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Tuesday, 15 May 2012



German architectural influence
Shopping Xela style

Following the advise of some Kiwis we headed to a small town of Xela for a spot of volcano climbing and general exploring. Headed up into the mountains for a relaxing in some local hot springs. Beautiful setting surrounded by jungle and mist. One huge pool was totally empty but we soon realised why as we attempted to get in, the water was so hot it actually burned. Unfortunately the other pools were filled with millions of floaters, I can only assume the skin of hundreds of other swimmers. We met a lovely American who took us to a deserted pool in the middle of the jungle. Nasty shock though as we encountered a very strange very naked Guatemalan man who reminded us of Golem. Beautiful pools though and totally worth dealing with naked gollum staring at us the whole time.

Ben, not naked Gollum
Set off for a two day volcano hike to sleep on the side of one of the worlds most dangerous volcanos in the world; Santigutito. Hard trek down thick overgrown jungle, down a huge dried up waterfall, then up steep rocky  slopes that went on and on.
Gemma dissapearing into the jungle
A tight fit!

Remarkably clean at this stage

Apparently the volcano we were climbing was extinct (not sure 35 years counts as extinct!!) but was steaming ominously from countless vents. The mist set in as we kept climbing and eventually we reached the plateau where we spent the night and heard the 1st of many rumbles as Santiguito flexed it's vocal cords.

Erruptions from a safe distance
Waiting at a not so safe distance

The ground shook and the noise was incredibly loud. As we went for an explore the mist lifted and we saw our volcano so much closer than we had imagined it would be. Our 'camp site' was littered in volcanic boulders thrown from previous Santiaguito explosions which made for an unnervinging night sleep. We were treated to explosions every 40-60 minutes until we left the next day.

At night the spectical became even more impressive. The destructive power of the volcano, combined with the enhanced visuals of night time, became abundantly clear. The whole top section of the mountain appeared to be ripped to pieces by the most incredible explosion filling the night sky with intense red lava. It was impossible to take our eyes off the volcano until the mist came in to cover it again. In the morning we saw eruptions that sent ash and rocks hundreds of meters into the sky, fortunately not in our direction. It was such an amazing experience, enhanced by a satisfyingly difficult climb, and we arrived back in Xela two days later absolutely covered from head to toe in volcanic ash but with huge grins and many memories (plus a rather broken camera!).

Good morning Santiaguito!

Santiaguito acknowledging our departure
With all the excitement of Xela behind us we moved on to the somewhat more relaxed environment of Antigua, which is easily Guatemala's prettiest town. We spent the next four days enjoying the beautiful architecture and wonderful markets. The laid back nature of the town made it very easy to relax and wyle away the time.

Our private rooftop terrace

Shopping for dinner
One of 3 volcanos surrounding Antigua
Beautiful Antigua
Best transport of the 9 hour ride

Semuc Champey from the top

 The next port of call was Senuc Champey, a fairly isolated village deep in the Guatemalan jungle. Being crammed into the back of a minibus with as many westerners as possible for 9 hours meant we made some friends pretty quickly. The roads turned into tracks and we got perilously close to its edges that fell off into deep raveens. The level of safety seemed similar to that of Nepal even if the drops weren't quite as high. We were all transferred to the back of a truck for the final stretch and eventually arrived a little battered and bruised but alive. The hostel was amazing, surrounded by hills jungle wildlife including numerous banana spiders. We grabbed a private hut with an awesome view and set about making the most of the limited electricity. We were up early the next day for a hike up one of the hills which overlooked another impressive set of waterfalls. Having drenched our clothes in sweat we trekked down to take a dip in the river and try out some slides and jumps and finally some tubing.
Our jungle retreat
View of Senuc Champey

This was all very cool, especially considering our surroundings, but fell short of our next activity which involved water caving with only a candle each for light. It definitely made swimming a little more difficult! One of the benefits of being in a country without any health and safety rules is you get to do much more interesting things. We climbed waterfalls (the candle definitely went out at this point!), squeezed through tiny gaps that dropped into icey pools, climbed rickety wooden ladders, swam in near pitch darkness and stubbed many toes! The sight of daylight was definitely a relief with most people's candles rendered useless or burnt away, but a brilliant experience none the less. The only down side to the day was having our room key locked behind a boarded up bar forcing us to sleep in a cockroach infested dormitory. 
Enjoying the last of the electricity
 Although some of group headed back to Antigua most of use carried on to Flores to go and see the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Flores was very chilled out (very much a trend in Guatemala) and we took the opportunity to address a very British past time and drink heavily. This of course seemed like a great idea at the time but very much less so at 4am the next morning when we all had to get up to leave for Tikal.
Happy to have survived caving with candles

Ruins of Tekal poking out of the jungle
 There's nothing like trekking through Mayan ruins to dissolve a hangover! Our final day in Flores was spent exploring the main land and some more chilling out before heading off the the Caribean islands off the coast of Belize for some more...chilling out!

Hola Mexico

Arrived into a very warm Cancun which was much appreciated after the cool and wet weather in San Fran. Unfortunately Ben´s bag did not arrive with us. He was left with hiking boots, thick jeans and a thick jumper, perfect for 35 degree heat. We settled into Mexico with great street food and a wander about.

Church on the square in Valladolid

We met some great French girls and travelled with them to Valladolid. Spent the next few days exploring beautiful old Mexican towns and swimming/jumping into amazing underground sinkholes called cenotes. The legends of cenote monsters were fortunately unfounded and we survived.

Cenote number 1

Onwards to Merida were we met a lovely group who would be our travel buddies for the next week. Plenty of cold cervezas (beer) and exploring the local area.

Travel Buddies

Took a trip on an abandoned railway on carts pulled by horses, Down old rickety ladders into darkness to swim in more cenotes. Amazing day. In an attempt to get over my fear of falling I took the plunge quite literally, still not ready for a bungy though. Merida is such a beautiful city and were shown round by a local who took us to a traditional salsa club, having done a lesson that evening we were keen to try out some steps, Hummmmmm more difficult than it looks.

Entrance to cenote!

Worth the dodgy climb!

Chichen Itza for a day trip, very impressive but slightly ruined by the fact everything is roped off now as an American sued the Mexican tourist board as she fell off and hurt herself, doesn't take a genius to realise that climbing acient crumbling ruins is not exactly safe.

Chichen Itza

 Palenque was next, off to amazing Mayan ruins enveloped in the jungle. Excellent tour guide who let us sample live termites that tasted like peanuts, satisfyingly crunchy!! Our favourite Mayan ruins so far. Chilled out in the jungle in the middle of no where, enjoying listening to the wildlife and experiencing the spiders,  lizards and glow worms up close and personal.

Kings Temple

Mother´s Temple

Agua Azul was stunning, sulphur in the water has petrefied the rock so you can see endless waterfalls. Beautiful for swimming and chilling out.

View from the lower section of Aqua Azul

Up into the mountains of San Christobel, where we took a very fast trip through canyon. The views were amazing but we manage to leave the battery for the camera charging back at the hostel! iPhone photos don't quite do the area justice. We also took a cultural tour through some rural villages and this time we had the camera complete with battery! Unfortunately the locals are a little against photography and in some cases it's actually against the law. If you take a photo inside the church you will go straight to prison (no joke!). We were fortunate enough to take the tour on a festival day and witnessed the rather strange act of chicken sacrifice and coke belching used to dispel evil spirits. Beautiful church filled with fresh pine needles and hundreds of candles.

Chicken´s Beware!

Not so camera shy (for a fee!)

We took another trip to a Mayan medicine museum where gem learnt some new midwifery techniques involving axes, chickens and eggs. Not sure whether it'll catch on!

Disney Land and San Fransisco

Disney Land and San Francisco

Outside It´s A Small World - Disney`s Weirdest Ride!

Gemma and the fairy castle
Arrived in LA and hopped on a bus straight to Anaheim (the home  of Disney Land), thanks to Caz we had free passes and were both very excited. Managed a full 14 hours between the two parks we had access to. Brilliant day  hardly queued at all, the rides were all amazing (could give its a small world a miss, bit weird) and managed to go on a horrible dropping lift ride (despite my terror), poor Ben did have to put up with very sweaty hands though. Going to have to be more careful what I agree to after a couple of ciders.

Mini´s dirty twin sister!

 Had our photo taken with Mini Mouse, or her slightly dirty twin sister, got a distinct pat on the bottom as we left!!  Met a very nice security guard who put us in VIP seats for the evening fire works and light display, very impressed.

Gemma´s perfect car
Step aside Mickey

Breakfast American Style!!!
Up at the crack of dawn to get free hotel breakfast (donuts and muffins!!, only in America) and start our trip to San Fransisco to see one of Bens old friends. Met the rudest bus driver who basically told everyone on the tanoy to sit down, shut up don't ask any questions or we would be escorted off the bus, nice!!

San Franciso´s state of the art transportation
Steep hills and Alcatraz

 Arrived in San Fran and took a rather hilly lengthy walk to Nicoles apartment. Spent the next 3 days exploring, eating amazing food and learning lots about baseball (Nicole is an avid fan of the Giants).

A very American night out!
Due to some unfortunate planning we left San Francisco on opening day so missed out on actually seeing a baseball game but we're going to watch the Yankees while in New York instead.
God Bless America!!!!!!!!!!
The Giants Newest Fan - Bday present from Nicole

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Cook Islands

Cook islands
View from our hostel
Our kayak friend

Things could be worse!

Off to Rarotonga, a tiny island (35km circumference ) in the middle of the pacific for a week of chill out. Arrived to a very good start as our room had been up graded to an apartment.  Hostel is right on the beach and surrounded by tiny islets you can swim to. Sea and beach are perfect. Lots of relaxing and enjoying the sunshine (yes we finally went somewhere the bad weather didn't follow).

Our crazy busy beach

 Woke up on my birthday and ben surprised me with my amazing card with birthday messages from lots of friends and family. Really made my day and made it feel like a proper birthday. Went out for breakfast at the 5star hotel up the beach, think they felt a bit sorry for us as we turned up with rucksacks and said we could use all the facilities for the rest of the day. Totally unused to this type of luxury, but we took full advantage and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Birthday Dinner
Enjoying Fancy Pool
Gemma´s Bday Card

Had been out with other back packers earlier in the week for drinking and crazy golf. My team won the 1st prize (may have cheated a little...or a lot!) and got free vouchers to play again . Ben upset he had lost to me was determined to prove his golfing prowess (he may or not not have won). Spent the evening in a tiny restaurant next to the sea waiting for our flight to LA. We were given business class passes for the lounge and spoilt by two amazing flight attendants on the plane. Going to celebrate properly with Ben in New York, can't wait. 
Subtle Celebrations
Watch Out Tiger Woods Gemma´s Coming