Kiley with a King penguin colony in Tierra Del Fuego, Chile
Oh, how I love to razz my sister about her angst-filled teenagehood. The days when she was so cross-armed miserable if there wasn’t a souvenir shop or outlet mall scheduled into our day. She HATED nature. Loathed it. Rolled her eyes at my mom’s carefully researched itinerary of everglades, whale-watching, breeding grounds and biosphere reserves. Often, Kiley and my dad shared company, generally on a park bench with a soft-serve ice cream cone. Licking each other’s wounds. The two of them would find non-nature activities while my brother Dax and I took enormous delight in tromping through the woods and swamps with Mom.
Mark at Sorcerer Lodge (Golden, BC) being very fancy
Mid-January of this year, Kiley and her partner, Mark, began their intrepid four month trek across Central America. To clarify, Kiley now LOVES nature and practically resides in the belly of it, on Sulphur Mountain in Banff, Alberta. She has climbed countless peaks, traversed slush, snow and muck from Nepal to Argentina via trusty hiking boots, telemark skis, dogsled, yak (I think) and donkey (I think). She’s also submerged herself in surreal reefs from the Gold Coast in Australia to Maui and most recently, Utila, Honduras.
When she sent her latest colourful mass email from a Nicarguan outpost, I was so impressed by her writing chops that I insisted she be my guest blogger. Flattered, she only made me promise to severe spellchecking (Spanish keyboards aside). Here it is, with no editorial mark-up. (With full acceptance of the fact that now my dad will want a guest spot as well).
Well, this is my 3rd attempt at sending a grand message. Spanish keyboards continue to be my enemy & I managed to delete the last draft a week ago – ugh. So it´s been over a month since my first email and oh the places we have been. We started our trip in the Bay Islands of Honduras. After diving in Roatan, we took a catamaran & sailed over to the smaller islands of Utila on the hunt for whale sharks. We were unsuccessful but swimming with wild dophins and a friendly sea turtle was a decent consolation prize!
Sea turtle drive-by
After more diving & beach time in Utila, we took a ferry to the mainland of Honduras & took a luxury overland bus to Copan Ruinas. Seriously – Greyhound Bus lines could learn some lessons. In addtion to the movies & meals, the 1st class section offered extra wide seats (only 3 across) with foot rests & the option to fully recline. It makes a 7-hr bus trip go by quickly.
Copan Ruinas is only 12km from the Guatemala border and is a colonial city complete with cobblestone streets and ballsy little tuk-tuks navigating the streets. It has UNESCO world heritage status as its claim to fame is the nearby ruins known as the ‘Paris of the Mayan civilization.’ Copan Ruinas is also home to a flock of wild scarlet macaws. We stopped here for a couple of days to explore the temples as well as to visit Macaw Mountain – a bird refuge. The highlight of the tour was being ¨accessorized¨ by 3 parrots, one in each hand and one on my shoulder singing in my ear! The toucans were a little more shy & there were lots of owls who made the tropical area home.
Our next bus leg was supposed to be 6 hours but it turned into a 9-hour epìc joourney due to road construction & an ill-advised passage through Guatemala City at night. We passed the border without problems but arrived at our next destination in the dark without a reservation (not recommended). Antigua, Guatemala is another colonial town and UNESCO world heritage site. It sits in the shadow of two massive volcanoes that have terrorized the population over the centuries with eruptions, landslides & earthquakes.
Most of the architecture here was built by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th & 17th century. Few of the original structures have survived the onslaught of natural disasters but the ruins of the grand churches and courtyards have their own distinct beauty. The facades of the buildings are a brilliant array of colour – canteloupe orange, sunflower yellow, watermelon pink, a rich burgundy & azul blue. Sprays of pink and purple bougainvillea spill over the Spanish tile rooftops and almost every house, restaurant & cafe open up into a beautiful courtyard or rooftop terrace with water fountains, lush greenery and countless flowers blooming. It has the history and sophistication of many European towns & it’s a foodie’s delight! Fresh roasted coffee, exotic fruit smoothies (mango, passionfruit, pineapple) and organic salads – Mark & I ate ourselves around the city. We ended up spending almost two weeks in Antigua mostly with a local family – part of a homestay program with the language school. We had 8 days of morning lessons & are pretty pleased with our Spanglesh. Mark has been an enthusiastic student & wished me a ¨Happy Anus¨on my birthday & got bonus marks on his final presentation on exotic fruit by concluding with the statement ¨I like little boys.” So we have a few things to work on….
We spent a Sunday watching the local pro soccer team crush the competition 4-0. The win meant lots of fireworks but this is an everyday occurence in Antigua. Any excuse for fireworks is used – birthdays, religious ceremonies, you name it. There also seems to be no rules on the time of day – early morning, midday, evening – it´s quite entertaining. We´ve also been enjoying the local mercados and the abundance of fresh produce. Brought down from the highlands in pick-up trucks and chicken buses, the produce is straight from the local farms. The flower vendors are also a sight to see – orchids, cala lilies, roses – the abundance & variety is astounding. Add the mountain people with their colourful dress & dark skin – the country feels like one giant box of Crayolas.
We toured an organic macadamia nut farm where we indulged in sublime macadamia nut pancakes slathered in nut butter and travelled to the largest market in Central America – Chichicastenango. The market is an overload for your senses – colors, sounds and smells. Artisans hawk their wares next to chickens, produce, shoe shine boys, second hand clothing, dried beans, roasted coffee and chocolate-covered bananas (for the equivalent of only 12 cents each – Mark bought 3 that day). We left with full bellies, heavy shopping bags and a slim wallet. In between Spanish lessons & touring the city, we took a 3-day side trip to the northern region of Peten – home of the Guatemala jungle & the legendary ruins of Tikal. Our jungle hut was visited by coatimundis by day & monkeys at night.
We climbed Temple IV at sunrise & watched the mists lift to reveal the tops of nearby temples and listened to the jungle explode with the sound of howler monkeys. At night we returned to watch sunset from the top of the Acropolis & had a fly-by of a pair of green parrots about 1m from our heads. The evening bat flight is another story.
Our last stop in Guatemala was 5 days in Lago Atitlan – a gorgeous lake created by the surrounding volcanoes and a number of Mayan villages sprinkling the shorelines. In addition to Spanish, there are over 24 dialects of the Mayan language so the charades continued as we interacted with the locals. There are roads that make their way through the steep mounatins but the main mode of transportation is water taxi. We stayed in a funky town called San Marcos that is linked mainly by narrow walking paths between gardens, stonewalls & tiny guesthouses. Again, we were thrilled to find some outstanding restaurants serving up organic food and live music. Our accommodations were magic – we stayed at a cool art hotel and then moved to another village to stay at the fabled Casa del Mundo, perched high on a cliff overlooking the lake. The water was perfect for swimming and kayaking.
We spent a morning walking to a nearby village known in the area for its extreme poverty. They don´t see many visitors & tourism dollars are non-existent. We donated a soccer ball that we brought from Canada to a local school & were almost attacked in appreciation by a sea of happy boys with toothy white grins. Kids here grow up playing on dirt fields full of rocks and devoid of grass. Slide tackles are sure to bring blood. A reminder that grass stains are a blessing! Balls are often well worn bladders stuffed with filling & wrapped with duct tape & twine. Despite such challenging conditions, the kids are way more skilled at age 8 than many of the adult players I know.
Vicarious shipwreck diving for non-divers
From Guatemala we caught a short hopper flight into Nicaragua and immediately took a shuttle from the capital city of Managua to the smaller colonial city of Granada (the oldest in Central America with established roots going back to 1524). We climbed the nearby Mombacho Volcano heckled by howler monekys along the way. We spent a day swimming in the volcanic cater lake of Laguna Apoyo and sampled mojitos on the lakeside of Lago Nicaragua – the largest lake in Central America and home to the world´s only freshwater sharks. We then travelled south and took a sketchy ferry boat to spend a magical 5 days in Ometepe – an island formed by an land isthmus of two volcanoes in the middle of the lake. Some fellow travellers had recommended accommodation at an organic farm where we ended up with our own cabin in the jungle.
Nightime visitors included a very large tarantula and leafcutter ants that made piles of flower petals just inside our door. By day all the windows on our cabin opened fully to the great outdoors so we could watch the hummingbirds and butterflies. In the evenings, the bats took flight as we watched the sunset on the volcano from our front porch. The owners make their own bread & yogurt, gather fresh eggs from their chickens, roast their own coffee and grow their own fruit & veggies. Breakfast was a 3-course meal every day: whole wheat pancakes with bananas, tropical juice hand-squeezed that morning, pineapple & lime crepes, omeletes & gallo pinto (black beans and rice)- the list goes on. Tourism here is still quite new so infrastructure is a bit raw. We toured the waterfalls, beaches & freshwater swimming holes on bikes that required six tire patches & a brand new tire due to a blow-out on the rough roads.
Beneath the volcanoes the farmers grow coffee, bananas & tobacco. On the roadsides Brahman cows graze with their floppy ears, horses freely roam the beach and the pigs and chicken mingle with the monkeys and parrots. Truly a wild landscape.
After our fairy tale stay in Ometepe, we made our way to San Juan Del Sur, a legendary surf spot that was put on the map by the movie Endless Summer. We have spent our last few days enjoying the beaches around town, playing in the surf and eating fish tacos & lobster. We are almost at the two month mark and are soon headed to Costa Rica to continue our forays into the jungle & on the beach. The adventure continues!