Thursday, 26 February 2015

Ruins, ruins, ruins...: Tulum and Chichen Itza

After Tikal we were faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to go to Belize. Our plan at the beginning of the trip was to visit every country in Central America and we had been looking forward to snorkelling at the second largest barrier reef in the world. After much debate, we reviewed our budget and humbly accepted that Belize was more expensive than we could afford. Although we were very disappointed, we took consulation in the thought that we would be able to fly to Belize someday when we can afford to do it up right and then turned our determined gaze towards Mexico.

After another long day of travel we crossed our last border into Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. As we reflected on our border crossings over the past four months we were thankful to be done for a while as border crossing always take a fair bit of effort to navigate. Thankfully, this crossing was well laid out and we were the only ones crossing, marking this the easiest border on the trip. Our first destination was Tulum, where we were overwhelmed by the amount of tourism, even though we knew it was a hot spot for vacationers. We felt out of place and uncomfortable being a part of the majority for the first time and definitely experienced culture shock. We walked along the zona hotelera until we found a 'cheap' place on the beach where we grabbed ourselves a simple cabana. The colour of the water was remarkable as the turquoise and jade hues made it appear fake. Our plan was to snorkel here as we had heard it was well worth the financial investment, however the weather conditions conspired against us and we were sadly bound to land. We shrugged our shoulders at our misfortune and headed for the ruins of Tulum. Arriving at the gate we were greeted with something we had not seen at a ruin site yet, a lineup. The sheer mass of tourists was shocking and caused us to search for a way to ignore them. I found my distraction a few steps into the site, iguana's! They were everywhere, with many making their homes in and on the structures. Looking for Iguana's helped to keep our minds off the swarms of people and although we felt uncomfortable with the crowds it made us even more grateful for our time at Copan and Tikal. 

After a couple nights we carried on to see the remarkable Chichen Itza. We stayed at an old hotel that was overrun with dogs and cats and had most likely seen its heyday in the 70's. The silver lining for us though was that it was walking distance to the Ruins. Learning from our experience at Tulum we made sure to be at the gates when they opened to avoid some of the crowds. In order to do so we settled for convenience store breakfast that included a hot dog, yogurt and cookies. Walking into the centre of the site our jaws dropped at the grandure of El Castillo. The early morning light cast stunning shadows over the perfect structure, taking our breath away. We proceeded from there to the largest Mayan ball court in existence. Although the court was enormous Travis and I were able to stand on opposite sides and carry a conversation as if we were standing side by side. Within 2.5 hours we had soaked in everything Chichen Itza had to offer and turned towards the exit. As we made our way through incoming crowds we laughed to ourselves at all the vendors hawking their wares. Their sales tactics consisted of them offering their products for "almost free". Once away from the oppressive crowds we began the 2.5 km walk back to our hotel satisfied with our time at one of the seven man made wonders of the world (our first).


Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Tikal: Shock and Awe

The ride from Semuc Champey to northern Guatemala with our friends from California was an all day event, leaving us a little road weary as we arrived in Flores. Thankfully, the first hostel we tried had one room left with four single beds, so we snatched it up, threw our stuff down and headed out on the town. Flores is a picture perfect little town on a small island in a medium sized lake. We are happy to have got here when we did as the lake is rising at an alarming rate and is beginning to overtake the road that encompasses the island. We walked along this road doing our best to navigate around the water until we came across the most impressive display of street food we have seen on this trip. Nearly every local dish we have enjoyed during our journey was available at absurdly low prices. Burritos, taquitos, fresh Jamaica juice, tres leches and more cakes and deserts than we could handle! Together we laughed and feasted, sampling appetizing foods from different ladies. Although we thoroughly enjoyed this cute little town and the local flare and cuisine it offered, our purpose for being in this lovely place was short lived as our goal was still one hour away; the mighty Tikal.

Travis and I had been anticipating Tikal, the grandest Mayan Ruin site, our entire trip. Unlike Copan, Tikal is in the heart of the jungle and is quite spread out. For six hours we walked around, covering many kilometres, trying to take in the extrodinary experience one temple at a time. We were extremely impressed by the height of the temples as more than a few extended beyond the confines of the jungle canopy. One thing we did not realize before coming to the site was how many buildings are still waiting to be excavating and deciphered. Our admiration for archeologists is now extremely high as we witnessed differing stages of their work in progress. We saw more than a few Mayan structures as completely overgrown, simply appearing as just another hill amidst the dense jungle background. It would have been easy to walk right by them without realizing what lie underneath the foliage if it wasn't for Travis's keen eye. The years of tedious work to reveal just one ruin is unimaginable. Travis and I enjoyed climbing to the top of every structure that wasn't roped off and each time we did the views were stunning. Exhausted after exploring, we left the site and headed back to the tent we had rented for the night where we visited with our California friends once again and then crashed hard.

After a solid sleep, Travis and I were back up at 3:30am to head back to the ruins, marking the earliest I have ever woke up on my birthday. We stumbled out of our tent and headed for our guided sunrise tour of the ruins. The temples took on an entirely new dimension when viewed only in the light of the moon. They loomed like giant monoliths piercing the jungle roofline, defiant against the surrounding nature. Having the place to ourselves also added some mystery to our tour, even though we had seen most of the temples just a few hours earlier. Our guide demonstrated how a clap made beside one temple reverberates off another, echoing loudly through the sky. This phenomenon gives Tikal its namesake as it is known as the 'city of whispers'. We climbed up Temple IV to silently watch the sunrise with the upper portions of Temples I,II and III gracing the skyline with their prominence. This is also the view that appears in Star Wars Episode IV as the hidden rebel base on Yavin IV as Travis made certain to point out. The best part for me though was the mist resting over the far off hills and the birds singing as the sun rose higher in the sky. Our hearts were filled with gratitude to experience this beautiful place. Afterwards we finished what we had missed the day before and made a video for our new niece who arrived later that night. Although we were sad not to be home for Charlee's birth it served to build our excitement for going home sooner than planned. Also knowing I get to celebrate my birthday with her for years to come fills my heart with joy. 





Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Limestone and Crystal Waters: Semuc Champey

Back in Antigua once again, this time with our new friends we enjoyed touring them around and introducing them to our favourite city in Central America. Our plan was to leave the morning after we arrived, but there was confusion with our scheduled ride and we ended up staying in town for another day. Realizing that we had some free time in a city in which we had already thoroughly explored, we decided to review our financial situation at length. The impact of our dropping Canadian dollar was hitting us hard and lead us to the heavy realization that our April 1 flight home was no longer viable and early March would be our new reality. After praying together, Travis called and was thankfully able to cancel our flight without the usually mandatory $400 fee, freeing us up to fly home when our budget runs out, which is what we had wanted all along.

With a new lightness in our step we revelled in our new found freedom, said goodbye to our Copan friends and boarded the shuttle for Semuc Champey. While on the shuttle we quickly became friends with a couple from California, little did we know the lesson in generosity they would teach us as we travelled together. During our ten hour journey to the heart of Guatemala, my usual motion sickness was coupled with the agony of severe stomach pain. Eight hours in I couldn't take it anymore, the feeling of nausea was so great I had Travis ask the driver to stop. I quickly jumped out and tried to throw up to no avail. I allowed myself to cry for a few minutes before taking a deep breath and climbing back in the shuttle trying to apologize to the other passengers when our new friends offered some very comforting words and made their understanding of my situation very apparent.The last hour was better for me as we loaded into the back of a truck to complete the trip. I could stand and look around at the lush jungle, breath in the fresh moist air and allow the beauty of the land to penetrate itself within my mind, easing the pain. Exhausted from our long journey, the four of us were thrilled to enjoy delicious authentic Indian cuisine at our Israeli hostel, a welcomed meal we did not expect deep in the Guatemalan jungle. 

The next day we walked a kilometre together in the rain and mud to the reason we had endured the gruelling journey to get here, Semuc Champey. It is difficult to describe the incredible beauty of this place, the sight of clear green water gently flowing from one natural swimming pool to the next was breath taking. My first thought was that all cartoons about enchanted, romantic forests gained their inspiration from this spot on Gods beautiful earth. The pools of teal and turquoise waters come up through a bed of limestone from an underground river to create an oasis in every sense of the word. With the pools nearly to ourselves, the four of us relaxed and enjoyed the cool, refreshing water for many hours together while talking and laughing. During our conversations we began to talk about some very deep topics and as a result of our friends encouragement and insight, our future has very likely been altered from what we thought we had just figured out mere days earlier. We couldn't be more thankful to have had these conversations and we are grateful to be given a new perspective on our futures. When we weren't talking Travis was able to convince me to jump in a few times, from a couple feet, and I have to admit that I'm beginning to enjoy this form of fun. There were also little fish who would come and nibble off your dead skin and although it took a bit to get used to them, we eventually sat back and allowed them to help clean up our bug bites. Mesmerized by this piece of heaven on earth we returned the next day to bask one more time in the brilliant waters. After such an incredible experience, knowing that the trip was totally worth it and with my stomach pains disappearing our journey out of the jungle wasn't as ominous as the journey in.

(This week friends, check in daily as we catch you up completely with our travels before we return home in the very near future).


Copan: Ruins and Earthquakes

The ride back to Antigua from Lake Atitlan with my parents was not accompanied by motion sickness and thus the ride was infinitely more enjoyable. We enjoyed one last walk around the magnificent city together and in the morning said fair well. Even though we were sad to say goodbye, we were ready to jump back into the thick of back packing. 

Our journey to Honduras began at 4 am and continued for 8 hours across the winding countryside of Guatemala to the border. I should have taken a picture at this crossing because there was hardly anyone around save for a couple locals and one other shuttle, giving it a bit of an eerie feeling as we have become accustomed to large unorganized crossings. From the border it was a simple 20 minute drive to the safest spot in Honduras. For those that are not aware, Honduras ranks very very high in homicides and there has been no shortage of stories of such. We however, found a welcoming small town and a lovely hostel with a delightful family cafe next door, so we settled in for four days. 

Before we could settle in too much, we experienced one of the more unique things we have in our lives... an earthquake! At 4 am on our second night, we awoke to the walls and ground shaking and the sound of dogs and roosters crying out in the night. It didn't last long, but the sensation of the ground moving underneath us isn't something we will soon forget. With our curiosity piqued, we searched online to find the magnitude and location of the earthquake and discovered that the epicentre was 100 km away from us and it measured 4.5 on the Richter scale. 

Our purpose in coming to Honduras was to see the famous Mayan Ruins and we were not disappointed. We were a bit surprised by how few tourists were at the site considering its fame, wonder and grandure though. With no line up and hardly anyone around we paid our $30 and entered the historic site. At the entrance we were greeted by the amazing sight and sound of Macaws flying amoung the towering trees overhead. As the trees parted along our path the sight of the magnificent grand plaza began to take shape. Copan is famous for its well preserved and incredibly detailed Stelae, which are carved hieroglyphs of rulers with written descriptions on all sides of a very large upright stone. With our lonely planet book in hand we carefully read about each one (of which there are many) and proceeded on to the temples. It was exciting to be able to climb to the top of many of the ruins and look down at the site and imagine what it all may have looked like 1000 years ago. Copan also boasts of the longest continuous hieroglyphic inscription in the Mayan world detailing the ruling dynasty on a stairway 63 steps high and the second largest ball court. This day was truly remarkable and we were awestruck by the scope and impressive artistic abilities portrayed by the ancient Maya.

On other days we toured a couple museums holding special artifacts from the site, as well as a full size replica of one of the temples found underneath a current one (red building below). However, our time in Copan was enhanced all the more by three new friends. Our favourite memory was sitting around the hostel owners home/cafe and watching the Super Bowl on a small, old tv in Spanish. The next day was go time and two of our new friends joined us on our ride to Antigua, which turned out to be a private transfer as we were the only ones aboard!