I spent Christmas in the chill beach town of Monterrico, my last stop in Guatemala. This was my second beach Christmas, as last year I was in the beach town of Mui Ne, Vietnam! How time flies!
Near Monterrico is a wildlife reserve, where you can see all kinds of birds, fish, and funny 4-eyed amphibians that hop along the water. I hired a boat to tour me around the reserve for sunrise. It made for some beautiful scenery! Aside from this, I really didn’t do too much in Monterrico other than chill, relax, and drink some beer!
From Monterrico I headed into Honduras, and stopped in the town of Copan. This is another relaxed town, with quite a few cool things to check out. First are the famous Mayan ruins right close to the town. I’ll be writing a separate post for these ruins. Second there’s a Bird Sanctuary that takes in abused or unwanted birds with the hopes of rehabilitating them for release into the wild. It has a great jungle location, and has a vast array of birds, including: toucans, parrots, macaws, pheasant like birds, etc.
The third site is a butterfly hatchery, where many species of butterflies are bred for release into the wild. There’s a good variety of butterflies, but one especially caught my attention. On its wing there’s what looks like a giant owl eye. Check out the photo of these butterflies mowing down on some fruit! Pretty weird-looking!
Stay tuned for the next posting about the beautiful Mayan ruins near Copan, including photos of the many statues an stellae!
We spent about a week between Kyoto and Osaka – there’s so much to see and do here! The many temples/shrines are amazing, with such an attention to detail! It seems that every inch of the buildings are polished and every plant in the surrounding gardens are trimmed to a perfect proportion! Whether you’re visiting with a spiritual motive or to simply site-see, you will not be disappointed! Of particular note is the shrine Fushimi Inari-taisha, a Shinto shrine with thousands of Torii gates – very beautiful!
Osaka was also a fun place to check out, especially their aquarium. You take an escalator up, and walk down through the aquarium via a spiraling walkway. There is a massive tank in the middle with all kinds of massive sea creatures – dolphins, seals, whales, sharks, whale-sharks, manta rays, and much more!
In both Kyoto and Osaka there are numerous beautiful gardens, walking paths, arcades (very intense experience), nightlife, and great food. If you’re in the area be sure to check out the town of Nara and Mount Koya, both are great day trips. Nara has some beautiful shrines and temples, and plenty of tame mini-deer! Mount Koya is a traditional holy mountain with a collection of very interesting monasteries, convents, and shrines. You take a train and a cable-car (funicular) to reach the top. There are plenty of beautiful walking trails around the temples and the little town.
The next stop is the bustling capital of Tokyo, and the end of our Asian adventures!
Hiroshima is a beautiful modern city with an ominous past. This is one of the two sites where the USA dropped an atomic bomb in World War II. The memorial and museum in the city present the atrocity and Japan’s role in World War II in a respectful and informative way. Let us hope that remembering this dark part of human history will ensure that it never repeats itself.
Aside from the memorials, there are many other great sites to check out. The Hiroshima Castle (actually a replica of the original) is an interesting museum of Japanese history. A little pricey, but interesting none-the-less. Another unique trip is to the Itsukushima Shine, a Shinto shrine along the coast. Depending on the tide, the shrine can be partly submerged in water. You can easily take public transit to this site via train/boat.
In Japan so far, it’s fairly easy to note that costs are quite a bit higher than other Asian countries. Long-haul Japanese trains are very expensive, but for budget travellers, you can easily take buses instead for a fraction of the cost. No pass is required – just head to the local bus station and buy your tickets there. In peak travel times, it may we worthwhile to buy the ticket a day or so in advance.
Jon and I had a cool experience in a Japanese restaurant/pub. We heard that okonomiyaki was very good, so we found a restaurant serving this. We walked in and saw what looked like a bar, but half of the bar was actually a large grill. We sat down asked for okonomiyaki. Our server then poured a rice-based batter on the grill to form a pancake like item, and started adding cabbage, pork, eggs, sauce, and all kinds of vegetables. When she was done she gave us a plate and a spatula. We could slice up our lunch and chow done when we were ready!
A local fellow at the restaurant noticed that we weren’t locals (I wonder how!), and told us he works as a chef in Las Vegas, and was back home for holidays. We chatted with him for quite a while, and he wouldn’t let us pay for our meal – he covered the full bill! What hospitality!
Fukuoka is a great introduction to Japan – very laid back with beautiful scenery. Although we didn’t do a lot, it was great to relax in the many parks and gardens. I also found the people in Fukuoka to be very friendly – sometimes confusingly so! I dropped into a 7/11 (which is actually a Japanese company now) to buy a quick lunch. As I was paying the clerk had a huge smile and said something to me in Japanese. Before I could blink he put a big box in front of me, and motioned for me to take something from it. I pulled out a little card with an anime cartoon on it. The clerk sounded like he was congratulating me… apparently I had won a free coffee!
While walking around we checked out the Fukuoka Castle and a Shinto Shrine. Shinto is a unique religion to Japan, and is connected to traditional rituals, mythology, connection with nature, and the Japanese Emperor.
Note that we were in Japan in April 2016. While in Fukuoka, we felt the aftershocks of the major earthquake that hit southern Japan. We were 200 km away from the epicenter, but very distinctly felt the shaking in the middle of our first night in Japan. On the roads, we could see many military aid conveys travelling to the affected area. Even in this disaster, it was heartening to see the people throughout Japan working together to raise funds for those affected.
Our next destination is Hiroshima. Onward and forward.
Beijing is a behemoth of the ancient and modern worlds. The current Chinese Communist Government is one of the most powerful on earth with a strong grip of control over its people. And while much of the traditional Chinese culture has been downplayed in China’s recent past, sites such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City demonstrate China’s long-lasting legacy stretching back millenia.
What do I mean by “strong grip” of the government here? One example: each Chinese person is permitted to work where the government decides. This usually means that a person can work in their home province, and are not allowed to move to another region of the country without permission. As Beijing and Shanghai have stronger economies, there are many “illegal workers” from other parts of China. While using the Beijing metro (which is awesome), there were several police checkpoints that require personal identification. As a foreigner the police didn’t care about me – only Chinese nationals. If an illegal worker’s ID was scanned multiple times, they could be flagged. Not quite what we’re used to back home… perhaps a tradeoff between freedom and economic development. Even if you don’t like the Chinese government’s policies, the economic progress over the last decades have been unprecedented in human history.
In the city we stayed in a traditional area, with our hostel having an open common area that was surrounded with rooms. Very peaceful area and a nice neighbourhood. The food in Beijing is to die for, especially the Peking Duck. The duck was brought out and carved in front of us, and is eaten with thin pancake/crapes and various vegetables. So good!
Obviously, we visited the Great Wall! We went to a part of the wall that is less visited, and we had it to ourselves for the most part! I did meet one Chinese fellow who was trying to tell me something. My lack of Mandarin and his lack of English resulted in a traditional charades discussion. I figured out that he was offering me a cigarette, and that along his trek, we was smoking one cigarette for each wall tower! He had a good laugh and headed off!
The China trip comes to an end. This has been a truly unique and fascinating country. Even though us in the West don’t always agree with other political/value systems, we can appreciate their strengths and learn from their weaknesses. Now for the last leg of the Asia trip – Japan!
Lake Atitlan is a truly magical place. The scenery is stunning, and is surrounded by several chill and inviting towns. I stayed near a little town called Santa Cruz. After my hikes in Xela, I took the first day to relax and read a book. I even found an English bookstore with A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens! I hope Scrooge learns his lesson this year!
It’s easy to hop around the lake on public water taxis, or lanchas, which only cost around $2. My spot in Santa Cruz was right on the lake, with the little Mayan town perched a couple hundred meters above. The main commercial hub is Panajachel with all kinds of shops, restaurants, and bus connections. I took a chicken bus above Panajachel to Solola that has great views of the lake. The best lookout is from the town’s cemetery, which can easily be spotted with its colourful monuments. Just below this town I wandered around a bunch of little farms with its industrious Mayan farmers hard at work!
I also did my first fresh water scuba dive in the lake! This lake was formed from an old volcanic crater, so the rock formations are really interesting. Some time ago the water level in the lake increased significantly, with the water covering a hotel. I was able to swim in this hotels’ underwater swimming pool, and swim through the old bar!
Xela, also known as Quetzaltenango, sits at 2300 meters above sea level and is surrounded by towering volcanoes! You can hike in almost every direction, and take in the great sights and surrounding town markets.
The first morning here, I headed out to a little town called San Francisco el Alto. Every Friday morning this mountain village turns into a rambunctious market for textiles, food, and all kinds of livestock! Farmers are leading sheep on leashes, carrying their prized baby piglets, and prodding stubborn mules! I’ve never seen anything quite like it! Do get there early, as the late morning gets insanely crowded – straight up pedestrian gridlock and locals pushing you forward even though there’s nowhere to go!
I recommend checking out the fantastic day hike up the Volcano Santa Maria. This is a steep climb up to 3700 meters and affords great views of Xela and the surrounding area. Check out the photos! The altitude really gets to you – I just took my time up the last half hour. It’s totally worth it!
Another good day hike is to Laguna Chicabel, a crater lake and sacred site to the Mayans. Locals still make prayer offerings at traditional altars around the lake. This is an easier hike and takes half a day. Afterwards stop by Fuestes Georginas, natural hot springs, to relax your tired muscles! Get closest to the rocks where the hot water drips down for the warmest water!
Now onto Lake Atitlan and the peaceful abode of Santa Cruz!
Antigua is a very chill little town that used to be Guatemala’s capital city. Back in the 1700s an earthquake leveled the city, which left behind many interesting ruins that can still be viewed. The setting of the city is fantastic, as it’s surrounded by volcanoes!
I made a trip to Volcano Pacaya – an hour drive away. The top of the mountain was covered with clouds, so I didn’t get the best view of the surrounding volcanoes. But this was actually great for the top of the mountain along the lava fields. It was like entering the land of Mordor (the evil land in the story Lord of the Rings). The whole landscape was charred with solidified lava – some was still warm. We even roasted marshmallows in the volcanic vents! So cool!
We made it to the top for sunset that produced a beautiful and somewhat eery setting. For the hour trek back I pulled out my trusty flashlight and enjoyed a peaceful walk down – along with the group’s pet dogs! They must be in great shape running up and down every day!
In the town of Antigua I wandered around, and made it up to a lookout point above the city with its towering cross. Antigua is a relaxed place with great restaurants, cafes, and barbers! My hair and goatee should be good until I make it back to Canada! Two months to go!
After 9 hours of Guatemalan mountain roads, I arrived in the little jungle/mountain town of Lanquin. I’m staying at a lodge right on the river fully equipped with hammocks, good food, and plenty of beer! If you make it out here, the lodge El Retiro is a great place to stay.
After a good night’s sleep, I was ready for a full day of adventure in the nearby Semuc Champey Park. You hop in the back of a truck for 45 minutes – be sure to hold on tight! You then walk/swim through a cave system with a candle for light. You’ll need shoes or sandles with straps, as the rocks can be quite sharp. You climb up ladders and ropes, and even drop through narrow rock crevices to make your way back to the entrance. Lots of fun!
You then get to tube down the river for half an hour, try out a rope swing, and jump off a bridge. All kinds of adventures! After a break for lunch, you hike up to a fantastic lookout – check out the photos below. You can see a series of cascading pools that you can later swim in. After the hike, I was soaking from the heat and humidity – a cool dip in the river was awesome! After the swim you hike out to the truck, and make the return journey to Lanquin. This trip is an absolute must while in Guatemala!
The fun doesn’t end there, though! The next day I walked to the Lanquin Caves, about 30/40 minutes from town. The caves are fairly well-lit, so you can walk around quite easily. If you have a flashlight, you can venture off the main path – which I recommend! The rock formations are quite stunning, as you can see in the photos. It’s really humid as water is still dripping from the cave ceiling – do bring some water along.
From here I head to Antigua, a town near Guatemala City. Time to climb some volcanoes!
Flores is a beautiful little town on an island in Lake Peten Itza. It’s a nice area to go kayaking/canoeing, but the main draws are the nearby attractions – especially Tikal.
1500 years ago, Tikal was the key Mayan city in the region and fielded many temples, palaces, fortifications, and trade routes. The site covers an area of 60 square kilometers. It’s worth taking a full day to explore the area and the many out-of-the-way temples. Bring plenty of water though, as it can get very hot and humid!
You can easily do a day trip to Tikal from Flores via a shuttle. It takes a little over an hour to reach the ruins from town. Another great and less known day trip is to the Biotopo Cerro Cahui, a national reserve teaming with wildlife and has very well maintained trails. Get here by taking a public bus (more like a van) from the main town market in Flores/Santa Elena to El Remate. From El Remate it’s a 15 minute walk to the park entrance along the lakeshore road.
The loop trail in Cahui takes around 3 hours, and you’re likely to see all kinds of wildlife. I saw 3 monkeys, hummingbirds, giant butterflies with what looked like an owl eye on its wing, and a funny rodent critter that was leaping from tree to tree. At the park entrance a ranger will give you a map and can answer any questions that you may have. They don’t speak much English though, so some Spanish knowledge will be useful.
My journeys in Guatemala continue onto Lanquin, and little town with beautiful parks, hikes, and caves!