A Travellerspoint blog

Honduras

Dive time

sunny 32 °C

Next stop was Honduras. There’s not a whole lot on the tourist trail that enticed us, so we were here solely for one reason – to learn to scuba dive and get our Open Water PADI certifications. We were headed to a small Caribbean island off the east coast called Utila (part of the Bay Islands) as it’s one of the cheapest places in the world to learn to dive. It’s very highly regarded, PADI certified, and there are loads of different dive schools & instructors to choose from. To get your Open Water Dive certification costs US$299 which includes 5 nights of accommodation in a dorm room at a nice-ish hotel with a pool & 6 dives – compared with say the Great Barrier Reef where it’ll set you back around $500 just for the course.

Coming from Guatemala which felt so culturally rich & traditional, particularly with the way the people dressed, it was instantly clear as we crossed the border that we were in a different country. The women all dressed in regular clothes – jeans, tops, sandals - and in general they seemed thinner too as the Guatemalan women were certainly a bit tight around the girth.

It was about a 12 hour journey to our next destination from Antigua, Guatemala. We decided to take the slightly more expensive option (which was a big comfy 40 seater greyhound-style bus with all the comfort features including a hostess!) as we’d heard & read that Honduras was not exactly the safest country in the world – note that in 2012 the UN announced Honduras had become the murder-rate capital of the world. The Hondurans then joked that at last their country had won something! The border crossing was all fairly straightforward though with no hassles, and we then overnighted in a small town just across the border called Copan to break up the trip.

Early the following morning while boarding a local bus to continue our journey to Utila we were to meet the 3 people of whom we would become inseparable with for the coming week - a super spritely & fun Aussie couple from Sydney, and a young, very suave Dutchman with a ‘Koole’ surname.

The crew - me, Hayley & Lee (Aussie couple) and Thomas
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I was pretty apprehensive about scuba diving. My phobia of sharks and generally any other kind of dark patch that lurks beneath the depths, coupled with having ridiculously small ear canals which every doctor I’ve ever seen has commented on, I wasn’t completely sure how I’d cope down there. And thankfully it was incredible. Who knew it would be such a novelty breathing under water. I giggled rather uncontrollably on our first (2m!) dive & wanted to come up immediately to start talking. Brendan being the keen attentive student in all the theory classes remembered all the hand signs straightaway, whereas if I spotted say a huge moray eel I’d start screaming in order to get people’s attention – aka not what we had been taught.

Prepping for a dive
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Dive centre boat heading off for a night dive
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We had a great instructor, a French Canadian named Marc, and then 3 others who were completing their Dive Master course who would come on all the dives with us, making sure we didn’t float to the surface & generally keeping an eye on us. In general we would be underwater for about 40 minutes at a time. There’s loads of different reefs & dive spots all around the island, and we spotted a heap of gorgeous colourful fish & coral, moray eels, stingrays, crabs, lobster, and even a scorpion fish (apparently quite hard to spot). Scuba is something I would definitely recommend to everyone. It opens up a completely new world, is super calming down there, and in general is just super fun.

The crew with Marc our instructor after our graduation
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Sunset beers at the dive centre
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Starjump Hayley
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As for Utila the island, it’s certainly not the most beautiful place in the world. There’s one main road that crosses the South Eastern side of the island, and dotted along are various dive shops, restaurants and bars. There weren’t really any activities to do during the day except dive, no nice beaches, lots of rubbish everywhere, and a ZILLION sand flies that proceeded to attack all of us. You notice everyone out of the water looks a bit lubed & greasy – this is because baby oil is the best defense against the little buggers as they get stuck in the oil. Nice.
It’s basically an island where you go to party and learn to dive. Most mornings there would be a few sore heads, but after a good dose of compressed air and a swim the hangovers would be cleared!

Storm approaching Utila
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An hilarious xmas wonderland
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One of the many bars we frequented during our stay
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Utila & the Bay Islands do have an interesting history though – Colombus discovered the islands in 1502 and enslaved many of the islanders. Later on in the 1600’s, pirates including Henry Morgan used the Bay Islands as a base to raid gold-laden Spanish vessels. Many of these pirates then decided to stay and make Utila their home, which is why now as you wander around you see loads of Caucasian Utileans. Many of the locals also have surnames like Morgan, Jackson & Cooper. Everyone either speaks English or Creole (picture an old white guy with a hardcore rasta accent, seems totally fake but cool) – we tried practicing our Spanish as we were feeling super confident post our schooling but all the replies were often in English.

After 8 nights we were ready to move on and head down to Nicaragua. We all passed the course with flying colours and even got halfway to attaining our advanced certificates by completing a deep water dive to 30m, a wreck dive, and a drift dive (where you let the current take you as you swim and the instead the boat comes to pick you up from where you end).

Posted by hawkers2013 15:32 Archived in Honduras Comments (0)

Guatemala

Time to learn spanish

After a 12 hour, cramped and terrifyingly beautiful shuttle ride from San Cristobal de Las Casas, we arrived in Panajachel to a beautiful sunset and twilight over Lago de Atitlán. Surrounded by silhouetted volcanoes and a quicksilver lake, the grime and chaos we experienced while completing our first land border crossing was replaced with a friendly, serene and peaceful vibe. Along with most of the other passengers from our shuttle, we then boarded a small boat for the 35 minute crossing to our intended destination.

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Not my photo, but closest as to how we remembered the sunset. Taken from http://vivsie.com/?p=536

We are in San Pedro as we have enrolled for a two-week intensive Spanish course with the La Cooperativa School http://www.cooperativeschoolsanpedro.edu.gt, while living with a local family.
Our hosts met us and brought us back to their humble, yet clean and comfortable house, about a 5-minute walk from the San Pedro Dock. Our newly adopted family, the Yojcom’s, consisted of husband and wife, Jose and Maria and their seven year old son, Felix. Jose is a primary school teacher, Maria is a cook at a local restaurant and Felix, as happy as any seven-year old could be, was on school holidays. Our family prepared us 3 enormous, varied and delicious meals per day, 6 days per week.

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Our family repainted their entire house in one weekend to a lovely guacamole green.

Our weekly schedule was simple. Four hours of one on one Spanish instruction, with a 20 min coffee break, from 8am to 12:00pm. We’d then walk the 15min back to our house through the winding streets, dodging tuk-tuks, back to our house for lunch. After helping clean up, the routine was then to head to our favorite Café Cristalina’s for wonderful coffee, Wi-Fi and a few hours of homework.

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View from my classroom

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Studying hard in our bedroom

We managed to stay fairly focused and committed to the studious side of life in San Pedro, as we both wanted a decent level of Spanish under our belt for the next 8 months of travel through Latin America. But on Friday and Saturday nights, we inevitably would venture into “Gringo Alley” and join in the revelry.
It was curious how two different worlds exist in San Pedro: You have the Spanish students, who come to learn Spanish in excellent schools at incredibly cheap prices – Our school was $160US per week including accommodation, 3 meals per day and 20 hours of one on one Spanish! And then you have the party side, which attracts back packers for the ample bars, pubs and really cheap accommodation - $12US per night for a clean private room with ensuite. They all party hard.

The quality of the Spanish school was fantastic, Amber and I got a lot out of our experience. The workload was comfortable and rapid progress was made. Our first night with our family I could barely string a sentence together, so basically sat there and smiled while Amber ran the show. By the end of our time, swollen with confidence, I could comfortably carry a conversation in somewhat imperfect Spanish. Now ready for the rest of Central and South America!
Lago de Atitlán is rimmed with many small towns, easily accessed by boat or tuk-tuk, and volcanoes for hiking. We made two visits to San Juan, the closest town to San Pedro, to explore their fabric cooperatives. Women in this town decided that while the men were up on the hillsides farming coffee or corn, they would team up, pool their resources and skills and begin producing beautiful, hand woven and naturally dyed fabrics into scarves, table cloths, bags, clothes – you name it. All original, high quality and very affordable. Often the item will have the name and age of the lady who produced it, and she would receive 90% of the sale price.

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Weaving on a traditional hand loom

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explaining the different dyes and where they come from

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From the dock at San Juan

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Flooded buildings litter the coast. After a decade of drought people deemed it safe to build along the receded shore line.

Another town we visited directly across the lake is San Marcos. This was a very relaxed, almost sleepy hippie community on the lakeshore, with a busy, dusty and gritty town behind. We paid a visit here, as it is a nice place to go swimming. It is sheltered from the strong afternoon winds and has a wooden platform (disappointingly called trampolines) 6-7m high that you can jump off into the lake. There was a funny group of 10 year olds who followed us, trying to be tour guides so as to score a few bucks. They wanted sunscreen from us after swimming, which we gave thinking they were being sun smart, but it all went straight into their hair to slick it back correct.
On our middle weekend, we and some other students hiked the dormant volcano behind San Pedro. It was a 5hr return trip and due to being far from our regular level of fitness, was quite brutal. Fortunately when we reached the summit it was not shrouded in cloud as two other friends had experienced, and it offered stunning views of the lake, other volcanoes and the towns at their feet. Needless to stay, thanks to our recent sloth like inactivity, the next few days were incredibly difficult walking around, particularly downhill/stairs.

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View of San Pedro from halfway up the volcano

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sun bursting through the jungle

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Summit

From the traditionally and colorfully dressed locals, the delicious food and warmth of the people, San Pedro provided a fantastic experience and we were very sad to leave. Thanks to our host family and the school, Amber and I could have happily stayed for a whole month, but a booking and deposit paid in Honduras meant we needed to move on.

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Marimba players in traditional dress

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"Day of the disabled" parade. Our langauge school helped to organise a parade for all of the disabled children from the surronding towns to promote awareness and raise money for special schools.

Before heading to Honduras, we spent 3 nights in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua. Set in the central highlands and ringed by volcanoes, originally the capital of Guatemala, the town suffered devastating earthquakes in 1717 and 1776 so the capital was relocated to its current location of Guatemala City. What remains is a charming, UNESCO world heritage listed site, with well preserved spanish-baroque architecture and a number of spectacular ruined churches. Thanks to its seismic history, there are no buildings, except churches, over a couple of stories high, and those churches still standing, such as Iglesia de La Merced, are squat structures, with incredibly thick walls. It is still luxurious and ornate and filled with relics and brutal gilt statues. There are several other churches to visit that have fallen victim to tremors of the past and it is tragically beautiful to wonder through a church with no roof, surrounded by huge sections of stone that have crashed to the ground.
Antigua is another popular destination for Spanish immersion schools, so with a large community of travellers and expats, there are many delicious cafes and restaurants and plenty of nightlife to keep things interesting.

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Facade of La Merced

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Santa Catalina arch looking towards Volcano de Agua

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Watercolour purchased from local artist

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Ruinous church

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Most media and government travel advisories profile Guatemala as an extremely dangerous and violent state, and while I am sure those warnings are not without validity in certain parts, it is entirely different to the Guatemala we experienced. We found it easy to get around and the population in the areas we visited to be warm and friendly, ready to assist with directions and rarely indifferent. It was also wonderful to see indigenous Maya culture so alive through food and dress, adding yet another dimension to this captivating country.

Posted by hawkers2013 12:09 Archived in Guatemala Comments (1)

Magical Mexico - The fourth & final chapter

From an island, to the big city, to a cobblestone town in the highlands

sunny 30 °C

Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres (literally the Women’s Island) was our next stop, which is only a short 20 minute ferry ride from Cancun. Our travel plans at this stage had been fairly sporadic, so we were backtracking a bit on the map back to where we’d started, but we’d had loads of recommendations from fellow travellers that this was a must visit spot so we happily obliged.
The main beach on the island, Playa Norte, covered the majority of the hotel area on the north side and was beautiful. Creamy white sand and gorgeous turquoise water. Again though, the rain gods were in full force and our daily beach plans were quickly replaced by reading, Internet & card games.
In the end we were pretty disappointed with Isla Mujeres. Being so close to Cancun we should have known it would be overly Americanised with inflated prices. Don’t get me wrong the beach was stunning, there was great live music and loads of fresh seafood, I guess it just didn’t have that authentic Mexican flavor we were hoping for. Probably didn’t help that the hostel we stayed at (the only one on the island) was definitely the worst room we’d stayed in thus far on the trip - think thin, ratty, stained sheets & a mouldy, humid bathroom. The live bands every night and 2-4-1 margaritas were a plus though.
So instead of our initial plan of 9 nights here we opted to pop back down to Tulum (our first and favourite stop in Mexico) for another few nights.

A local house
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Beautiful sunset one night
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Playa Norte
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Fresh coco's
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Live band at the Hostel
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Local restaurant
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Mexico City

It was then we hit up the big city. It’s a seriously long trip from Cancun on a bus (about 24 hours) so we flew in on a local airline. As we began the descent, the great view of the city I had been anticipating was instead substituted by an extreme, thick layer of smog. You could barely make out the city at all.
We knew Mexico City was one of the biggest cities in the world (going off Wikipedia’s latest stats it now ranks as number 7 in terms of population) so it was certainly a big change from the sleepier beach towns we’d been visiting. There were hoards of people EVERYWHERE. And everyone selling something – there was a pencil guy, a shopping bag guy, a toys guy, a gum guy, a jumper guy….
I thought for sure we were going to be targets, getting harassed to buy some shitty souvenirs. However, they weren’t there to sell to tourists at all (of whom we hardly saw any the entire 5 days we were there). They were selling to locals. All 20 million of them.

Despite the smog & dirt & billions of people, it was still a super interesting city to walk around. There are loads of museums and art galleries to visit – actual decent one’s – unlike some of the other “museums” in Mexico we had attempted.
And then of course there’s the food. Delicious, mouth watering, colourful, sweet smelling street food. We’d heard it from everyone, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Tacos were abundant as were the plates of juicy charcoal chicken, and then a variety of other quesadilla/tortilla/corny/fried deliciousness. And all for less than a dollar.

One of the other interesting things to note about the city, is as you walk around you start to notice that many of the big old buildings are on a slant. This is because the city is built on an unstable lake bed. The buildings are literally sinking into the ground. And at an even faster rate than Venice!

The rest of our days included; getting lost in the biggest market in the world, Brendan having the worst $5 haircut imaginable by an apprentice who took a chunk out of the back of his head when the clipper guard flew off, me celebrating my 30th birthday in style at a trendy restaurant with far too many Mezcal’s and getting taken to the hottest club in town by new friends we met on the next table, a couple of tummy upsets, 2 nights in a hotel as a birthday treat, and more visits to some super cool Mezcaleria bars.

People selling everything and anything
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Brendan thoroughly enjoying his haircut
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Tasty 80c pork tacos from the market
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A sinking church & loads of people everywhere
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Museo Nacional de Antropologia
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Busy market street
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San Cristobal de las Casas

Our last stop in Mexico we headed south to the Chiapas region to the beautiful town of San Cristobal de las Casas. We took an overnight bus from Mexico City, which took about 14 hours. We opted for ‘GL’ class which is above first class, and basically means your seats fold almost all the way back so you’re flat, there’s a good amount of leg room, separate male & female toilets & free tea & coffee. Sounded like a pretty sweet deal and we were both excited for the adventure. I tend to sleep pretty well on trains, cars, planes etc so I didn’t have too bad a time on the bus. Brendan however struggled to barely sleep, and had a timely case of an upset stomach, which meant he spent a good part of it sitting on the loo.

Anyway, the town is a lovely highland colonial city surrounded by forest. It was here the Maya culture seemed to truly emanate. Most of the women wandering the streets were dressed in traditional dress which consists of a thick black skirt, a colorfully embroidered belt and frilly top. The town in general just had a slower more genuine feel to it, although in some ways it still felt somewhat touristy. Many of the women wandering the streets were selling an array of scarves, friendship bracelets, table runners & jewellery. Coming from such poor farming communities many of the families have opted to head into the local towns trying to make a few dollars from tourists. All the while they are hauling around a load of handicrafts, there was usually a small baby strapped to their back as well.

We decided to do a couple of ‘cultural’ activities while we were in town too. One was a chocolate making session, which was actually super fun. We had to first sift through the cocoa beans making sure we selected only the best, then roast them on a small bbq-like hot plate, then we ground them up in a meat-like mincer machine. A few rounds through the mincer and it turned into a thick paste, the warmer parts melting into liquid chocolate. We added 15% sugar so it wasn’t too bitter, and that was it. Both got our own hand made block of Mexican chocolate.

The second activity was mountain bike riding. The woman who sold us the package said it was for people of all ages & abilities, so it sounded great - a nice leisurely ride around the mountains, beautiful views, and stopping off in a few remote villages. Couldn’t have been more wrong. As we arrived and gave the bikes a quick test run the guide asked how many times a week I mountain bike – 3? I told him I had never mountain biked. I’m not even that confident riding a normal bike on the road. Well apparently this tour was for able & regular mountain bike riders, who are fit & confident. He was pissed, I was scared. Got off to a wonderful start 5 minutes in as we rode over a muddy patch and I put my foot deep into a mud puddle. I was totally hating it, the guide wasn’t exactly super friendly or helpful, and to get out of the town you have to climb this ridiculously massive hill. I walked most of the way up. Trying to not get killed by the huge trucks pummeling past and throwing dust in my face.
Well I made it. Just. Almost died from exhaustion. We were at almost 2500m above sea level so were out of breath a lot of the time, and that paired with not being the fittest we’ve been for a while made for a tough ride. At one point the guide mentioned some apparent great tobacco we could buy in a local town. I said I wasn’t interested as I don’t smoke, and he replied he thought I must be a smoker based on how heavily I was breathing!!
It was actually quite beautiful when I managed to catch my breath, so not a complete waste of time. We passed through some extremely poor little farming villages, the young mothers often with around 10 children herding their handful of sheep or cows across the hillside. Unfortunately we couldn’t take any photos though because the Maya’s believe that their soul will be captured in the picture.

And that was how we spent our last day in Mexico. An exhilarating, wild, beautiful, delicious, fascinating country that we’d go back to in a second. Can’t recommend it enough and we only saw a small portion. There’s still the entire north & east coasts left to explore.

Local oldie walking up the main street
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Local market
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Gorgeous colonial church
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Roasting the fresh cocoa beans for our chocolate
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Molé molé molé molé!
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Loving the mountain biking
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Traditional women's Maya dress (image from http://fansdelespanol.com/)
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Posted by hawkers2013 12:20 Archived in Mexico Comments (2)

Magical Mexico - Part 3

The epic Maya ruins of Chichen Itza

sunny 30 °C

Next stop was Chichen Itza, one of the biggest pre-Columbian cities ever built by the Maya civilization, covering about 5 sqkm. In 2007 the archeological site was named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, and it certainly lived up to the hype. We forked out for a personal guide with another couple and it was well worth it.

The entire site was captivating but a couple of highlights were:

- The main pyramid; built to such perfection that at the spring equinox one face is bathed in light and one in shade, except for a perfectly illuminated serpent which runs from the top to bottom. A smart way for those in charge to get the masses to believe they were in fact speaking to the Gods.

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Below photo thanks to world-mysteries.com - showing the serpent lit up during the spring equinox
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- The great ball court; here the Maya played an incredibly difficult ball game where two teams hit a rubber ball back and forth using only their elbows and hips. It could be described as a type of netless volleyball, with the option of making the ball pass through a ring high up on the side walls. The most interesting (and horrifying) part was that the player who won the game by successfully sending the ball through the ring had the “honour” of being decapitated as a sacrifice. His blood was then offered to the Gods as a way to break a drought and bring forth rains for the coming harvest.

If you look closely you can see the tiny circular goals up on either side of the walls
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- The White Ways; there are white footpaths connecting most of the Maya towns in the Yucatan to Chichen Itza so the population could bring their goods to the largest market in the area. They were made white with lime so as to be illuminated in the moonlight as most travel was done overnight to avoid the heat.

The Tzompantli, or Skull Platform (Plataforma de los Cráneos) - a display of the heads of sacrificial victims. Also used to intimidate potential predators
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But rather than plagiarizing Wikipedia with more interesting facts on the site, here’s a link for those keen to read more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chichen_Itza

We also visited another cenote nearby called Ik Kil of which we’d heard great things about from other travellers. The hot tip was to go early in the morning when it first opens to avoid the big tour buses that head there later in the afternoon. And a hot tip it was, we had the cenote virtually to ourselves for the whole visit. Open to the sky, the waters were an impressive 26m below ground level with a tunneled stairway down to the swimming platform.

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It was here Brendan almost ruined our chances of ever having children. If you haven’t yet enjoyed the footage, here it is again:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6i-zr5KiAM (link in case the video above doesn't work)

  • Note from Brendan: I was so scared before jumping, but I eventually convinced myself that the absolute worst that could happen was a bad slap on the back. I didn’t even think that a nut shot was possible. I literally checked for blood.

Ik Kil was also a stop on The Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series in both 2010 & 2011, in which they built a diving platform an extra 30m above the entrance – so 55m high! Take a look https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bi9oe49pIDQ

Posted by hawkers2013 18:25 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico cenote chichen itza kil ik Comments (0)

Magical Mexico

Mérida - Day of the Dead celebrations and our first taste of mezcal

sunny 30 °C

After our relaxing time in Tulum we, yet again, packed our suitcases and hopped on a bus to Mérida, the capital of the Yucatan state.
After a lazy 4 hours on a bus, we were in a full-blown city of a little under one million people. Quite the change from sleepy Tulum. Plus, it was swelteringly hot and rained only once.
The town’s Centro Histórico, which was only a 10 minute walk from our hostel, was built on top of the ancient Maya city of T’Ho and is rich in old colonial architecture, built from stones taken from the old Maya buildings.
Mérida also has the highest percentage of indigenous people of any large city in Mexico with approximately 60% of all inhabitants being of the Maya ethnicity. This is especially evident by the number of craft cooperatives that operate in and around the city, selling traditional maya wares from textiles, sombreros and hamacas (hammocks). From a few of the locals we struck-up conversations with, we learned that most Mayas actually sleep in hammocks and not in beds. Couples sleep together in the same hammocks, even with one or two small children! A Maya version of the Kama Sutra also exists, designed for the perfectly hung hammock.

This used to be an extremely wealthy town in the turn of the 20th century. Now much of the old splendour is in ruins.
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Lotsa chilies
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The cathedral built in 1598 from ancient Maya stones
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Merida was stinking hot, lucky our hostel had a pool!
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For practically our entire time in Mérida, the 3 day festival of Dia de los Muertos was on. This is a festival celebrated throughout Mexico and is all about celebrating the memory of loved ones who have passed away. We witnessed a big parade of sombre skeletons and bands playing dirges, and ghosts running and up and down the lines screaming into the faces of spectating children.
In the main square opposite the cathedral, families had set up elaborate altars to their dearly departed with cardboard skeletons, photos and cherished items. Their favourite food was being dished out en masse to long lines of passers-by and their favourite drinks were also on display. Every single altar had a bottle of coke. Mexicans love coke.

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"Death is just the key to enter the eternity of new life"
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Dead drunk
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The screaming ghosts
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Something else Amber and I were introduced to in Mérida, hailing from the state of Oaxaca, was the delightful spirit Mezcal, and their dedicated dispensaries, Mezcalerias. These are special mezcal bars with many different mezcals on offer, often being stored in large, unbranded glass jars to be decanted out on request. Unlike tequila, this spirit is not shot, but sipped and is served with sliced oranges dusted with "sal de gusano", literally worm salt, which is a mixture of ground fried larvae, ground chili peppers, and salt. ~ I just googled what that salt was called/made of and had no idea about the ‘ground fried worm larve’. Nice ~ Mezcal tastes seriously smoky thanks to the earthen ovens the agave hearts are roasted in. All of the bar staff here were experts in the stuff and fountains of information, which would’ve been great if I spoke Spanish, but from what I could gather the vast majority of Mezcal producers are very small, artisanal producers with a big focus on quality.

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- Brendan

Posted by hawkers2013 15:31 Archived in Mexico Comments (2)

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