is known for its robberies – machete wielding thieves who target hikers. Although the post was from 2009, it is still not advised to hike the volcano alone. Especially a solo girl; who knows what could have happened. Soldiers aim to shoot and kill the robbers, but the place is still not completely safe.
Hiking Volcan Agua alone with little water and no food – pretty much the stupidest thing I have ever done. And I have done a lot of stupid things.
Taking the bus from Nicaragua to Guatemala was never going to be fun. 10 hours from Managua to San Salvador crossing two borders with ridiculous waiting times and numerous guards carrying guns was never going to be fun.
I was weirdly surprised by my overnight stay in San Salavador however. The American Embassy has several long paragraphs of warning on its website telling citizens not to visit Honduras and El Salvador because of their high murder rates.
Indeed, both countries are known for their drug gangs or “maras”. Like most gangs, these operate in certain neighbourhoods of big cities – Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula and San Salvador are supposed to be particularly dangerous.
And yes, the hostel that I stayed at across the road from the San Benito bus terminal in San Salvador did have an armed guard and advised not walking alone at dark. However, a dutch girl I met and myself made a quick walk down to the ATM and found ourselves surrounded by numerous fast food chains – she even purchased some pizza from “Pizza Hut”.
So often are both Honduras and El Salvador skipped and it is understandable. Rumours flying around made me anxious about travelling alone through the countries. All that I can say on this subject is that I hope the security situation will improve one day and people like me will be able to experience the numerous places that the countries have to offer, in spite of the gang history.
I made it to Guatemala City tired and hungry and was advised, once again, that it was not safe to take the public transport in the city and so took a shuttle to Antigua with some of the girls I met from the bus. I originally wanted to head straight to Atitlan, but the shuttle timings meant I was too late to make it there that evening. Henceforth, I will be staying in Antigua for Semana Santa. The city is supposed to have one of the best celebrations for this in all of Latin America, so I am quite excited.
My last stop in Nicaragua is Managua, the capital city. I am only staying here one night to get the Tica bus to Guatemala tomorrow (I say Guatemala, I’ll actually be passing through Honduras and staying a night in San Salvador – two of the most “dangerous” countries to travel to according to much of the US embassy’s guidelines, more on that later).
Managua really lacks the charm that the colonial cities of Granada and Leon had. For a start it’s much bigger and really hard to navigate. Now, I feel I am pretty good at orientation and I am usually quite ok with just the small guidebook maps for most of the places I go. With grids of streets that look the same, no proper central landmark to orientate yourself and men constantly cat-calling, saying hello or “gringa gringa!” or whistling at you, naturally I ended up getting lost twice.
The first time I was saved by a nice young Nicaraguan engineering student who took me to the one place there really is to go in Managua – Laguna de Tiscapa which is some weird large like next to a hill. The hill gives you a good view and the young man was very pleasant company and I had a great time practicing my Spanish.
After that, I went to the cinema in the mall, since I’ve been craving watching a movie. I saw a dubbed version of the film “Going in Style” (“Un Golpe con Estilo”) which I have to reccommend – it was very entertaining and quite a sweet story which I much needed to get over my Leon hangover.
I got lost again on the way back, quite badly lost because a guy on a bike came and told me I was about to go into a really dangerous neighbourhood. He took me back to a play park where it suddenly transpired he had a wife and kids – I thought he was my age up until then. The kids were really sweet there, they kept asking me if I was a gringa (for those of you who don’t know, gringo or gringa is the Central American term for Americans and other foreigners, you get it a lot if you’re blonde and pale af)
Back to the hostel for a chilled night writing and reading. Up at 3:45 for the Tica Bus.