300 Days: Mayan Sun

People plan holidays in many different ways. Some people prefer to take each day as it comes and rock up to a hostel at 7pm hoping for a bed and deciding how long they will stay at each place once they get there. Others prefer to know exactly where they will be every night with accommodation already booked. In general, we are the latter and for us, it is the less stressful way of travelling. We have also used a company called G Adventures in the past that provides organised tours of varying degrees in countries all over the world.

When planning our trip, we considered which parts we could do ourselves and which ones we would like to use a tour company. We decided that for Central America, we would use a tour company and G Adventures had the trip we were looking for.

The first part of the trip was called Mayan Sun and we met our group on the first night in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. We selected the tour style YOLO (You Only Live Once) which means everyone is between 18-39, the accommodation is basic, you move at a fast pace whilst being budget conscious. There were 18 people in total in the group; some couples, some singles, some friends. A mixture of English, Irish, Swiss, Australian, Canadian and German.

We left Mexico pretty quickly considering most people had spent some time there and made our way to the island of Caye Caulker in Belize. It took quite some time to get there; 4 hours on a public coach, then 4 hours on a chicken bus (a local bus with no air conditioning and very uncomfortable very slightly cushioned benches as seats) plus a 1 hour boat ride. Caye Caulker has a strong Caribbean influence and the island has a very relaxed vibe. The streets are made of sand, people get around the island on foot, bicycle or golf carts and you constantly hear “ice cold coconuts” being called out. We had dinner at Fran’s that night – a lovely lady who had some picnic benches on the beach and an old bbq on which she cooked four dishes. I opted for the shrimp curry and Stephen the bbq chicken & mash – both were absolutely delicious – even if we did have to wait an hour and a half for it to be cooked from scratch… the unlimited rum punches helped! Later on Fran was spotted in the local supermarket buying bulk frozen shrimp and instant potatoes – so it was not so fresh after all!

The next day we spent on a sailing boat, visiting different snorkelling spots around Caye Caulker. The water here is crystal clear and I have never seen so many varying shades of green and blue that accent the reef underneath. I spent all day sunning myself on the deck, taking photographs and chatting to the captain whilst Stephen joined the others snorkelling – I will hand it over to him to describe that day…

Hi all, Stephen here! The snorkelling in Caye Caulker was amazing. There wasn’t much of a reef but the crystal clear waters and variety of animals made for a very unique snorkelling experience. Large turtles, sharks, and stingrays all swimming right next to you… within touching distance. I initially wanted to dive the Great Blue Hole of Belize but after finding out that the blue hole was mostly a cave dive with limited marine life, I thought snorkelling would be a much better experience and it was. I remember thinking that it was better than most of the scuba dives I had completed and would highly recommend it.

The following day, after a quick BLT breakfast at Amor Café, it was time for our flight of the Great Blue Hole of Belize. I have written a separate post about that here.

After Caye Caulker, we travelled to San Ignacio, a pretty non-descript town which was just a stopover on our way to get to Guatemala. The key highlight here are their caves but neither of us fancied doing them so we spent the day catching up on things. Stephen visited the ruins of Xunantunich and then that evening Bea, our tour guide, cooked us all a traditional Mexican dinner.

Another long day of travel crossing the border from Belize to Guatemala however this time the bus ride was broken up by a visit to the Tikal ruins. Most people (or those geeky enough to know) would know Tikal from the Star Wars movie Episode 4, A New Hope where the end scene shows the Millennium Falcon flying off above the canopy amongst the ruins. Tikal is an ancient Mayan ruin in the middle of the Guatemalan rainforest. Between 200 – 900AD, Tikal was at the centre of the Maya region politically, economically and militarily. The main structures left are six pyramids that each contain a temple inside – they are named creatively as temples I-VI. You can read more about the ruins here.

We were all starting to get a little tired so we jumped in the bus and made our way to the town of Flores. The hotel was right on Lake Peten Itza and it reminded me a tiny bit of the French Riviera. After some hot tamales and empanadas from a street food stall we jumped on a party boat for a sunset cruise. The hibiscus cocktails were flowing (mention the liquor – Jamaican flower) as we reached our first stop, a swing rope straight into the lake. Stephen looked like Tarzan, of course, as he made a magnificent swing and splash into the water beneath! Quickly, the sun started to descend and we sat on the back of the boat watching the colours of the sky change from yellow to orange to pink to red and finally set behind the trees lining the lake. After that, the party was on and we celebrated Bea’s birthday singing along to cheesy 90’s pop songs and latin music until we drained the boat of power.

The next day found us at Rio Dulce, another of Guatemala’s beautiful lakes, where we stayed in a rustic jungle bungalow. There were plenty of creepy crawlies to keep us company but nothing too frightening – well, nothing in our room luckily! Went spent the day lazing around the pool which was certainly welcome in the high temperatures surrounding the lake. The following morning, Stephen woke up early for a kayak followed by a visit to a hot waterfall – I will again hand it over to him to describe…

Hi, Stephen here again! Hot waterfall you ask? Well, Guatemala is littered with volcanoes and geothermal activity, so it’s not surprising that you can find heated water flowing over the side of a cliff somewhere. It was more than that though. The hot waterfall poured into a beautiful swimming hole in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle. There were underwater limestone caves to explore and various ledges that you could cliff dive from. Add in a few beers and some home-made guacamole, you have a recipe for a very fun afternoon.

It was then time to head to Antigua, one of the main towns in Guatemala. Antigua is a quaint yet vibrant colonial town with very cobbled streets, lots of locals and quite traditional. In total we spent four days here with a break in between at a homestay. Whilst in Antigua we did a chocolate class where we learnt about the history of chocolate and the importance in the Mayan culture. Tried traditional chocolate tea, chocolate tea with Mayan additions and the newer version, which we now call hot chocolate. We also made our own chocolates adding various sprinklings such as pepper, candied orange, almonds, cinnamon and sea salt to name a few. Whilst we were in Antigua it was the lead up to Semana Santa (Easter Week) and every Sunday they make intricate carpets of coloured wood chippings and flowers out on the road, which would then be walked over by a procession of people carrying statues of religious figures. It was great to see the community coming together to work on various colourful carpets. We also took a walk to Cerro de la Cruz which overlooks the town of Antigua with the Volcan de Agua volcano looking over it. Lastly, we had a salsa and bachata lesson – the less said about our abilities to move like Latino’s the better!

The homestay visit was to San Juan La Laguna, a small community surround Lake Atitlan. We were shown how they make their textiles from natural materials and colourings, their medicines from the plants around them and the local artists paintings. Then we went back to our families to have dinner. Stephen and I stayed with a small family with Dad Angel and Mum Gloria and their two children. Their house was basic but sufficient and we somewhat successfully made tortillas with Gloria over the fire. Later that evening we played cards with their son Josias, all the time no English being spoken and trying to communicate with my limited Spanish. We woke up early the next morning to take a small hike to a hill overlooking the town. We would have been up early anyway due to the roosters cooing, the dogs barking and the chicken buses honking! The minute it hit 5am it was as if the whole town came alive. The view from the top was worth the early wake up as we saw the sun rise over the lake.

We were only three weeks into our trip, including the wedding week and we had already seen so much. We were moving quickly but we were soaking every experience up, enjoying what each place had to offer. We couldn’t wait for the next tour to begin!

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