Tag Archives: volcano

Horsing around

12 Jul
Lake trek moment

Riding in to a glistening mountain lake was the highlight of our Chilean horse trek with Lot.

Salto de las Rosas, San Rafael, Mendoza, Argentina
[by Jeremy]

We haven’t seen another soul all day. The mountains reflect as if the lake were a shimmering sheet of tinted glass. The gentle swish as we ride through the shallows of the clear lake waters is the only sound. This is nature, on a grand scale and at its raw and unspoiled best.

It would have been hard to make the trip – the visit of my sister Karen and 19-year-old nephew Callum – more perfect at that moment – but it hadn’t started so well.

Keen readers will recall that when Paula’s parents came to visit last year they got delayed in the US due to freak storms. Then when they finally got to Buenos Aires they couldn’t reach us in San Martin de Los Andes because of unseasonal snow. Two days later they finally landed, having been diverted to Bariloche and then had to endure a 5-hour drive through a blizzard back to our cabaña.

That’s why we left nothing to chance when Karen and Callum came to visit. Everything’s organised – now I can sit down and read the paper. What’s that? A national general strike? On the day they are due to land in Buenos Aires?

Bugger. We stand right behind those fighting for better wages in the face of high inflation – we just wish the struggle had taken place on a different day! Nothing to be done but put in place Plan B.

Apartment view

View from our apartment in Bariloche – all we needed now was someone to share it with.

Frantic phone calls to our good friends Karen (yes, another Karen – this could get confusing) and Gustavo in BA to beg for their spare room and their services as tour guides for a couple of days, and accommodation and friendly faces are sorted.

Now to rebook the flight. No problem. Aerolineas Argentinas book it for the day after the strike ends and they will arrive with us only about 30 hours later than anticipated.

What’s that? Aerolineas Argentinas have cancelled the reservation? Why? What do you mean you don’t know? Who asked you to? You don’t know that either. I don’t know the words in Spanish for incompetent bunch of shits but another 24-hour delay is now inevitable.

At least they can enjoy a nice time in BA. So it’s off to Boca to visit the famous football stadium and dockers’ houses. Does that man have a knife? Yes, he does and he seems to want all their money and jewellery. Quick thinking by our friend Karen persuades them my sister has nothing on her and they make do with yanking off her gold chain and stealing Karen’s phone and some useless bank cards.

So by the time they finally arrive with us it’s fair to say we are feeling more pressure than ever to deliver the holiday of a lifetime. My sister isn’t demanding – she just insists we see a smoking volcano, a snow-capped volcano, a glacier, spend a night in the Andes, go horse riding, see some waterfalls…oh, and photograph lots of birds including a condor and a woodpecker.

Day one in the Lakes District we are lucky to see anything at all, but at least when the clouds obscure the views in Argentina you can rely on great wine and sumptuous steak to make you feel better. We order three big steaks between the four of us – they bring us five. Why? Because this is Argentina and they didn’t think we had enough meat.

And from then on things just start getting better and better. By the next day we have blue skies, incredible views over the lakes, we climb to a mirador and snack on chorizo and blue cheese, we drink great wines, catch up and plan the next few days.

Lake selfie

Together at at last. Whoop!

Karen and Callum, Cerro Catedral, Bariloche

Karen and Callum at the top of Cerro Catedral – with view of Lago Nahuel Huapi – Bariloche.

One thing you can be sure of with my sister is there will be no sitting around relaxing – she hasn’t come all this way not to spend every minute seeing something.

So we hit the road early next morning for the spectacular Ruta de los Siete Lagos, a wonderful scenic drive bathed in blue skies and sunshine, a fantastic wine bar en route, a few delicious alfajores, a comfortable – if slightly strange – cabaña in San Martin de Los Andes and a slap-up binge on boar, venison and craft ales at El Regional.

Suitably fortified we break for the Chilean border and the first – but not the last – f&@king hell – moment of the trip. After a bird-filled drive, a lakeside picnic and the customary border sign photo opportunities, there’s still disappointment about the volcanoes hiding in the clouds.

We wind our way down the cordillera towards the house in Curarrehue owned by the very generous parents of Santiago – one of the pupils in my sister’s class back in the UK (no, she’s not educationally challenged, she’s the teacher) – which has been offered to us for as long as we need it. As we approach the village I take a glance in the wing mirror to be greeted by the sight of the massive snow-capped peak of Volcan Lanin graciously emerging. Bing! First target down.

Volcano Lanin Chile

Karen gets her first look at the majestic Volcano Lanin, Chile-Argentina border.

Curarrehue is a small village. The house is 7km further out in the wilds, along a gravel road. It’s a spectacular setting and a beautiful wooden house. On the way, in the distance we can make out the smoking cone of Volcan Villarrica. It just about counts as target number 2 but we’ll have a much closer encounter in the coming days.

We arrive at the house to be welcomed by Santiago’s granny , Isilda. And what a welcome! A delicious cazuela has been lovingly prepared and we quickly become aware this is no one-off. Isilda wants to look after us – and I really mean look after us, so well. She won’t hear of us going to buy bread, she’s up first thing in the morning getting the fire going and baking delicious bread. We offer to cook dinner – she looks at us witheringly and serves up another scrummy treat. Callum gets his first – and definitely not last – taste of the super-sweet caramelly dulce de leche. He’s in heaven.

In return for all the kindness, we accidentally leave the door open and let a mad goat in to the house to run amok. Whoops.

Karen and Isilda

Karen and Isilda, our adopted Chilean granny! Curarrehue, Chile.

Slice of pie

Isilda supplied us with a constant flow of homemade treats.

Over the next few days we never stop. We all brave the challenge of some tough white-water rafting – fantastic fun if a little nerve-wracking at times. We drive as close as you can to the smoking mass of Volcan Villarrica – the exclusion zone is still in force after it erupted just two weeks before we visited. We take a madcap night-time drive up in to the mountains to bathe in an ‘unofficial’ thermal springs with no electricity, but a few candles and plenty of wine and laughs.

Volcano Villaricca, flanked by monkey puzzle trees, near Pucon, Chile.

Volcano Villaricca, flanked by monkey puzzle trees, near Pucon, Chile.

Next day we take to the horses – this is no conventional tourist horse ride. Lot, Santiago’s uncle who lives next door, takes us out to round up his wild horses, then we saddle them up and prepare them before setting off over the mountains. We ride across the plateau, through a monkey puzzle tree forest to a hidden lake, accessible only on horseback, where Lot had grown up. We ride through the lake. It is incredible. The reflections are perfect. The stillness eerie. It is one of those days when you can’t stop smiling, except when finally you grimace after 8 hours in the saddle. Or if you are Paula and you ride smack in to a tree and almost end up in the enchanted but freezing lake. Honestly, we didn’t laugh.

Craving a night out we head for the village. The first restaurant is open but apparently has little or no food. Nor does the second. Like many a time on this trip we end up somewhere unexpected – at the restaurant attached to the gas station. It’s surprisingly tasty and serves a good bottle of wine too.

With our departure fast approaching we get ready for the big family send-off. A lamb asado is prepared, relatives gather, we chat, laugh and frankly wish we had more time to spend with such a welcoming and fun family.

But there’s no rest for the wicked – some targets haven’t been met yet. We have the most stunning day’s drive back to Argentina. Volcan Lanin is majestic. And it’s like we’ve organised a bird display – they swoop, they sing, they dart and then the condors glide high overhead. Bing!

Our final adventure is to get high up in to the Andes, sleep in a refuge and do an ice hike across a glacier the following day. The route up to Pampa Linda is incredible but as we arrive at base camp the wind and sleet begins – we have no choice but to try and make the 4-5 hour hike up to the mountain refuge. Within half an hour the skies begin to clear and the vistas become amazing – back down in to the valley, up to the snow capped peaks, across to the burning red of the autumn forests.

Hiking to Refugio Otto Meiling, Argentina

Hiking through autumn leaves to Refugio Otto Meiling, Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, Argentina

As we near the trickiest part of the hike the massive glacier and its accompanying 1,000ft waterfall makes itself heard and then seen, crashing down in to the valley. It is stunning. But it’s also not good for a vertigo sufferer like me – sheer cliffs and a precarious route along the edge to the refugio. To make matters worse the snow is starting and it’s getting late.

Castaño Overo glacier

The snowy weather closes in as we approach the Castaño Overo glacier, with its massive waterfalls. Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, Argentina.

I decide I cannot go on, I urge the others to go ahead and I will retreat to the van. They, understandably, don’t want me to have to go down alone, especially as it will be dark in two hours. An impasse. I win. I head back down, at a trot to start with, then a full-on run – I make it back down the five-hour route in well under two hours, persuade the cafe owner to open the door, sell me a beer and fall shattered in to bed with views of where I hope they have arrived.

They have arrived, and while I’m worrying about them they have no such worries. The park ranger has let them know I’ve made it back down and they are happily tucking in to a gourmet feast, courtesy of the owners of the mountain refuge. Their climb up wasn’t easy, as the snow had got heavier, but the warmth of the welcome more than made up for any hardship.

Gourmet dinner at Refugio Otto Meiling

They tried to get over our separation.. with a gourmet dinner at the mountain refuge, Otto Meiling. Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, Argentina.

In the morning they were greeted with new snowfall and views they will never forget.

It’s fair to say everyone finds the ice hike a bit scary as they lowered themselves in to crevasses on the end of a rope but, hey, it’s another incredible and unforgettable experience and surely the final target is met.

Er, no. What about that woodpecker? While they are hanging off the end of a rope I’m trekking in the picturesque valley below. What’s that? A woodpecker? Sure is. I take a picture with Karen’s camera to prove it. Bing? They insist it is photoshopped. It’s so unfair!

The worst thing about having family and friends to visit is having to say goodbye – but that isn’t the case this time. Hold on. Before you think me cruel and heartless it’s because we knew we were heading back to the UK for a visit just 12 days later – knowing the luck they had getting here, we wonder if we might arrive before they do.

Days: 1,378
Miles: 37,366
Things we now know to be true: There’s no point in arguing with a Chilean granny.

See no evil, hear no evil...

What happens on the trip, stays on the trip.

EVEN MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW! Click on any image to open as a slideshow.

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Illegal aliens

7 Jul

DSC_0730

Quito, Ecuador
[by Paula]

As of midnight tonight we will be – for the first time in our lives – so-called illegal aliens. We should be in Peru by now, but we are still in Ecuador, and have exceeded the 90-day time limits on both our tourist visas and car permit.

Unlike most other Latin American countries, those permits are not at all easy to extend and the rules are very strict. Until Thursday we really thought we were going to make it out of Ecuador in time – albeit in a last minute scramble – but found out that night that it wasn’t going to be possible because our van is still not repaired.

This is the first time I’ve written a blog post and then had to scrap it and start again, such has been the constantly-changing situation over the last few days. For weeks we have repeatedly been brought to the brink of getting back on the road, then hopes have been dashed.

Paula, en route to Cotopaxi

Has someone got hold of the other end? A mini rock-climb during an acclimatisation stop en route to Cotopaxi.

A friend said this week that our van seems to have a “flair for the dramatic”, and she’s spot on.

Tomorrow we will try to make a direct appeal to the head of migration services, and if we can’t resolve the situation we will be fined $350 for every day the car overstays its permit. Meanwhile the car sits partially disemboweled at the mechanic’s workshop – yesterday, for the third time, the transmission was removed and dismantled as they try to work out why it is burning up every time they fix and test-drive it.

It has been at the workshop for nearly 12 weeks now – why on earth is it all taking so long? It’s been an unbelievable saga of waiting for three separate batches of parts from the USA, plus delays, cock-ups, puzzles, procrastination and bad luck.

And that 90-day time-limit clock has really been ticking since we last blogged. At that time we were facing a third major delay and we made plans to ensure we’d see all that we wanted in Ecuador before we had to leave.

Since then we’ve been blown away by some of the most dramatic sights we’ve seen since we arrived, with the incredible wildlife of Isla de la Plata – the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’ – and our pièce de résistance, Volcan Cotopaxi.

In both cases we enjoyed some incredible good-luck antidotes to what had seemed like a an unhealthy dose of bad vibes with the van.

After hearing of the latest delay while we were staying in an apartment in Cuenca, we decided that while we waited nothing could be more calming that heading out to the coast and searching for some boobies. The blue-footed booby is a bird that’s not only about the funniest, cutest thing you can ever hope to see, but has a name that makes it impossible not to make hilarious juvenile jokes at every opportunity.

Here’s a little taster of what we saw on the island.

From Puerto Lopez we took a boat to Isla de la Plata and set off on a little trail to spot the boobies, as well as ‘magnificent frigate birds’ with their unfeasibly large red inflatable throats. We’d heard the boobies were a guaranteed, easy spot but still couldn’t believe it when we saw the first couple. They were just hanging around on the path, so unperturbed that we had to walk around them. And it’s not a joke, they really do have very blue feet! They posed for photos, positioning their webbed flippers like little ballerinas and showing off with the occasional arabesque. Totally enchanting.

Further down the path we encountered trees and skies full of frigate birds, the males competing with each other to see who could most impressively balloon out their red throats to attract the females. Men, eh? They can never just rely on their scintillating personalities but have to wave appendages around to get attention.

After a chilly but successful snorkelling session some huge marine turtles came to visit our boat – another first for us – just before we set off back towards the mainland. It was the cusp of whale-watching season, and we were slightly hopeful of spotting a humpback en route. Expectations were low though, mostly because our record on coinciding with whale season is so abysmal it has become a bit of a standing joke.

Humpback whale, Ecuador

Somersault! Humpback whale, off Isla de la Plata, Ecuador

So we were really excited when we saw some huge fins flapping out of the water, followed by a glimpse of a humpback’s body on the surface. We were just congratulating ourselves on a great day, when the whale breached – a full-on flip out of the water in what felt like slow motion. Every boat passenger’s mouth was frozen into an ‘O’ for what seemed like ages. Somehow my arm took on a life of its own for a few nanoseconds and snapped a fuzzy photo without me even being aware of it.

We were beside ourselves – although we’d have loved to have afforded a trip to the Galapagos Islands, we felt really chuffed about what we’d seen for a mere $30.

We returned to Cuenca for a final weekend, which coincided with a local music festival and a rather drunken evening with Jess, a British teacher we’d met a few times while there. It was great to have a pal for a short while at least – thanks Jess.

It was time to head back towards Quito, to await the arrival of the latest parts and actually get the work done on the van – rebuilding the transmission, new shock absorbers and suspension repairs.

“Everything will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it’s not yet the end.”

On the way back north we diverted to Latacunga, to plan a side trip to one of the most famous volcanoes in the world – Cotopaxi. The weather is very mixed at this time of year in Ecuador, which is just coming into the dry season in the mountains. We’d been dreaming of a perfect view of snow-capped Cotopaxi for ages, but knew that at that altitude you can be blanketed in clouds at a moment’s notice.

Without the van to camp in, staying at Cotopaxi’s hostels and lodges is a relatively expensive affair – we agonised over the cost but decided to splurge on a lodge with a choice location and view of the volcano. We didn’t regret it. It was a fantastically cosy adobe building with a huge log fire, squashy sofas and large glasses to fill with red wine. A wood fire was also lit every evening in our little cabin, which had a face-on view of Cotopaxi from the loft bedroom. We decided to take a guided walk to the glacier line of the volcano the next morning and get a close up.

That evening the clouds not only filled the sky but dropped right down to ground level. It was like someone had pulled the blackout curtains. Uh-oh, we thought.

Then we woke up to this.

Cotopaxi from our bedroom

Hello morning! The view of Cotopaxi from our cabin window.

We took 150 photos before breakfast, just in case the clouds came scudding in.

But there followed hours of unbroken sunshine and azure skies, which remained until we’d driven through the luminous landscapes of the paramo to 4,500m, hiked to a ‘refuge’ building at 4,800m for a hot chocolate and cake break, and then onto the glacier at over 5,000m (about 16,500ft).

It was intense – at that height every step on the soft volcanic ash and rock was a lung-buster, but we did it and were pleased to have kept up with the three 20-year-olds we were hiking with! Not bad for a couple of oldies. To be standing on the glacier felt… well, we were on the top of the world, as you can imagine.

Jeremy reaches the glacier, Cotopaxi

Made it! Cotopaxi’s glacier is at 5,000m.

We couldn’t believe our luck, it had been more than we’d wished for, and we were pretty adrenaline-charged until we suddenly dropped like stones into bed that evening.

We travelled back to Quito and rented an apartment for another week. With bated breath, we called the mechanic to get the latest. The parts were there, the transmission was rebuilt at the weekend, and testing would begin soon, he said. So far so good.

It was a nail-biting week, which ultimately ended with the mechanic hitting another big problem and us missing our deadline. We spent two days trying to navigate the resulting bureaucracy, to no avail as yet.

This latest hitch could stretch into weeks – fortunately Jeremy has just been commissioned to do a big project, something which will take both of us working on it to complete it on time. It will both occupy us while we wait and bring in some much-needed funds to the coffers.

But first, tomorrow we’ll do all we can to make ourselves legal again. And what is Plan B, I hear you ask? And of course we have one – we’re thinking we might apply for political asylum.

Days: 605
Miles: 17,551
Things we now know to be true: “Everything will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it’s not yet the end.”
[Cheesy line borrowed from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel]

CLICK ON ANY IMAGE TO OPEN THE GALLERY AS A SLIDESHOW.

Part Two: Mission Impossible?

15 Mar

JD, Lago de Coatepeque, El Salvador

The clue should have been in the name. “Dondé es el parque nacional El Imposible?” we asked out the window for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. Never heard of it, it’s left, it’s right, it doesn’t exist, it’s back the way, it’s straight on. No-one knows. Even our maps had three different marked routes, none of which actually seemed to lead there. At one point a very drunk man crossed his arms and suggested we go in two directions at once, and then asked for money for his help – we almost followed his advice!

Camping at El Imposible

The guided tour of the van didn't take long...

Having spent our first few sweaty hours in El Salvador with our new-found friends and fellow road-trippers Zach and Jill (yes, they’ve had all the jokes) looking for El Imposible, we gave up – temporarily. After driving in to a small ditch – unintentionally – we camped out together at a small coffee finca. Well, it said it was a coffee finca and a camping site on the sign – but when we knocked on the locked gate the man who answered told us they had no coffee and we couldn’t camp. Our powers of persuasion, coupled with our lost foreigner look, prevailed and before long we were set up and toasting our arrival in El Salvador with a well-deserved beer, while daring each other to brave the massive spiders in the toilets.

The next day got worse before it got better. More determined than ever, we set out again for El Imposible and met the same confused responses until finally we got two people to agree there was a way from the town we were in, Tacuba, but only in a 4×4. We don’t have one – but that hasn’t stopped us up to now and we followed Zach and Jill along a frightening but ultimately rewarding trail. Before long we were grinding up an impossibly steep cobblestone drive to a small bare patch of ground a family had invited us to camp on, next to their shop and the local church.

No sooner had we parked than we became the main attraction for not only the family but everyone for miles around, it seemed. Children, adults, dogs all wanted to peer into our vans, watch us cook, eat, set up the bed, chat and share the hottest afternoon and evening so far with us. We must have seemed very odd to them – playing cards and drinking a beer round our camping table in the middle of their football pitch, just one of a series of things that greatly amused them.

If they thought us odd they hid it well, and they could not have been more generous – providing us with camping space, security, water, bringing us chairs to sit on, creating some shade for us with sheets and then bringing us tortillas. We were then invited to take part in their Semana Santa procession. They had nothing but were willing to share it all.

And then, finally, El Imposible! Up at 5am to join our local guide, Clementino, for a punishing 11-mile hike. But wow. From the summit we had sweeping vistas of the Pacific Ocean in one direction and an exhilarating panorama of mountains and volcanos in the other. Suddenly all the hardships were worth it. Impossible? Huh. Seven hours later, with limbs aching, we had conquered it.

Camping at Lago de Coatepeque

Rooms with a view

A quick al-fresco jungle shower and then on down the Ruta de las Flores to Juayua and the weekend food fair – which because of the elections had just finished. Bugger! But that wasn’t the end of our bad luck. With voting the next day the sale of alcohol was banned for 72 hours. It was a heavy price to pay for democracy and we retreated to our ‘campsite’ – a cul-de-sac at the edge of town – and with Zach and Jill set up our table and chairs in the street, literally, before finishing off the last couple of tepid beers and the remains of the warm white wine. For the next 48 hours we were reduced to putting triple sec in hot chocolate to get our kicks. What a desperate bunch.

With our limbs barely recovered we headed for Parque Nacional Los Volcanes and, after a beautiful and spectacular drive, camped in the national park and watched the sun set behind the perfectly formed crater cone of Volcan Izalco.

Donning the hiking boots once more we headed out to tackle the summit of neighbouring Volcan Santa Ana – an amazing walk up to the crater with incredible views across Lago de Coatepeque and right across to the mountains of Guatemala.

Talking of Guatemala, when we last posted we were still there – and now we’re not. So to recap. After saying farewell to Brian and Christine at the airport we headed to Valhalla – not literally the viking hell, but a picturesque macademia nut plantation on the outskirts of Antigua, where we spent two peaceful nights getting used to life in the van again before heading for the Atitlan nature reserve. Then it was back to Xela for a bit of work (and the chance to catch another football match) and then on to the coast – and the steamy beach town of Monterrico.

The Monterrico Ferry

Don't tell the insurance company about our ferry journey

The drive there was uneventful enough until a few miles short of the town we reached the ferry port. I say ferry, what I mean is effectively a dug-out canoe-thing, a sort of raft with sides, onto which we had to drive the van and float – ok we had a tiny engine – but you get the idea. This was NOT, I repeat NOT a ferry. On the 30-minute journey through the mangroves it creaked, leaked and listed each time another boat passed. I’m sure our insurance company would have said “you did WHAT?” if something had happened.

But it didn’t, and we found yet another odd camping spot in the car park at Johnny’s Place – a beachside hotel and restaurant where we had the great fortune to bump into Zach and Jill. The odd part of it was we had camped in the sandy parking lot, right outside the manager’s cabin and wondered if we were being a bit too cheeky. The manager turned out to be Tony – a Glaswegian hippy who took to the road in the 60s and never quite made it home. After watching a fiery red sunset from the never-ending black sand beach it was easy to see why he chose Guatemala over the Gorbals.

And so back to the present – and future. We spent the past couple of nights, again with Zach and Jill, camped on the shore of Lago de Coatepeque – enjoying the amazing views, swimming, playing cards, laughing at each other’s strange expressions, putting the world to rights, celebrating the end of prohibition with a few (is 45 still a few? – ed.) cold beers and again becoming the centre of attention for curious locals. Zach even managed to be recruited to star in a commercial!

Cooking at Lago de Coatepeque

Whipping up a feast with Zach and Jill

Yesterday we said our goodbyes (or we hope our ‘hasta luego(s)’) as we headed to Santa Ana and they to San Salvador. I’m sure the four of us will share a few more beers and strange adventures over the coming months. We hope so – they’ve been great travelling companions and kindred spirits.

For us, it’s time to meet up again with some old friends we haven’t seen for far, far too long – a shower and a washing machine. Hola, mucho gusto.

Days: 163
Miles: 7368.2
Things we now know to be true: Nothing is impossible

In case you missed the latest pics on Flickr, here they are again: Flickr pics: Xela, Guatemala

Part One: Meet the Parents

6 Mar

PD, Monterrico, Guatemala

It’s been a month since we last blogged. We’re still in Guatemala, and mum and dad left last week after spending three weeks here with us. It was wonderful to see them. But one week into their visit we received some very bad family news, which knocked us for six. The trip took on a totally different hue, as our thoughts and worries were constantly turning to home.

We decided then not to write anything for a while, and so, to catch up a bit, this next post will be in two parts within a few days.

Once it was clear we were going to continue with the holiday as planned, we did everything we could to make the most of our time together, and of mum and dad’s first visit to Guatemala. We’re pretty sure they liked it! Although we stayed in hotels and rented houses while they were here, they got a bit of a taste of our life on the road as we drove around the country from place to place.

Brian and Christine on the boat across Lake Atitlan

Mum and dad on a trip to the supermarket, Lago de Atitlan


One thing’s for sure – it was sometimes a bit weird to see our daily life through their eyes. Now, we are well aware that the roads are fraught with hazards like dogs in the road, kamikaze bus and truck drivers, interesting over-taking manoeuvres, and car-wrecking elements like unfeasibly large potholes and vicious speedbumps. But somehow it looks even worse when you’ve got your mum and dad bouncing around in the back, occasionally covering their eyes and not infrequently mouthing exclamations.

I think I mentioned that my dad is a bit fastidious about cars – he likes them to be looked after. With that in mind, he actually showed remarkable restraint by not swearing at every speed bump we encountered. Likewise, it took him a whole week to finally crack and wash the windows. He’s so zen these days.

We demonstrated that the van can cope with tight spots, by inching through packed marketplaces in Coban, Santa Elena and Rio Dulce. And we showed our navigational skills to the full by, er, deliberately getting lost in Guatemala City – twice – and then rescuing the situation just when things looked hopeless. Well done us.

We were extremely keen to make sure the trip passed off without incident. There’s no denying that Guatemala has its share of road accidents and crime. And most visitors come a cropper at some stage with the food or water. Knowing they would be returning to a stressful situation at home seemed to make this all the more important.

But we didn’t want it to be safe in a dull way. So we got on the ancient-looking canoe and let the 14-year-old ‘captain’ row us down a canyon. We walked round the un-visited part of Livingstone with a bloke we’d just met on the street. We spent an afternoon on a yacht in the nautical hands of an American bloke who’d clearly had more beers than was healthy. Worse still, we sank a few cervezas ourselves and then he let us steer.

The sublime view from our balcony, Lago de Atitlan

And we took the long way round to the far north of Guatemala so we could see a different part of life from the touristy spots, at one point driving the van onto a rusty car ‘ferry’ to cross a river en route to Coban.

And after that two-day journey we made it to the Mayan ruins at Tikal in the northern Peten jungle. Wandering the ruins and the area around our hotel we saw spider monkeys, coatis, toucans, oscellated turkeys, and many other birds I cannot name but which were captured on film by dad, a keen photographer, particularly of wildlife. The howler monkeys were more elusive but made enough noise to confirm they were there.

Because we like to make life challenging, both houses we rented, at Rio Dulce and at Lake Atitlan, were only accessible by boat. So we dumped the van on dry land and hauled our stuff – including most of the contents of our little kitchen – onto little lanchas to get there. Every time we had to go shopping it meant a river or lake trip to town. But for any hassle involved we were rewarded with yet more abundant wildlife and great scenery. And some bloody enormous insects. There was one flying beetle so terrifying large, it made the same lumbering movement and sound as a Chinook helicopter on take-off.

In hot and steamy Rio Dulce we had a rustic wooden house on stilts, with a boardwalk leading to a little bar and restaurant. The ‘hotel’ was really near the town, but a boat was still needed to get there. After our shopping we had to wave or shout in order to get a lift back. Our reserved calling wasn’t enough though, so we employed the talents of a local boatmen who hollered like Tarzan to get the attention of our place’s boat driver and fixer-of-everything, Luis.

Luis was just one of many great people we met. We were glad mum and dad found the Guatemalan people to be among the most friendly they’d encountered. It was nice they could see for themselves that we’re in a great part of the world.

In Atitlan, for our final week, we found absolute tranquillity. Even the scorpion on the ceiling wasn’t enough to put us off the place, an amazing villa high above the lake near Santa Cruz La Laguna. Our balcony looked directly onto two perfect cone-shaped volcanos on the other side of Atitlan, set against a blue sky with the occasional cotton-wool puff of cloud clinging to the tops.

Mum at Rio Dulce

Mum on one of the decks at our Rio Dulce river house


In both places mum revelled in the plants and flowers, while dad – for the most part – resembled a jack-in-the-box. He’d try to sit and relax, and then a hummingbird or bright blue butterfly would flutter by and off he’d trot with the camera.

While there they, and we, also got the chance to meet some other Latin America road-trippers. Via the website Drive the Americas we’d discovered others who were doing a similar trip to us were all studying Spanish at a school in another village in Atitlan. We met for beers and swapped a few stories, and hope to meet again along the road.

Saying goodbye to mum and dad at the airport was even more difficult than it would have been under normal circumstances. But we’ll be home in September for my 40th birthday. A good friend, Sally, whose sister lives in Australia, once told me that because it’s really hard being apart from your loved ones, what’s really important is that every time you say goodbye you should already have plans for the next time you’ll see each other. It was great advice.

More pics soon, but in case you missed this batch from Chiapas, here they are again – Flickr set: Chiapas (Mexico)

Days: 155
Miles: 7148.2
Things we now know to be true: Everything can change.

Mood swings and roundabouts

25 Jan

PD, Xela, Guatemala

I’m not saying learning a new language is frustrating. All I can say is that yesterday the front cover of our Spanish-English dictionary was mysteriously ripped off its hinges in a freak incident. These things can happen.

School days: Jeremy grapples with possessive pronouns... or something

The last two and a half weeks at school have seen the full spectrum of emotions. We have lurched between total jubilation and utter despair, excitement and frustration, sickness and health, drunkenness and sobriety. I think research on language immersion has proved that learning this way can feel like swings and roundabouts. There have been days where by the end of lessons one or both of us has felt like lying across the lunch table and weeping uncontrollably. How many verb conjugations can a person take?

A few things are certain though.

First, we lucked out by being placed with a lovely couple, whose home we are living in for the whole month. They cook great food for us, are keen to converse, and are willing put up with our mangled toddler-style Spanish at mealtimes. Boris and Guisela are of similar age to us, with three dogs, one parrot and no kids. Bueno. They are kind and welcoming, and when we fell sick Guisela – our ‘madre Guatemalteca’ – nurtured us back to normal with a dietary solution for every stage of our ailments.

Second, we love the city and the school. And even if some days it doesn’t feel like it, we have learned a lot. After two weeks our confidence in speaking has grown markedly. We understand an ever-increasing proportion of the conversations around us. And we are mostly keeping up with the theory – of which there is plenty – even though all the explanations of grammar and structure are given in Spanish.

Despite all of the above we mostly still feel that when we open our mouths, what emerges resemble a dog’s dinner. We live in hope that one day our brains will begin to more efficiently connect with the tongue part.

Que?: Even the dogs at our house can't understand a word we're saying.


Our five-hour one-to-one lessons can be pretty intense. As well as the more formal teaching part, there is a good chunk of conversation each day. We choose the school partly for its left-wing political slant, which is obvious when I look at some of the vocabulary I noted down on my first day. I knew how to say ‘the missing’, ‘the displaced’, ‘dictatorship’ and ‘poverty’ before I was told how to say ‘my name is Paula’. And so it should be.

School activities include sight-seeing trips as well as screenings of political films and documentaries, conferences on social issues and testimonies from friends of the school such as ex-guerillas and political campaigners. Last week we heard from a former member of one of the armed resistance groups in Guatemala. She spent much of the 36-year civil war retrieving injured compadres from the mountains and treating their gruesome wounds at a secret safe-house, despite having no medical experience.

Each week ends with a graduation night for those who have finished their course. The catering alternates between students doing ‘pot luck’ international food one week, and the school providing a typical Guatemalan meal the next. Let me just add that we have met many excellent fellow students at the school, and I don’t wish to point the finger at anyone in particular. But following all the dire warnings about water and food hygiene in Central America, I find it ironic that my first bout of sickness almost certainly resulted from the food cooked by the foreigners!

This led to a pretty disastrous first weekend off school for us. We’d decided to take a little trip away in the van, and soldiered on with the plan even though I awoke on Saturday feeling awful, mistaking my symptoms for a hangover.

I’ll probably spare you the full details. Let’s just say the last thing you want is to be driving down a winding mountain road while suffering from a stomach bug, and having nothing to vomit into but your vegetable storage box. Upon arrival the last thing you want is to camp in a place with no toilets or running water. And having suffered all that the worst thing you could imagine happening would be a spillage incident involving the portable toilet. Wouldn’t it?

On the upside, we got to see the beach. And it was deliciously warm on the coast compared with Xela, which has shockingly cold mornings and chilly evenings.

Happily, weekend number two’s excursion was a total contrast. We travelled to nearby Laguna Chicabal – a volcanic crater lake – with two friends from school, Rob and Amy. En route to our destination we failed to notice an earthquake that registered 6.2 on the Richter scale. Oops!

Guisela

Guisela whips up another delicious batch of tamalitos.

The road to the laguna’s trailhead was hairy to say the least, and was really only suitable for 4x4s. We pushed the van to its absolute limit, and at several points Rob, Amy and I had to exit the vehicle to lighten the load, while Jeremy went slip-sliding up the steepest dustiest trail we’ve yet attempted. We made it! And celebrated with some improvised satay noodles, wine and tequila, and a few games of cards in the van.

Next morning we got up early to walk to the laguna before the daily mist and clouds descended. After a freezing night we climbed out the van to a magical scene of low mist and sparkling frost, which soon disappeared as the sun warmed the slopes. A steep climb was followed by a sharp 600-step descent to the lake, which was ringed with flower-laden Mayan altars.

It’s hard to find the words to describe it. But then words are not really our friends at the moment.

Days: 105
Miles: 5789.2
Things we now know to be true: Banging your head on the table doesn’t improve your language skills.