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Guatemala

Polaroid of the week: San Marcos Dock at Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

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Located in the Central Highlands of Guatemala is the beautiful Lake Atitlán. At 320m, Lake Atitlán, formed by the collapse of a volcano cone, is the deepest lake in Central America. The lake is surrounded by mountains and three volcanoes, and several villages  dot its shores. The villages are inhabited by Maya, mainly Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel, who still dress in their traditional costumes and share their villages with the tourists who come for the stunning scenery and atmosphere of the lake.

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Reflections: 200 Days on the Road

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It is amazing how much life you can squeeze into 100 days. It seems like forever ago that we wrote our first 100 days on the road post from Mazunte, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Between then and where we are now, in San Salvador, we have visited four countries, explored caves with Mayan skeletons, climbed volcanoes, swam with sharks and sting rays in the Caribbean, lived for a month in a beach front apartment in Playa del Carmen, had two fairly major illnesses, almost got robbed, traveled to places almost completely off the beaten path, met loads of people, worked full time, even took on extra work, blogged more, and we are nearly finished with a globetrottergirls.com website redesign.

In short, during our second 100 days, we have really gotten the hang of long-term travel. Balancing full-time work and full-time travel has gotten much easier, and it no longer feels as though we are ‘squeezing in’ time for the blog, either. Life on the road is certainly more spontaneous than stationary office life, but habits develop and life inevitably takes on a new, but distinct rhythm. What may have initially felt exotic is now second nature – chicken bus trips flinging us faster than roller coaster rides, hopping in and out of tuk tuks, bellying up to market stalls to wolf down street food, and even things like negotiating prices and striking up conversations with complete strangers now come with ease.

While some things have gotten easier, there have been some definite lows: Dengue, Giardia, bed bugs, serving as a mosquito buffet, and the typical bouts of some painful stomach cramps. In addition to interrupted good health, our work/travel pace has also been severely interrupted at times. A trip to Todos Santos and Chichicastenango in Guatemala and a hectic week in El Salvador kept us offline a lot recently, and we have had to make up for a lot of lost time.

During these offline times, it has become clear that the longer you travel and fall in love with exploring, the more you tend to fall off the beaten path, which means invariably means away from quality internet connections. This is fine for the mind-blowing life experiences column, but makes managing priorities a challenge, walking a fine line between staying planted online along the beaten path which ensures a much easier time of balancing work and travel, but strictly following the ‘Gringo Trail’ can be less than fulfilling for the explorers in us, even if it satisfies the worker inside. Our time in Antigua has also come and gone – a milestone of sorts for us. I lived in the colonial ex-capital for two years from 2001-2003, and since we met in 2006, I had constantly told Dani stories and even introduced her to some of the crazy characters from my time there. Finally after four years together and over five months on the road, we arrived in Antigua, staying for two weeks. We worked, I overcame the rest of my Dengue, we ate out (a lot!), and we basically recuperated and prepared for the heavy weeks of constant movement to come. It was amazing to have Dani explore with me not only the town, but this part of my path that may have always just been stories, had we never set off on this trip.

Two weeks was a great amount of time to rest in Antigua, but we spent even more time, an entire month, in a great apartment just two minutes from a nearly deserted section of Caribbean beach in Playa del Carmen. Here we worked intensely full-time, both of us, using the beach as the ultimate lunch break. Thinking back to the days of grabbing a sandwich and running an errand before stuffing ourselves back in the office in London, we appreciated every moment we had on the beach in Playa.

The Playa del Carmen segment of these last 100 days extended the Mexico leg of the trip even longer. After nearly three months, we semi-grudgingly cut off our time in Mexico toward the end of September, forcing ourselves to head on to Belize.

Of course, we ended up loving Belize, and Guatemala and El Salvador, too. During the former Reflections post one hundred days ago, we remarked that people, at least so far, are inherently good. Having now traveled to more countries, cities and smaller villages, our faith in people deepens, even despite an attempted robbery on my bag in a bus from Antigua to Chimaltenango (she razored the side, but didn’t get anything). Our enthusiasm for the people of Mexico (friendliest people on the planet) still stands, but we have been met with kindness, helpfulness and new friendships in each of the places we have visited.

One downside to our trip has been the fact that we eat out. A lot. We are tired of eating out in restaurants, and wish it were easier cook for ourselves. The food usually ranges from edible to delicious, but the waiting, the ordering, the clarifying what it means to be vegetarian (it has chicken, is that okay? No? Well, we have a lovely fish dish you might like to try….nothing with a face, you say?)…these things are time-consuming and complicated. Cooking for ourselves more often would be great, but only comes with our apartment rental and housesitting gigs, as the minority of hostels we stay at offers a guest kitchen.

But listen to us, complaining about the luxury of eating in restaurants, or eating at all. How ridiculous, considering the level of poverty we see as we move southward through Central America. It is not only the poverty, but the sharply defined divide between rich and poor. It is so absurd to see a shoeless man, whose feet are both black from dirt and bloody scamper quickly past an exclusive Nine West luxury shoe boutique in San Salvador to avoid bumping into an elegant middle-aged woman as she steps out of her Lexus SUV to purchase yet another pair of $200 shoes.

Shoes, in fact, have been a sensitive issue with us and we recently bought six pairs of them for six boys in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Some of the boys, on their feet selling goods all day long, wore tattered and too-big hand-me-downs or even only plastic sandals during freezing cold evenings and mornings. If you were to go to Chichi in the next couple of weeks and mention Dani and Jessie the kids of Chichi would probably still know who you are talking about. Rather than buying ourselves anything in the most popular market town in the country, we ended up buying only shoes and nearly 20 kites for about 15 different kids, and had kids chasing us around and in their best English begging, “Shoes por me, miss?”

With each day our awareness of poverty increases, as we see human beings fighting for their lives as a result of the most basic illnesses and it breaks our hearts. Just as heartbreaking for us are the terrible conditions of the thousands of street dogs running rampant through these countries. For any of you who can watch a film with murders without flinching but turn down the volume and cover your eyes when a dog dies in a film – you will understand how we feel here. For every dog treated as one of the family, there are one hundred street dogs treated like rats. People shoosh them away and even throw shoes at them to force them away. All breeds of dog, from tiny Chihuahuas and West Highland Terriers to Rottweilers, Collies and an amazing range of mutts, are bone-thin, starving, constantly scavenging, nose in any heap of garbage to lap up the remaining crumbs. Their skin is often open, bleeding, gouged from dog fights, or worse, the wrath of remorseless teenage boys. We have seen several dogs lying on the side of the road or in a park, breathing shallow sips of air in what are most certainly their last few breaths. In Quiche, near Chichi, I am sure that one of the dogs, had we gone back just an hour later, would most certainly be dead. But who to help first? How to start? This is where we are at now, and each and every day we see another dog, man, kitten, child, woman that we would like to help. And although we considered it, we can’t buy everyone their own pair of shoes or take in all of the stray dogs.

Even though we have recently decided to kick up our travels into a higher gear to make it to South America hopefully by January / February, don’t be surprised if we stop along the way to volunteer, and any recommendations for volunteering with children in Honduras/Nicaragua/Costa Rica/Panama are happily accepted in the comments below.

Lastly, in these last 100 days, as our site has grown and filled with content, we have decided to take globetrottergirls.com to the next level. We need a fresh design to display much more content at once, rather than the straight chronological blogging format. Some kinks and links might still need adjusting, but we would love to hear comments on the new look and feel of globetrottergirls.com. We also finally have a subscription box, so please please please feel free to sign up to receive email updates with new posts as they are published.

We can’t believe how long we have now been on the road and how quickly another set of 100 days has flown by. We have no idea where we will be after our next 100, which, unbelievably will come at the end of February 2011 – stay tuned and follow our journey along the way…

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6 months on the road – Our Travel Expenses

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October 30th marked our 6-month travel anniversary, and while we’re sharing our Travel Tops and Flops and reflection on ‘200 Days on the Road’ on our 200-days travel anniversary on 15 November, the six-month marker seemed the right time to take a look at our expenses so far – including how much we have spent, where the money went, and what our average per day spend has been in each country. Luckily, Dani keeps a very exact expenses sheet calculating our outgoings to the last centavo, with up-to-date exchange rates telling us each day just how much every hotel room, bus ride, and ice cream cone costs in British Pounds (the currency we earn), US Dollars and the local currency.

Please note: Our daily spendings are meant to be used as a guide for future travelers, or as a comparison for those of you currently on the road. However, as we work while we travel, we are not stuck to a fixed budget which we will one day deplete. We might spend a little bit more than the average backpacker, but we are guessing that our expenses are quite average for digital nomads in Latin America.

Expenses in the U.S.

When we left London for Las Vegas on 30 April, we had no idea how expensive the U.S. would be. Even with the strong British Pound lining our pockets, the U.S. was much pricier than we thought.

By far our most expensive country so far, we spent a mind-boggling $8,333.00 /£5,530.60 in those 70 days. Major expenses within this figure include both our flights from London to Las Vegas and L.A. to Mexico, plus an Enterprise rental car which we had for two months. Excluding these numbers, our actual daily spend was $4,628/£3,071.60, or roughly $1,356/£900 per person per month.

Transportation: Our trusty Chevy Aveo rental ran us $1700 / £1,128 (including optional $560 insurance), which averaged out to $28.33 / £18.80 per day. At first glance (and second, and third) it might seem a luxury, but without the car, we could never have explored the South West, or drive the classic Pacific Coast Highway from L.A. to San Francisco as well as from San Diego to Tucson, making this a totally necessary expense. We drove 5200 miles, and of course the cost of gas and parking fees also added up to be quite expensive.

Accommodation: During the times we were not reviewing hotels or doing long-term housesits, we paid a higher price for accommodation than we originally expected, as many places that we visited did not have hostels. Dusty roadside motels were cheap ($29 – $39 / £18 – 25), while city center digs ran us upwards of $69. We paid a ridiculous $119 for a tent cabin (!) in Big Sur, and a last minute Holiday Inn Express was $109 in the three-hotel, no-vacancy town of Chinle where we holed up for the night during our visit to Canyon de Chelly in northern Arizona.

Average accommodation per night based on two sharing: $45/£29.

Tip: Accommodation costs might be higher in the US than in Latin America, but there are also incredible deals to be found online which are much harder to come by in the less deal-savvy neighbors to the south. Websites such as booking.com or lastminute.com allowed us to score excellent rates on hotels than just showing up ever did. On a few rare occasions we were able to negotiate a better rate on site.

Food: The occasional treat aside, our restaurant choices were of the roadside variety, cheap diners, fast food and the like. The average meal at a cheap diner cost around $25 for both of us. While house-sitting we were able to shop at the grocery store, spending an average of $100 per week during our two house sits.

Regardless of the relatively high costs of exploring the southwestern United States, we managed to do both Los Angeles and San Francisco on a shoestring and kept our spending lower by including house-sits and visiting friends.

Average per day per person: $45/£30 (including car).

Mexico

Our spending dropped significantly once we crossed the border into Mexico – in total we spent $3622.26/£2367.78 in 88 days.

Accommodation: In Mexico, we stayed in mix of hostels and budget hotels. The cheapest accommodation cost $12/£8 for both of us at one of our favorite places– La Candelaria in Valladolid. The most expensive room at Posada Ziga in Mazunte was $35 /£23.

Average accommodation per night based on two sharing: $21/£15.

Food: Our meals in Mexico cost around $12/£8 for dinner for two, and breakfast for about $10.50/£6.90 for two people. As anyone who reads us often will know, however, inexpensive (and delicious!) street food was our main meal of choice and we rarely ate in restaurants.

Culture: Mexico is teeming with cultural options and we visited everything from museums to galleries to both Maya and Aztec ruins. The ruins all have a set price of 51 Pesos, or $3.95/£2.55 per person, with one exception: Chichen Itza, which costs around $14/£9 per person.

Transportation: Long haul bus travel in Mexico is much nicer, but also much more expensive than in Central America. You travel in relative style, but you pay for it. The most expensive overnight bus rides tend to cost around $31/£21 per person. The cheapest long-haul trips cost us each $8.50/£5. On average we paid $10/ £6.70 per person.

Average total cost in Mexico per person per day: $20.58/£13.45

Belize

We already knew through the grapevine that Belize was going to be more expensive than the rest of Central America (Lonely Planet suggests US$40 – $60 per day), but we were still surprised that costs were as high as they are for such a sparsely populated and economically struggling country like Belize (read our tips for Belize on a shoestring here).

Accommodation: We stayed in fairly basic accommodation in Belize, no bells or whistles, but always private rooms.

The average cost was US$22.50/£14.20 for a double en-suite room.

Transportation: This is one low cost area for travelers in Belize. Chicken buses, which appear to be held together by masking tape and a lot of luck, cost next to nothing for long distance travel in Belize. A two hour bus ride from Belize City to San Ignacio, nearly completely cross country, costs only $3.50/£2.21 per person. Speed boats between the Cayes in the Caribbean costs about $10/£6.32 to go between them, and golf cart rental on Ambergris Caye costs around $35/£22.10 per day.

Food: Meals in a restaurant both on the Cayes and in San Ignacio cost around $20/£12.60 for two, including a beer or two here and there. Belize is not that big on street food, so sitting down and ordering is a must for your main meals of the day.

Adventure: We took advantage many of the adventurous activities available to visitors in Belize. Snorkeling with Harry and Steve (recommended, just ask around) on Caye Caulker cost US$40/£25.25 each for a full day, or US$20/£12.63. The ATM cave tour was $65 each (discounted). All of our fun over 11 days totals $348/£200.

Average Cost Per Person Per Day: $54/£34.10

Guatemala

Crossing the border into Guatemala after our expensive stay in Belize felt good, and our expenses have been much less here.

Accommodation: On average, we spend $18.43/£11.65 per night for a double room including breakfast. Dorms are cheaper for single travelers, but for anyone traveling with a partner, private rooms only run about Q10 or $1.25 more.

Transportation: Take a chicken bus, and this will be your cheapest expense in Guatemala. Long-distance bus travel by chicken bus costs around $4.00/£2.55 per person – the more comfortable 1st and 2nd class coaches are considerably more expensive – the overnight bus we took from Flores to Antigua was $29.50/£19.50 per person.

Food: You can eat like a king in Guatemala and easily stay on budget. A decent meal for two in a restaurant costs around $10/£6.60, though in Antigua, depending on the restaurant, this average can more than double.

Tikal: The highest expense in Guatemala was our trip to Tikal, which was around $66/£42.00 for both of us. This does not include accommodation in Flores, but does include the shuttle service to Tikal, the guide and entry fees.

On average, we have been spending $27.50/£17.58 per person per day, which might seem a bit high to some, but includes pricey medication for Dengue and Giardia, neither of which was cheap.

Total Budget at 6 months

In total, we spent around US$14,720/£9,646 for the two of us in 6 months, which includes all flights and public transportation, and more than two months in the U.S. We hope our next budget post in 6 months will be much less, with no major flights, hopefully a few more house-sits, and lower expenses in South America than we had for the first 70 days in the United States.

Total cost per person for 6 months: US$7,360/£4,823.00

We showed you ours… now you show us yours! We would love to hear about your budgets and expenses in the comments below to see how our spending compares with that of backpackers and digital nomads. If you have tips on great deals, cheap but quality accommodation in the US, Mexico, Central America or South America, or other ways to save money, please do share as well!

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Polaroid of the week: Kite crazy in Chichicastenango

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On 2 November or Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), there are big kite festivals all over Guatemala. We were lucky to take part in a kite festival in Chichicastenango where the kids are kite crazy. The cemetery on the hill is the main spot where young and old gather and let their kites fly.

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Polaroid of the week: Mayan family in Todos Santos Cuchumatán

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Todos Santos Cuchumatan is a village in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, and the Mam Mayans make up by far the largest part of its population. Todos Santos is one of the very few places in Guatemala where not only the women, but also the men still wear the colorful traditional clothing. The red-and-white striped trousers and the straw hats with the blue ribbon are the distinctive brand mark of the Todos Santeros.

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Polaroid of the week: La Concepcion in Antigua, Guatemala

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Antigua, the former capital of Guatemala, has frequently been hit by earthquakes, but especially the earthquake in 1773 left severe damages, and up to today, dozens of ruins of churches and convents can be seen throughout the city – the Convent La Concepcion is only one of many and you can spend all day touring the ruins in Antigua and imagining what life was like in this magical colonial city.

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Polaroid of the week: Miguel de San Miguel

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We had just gotten to Guatemala and stayed in the city of Flores for a couple of days, which is actually a beautiful island in Lake Peten Itza. One day, as we sat on the dock just soaking up the sun, an Guatemalan ‘anciano’ (or really old man) came over and started to chat with us. He introduced himself as ‘Miguel de San Miguel’, Miguel from San Miguel, a little village on the other side of the lake.

We learned that Miguel was 85 years old and had lived his entire life at the lake, working most of his life extracting gum from the gum trees in the surrounding jungles. Miguel de San Miguel won us over with his charm, and we ended up spending the entire afternoon with him. He offered to take us out on the lake with his little boat, where he took us on a guided tour of ‘Petencito’, a little island in the middle of the lake which is home to a zoo.

He happily shared his knowledge about flora and fauna, chatted about how Flores has changed over the last 50 years, and he also proudly (and out of of nowhere) told us that he weighed only 80 lbs – but he was in top shape for his age. If you pass through Flores, look out for Miguel’s turquoise boat at the pier and make sure to say Hello.

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