Sunday, 26 January 2014

Guatemala

I feel like I've been writing a lot lately, but I seem to have had a few days with time on my hands and the last week has been so full of adventures that I don't want to forget, that now I'm sitting on the Caribbean shore with a warm breeze blowing in from the sea, writing and contemplating life seems like the only thing to be doing.

This week I decided that crossing the border and seeing a little of Guatemala was something I would regret if I left this area without doing so, despite the many warnings that it was not a good idea. Being ten minutes drive away it seemed wrong not to though, so after an early start we arrived at the Belizean border checkpoint just before 8am. There was already a queue and after a short wait, we were through, another $20 lighter after paying our departure fees. Ahead of us was a bridge over the river patrolled by more soldiers than I was expecting, but still, they were friendly and wished us a good morning as we passed. On the other side of the bridge we asked for directions to the town and we were advised that we had actually walked straight past Guatemalan immigration and hadn't been stamped in! Incredulously we walked back, got our stamps and were on our way.

We'd decided to head to Tikal, a Mayan ruin site a few hours from the border. All the tour companies in San Ignacio were selling day tours for between $110 and $150, but we figured we could go there, spend a night at a lodge in the forest and get back to Belize again all for under $50 and it meant we could pick our own schedule. After a much longer than expected collectivo ride to El Remate that involved driving past several tanks and other vehicles full of military personnel, being stopped at a police checkpoint and almost running over a pig, we were able to flag down a passing tourist minibus and got a ride to Tikal. The site itself was impressive, one of the largest we've visited so far with much larger and more impressive pyramids still surrounded by jungle, so the walk between them without a map (because we were too cheapskate to buy one) was a bit hit or miss. By the end of the day though we'd found them all, and tired from a last minute dash to a pyramid we'd missed earlier, we caught the last tourist bus from the site back to Ixlu where we caught the crazy overflowing collectivo ride I talked about earlier.


Upon arrival at La Maquina, much to our surprise, a guy appeared who spoke no English at all, but managed to say 'El Sombrero' and 'Gabriella' so we figured he had been sent to collect us. We then set off at breakneck speed in a pickup truck down a small side road which turned out to consist of extremely deep, slippery mud. Questioning whether we'd been a little quick to accept his offer of a lift, we hung on for dear life for nearly half an hour as he picked his way through the worst bits and eventually delivered us to our lodge.

Given that it was dark by this time we arrived, we didn't really appreciate just how remote the place we were staying was until morning, so we had a quick dinner, showered (cold water only) and went to sleep. The following morning we realised that our room was actually made almost entirely of mesh and that save for a thatch roof, we were outside. The sounds of all the creatures around us in the forest was incredible to hear. Watching Collared Aracari's and Blue Crowned Motnest's fly around as you eat your breakfast isn't something you do every day and for that reason the visit was worth the effort of getting to the place. However, when we discovered that pretty much everything apart from our bed involved an extra charge, we realised that we couldn't afford to stay a second night. I guess that's the trouble when you're so far away from everything...you can't pop out to that little cafe down the road, you have to just accept what you can get. The food was good, but much more than we'd got used to paying. The real crunch came when we found that the ride from La Maquina the night before was going to cost us $20 USD, a crazy price given our 4 or so hours to Tikal from the border had cost us only about $8. I think sensing our dissatisfaction and realising we were heading to Yaxha, Gabriella offered to send someone by bike to buy us our tickets and then take us to the site by boat across the lake for free. Agreeing this was a fair compromise, we found ourselves the first and only people at the site with everything to ourselves. Even the park rangers looked confused as to where we'd come from!



Several hours of climbing steps later, we decided it was probably time to head back to the parking area to try and hitch a lift with a tour van. When we got there the lot was empty bar one little 4x4. Nothing. No-one. The driver of the vehicle, a guide on a private tour with an American couple, looked disinterested when we asked for a ride to the road, telling us it wasn't possible. A ranger then appeared, only to shrug and advise us that our only option was to walk back. He added that it was 11km and it would take us 'about 40 mins'. Doing the maths myself, given that average walking speed is about 5km and hour and that's not taking into account foot deep muddy hills, I realised we had a very long hike ahead of us.


Nevertheless, we set off and half an hour later the little blue 4x4 passed us, ignoring our renewed request for a lift with a shrug and a shake of the head. Annoyed, we continued on, only up find the car stuck fast half way up a very muddy hill a couple of kilometres ahead. Walking past smugly, commenting that maybe we'd be back before them after all, the woman who was on the tour spoke to us sympathetically and said she didn't know why they couldn't help us out and that if they got out of the mud she'd ask again for them to help us out. A short while later, having been freed with some local help, they drew up beside us and offered us a ride...Sharen got a seat, I got the trunk wedged in beside the cool box. I didn't care though, the sun was beating down and it meant we could get back to the border before dark.

The moral of the story I guess is that sometimes a bit of planning makes life a hell of a lot easier. We've been winging it for a week or two now, not booking accommodation and just seeing what we find when we get there, but if guess every now and then some research in advance helps.

Guatemala was beautiful though and I'm glad we went. I wish in a way we had spent longer there, but the draw of heading back to Belize was too much and we decided we wanted to make the most of our time there instead.


Which brings me to Belize...easily one of the best countries I've ever visited. Some places you arrive in just feel instantly right and Belize is one of those places. When I arrived in San Ignacio I was only planning on staying a couple of nights at most. In actual fact we left today after 6 nights there in total and even then we had a serious debate this morning about whether we should stay a further night. Why? A combination of lots of things really. The people there are super friendly. No one passes you in the street or sits next to you on a bus without at least saying hello and asking how you are. On buses or if you find yourself sharing a table with locals over breakfast or dinner then you've pretty much got a friend great life an hour later.

Quite by chance we ended up staying at Hi Et guesthouse, a wonderful little family establishment that charges per room rather than per person. This meant that Sharen and I could stay in a double room with a shared bathroom for only 25BZD a night (about £3.75 each!). It was clean, comfortable and we even had a little balcony which came in very handy for drying our laundry.

It was also about half a block in any direction to a great breakfast place, Topp's and really nice Belizean restaurant, Cenaida's, both serving food way above the quality we'd have expected for the low prices. The bank was a block away. There was a corner store next door for drinks. When we went to Guatemala the family who ran the guest house kindly offered to hold on to our backpacks for us until we came back free of charge. Everything about the place was right and both of us said more than once that we could happily stay there for the rest of the month. It was also a street away from the bus and when we decided to go riding in the jungle on one of the last days we were there, it was a minutes walk away from the place where we had to arrange that.

Speaking of which, during a last minute 'what shall we do tomorrow' conversation one evening, we decided that horseriding would make a nice chance to visiting Mayan ruins and although Sharen was reluctant, we arranged a mornings riding with a local guy, Andy, who had a number of horses on his families ranch. When we set off the sun was shining brightly, but just as we reached higher open ground the heavens opened and it poured. I guess we shouldn't have been surprised given that our horses names were Thunder and a Rain. Still, it was an exhilarating experience and I'm glad we went. It was back in Iceland last year that I realised how much I miss riding. It's something I'll make a conscious effort to do more when I can. I had forgotten how much it hurts though to ride for several hours after not riding for a while!


So we finally left San Ignacio and headed to the east coast, Dangriga to be exact. As we were getting ready to leave we happened to bump into Narciso in the town, who sadly bade us farewell and told us he'd miss us and that we were always welcome to visit again one day.

Right now I'm sitting in a hammock about a hundred feet from the shore with a warm breeze blowing in from the Caribbean Sea, watching local kids taking advantage of the last of the daylight for a final game of football. I don't know what my plans are even for the next few days, but life is good.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Planes, Trains....and Autobuses

Forgive me, but I feel a small diversion into the world of public transport in Central America is necessary...
Despite having spent a few weeks there and having travelled a lot by bus and train, public transport in Mexico is still a mystery for the most part. Before I arrived there I'd read somewhere that 'buses run to a schedule that only they know' and that if you were used to greyhound buses in the USA then you'd be pleasantly surprised. The former is very true, the latter often so.

There are about a hundred bus companies running in Mexico, or so it seems, none of which seem to publish their full timetable or give you any obvious clue where they run to. This means when you decide you want to go somewhere you have to turn up at a bus station and pick a company to start with and join the inevitable queue to buy a ticket. Upon reaching the front of the queue you are then told (unless you've been lucky enough to pick the right company) that they don't run there, but that X,Y or Z company does. You then join a new queue and start the process all over again.

There are also often a multitude of different ticket types too, ranging in price. Some bus terminals we discovered even have two different classes of bus station, usually side by side. One is fancier with electronic price boards and sells 'premium' tickets, the other more run down selling 'regular' tickets...and rarely does either tell you that the other exists, especially if you find yourself in the more expensive one!

One of our best discoveries (quite by accident) was the first class service run by Primera Plus. Buses in Mexico are often fairly rough and overcrowded, with people standing in the aisle once the seats are full, so you can imagine our surprise when one day we were greeted by a coach driver in a suit along with a woman who resembled an airline hostess who proceeded to hand us each a bag containing a complimentary drink, sandwich and cookies. We were then met at the bus door by an armed police officer who checked our bags before wishing us a good journey. On board the bus we found seats that looked like they'd been taken out of the business class section of a plane...leg rests that folded down to turn the seat into a kind of bed, electric points, free wifi and and headrest tv monitors with free films! At a cost of about $4 more than a regular ticket, even on a budget, for a long journey more than reasonable.

It's not just buses though that surprise here. Everywhere there are little things that you don't expect to see. The pedestrian crossing signs use the common red and green men, but here often the green man is animated so that he's running, something that has been a constant source of entertainment to us. Buses and trains are often segregated too with designated carriages/sections for women and children. On one station platform there were phone chargers for nearly every brand of phone provided free of charge and a free shoe shine station at the base of an advertising sign!

Average buses about town though are very different. Blowing exhausts, screeching brakes and things held together with gaffer tape are commonplace. Buses don't usually leave until it's almost impossible to squeeze another person in and journeys, although very cheap, can be hot and uncomfortable. This is also the land of speed bumps...I have never experienced so many anywhere else in the world. This only slows down already slow bus journeys to almost walking pace at times. At every stop you also pick up a new trader who tries their best to sell you something you never knew you needed...pens with built in lights, tiny screwdriver sets or tights, usually for 5 pesos a time. It's an assault on the senses too to travel by bus. Often there's a TV that's playing a film, whilst at the same time 80's power pop is blaring from the stereo and at least one passenger is competing with music from their phone. Sleeping is impossible.

In Belize and Guatemala most of the buses are the old US blue bird school buses, usually painted in bright colours. Some have luggage compartments underneath, on others you have to carry your bags on your lap or pile them up at the back. That is if you're lucky enough to even get on the bus in the first place. Queues mean nothing, it's sharpened elbows and every man for himself. There have been times we've had to wait an hour for the next bus...fighting through the crowd with a backpack on leaves you at a distinct disadvantage.

The best bus ride I've had yet has to be a crazy collectivo ride we took in Guatemala. The van stopped and the driver got out, asking where we were headed. When we said La Maquina (about an hour away) he looked a little uncertain and mimed what I took to mean 'it's cold' by wrapping is arms around himself. Slightly bemused as it wasn't cold at all we headed to the bus, only to discover that he actually meant 'there are already twice as many people in there as the van is designed to carry so it'll be a squeeze to get in'. The bus had 18 seats and at one point during that journey there were 26 people in that van plus a couple of babies. I was wedged in against the sliding door, my backside inches from Sharen's face and my face, neck bent sideways against the roof, uncomfortably close to a young Guatemalan guy, who decided it was a great opportunity to practice his English! Luckily he was a nice guy and didn't take advantage of the close proximity to pose creepy questions as some guys have tended to do. I can't remember a time when I was more uncomfortable though. By the time we got to our destination discomfort had turned to pain and cramp, but it was getting late and we weren't sure when the next van would come or if indeed there would be one, so beggars can't be choosers I guess. The funniest part of the journey was when the driver insisted we had to try and shut the door because we were going past a police checkpoint and it was illegal to have the door open. No mention of the ridiculous number of people on the bus! It's the same for taxis though, as many people as you can fit in if you ask for collectivo rates seems to be the way it works. Another time the conductor on a blue bird bus orchestrated a 'group squat' while passing a police point so they couldn't see that anyone was standing!

I'm writing this as we're preparing to pack our things and catch a bus probably to Dangriga to venture up the Cayes over the next week or two. Who knows what public transport adventure will greet us next!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Hopkins...aka my favourite place in Belize so far

Let me start by saying that I love Belize. I don't just quite like it, I love this country in a way I never expected to. Not because I expected to dislike it, but it really has been one of the highlights of my time in Central America. One town however I've loved above all others, and that was Hopkins.

I love Hopkins. I love the village, the people, the food, the social life...everything. A sign at the hostel there said something along the lines of 'it's not perfect but it's paradise'. I'd say that sums it up pretty damn well.

A little over a week ago (I think?) after spending a couple of nights in sleepy Dangriga, we were having our perpetual breakfast discussion about where to go next and the options were to either head north to the Cayes or to make a quick diversion for a night in Hopkins, a small Garifuna fishing village to the south. To be honest we didn't really know why we felt like we should go there, especially after reading the wikitravel page for the place...go look it up and see what I mean...but a few people we'd met had said it was worth a nights stay so we decided to give it a try.


There are two buses each day in and out of Hopkins, one leaving Dangriga at 10.30am and another in the afternoon. In Dangriga we'd met a guy from Quebec, Max, and he'd decided to come to Hopkins too, only he suggested that walking might be a more interesting way to get there rather than getting the bus and then sitting around all day. Sharen wasn't keen and opted for the bus, but I like a challenge so I said I'd join him. On asking around, local opinion was that we were crazy, but if we insisted to it was 'about 8 miles' and that we shouldn't try and walk along the coast because there were at least five rivers to cross and we might encounter crocodiles. Probably not that wise, especially carrying backpacks!


So we walked, and it rained, and we walked some more and a few hours later we finally reached the junction with the southern highway only to find a sign that said the hostel we were heading for was still 15 miles ahead! At that point with a few blisters and a realisation that we probably wouldn't make it there before nightfall we decided that a few beers in the next bar and then hitching the rest of the way would be a far better option. Three beers and three truck rides later we were there, much to the amusement of the people in the village who were expecting 'those idiots who tried to walk.'


There started my love affair with Hopkins. On arrival we discovered that Sharen had met a local guy on the bus, Tony, whose uncle owned a place that rented kayaks, so the following day we paddled around the mangrove lagoons and out to the sea, swimming and that evening we drank a lot of local beer and rum. In fact I learnt a lot about rum in that place...the difference between one/two/three barrels and why there are parrots and vultures on the bottles.


The hostel wasn't great - no hot water, virtually no electric sockets or lights that worked and it was cold at night, but the people working there more than made up for it. The beaches were beautiful and something that seemed to be a recurring theme there was waking up in a bed full of sand...probably as a result of our many impromptu late night swims or walks home along the beach. They also had the best hostel dog I've ever met, Luna-Tic, on account of her nervous tic. Every day she'd lay in the sun sleeping like she was recovering from a hangover, then as soon as it got dark she was wide awake and raring to go. That dog came everywhere with us...to bars, for dinner, to the beach, everywhere. She was a true party dog and she greeted us all like long lost friends when we returned if we'd somehow managed to leave the place without her.


Every night there was something going on somewhere in the village, whether it was late night pizza at Driftwood, 'ladies night' at a place that reminded me of house parties when I was 16 and played music to match or karaoke in a bar that involved a crazy ride on the back of a pickup with 15 other people across a few fields. One of my lasting memories of the place will always be watching Max sing gangnam style at karaoke to a room full of stunned people who really thought he could speak Korean! Everywhere we went we'd bump into the same people to the point that it felt like you were meeting up with old friends. No-one treated you like a tourist, you felt like you belonged there and that's rare. Food was great too...one night I ended up eating Gibnut/Paca (look it up, it's cute!) because of a mistake with an order and it was very tasty! I also had the best fish and chips I've ever tasted at a little place called Windschief - fresh grouper caught only hours before.


We planned to stay a night...we stayed a week and even then we had to tear ourselves away. It was just one of those places. Leaving felt like we were breaking up our little family. Me, Makou, Sharen and Uncle Patrick. I'm glad we stayed as long as we did, because arriving at Caye Caulker was a huge anticlimax. It was the first time that I'd felt in Belize that anyone was less than sincere when they started a conversation with you. In Caye Caulker you knew that the banter had been used a million times before and that eventually the conversation would come round to money. We got told off by someone for going fishing with kayaks we borrowed from a hostel, but it just came down to the fact we hadn't paid the guy for an organised tour to do so. The only plus point about the place was it's proximity to Hol Chan Marine Reserve where we went snorkelling and saw turtles, nurse sharks, rays and some really beautiful coral reef. I didn't like the place though and I liked Belize City even less. I miss Hopkins and all the people I spent time with there. Sometimes lots of things align to bring good people together and this was a perfect example. I hope all the people that I shared some time with there are enjoying their travels wherever they may be.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Jungle farming in Cayo

Meet Narciso Torres. He's a Mayan farmer living in Santa Familia just outside San Ignacio on the western side of Belize near the border with Guatemala. I met him quite by accident, on a bus from Belize City. To add another twist to the story I wasn't even supposed to be on the same bus as him and wouldn't have been had I not got off the previous bus too soon by accident in the commotion that ensued when the bus arrived in Belmopan, still an hour away from my destination.


So I found myself sitting next to Narciso and as seems to be the custom here, we exchanged greetings of good day and after all the formalities of the 'where are you from/what are you doing here' we got talking about farming and conservation and a multitude of other things, including karma, good & bad and coincidence.

It turns out Narciso is no run of the mill Belizian farmer. Whilst all his neighbours plough their land and use pesticides, he farms his 5 acres organically and with wildlife and biodiversity in mind. He's also a member of the El Pilar Forest Garden Network, has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to medicinal plants and he collects rocks.

When we parted company at the bus stop, he left us with an open invitation to visit his farm so a couple of days later we tracked him down and took him up on his offer. Expecting to spend an hour or two walking around his farm, we were touched when upon arrival he greeted us like old friends and invited us to sit down for a lunch of chicken and rice that his daughter had prepared. The salads, he explained all contained plants from his farm and had beneficial medicinal properties.


After lunch Narciso took us to his farm, about ten minutes walk through the village and along a dirt track, trying to avoid trampling the endless lines of leaf cutter ants going about their business along the way. As we neared his plot, it was obvious which was his. What greeted us was a beautiful, wild, jungle like area, totally different to what surrounded it. For the next couple of hours we walked and talked (and got eaten alive by Mosquitos!) as he pointed out the different trees and plants and explained why he grew them. Bread nut trees from which he plans to make flour, mahogany, mangoes, papaya, plantains and chestnuts. Star fruit, beans, mushrooms and sugar cane growing through a thick carpet of ground plants, virtually every one of which has a purpose for being there. It was the perfect little ecosystem. He also showed us a small enclosed meditation area surrounded by palms which housed his collection of stones, right by a beautiful flowing river. He also explained to us how he made holes in some of the dead trees to encourage a type of insect to lay its larvae in the holes, at which point you can break open the trunk and take out the larvae to eat. Apparently they taste great fried...I have to admit I'm relieved that he didn't ask us if we wanted to try them!


Time passed quickly and in what seemed like no time we were back in the village to catch the bus back into town. As we were waiting for the bus Narciso came cycling down the road towards us to deliver a bag of jackass bitters he'd promised Sharen as a remedy for her cold. I've thought about that day a lot since then. It never ceases to amaze me the wonderful people you meet when you're open to new experiences. Chance meetings like this and the places I end up as a result are one of the things I thrive on.

Thank you Narciso for a fantastic afternoon and for doing what you're doing. I hope I'll be able to come back and visit you again in the future.


For more information check out this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9BvZo03CNU

Thursday, 9 January 2014

'The elephant eats an apple' (...or more of Mexico and on to Belize)

It seems unreal now that Christmas was only a couple of weeks ago. It seems impossible that we've seen and done so much in such a short space of time. This is the first time I've really had time to sit and write, in that twilight period between arriving after a 14 hour bus ride and it being too early to sleep...something that seems to have become commonplace recently.


After spending most of Christmas in what seemed like a continuous cycle of alternate eating and sleeping with the occasional trip into the city and surrounding area, we decided to venture a bit further outside with a visit to Teotihuacan, a Mayan temple site about 3 hours bus ride away. We'd seen pictures and it looked impressive, but nothing compared to what it's like to actually be standing in front of those giant pyramids. This place was mind blowing, awe inspiring. It was everything that Chichen Itza wasn't. For a start it's a much bigger site with only a fraction of the number of visitors. No tour buses, no hard sell from vendors and easy to get to by bus for a fraction of the price of an organised tour. We walked, we sat, we took about 3 million photos, we sat some more and just took in the atmosphere of the place. Unlike Chichen Itza, here you can still climb the pyramids and you really need to, because a site like this needs to be viewed from a height. Truly a breathtaking place.


On leaving Teotihuacan, we had yet another weird encounter, only comparable in terms of its randomness to being given an egg on a streetcar in Sarajevo. We were waiting for the bus when a friendly cop invited us to sit on the benches in the first aid shelter near the pick up point. He then invited us to sit in his car, at which point he disappeared and returned with a generously poured glass of tequila which he gave to us. Slightly bemused, the bus then arrived leaving us wondering what the hell had just happened. Mexico has been full of weird and wonderful encounters though, so little surprises me now.


After a wonderful stay with Maria and her lovely family, we finally said our goodbyes and headed northwest to a little town called Dolores Hidalgo in the state of Guanajuato. Luck was shining on us again as we were able to not only catch a lift with Maria's brother most of the way, but also stay with the uncle of one of her friends, Uncle Pedro. When we arrived in Dolores Hidalgo we realised straight away we weren't in a tourist area anymore and without Spanish we were going to struggle a bit. However, as with everywhere else we've been so far in Mexico, people have proved to be extremely warm and welcoming and with a little perseverance (and google translate!) we got along just fine. The driver of the taxi we took from the bus station to Uncle Pedro's house even got out to look for the address, knock on the door and make sure we were definitely in the right place before he left us. People here, without exception, go above and beyond.


We didn't see much of Dolores Hidalgo as our main purpose for going there was to be near San Miguel de Allende, a place that a couple of people had insisted we should be for the New Year celebrations. San Miguel de Allende is a medium sized town with beautiful old buildings and a multitude of churches. The first thing that struck me when we arrived there was that it was surprisingly quiet. Having gone there expecting huge crowds and a large city square we soon realised that this wasn't on the scale we were expecting. However, new year doesn't really interest me and usually I'd be staying in, so I was actually pleased in a way that we didn't have to deal with massive crowds.


So we walked around the town through the winding streets waiting for the entertainment to start...and it didn't. 7pm, 8pm, 9pm...nothing, just people milling around, not even a sense of expectation. Earlier in the afternoon we'd seen a band sound checking and they were very good, so we presumed they'd be playing later on, but there was no information so it was anybody's guess. By 9pm we were extremely cold, to the point where we considered just getting the next bus home and forgetting all about new year, but instead we did something I haven't done since I was a kid...we went to church. I'm not religious in the slightest and I don't like what the church stands for, but I have to admit there was something nice about about being warm, having a seat and listening to a mass in a language I don't understand. It gave me an hour alone with my thoughts, interrupted only by occasionally having to stand up for parts and shake hands with people around me at the relevant point in the service. The music, played by live musicians, was good too.

Eventually though we had to head back out into the cold and at 10.30pm, finally, there was some sign of life in the square. There were three bands playing that night, but for some reason whoever organised the event got their running schedule very wrong. It seems they decided to put the best band on first - two guys who played a mix of covers and originals, followed by the band we'd seen earlier in the afternoon, followed by a Lionel Richie lookalike who we later discovered was a famous 80's popstar, but who failed miserably to enthuse the majority of the crowd. Think Eurovision and you're not far off. The whole thing had a charm to it though that just got funnier and funnier as the night went on, culminating in the organisers announcing new year at least 5 mins late, the singer not realising the countdown had even started and then someone clearly forgetting to let off the fireworks, which took another few mins to start. Damn new year, sneaking up on those poor organisers like that and catching them unawares! All in all well worth the entertainment value and a fun night.


On returning to the bus station we found that there was no 2.30am bus back to Dolores Hidalgo, despite it being clearly advertised on the board at the ticket desk, so a taxi it was. Before I came to Mexico I read somewhere that 'buses in Mexico run to a schedule only they seem to know' and they're not kidding. More about that later as it deserves a post in its own right! It wasn't too bad though, taxis aren't expensive by UK standards and 350 pesos and 45 mins later we were home.

The following day we decided it was time to move on and so after a breakfast that included raw bacon soaked in vinegar and a glass of wine (yes, really) we caught a bus to Celaya with the intention of heading on from there to Morelia in Michican state. Having consulted google maps, which told us that to drive by car would take us around 3 hours, we expected that we'd be there in around 4.5 hours. 8 hours later we arrived in Morelia, tired and hungry and more than a little irritable.

Having stayed at The Only backpackers in Toronto, I remembered that Juan Pablo there had told me there was an Only backpackers in Morelia so it seemed like an obvious choice and we weren't disappointed. Owned and run by a lovely Mexican/German couple, we couldnt have been made to feel more welcome. Beautiful dorms, comfy beds and a wealth of knowledge and ideas on where we should head next and how best to get there. They also served the most wonderful breakfast - fresh fruit, yoghurt and granola - the healthiest thing we'd eaten for weeks and I felt so much better for it!


One of my main reasons for coming to Mexico was to see the overwintering monarch butterflies, hence the trip to Morelia. On asking around about the best way to reach the sanctuary at El Rosario we realised that an organised tour was probably the most convenient way to get there rather than public buses and taxis and so we arranged for a minibus trip to the site. I've been reading a fair bit about the situation with the monarch butterflies recently and I was shocked when I found out that numbers this year are at an all time low. The average number of butterflies arriving in Mexico from Canada and the USA ten years ago was 340 million. Largely due to deforestation in the butterflies overwintering grounds and a lack of milkweed for them to feed on, last year there were only 60 million, this year only 3 million. With such a steep decline it's doubtful whether these beautiful creatures will be around much longer so I wanted to see them while I still can. We actually ended up going to Sierra Cincua instead of El Rosario, which was a shame as I'd read that El Rosario was the better site this year. However, with numbers so low I knew it would be hit and miss as to how spectacular the sight would be wherever we went.

After a 4 hour drive along mostly rural roads with the Beatles and the Doors as a soundtrack, we reached the site and began the 45 minute climb up to where the butterflies were roosting. With the altitude burning my lungs a bit we reached the clearing and I have to say the sight was particularly underwhelming. There were two or three trees, each about half covered with butterflies, all sleeping as it was a little cloudy. You had to squint to really see them. The sun broke through briefly a couple of times which sent clouds of butterflies up until the air, fluttering around, but it was almost momentary, lasting a minute each time at most. I tried to imagine what more than 100 times the number of butterflies would look like, but I couldn't...the numbers there were just too small to allow my mind to multiply by that factor. As we drove away from the site to the sound of 'Let it Be' all I really felt was an overwhelming sadness.


We also resolved that day not to use organised tours for trips like this again unless there really is no other option. Fifty percent of the day at least is always spent in overpriced gift shops or waiting for the slow members of the group to catch up or waiting for people to finish their overpriced lunch at a leisurely pace.

Our plan when we left Morelia was to travel to Oaxaca via Mexico City and so we booked a late bus back to MEX leaving at 11pm. This gave us a whole day free and so on the advice of the hostel owners we settled on a day trip to Patzcuaron and a ferry over to Isla de Janitzio.


A beautiful little colonial town and heritage site, all the buildings are painted in uniform red and white with hand painted signs above each door in the same style. With limited time unfortunately, because I could happily have spent a lot more time there, we headed straight to the island, a short collectivo ride away and then 45 mins by boat. I've missed being by and on the water so this satisfied my need to be near the water. A largely touristy area full of little gift shops and trinket sellers, the main focal point of the island is a large modern version of what could be likened to the Statue of Liberty, made of tiles and with a spiral staircase inside allowing you to climb to the top and experience the view. The combination of ramshackle boats, cheap ice cream and brilliant sunshine make this one of my favourite places in Mexico so far. I have no idea how these boats actually run though...the copious amounts of weed in the harbour (god only knows how the props cope with it!), the lack of fendering meaning boats just use each other to stop and engines that sound like a jet plane taking off set the odds against them.


On leaving Patzcuaron we both agreed that going to Oaxaca didn't feel right, so a quick change of plan and a rapidly booked flight has brought us back to the warmth and comforts of tourist town aka Cancun. The trip east through Mexico was getting expensive and our schedule for Central America was already tight so we decided that coming back to Cancun and then travelling south to Belize and Guatemala was a better idea. We had three days in Cancun, had a chance to warm up (Mexico City and beyond was unbelievably cold!) and meet up with friends we made here. Every now and then I think a break is needed from being on the move the whole time, but a couple of days was enough and after that we left feeling refreshed and ready for another adventure, headed for Belize. Now we're here in Belize and tomorrow we'll head across the border to Guatemala for a few days before heading back here, suffice to say that this is a very different country to Mexico. More about that to come...!