The following are 30 of my favorite travel photos. Shots were taken on PowerShot G series cameras (G6, or G11). All are my original photos. Please do not re-produce them without my consent. You can view more of my photography on flickr.
I didn’t sleep well. I was nervous. It was sometime around 4AM in the twilight hours of the last day of 2009. I had an early bus to catch, was traveling on a holiday, would spend time in 3 different countries over the next 10 hours, and had to sleep with my camera. Why the odd bedfellow? In the absence of an alarm clock, watch, or other time keeping device – the internal clock on my Canon G11 was my sole time piece. Luckily my internal clock held true, waking me a half hour or so before I needed to be up.
I stretched, groaned at the odd noises one of the local birds was making, and then stumbled over to my locker. A few brief minutes later I found a bench outside my dorm room and sat down, carefully making sure I had everything as I tied my shoes. The sun had just begun to rise. It was the start of a gloomy, but invigorating day. The type that was made for travel – gloomy enough that you don’t feel like you’re missing something, but nice enough that downtime between buses etc. isn’t miserable.
From there it was down the uneven cobblestone streets to the waterfront where my Flores (Guatemala) -> Chetumal (Mexico) bus would pick me up at 7:30. I confirmed my booking, then opted for a bit of breakfast at the small cafe next door.
As I sat down at one of the outside tables, I chuckled while making eye contact with a vibrantly colored, inquisitive parrot who was carefully perched (dare i say stranded) on top of the “Break Fast” sign.
There were a few of us out and about. All bleary eyed. All wishing we were still in bed. My food arrived, as did a bland black coffee just as there was a loud POP! Crackle! POP! From somewhere overhead. Startled I looked over and up in time to see the large power pole begin to spark and smoke. The two locals underneath it jumped back as I leapt out of my chair and got under the cover of the building, carefully eying the power line which stretched directly over the table i’d been sitting at.
The owner quickly grabbed a wooden broom, then ran around turning off all of the electronics as the power pole/line continued to smolder and throw off periodic sparks. Eventually it died down…just in time for the local who had previously been standing immediately under the pole to walk over and tentatively touch it. Luckily, the danger appeared to have passed and with a wary eye I returned to my table, plowed through my food, paid my bill and made my way to the bus stop.
The bus ride itself wasn’t anything special. A long trip with brief pauses ever hour or two. Two quick stops – one at the Guatemala/Belize border and another at the Belize/Mexico border where we disembarked, paid a plethora of fees, then wandered aimlessly into the country. The highlight, however, was a wonderful husband and wife who were traveling together. The husband was a scientist and professor at UNLV who shared a wealth of insights with me about climate change, recently discovered micro-organisms in extreme locations, and other like-kind scientific insights. Our conversation was both fascinating and extremely informative which went a long way towards speeding up the trip.
Eventually we arrived at the Chetumal bus station, where we would book the second leg of our trip. For me it was onto a 1st class bus for the 4 hour bus ride to Play del Carmen where I hoped my hostel reservation was waiting for me. Unfortunately, the first bus was sold out, leaving an hour plus layover and adding to my anxiety. Nervous about losing my reservation I found a tiny internet cafe in one of the Bus Station coffee shops, from which I sent a follow up/confirmation e-mail to my hostel. “Please hold my spot, I am coming from Guatemala today! If everything goes according to plan I’ll be arriving sometime between 10-11:45”.
I was exhausted, smelled, and stressed. The last thing I wanted to do was spend New Years on a Mexican bus. Luckily, the bus eventually appeared, was on time, and got me safely to Play del Carmen by 10:30PM.
Nervous about my reservation I made a B-line to the hostel and was relived to find that they’d received my e-mail right about the time they were debating giving the bed away. I was in luck, they’d kept a bed set aside for me in one of the dorms. I’d made it before new years – and I was ready to celebrate.
In a small mealstrom of activity I washed up quickly, deodorized, changed and made my way up to the hostel bar. A couple of dollars later and with a beer in each hand I set to the task of making new friends. I quickly fell in with a Dane and some Aussies. As the seconds ticked by we counted down, drinks held in in the air: 10, 9, 8, 7 – whew I’d made it! – 6, 5, 4 – What an amazing year. I’d kicked it off in the Plaza del Sol 12 months earlier in Spain and now I already found myself saying goodbye to 2009 on a different continent, with equally delightful people after a year of incredible adventure – 3, 2, 1…..and then the rooftop bar exploded with a roaring cheer. Hugs and high fives were exchanged, glasses and beer bottles clanked together and as one, people from all over the world celebrated the start of a new year and a new adventure.
After another hour or so at the Hostel bar, a group of us formed up and set out to explore a few of the local clubs. Before long we found one along the beach with an incredible view of the ocean and great music. For the next few hours we danced, drank, socialized, and exchanged stories. At 4AM I realized I was quickly approaching the 24 hour mark and that I was drained of every last ounce of energy I had. I said by goodbyes and made my way back to the hostel where I crawled into my bunk, let out a great sigh and drifted towards sleep.
Unfortunately, I was in the top bunk located in the very corner of the room, immediately between two large windows. The good news was, that the sunrise was spectacular. The bad news was, that between the sunlight and eventual heat coming off the windows I was awake and drenched in sweat by 8:30AM. Hungover, I set out to walk the beach and get some fresh air. To my amusement and surprise the party was still raging at one of the beach clubs. With more than a few people passed out along the beach in front, the bar itself was full of people dancing. Many were still in evening dresses from the night before, though most had long since lost their shoes. Most of the guys were in similar form, though almost all had long ago abandoned their shirts.
As I strolled along the beach I paused and couldn’t help but laugh. Immediately in front of the club, half buried in the sand a reveler was sound asleep. Passer-bys had decorated the individual with beer bottles, sand breasts, and upended cups. The only sign of life was a periodic roaring snore.
Eventually feeling refreshed I made my way back to the hostel where the Air Conditioning had kicked in. I crawled back into bed for a quick nap.
By 1 I made my way to the rooftop common area, where I settled in with a large water and my book. Before long Daniel and Jesse joined me. We exchanged stories from the night before, and I quickly learned that after I’d left Jesse and Daniel had continued full force. As it turned out, much to Daniel and my entertainment – Jesse was locked out of his room. With nothing better to do, we opted to head down to a beach front bar for a lone drink as we recovered.
Before long we’d stumbled on the site of a week long rave/music festival that was operating 24/7. Set up around a resort’s beach front pool the area was packed with people dancing, celebrating, and relaxing. The scene was an incredible chance to people watch and full of entertaining antics. Before long, someone volunteered to grab the first round which obliterated any hope we’d had for a relaxing 1 beer afternoon. As the part picked up steam we drank, danced, and met an entertaining mixture of locals, travelers, and vacationers. In what seamed like the blink of an eye 1PM had turned into 6PM which had bled into 8PM. Hungry we tore ourselves away from the party long enough to make our way back towards the hostel. The walk there was amazing, mostly along the beach, and under a full Blue Moon. Once back to the hostel we picked up a few more people, changed quickly, then found a near by dollar taco stand. The jokes were hilarious, offensive, and often told around a mouth full of taco and Pacifico.
With laughter and salsa induced tears streaming down our faces we eventually finished dinner, before striking out to find a nightclub. The first attempt was a failure…apparently night clubs didn’t care for one of the Australian’s ball-bulge-spedoesque-swimsuit, which set off another round of jokes and laughter. Making a scene as we ambled through the street – often laughing hysterically or making odd faces – we eventually found a club that welcomed us with open arms…and free drinks. From there it was on to the Blue Parrot where we watched a fire show, danced, and laughed at each other mostly because Daniel, Jesse and I had all begun to lose our voices and sounded ridiculous.
By 3 we’d all started to hit a wall and eventually opted to limp our way back to the hostel and turn in. If New Years Eve/Day was any indication, 2010 will be one hell of a great year.
The city of Flores is an unusually picturesque city. Situated on a small island in the middle of lake Peten Itza, Flores is connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. The causeway connects Flores to the two surrounding towns which are home to most of the area’s population. The two neighboring towns are Santa Elena and San Benito both of which sit along the shores of Lake Peten Itza and service Flores.
The island of Flores is an odd oasis. Still concretely Guatemalan, the island has evolved into a tourist oasis. Cleaner, more secure, and significantly more upscale than Santa Elena and San Benito, Flores is home to a wealth of hotels, restaurants, small stores, internet cafe’s and nick-knack shops. Roughly circular in nature, the island offers an incredible 360 degree view of the lake and surrounding towns, jungles and neighboring islands.
Unlike most small islands its size, Flores sits on top of a relatively tall hill. The hill itself is mostly invisible, submerged under hundreds of years of development, modification and cultivation. The city has a large outer loop road which wraps around the waterfront and then a series of internal rings in smaller circles which are bisected by cobble stone streets on a gentle incline which point towards the city park and Cathedral which rest on the flattened top of the hill in the center of the island.
The mainland is home to the airport as well as a large series of semi-permanent outdoor market streets. The most interesting of which was a long market street which features a ramshackle collection of street side fruit and vegetable vendors. The sheer amount of produce was incredible. The photo above showcases one stand and is representative of the 30-50 similar stands which were set up side-by-side along the street.
For those feeling inquisitive it’s possible to fork off of the main drag, which serves as the produce street, onto one of several smaller mixed goods streets. These are a seething mass of humanity, clutter, smells and small motorcycle Taxi’s called Tuk-Tuks. As an Argentinian girl from the hostel and I made our way through the market, we paused periodically to enjoy the vibrant pulse of the marketplace.
Though the market seemed safe enough, the always visible military and security personnel standing on every other street corner with automatic weapons or sawed off machine guns at the ready, were a vivid reminder of the economic and political turmoil currently plaguing the region.
Though the market itself had a fairly visible security presence, it paled in comparison to the amount of security, police and military personnel on the Island of Flores. In many ways the police presence left me feeling as though I was in an island fortress in the midst of some sort of great turmoil. Stores of any significant size and even some restaurants had armed security guards. At night the police were out in force – some 10+ motorcycle officers, each heavily armed with extended clips clearly visible.
At one point I came across an armored truck making its rounds while replenishing the local ATMs. Most of the places I’ve traveled in the past, armored truck guards are…lazy. They meander in, meander out and while somewhat diligent are not overly concerned. Not so in Flores. The guards were out of the truck, shotguns in hand, eyes sharp as they hustled in to the ATM, re-filled it, then with a jump to their step made their way back out and back into their armored truck.
Despite the general sense of added vigilance and the silent threat of violence and crime – my experience was entirely positive. The people were friendly and helpful. The city safe. The weather beautiful.
As the Argentinian and I finished our exploration of the island we hopped in a Tuk Tuk and for less than $1 USD a piece were shuttled back out to the Island. The Tuk Tuk was a fun adventure. Though I barely fit, it offered a fun view of the city as we wound through traffic, small back streets, and then eventually made our way out to Flores. All the while our driver was on his cellphone, driving one handed, except of course, when gesturing at other drivers or honking a horn in hello.
Once back on the island it was time to relax, eat, and then settle in for a bit of socializing in the common area. The hostel – Los Amigos – offered one of the most pleasant atmosphere’s Ive ever found in a hostel. The entire common area was decorated with lush vegetation, hanging ornaments, or books.
The hostel itself had as much space dedicated to the gardens and plant life as to beds and human comforts. From swinging rope chairs and vegan food options to a TV documentary zone the place oozed a relaxed hippy culture. In addition to the local owners, the hostel was also home to two dogs, an Albino bunny rabbit and a parrot. All of which had a free run of the hostel.
If you find yourself in Guatemala and are considering a trip to Tikal, Flores is a must!
My stay was entirely too short. With new years fast approaching, I found a direct bus from Flores to Chetumal (the border between Belize and Mexico). After confirming that the colectivo was a tourist bus, I booked my ticket and prepared for what promised to be a full day of travel. You see, Guatemala and Mexico don’t connect directly in the north. The only option was to back track from Flores to San Ignacio, then into Belize towards Belize City before turning north and striking up to Chetumal on the border. The trip took about 7 hours. From Chetumal I had to wait an hour or two due to full buses (I was traveling on the 31st) before transferring to a 1st class bus to Playa del Carmen. Nervous that I’d arrive late and lose my hostel/miss new years, I sent a hasty e-mail from the bus station, telling Hostel de lay Playa in Playa del Carmen that I was still coming and to save my new years reservation. After three more hours on the bus I arrived – with only an hour and a half to spare – at 10:30PM. I splashed some water on my face, checked in…and set out to welcome 2010….but that is a story for tomorrow!
Despite forgetting to bring a watch/alarm clock/time piece of any sort waking up before 9AM was easy. Between the heat, the sun and the humidity it’s almost impossible to be anything but a morning person in this part of the world. With the sandy grit of sleep still heavy in my eyes I stumbled up to the top deck and found Zeno already up and waiting. We chatted briefly about the plan, then set off to roust Philipp and Shannon out of bed. Before long the four of us struck out across town in search of a dive shop to rent snorkel gear from and the car rental place Zeno had used in the past.
A good 20 minutes later we found a dive shop willing to rent fins/masks and snorkels for $5 us/day. Happy with the price we snagged our gear as well as an underwater flashlight and then continued on to the car rental place. I have to confess that the price of the car escapes me now – but it was dirt cheap split between the 4 of us. I want to say in the neighborhood of $60 US total for the day. Half a tank of gas and another $10 later we were on the road and headed south. The drive was easy with the only option being a lone major (two lane each way) highway that ran through town. The stops were all obviously marked and tailored to tourists.
A 45 minute drive to the south we began searching for the Dos Ojos exit. Before long we spotted and passed a small sign for Dos Ojos dive shop. Unsure if it was just a retail outlet, or the actual entrance to the caves we continued another mile before backtracking and re-locating the small turnoff. The entrance fee for walk-ins was 100 pesos or just under $10. Fee paid we were waved down a dirt road that wound 2km or so inland to the Cenote. The two eyes or “Dos Ojos” are two sinkholes that offer access to the Cenote system which is a series of underwater caves (typically flooded) that crisscross the Yucatan.
Once parked in a small dirt parking lot we stripped down to our swimsuits, lathered on sunscreen and made our way down the path towards the first of the two caves. The path wound through lush underbrush 15 meters or so before dumping us at a large wooden staircase that took us down 30 or so feet into a part of the sinkhole. The view that greeted us was was stunning. A large pool of crystalline turquoise water sitting in a large cave entrance with a small wooden dock built out into the water. Eager to explore we donned our fins and snorkel gear and jumped in. Much to my relief the water was warm and refreshing.
The exposed part of the cave formed a giant semi-circle that offered a large cavernous space that wrapped back and around a corner. The ceiling started some 20+ feet up before slowly drifting down, periodically dotted by massive series of stalagtights, before dipping under water and out of reach. The water was lit from outside and visibility was excellent. The submerged stalagtights were breathtaking. I’ve seen my fair share of caves and never, ever, seen anything quite like it. All set to a stunning backdrop as rays of pure light shot down from above and through the water in the most enchanting of ways.
Submerged it was possible to see the divers as they made their way from the second eye through the underwater cave system. Lights twinkling in the distance below us as they slowly floated along the bottom.
Time and time again I caught myself as I returned to the surface, just narrowly missing the cavern ceiling or a a large stalagtight. As far as animal life – there were a few small minnows but that was it. They darted around us as though it were all some giant game.
Eager to explore the second cave we returned to the dock, donned our shoes, climbed the wood staircase, made the brief walk across the road and found ourselves at a slightly larger and significantly deeper cave entrance. This one had a raised dock perfect for canon balls/jumping in and lush vegetation, including hanging vines that came right up to the water’s edge. The bottom was also white sand instead of the collapsed rock that we’d encountered in the previous cave. Words cannot describe the beauty of the natural blue hues of the water. It was, truly, stunning.
Eventually we explored every nook and cranny we could gain access to. I’d done my fair share of jumps and dives off the dock and could feel hunger pangs nagging for my attention. Amazed at what we’d seen we headed back for the car eager to continue the adventure.
Eager to maximize our time with the car we set off straight for the ruins at Tulum. We parked in a small lot and walked the brief stretch to the entrance to what was once an impressive coastal Mayan fortress. I got sidetracked briefly as i purchased a fresh coconut and downed the coconut water in a series of deep gulps.
50 pesos later and with tickets in hand we made our way into the complex. The first surprise it held for me was a thick fortress wall. For some reason I had never associated castle walls and the Mayans. It was a delightful discovery that left a smile on my face as I threaded my way through the tiny doorway/gate in the castle wall.
The inside of the Tulum ruin is fairly sterilized as is to be expected of a major tourist ruin. There were paths to walk on, cut grass and stabilized ruins. Despite that the site was impressive. A mighty set of ruins set on top of small cliffs and a series of stunning white sandy beaches. The rich blues of the Caribbean ocean and added charm of coconut tree after coconut tree added to the impression of pure paradise.
We wandered the ruins taking in the sights, paused briefly on the beach to kick off our shoes and play in the 80+ degree water and the wound back down to the entrance just as several light raindrops began to fall. By the time we got back to the car we were all fairly wet, but in high spirits. The rain was warm and refreshing. Hardly worth fretting.
From there it was in to the city of Tulum itself where we quickly found a small taco stand down a side street. The host suggested “Hecho” which turned out to be a heaping plate with rice, a side of bread and a delicious (mild) pepper, octopus and shrimp plate served with corn tortillas. We ordered a coca cola and orchata to drink and were delighted when the host brought out a platter with two types of ceviche, garlic mayo and chips. We also split an appetizer which consisted of 4 sealed/fried taco shells. Two were stuffed with cheeses, 2 with seafood. The seafood one I ended up with was delicious…a mixture of fish, shrimp and squid. The whole meal was less than $15 and absolutely delicious.
Recharged it was off to finish the day with a brief stop at Akumal. A swimming destination known for the local sea turtles. Dusk was fast approaching and the storm clouds we’d encountered briefly at Tulum foreshadowed a far more ominous storm on the horizon. The normal park was closed which left an empty beach for us after a brief warning from the departing life guard to stay inside the buoys.
Eager to take advantage of the last vestiges of the day we donned our gear and snorkeled out towards the reef. We warily watched storm clouds out of the ocean and the telltale sign of heavy rains as we floated and enjoyed a spectacular sunset. While the spectacle above the water was magnificent, we enjoyed equally delightful discoveries under water – stumbling onto a huge sea turtle relaxing on the bottom, several types of rays and another smaller turtle.
Growing tired and eager not to get stranded at sea in the dark we paddled back to shore arriving just as what turned out to be a howling wind and fierce rainstorm hit. Pelted by stinging wind-driven droplets of rain we grabbed our gear and made a B-line for the car. Soaking wet we dove into the car trying to escape the rain – thoroughly entertained. We were all delighted to partake in the adventure and laughed heartily as we made our through the pouring rain back towards Playa del Carmen.
The drive back was uneventful. We escaped the rain after a few minutes and eventually got back in time to return the car and our snorkel gear. The rental company insisted on charging a “cleaning” fee because the car seats were wet – which was small – and more of an annoyance than real concern.
From there it was back to the hostel where we settled in for another evening telling stories, making friends and exploring the town. The highlight of which was an impressive fire show being put on for free at one of the ocean-front bars.
I’m off to explore San Ignacio now – i’ll edit in photos and video once I get home and have the bandwidth to upload them. Truly an incredible day.
***Update as of 1/13/09 I have returned to the states and will be doing a re-cap. The above list needs significant commentary as I overpacked/packed for a climate that was far colder than what I encountered. Things like the polos and wool socks should be avoided***
My anticipation is palpable. It’s been slowly building since September when I found a cheap ticket price, decided to leap at the opportunity and selected my destination. I’ve sent the past months fighting the urge to wander, dreaming of far off places and sorting through old travel photos from trips past. Now I can finally embrace the energy and anticipation! The raw nerves of a new experience in a new place, embraced on my own, in new territory and with new wonders yet undiscovered. Each trip pushes me outside my comfort zone, each trip helps me learn more about who I am and who I may yet become. This trip is another large step forward. I’m traveling solo for 20 days in a part of the world I’ve never experienced before. I’m excited, i’m nervous…i’m anxious.
I’ll begin by confessing that I don’t know much about my destination. I prefer it that way. In fact, though it embarrasses me to admit it – when I booked my ticket to Cancun, Mexico with the intent of then spending the lions share of my time in Belize I was under the impression that the natives spoke Spanish. It was only in exploring the Wikipedia profile for Belize that I realized the country – formerly British Honduras – actually spoke English. You should have seen my face! In the months since my original booking, I’ve done some minor research. I’ve reached out to my friends and contacts for advice on what to see, and explored the country briefly via google maps. That said, I’ve largely avoided organized guides. As I prepare to fly out tomorrow you’ll notice one rather obvious item missing from my packing list: A travel guide. Frankly, I don’t especially care for them. Even those geared towards my travel style (like Lonely Planet) seem too polished…too – dare I say pigeonholed? I’ll travel based on word of mouth, booking my hostels a day or two ahead of time as I go. Over the years this approach has made for some interesting situations, especially since I refuse to travel with a cell phone – but all in all they’ve been well worth it!
The Packing List
I’ll let those of you curious about my itinerary and general trip information read my previous post on the subject [here]. For the rest of you – here’s a quick break down of what i’ll be taking – if you’re interested in more in depth explanations of the items, please check out my packing list site – The Ultimate Packing List.
Despite it being December temperatures are expected to be in the mid-high 70s and low 80s. Water temperature should be about the same. Despite that, I’ve made the decision to over pack slightly – just in case it gets colder. I’ve also added several more shirts than I ordinarily would, and an extra pair of shoes to accommodate my Salsa dancing/night clubs.
What I’ve packed:
-1 Cheap Walmart school/sport backpack to serve as my daypack
-1 Cheap Walmart full sized backpack with hip and chest straps
-1 Dopkit bag
-1 Water proof rain jacket
-1 North Face wind blocking fleece vest
-1 Warm scarf (actually an old airline blanket)
-2 Polo t-shirts
-2 Graphic t-shirts (one from a Scottish tour company to serve as a conversation piece)
-2 Button up evening shirts (one of which will double as swimwear for snorkeling)
-5 Pair of cheap Walmart athletic hiking socks
-1 Pair of standard ankle high, light weight socks
-1 Pair of Shorts
-1 Pair of dark jeans
-3 Pair of Ex-Officio Travel Boxers
-1 Black English Driving Cap
-1 Passport and Passport Carrier
-1 Inflatable neck pillow
-1 Sleeping mask
-1 3.75 inch collapsible tripod
-2 8 GB high performance memory cards
-1 Canon G11 Digital Camera and battery recharge station
-2 Lithium Ion batteries for Canon G11 Digital Cameras
-1 Old Nikon 6 MP point and shoot w/ 1gb card
-1 Flip Ultra HD 120 minute video camera
-1 Underwater housing for Flip Ultra HD model video cameras
-1 Mini USB cord to transfer files and recharge my mp3 player
-1 Converter plug for British Colonies
-1 4GB Sansa mp3 player with earbuds
-7 weeks of Malaria medication
-30 probiotic pills to improve digestion
-10+ sports powder packets high in B vitamins, C Vitamins, Potassium and Electrolytes
-1 Old pair of glasses
-2 Books to read
-1 Old pair of Skechers that I use as dance shoes
-1 Pair of Keen Targhee IIs
-1 Pair of Sandals
-1 Lock and key to be used to secure hostel lockers
Curious about what/why I packed one of these items? Feel free to ask about it in the comment section below this post. All of these items will be split between my two bags based on use/security/regularity of use. You’ll notice a guide book and pocket knife are missing from the list. Most people will opt to add a guide book – I suggest going with Lonely Planet or a similar publication. For those checking their bag, I highly suggest a pocket knife. I hate not having one on the road, but prefer the carry on approach which mandates that I leave mine behind. I also suggesting putting the shoes you won’t be wearing in a plastic trash bag to keep things clean. Also, consider taking a handful of plastic ziploc bags and a garbage bag if flying into a rainy destination.
Depending on what time permits, I hope to blog periodically from the road and will be providing a break down of how this packing list worked for Belize/Mexico upon my return. Stay tuned!