Sulphur so good. 

I’m writing this on the wee landing outside our room as Catriona has banished me for smelling like the sulphur lake I swam in this morning.  So eggs then.  Or farts.  To be fair, I was pretty hesitant about taking the plunge as the water was welly boot green and surrounded by mud last seen in The Never Ending Story, but when you’ve  walked up a hill in the sun to take a swim, you better take a swim.  

So I stink.  But not all is bad!  Today not only did my Australian visa make a belated appearance in my inbox (cheers Tony you rippa!), we went full sail and booked our flights as well.  Our flights are proof of our current situation – not a lot of money but a rather lot of time – we are flying from Nicaragua on the 22nd April to Florida, onwards to LA, then to Fiji before touching down in Melbourne…on the 26th April. The layovers are so long we may have time to see the Everglades, the Hollywood sign and a game of sevens on a south pacific beach in between – we’ll see.  Cheap tickets though!  That’s the main thing.  Definitely…..

          Back to present day and El Salvador continues to charm. They had a calamitous civil war in the 80s, which gave America another chance to interfere disastrously, but like the Vietnamese before them, the guerrillas have moved on and they’re harnessing their country’s strengths to embrace peace and the fruits of tourism that usually bloom with it.  A local who had lived through the worst of the troubles took us into the hills to show us where some of the fighting had taken place.  My only real memory of the hike was that it was hot.  Ridiculously hot.  I think I ate some mangos from a tree and then tried not to faint.  

 

     Another local in a different village took us to a coffee plantation which was far more relaxing and less grisly.  The factory used machines from the 1930s, many of which were Scottish – possibly modified from whisky distilleries we guessed.  There were conveyor belts where local woman had to sort through individual beans and look for any discrepancies.  European coffee companies will send whole batches back if there are as many as 4 ‘bad’ beans in a 300 gram sample, so the poor ladies were under a fair bit of pressure.  The coffee our guide served us at the end put a sparkler up my backside.  I felt like I’d mainlined a whole jar of Nescafé into my heart.   Here’s me drying some beans for nothing.  Saint. 

 

       And so now we eye the Honduras border from our mountain vantage of Alegria.  Getting here took 5 buses – this was only because on bus number 4 we were advised very casually  by a passenger that we’d just driven through our intended destination and we better get off at the next town and try again.  This added a good hour to our travel time.  So God knows how many buses it will take to get out of El Salvador, but one thing’s for sure, we are glad we came.  Superbly friendly, terrifically cheap and more red meat than you can shake a rib bone at.  Oh, and volcanoes!  Lots of volcanoes!    And good bananas!  What’s not to love!

          

Shut the Salvador! 

I realise the end of the last post indicated that with the loss of Gina and G I was all alone.  Not accurate at all.  First up, I also bid farewell to Ellen who, with a further 9 months of Latin American leg-work ahead of her, opted to stay in Xela and learn some much needed Spanish for a while.  Secondly, I am still traveling with her sister Catriona, with whom things have gotten rather serious.  We are now a couple, tackling the open road together, and things couldn’t be going more swimmingly.  I started this trip with my buddy G, with the sole aim of Argentina in our sights.  I’m now with my girlfriend Catriona and in a few weeks (give or take, it’s all pretty vague) we’ll be flying to the other big ‘A’ – Australia, to work, make money and take things from there.  It’s been a bit of whirlwind to say the least but a very happy storm system to be swept up in I must say.  Before Australia though, we have a few hurdles, hills and hiccups to negotiate first.

Getting the visa for Australia of course being quite the priority.  Catriona got hers worryingly quickly, one e-mail (and a possible bribe) and instantly there was a signed photo of Tony Abbot in her inbox entitled, “You’re bloody in mate!”  I naively wrote down that I’d lived in China once upon a time, making me a huge tuberculosis risk apparently.  This required a chest X-Ray from an Australian affiliated doctor in San Salvador, unsurprisingly the capital of El Salvador.  Costing a cool $100 and a charming detour to the craziest city in Central America, said scan has been sent and I await Tony’s permission with baited breath.

San Salvador was mental though.  The city centre was about 20 blocks of never-ending markets, selling bras, pirate DVD’s, food blenders and toothpaste – in that order of abundance.  Amongst this was a church built to resemble a giant rainbow.  From the outside it resembled an air craft hangar on a diet.  Inside it was actually pretty spectacular.  I took the time to find a replacement beard trimmer for the one I’d “left behind” somewhere in Guatemala. Costing $21 after some haggling I returned to our guesthouse to immediately locate the ‘missing’ trimmer in the strangest of places – my wash bag.  So if anyone wants a genuine El Salvadorian shaver, give me a buzz (boom boom), a bargain at $22.

Before the capital, Catriona and I found ourselves on the black sands of El Tunco, which is famous for it’s big surf breaks.  After several attempts the only thing broken was my resolve, which admittedly was a lot cheaper to break than my rental board.  The waves were just ridiculous.  Local nine-year olds skimmed past my limp body like sailfish as I gurgled for help in the wash.  I promptly swapped my surf board for a body board and played in the shallows with the fat kids.

And now, we are in Juayua (pronounced yooahooa, like Dale Winton saying hello) which is a great base for us to explore a bunch of villages on the Ruta De Las Flores.  Brightly coloured buses costing 25 cents pick you up at great speed (catching a bus here is a bit like getting on your first poma ski lift) and you then time your dismount to land somewhere close to a market square or restaurant.  It’s great fun and so far, despite the inevitable safety warnings, locals have been unbelievably friendly and generous – two such groups giving us lifts to and from a wee lake in a volcanic crater.  Seems to be a lot of volcanoes in these parts.  You can call me Mr Lava Lava.  


 

Sorry.  

Gina, G and Gringo Fever

It was on the way back through the cave that the fever started. I was attempting to abseil down a waterfall in the dark, which sounds really daring and exciting but in reality involved a shivering Scotsman banging his elbows on rocks and repeating, “oh god, oh god.” The hostel we were at had sent about 30 of us in there with candles, asking us to sign a waver before entry that denied all responsibility for death or injury. I just came out with a fever. Turns out a mosquito had probably given me Chikungunya (thanks internet) at some point beforehand – which involves lots of joint pains and headaches, plus the obligatory hot/cold rollercoaster a fever provides. So the next day was spent in bed. Rock star.

Of course, staying in bed in a hostel is in itself a bit of a rollercoaster, especially when you’re steeped in the gringo trail of Central America. I awoke at 2am to the stampede of drunk teenagers from somewhere Australian, returning from the local club that looked and sounded like Snoop Dog’s shed. While one of them threw up in the bathroom, their hurls so traumatic it sounded like an exorcism, the others giddily chatted away in the middle of the dorm until someone told them to shut up. Then the bloke of the group got into bed and started munching on some crisps and plonking around on his ipad. After some considerable eating time the guy in my top bunk eventually snapped – “Are you seriously going to eat nachos for 30 minutes before bed and not turn the clicking off on your fucking ipad? You fucking idiot!” There was a deafening silence in the dark dormitory. No-one moved, awaiting for either an apology or an inebriated retaliation from Nacho Man. Then, very deliberately, there was a defiant crunch as Nacho Man slowly bit down on another corn snack. His methodical munching echoed round the room like a call to arms. I thought it was going to all kick off but Pissed Off Sweary Man seemed dumbstruck. Nacho Man had won! The night passed without further incident.

It’s a strange thing being on the gringo trail, especially as Gina allowed us such easy diversions away from it whenever we wanted. Central America is rather narrow though, and there is a definite passage of towns and hot spots that you are almost inevitably funnelled down. Towns like Flores and Antigua seem more like university campuses and everybody knows each other from previous encounters “rope swinging in Semuc” or “from the sunset tour to Tikal.” In some ways the familiarity is nice and comforting but in many other ways it’s pretty disheartening. Seeing the same guy from Leicester with his ‘Beer Lao vest’ suntan in every new town you go is like being orbited by a very annoying comet. Tourists hating tourists, there’s a surprise. What’s wrong with Benidorm though, seriously?

I guess it’s even trickier getting off the beaten track now as WE SOLD GINA. Cue orchestral music and angels crying. Yes, poor Gina was getting battered by Guatemala. The dirt tracks and hills were bad enough but the mountainous motorways seemed to be even worse as she had to maintain a certain speed to keep with the flux of traffic. This she could not do. It was like forcing Steve Cram to re-enter the Olympics. On top of this, G is going home shortly (more on this later) and with just his name on the title deeds it’s impossible for me (short of forking out several thousand Quetzals) to drive her unaccompanied across any border. So the decision was made. Red-tape and mountains were to be her undoing. After a couple of days we found a jeep specialist in Guatemala City who’d take her off our trembling hands for a fair price. Before this we gave her a proper send-off, parking her up in Antigua and hosting a party of nine in her spacious innards – swapping Gina memories over bottles of booze while locals pressed their noses against the windows. In all she’d driven 12,000 miles through the snows of Alaska, the yellow vastness of the Yukon forests and the regal redwoods of California, the arid deserts of Baja, the jagged hills of Guanajuato, the humid and humpy Oaxaca coastline, the wide-open spaces of the Yucutan peninsula and the many villages of Belize and Guatemala. The old girl done well. All we have now is her Alaska number plate, ‘The Last Frontier’ emblazoned proudly on the bottom. It goes without saying that we miss her immeasurably but just as Michael Johnson says, it’s important to go out on the top, and that’s exactly what she did.  Adios my dear!  Adios.

And so now we get about on the bus. Like everybody else. With G now planning his imminent departure (work and girlfriend) we decided a good cap to our adventures together would be to climb the highest peak in Central America – Volcan Tajumulco, a not too modest 4220 metres high. We got a guide and a couple of other likeminded volcano bashers along for the ride. One was a 45 year-old Texan military retiree with a terrible haircut, the other was a young German chap who had never climbed a hill before. The poor lad seemed a little out his depth. He turned up for the days climb wearing skinny jeans and a pair of skateboard shoes. With him he had a plastic bag with a loaf of bread in it. He looked more like he was off to drink behind a bus stop than scale a mountain. But scale it he did, at a worryingly slow but steady pace. At the top he promptly fell asleep and we had to summon him quite forcibly so we could descend in time for the last bus home. Despite this heart-warming coming-of-age tale, the views at the top were sublime. The crater to our backs and several horizons worth of other volcanic peaks in the distance, one defiantly smoking away with the air of Nacho Man back in the dormitory. With G going and Gina gone, it’s a new dawn for me and a definite realisation I won’t be getting anywhere near Argentina. With views this good though, what’s the rush?

Here’s some old gina pics…

Tikal Me Pink

Written on 1st March

Star Wars Episode VI: A New Hope. The Rebel Alliance, in a last ditch bid to down the Imperial Empire, launch a desperate attack on the Death Star from their secret base on Yavin IV. We see X-wings and Y-wings rise from the forested moon they’re concealed within, monitored under the watchful eye of a rebel officer from a lofty stone structure, other such buildings poking above the trees in the background. It was this same view we enjoyed from Temple IV at Tikal, the exact same location George Lucas used for his 1977 opus. I overheard a local guide telling tourists it was used in a scene from Return of the Jedi. It took every inch of my being not to interrupt and correct him – trust your instincts Alex. Remember your training. We’d camped up alongside the Tikal ruins, which was good training for the 6 day hike G and I signed up to shortly afterwards, to the largest Mayan pyramids of them all – El Mirador.

The hostel we were staying at in Flores (wee island town in a lake, partially flooded, not much to do) offered such trips but we thought we could save some cash and drive up to the village where the hikes would start from. Rather naively we forgot that we were in Guatemala – the road was atrocious. Gina squeaked and complained the whole way, but three hours and two military check points later we were being ushered into the Carmalita Cooperative, a fenced off complex straight out of the Great Escape. It even had watch towers. After haggling with variously friendly guys and via the fluent Spanish of our newest recruit German Greg (also in tow – Akiko from Tokyo. Spanish level: As bad as us) we had a guide, a cook, mules and meals all lined up for a fairly reasonable price. The hike was not to be for the faint hearted.

First up: Howler monkeys tried to poo on us. Secondly: Wild boars charged through the undergrowth right past us. They were about the size of Fiat Puntos and quite a bit faster. Thirdly: G almost stood on a coral snake while wearing flip flops. A bite from one of these beautifully coloured beasties equates to a reduced life expectancy of hours. Fourthly: We walked 130 kilometres. Our guide (Hugo) who looked like a Mayan Robert DeNiro, (especially when we made him wear our glasses),was fantastic, although a little too enthusiastic about the ruins. There was a lot to see. Unfortunately, as a lot of it was 2000 years old, it was concealed under two millennia of jungle flora. A lot of imagination was required as Hugo waved frantically towards some vague humps in the trees, repeating giddily “Original Mayan! Original Mayan!” El Mirador was something else though – over 100 metres high and containing 2.8 million cubic metres of bricks it was basically a man-made mountain, with the teet excavated of greenery to allow an unparalleled vista of the former empire below. We climbed a smaller peak later that night to catch a view of the stars. Alas, this was a big no-no; the guards alerting Hugo of our after-hours expedition and we were hurriedly stewarded back to camp, Hugo mentioning something about dangerous snakes.

Two days recovery were required in Flores afterwards and then the simple task of driving south to Semuk Champey to meet Catriona and Ellen, who had opted out of the jungle japes and opted in to a lakeside retreat elsewhere. Guatemala road warning! Guatemala road warning! The drive was estimated at a cool 5.5 hours by google maps. This automatically reasons your average speed in a car to be 50mph. For the first 3 hours this was the case, just a brief ferry crossing and a roadside lunch break to stall proceedings. Then the tarmac stopped. For 3 agonising hours we hobbled up hills from Avatar at walking speed as locals pointed and laughed at us. Some old guys charged us 80p at a rather unofficial toll booth (one of them holding a rope across a mud track) and then the light started to fade. It became rather apparent we weren’t going to make Champers, cliffs and rubble not really conducive to night time Gina jollies. Hills being too steep for camping, mild panic began to crawl in. In desperation I asked in horrific Spanish at a wooden shack/shop if there may be somewhere for us to sleep. Within minutes the whole village was crowding our car (and another belonging to some German chaps who were similarly stricken) and we were offered sleeping space in the nearby church. A woman then cooked us dinner while her cats leapt around our feet. All this cost us was 40 pence each and our football for the kids. We left at the break of dawn this morning as it’s Sunday and the services up in the hills are quite a big deal, 90 families in the surrounding peaks apparently making the weekly pilgrimage. And now…relax! We’re in Zephyr Lodge, which resembles some kind of drug rehab retreat for ex-Big Brother contestants, toilets and showers overlooking lurid inclines of fields last seen in the Last Samurai. It’s raining unfortunately, but Gina isn’t broken and neither is our resolve! Southwards!