So after our trip to Antigua & Lago Atitlan (which you can read about here) we got back to Guatemala City and caught a bus to Rio Dulce. The ride should have taken 8 hours and we planned on arriving in Rio Dulce still in daylight. But our bus had a minor accident en-route (seriously, a teeny tiny scratch on the front and on the Jeep that barely scraped us - nobody was injured). Thinking this is Central America, the bus driver and the people in the Jeep would just check out the damage, exchange details & shake hands and we'd be off on our way again. But no. The bus driver insisted that somebody from the insurance company came out here - we were two hours outside of Guatemala City on a Sunday no less! - to assess the damage before we could continue on. So we waited and waited, went into a nearby gas station to get water & snacks and waited some more. In the meantime we made friends with an elderly couple from Boston who always spent their winters down here. In the end we made it to Rio Dulce with a 4-hour delay and arrived just before midnight.
And that was a problem because our accommodation was far out on the river! When booking it we thought it sounded super cool to sleep in tiny cabins built on stilts in a river in the middle of the jungle. But the river is wide and dark at night and can be very dangerous! So we were advised to arrive in daylight so that the owner, Gary, an Australian who managed the hostel, could still pick us up safely by boat. We called Gary, told him why we were delayed and said we'd try to find a hotel in Rio Dulce for the night but he insisted on trying to come out and picking us up. So we made our way to the hostel in complete darkness on a huge river in the jungle in a tiny boat with our bags between us, holding a flashlight so that Gary could navigate us home. But hey, we made it! The place itself was really cool and didn't disappoint! Our small room really only fitted a bed and instead of windows we had screens. The first night I didn't sleep at all. Being a city girl I'm used to fall asleep to the sound of cars, people & sirens but birds and frogs and other nocturnal creatures? I had a hard time finding rest that night but soon after got used to it and slept like a baby!
The entrance to our hostel
The next morning Gary brought us back to Rio Dulce from where to took a bus to the hot springs in Finca Paraiso. The coolest thing here was that there was a pool of hot water springs higher up between the rocks and therefore the waterfalls were warm as well! Apparently there are only very few accessible hot spring waterfalls in the world and this is one of them!
The next day we were off to the town of Livingston by boat again. Our voyage started out in driving rain but since this is the jungle it cleared fairly soon and we got to experience some incredibly beautiful scenery!
When you get to Livingston you think you've arrived on a completely different continent! Namely Africa. Or maybe somewhere in the Caribbean. The people here don't look Hispanic or like indigenous Central Americans. Most inhabitants of Livingston do indeed have African roots and are called Garifuna. The food, the music and the culture here are a big, colorful mix of Caribbean, European and West & Central African influences. This place is like nowhere else in Guatemala!
After a couple of days living on a river we bid farewell to Rio Dulce and tried to catch a bus up to Flores in the very north of Guatemala where we'd visit Tikal and spend New Year's Eve. The bus ride this time was supposed to take just over 5 hours so we hoped for the best. And low and behold we got on a bus right away! Our luggage went into the bottom part of the bus, we stepped on board and - OMG! This vehicle was hopelessly overloaded with fathers standing in the aisle with several children hanging from them, women practically stacked on top of each other in the seats and absolutely no space to even slightly spread out your legs. I didn't see the famous bird cages that are meant to be on these so-called chicken buses but I wouldn't have been surprised if there was some livestock hidden in the mix on this vehicle. I stood sideways with my legs tightly together and my arms stretched out high above me to hold on to the luggage rack under the roof of the bus.
There was barely any fresh air coming and I soon felt like I would faint. I complained and muttered under my breath, saying things like "I'd rather take a taxi next time!". The locals probably thought "Oh that poor white girl is clearly not used to something like this!". When I think about it now I can just laugh out loud at what a princess I was and at my petty little first world problems of traveling on a bus without a seat! Okay, so in all fairness - I had to stand like this in the muggy bus for close to 4 hours! And it didn't help that the bus driver raced like a maniac through the monsoon, violently swerving around huge puddles. It was seriously exhausting physically and mentally but thank God I rarely suffer from motion sickness and luckily the roads were paved for most of the way. Oh poor me! On the other hand I realized later that this is actually some people's commute several days a week! Shame on me for thinking I deserve a seat here! I love how traveling once again put things into perspective for me - the spoiled Westerner.
After a while a nice lady let me half-sit on her arm rest and about an hour before we reached Flores the bus miraculously emptied out and we got seats! Never in my life have I appreciated a dirty, rugged, hard-as-concrete seat on public transport as much as in this moment! And I just realized how lucky I am that my daily commute to work consists of a 20 minute air-conditioned tram ride where I almost always get a comfy window seat. Yes, traveling does open your eyes to how the other half lives! And after half a day on a chicken bus we finally made it into Flores - yaaay!
The day we went to Tikal was the 31st December 2014 - New Year's Eve. I wanted to do something really special on the last day of that (pretty awesome) year and had heard from other travelers that there is a little dare usually happening on these wildlife & pyramid tours... namely your guide plucks a huge jungle tarantula off a tree and lets everybody who's brave enough hold it for a couple of seconds. Now, I am probably the most arachnophobic person you could imagine and there was like no way in hell I was going to touch this creepy crawly in Tikal. Well, I went to Tikal and yes, I held a freakin' big spider. And you know what? It wasn't half as bad as thought it would be! And that was my very personal epic way of ending 2014! So if you don't like eight-legged animals, don't scroll any further... you have been warned! ;)
There were howler moneys high up in those trees with their super loud, piercing scream echoing all over the place. Oh and they looove throwing their poop at tourists - so watch out for those cheeky monkeys!
Tikal is basically an ancient Mayan site in the middle of the northern Guatemalan jungle. It is estimated that Tikal is over 2,000 years old and is therefore one of the oldest & largest Mayan sites in Central America accessible to visitors. I'm really beginning to wonder why this is not one of the Seven World Wonders... I mean, look at this stuff!
There are several temples and Temple IV is the one most people climb up - there are proper stairs in place that make the hike easier for visitors and at the same time protect the original stone work. This is the place from where you get stunning pictures like this!
After Tikal we went back to our hostel and celebrated New Year's out in the streets of Flores - which was quite the spectacle considering that everybody could just bring fireworks and let them off right next to you! I was back at the hostel quite early again and was looking forward to my comfy bed after a super long day of hiking, partying and holding tarantulas. Did you dare to look at the pictures? ;)
And that was it, my Guatemala adventure came to an end and I had to head back home via Guatemala City, Houston & Washington DC which was a minor adventure in itself as I sweated like never before when going through US immigration due to the fact that my passport was ripped... but I'll tell you more about that travel incident in another post ;)
In December 2014 I traveled to Guatemala and my plan was to see as much as possible of this incredible and fairly big country. I arrived by bus from El Salvador into Guatemala City and went straight on to Antigua, a relatively small city surrounded by picturesque volcanoes. If you check Instagram for Guatemala pictures you're almost guaranteed to come across the one below: The famous yellow Santa Catalina Arch.
Antigua has a population of just over 45,000 people but the town is constantly buzzing with backpackers! Apart from strolling around the cobble stone streets, visiting cathedrals, drinking amazing coffee grown in the Guatemalan highlands and hiking up volcanoes, this is also the gateway to Panajachel & Lago Atitlan. But first some impressions of Antigua:
Panajachel & Lago Atitlan
The day trip to the Lake Atitlan is absolutely worth it! Your bus basically gets you from Antigua to the town of Panajachel which lies at about 1,597m/5,240ft above sea level. You're dropped off at the port and hop on a small boat which will bring you to some of the small communities around the lake where the Mayan culture is still very much celebrated!
This region has seen some significant rises in water levels and some buildings & trees that once stood on dry land are now partly submerged like these near San Pedro la Laguna. It's a really eerie sight...
The cathedrals in Central America are generally very beautiful but come Christmas people here go totally overboard - at least here at the lake! Colorfully blinking lights, tacky nativity scenes and best of all - random Christmas songs blaring from loudspeakers, sounding like one of those commercial high-pitch Happy Birthday card tunes. And that didn't just happen in one church but in almost all that we visited! A very different experience compared to the often quiet and more somber catholic churches found in Europe. Here it seemed they were in the middle of throwing Jesus a big party! I loved it! :)
Guatemala City - the Capital
After a couple of days in Antigua we made our way back to Guatemala city where we'd end up again a third time at the very end of our trip. So surely we had to check it out for a couple of days! Here are already some pictures of the capital of Guatemala even though we really only got to explore it right before flying back home.
If you liked this post watch out for part II next week when we're heading into the jungle & climb the pyramids of Tikal! :) xo Kat
Just a three hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires is Uruguay. You can choose between arriving in Colonia del Sacramento or the capital city, Montevideo. We took the ferry to Colonia, stayed there a couple of days and then went by bus up to Montevideo from were we took the ferry back to BA. Immigration and all exit & entry stamps were taken care off right in the ferry terminal at the port.
Montevideo is a sprawling metropolis and the capital city of Uruguay. It's smaller than Buenos Aires but still as lively and chaotic at times. Food-wise it's also quite similar to what you would find in Argentina: steaks and empanadas are on most restaurants' menus. Even the accent here bears some similarity to Argentinian Spanish even though I found Uruguayans slightly easier to understand.
Colonia is a beautifully preserved colonial town. Founded by the Portuguese in the late 17th century right on the edge of the Rio de la Plata it eventually became part of Spanish-speaking Uruguay. Today its historical quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Funny story: in the tourist information office in Colonia we were given a small map outlining some of the town's sights. Somebody must have googled "Colonia" and copied the first image that came up... On the reverse of the map there was a picture of the Dome in Cologne/Germany :D
Scroll down for some impressions of Montevideo & Colonia! xo Kat
Tango, steaks & Dulce de Leche (caramelized condensed milk) - that's Argentina in a nut shell. Add one of the longest pedestrianized shopping streets in the world - Calle Florida - lots and lots of soccer-crazy people and an accent that left me wondering what exactly I did in those 3 years of Spanish classes in college... and you get a pretty good idea of what Buenos Aires is like!
San Telmo, were we stayed, is the artsy part of town with weekend craft markets and beautifully restored buildings. La Boca is where you find the colorful houses (and where we were advised not to go as tourists) and downtown BA is full of shops, museums and huge parks.
A definite must-do is the famous Recoleta Cemetery where you can visit the grave of Eva Peron (Evita) and wander through the giant impressive family tombs.
As for the tango... if you're lucky you may catch a live performance on the street! Otherwise there are plenty of places to watch proper tango shows and even take a lesson yourself!
Buenos Aires is also home to one of the most beautiful government buildings I've ever seen: La Casa Rosada - which is basically a huge pink palace in the middle of the city and it's the official office of the President.
What foods did I enjoy most? Empanadas and alfajores. Granted, neither are particularly vegan but both can be vegetarian. I was only a veggie when I traveled South America and therefore I indulged in both these delicacies pretty much on a daily basis (ooops, not so healthy - but hey, I was on holidays, right?!). Empanadas are basically deep-fried pastry pockets filled with meat or vegetables and cheese. And alfajores are two cookies stuffed with Dulce de Leche (see above). It didn't make my life any easier that there was a Milka-Oreo alfajores version available pretty much everywhere... Let's just say that even without steaks on my plate I ate really well (if not too healthy) in Argentina.
As for drinks? Mate tea is a big thing here and you see people wandering around with their Mate cups - traditional ones are made from the fruit of a Calabash tree, others can be wooden or even plastic sometimes.
So this is Buenos Aires...
A good 15 hours by bus west of Buenos Aires is Mendoza which we chose as our stop-over on our way to Chile. Mendoza is mainly known for its wines and -again- steaks! Needless to say I stuck to empanadas and alfajores ;)
My very own Mate cup - carved & personalized at a market in San Telmo/Buenos Aires
After almost 2 months on the road backpacking South America, Paraguay was one of our last stops. It was an epic journey and every day was an adventure. Paraguay was initially not even on my radar but route-wise it worked out and it fit into our itinerary so we gave it a go. With only a couple of days to spare between Brazil and Argentina we decided to stay in the country's capital city, Asuncion.
So this was in 2010. I'm not sure in how far the city has changed but 7 years ago it was an interesting place to be in! From trendy restaurants to utter poverty right in the city center everything was possible. I didn't really know what to think about it and didn't get a feeling for the place for a couple of days. While I always felt safe, there were areas where you couldn't just go by yourself. One such place I remember was apparently by the river. There are some sights like government buildings there and guards used to patrol the street and take any tourists down there and after they finished exploring the area and taking pictures they were escorted back to one of the main streets. There wasn't much in the way of tourist infrastructure. I remember we visited two museums, one small local history museum and a railway exhibition. After the well-visited places I had seen in the past two months - all the way from Argentina through Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Brazil - Paraguay felt a whole lot different, almost like a window into the past.
I do remember eating at nice restaurants, spending the evenings in a roof-top bar with pub food and staying at a lovely place called The Black Cat Hostel - yes, they really did have a cat and a dog for us to play with :)
You probably wonder now if we went to the Iguazu Falls from Paraguay... but sadly no. We did visit them from the Brazilian side though.
Would I go back to Paraguay? Definitely! I'd love to see what it's like today and Encarnacion & Trinidad (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are still on my bucket list!
Pretty much a MUST on any South America backpacking itinerary are the Bolivian Salt Flats! But getting there is an adventure in itself - namely a 3-day 4x4 tour through deserts, along frozen lakes and up to the geysers at ~ 4,900m/16,000ft altitude. It includes a night in a hostel made out of salt, flamingos & alpacas and the train graveyard in Uyuni.
We started our tour in San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile. First stop: the Bolivian Embassy - which was a small brick building with a Bolivian flag in front of it in the middle of nowhere. Once we got our passports stamped we were off to explore some pretty crazy environments for the next couple of days.
It's incredible to witness how the landscapes & climates change: you start in flat desert terrain surrounded by mountains, then you climb up to check out the geysers and then down again past pristine lakes and before you know it you're surrounded by cactus plants and you'll get the first glimpse of the salt flats.
Needless to say, that we were completely off the grid during this trip - no cell connection and no WiFi. Granted, that was in 2010 - so things may have changed now. Or they haven't - in which case you'll be forced to give your full attention to the breathtaking scenery you'll find yourself in ;)
Get carried away!
First impressions: the view from the Bolivian Embassy
Desert & Mountains
Our tracks in the sand...
Sol de La Mañana Geyser
Arbol the piedra - the stone tree
It doesn't get any more picturesque than this
Getting closer to the salt flats...
Yep, it's definitely salt - I tried it...
The train graveyard in Uyuni - you can climb in & on the old trains - it's a pretty cool playground