Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Surfing El Salvador

As you may suspect there doesn’t appear to be many areas where Guatemala leads the world, however one unexpected area is healthcare. The country has done away with the tiresome process of going to the doctor to obtain the prescriptions for the meds you already know you need.

El Tunco Point Break
I was lucky enough to experience this first hand, heading to the pharmacy seeking a few Strepsils and headache tablets for my flu, the pharmacist promptly produced a packet of chunky white pills (one every 24 hours) and another of large brown horse tranquiliser sized pills (2 every 8 hours).  At the pharmacists insistence I downed 1 white and 2 brown on the spot, washing it down with cough mixture. After feeling very odd and having lie down for a few hours I soon felt immeasurably better, well enough to have a beer or two that evening with a guy from my work, Nathan Stevens, who has also time off and is travelling the world in the other direction, with Antigua being our crossing over point.

I was even more grateful for the Guatemalan approach to healthcare when I reached El Tunco in El Salvador.  On the bus to El Salvador I was thinking it was a pretty obscure destination, however this preconception was clearly wrong when checking into the hostel I heard the instantly recognisable sounds of ‘naah’, 'yeah’ and ‘naaah’, and the largest contingent of countrymen in my travels to date.

El Tunco and the surrounding beaches are a surfing mecca and it appears I was not alone in my thoughts of heading to the El Salvadorian coast for a few days of surfing. Saying that the quality, consistency and number of breaks in the vicinity meant that mid week they were rarely crowded.

Surfing isn’t the only pastime available however, between surfs it’s also possible to sit in a hammock, sit in a pool, or drink, with the order dependent on the quality of the surf that morning. Actually if you weren’t there to surf I’m not sure what you’d do, the sand is volcanic black which makes it scorching hot underfoot and the tide covers the beach completely each morning.  It’s also hot all the time, to the extent that a pair of boardies suffices for every occasion.  I loved my time there, surfing the main right hand point break, a long 150m crumbling wave with a languid takeoff, which given my paddling fitness was non existent was a perfect wave. 

I was however headed back to where I'd come from, back into Guatemala and Antigua for the last time, not the most efficient way to travel but the ever reliable Katie has insisted I stay a night in the Earth Lodge, 20 minutes outside of Antigua overlooking the city and the surrounding volcanoes, and more specifically spend a night in the Lodges' Treehhouse.

The Earth Lodge Treehouse

The Earth Lodge was started by a Canadian over 9 years ago on a barren piece of land on the outskirts of Antigua.  The property specialises in the production of a fruit that’s become one of my favorites on this trip given its prevalence, avocados.  There are 400 advocado trees, which are surprisingly large, spread throughout the property, as well as a number of other accommodation options other than the Treehouse.  The Treehouse itself is constructed around an Oak Tree and has a double bed with a frontage that takes in Antigua and the numerous volcanoes that surround the town. 

I retired early that night to enjoy the view and the lighting over the city that evening. It was quite stunning to wake the next morning to the view from the glass windows. In addition to the double room on the boughs of the tree has a ground level bathroom with a glass wall that affords those within a stunning view of Antigua while going through the mornings motions. I finished my time at the Earth Lodge with an hour and half yoga class on the lawn overlooking the town, having had some of the best experiences of my travels to date.
View from the Treehouse

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The quiet Australian

Life's tough in Xela
For a while I’ve had an unnerving feeling that my abject knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese has seen me unwittingly channelling this man in my travels through South and Central America.  People have asked me how I’d managed to travel with so little language ability, but when you’re scraping the barrel any fellow traveller with a base knowledge is able to provide great assistance and for a while there I was describing myself as a language succubus, until its correct meaning was pointed out to me.

I can thankfully say after 25 hours of intensive lessons at Celes Maya in Xela I can speak Spanish with the panache of your friends not very sharp, but you're too polite to say, 3 year old. I really enjoyed the week of Spanish lessons and was fortunate to have as a teacher Carlos, who has a shared passion for football and history. 

Through our discussions I learned that Guatemala, and Xela specifically, had the only railway in the countries history that took the Germans 10 years to build, but only operated for 2 years from 1930 to 1932 before a new Guatemalan Dictator on advice from the US expelled the Germans and ripped up the railway. 

Carlos and I also discussed in depth the recent European Cup, the gradual slide of the Australian team, the lead up to the 2014 Brazil World Cup and of course the local favourites and reigning Guatemalan champions, Xelaju MC, the MC standing for their most talented player Mario Camposeco who in the 50's turned down offers to play overseas only to die in a plane crash at 25, and has been immortalised in abbreviated suffix ever since.

As fortune would have it Xelaju MC were playing midweek in El Classico, the local derby with San Marco.  From Carlos' description I imagined a heaving, packed stadium constantly on the brink of chaos. The reality was a bit different, more suburban Australian stadium with vendors selling hot water for the local tea.  Still the standard was surprisingly high (maybe I've watched too much A-League) and Xelaju MC came back from a goal down to win 2-1.

Departing Xela with my new found infant language skills I headed to the beautiful Lake Atitlan and specifically San Pedro La Laguna that Wikipedia calls the 'naughty village' due to its renowned nightlife.  
Lake Atitlan
The bustling San Pedro docks
I'd like to say I rocked it till dawn every night, or at least the Government regulated closing time of 1am, with 61 of my closest Israeli friends, but since I've been here I've been wiped out with a flu I'd been fighting since my last day of lessons in Xela. 

I'd tried to ignore it and on Sunday night headed to the local British pub for a traditional Guatemalan feast of roast, gravy and beer, which I then followed with a 4am hike up a hill referred to as the Indian's nose to watch dawn rise with a French couple and our guide over Lake Atitlan. 

San Marcos
Oddly enough I deteriorated after this and have spent most of the time struggling around San Pedro, a town that in the morning when the sun is shining, the Lake is glassy and the humming birds are flitting about between the trees borders on paradise. 

Even though it's the most happening of the numerous towns that surround the Lake the pace is pretty slow.  Taking a boat across the Lake to San Marcos la Laguna, I found a place where time has almost stopped. Not surprisingly it's a haven for hippies and alternative therapies, there's more foreign run massage, yoga and meditation places then a person could want for.  I couldn't help but wonder what the locals make of all this when an hour massage costs $US40, which is just under the average weekly wage of a Guatemalan.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Quetzaltenango calling

I’ve noticed that when I arrive in a new country I spend the first afternoon or so skulking around the new destination in not the best of moods.  I think it reflects that I just get comfortable with a country and / or a city, and then, as for the past few weeks, off I go again.  So it was when I arrived in Antigua, Guatemala via Guatemala City from Colombia, as I wandered around town thinking that Cartagena and Cusco were far superior Spanish colonial towns.

As I adjusted my new surroundings I wasn’t sure they were, but obviously it’s subjective and depends on what you apply as the international metric of latin American Spanish colonial town superiority. If that measure was proportion of US exchange students in town to learn Spanish, vis-à-vis the percentage of locals, then Antigua would dominate the field.

Katie con chicken buses
After a few days in Antigua, taking in a volcano, I caught a bus to the western highlands of the country and the Melbourne of Guatemala, Quetzaltenango. Here I rendezvoused with a colleagues mentors daughter, otherwise known as Katie and her partner Nick.  Katie’s been travelling Central America for about 18 months and learning of my desire to document positive sustainability stories, suggested a nature reserve 20 minutes outside of Reu on the Pacific Coast, Patricinio Nature Reserve.

With Katie’s guidance I caught my first chicken bus to Reu.  Chicken buses are the shinook salmon of the bus world, rejected US school buses past their prime that find their way to Guatemala, are then pimped out on the outside and the orignal engine replaced with a more powerful and dirty version. There are no emission standards in Guatemala so it’s pretty common to be covered in a plume of diesel fumes when walking along.

Patricinio is a world away and Katie and I were picked up by the reserve owner Mario, a debonair Guatemalan who obviously has a range of commercial interests.  Mario was gracious with his time and through a ranging interview explained how he had acquired the reserve as a farm 25 years ago when it specialized in cardamom.  Branching into coffee and then a host of other crops over the years, avocado, mangostein, rambutan and even Australian Macadamia’s he’s survived and prospered through numerous years of price fluctuations. He also noted it’s bizarre role in the Bay of Pigs invasion in the 1960’s when the US army constructed a road across the farm as part of the preparations for a potential conflict with the USSR and Cuba.

Mmm, coffee
The real story however is not so much this diversification, but his approach to sustainability principles, in the preservation and rehabilitation of 35% of the property as a nature reserve, his symbiotic methods of crop rotation and integration with native vegetation, and his approach to forming lasting relationships with the eight families and 28 people who live on the property.  His philosophy of ensuring that both employer and employee support the common goal of operating a successful farm has enabled him to in turn provide health and education to the families.

Paulino, Katie and I (not in that order)

Following the discussion Katie and I spent the next two days walking the farm and nature reserve with Paulino, who’s been in the property for 15 years and has, with the establishment of the nature reserve and associated increase in fauna developed a keen interest in bird watching, and eating earthworms. Having spent a significant portion of my time in cities it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience to be in the countryside.  As Paulino commented, each time he heads into Reu he appreciates Patricinio even more.  

A recently introduced bin
Mario’s latest mission is to introduce the concept of the rubbish bin to the families on his estate. As the chicken bus journey testified, Guatemala is a Gutemalan’s bin and plastic bottles and all sorts are thrown out of the bus window as you travel along.

Arriving back in Xela I headed to my new accommodation, a Guatemalan family for the week while I take much needed Spanish lessons for the week. My host Sandra lead me uphill to the end of a vaguely sinister alley where a security door opens to a rambling house.

Morning over Xela

Sandra is housing a range of peeps, including an American university volunteer medical student and several school age children, hence my room is replete with Winnie the Pooh blanket and sheets. 

There also seems to be no defined approach to providing hot water in Guatemala, so water is heated with electrical contraptions incorporated into the shower head, with the exposed electrical wiring running all over the place. The electrical heating device cuts in and out depending on its whim and it's always an interesting battle between I and it each morning, with my desire for hot water overriding my concern regarding electrical safety.

I also found out the first morning that the room overlooks a turkey and chicken farm. I’ve grown quite fond of the poultry and like to check their progress on putting on the pounds each morning as I look over the Xela skyline and stare into the distance trying to work out how to conjugate Spanish verbos.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012


Prior to arriving I could name three famous Colombians, two footballers, Rene Higuita and Valderamma and one of the most infamous drug lords of all time, Pablo Escobar.  It’s an interesting trio and if you had to field a World XI of Flamboyant Characters of the past few decades you could argue a sound case for including each, their starting positions however may take a bit longer.

Strangely enough not all Colombians take after these three chaps, however from my time here there is a definite zest for life and they know how to enjoy themselves. I’d actually never intended to come to Colombia and it was only an opportune breakfast in Melbourne with a persuasive Bogota native prior to leaving that caused me to change my schedule and pencil in a week in Colombia.

Bogota from La Candelaria
As fortune would have it of the places I’ve visited to date, Colombia, and Bogota in particular, has been the location where I’ve spent time with people I knew, such as Javier (the other Valderamma) from our Sydney office, who just happened to be home for a visit at the same time as I, or friends of friends. 

Mini-Mal  Restaurateur, Eduardo
One of those was Sandra Valenzuela de Narvaez who is a Progamme Director for Colombia, Ecuador and Panama for WWF.  I'd been put in touch with Sandra through Darcey Hile who I'd met in Cambria, California. Sandra and I had a great evening discussing a board range of environmental topics, from Rio to the recently completed open air escalator in a favella in Medellin, Colombia's second city, designed to combat the cycle of social exclusion. Sandra had also suggest I check out a restaurant of a friend of hers, Mini-Mal that focuses on locally sourced Colombian cuisine prepared in a modern approach that seeks to minimise impacts on the environment in the food preparation and sourcing of ingredients. So one evening I took a cab with my camera gear across town and introducing myself to Restaurateur Eduardo sat down to one of the best meals of my trip to date. Unfortunately our Spanish and English abilities didn't allow for a more in depth discussion but I understand from Sandra that Mini-Mal is significantly influencing how food is sourced in the Bogota restaurant scene.

Bogota itself is a sprawling city of around 8 million, groaning under the weight of the associated traffic. It is not however in the same league as Sao Paulo and there are, and have been definite steps towards traffic management and making the city a more accessible location.  Primary amongst these is the dedicated and separated bus lane system that runs through the city, a cheaper and effective alternative to constructing a rail network. Prior to the introduction of this network the bus system was a multitude of smaller privately owned buses that will pick up and set down from any location, causing congestion and general traffic chaos.  These buses still exist, but by all accounts not to the previous extent.

As evidenced by the well heeled and moneyed Colombians the country feels like it is rapidly climbing out of the hole caused by the years lost fighting drug cartels and Pablo Escobar in particular.  A bemusing legacy from this time are Pablo’s hippos, while there are countless examples of the damage caused by introduced species, it will / would be fascinating to see if over time the Colombian hippos evolve differently to their African brethren, potentially developing an innate ability to salsa on cue.

Cartagena Old Town
After the cool of Cusco and similar conditions in Bogota I was hanging out for some heat and so booked myself a few days in Cartagena on the Caribbean Sea. Cartagena is hot and humid, about 33 during the day, dropping to 27 in the evening. Established in the 15th century it's historical significance stems from its ideal location for the Spanish conquistadors to ship the gold plundered from South America back to Spain without circumnavigating Panama.  As such the old walled town and fortifications are full of magnificent Spanish villas and intertwined narrow streets.  The culture is also a blend of African Caribbean and Latin America making for a heady mix and a lively nightlife, as experienced by the US Secret Service.  Added to this are stunning beaches and islands off the coast, that I and some other peeps from the hostel took in on a day trip. 

The time in Cartagena effectively ended the South American leg of my trip, which has felt like a taster that leaves me wanting more and to explore in greater depth what each country has to offer.
Islas del Rosaris

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Walking with clouds

A Cusco morning
Heeding all the guidance prior to my arrival I'd allowed myself three days to adjust to the change from sea level in Rio to 3,300m in Cusco. 

Cusco, as the former capital of the Incan empire that once stretched across five countries along the western side of the continent, was once the greatest city in South America.  With the arrival of the Spanish in 1532 and the eventual defeat of the Inca’s the temples were replaced by cathedrals and Spanish style influences are today evident through the historic city centre.  That and a weird version of the market economy that seems to dictate that in each of these touristy destinations  around the globe there shall be a minimum of five shops in a row on each street selling the exact same poorly made wares.

Like most I was in town to visit Machu Picchu, the famed lost city of the Inca’s that the Spanish never managed to find and was only rediscovered from a western perspective at the start of the last century.  The Inca Trail is by far the most popular way to hike your way to Machu Picchu, however due to its popularity access is now limited through a permit system and I was about two weeks out of kilter. As such I’d instead chosen the 3 day, 46km Lares Trek that my travel agent in Melbourne had advised was an easier alternative and takes you through Andean communities, with a focus on their traditional practices and application of the surrounding flora and fauna. This seemed pretty much on the money for me, a bit of a hike with a nature focus and then Machu Picchu at the end.

After a briefing the night before we were picked up early and driven for quite a while to our starting location of Quishuarani at 3,800m. The Inca Trail has a daily limit of 200 punters plus 300 support crew of porters, chefs and horsemen, so 500 all told from various adventure firms.

The first sunny morning there were four hikers, including myself, on the Lares Trek, Daniel and Gretchen a couple on honeymoon from the US and Canada respectively, and another Aussie, Ben, who constantly reminded me that a certain age you not only feel bullet proof but have the energy and stamina to continually prove to the rest of the world that you are. We merrily set off after our invaluable guide, Eder and then met our support crew of four, a chef and his apprentice and two horsemen for the packs.

Over the course of the next few days the support crew would prepare our meals, clean up and then pack all their cooking gear, their and our tents and then jog past on the trail laden with their gear to reset it all for when we arrived for lunch or dinner. An impressive feat, but one that also highlighted the disparity between our lives and it felt odd when we were clapped into camp at the end of the day, given they’d just done the same and more.

Saying this I don’t think I’ve eaten so well, at least for the first two days, on my travels to date. Each meal was a three course feast based on locally sourced ingredients, such as trout for lunch for the second day. We’d sit on one side of the cooking tent as the chef and his apprentice would hand the meals over the modesty curtain for our devouring.  During these times and during the trek our guide Eddy would often provide insights into the varying ingredients and the significance they have played in the lives of the Andean communities over the past centuries, as well useful information such as the Quechua (indigenous language used by those in the Andes) word for Andean gigolo. 

At one point he noted that the Inca’s and their descendents in the Andean communities have over 2000 varieties of potatoes.  This struck a chord as I’d heard the almost exact information a week or so earlier in Rio at one of the side events hosted by La Via Campesina. This sparsely attended side event lamented he continual and organized dilution of fruit and vegetable species offered in the modern western world. From an estimated 7,000 known indigenous peasant species, only125 species are generally offered in the western world and that the patents for the genome technologies for these species are held by six large corporations. The consequence of this is to increase the susceptibility of our food supply to climatic change and reduce the biodiversity of agricultural areas.  The speakers were advocating for a return to indigenous farming practices and a move away from industrialized agriculture. There arguments were compelling when individual plot comparisons were displayed, but there seemed to be an elephant in the room in terms of the volume of food required to continually feed the global population.

Back on the trail I was relishing the breathtaking scenery that was unfolding, from craggy outcrops, to waterfalls, mountain lakes rolling hills and the soaring glacial mountains. The first day passed without incident as we hiked over the Huilquijasa Pass at 4,200m and down the other side to our camp for the evening.

Arising in the darkness the next morning, day 2 was set to be the longest and hardest, trekking over three passes, the highest of which the Aurora Casa Pass took us to 4,600m, 400m higher than the Inca Trail. This ascent after lunch sorely tested Daniel and I and Eddy had to bring out his magic elixir a liquid cross between tiger balm and Vix, to assist us up the final 100m or so.  Ben on the other hand, as per the previous days ascent, sensed our weakness and basically jogged up the final incline, even more impressive given he’d declined the porter and was carrying all his own gear.

That was literally the high point for me for the next 36 hours or so.  Pitching our tent and preparing for dinner it was apparent Daniel was feeling under the weather and declined dinner.  I devoured as per my usual an entre of popcorn and then chicken, rice and veggies dinner.  Retiring early I awoke after a while feeling decidedly queasy.  Fighting the feeling I eventually gave in and delivered a combination of popcorn, chicken and anti-nausea tablets back to the earth. The temperature by this stage outside the tent was below zero, and even in this nauseous state it was hard not be impressed with the still mountainous surroundings lit by the moon on a starry cloudless night.

Aurora Casa Pass - The last smile for 36 hours
My motions had roused Ben from his sleep and he thankfully threw some Imodium my way. I didn’t sleep again that night as I then ran hot and cold, although mainly it was my feet I couldn’t get warm despite three pairs of hiking socks and a minus 10 rated sleeping bag. As I rocked back and forth trying to sleep in the tent I was dreading the four hour, 14km hike the next day.

In the morning it was apparent that Daniel’s night had been even rougher than mine, and it will certainly be a honeymoon night he remembers for a while.  Eddy tried to assist by providing a range of Andean teas, the final aniseed one breaking me again and causing me to clear the contents of my stomach. I

It had been so cold overnight that all water left outside had frozen and Eddy thought it to be around minus 6. If ever there was a picture of misery it was Daniel and I stood outside the tents that morning rocking back and forth to try and keep warm, while fighting waves of nausea, with my toes gradually turning numb, while jovial breakfast conversation flowed from Ben and Gretchen inside the breakfast tent, a place I dared not enter as the smell of food made me shudder.

We eventually set off on the hike, 2 hikers and 2 human husks descended from 3,900m to 2,200m over four hours.  I had no energy at all and the descent didn’t feel real at the time as I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually we arrived at our final destination representing the end of the Lares Trek where we all collapsed for two hours for lunch.

The rest of the day we made our way by van and train to Agues Calliente, feeling drained and now tired from the walking. At this point I was eternally grateful to be on the Lares Trek and to be able to sleep in a bed and have a shower before Machu Picchu the next day.

The next morning I was feeing better and the tour provided by Eddy the next day on Machu Picchu was a fascinating insight into a once great civilisation. Our group effectively tried to rebreak Daniel and I by inadvertently undertaking the 2.5hour Gran Caverna hike around Huaynapicchu (the mountain behind Machu Picchu), a hike lovingly referred to as the 'FU Gringo Trek' at the time.

I gained a significant insight into how the Inca’s and the modern day Andean communities used and use the environment around them to not only survive but thrive in the Andes.  An appreciation made even more real by my own experience on the Lares Trek. 

Cusco and subsequent trekking has also confirmed that my family lineage stemming from a temperate, grey, rainy, low lying isle in the Northern Hemisphere has not best equipped me for hiking glacial Andean mountain ranges. 

As per usual I wished that Tony could have lent a hand with my exertions, but unfortunately he's been recently rendered armless and not much use in the Andes.