Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nicaragua: Volcanomania

Another day, another quaint colonial town with lots of multicoloured buildings fringed by volcanoes. Avid readers of my blog (and let's face it- who isn't?) could be forgiven for thinking I was back in beautiful Antigua, Guatemala.

But wait... The temperature is about a billion degrees, the place is run-down as anywhere I've seen, and there are mobs of protesters trying to dislodge the Government (this type of quasi-peaceful popular demonstration would never happen in gun-ridden Guatemala). It must be Nicaragua!

Nicaragua is a somewhat delightful Central American haven for people who love volcanoes, lakes, colonial towns, unspoiled Caribbean coast, and high temperatures. In my hobbled state after my foot lost an argument with a Belizean glass bottle, my dreams of climbing great volcanoes and surfing the Pacific swell had to be put on hold, but I spent a pleasant few days hanging out in Granada, visiting nearby volcanoes and lakes, and hanging out with my b-school traveller friend Kenna (featured in such posts as Guatemala & Nepal). I particularly enjoyed the national food of Nicaragua- the hot dog. They're sold everywhere. For something a little more local, the Nacatamale was particularly tasty (kind of like a kitchen sink tamale).

In case I haven't already driven this point home, Nicaragua is home to something like 12 major (mostly active) volcanoes, and about 40 other dormant ones. Everywhere on the horizon you can see a smoking volcano, and some of the country's most striking scenery, like Omatepe Island in Lake Nicaragua is formed by two volcanos joined by a lava bridge, reaching over 1,600m high with a large plume of smoke and ash from the more active crater. This creates a cool landscape. I had the chance to visit Masaya volcano, home to a long history of eruptions, about 5 different craters ranging from lakes to boiling lava pits, and thousands of hyperactive bats who themselves erupt from the dormant lava tubes every night to feast on the local population (OK, maybe not- I hear they're vegetarian).

Granada itself is a quaint town, with a combination of rotting and restored Spanish architectural treasures, bustling markets, and an olfactory onslaught. My favourite time was in the evenings, when locals would move their rocking chairs onto the deserted streets to take advantage of the slightly lower temperatures and watch the world go by, their living rooms open to the streets and passers-by. As you might guess, there wasn't much in the way of nightlife.

As increasingly strident protests mounted across the country as a result of a disputed presidential election and rumours of an airport lockdown intensified, I figured it was time to start the long journey home. A slightly earlier flight and a delightful overnight in the Travelodge LAX en route to Moscow reinforced not only how much I dislike Los Angeles, but also how much I was looking forward to being back in Russia, this this crazy country I now call home, many month of travels behind me, looking forward to starting a new business in Moscow in the new year.

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Beautiful Belize

This week I think I actually found a true tropical paradise. An island with excellent scuba diving and kitesurfing, rooms on a white sand beach for less than $20, exquisite seafood, and all-day happy hours with drinks for less than $2. If the Cayes of Belize had devushki, I would never leave.

Belize, a small country in the NE of Central America, is home to the 2nd-largest Barrier Reef in the world, so I had to check this out. I took a boat to Caye Caulker, and immediately fell in love with the easy-going vibe of the place. It’s one of the few places I’ve visited that the locals seem more chilled out than the dazed backpackers who hang out there. Within 2 days my new South Dakotan mate Orion & I knew everyone on the island, and had sampled much of the delights that this wonderful place has to offer.

Caye Caulker’s sandy main street seems to have more crab than pedestrian traffic, and the only vehicles are golf carts. The houses tend to be painted in some shade of pastel (helping me recover from my El Salvadorean pastel allergy), and every second shack or makeshift restaurant offers a new variation on how to cook the local lobster, conch, or other seafood (except the damn crabs or lizards, which are everywhere). Despite the pastels & golf carts, the island has no attitude, and everyone is greeted on the street like an old friend (with permanent happy hours, pretty much everyone IS an old friend by the 3rd day).

Anyhow, back to the diving. Arguably Belize’s most famous dive site is the Blue Hole. The Blue Hole was originally an above-water limestone cavern, which was submerged over time, and then a section of the roof collapsed to create the large, perfectly circular hole in the reef that exists today. The Blue Hole is over 150m deep, but a dive to about 45m takes you into an eerie swimthrough world of giant corkscrew stalactites hanging from the roof as you are circled by schools of curious ~2m grey and hammerhead sharks. One of the world’s truly unique dives.

The next few days were filled with more of the same, punctuated by visits to other cayes and a Full Moon party, until a large piece of glass perforated my flipflop and my foot, spilling blood down the stairs of my favourite watering hole, telling me it was time to move on to Nicaragua. Apparently there is such a thing as too much paradise.

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Honduras & Copan

Flush with excitement and brimming with Mayan enthusiasm from my recent Tikal experiences, I talked my remaining friends in San Salvador, Nic & Sharmila, to accompany me on a one-day mission to visit the sprawling ruin complex of Copan, in Southern Honduras. Not to be unduly unfair to Honduras (especially in comparison with the tourist Mecca of San Salvador), but there really didn’t seem to be much else interesting there to soak up a few more days.

So at 5.30 in the morning, we clambered into a minibuses with our trusty guides and headed to Honduras via Guatemala (no, we’re not sure why either).

Four hours later, we are strolling amongst the ruins of another of the great Mayan civilizations who vanished without a trace in the mid-900’s (although our guide in this instance had an Al Gore "environmental apocalypse" thing going on, which was quite inspired).

Compared to Tikal, Copan doesn’t have the scale, towering temples, the all-encompassing jungle or bird & animal life, but what it does have are many more inscriptions which help bring the whole complex and Mayan story to life. It also has some really huge giant red parrots (Macau’s?), which I thought were really cool.

After an invigorating Honduran (Mexican/Central American) lunch, it was another long drive back home. A long day, but worth it.

Photos are here.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Celina's El Salvador Wedding

Celina’s wedding in her home country of El Salvador was always going to be a glamorous extravaganza. Firstly, it’s simply not possible for Celina to do otherwise, and secondly, the combination of her worldly Salvadorean entourage and Alex’s Connecticut royalty flying into San Salvador for a week of festivities meant that no pastel-coloured stone was left unturned! As you can see from the photos, the weekend was an exercise in moderation and sobriety, so some of my recollections may be a little less accurate than usual.

The celebrations had already been in full swing for a couple of days before I swanned in from Guatemala, adding my “backpacker chic” ensemble and aroma to the pastel-&-cardigan-enrobed masses. I was fortunate to arrive in time to make the evening dinner on the hills of San Salvador, where I immediately began reacquainting myself with Celina’s extended family, my b-school classmates, and of course, several Cuba Libres (the revolutionary’s beverage of choice).

The following morning dawned clear & bright (although FAR too early) as we stumbled onto the bus for an excursion to Lake Cotepaque, a stunning volcanic crater lake, where we spent the day sunning, drinking, waterskiing and swimming, before retreating back to San Salvador and trying to make insightful observations on the gallery’s collection of Miro.

The location played host to a plethora of speeches by people whose prose evoked apparently splendid memories of times gone by at a certain oft-mentioned college, during sailing trips, squash matches, or tennis duels in Bermuda (presumably all while still clad in the latest pastels).

As obfuscating as some of these references were, all were heartfelt, as were Celina’s family’s rejoinders, and a rollicking good time was had by all, except perhaps by those of us who attempted to party on afterwards and were subject to 8 mediocre guitarists straining vainly to find a common tune at a local bar.

The following evening was the wedding itself, and my memories of the earlier part of the evening are crystal clear. The most important part is that Celina & Alex got married, and shortly thereafter we were bussed to the reception where the Salvadoreans demonstrated that they know how to have a good time!! Amid the dining, dancing, and celebrating, my sense is that most sensory perceptions started to go downhill around the time that a giant Ice Sombrero appeared on the dancefloor, filled with Tequila shots & ringed with limes.

Shortly thereafter the photos seem to indicate that nobody present was without castanets, horns, sombreros, pigtails, and/or tequila shots.

I have it on good authority that everyone made it home safely and Celina & Alex made their flight to Australia several hours later.

Nic & I, with another day to kill in San Salvador, tried in vain to do some cultural sightseeing (does Tony Roma’s count?), but ended up drinking Long Islands and watching back-to-back films at the local mall.

Photos are here.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Guatemala: Of Mountains, Monkeys, and Maya

Guatemala packs a hell of a lot into a small country. After travelling around it for a week, I feel like I’ve been here a month! I’ve been caught in a stampede of Catholics, my friend has been robbed, I’ve fought with monkeys, had tarantulas crawl on me, climbed 70m Mayan ruins, been marooned on an island, and watched an election in Spanish.

After a 28hr transit from Moscow (nobody told me Moscow-LA was 13hrs?), I landed bleary-eyed in Guatemala City, and hightailed it to Antigua, a stunning ancient colonial city nestled between three volcanoes, one sufficiently active to regularly be sending large plumes of ash into the sky. The town is a colourful mix of plazas, cobblestone streets, and fountains, with a predominantly local Maya population (over 60% of Guatemalans are Mayan). I happened to arrive the day after “Day of the Dead”, and was witness to a massive procession of devout Catholics carrying a semi-trailer-sized coffin of Jesus & Co. through the streets for 8hrs (& I used to think my ex-girlfriend occasionally dragging me to a church was excessively pious).

I joyfully meet up with my friend Kenna, another world traveller, who I last saw in Kathmandu. Our routes had overlapped during the year, and it was great to see her again. Unfortunately, we had a taste of the omnipresent risk in Guatemala, as she had her bag slashed and wallet stolen as we watched the Catholic procession (bringing up an interesting debate as to the piousness of the perpetrators- which would add to the list the Catholic church has to answer to).

Early the next morning I wound my way through the highlands to the beauty of Lake Atitlan, who’s surrounding villages are perched on the slopes of the huge volcanoes that ring the lake. I spent a pleasant time boating my way between villages, fending off determined Mayan souvenir vendors, and eating felafel (don’t ask) before the lure of Antigua drew me back.

A day later, I was deep in the jungles of Northern Guatemala, hiking into the ruined Mayan city of Tikal. Holy sh$t this place is impressive. For my first massive Mayan complex this place is hard to beat. At least 8 structures tower over 50m above the flat forest floor, breaching the rainforest canopy and allowing extraordinary views across the complex (any of you who have seen Star Wars where the rebel force leaves the base to take on the Death Star have seen the same view).

As you wander from temple to temple, monkeys chase each other through the canopy, coutis, agoutis, anteaters and god knows what else (we saw fresh jaguar tracks) charge through the undergrowth, and toucans & parrots flit through the ruins. The wildlife was almost as enthralling as the (seriously impressive) ruins. I was less enthused when a large tarantula made an appearance, but I eventually let him take a stroll up my arm.

Much of the site is yet to be uncovered, which gives a visitor a real feel for how the last Mayans or early explorers would have seen them. The absence of visitors or security allows you to clamber and explore as far as the wildlife will let you, and the mood and colours of the site change markedly with the time of day.

Arising before sunrise the next morning (you know how enthused about something I have to be to get me out of bed that early), I was sorely tempted to join in the noisy poop fight between two howler monkeys that had been keeping me awake much of the night, but I figured I’d already need the extra shower later, as I had many more kilometres of ruins to explore in the jungle humidity.

That night, I returned to Flores- Guatemala’s answer to Venice, a tiny, heavily populated island joined by a causeway in the middle of a lake. Like Venice, the island’s sole mission seems to be in fleecing tourists, as it’s apparently only occupied by hotels, bars, and Internet cafes, but with permanent happy hours of Cuba Libres for $1, I figured it was pointless to complain, and therefore my duty to help the local economy as best I could.

The next morning, only a seat by the lake with tacos and guacamole, Coke from a glass bottle, my laptop & free wireless could soothe my pounding head (damn that cheap rum), as I solved the world’s problems over Skype, and awaited my flight to El Salvador.

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.