Saturday, 29 September 2012

Visiting Chichen Itza

I think Chichen Itza gets a bit of an unfair rap. Guidebooks describe it as over-crowded. Some blogs recommend staying away and hitting up some of the smaller sites instead. Descriptions of tour buses descending from Cancun make it sound as though you won't be able to see the pyramid from inside the throng. Even my beloved Lonely Planet has a snobbish edge to it's section on the famous site. But do you know what?

I thoroughly enjoyed it there.

There's a reason some sites are so popular. Machu Picchu appearing out of the early morning mist is beautiful. That first glimpse of the Treasury at Petra is breathtaking. Karnak temple is one of the most incredible man-made creations I have ever had the privilege to wander through. And Chichen Itza is one of the best examples of a Mayan city we saw on our trip (and we saw many). Although it admittedly doesn't have the atmosphere of the jungle-thick ruins, it's famous because it is genuinely impressive.

We knew the crowds would be heavy, so we set off early to arrive at the site before eight, when it opens. Although it meant a very early start from Merida, the drive through the sleepy city and the long, empty highways was relaxing and quicker than usual. There were a few other people hanging around at the entrance, but even half an hour after opening we still spotted but a few people walking around. The coaches began arriving just after nine, and it was only as we finished at lunchtime that the site became crowded. The main pyramid, immortalised on every souvenir, is lovely, given even more character by the group of workmen in charge of its reconstruction who sat in lines on its steps and cheerily measured and laboured in the growing heat.

Every corner turned along the route round the site revealed new buildings and structures, some elaborately carved, others showing signs of reclaiming by the surrounding environment. Information presented in each new area was clear, and helped create a better visual picture of the original city. Souvenir sellers set up stalls, catching our eye but soon leaving us be when they realised we weren't in the market for truckloads of obsidian figurines.

The real highlight, however, was the ball court. The only large and complete example we saw during our travels, it completely captured my imagination. Carvings surrounded the vast walls, with the tiny hoops mounted up high. A truly imposing structure in the centre of everything.

If you can get to Chichen Itza early in the morning (or perhaps late in the afternoon), the site is yours. And ignore the travel snobs - it's a bloody good one.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Archaeological sites of the Yucatan

The town of Merida was the next stop in our Mexican adventure, as we based ourselves there for a few days to explore the archaeological sites dotted around. The city itself is well worth devoting some time to, with its beautiful central plaza, countless restaurants and buzzing market. As we wanted to determine our own itinerary and pace, we hired a car, and after navigating the one-way street system, were out on the open road.

Driving in that part of Mexico is extremely straightforward, with good quality roads and decent hire cars. It also gave us the opportunity to drive through small towns and villages, catching a glimpse of the country outside the major hubs. We took a wrong turning once or twice, but on the whole found everywhere easy to navigate.

Day one found us visiting three of the smaller (smaller being a relative term - they weren't exactly 'small'...!) sites in the area - Uxmal, Kabah and Oxkintok. Each had their own special features and were mostly empty of other people - Oxkintok in particular is far off the beaten track and only accessible by car, and we were its sole visitors all day. Although not as well preserved and reconstructed as nearby Chichen Itza or Tulum, they helped build a more detailed picture of the Mayan empire and different building styles, and I personally loved the soft lines of the temples and dramatic views at Uxmal. Here are a few pictures from the day:

Symmetry at Uxmal

Soft stone with a pinkish hue

Beautifully preserved carvings high up on a pyramid
A lone arch stands in a clearing
Low, angular shapes were common throughout the area

A temple peeps over the tops of trees
We also spent time at Loltun cave, a historically-rich cave system containing some of the earliest traces of human civilisation in the area and acting as a refuge for people in times of trouble until very recently. The soaring ceilings and dripping stalactites were incredible, and our two hour tour a much-needed break from the high temperatures outside.


Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Coastal ruins and an almost-hurricane

We left Belize by boat, bouncing on foaming waves towards the Mexican border. Upon arrival at Chetumal, our bags were searched, re-searched, sniffed by dogs and then searched once more before we could proceed, passports barely glanced at as we entered our fourth and final country. We hopped on the first bus north, and settled in.

Our first stop was Tulum, with its unusual coastal ruins, framed by the beautiful beaches of the Caribbean. Unlike nearby Cancun, Tulum is relatively un-touristy, but still with all the amenities you would expect from a popular location. Our guesthouse was friendly and relaxed, the taxi prices fixed, and the area ideal for visiting both the ruins and nearby cenotes.

After arriving in the pouring rain, we prepared for a wet first day, but luckily the clouds parted overnight, and the following morning was clear. Not entirely trusting the weather, we grabbed a very early taxi to arrive at the ruins just as they opened, and were part of only a handful of people exploring the site. Although lacking the scale of others we have seen, the buildings were nevertheless impressive, sheer drops leading to crashing waves and small tunnels revealing new areas.

A couple of hours later, and we were finishing up the classic side-on shots showing the main temple alongside the pale water when the weather began to turn. Thick clouds drifted inland, and we were pleased we'd come so early. Walking back to the centre of the ruins, huge coach groups had begun to arrive, and as we took a final look at the temple from the front, a man wearing nothing but a tiny pair of white shorts jumped over the barrier and ran up the side of the building to take a photo of himself at the top. It was disgusting how blatantly he ignored the rules and contributed to the wearing of the stone just to have a photo. Not to mention how ridiculous he looked in the shorts... Unfortunately, our shouting (aggressive? us?!) did nothing to deter him, and there were no guards around. We left soon after, not wanting to witness any more disrespectful behaviour.

The winds had started to pick up by this point, but the rain was minimal, so we continued onto the 'Grand Cenone', a freshwater hole common around that part of Mexico. We'd decided to go knowing very little about cenotes, but I am so please we did as it turned out to be one of the best things we saw. The water was an incredible shade of shade of crystal blue, a deep aquamarine that stretched on and on. Visibility was perfect, revealing the huge stalactites that hung from the cave ceilings. Fish darted to and fro, and the sandy floor glittered as the light reflected around the water.

Leaping in with snorkel gear on, the water an icy respite from the heavy heat, we explored into the caves, grabbing air from pockets and watching the tiny fish bob around our heads. The experience reminded me of diving Silfra in Iceland - clear, cool freshwater with amazing views.

As we returned to town, the weather was deteriorating fast. Rain pelted the streets, and the winds were gusting with increasing intensity. We'd heard about the nearby hurricane, but had assumed that we were too far north. The owner of our guesthouse gave us the hurricane drill, and all the shops and restaurants shut up for the evening, dragging chairs and tables inside and packing up breakables. By 9pm the town was deserted as everyone settled in for the night. Luckily the precautions proved unnecessary as the hurricane just missed us, but the winds that night were incredible, loud and fierce. By the following morning, everything was back to normal, the locals completely used to this relatively common disruption to their lives.


Monday, 24 September 2012

Monday photo - 24th September

If you need to spend some time staring out of a car window, then I would highly recommend that you do it in Jordan. This picture, taken high on the King's highway, is just a glimpse into the incredible landscape on the trip from Amaan to the south. The roads wound through rock of a multitude of colours and layers, seemingly never-ending. Driving through Jordan was almost as exciting as the many wonders the country contains. 

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Blue Hole: A photo-blog

After pouring over photos of the Blue Hole before leaving this summer, I had utterly convinced myself that I needed to see it from above. The stark contrast with the surrounding water, like an eye in the ocean, was captivating. So in the tradition of ridiculous extravagance (20 dollars for a hostel room? Seems a bit pricey... Rather more than that to charter our own plane? Sure!) we went to the airport and booked a tiny three seater plane.

The flight was incredible and well worth every penny. With two hours of flight time, we not only explored the hole but also the reef and some of the smaller islands, our pilot enthusiastically pointing out interesting features and snapping shots with his own phone. As it was only us on the plane, we could choose how long to spend in each area, and the time flew by. Here are a few photos from the trip...

We began by flying over the reef, looking down on where we'd snorkeled earlier in the week

The Blue Hole appears through the hot haze on our approach

The blue of the hole was even more vivid than I'd imagined

We flew round and round to see it from every angle

Saying goodbye, still in awe
Visiting some of the smaller islands on the way back

Water channels through the Caye

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Snorkelling with sharks, rays and turtles in Belize

Arriving in Belize was like stepping onto a completely different continent. Although archaeologically and geographically similar to the countries it borders, the impact of more recent history was obvious. With much more of a Caribbean vibe, and English replacing Spanish as the predominant language spoken to visitors, the atmosphere was quite different. After a brief stop in Belize City, we hopped on a water taxi to Ambergris Caye, one of the main islands off the coast and an ideal location for indulging in lots of watery activities.

I'd managed to snag a gorgeous beach bungalow for very little cost, and as we sank into the chairs on our deck and watched the sun dip below the crystal clear blue water on the first evening, I wasn't sure a week there would be enough. Once the sweltering temperatures dropped, the town came alive, Reggeton music drifting on the breeze and the smells of BBQ wafting over the sand. As we wandered along the shoreline, trying to decide which of the many seafood restaurants to pick, we spotted rays gliding through the seaweed in the gloom.

I knew I was going to love Belize.

We'd added the country to our itinerary primarily due to its reputation for diving and snorkeling, and it certainly didn't disappoint. However, whilst the accommodation and food is relatively cheap, anything taking place in the water most definitely is not. Snorkeling trips alone ran into the hundreds of dollars, and we had to be selective. We spent our first day hiring a two-person kayak and exploring up to the beginning of the reef, spotting more rays and trying to avoid sunburn. Seeing the huge, dark shapes of the rays under our kayak made us excited for actually going in ourselves, and we booked a multi-site snorkeling trip for the following day.

Our first stop was back at the reef, further in where the corals gleamed and fish swam in huge shoals. We were barely in the water before being surrounded both by some familiar old friends and a few new species. As we swam further, rays hugged the side of the reef and a gorgeous sea turtle searched for food, sending up clouds of sand from the floor.

After a couple of hours we moved on to the destination I was most excited about - Shark Ray Alley. As the name suggests, the area is known for hosting a large population of both sting rays and nurse sharks, who swam up to our boat as soon as we arrived. The site is the subject of controversy - the sharks and rays only maintain their huge presence there due to feeding from boat captains. Although this is always a touchy subject, and there is a huge argument (with whom I do sympathise) for no deliberate feeding of wild animals, the flip side is that the popularity of the area has resulted in greater regulations of human presence and protection of the reef as part of the national park. It's a difficult topic and not one I feel qualified to judge. However, I can't deny the thrill of jumping into the water, sharks below my feet.

The rays were much bigger than those we'd previously seen, fins gently cutting through the water and tails flicking from side to side. Sharks swam between them, graceful and elegant. When the time finally came to leave, our captain nearly had to drag me out of the water I was so reluctant to go. Since I was a child rays have been my favourite sea animal, and the opportunity to swim alongside them was every bit as magical as I'd hoped.


Monday, 17 September 2012

Monday photo - 17th September

The Amazon was my first taste of the jungle, and one I will never forget. Watching caimans emerge from the water looking for food after long hours rowing down the river was a wonderful end to the day.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Magical Tikal

Of all the archaeological sites we’d planned to visit over the course of the summer, it was Tikal I was most looking forward to. Something about the soaring pyramids set in a jungle location teeming with wildlife set my imagination racing, and after a long bus journey to Flores I was eager to explore.

We’d decided to stay in one of the very few hotels actually inside the park, paying much more than usual for one particular perk – the ability to take a sunrise tour through the ruins. Limited to the guests of the in-park hotels, the tour guarantees tiny numbers and the chance to watch the sun rise from the top of one of the pyramids. So at 3.30am the following morning, we were up and at reception, ready to go.

One thing that isn’t usually mentioned in the books is that as well as being a very large site, Tikal is rather hilly, and as our guide set a very fast pace in order to reach the far side in time for the first rays of colour, we were exhausted before we’d even begun to climb the many, many steps that led up the temple’s side. As we all know, I’m not exactly a fan of steps, and was grateful to plonk down at the top, snuggled into a prime viewing spot where no more than thirty of us sat, absolutely still and in complete silence, as the first flickers of orange appeared in the distance.

The experience was incredible. As a blazing sunrise burst into life, the jungle came alive, birds flying through the orange mist as Mayan structures gradually appeared around us. The howler monkeys announced themselves soon afterwards, their piercing calls breaking the silence and lying loud and heavy in the air from all directions. Once the sky had turned a brilliant blue, toucans flocked to the tree tops and settled, providing us with great views of these beautiful birds.

Still an hour away from the park opening to the general public, we descended and were taken on a tour of the main parts of the site, marvelling at the jungle reclaiming areas and the well-preserved temple. Finishing in the plaza, we said farewell to our guide and spent the next few hours on our own, climbing to fantastic view points and attempting to find some of the smaller attractions. At one point, we were walking along a path when we spotted a troop of monkeys in the trees above, swinging around and creeping closer, many with babies in tow. Being the monkey fanatic that I am, we spent around an hour just watching them chattering away and searching for food, the babies gently setting off on their own for a short distance, testing the waters before clambering quickly back onto mum’s back. Although I’d expected the site to be teeming with people, starting at 4am meant that we were satisfied by lunchtime when the coaches began rolling up, and even a few hours after opening at 8am it had been calm and quiet.

Tikal was one of, if not the best, Mayan sites we visited in Central America. Great location (except for the huge amount of biting bugs, and not just of the mozzie variety…), fascinating buildings and not too many other visitors – I couldn’t recommend it enough.


Friday, 14 September 2012

Volcanoes, Lakes and a picture-postcard town - arriving in Guatemala

After a very short 10 days, our time in Costa Rica was at an end and we hopped on a plane for the short flight to Guatemala. Our first stop was Antigua, where we planned to base ourselves whilst exploring the surrounding region.

Antigua is everything like photos suggest. A stunning colonial town, cobbled streets meet buildings painted in pastel hues, and everywhere is a blend between traditional and modern. Crumbling ruins of churches sit beside busy restaurants, all encased within the town walls. We spent lots of time just wandering around, getting lost down alleys and discovering real gems. I could have spent weeks there just taking photos, every street was so picturesque.

Our hostel was just as incredible, eager to help plan our trips outside the town and giving us a room with amazing views of the many local volcanoes and the colourful sunsets. Traditional Guatemalan food abounded, with flavourful and aromatic thin broths hiding succulent meat, all served with piles of tortillas, naturally. The only downside to the whole set-up was the less-than-lovely couple staying in the room next to us, who at 3am on our first night, stumbled into their room (the walls in Central America were very thin in general), loudly exclaiming how incredible it was that they’d managed to find someone to sell them cocaine on the streets in Guatemala. Clearly already high, they then proceeded to snort lines for another half an hour (made obvious by the continuous sneezing and odd comments) before passing out. I must admit, when we got up at 5am the following morning we weren’t necessarily as quiet as we could be… I don’t know what frustrated me more, the fact that when we saw them the next evening we realised they were only around 18 years old, or that it was another reminder of why travellers can garner such bad reputations, reflecting badly on everyone. Maybe I just needed more sleep…

Our first excursion (and the reason for the 5am wake-up call), was a hike up one of the nearby volcanoes. Although the way up was extremely steep at times, there were plenty of places to stop for beautiful views, and by the time we’d reached the top  the strong winds had calmed and cleared the sky of cloud, revealing soft blues that framed the peak and the other volcanoes around us.

Our group took turns climbing down into a warm fumarole, humid and strong-smelling, before finding a couple of particularly hot areas and toasting marshmallows brought along by our lovely guide. We scrambled across hardened lava in a multitude of colours, admiring the desolate landscape. Although we were unable to see any flowing lava, the hike was well worth the trip.

Another day we travelled a couple of hours away to Lake Atitlan. Boat tours take you a few spots around the island with plenty of time to explore, some parts guided. Although the first stop, a pretty area dominated by yoga retreats, wasn’t hugely interesting, it vastly improved from then on as we visited markets and workshops, and a fascinating town that had embraced traditional ancestor worship alongside Catholicism. The main church alter had carvings showing the nativity complete with dancing figures in Mayan headdress, and the local figure of worship was a cigarette smoking and rum drinking ‘father’ who served a dual purpose as Judas during the Easter celebrations. Although the thick clouds of smoke prevented me from spending very long at his ‘house’ (a yearly honour bestowed upon a different family each year), it was interesting to watch the queues of locals lining up with offerings of cigarettes to ask for favours or blessings.

The way both religions intertwined in harmony in this traditionally Catholic area of the world was great to see, and would prove to be more of a trend throughout Central America than I had expected.