Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador
DescrizioneI began 1997 in Guatemala, Central America. I was staying at a small hotel in the village of San Pedro on the beautiful Lake Atitlan. I stayed at the lake for almost a month and ended up running the hotel for three weeks! The American owners needed a holiday and they asked me to be the manager. It was quite strange trying to run a hotel with Spanish only speaking staff and my Spanish being pretty awful. While managing the hotel I met a group of travelers who had driven down from the USA in a four wheel drive, and were continuing all the way down to Panama. They were looking for an extra traveler, so I joined up. It was certainly a great opportunity to be able to drive right through Central America and have a rest from the rough old buses! All I had to pay for was my share of the petrol!
On 17th January I met up with the group in Antigua and we set off in the jeep towards the border with Honduras. Just across the border from Guatemala in Honduras were the famous Mayan ruins of Copan. If the Tikal ruins were the New York of the Mayan world, then Copan was the Paris. The site, although less impressive in grandeur, had some extraordinary detailed work. The famous hieroglyphic stairway was certainly a marvel and the ancient ball court made us think about the Mayan culture all those years ago.
While in Honduras we visited many of the Caribbean beaches and went out to another tropical island paradise, Islas Cochinas (Pig Islands). Again I was staying on a tiny coral island, but this time in a traditional Garifuna village. The Garifuna people were so different from the Latin Americans - it felt like I was back in Africa! In Honduras we also visited some of the typical mountain villages before continuing down to Nicaragua.
We really enjoyed Nicaragua, there were hardly any tourists and the people were very friendly. We visited some of the active volcanoes of the region, and the beautiful colonial town of Granada on the shore of the huge Nicaragua Lake. We took a boat out to the islands in the center of the lake and spent a few days relaxing, trekking and swimming. Although Nicaragua has a reputation for being unstable, we found it really peaceful and actually felt safer than when we had been in Guatemala or Honduras.
From Nicaragua we traveled into Costa Rica which seemed considerably more developed than the previous Central American countries we had driven through. Being a popular holiday destination for the US, it was certainly no stranger to tourists. In Costa Rica we visited some of the famous national parks, including the beautiful Cloud Forest of Monte Verde and the volcanoes of the interior. We also spent a few days on the Pacific beaches and did day hikes in the coastal tropical rain forests. We saw a good deal of wildlife while in Costa Rica including monkeys, sloths, tiny forest dear and many brightly colored tropical birds.
After Costa Rica we drove into Panama. Panama doesn't really have many famous tourist sights, but we found the people friendly and interested in what we were doing. We met up with a couple of American Air Force guys and ended up spending one night on a base! Of course we visited the famous Panama Canal, and watched the huge ships being lowered to the level of the Pacific ocean by gigantic, multi-step locks. Panama City certainly wasn't a safe place, one afternoon a group of guys surrounded me, but I just managed to avoid them by running into the middle of the road and stopping all the traffic!
From Panama there was no road through the Darian Jungle down into Colombia, South America. There used to be a ferry service, but this has ceased operating. The only way was to hike through the Darian Jungle for 5 days. The problem with this hike was that the Darian was full of bandits and drug traffickers, it was also very physically challenging. Also, two German backpackers had just been shot dead, so I decided I would have to take a short flight over the danger area! I took a flight from Panama City to the northern Colombian coastal town of Cartegena.
I arrived in Cartegena, Colombia in early March. Cartegena was a lovely colonial town on the Caribbean coast and was considered relatively safe as far as Colombia goes! I spent about a week here enjoying the pleasant climate and attractive town center. From Cartegena I traveled down to the famous drug cartel city of Medellin. I had to travel through a dangerous region and sure enough I saw a body lying by the side of the road - apparently an execution! I didn't really feel very safe in Medellin so I traveled down to Bogota, the capital of Colombia.
In Bogota I visited the British embassy to get the local security/safety information. The embassy basically said that no where was safe, but gave me some good advice. They also explained that on Friday and Saturday nights around thirty people were shot dead in Bogota alone - scary! In Bogota I visited the world famous Gold Museum, where I saw thousands of priceless golden artifacts stored in a huge underground vault. Bogota seemed quite a friendly city as long as you stayed in the slightly more secure city center.
From Bogota I traveled down to the city of Cali, which was famous for its Salsa music and its powerful drug cartels! Cali was a pleasant city, but again the security worries were oppressive. While I was in Cali a Dutch couple, that were staying in the next room in my hotel, were set up by the police and had to pay over $1000 to be released! I also had my sunglasses wrenched from my face in broad daylight on one of the main streets. After Cali I decided that I would travel quickly down to Ecuador, which is much safer.
I arrived in Quito, the capital of Ecuador in mid-April. I really liked Quito and ended staying in the city for almost three months! The city is right on the equator, but it is at an altitude of around 2,800m, so it has a spring like climate. I stayed in a great little hotel in the heart of the colonial center of the city. I had a nice room for only $2 per night and a three course meal in a local restaurant only cost $1 - you can live really well on $10 per day! While I was in Quito I went to a language school for three weeks and studied Spanish. The school was also great value at only $3/hour, for one-to-one tuition. Much of my spare time I spent drinking coffee at the various of the old town cafes, especially my favorite Cafe Modelo.
I also did a few nice weekend trips out to traditional Indian villages. One of the best trips was a visit to the market at Saquisili, near Latacunga. Indians from all over the region flocked to this market every Thursday to sell their animals and produce. The market had been hardly influenced by tourism and gave an interesting insight into the Indian way of life.
Because I stayed in Quito for some time I managed to build up a good group of friends and have a relatively normal life for a while. The nightlife in Quito was also good, so I had a fun time! In Quito I met up with an English guy, Steve, who had similar travel plans to me and the same lack of schedule, so we decided to travel together for a while. Steve and I had exactly the same birthday but I was 10 years older.
We left Quito in July and began our trip down through Ecuador to Peru. From Alausi, a small town in the highlands, we took the famous train journey down to the coast. The train drops nearly 3,000m in only 4 hours, negotiating steep switch-back tracks, high suspension bridges and tunnels. The trip was made even more exciting by the fact that we were traveling on the roof - the tunnels were a real highlight!
On the steamy Ecuadorian coast we went out on a spectacular whale watching trip. The huge (12m) Humpback whales were leaping from the ocean only 20 metres away from our little boat, it was certainly an experience of a lifetime. The trip also took us out to the Isla de la Plata, which is often referred to as the 'Poor Man's Galapagos'. On the island we saw a good deal of birdlife including Albatross and the Blue Footed Boobies.
Next we visited the beautiful town of Vilcabamba in southern Ecuador. Vilcabamba was an idyllic little town famous for the longevity of the locals. Due to the towns altitude of 1,800m it enjoys a warm pleasant climate and is surrounded by spectacular countryside. Steve and I did a challenging hike up to the peak of the Mandango mountain and from the top we had spectacular views of the Vilcabamba valley and beyond. Unfortunately on the way down Steve badly sprained his ankle and was immobilized for a couple of weeks. Due to the extra time we had to stay in Vilcabamba I needed to get another visa extension. The local immigration office refused to extend it, but cheerfully told me to come back the first day I was illegal so that I could be fined and then given two weeks to leave the country!
From Vilcabamba we traveled directly across the border to Piura in northern Peru.