This trip felt like a long time coming! Probably because I started packing in January even though I wasn’t leaving until March. Not just packing, but attempting to reduce my collection of belongings into something a lot more manageable. My last ten days in NZ after quitting my job were intense; I took my fully-loaded car on a trip down the north island, visiting friends and family in Napier, Palmerston North and Wellington, enjoying the last of the NZ summer sun I will have for awhile. I flew to Nelson to see family, and took the bus to Blenheim to visit my Grandparents (pictured). I am very fortunate to have such wonderful family to visit! The last few days were hideously hectic; running around making sure I had a Power of Attorney, written a will, sold my car, and trying to whittle down my belongings even more so to reach 23kg – I failed miserably at this last task. I felt like I was holding my breath, right up until I was sitting on the plane, stretching my legs out and preparing for the strenuous task of watching back-to-back movies.
After not seeing each other for eight months (Alex moved to London a bit earlier than I did) we were to be reunited in Dallas Airport, of all places. After 25 hours of airports and flying, I made sure I was as fresh looking as possible by combing my hair and borrowing some perfume from the Duty Free store. I waited at the gate of our connecting flight not knowing when he would turn up, but all nerves were quashed once he snuck up behind me and gave me the biggest hug ever. We were like two friends who had never been apart.
We arrived at our sterilised, Americanised resort in the very late hours of the evening, so we had no choice but to stay in our room and get room service. That pizza was not to be the only unhealthy meal option we would have over the next couple of weeks. Despite the fact that we signed up for the resort gym the very next day (we even joined in for a couple of seconds of aquarobics in the pool) the next few days (okay, weeks) were rather un-primal. An attempted shop at the local Walmart in Playa-del-Carmen resulted in some fresh fruit and nuts, but also sugar-laden probiotic yoghurt, chips and other non-perishables. It didn’t help that we had no refrigerator or cooking facilities in our room. Not even an electric jug!
Neither of us are any good at sitting in a resort for days on end, so we organised several days out. The first was to the very impressive Chichen Itza, a large pre-Colombian city built by the Mayans. The Maya used numbers and astronomic calculations that could make our heads spin, and the structure and shadows of their buildings immortalised the important equinoxes. The equinox is when both day and night measure the exact same amount of time on that day and they are believed to be significant due to agricultural rites. The streets were lined with local vendors trying to draw you in; we soon learnt to not make eye-contact with anyone but also learnt to haggle with them. Although often there was not much room to haggle with “come, come, everything practically free today” being a common cry.
On the trip home we stopped by a cenote – a deep natural pit or sinkhole that is unique to Mexico – for a refreshing swim. Boy was it nice, after walking around in the humid heat at Chichen Itza. We had to climb down about 30m into the sink hole before diving into the crisp water, full of vines and little fish and tourists.
Our next day trip was to Xplor, a relatively new Adventure Park. It was certainly well organised and very nicely presented, but the lines to the four different attractions were very long. Lucky I am such good company. We swam and rafted through underwater caverns, drove an amphibious vehicle, and zip lined over the jungle which housed, much to our audible surprise, both a jaguar and a crocodile. The impressive all-inclusive buffet provided plenty of sustenance so we could last all day.
Our third and final day of escapades involved another ‘theme park’, Xel Ha. It is a natural aquarium where you can go snorkelling, explore natural caves, walk above the forest for bird spotting, float down the river in tubes and … swim with the dolphins!! Alex knew I had always wanted to so he organised it as a surprise for me. It was incredible, having the dolphins swim and play with us, and of course, pose for their photos with us.
The buffet at Xel Ha was the best one so far, the selection of food was unbelievable! They also had all-you-can drink cocktails, although I’m sure they had hardly any alcohol in them. It was a great day out, made even better by the wildlife. I’m very glad we chose to take a local bus for $2US instead of the taxi for $60US to get there. We even got to sit next to a monkey!
Our final day in the resort was spent the way you’re meant to – lazing by the pool, drinking cocktails, reading books. We splurged at the Italian restaurant for our final meal, and had a dance to one of the local bands. Then re-packed our bags with half my stuff in Alex’s pack, and my suitcase still overweight.
The guided tour – Mexico
On our way to Cancun, our taxi driver got pulled over for speeding. We spent about 20 minutes waiting in the taxi while they sorted things out. Then he couldn’t find our hotel in Cancun so after driving around for awhile we insisted he drop us off at McDonalds to use their free Wi-Fi. The hotel was just a couple of blocks away so we walked there. We met our tour guide, who happens to be a kiwi girl from the same town as Alex in NZ! Small world. On her recommendation, we got a ferry out to Isla Mujeres, a gorgeous yet horridly overpriced island. We had a swim, and read on the beach for a while, then had nachos and beer before we left the island. Later that evening we met the rest of our friendly tour group, and all went out for dinner. I had ‘Mayan Chicken’ which could have been primal if you took out the beans. And the beer.
The next day we travelled with our tour group by bus to Playa del Carmen, from which Alex and I travelled down to Tulum, a smaller Mayan ruin on the edge of the Caribbean sea. The Mayans certainly picked a gorgeous spot for the important port city, and since the day was incredibly hot, we took the opportunity for a swim. There was a bit of surf up so we played in the waves for over an hour.
The Guided Tour – Belize
The next day was painfully long; an early start, five hours in the bus, then a couple of hours in a boat, then far too many minutes waiting for the Belize customs guy to come out of the pub before we finally arrived in Caye Caulker, Belize. A very laid back island with a Caribbean feel to it, and seemingly the highest ratio of laundromats to people I’ve ever seen. It was nice to get real food in us, as the entire day had been nuts, chips, chocolate and Walmart Bakery goods. There’s a reason Walmart isn’t famous for its baking. I had a delicious meal of Coconut Caribbean Chicken which I shall endeavour to replicate soon.
Those who know me know that although I love swimming, I have an almost paralysing fear of many sea creatures, stingrays in particular. So it was with some trepidation that I found myself heading down for an entire day’s worth of snorkelling the next day. We had three stops ahead of us, with one being aptly named as ‘Shark Ray Alley’. The first stop, part of the famous Belize Barrier reef, a beautiful and seemingly harmless coral garden, gave me another thing to fear after our local guide described the feeling of touching fire coral. Thanks. I did get in the water with the sharks and stingrays, despite Alex breaking his promise that he would stay with me at all times. I even touched a shark, albeit while our guide was giving it a big hug. I swam over the rays, watching them play with the sharks, and cheekily try and grab food off our guide. They almost reminded me of little puppies. But soon my nerves had had enough and I promptly got out. Our final stop, Hol Chan Marine Reserve was a deep channel, where we were snorkelling over the top of divers! The water was so clear. We saw a Moray eel come out of its cave for a bit of food, and swam with some turtles. Quite a spectacular experience.
San Ignacio was our next stop, another awful day of travelling. This time in a local chicken bus. The hotel we stayed at was gorgeous, with an on-site restaurant that served delicious, generous and cheap meals. Most people come to San Ignacio to explore Mayan caves, but we found that all these options were far to expensive. Instead we walked to the town in 40°C heat to try and find the Iguana Hotel. We must have walked the longest way possible to get there, but we found it. Despite me being a little, tiny bit grumpy after hiking in the heat, it was definitely worthwhile. I was the first person in our group to have an iguana put on my head, much to the horrified squeals of the others in our tour. That iguana stayed on my head for the rest of our time in the enclosure. At one point I had three on my head and a few in my hands. They had sharp claws but they didn’t scratch. Their favourite form of defence if they didn’t like you was to whip you with their tails which was mildly annoying but not painful.
The Guided Tour – Guatemala
Our first stop in Guatemala was an epic four hour hiking tour through Tikal and the jungle. Tikal is one of the largest archeological sites of pre-Colombian Mayan civilisation. It covers an area greater than 16 square kilometres and contains more than 3000 structures. It was once a power-house of Mayan civilisation, and at its peak may have had over 120,000 inhabitants. No one knows for sure what caused the downfall of the Mayans here, but they were heavily dependent on agriculture, mostly corn and beans. Our guide seemed to think that once peak population was reached, they could no longer support that number of people with their crops. A few years of droughts that dried up their water supplies didn’t help. They also used vast quantities of natural resources to build their extravagant temples, which may have irreversably changed the landscape.
After an overpriced simple lunch we headed onto the island of Flores. I spent my first moments in Flores doing some aptitude tests for a job application in the UK. But once that was done, we had cocktails in a two storey bar with a gorgeous view of the lake and the sunset, then dinner at a local restaurant. I had a delicious stuffed squash; small round squash stuffed with diced vegetables and covered in cheese sauce. Mmmm. It’s a pity that we didn’t stay there longer because the town was postcard picturesque. But I’m not sure that there is much to do there.
Another early start to the day, with a treat from our guide who promised to shout us breakfast – a giant banana cake. Quite delicious, but I’m not sure it was a suitable meal; we can both get a little bit grumpy when we’re hungry and our next meal wasn’t till 2pm. We arrived in Rio Dulce – the ‘sweet river’ – and got straight on a boat. We had a quick tour to the mouth of the lake, where there is a Spanish castle guarding the entrance from pirates, then to our hotel on its own private island. Then it was another boat ride all the way back to the Caribbean (boy was I annoyed that after the many many hours of driving over several days, that we somehow ended up back at the Caribbean. My sense of direction was all over the place!). The river trip was gorgeous, down a canyon and past islands full of wildlife, until we arrived at Livingston. We were there for an hour, enough time for lunch and a quick look around, then back to our hotel for cocktails in the pool.
Finally, a primal breakfast! A freshly made omelette with tropical fruit on the side. This time we were more prepared for the long road trip, with leftover pizza from the night before, and locally made ginger biscuits to snack on. We weren’t prepared for the broken air-conditioning nor the chaotic driving and treacherous roads on the way to Guatemala City, however. But we survived.
We skipped Guatemala City and went straight to Antigua. Antigua was once the capital of Guatemala and is famous for its well-preserved Spanish architecture and imposing volcanoes surrounding the town. Well, so they say; we didn’t see any volcanoes, just some clouds. As these were our last couple of days before leaving Central America, we spent them relaxing and cruising through markets, practising our slightly improved Spanish on some locals. On our last day we went to a chocolate making shop and learnt how to make chocolate from scratch, an excellent way to spend a couple of hours. See my blog post on this here.
Unfortunately, this was our last day in Guatemala. The next morning a shuttle picked us up at 5am to fight through traffic to get to the airport on time. Fifteen hours later, and with a drop of a few degrees, we were in London! My new home.