Top travel moments
Snorkeling on Caye Caulker, Belize
Sitting on a boat, sailing through the Caribbean on a Tuesday afternoon drinking buckets of rum punch after an incredible day of snorkeling with nurse sharks, barracudas, turtles and sting rays along the world’s second largest reef, the Mesoamerican Reef off the coast of Belize and realizing how truly satisfying it is to longer work in an office.
Spending a month in a beachfront apartment in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
We rented an apartment in Playa for one month in order to focus on our freelance projects – although we worked the entire time it was nice to have a ‘home’ again for 4 weeks and not have\to pack our backpacks every other day. Nothing can beat relaxing on Playa’s beautiful beach after a hard day’s work, or on your lunch break!
Driving a golf cart around Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
We really disliked Cancun, but just a ferry ride away from the Yucatan’s biggest city is what must be Mexico’s coolest island. Walk from the beach 40 meters straight out into crystal clear knee deep Caribbean water, and when you are done, hop on your golf cart and head to your next chill out spot. Everyone on Isla Mujeres drives golf carts, and it’s wicked, if not bizarre, to put the pedal to the metal and drive the carts on real roads.
Todos Santos, Guatemala
Getting off the bus in Todos Santos, Guatemala and feeling like we were well and truly off the beaten path as both men and women in full traditional Mayan gear gossiped about us in the Mayan language of Quiche, staring and gawking at the gringas.
Kite-flying with the kids of Chichicastenango, Guatemala
We were lucky enough to be in Chichicastenango for ‘Todos Santos’ (All Saints Day) on 1 November, which is marked by the beautiful tradition of kite-flying, often in the town cemetery to remember the dead. While in Chichi we slowly gathered a group of local boys who started off following us asking us for shoes and toys, but eventually became our guides, showing off their town and especially the colorful cemetery on a hill. All of the boys were very excited about the kite festival, but couldn’t afford their own kites. So we bought them each one and beamed as we watched them proudly showing off their kite-flying skills – by far one of our best days in Guatemala. Did we mention that that was just after seeing a Mayan ceremony which included a live rooster sacrifice?
Worst travel moments
Crossing the border with Dengue Fever
In a word, and go ahead and quote me on this – Dengue sucks. In many words, I (Jess) had no idea I had dengue, associating my initial symptoms of fatigue and headache with our adventurous ATM tour the day before. The day we crossed the border from Belize to Guatemala, my legs were so sore I could barely walk, my fever was out of control, and not even the strongest Paracetomol (800mg tablets) could keep my headache at bay. But still, the symptoms worsened, and I attributed the fever, fatigue, insane soreness, and the feeling that each of my eyes was placed in a vice to the flu, nothing more, and even woke up at 4am for our sunrise tour of Tikal. I was trying not to be a ‘baby’ suffering from the flu, but when the pharmacist suspected Malaria or Dengue, and the lab confirmed the latter, suddenly all the pain made much more sense. In total Dengue knocked me down for two weeks. After the fever broke, and the extreme itchiness subsided, the fatigue and indifference began – I didn’t care about much, just wanted to sleep and hang out, nothing more. A few positives came out of the fever – Dani and I spent more time getting to know Flores and the beautiful Peten Itza lake, and after thinking I was a wimpy sickie, I realised that I was one tough cookie with Dengue – crossing the border (on foot, and buses and minivans and tuktuks, oh my) and schlepping my way through a lot of climbing at the Tikal ruins.
Every bus ride in Guatemala
Our first bus ride from Flores to Guatemala City was on an overnight bus with a driver from hell who shaved a good two hours off the ride. His goal appeared to be to beat the bus that left an hour before us. We beat that bus by an hour and were happy to have survived what must have been one of the bumpiest bus rides ever.
Another horrible ride was the chicken bus from Cuatro Caminos to Huehuetenango when we were thrown off the bench every time the bus went around a curve – and there were a lot of them! We were sore the next day from holding on with all our might. Even worse was the ride from Huehuetenango to Todos Santos – only 40 kilometers, but it takes nearly 3 hours: the oldest chicken buses you can imagine have to cross one of the highest mountain passes in the country and at some point, the paved road stops and you continue the trip on a dirt road. Fortunately, Todos Santos was more than worth the stress.
Top travel mishaps
On a crowded chicken bus from Antigua to Chimaltenango Jess’ bag was sliced open by the lady who sat next to her. We are usually very careful with our bags but in a bus where they squeeze three grown-ups on a seat that was made for two school kids, it is actually not that easy – fortunately Jess realized what was going on before the woman could get anything. The lady suddenly had a very important phone call and got off at the next stop, before we said anything to her.
Other than that, we were pretty lucky again, except for the Dengue and Dani’s bout of Giardia.
Top food moments
Dani’s food discovery may have made her entire year: Huevos Motulenos are a Mexican dish that is typical on the Yucatan peninsula. It is a breakfast dish consisting of fried eggs on tortillas, with black beans, fried plantains and salsa, often also peas (and for meat eaters ham).
Jess’ top food moment was experimenting in the kitchen in our Playa del Carmen apartment – preparing our own versions of the amazing street food recipes we had sampled throughout Mexico.
Buying the still warm freshly baked Banana bread on Caye Caulker when they come around and sell it to from their baskets is pure heaven.
Discovering and devouring delicious Pupusas in El Salvador – they are the national dish, and can be found at any street food vendor, most of the restaurants and ‘Pupuserias’ – entire restaurants dedicated to just one thing: Pupusas! Essentially a filled tortilla, they come filled with cheese and beans, just cheese, or pork and cheese – in which case they are called ‘Pupusas Revueltas’. All are served up with cabbage and tomato salsa.
Our top stop in the last 100 days
Of all the stops in all the towns, Antigua takes the cake as our favorite stop in the last 100 days of travel. Antigua is an international, forward-thinking artistically minded UNESCO protected city with some of the most delicious restaurants and top quality bars in the country, not to mention over 70 Spanish schools, countless art galleries, poetry readings,film and live music nights. After months on the road, Antigua is the place to rest up, clean up, grab a bagel or hell, even some fondue and wine, maybe learn some Spanish or volunteer with kids, animals or in health care, or just hang out and meet people for days at a time, all while connected to excellent wi-fi internet like nowhere else in the country.
Maybe we are biased, since I (Jess) lived there for two years back a few years ago, but even now, seeing it with new eyes and through Dani’s eyes as well, Antigua was easily the most enjoyable of all our stops. If you took away all the good food, and art and kicked out all the gringos, the stunning colonial architecture and romantic ruins surrounded by three immense and (two) still erupting volcanoes would still make Antigua a magical place to visit. We stayed for two weeks in Antigua at the Casa Amarilla, or Yellow House, by far the cleanest, most relaxing and best value for money (amazing free breakfast) of all the hostels in Antigua.
Other favorite stops
We were going to use Flores ‘only’ as a base for our Tikal visit, but this tiny island in Lake Peten Itza, with its tiny alleys and red-roofed houses, charmed us so much that we stayed longer and enjoyed a nice couple of days there, taking boat rides on the lake, meeting Miguel, swimming and watching the beautiful sunsets.
Todos Santos is probably one of the most ‘Guatemalan’ places in all of Guatemala: a small town tucked into a valley in the Cuchumatan mountains, where the locals still wear the traditional colorful clothes they have been wearing for centuries, hand woven by women on their front stoops. We saw a total of five other foreigners over three days and we hope the long, bumpy bus ride to get there continues to discourage a mass influx of tourism.
Least favorite place
Transport towns: These towns essentially exist solely as a transport hub, and are bigger and grosser because of it. The town of Palenque (not to be confused with the beautiful nearby ruins) is a run town transport hub in Mexico that we definitely didn’t like (although Dani did discover Huevos Motulenos there), and Huehuetenango, or Huehue (wayway) in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, has absolutely nothing special to offer the visitor, serving mainly as the most logical overnight rest stop for travelers crossing the border from Mexico, and for those heading to Todos Santos.
Merida, in Mexico, was not one of our absolute least favs, but it was our most disappointing city. Merida had been described as a ‘magical’ colonial city but if you ask us, it could use a slap of paint and two slaps in the face – it’s a bit shabby and run down and could do much more to attract visitors. The Merida trip wasn’t a total bust, however, as we went on our amazing cenote tour from there, exploring several of these ‘underwater sinkholes’ in a horse-drawn carriage.
Top travel recommendations
Take the Chicken Buses in Guatemala
Yes, we did mention that the rides were some of our worst moments, with stomach-flipping turns and hours of hanging on for dear life, but we still highly recommend taking chicken buses everywhere in Guatemala. It’s easy to get caught up in the gringo-trap of taking shuttles, which are easier and can be more efficient at times. However, chicken buses are cheaper, way faster, a wide-variety of homemade foods (and drinks) are brought right onto the bus for you to choose from, and you could not be more ‘immersed’ (literally) in true Guatemalan culture than you are on a chicken bus. In terms of money-saving – we took a second class bus from Tikal to Guatemala City for Q240, or $30, each. No chicken bus ride after that cost us more than Q50, or $6.25, over very long distances. Shuttles can cost between $10-20.
Don’t believe the beach hype in El Salvador
Along the ‘gringo trail’ there is much hype right now about the beaches of El Salvador, one of the world’s top surf spots. If you know your way around a board, or want to learn how to surf, then definitely hit up El Tunco, El Zonte, El Sunzal and maybe La Libertad. El Tunco has the cheapest surf lessons and great waves. If you don’t surf, these beaches can offer you nothing more than a giant pile of rocks and nowhere to lay out. The Costa del Sol, on the other hand, is rumoured to have long spacious sandy beaches. The sandy rumour is true, but the beaches are not well maintained and hotels are miles apart, meaning if you don’t like your first choice and don’t have a car, it’s a mile walk with your backpack to the next affordable hotel – affordable meaning $30 a night at least, but probably much, much more. The accommodation options are limited to expensive all-inclusive hotels which cater to day-trippers from the capital rather than overnighters, and the hotels are run-down, shabby shadows of a long gone glorious pre-war past. You want beach? Go to Costa Rica or to Playa del Carmen in Mexico. For a true El Salvadorian experience, head to the quaint Alegria, inspiring Suchitoto or foodie-favorite La Ruta de las Flores.
Don’t just stay here as a base for your Tikal trip – stay for a couple of days and spend time on the Lake Peten Itza – there is even a zoo in the middle of the lake and unlike the more famous Lake Atitlan, Peten Itza is clean and perfect for swimming.
If you want to choose one spot on the islands in Belize, choose Caye Caulker every time! Go snorkeling and ask for Harry and Steve to take you. Their company is called BlackHawk Sailing.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
When visiting the Yucatan, Isla Mujeres makes a great day trip, but you can also stay overnight in one of the islands many hotels. The island is just a short boat ride off the coast of Cancun but in contrast to Cancun, there are no skyscraper hotels and overpriced restaurants. Instead you will find empty beaches (at least in low season), colorful houses, cheap restaurants with great Mexican food and excellent beach bars.
Tip: The ‘local’ ferries that leave from Puerto Juarez (just north of Cancun) are much cheaper than the ‘tourist’ ferries that leave directly from Cancun and they go to exactly the same place on the island.
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Our Tops and Flops of 100 days of travel: Las Vegas, California, Arizona, Mexico