Wednesday, 4 June 2014


At the Guatemalan/Honduran border we were relieved to have made it this far but knew there was still a little way to go. After a friendly man in a drug dealer type car asked us which way we were going; Livingston we replied- 'Shame- I am headed for Guatemala City' (we weren't too upset!) we jumped into a minivan for a 30 minute trip to Puerto Barrios. Here we went to the dock and we met with another back packing couple. They were a welcome sight! We were back in familiar company! We took a 45 minute boat ride along the beautiful jungle coast line to Livingston; set at the mouth of the Rio Dulce. As soon as we disembarked the boat we were met by the charismatic 'Mario Ganja'! He took us under his wing and called up Finca Tatin for us- the place we wanted to stay at on the river. He organised for a boat to be sent out to pick us up. Then he helped us with our errands- leading the way to the cash points and supermarkets. We had a drink with him whilst we waited. He went above and beyond the call of duty. We got Mario Ganja'd!

Guido, a volunteer from Finca Tatin, picked the 2 of us up in his lancha boat and we had a stunning late afternoon ride upstream of the Rio Dulce for 10 km.

Either side of the wide river was a sheer canyon face with gigantic tall trees reaching up to the sky. There were lots of white stalks resting in the trees in the wonderful silence surrounding the river. I think we were both not expecting how beautiful this would be! 

We arrived at our forest retreat; Finca Tatin and were led to our very own wood and thatched cabin complete with private balcony by the river. It is worth noting that Guatemala is officially the cheapest country in Central America and we were making the most of that!

Back in jungle territory again meant humidity and big bugs...great. Over the next few days I saw the scariest BIG bugs of the whole trip so far. I say 'I', maybe because I was constantly on the lookout. Most nights, I spotted multiple cockroaches in our bags(!) and around the room- (bloody hell they can move fast) and absolutely HUGE spiders in the bathroom and on our stuff. I would subsequently go and seek Kyle for pest disposal and comfort (neither I got of course). We would come back and they would be gone - nowhere to be seen (even more frightening). (Kyle writing – Obviously this is a slight Hannah Brown exaggeration!) But to Kyle, he took great delight in implying I was delusional and making it up. We nearly came to blows on a few occasions when he told me I might as well get used to it! Still, I know that we were lucky; friends of ours whose cabin was more set back into the jungle saw scorpions and tarantulas. Yikes!

Check out this 4 legged spider!

Every evening we would have a 'family meal'- all the guests sat around one big long table and all enjoying the same meal. It was through our dinners where we met 2 very nice young couples; Andi and Katha - Andi is originally from Kent but now lives with Katha in Munich, and Lily and Anton (also from Munich). One afternoon we had a great game of Yatzee altogether. We also met a lovely American lady in her 60s called Carol and her adorable little doggy 'Bella Del Ray'! Carol and Bella live on the stunning island of Caye Caulker in Belize; we were really keen to visit here but feared that perhaps we wouldn't have the time... We might just have to make time! :-)

The resident dog called 'Negro' is only one years old and although huge is a complete softy, was completely dominated by little Bella! We also fell in love with the very sleepy cat that lived there. It was lovely to be surrounded by animals again.

We had a very peaceful few days at Finca, watching the dug out canoes float past from the deck and listening to the birds from hammocks. 

We were quite active at times: rope swinging off the rather high platform into the river, going on a morning jungle hike to a spectacular open cave called Tiger Cave...

We kayaked to the hot springs. We have both come to the conclusion after a few go's that we aren't too keen on kayaking. We aren't very good at being in sync with each other and also it's really hard work!! Typically we end up getting cross with one another; nevertheless we made the 30-minute trip up the river to the hot springs. 

We had an amazing lunch there called Tapado; the local specialty. It is a rich stew made from fish, shrimp, shellfish, coconut milk and plantain, spiced with curry and coriander. The result… absolutely delicious! And we don't even like fish. I think we need to stop saying that now and admit that our taste buds have developed a bit. You should have seen us trying to work out how to dissect the crab and de-scale the fish… Amateurs!

We then paid the equivalent of about £2 to hike up and explore the caves there. They were pretty impressive. We entered, just the two of us alone with torches and just kept going deeper and deeper, occasionally turning off our torches to experience pure silence in pure blackness.
Typically this gave Kyle the chance to wander off to hide then scare the shit out of me “no one can here you scream” eek. The temptation to keep exploring through windy corridors into the darkness was too much, trying to remember our route for the way back was also a challenge. 

Next we headed to a natural sauna in a mini cave in the steaming pouring from the rock, there were little wooden benches to sit on. We were sweating profusely! Finally we eased ourselves into the hot springs - Agua Caliente!! It simply spews into the river with nothing separating them. The stones were chucking super hot water- around 60 degrees so you could only bare getting so close! When mixed with the river water it made it a lovely warm temperature. If you'd lie still and let the water settle it would get seriously hot on the surface where the heat rises!

We went back to basics with hand washing on stone washboards - our clothes have not been this thoroughly cleaned in ages, usually resorting to hand washing in tiny private or shared bathroom sinks or even showers… luxurious eh?

Before we left, Finca offered us a quarter off our bill for a film that Kyle had made whilst here. He had done it whilst having a practice mostly for his own portfolio, so although they got a very good deal because it is worth ALOT more, but we are in Guatemala after all weren't really expecting anything so saw it as a bonus! Every little helps... 
Have a look...

We left on the 10am boat to Rio Dulce main town. We had a scenic route going past little communities that live on the river bank and amongst the mangroves, from restaurants to hostels and churches. This is a very popular spot for sailors to moore up off from the Carribean coastline for the Hurricane season. Our first friends Jessica and Matt were here a few months back with their boat for exactly that.

From the relatively bleak town of Rio Dulce we took a rather memorable 5 hour shuttle west to Lanquin, our first opportunity to see some Guatemalan countryside. It was a welcomed sight to see women and children in typical traditional dress ‘ahh a bit of strong culture again, about time’. The last country that had the same level of cultural dress was Bolivia in November over 4 months ago. 

About 3 and a half hours in having climbed into the mountain the heavens opened. It was dark by now and heavy thunder and lightening began. We couldn't remember the last time we'd seen rain like this, in fact any rain at all! It was exciting! 

The road was terrible, very rocky and bumpy. We hit a traffic block. I think there had been a bit of a landslide and so wasn't enough room for the traffic to pass easily. All we could make out in front of us through the steamed up windscreen was a truck that read 'peligroso explosivos'!! Our shuttle was full of girls bar Kyle and we all got a bit hysterical and giggly! Kyle moved to the front to sit with the driver; boys together getting in amongst the action. The girls thought Kyle was very entertaining, calling him a big kid. This was after watching him spend a good half hr hunting high and low in the mini-van for a lost camera lens cap whilst bumping all over the place “got nothing else to do eh?” he said! So anyway, after a good 20/30 minutes of waiting Kyle decided he had had enough. Much to the drivers dismay he got out of the van into the pouring muddy rain in a vesty, shorts and flip flops to add a little British organization to the situation. All the girls staring out the foggy windows in amazement. Before we knew it we were on the move again!

We arrived in Lanquin and it was freezing! After some confusion with transfers and refusing to pay any more for the last leg we found ourselves standing about in the cold and wet dressed for a humid jungle, we eventually transferred to a truck and then after a short drive into another pickup. Here we waited for a further 5 minutes whilst the driver and his mate (Staff at our Hostel) finished their beers outside some run down hut on the hill. We finally arrived at our hostel 'Las Maria's' just outside of Semuc Champey national park very hungry. We appeared to be the only ones, it was dead. This would change tomorrow.

The next morning we went on a tour to the caves. More caves! The Caves land is owned by the hostel so when we booked the tour we get a little wonga off and a private guide, Awesome! And they were even better than before. In our swimmers and hiking shoes we entered the cave, and were given a candle each! 

It was an incredible maze, wading through water sometimes up to our knees. At points the water was VERY deep and we were swimming through with one hand whilst holding our candles up. You had to be pretty fit and healthy, lots of serious scrambling and massive steps, no hard hats and no torches! We did a big jump from up high into the water. It was so scary because we couldn't see anything at all, where the rock finished and the water began! On another occasion we went into an enclosed space and the guide told me to sit in his lap- not having any idea what was about to happen and before Kyle could object, I was plunged down a shoot into deep water! What a shock!

More adrenaline to follow when we made our way back into the light. A 9 metre rope swing- which you actually sit on and swing down and up and jump off into the river from quite a height!

 Then came the relaxing part; tubing down the river back to Las Maria's. It was lovely and gentle, just taking in the surroundings, until Kyle spotted people jumping off a bridge and wanted to join in on the fun- 40 feet!! It was his highest ever jump and he survived! Thankful he was wearing shoes from the impact of the water!

That afternoon after showers and lunch we headed to the dock over the river to read and chill - well attempt to chill; a large group of Americans youths had arrived. We assumed another church group. They were playing on the hostel's rope swing (they seem to be everywhere in Guatemala!), being loud and distracting. Oh well!

Here we met locals, Anna and Jose; brother and sister, aged 10 and 7. They were selling chocolate which their mother had made. We chatted away in our best Spanish, Anna spoke a bit of English; which was really impressive. They were both very sweet. We learnt that they go to school in the morning which is a 2 hour walk away and in the afternoon they sell chocolate to the tourists by the side of the dirt road in front of our hostel. It was apparent how hard a life they were living, despite there big grins. I think all in all over the time we were there we bought about 10! Later, we also met Eddy, their other brother, aged 8. That evening all of us sat on the deck chatting, watching Kyle's films on our laptop and teaching them the full names of friends which they found highly amusing! They were great company, although they all had to disappear at 7pm because it was bath and dinnertime.

In flip flops - opps!

The following day we visited Semuc Champey National Park. We hiked up to the mirador (viewpoint) to find a beautiful aerial view of the stepped series of pools. The water ranged from turquoise to emerald green. 


Being so hot and sweaty it didn’t take long to explore our way back down for a swim. Unfortunately the sun deserted us for the section of time that we braved the chilly water. Nevertheless we had great fun sliding and jumping into each pool and it soon felt warmer in than out.
We had picnic sandwiches and the kids' chocolate by the water.

Journal writing

The next day was a big travel day to the city of Antigua. We started the journey in the back of a truck for about 20 minutes driving through the mountains picking up locals who hitch a ride into the local village. 
We always get hungry on travel days and make our way through countless snacks and fast food. What we don't usually do is eat any local dodgy street food. Unfortunately our shuttle stopped at a locals' canteen for lunch. When we went to the counter, the dinner lady pulled back a big cloth to reveal warming meat (god knows how long it had all been there for) and as if it was day 1 of our travels and we knew no better we opted for some 'pork' and a strange looking sausage... Big mistake.
Blissfully unaware of what was to follow over the next few days, we hopped back on the bus.
We arrived in Antigua early evening and went straight out to explore.

Women's traditional dress

Antigua used to be the capital city, until it had several major earthquakes during the colonial period and the capital was relocated about 30 minutes east, now Guatemala City.

We came at the very beginning of Semana Santa (Holy Week), the biggest religious festival of the whole year and much bigger than Christmas. It's a national holiday week so loads of Guatemalans flock to popular destinations in the country for a holiday and to get involved with the celebrations. Antigua is probably one of the most popular choices to be, which makes finding a hostel difficult and very expensive. There are mega processions, large-scale services in the cathedral and churches every day. Our hostel nearly tripled in price for the week!

We had arrived in the thick of it; we could feel the buzz and excitement in the air. There were absolutely masses of people, many wearing purple robes. We wondered along the cobblestone streets taking in the beautiful city. I instantly loved it. It seemed very cosmopolitan with some trendy restaurants, bars and interesting shops selling lovely things.


We spent the evening in a wine bar and enjoyed a familiar bottle of Malbec from the Trapiche Vineyard we visited in Argentina. We went back via one of the main plazas where it was full of people, food stalls as well as a brass band playing outside the church. It felt a bit like bonfire night or Christmas! Inside the church it was rammed with people gasping, taking pictures of the huge ‘harvest offering’ and praying.


Martha Graham contraction!

Mr Bean...

Heading back to the hostel, this was the beginning of my downfall... Two bites of that bloody sausage and I was out for 2 full days. It was so gutting because we were only here for a few days. I attempted a couple of journeys out but had to return quickly, utterly defeated sweating and shaky. I had to rely on Kyle's wonderful photographs to show me Antigua...
The festivities:


Daily life for the locals...



The third day we left, I was determined to spend another afternoon here when we were to return in a week's time to change buses.
The shuttle we caught was a cheery mixture of tourists and travelers and the three-hour journey to Lake Atitlan went quickly. For the final leg we got a quick tuk tuk ride further round the lake.

Small villages surround the huge lake, some sitting at the feet of huge volcanoes. We opted for one of the most peaceful and prettiest villages; San Marcos. From here, one is able to see 3 magnificent volcanoes from the lakeside. It is a real new age place and the hippy dippy sides of us were drawn here! It is believed that there is a strong spiritual energy here; there is an abundance of Yoga classes, meditation and holistic therapies on offer to practice and learn.

After settling into our hostel and sharing one of their delicious stone oven pizzas for dinner we went for a drink at a local restaurant where we were met with the beautiful sound of the hang drum. A guy called Javier from Seville was playing it to a captivated audience. We hadn't seen or heard of this instrument in years. We came across a guy playing one in the Gaudi Park Barcelona nearly 5 years ago. We were really interested then because Kyle had been in contact with a guy in London that is apparently considered to be one of the most famous Hang Drum players in the world. It is a very young instrument and there are very few in existence. It is like a steel drum and looks a bit like a flying saucer. Kyle approached Javier afterwards and organized to collaborate with him in making a film.

Screen shot of the film (work in progress)

It seemed so appropriate that not only were we to arrive in hippy zen-ville on a full moon… but on the night of a luna eclipse! At midnight it the change started to take place and we found ourselves peering up at the sky through palm tree branches lying on mats on the grass with a few drinks in some new friends garden, listening to hippies play music, sing and laugh. Fire flys were floating around us; it felt so magical! It took a good 45 minutes until total eclipse. The moon turned red, the wind seemed to pick up in a big way and all of a sudden the dogs started barking! It was amazing to witness the power of the moon. The cloud came rolling in after this and bed was calling.

Our 5 days in San Marcos were very ‘tranquillo’. I was doing Yoga once or twice a day in some stunning spaces and locations around town, we both had some treatments - deep tissue massage, Thai yoga massage and reflexology. I absolutely loved the environment and it stimulated and excited me into broadening my skills with future learning and training possibilities.

One afternoon we opted to attend a 'Cacao Ceremony'. For those of you who have been reading our blog entries you will know that cacao is chocolate! So you read right! Cacao beans are grown in areas throughout South and Central America and are considered sacred. This is my kind of ceremony I thought! Not knowing what to expect at all, we set aside the whole afternoon (it lasts about 5 hours!) and came under the instructions of having fairly empty stomachs. It was led by an old American Shaman called Keith who looked a bit like your stereotypical wizard. He had a long wiry grey beard and was dressed in hippy clothes. His wife/partner was much the same; very long grey hair, wide eyes, kind of ethereal...

We sat in their large front porch area on cushions with quite a lot of other people (majority girls) and were given hot cups of RAW cacao – Not your average drinking chocolate. We had the option of adding some red stuff and some green stuff! The red stuff was spicy and apparently helped the cacao get into your blood stream better(!) and the green stuff was from some special herb plant that neither of us can remember the name of but was added to help you reach a higher level of spirituality. I also added a lot of sugar to sweeten the bitter taste (it wasn't quite Cadburys). Before we were allowed to drink it, Keith informed us of the reasons we might not want to drink this stuff. 1- if you are a dog, parrot or a horse you will die...! Fact. 2- Not good if you are on anti depressants... Neither applied to us so we started glugging. This particular cacao from Central America that we were drinking is said to quicken the heart rate by 15/20%, allow one to tap into their creativity more and help you to get closer to your 'inner spiritual being' as it were. Well, it certainly had an affect on us! About 45 minutes in, I became very aware of my heart beating faster, it continued at this pace for nearly the length of the session. After his introduction about how people from all different backgrounds have used Cacao, Keith started talking about the concepts of creativity, love and joy and we both just started streaming! I didn't understand - I think I was very happy?! We just drank hot chocolate...what?! He would lead the session wherever he felt it needed to go, tapping into people's energies and allowing people to ask questions about what they were going through.
As time went on the 'regulars' appeared, those that didn't need the introduction and this for me altered the dynamic. There was quite a clique vibe and there seemed to be a lot of people working on, to put it bluntly, some heavy shit!! I found myself becoming an observer and getting lost. It appeared to be more of a therapy session! We both developed headaches and Kyle finally summed up the courage to ask the simple question, amongst all the complex multi level questions, 'is it normal to get a headache?' It began with a simple answer 'yes, drink water' and then came the deep stuff... It turned out my pain was in the middle of my forehead (my 3rd eye) and Kyle's pain was at the back of his head in the centre at the base of his skull. We did some hands on work led by Keith and he spoke of some nice themes; opposites... new journeys together ... exploration… beginnings...

We ended up buying a heavy block of the stuff for us to do our own personal ceremonies, perhaps less airy fairy woo woo, just a little more rational if that's the right word. Kyle is pretty inspired to have a photo or film dance-shoot with everyone on Cacao as it could potentially bring everyone on the same level and open up some very interesting creative doors.
We took what we wanted from the session and left feeling pretty positive and connected in the new experience we had just been through!

That evening, through chatting to Kate, a fun Yorkshire lass that works at our hostel, relaying our stories of the ceremony, it turned out that we witnessed a particularly woo woo ceremony and they aren't all that nuts...articulating it in a few words we came up with- marital problems, herpies, sex, love, war, rape, darkness...phew what do we put ourselves through?!

From hot chocolate to tea and coffee, we chilled out in some sweet little outdoor cafés, enjoying some warming herbal teas and exotic smoothies.

Kyle worked his magic again and did another meal deal! Photographs in exchange for 3 evening meals for the both of us at Fe Restaurant in the village. Arriving some time after Kyle to the restaurant and setting up camp in the corner with my book and sipping on a piña colada, waiting for Kyle to finish his photos for the evening before we tuck into a few courses, he reminds me 'not a bad life for you eh Han?!'

We went on a stroll to a small national park on the corner of the village where we could get some great views of the lake and it's little villages with the backdrop of the volcanoes.

We had a few hours of visiting other villages whilst going in search of a cash point. Semana Santa seemed to have cleared them out! We did have success in the end, it all felt like a lot of effort going to busier places, boating around, the boat running out of fuel didn't help...amateurs! We were very happy to return to the calmness of San Marcos. On the plus side I did manage to get my Peruvian bag repaired that I discovered had been slashed in an attempted theft. Lucky for me, the bag has a lining. This must of happened in Antigua when I was slightly worse for where.

On our last morning in San Marcos, Kyle experienced something pretty mind blowing.. We rose early; I went off to 7am Yoga and Kyle headed to the lake to do some time lapse photography of the clouds rolling in over the lake and volcanoes. Whilst the camera was automatically snapping away he did some stretching/Yoga right on the lake. Listening to 2hrs of Psychemagik’s tunes as his morning soundtrack - a favorite artist of his. Over breakfast when he was browsing through Facebook, he spotted a very familiar photo of a Volcanoe and lake, after clicking it read 'Morning Lake Atitlan'. When looking to see who posted it, he discovered it was none other than Tom from Psychemagik... The photo was taken from a few villages round the lake in Santa Cruz at exactly the time Kyle was soaking up the view and their tunes round the corner… Spooky!

Kyle got in contact straight away explaining the crazy experience and we made plans to meet for dinner. That evening we ended up chartering our own private lancha (motorboat) from San Marcos because we hadn't realized the public boats stop around 5pm! Whoops! We got dropped off at a pretty lakeside restaurant and met Tom and Dan; Psychemagik! Tom had played at The Great Escape festival in Bodiam last year that Kyle helped to organize, but there weren't any proper introductions then. So it was lovely to sit down and get to know them. They are currently doing a tour, having just played in Guatemala City and were off to Mexico City for a gig after a few days of chilling here at Lake Atitlan. We were very kindly treated by the guys to an amazing set menu and afterwards we moved further down the lake to a bar for a few more drinks. We kept our boat driver sweet with a few beers and had a lovely evening with them both, thanks guys!

We left early on Easter Sunday, heading back to Antigua where the connecting bus would be. I made sure we could factor in an afternoon here. This time around I was feeling fighting fit and ready to explore! Our first port of call was the artisanal market for a spot of shopping. I dragged Kyle around and he ended up semi enjoying himself, actually getting quite a few things for himself! An hour was more than enough though and he was soon dragging me out of there ready for lunch.

The Semana Santa celebrations were still in full swing and we watched a large procession of people craning under the weight of a big float with a garish statue of Jesus on top, pacing towards us over the carpet of flowers through the confetti, smoke, loud music and hordes of people.

Leaving Kyle to chill in a cafe, I went to explore the Iglesia de San Francisco; restored church ruins dating back to the mid 16th century.

That night it was our first night bus in months headed north to Flores. I must say that in general, South American buses are far better than these ones in Central America. We had a suitably uncomfortable and broken sleep and arrived bleary eyed at 6am. We were driven the final leg in a mini bus to Flores: an island (connected by causeway) in Lago de Peten Itza.

Once checking in to a hostel with a lovely view of the lake, we found ourselves straight away booking the bus to visit the Tikal ruins for 8am- in about an hours time. This was very unlike us. After a night bus, we'd usually have an easy day because wherever we had arrived at, we were sure to be visiting for at least 3 nights. However, the luxury of time was now no longer on our side; now that we have booked our flights, we knew that we needed to be in Mexico City in just over 3 weeks...not long. Having spent a lot longer on Utila Island (Honduras) than we had originally planned, we had decided to skip Belize and head straight from Guatemala to Mexico. However being so close now, we had a change of heart. If we picked up our pace we could still squeeze in a few days in Belize with the sole purpose… to scuba dive. It was decided, we booked tickets to Caye Caulker Island in Belize for the following day. It was all still possible!

So after hastily buying some banana bread from a guy in the street for breakfast we boarded the bus bound for Tikal; Guatemala's number one tourist attraction. This was our first taste of Maya ruins and what better place to start than with the mother of all ruins!

It was a very hot and sunny day and even with slightly swollen feet and dull headaches we were still utterly motivated and inspired by what we saw. These vast ruins are so unique because they are set deep in the jungle. It is a complicated site with hundreds of temples and pyramids that the Maya civilisation occupied for some 16 centuries! To our delight, the place was really quiet; clearly the Semana Santa rush was over. Early on in our day we climbed up one of the ruins and looked down at the stunning surroundings. It was very peaceful and so special to have felt nearly alone in this ancient kingdom. We were taken back to the early morning at Machu Picchu.

The temples were incredible. To think that the Maya's settled here around 700BC(!) and construction took place in successive waves over a period of at least 800 years. We marvelled at the architectural brilliance and the scale!


We spent the day strolling through the canopy and doing a lot of climbing! The area was abundant with wildlife too. We saw so many monkeys up in the trees we started to get neck ache! 

Towards the end of the day we climbed the tallest temple and could see others poking up through the jungle, very special.


A wonderful day for our last day in Guatemala. 


We loved this country and would thoroughly recommend anyone to go. It is beautiful, diverse and so rich in culture. Looking forward to our return visit in the future. But until then: we’re Belize Bound!  

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