The end of everything

Oct 25, 2000 in Central America 2000

The end of everything

The day I got back we had nothing in particular planned. Mike and Aasta, with whom we had climbed Volcán San Pedro, were in town, and me, Moh, Mike and Mark, a Canadian who we’d met, decided to go for a bike ride. Having hired bikes, we set off down dusty roads, through small villages, past fields and towards the volcanoes. It was mostly downhill, and we cycled for miles before stopping for a drink in a spot with a fabulous view. The clouds had lifted, and we could see the tops of all three volcanoes, with Fuego steaming copiously. Just as we began the uphill run from here back to Antigua, though, my chain snapped. I had no option but to get the bus back to town with my bike going on the roof. The others got back sweating and exhausted some hours later.

We had met a local called Gustavo while we were in Antigua. He was an anthropologist, and knew many remote Mayan sites well. He had offered to take us to Mixco Viejo, some ruins a couple of hours drive from Antigua, to which he said we would most likely be the first British visitors. That was probably an exaggeration but they were definitely not well known. But I got struck down with a nasty illness the next day, and I could not go to Mixco Viejo. I was forced to spend my penultimate day in Guatemala in bed recovering.

I was pretty much recovered by the next day, our last in Guatemala. We spent the day buying some final souvenirs – coffee, an evil saint effigy, and a Che Guevara T-shirt for me – and getting everything in order for our trip home. In the evening we met up with Mike and Aasta, and also Will and Chad, also veterans of the San Pedro climb, and had a night out on the town to celebrate the end of our journey. We couldn’t have a very large one, though, because we had to get up at 4.30am to catch our flight. We went back to our hostel at midnight and packed, and though our backpacks were insanely huge and heavy, we didn’t mind too much – we were nearly home.

In the morning we made our way to the airport and had a safe and uneventful flight home. I was sad to be leaving, as we’d had an incredible time. In an unexpected development, my Mum, Dad, auntie, brother and sister came to meet me at Gatwick. It was a wonderful end to a fantastic trip.

Towering temples at Tikal

Oct 24, 2000 in Central America 2000

Towering temples at Tikal

It was a very pleasant bus ride up there. A few years ago the road to Flores was notorious for (guess what?) armed robberies, but the road has recently been paved, which speeds up the journey enormously and has cut incidences of robbery to zero. I arrived in Flores safe and well after a nine-hour journey. Flores is about an hour’s drive from Tikal itself, and I got the earliest bus to the ruins. It was a bit slower than it should have been, because the driver got into some kind of fight with a passer-by. I didn’t have a clue what was going on and so I kept myself to myself as blows were exchanged, bloody noses given, and clothes ripped. Eventually the business sorted itself out, and our flustered driver drove on to the ruins.

What makes Tikal so spectacular is the fact that it is deep in the jungle. Every other major Mayan site has had its plazas and temples cleared of vegetation, but at Tikal the forest still covers much of the site. Also amazing are Tikal’s enormous temples, the biggest of which, at 64m tall, was the tallest structure in the Americas until the Spanish arrived. I spent a day climbing all the temples and pyramids I could, and enjoying the awesome views over the jungle canopy from the top. The jungles of the Petén stretch for hundreds of miles around, covering the whole of the Yucatán peninsula, and from up the top of the 64m Temple IV the views were astonishing.

It was also nice to be back in fearsome heat. It was at least 30°, and this was some relief after two weeks of chilly weather in the highlands. I spent some time pondering the fact that I was going to return to England in just four days time, and came to the conclusion that I would die of flu within a month.

As well as the ruins, the jungle was impressive. Many times during the trip I had heard monkeys, but had never seen them until now. They weren’t exactly shy here, and the first one I saw was shamelessly throwing bits of twig at me. As well as the monkeys, there were raccoons and foxes, parrots and toucans, and the huge, colourful Petén turkey, found only in this part of the world. All in all it was a fantastic day. I slept well on my overnight journey back to Guatemala City.

Market madness

Oct 23, 2000 in Central America 2000

Market madness

The next day, we went to a mountain town called Chichicastenango. Apart from having a fantastic name, Chichi is famous for its markets. Local people converge on the town from the surrounding countryside every Sunday and Thursday to buy and sell fruit and veg, and many stalls sell fantastic Guatemalan handicrafts, bought mainly by foreigners. We had found that it was very easy to live cheaply in Guatemala, and we had enough spare money to go on a bit of a souvenir binge. After four hours of intense haggling, I came away with three rugs, two hammocks, some painted pots and a huge blanket, all at very agreeable prices. It was great fun, and I was sad to leave. Laden with new belongings, we decided to pay the extra for a minibus direct back to Antigua.

And so with exactly a week to go, we found ourselves back in Antigua. There were two things left to do – climb the volcanoes, and visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal. The ruins had not been on our original agenda, but we decided that if we had time, we would try and see them, as they are said by those in the know to be the most spectacular of the Mayan sites. But Moh had spent a little too lavishly at the market, and didn’t have enough for the bus fare, so it was on my own that I got the overnight bus from Guatemala City to Flores, way up in the north of Guatemala on the Yucatán peninsula.

Best sunrise ever seen

Oct 21, 2000 in Central America 2000

Best sunrise ever seen

We had been told that the temperature at the summit was usually around -5°C just before dawn, and we could well believe it as we emerged from the tent at 5.30am to find an awesome view before us. Pre-dawn colours dusted the sky, towns and villages glowed far beneath us, and a mighty plume of steam rose gently from Volcán Santiaguito. A continuous jet-engine roar could be heard from the volcano. Our friends with the fire came over to make sure we were up, and we watched with them as the stars were engulfed by the rising blue of the sky. It was a perfectly clear and still morning. The effort of carrying all our camping equipment up here had been rewarded.

We could see Guatemala’s chain of volcanoes stretching away 100km in either direction: as far as Mexico to the west, and to Fuego and Acatenango in the east. Between us and these two were the volcanoes around Atitlán. It was only a week since we had been at the top of San Pedro, and I still felt like I owned it as I looked back at it from here. It was a truly beautiful moment when over this awesome scene the sun appeared, and we basked in its rays as the temperature very slowly began to rise. To make the moment perfect, Volcán Fuego chose that moment to erupt a small cloud of ash.

But the best moment was still to come. I walked round to the west side of the summit, and was amazed to see the perfectly straight-sided shadow of the volcano stretching away to the horizon. This was beautiful in itself, but then I climbed onto the very peak of the volcano to get a better view. To my astonishment I could then see my own shadow stretching away into the distance as well. It was an amazing moment, and looking back, probably ranks as the outstanding memory of the trip.

After this incredible sunrise, we walked over to the south side of the volcano to look down on Volcán Santiaguito. It was incredible to look down on, and hear, this erupting volcano while 100km away we could see another volcano erupting at the same time. We sat there silently for a long time, gazing at the view which stretched away before us to the Pacific. At 9.30am, though, the peace was shattered when a group of climbers arrived at the top. They were out of luck, getting just a few minutes of the view we had been enjoying for hours before the clouds rolled in below us. We had seen what we came to see, and so after we had eaten a breakfast of Rice Krispies in hot milk, we broke camp and reluctantly set off down the mountain.

As on the way up, we took it slowly, and after almost three hours we were at the bottom of the steep section. Here we rested for a while, and had a chat with a farmer who was on his way to his fields. He was very friendly, and talked to us for quite a while, asking us where we were from, what England was like, what the weather was like, whether there were farmers like him in England, what tools the farmers used, and what the word for ‘Machete’ was in English. We shook hands heartily as he headed off to work. After another hour’s walk, we were back at the road, from where we got a bus back to town.

Very high

Oct 20, 2000 in Central America 2000

Very high

Volcán Santamaria stands 3772m tall, just south of Xela. It had never been known to erupt before 1902, but in that year it underwent the third-largest eruption of the 20th century. The cataclysmic explosion ripped away the southern flank of the volcano, leaving a huge gash in the side of the mountain. After 20 years of calm, new eruptions began in this gash, forming a new volcano, Santiguito, which has been erupting ever since.

Santamaria is a popular climb among visitors to Xela, and every morning a minibus took climbers to the start of the trail for 5.30am. Along with 7 other travellers, we got this bus, and so before the sun rose we were already making our way up the lower slopes of the volcano. Me and Moh were the only ones planning to stay at the top, and so we were carrying much more weight than everyone else. For the first hour or so, on the gentle lower slopes, we kept up with the group OK, but as the path got steeper and the forest thicker there was no way we could keep up, and so the fast guys disappeared into the undergrowth. We knew that at the pace we were going we would be unlikely to get a view when we reached the top, but we also knew that we were staying the night and would get the view in the morning. So we just took our time and didn’t push too hard.

The air had seemed thin when we climbed Volcán San Pedro, but here it really began to have an effect. As we climbed to well over 3000m, we found that we needed to stop for rests ever more frequently, and after four hours or so, we were only progressing short distances at a time. At about 10am we were overtaken by a group of young Guatemalans, who told us we were about an hour and a half below the summit. We pressed on, and at 11.30am we met our group coming down. They told us it was another half hour to the top, and with renewed energy we pressed on to the top. I arrived just after midday, with Moh following a quarter of an hour later. The Guatemalans who had passed us earlier were there, and gave us each a round of applause. We were relieved to have made it to the summit: after six hours, we began to believe it didn’t exist.

As expected, it was cloudy, so we couldn’t really tell we were on top of a huge mountain. As well as the young Guatemalans, we were sharing the summit with some Mayan worshippers, who were chanting and praying. We chatted to the Guatemalans, who turned out to be students at the university of Quetzaltenango, and they shared their biscuits with us. They were a lively bunch, and the summit was very quiet after they headed down at about 2pm. We set up our camp in a sheltered spot, and made ourselves feel at home. Despite the long hard climb we felt exhilarated. It was cold and cloudy but we were camping at 3,772m (12,572ft) in Guatemala, so all was well and we were happy.

We rested in the tent listening to the Mayan people singing for a couple of hours, emerging to watch the daylight fade at about 5.30pm. By this time, the worshippers had gone, and we were sharing the summit with six Guatemalans who had arrived during the afternoon. They had built a camp fire, and called us over to join them. As we stood around the fire, the clouds momentarily parted to reveal a livid red sun sinking beneath the horizon, the city lights twinkling far below us and a huge column of steam rising from the unseen cone of Santiaguito. The temperature was dropping rapidly, and we became soaked with dew as we stood around the camp fire. We chatted to the Guatemalans for a while, but soon there came a pause in the conversation when our Spanish could take us no further.

After a few seconds silence, one of the Guatemalans asked us if we liked football. We said yes, and the conversation started again. ‘Manchester United!’ said one. ‘Tottenham Hotspur’, I rejoined. ‘David Beckham’ said another. I risked ‘Watford FC’, but to no great surprise they’d never heard of the mighty hornets. We exchanged a few more player and teams names, before we left the fire to go and cook dinner.

When you’re camping in the wilderness in Central America, simple foods become culinary experiences, and we had a spectacular ravioli con carne from a packet, followed by potato soup. We bedded down for the night at about 7pm.

Highlands

Oct 19, 2000 in Central America 2000

At an elevation of 2330m, Xela is noticeably colder than Atitlán and Antigua. It was near here that the decisive battle in the conquest of Guatemala was fought in 1524, and the city was founded on the site of the capital of the K’iché Maya. You would have no idea of this if the guidebooks didn’t tell you, because today Xela is nothing but a modern city. It seemed very different from the rest of Guatemala, with incredibly friendly people and a chilly climate. It is surrounded by Mayan mountain towns, and on our first day there we visited one of these, Zunil.

We had intended to go to the markets at Chichicastenango, but when we got to the bus stop we couldn’t find any buses at all going there. We looked and looked, but were defeated, and, eager to go somewhere, got a bus to Zunil, a place about which we knew nothing, but which turned out to be very interesting. Like Santiago Atitlán, it has its own resident evil saint, San Simón, as well as a fine old church in the main square, a small handicrafts co-operative and a dramatic setting surrounded by towering hills.

After sampling all of Zunil’s other attractions, we went to visit the shrine of San Simón. It was a very different experience to Maximón’s shrine. Where everyone visiting and looking after Maximón had seemed to be having fun, and the whole thing seemed to be thought of as a bit of a laugh, San Simón was dead serious and quite scary. We were ushered into his presence, and found him sitting in a chair wearing shades, a bandana and a cowboy hat. The room was filled with hundreds of candles, and there was some serious worship going on. San Simón was represented by an old shop dummy, which looked a bit difficult to believe in, but people clearly did, and very seriously. There was a constant stream of worshippers, who would come in, cross themselves before San Simón, touch him and stroke him, talk to him, sometimes for half an hour or more, feed him Vodka and cigarettes, and light candles before him. The feeding of the vodka was a weird ritual – San Simón was tilted back in his chair, and the Vodka poured into his mouth. Meanwhile, the last offering of vodka had trickled down to his feet and collected there, and was poured out into a bowl when he was tilted back.

It was fascinating and surreal to watch the goings on at the shrine of San Simón, a strikingly visible fusion of ancient Mayan beliefs and Catholicism. But having seen two evil saints in two days, we decided we were getting too much religion, and we decided to climb up Volcán Santamaria the next day, and camp at the top.

Evil saints

Oct 18, 2000 in Central America 2000

Evil saints

After two days we had recovered enough to leave the hammocks and get on our way again. Our next point of call was to be Santiago Atitlán, another lakeside town.

Our main reason for coming here was to visit the shrine of Maximón. Maximón is a Mayan saint, revered in Santiago but reviled in other lakeside villages. He wears western clothes, drinks whiskey and smokes cigars, and grants prayers for revenge. He is believed to be a fusion of ancient Mayan deities, Judas Iscariot, and Pedro de Alvarado, the conquistador of Guatemala. He is represented in his shrine by an intricately carved wooden effigy, and moves to a different house every year. Finding him was simple – we said ‘Maximón?’ to a passing child and straight away he set off through the back streets to the shrine of Maximón. We followed, paid the small toll required to see him, and went inside.

Having visited Maximón, we were done with Lago de Atitlán. It was time to head off to our next objective, the city of Quezaltenango. We had an awesome boat ride back across the lake, sitting on the roof of the boat, basking in the sunshine and surroundings, before once again braving the bus system. After four separate bus journeys and a narrow escape from getting a bus to Guatemala City (the passengers were more honest than the touts, thankfully), we arrived in Quezaltenango, known to its Mayan inhabitants as Xela.

Quite high

Oct 14, 2000 in Central America 2000

Quite high

And so long before dawn on October 14th 2000, we set out for Volcán San Pedro. We climbed in the enjoyable company of our group of 11, which consisted of me and Moh, Ashley from Australia, Mike and Aasta from Alaska, Will and Chad from Oregon, Greg from the UK, Steve from Canada, Julie from France and Julie from Germany. An almost full moon lit our way until the sun began to make its presence felt, and we reached the end of the road just as the sun rose from behind the hills across the lake. After pausing to appreciate the view, we headed into the forest and began the climb in earnest. The going was reasonable at first, but it was not long before the relentless uphill began to get tiring. Our guide, Clemente, was enthusiastic, though, and kept us all going. After about an hour, though, Julie from France dropped out, and Mike from Alaska chivalrously accompanied her back down to the village.

The rest of us carried on up. After another half-hour, self-confessed old fat guy Steve from Canada dropped out, and the eleven were now eight. Now it was down to the hard core, and we continued doggedly. The path got ever steeper and slipperier as we climbed, and the air was getting noticeably thinner. After about three hours, Julie from Germany tried to give up, but Clemente said we had ‘only’ an hour’s climb to go, and persuaded her to carry on. At 9.25am, after four hours of climbing, we emerged from the forest to find ourselves at the 3020m summit.

The view from here was almost unbelievable. The sun was shining brightly, and far below us we could see boats beginning to ply the waters between the villages around the lake. Many months before, I had discovered the music of the Afro Celt Sound System, and as I planned this trip and read about Lago de Atitlán, I had a sort of vision of myself on top of a mountain looking down on the lake, listening to a song called ‘Dark Moon, High Tide’. I had carried my walkman and the Afro Celts tape all the way from London to here without listening to it, preserving it for this moment. I listened to the awesomely atmospheric music and felt like I was tripping.

Too soon it was time to rejoin the real world and leave the summit. We picked ourselves up and began the long descent back to the village. The 45° descent down the slippery path was, as I wrote in my journal, ‘a total knee-fuck’, and we all fell over at one time or another. I got a long and bloody cut to the arm when I tried to save myself from a fall by unwisely grabbing hold of a thorny tree. After a hard three hours, we were back in the village.

We were exhausted. We spent the rest of that day, and the next as well, relaxing in the hammocks at the hotel, occasionally buying a loaf of banana bread from the Mayan children who came to sell it at the hotel, and generally waiting until we could walk normally again.

Down to the lake

Oct 13, 2000 in Central America 2000

Down to the lake

When we woke, though, we found it was really not a nice day. We decided not to climb that day, but we didn’t want to hang around in Antigua any longer. We decided to leave for our next destination, and hope to return to Antigua with a couple of days to spare at the end of the trip to have another crack at Acatenango.

So we headed for our next point of call, Lago de Atitlán. Many thousands of years ago, a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in the Guatemalan highlands left behind a crater hundreds of meters deep and several miles across. Over hundreds of years, the crater filled up with water, forming the beautiful Lago de Atitlán. Renewed volcanic activity then began, and over time three new volcanoes formed around the lake shore. Today it is one of the most famous places in Central America, and we had been looking forward to it.

Having been in Guatemala nearly a week, we decided to brave the bus system for this journey, and we were glad we did. The buses were not crowded, they were driven safely, and the atmosphere good as we chatted to locals. The only bad point was that each time we needed to change buses, the bus touts were so keen for our business that they would tell us that their bus was going where we wanted to go, even if it was actually going in the opposite direction.

But it was worth the wait. Our first sight of the deep blue waters of the lake surrounded by towering volcanoes was breathtaking, and we had a long and incredible descent in the bus from the hills to the lake shore. We arrived in the lakeside town of Panajachel at about 3pm. Panajachel is probably Guatemala’s most touristy town, so we made a rapid exit, jumping on a boat across the lake to the town of San Pedro la Laguna.

Every afternoon a wind known as the Xocomil rises to churn up the normally placid surface of the lake into large swells, so our boat ride was bouncy , and occasionally I wondered how strong the hull was, but we made it to the other side OK. As soon as we got off the boat, we were engulfed by people offering to guide us if we wanted to climb Volcán San Pedro, which looms behind the village. This was the main reason we had come here, so we shopped around for a good rate. The more people in the group, the cheaper the cost, so we decided to try and recruit some other people for the climb.

We checked into a hotel right on the lake shore, with hammocks on the balconies and hot showers, all for £1.50 a night. We were surprised when Ashley, who we’d met in Nicaragua, emerged from a room near ours. Having been with us when we were defeated by Volcán Masaya, Ashley didn’t hesitate to join us on our quest for the top. There were several other travellers staying at the hotel, and within half an hour, we’d managed to assemble a group of 11 people. We negotiated a rate for a guide, and arranged to leave at 5am the next day.

We climb our first volcano

Oct 12, 2000 in Central America 2000

We climb our first volcano

Another grey day followed, but we didn’t have the time to wait for sunshine so we decided to climb Volcán Pacaya. This was another spot notorious for armed robbery, yet another legacy of Guatemala’s violent recent history. From Guatemala’s independence in 1821, the government has generally been a dictatorship. The dictators have generally been military, and have ruled in the interests of the wealthy classes. Briefly, from 1944 to 1954, Guatemala had a democracy, and elected liberal leaders, but things were soon back to the usual order.

The first democratically elected leader, Juan José Arevalo, began a modest program of social reform. This was continued and accelerated by his successor, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who also started a massive land reform program. Huge areas of land owned by the United Fruit Company but left fallow were to be nationalised and redistributed, and the UFC would be compensated at the value they had declared for tax purposes. This was a fraction of the true value, and the UFC was not happy. However, they had friends in high places in the American government, and in 1954, a US-backed coup forced Arbenz into exile, and the land reform out of the reckoning. The young Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was in Guatemala at the time, and later said that this was the moment he became a revolutionary.

The coup returned Guatemala to a military dictatorship, and over the next few years, laws were passed which made voting rights dependent on literacy, disenfranchising three-quarters of the population. The secret police became powerful, and opposing the government became dangerous. In the early 1960′s, guerilla groups began to form, and by the middle of the decade the country was embroiled in civil war. This continued for the next thirty years, reaching a peak of brutality in the 1980s, when the government, believing that the indigenous people were all in league with the guerrillas, simply wiped out any village where they believed the guerrillas to be. In the 1990s, dialogue between the government and the rebels finally began, and in 1996, peace accords were signed, ending 36 years of war, during which 200,000 people had been killed.

The problem when we arrived four years after the peace accords was that there were still an awful lot of guns in Guatemala, and endemic poverty. The pace of the change since the signing of the accords had been too slow, and as the number of foreign visitors rose, the incidence of crime rose too. But when we were there, a lot of tourist excursions were accompanied by armed guards. Volcán Pacaya had been well known in the past for its armed robberies, but the tour groups were now accompanied by two armed guards, and no problems had been reported for a while.

We took the tour at 1pm, and after a dramatic two-hour drive to the base of the volcano, we set out along the trail for the top. It was not very hard going, and the weather was better than it had been. We had spectacular views of the volcanoes around Antigua and the surrounding countryside. After a couple of hours walking, we reached a shoulder about 200m below the summit. The weather was now closing in, and we were soon in thick cloud. After this point, the climb also became much more difficult. Pacaya’s frequent eruptions mean that the upper slopes are a barren cone of loose rock, and climbing the last stretch was very much a case of two steps up, one step down. The wind was fearsome as well, making it an extremely arduous final push to the top.

We got there, though, only to find that we couldn’t see more than three feet in front of us. Had we been able to see down into the crater, we would have seen lava flowing on the crater floor. All we got, though, was a scorching wind blowing out of the crater. I reached over the edge to pick up one of the sulphur-covered rocks, and I had to be quick to avoid burning my hand. All around the summit, there were steaming hot vents, and the whole area was warm to the touch. We stayed up there for about half an hour before returning to ground level.

The descent was a lot more fun than the climb, and we virtually ran down, creating landslides as we did so. This was the first summit we reached on the trip, and though the weather had let us down, we were still pleased to have made it. We decided we would try and climb Volcán Acatenango the next day.

Antigua

Oct 11, 2000 in Central America 2000

Antigua

When the Spanish conquered Guatemala, they founded their first capital in 1527 at a site known today as Ciudad Vieja (Old City). Situated on the fertile flanks of the huge but extinct Volcán Agua, it seemed like an ideal place for a city. It lasted for just 14 years, though, before disaster struck. After weeks of heavy rains, the lake at the summit of the mountain breached the crater walls. A huge torrent of water and rock swept down the mountainside and ploughed through the city, completely obliterating it. A new capital was founded two years later, further from the volcano, and (so it was hoped) out of danger.

This city, known in full as La Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala, thrived as the capital for 230 years, before disaster again struck. A huge earthquake struck the region, and the city was all but flattened. The present capital was established at Guatemala City, and the old capital, now known as La Antigua Guatemala (The Old Guatemala), no longer an important place, was very slowly repopulated.

Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes. Volcán Agua towers above the city to the south, while Volcán Acatenango and Volcán Fuego stand slightly further off to the west. Volcán Fuego is one of Central America’s most active volcanoes, and had been erupting every few weeks for many years, while slightly further away from Antigua, Volcán Pacaya is another very active volcano, which made the news here in January after a particularly large eruption.

We wanted to climb Pacaya and one of the three big volcanoes, but on our first day it was overcast and much colder here in the highlands than it had been at sea level. The clouds hung low, and we could only see the stumps of the three volcanoes, so we spent the first day just exploring the town. It was a beautiful town, with its colonial architecture and lively markets.

The next day was also grey, but we wanted to do something, so we decided to climb Cerro de la Cruz. This is a hill to the north of the town which was once notorious for armed robberies. Very few people ever went there, because if you did you were almost without fail relieved of all your belongings. However, these days, the Antigua police accompany anyone who wants to go up the hill. They are well armed, and it costs nothing, so we took advantage of this service and went up the hill. Despite the clouds it was a good view of the city nestled between the volcanoes, and we took many photographs.

Bad driving

Oct 09, 2000 in Central America 2000

Bad driving

All our travel up until now had been on local buses. We were a little daunted at the thought of the Guatemalan bus system, having been advised by the Foreign Office that fatal crashes are frequent, and by other travellers that the buses are unbelievably crowded. We were also not too keen on negotiating our way across Guatemala City, about which we’d heard more horror stories than Managua. So when we discovered that you can get a minibus all the way from Copán to Antigua in Guatemala, our next destination, we decided that we would cop out and take it. It’s a service used solely by tourists, and I certainly felt like a cheat as we got aboard. We crossed the border at a very quiet border post, and no-one tried to rip us off. It was boring.

On the whole, though, it was probably a safer and more sensible option that the five-leg journey we would have had if we had got the local buses. It wasn’t all plain sailing, though – we had a marvellous run for the first four hours, through beautiful mountainous Guatemalan scenery, but during our slow, traffic-jammed crossing of grim-looking Guatemala City, we were hit by a bus. It was a low-speed impact, so no-one was hurt, though it took some time to get my backpack out from the crumpled boot.

Our driver got out to discuss things with the other driver, and I fully expected punches to be thrown, but fortunately everything was calm and sensible. After a short discussion we drove on to a petrol station nearby, taking the conductor of the bus that had hit us along with us. I wasn’t sure why this was – perhaps the minibus firm were keeping him as security? We then stopped and waited for a replacement minibus to arrive. When it came it had three armed guards with it, but we completed the final leg of the journey safely.

We arrived in Antigua late that evening. It was hard to shake the odd feeling that the trip was nearly over, as here we were in our final country with Costa Rica already a distant memory. But we still had nearly three weeks to go, and much to see and do.

Copán

Oct 08, 2000 in Central America 2000

Copán

The Maya were one of the three great ancient civilizations of the Americas, along with the Incas of Peru and the Aztecs of Mexico. The civilization began to emerge at least 4,000 years ago, was advanced by 300AD, and reached its peak (the so-called Classic Period) from around 600 to 800AD. During this time, they built great cities at a prodigious rate, covering them with towering temples and pyramids, and in many cases spectacular stone carvings. They were advanced in agriculture, astronomy and mathematics, and quite independently of the Arabs (who generally get the credit), they invented a positional numbering system and the concept of zero. They also had a literary tradition, though much of the hieroglyphics have yet to be deciphered, and an accurate calendar, which was adopted by the Aztecs and is still used in more remote parts of Guatemala.

At the height of the Classic period, the Mayan empire spread across the southern Mexican states of the Yucatán peninsula, the whole of modern-day Guatemala and Belize, and western Honduras and El Salvador. Around 900AD, though, the whole of Mayan civilization went into dramatic decline, many cities being abandoned to the jungle. After something of a renaissance around the 1200′s, Mayan civilization was again in decline when the Spanish arrived, and they conquered the Mayan lands rapidly.

In their religious zeal the Spanish razed to the ground most of what they conquered, destroying the ‘pagan’ temples and pyramids and the idols inside. Fortunately, the decline of the Maya meant that there were many cities which were now abandoned and totally covered in jungle. Today, many have been uncovered, and every year more are discovered. Just before we left the UK, we heard that a huge new set of ruins had been found deep in the jungle in central Guatemala.

Copán is one of the most famed of the Mayan sites of Central America, and we were certainly impressed when after a short walk down a forest path we emerged into its Great Plaza. With a low pyramid in the centre, carved pillars (stelae) scattered around, and larger pyramids visible further off, it was quite a sight.

Copán was founded by 1200BC at the latest, and started to become a great city in 426, when a king called Great Sun Lord Quetzal Macaw came to power. He and his descendants began Copán’s great tradition of recording their achievements on stelae, slabs of rock about eight feet tall, great numbers of which can be seen today at Copán. Copán’s most productive king in this respect was Uaxaclahun Ubak K’awil, the thirteenth king, whose name sounded very fitting for a powerful king until its meaning was deciphered. Somehow a king called 18 Rabbit hardly seems destined for greatness, but under his rule Copán came to dominate many surrounding cities, including Quiriguá, which today lies across the border in Guatemala. 18 Rabbit’s rule lasted nearly 45 years, during which time many of Copán’s finest structures and stelae were built and carved, but unfortunately the people of Quiriguá had never accepted their subjugation to Copán, and in 738 they captured the unfortunate King Rabbit and beheaded him.

Copán’s fifteenth king, Smoke Shell, was another great builder, and started the Heiroglyphic Stairway, the longest inscription known in the Maya lands. But the following two kings oversaw Copán’s terminal decline, as its ever-growing population finally outstripped its food production. Skeletal remains from this late period show evidence of malnutrition and disease, and most of the people had left by the year 1000. A few stragglers remained for a long time, but by about 1200AD the site had been completely abandoned to the jungle. It was found by a Spanish explorer in 1576, but then not visited again until 1839. At this time it came to the attention of archaeologists, who have been working at Copán ever since, uncovering ever more structures (3450 are now known, covering an area of 24 square kilometres) and deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics.

We wandered around, admiring and appreciating the art and architecture, and trying hard to really believe that this was once the centre of a great city. We climbed the Temple of Inscriptions, at the top of which you find walls covered with intricate carvings, a fine view over the ruins and surrounding countryside, and (on this occasion at least) a Honduran television crew, asking visitors to give their impressions of the place. Always eager for 15 seconds of fame, I happily told them what I thought of the place. Moh was media-shy, and hid behind a wall until I was finished.

After we had spent a good long time exploring Copán, we walked further down the road to one of its suburbs, today known as Las Sepulturas. This was a residential part of the city, and though it is certainly less dramatic than the main site, provides a greater insight into how the Maya lived. It’s also much quieter than the main site: we didn’t see anyone else while we were there.

We were lucky with the weather – it didn’t start raining until after 4pm, when the ruins are closed for the night. This meant we only got soaked once we’d seen everything, which was good. We squelched back to the town of Copán Ruinas, and prepared to leave Honduras the next day.

Across Honduras

Oct 07, 2000 in Central America 2000

Across Honduras

We left before the sun was up the next morning, and thus failed to see Tegucigalpa in the daylight. I am told this is not a great loss. We were headed for Copán Ruinas, some 500km away, and we needed to get a bus first to Santa Rosa de Copán, 400km up the road. We were pleased to find that, for our fare of L90 (about £4.50), we had a luxuriously comfortable bus for the six hour journey. We wished we were spending longer in Honduras as we passed through its beautiful mountainous forested scenery.

After two further short bus journeys, back in the yellow school buses, we arrived in the town of Copán Ruinas, which is right next to the Mayan ruins of the same name. We booked into a very cheap hotel, at only £2 each per night, which had a rooftop terrace with fantastic views over the Valle de Copán. We’d forgotten that it was the weekend, and we wouldn’t be able to get money for two days, so we were too skint to pay up front, but fortunately the friendly family said we could pay up on Monday.

The main purpose of coming to Central America had been to see volcanoes. Honduras has none, so we were originally going to pass right through without stopping. However, right on the border between Honduras and Guatemala lies the huge Mayan site of Copán. It would have been silly to pass by without seeing it, so the next morning we left early to walk the 2km down the road to the ruins.

Border nightmare

Oct 06, 2000 in Central America 2000

Border nightmare

The next day it was time to brave our second border crossing. While we were in Granada, the news had been that a bridge on the road to the border at Guasaule had been washed away. This was indeed the case, and the bridge was still down, but by now the flood waters had subsided, and the bus was able to ford the river. It was a very slow journey, road conditions being pretty bad after the rains, but we made it to the border in reasonable time.

Here we did not have a fun time. We were only going to be in Honduras for a short time, and we knew what border banks were like, so we decided to brave the money-changers. Unfortunately, they had a habit of quoting a good rate, then counting out money at a bad rate. You can then argue all you like, but they’ll deny ever having said ’14 Lempiras per dollar’, and we had to settle for 13, which was at least still better than the bank rate.

Then we got a lift across the border in some bicycle/rickshaw type of things. As we got in, I asked how much it would be, and the driver said a dollar. However, by the time we reached the other side, this had gone up to ten dollars. This was clearly ridiculous, but unfortunately, the driver had a large group of friends on his side. In the face of this there was little we could do but hand over some money and get on the way.

I had a pretty low opinion of Hondurans at this point, but things soon got better as we got on a bus to Choluteca. It was fast and large, and infinitely more comfortable than Nicaraguan buses, which are exclusively old yellow American schoolbuses. The bus from Choluteca to the capital, Tegucigalpa, was equally luxurious, and though we once again arrived in a big city after dark, we got a taxi to hotel and again avoided mishap.

Silent cyclists and snakes

Oct 05, 2000 in Central America 2000

Silent cyclists and snakes

The next day we wanted to go to one of the most active volcanoes in the chain, Cerro Negro. It didn’t exist before 1850, when a steaming crack in the ground suddenly began to exude lava, but now stands 600m tall, black and steaming, above the surrounding countryside. We took a bus to the town of Malpaisillo, from where (so my guide book told me) it was a 4km walk to the base of the volcano.

We struck out along the road from Malpaisillo, appreciating the fantastic weather. The temperature must have been at least 35°, but by now we were used to it, and we enjoyed it. After about half an hour we caught sight of the volcano, its black slopes dramatically contrasting with the lush greenery surrounding it. We quickened our pace, and after a couple of hours we reached a path which looked like it was going in the right direction. We passed a guy on a bike after a short way, and asked him if we were going the right way. He confirmed that we were, but told us it was a 10km walk to the volcano. This was a blow – to walk all the way there and back would take at least four hours, by which time it would be dark. Buses stop running long before sunset in this part of the world, so we decided we couldn’t go all the way, but we decided to walk as far as we could.

Initially our friend on the bicycle left us, but after about 10 minutes, he reappeared, and said he would walk with us. It was nice to have some company, but communication was difficult. My attempts at Spanish seemed to go down worse than usual, perhaps because very few travellers come this way, so foreign accents are a rarity. The cyclist spoke no English, so we mostly walked in silence. But I managed to establish that it was always this hot here, that there were often earthquakes, the volcano had erupted two years earlier, and that there were not many snakes around, but they were big. Lobi grinned disturbingly as he said this.

We walked for about an hour and a half before deciding to give up. Disappointingly, for most of the way we couldn’t even see the volcano, but it had been interesting. We saw no snakes, thankfully, though we did see one enormous, foot-long lizard. At about 4pm we reached the main road, and waited for a bus back to León.

Through the volcanoes

Oct 04, 2000 in Central America 2000

Through the volcanoes

We decided then to abandon all hope of climbing up Volcán Masaya and move on instead. Our next destination was Nicaragua’s other old city, León, and to get there we needed to get a bus to Managua, make our way across Managua, and get another bus across the outside. We had heard horror stories about Managua from many different people, and were not too keen to see what it had to offer. I was guarding my pack with extreme paranoia as we got off the bus at Managua’s central market. As we expected, there were plenty of taxis about, so we got a taxi across the city. It was a sunny and hot day, and the city didn’t actually look that horrible. It seemed a bit concrete and soulless, but then vast swathes of it were levelled by a huge earthquake in 1972.

We made it to the Mercado Bóer bus stop without being robbed or assaulted, and, still guarding our belongings fiercely, we boarded the bus to León. We had a great run up there as the sun set behind the chain of volcanoes which form a spine along Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, arriving just after the sun set.

In the morning we headed for León Viejo (Old León). León was originally founded on the shores of Lago Managua, in the shadow of Volcán Momotombo, and for the next 86 years was the capital of the colonial district of Nicaragua (part of what was then called the Captaincy General of Guatemala). In 1610, however, it was destroyed by an eruption of Momotombo, and the city was moved to its present location. The ruins of the original city can still be seen, and it was to here that we headed.

After a typical Nicaraguan bus journey involving crowds of people selling goods ranging from soft drinks and snacks to disposable razors and hair clips, and a bone-shaking run down some very badly maintained roads, we arrived at the village of Puerto Momotombo. It was quite a surreal place, with just a few houses, and no roads to speak of, just dusty tracks. There were very few locals about, and it felt like we were the first outsiders to visit the place in years. We walked down to the shores of Lago de Managua to have a look around.

It was a strange place down there. The black sand beach was covered in straggly plants, and there were a few stumps of long-dead trees on the shore and in the lake. Across the water, the towering red cone of Momotombo was steaming gently, and in the distance we could see a village woman washing clothes in the lake water. The only noise was the buzzing of the insects. We sat for a while, appreciating the tranquillity and solitude, before heading back up the track to the village, and looking for the ruins.

Where there are no roads, no signs and no people, it is quite hard to find what you want to see. We searched for some time for León Viejo, before finding someone, asking the way, and discovering that we were right outside the gate. For the entry fee of about 75p, we got a guided tour of the site, which was great. I’d only been learning Spanish for a few weeks but I felt like I understood a decent amount of what we were being told. The ruins were not really much to look at – just the foundations of a few large buildings, the rest completely obliterated. But the history was fascinating, and it was incredible to imagine that this was one of the earliest settlements in the New World.

What made the place really impressive was the views. From a small hill in the middle of the unfortunate city, there was a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. This north western corner of Nicaragua is dominated by the Cordillera de los Maribios, a range of volcanoes which frequently erupt (there had been at least six eruptions in the five years before we were there), and from the hill, we could see six volcanoes, three of which were steaming. This formed the stunning backdrop to the forested plains and Lago de Managua.

We signed a guest book on the way out. The entry above ours was from almost a month before.

Returning to Masaya

Oct 03, 2000 in Central America 2000

Returning to Masaya

The next day dawned fine, and, with an Australian traveller called Ashley who was staying at the same hotel as us, we got an early bus out to Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya. However, our luck was not in and by the time we got there it was once again hammering down with rain. We nonetheless decided we would give the volcano a go, but the park ranger told us the path was closed, both because of the weather, and because large amounts of poisonous gas were being given off by the volcano. We were forced to leave it for another day.

We decided to visit the nearby town of Masaya, and got a bus to the outskirts of town, and walked towards the centre. The rain was still ludicrously heavy, and the roads were flooded. Progress was slow, as we had to find safe places to cross the roads. Drains in Nicaragua often did not have grilles on them, so stepping off the pavement into fast-flowing muddy water was quite a serious risk. However, we made it safely to Masaya’s Mercado Central about an hour later, and had a look around. While we were in there the rain finally stopped, so we walked to the end of town, to look over the tranquil Laguna Masaya to Volcán Masaya itself. The sun once again forced its way out, and mist began to rise from the lake. The volcano could be seen steaming away, and we were determined that we would make it to the top.

We thought we were in luck the next day when we found that it was bright sunshine. The papers said that a Red Alert hurricane warning had been declared, but we decided to give Masaya one last try. It stayed fine as we approached the entrance to the Parque Nacional, and we had great views of the steaming cone. But once again the trail was closed. Apparently the heavy rains had percolated through to the hot rocks below, and the result was that the volcano was emitting large quantities of highly acidic gas. So again we were denied.

Granada

Oct 02, 2000 in Central America 2000

Granada

It wasn’t raining but the streets were wet when we arrived in the historic town of Granada. Founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Córdoba, the Spanish conquistador of Nicaragua, it is the oldest city in Nicaragua. The city of León, in the north of the country, was founded in the same year. Granada was wealthy and conservative; León, the capital, was poor and liberal. There was intense rivalry between them, which erupted into civil war many times. This eventually led to the founding of Managua, half way between the two, as a compromise capital in 1857.

The city didn’t look like it had changed much in the last hundred years. The buildings were all colonial (though after the economic hardships of the last twenty years, many looked somewhat the worse for wear), and horses and carts formed the majority of the traffic. We spent a lot of time while we were there walking around the streets of this characterful town.

But the main thing we wanted to do while we were here was visit Volcán Masaya. This active volcano is just up the road from Granada, and it is an easy climb (apparently) to the top from the town of Masaya. The volcano began erupting most recently in December last year, and lava flows can often be seen deep in the crater. We got up early on our first morning in Granada to go to Masaya, but we found it was raining heavily. We had not seen any newspapers at all on Ometepe Island, but they were plentiful here, and we discovered now what had been causing all the rain – Hurricane Keith was sitting off the east coast and lashing the whole country with rain.

So we waited in the hotel for the rain to stop, which it did at about 2pm. It was too late in the day to go to Masaya, so we explored Granada instead. We walked down to the shores of Lago Nicaragua, which must look quite appealing when it is sunny, but with the brooding skies and wet beach it looked distinctly uninviting. We saw more relics of the revolution on our walk around town – a statue of Hernández de Córdoba had a metal plaque on it mentioning Anastasio Somoza Debayle, and his name had been chiselled off. We also saw some intensive campaigning for the impending mayoral elections, with campaign trucks driving around blaring out slogans, and banners and poster up everywhere proclaiming the various candidates. At one point as we walked down a deserted street, a Sandinista campaing truck slowly drove by, playing ‘We Are The Champions’. I thought it was quite poignant.

Raindrops keep falling on my head

Sep 28, 2000 in Central America 2000

Raindrops keep falling on my head

The next morning, we got up at 4am to try and climb Volcán Maderas. Neftali had told us that it was a difficult climb, but that if we set off early and the weather was OK then getting to the summit was just a matter of persistence. But when we got up we found that the rain was beating down mightily outside. This was a change from the norm, but it was only several days later that we discovered what the cause was – Hurricane Keith was sitting just off the east coast of Nicaragua, and causing torrential rains all over Nicaragua.

So we decided not to get the 4.30am bus to Balgüe, from where a trail leads up Volcán Maderas. By 9am the rain had stopped, and so we decided to try our luck with the climb. We took the bus around the island, through many small villages and beaches on the shores of Lago de Nicaragua, and arrived at Balgüe at about 10.30am. From Balgüe, a sign saying ‘La somete – tres oras’ points up the mountain, and we set out along it. It leads after about half an hour to the Finca Magdalena, a coffee farm which acts as the base camp for the climb. Here we met two Argentinian volunteer workers, and we asked them whether the climb was still possible after the earlier rains. To our disappointment they advised against it, saying it was slippery at the best of times.

So we appreciated the fabulous views from Finca Magdalena all the way over to the other side of the lake, twenty miles away, before heading down again to Balgüe. From here, we decided, we would walk to Santo Domingo, a beach about 7km away. Though it was overcast, it was warm, and we didn’t know there was a hurricane about 200 miles away and moving closer, so we set off. We walked north along the winding road, passing a few straggling houses for the first half hour or so, but then being out of sight of civilization. There was the odd farmer walking to or from his fields, and they would always give a cheery ‘Hola!’ as they passed. After a couple of hours walking we came to a deserted beach and stopped to rest for a while.

We didn’t see anyone else in the half hour or so we sat on the beach, and it certainly felt desolate with its black sand and battered driftwood. It was incredibly hot, but I decided I was getting used to it. I was still sweating bucketloads, but I was quite OK with doing long walks in the heat of the day. Having cooled our boots in Lago de Nicaragua, we carried on.

The latter stages of the walk were less pleasant. We were terrified by swarms of huge flying beetles – they were about two inches long and very fat, and kept on flying into our faces. We were also bothered by enormous dragonflies. I don’t like insecty things even in the UK, and soon I was so traumatised that even the sudden appearance of a butterfly made me jump. And then it began spotting, then drizzling, then really raining like there was no tomorrow. We tried to carry on walking, but before long we were soaked to the skin, and took shelter under a tree. This didn’t do much good, but it was all we had, and we stayed there until a bus passed by, and we hopped squelching aboard. As it turned out we were about a hundred metres from Santo Domingo, where there is a café with a roof and cold drinks, but we didn’t know this as we stood under the tree.

So we went back to Altagracia, and made plans to visit the Salto San Ramon, a waterfall a couple of hours hike away from a village on the south end of the island. We spoke to Neftali again, and told him of our failure to climb Maderas, and our plans to go to the waterfall. “I’d say don’t go if the weather’s bad”, he told us. “It’s a really slippery trail, and the river can flood after heavy rains.”

The rain kept us awake for most of the night, and though we made a cursory attempt to get up at 5.30am, the trek to the waterfall was clearly not on. It rained more or less all day, so we spent a lot of time reading and writing our journals. For a brief time it calmed down to a light drizzle, and we went for a wander around the village, discovering its tiny museum of pre-Columbian artefacts, before the rain set in again for the evening.

In the evening, we met Adam and Song, two Americans who had been Peace Corps volunteers in the Dominican Republic for the past two years, and were making their way home overland, having flown into Panama. They were also keen to climb a mountain, and we agreed that we would try and climb Maderas again the next day.

Sadly, the rain got worse, and from about 9pm onwards it was a downpour. It continued through the night, and once again our getting up at 4am was a token effort. It was clear that we were going to have to give up on Maderas and move on. We decided to leave that very day. The rain abated as we got the ferry back across the lake, but when we reached the mainland it was coming down once again. As we boarded a bus heading for our next destination, Granada, we hoped that things would improve.

Concepción

Sep 27, 2000 in Central America 2000

Concepción

Ometepe was certainly fascinating just in terms of its recent history. But it’s also a very beautiful place. Though their tops were invariably covered in cloud while we were on the island, the two volcanoes make for a great setting. The larger of the two, the active Volcán Concepción, looms right behind Altagracia, while the smaller, Maderas, can be seen far away to the south-west. Early on our second day, we set out to see what we could do about climbing Volcán Concepción.

We set out along the road south from Altagracia, looking, as our guidebook told us to, for a cemetary on the right after a mile and a half, past which ran a trail up the volcano. We walked for a good three miles before deciding we’d gone too far, and headed back. Fortunately our Spanish (well, mine at least – Moh was still trying to master the phrase for ‘I don’t speak Spanish’) was up to asking for directions, and we found the path. It was about 7am, but already I was dripping with sweat. We headed up the path, first crossing some plantations, before getting out of the cultivated land and into the forest. We climbed for about an hour and a half, occasionally getting a good view over the island, but mostly being in thick jungle. Unfortunately we hadn’t been able to buy any food, and having not eaten breakfast we were forced by hunger to turn back at about 8.30am. We were back in town by 10am, and ate a hearty breakfast.

We were staying at the Hotel Castillo, mentioned in all the guidebooks as being a great place to stay. We had good rooms for only £3 a night. The reason the hotel was so recommended was that the family who run it were said to be exceptionally accommodating, sharing their wealth of knowledge about the island with anyone who asked them. Sadly the legendary Señor Castillo, who had lived on the island for eighty-odd years, was not around when we were staying, but instead there was a friendly guy called Neftali, who worked on a banana plantation during the day, but came to the hotel most evenings to chat to the guests, practising his English and sharing his knowledge of the island. We spent a long while that evening chatting to him about the island and Nicaragua in general.

Ometepe

Sep 26, 2000 in Central America 2000

Ometepe

Before I left, whenever I told people I would be going through Nicaragua, a look somewhere between pity and horror would cross their face. People seemed to have the idea that it was a war-torn smoking wreck of a country.  What everyone remembered was the infamous Contra war which raged throughout the 1980s. Nicaragua had been run autocratically by various members of the Somoza family for more than 40 years, from 1937 to 1979. In that year, after many years of struggle, the people finally succeeded in toppling the regime. A junta was formed to run the country while new institutions were formed, and at first it had both hardline and moderate members. Soon, though, the hardliners, the famous Sandinistas, moved to take total control. As the Sandinistas promoted communist ideals, and were receiving aid from Cuba and the Soviet Union, the US president, Ronald Reagan, decided to intervene in the region. He began funding counter-revolutionary insurgents, known as the Contras, who attacked Nicaraguan territory from bases in Honduras.

In 1984 the US Congress passed a law banning further funding of the Contras, but the Reagan administration carried on covertly. They began selling arms at vastly inflated prices to Iran, using the proceeds to keep the Contra war going. The affair was discovered, and much controversy ensued, but the war in Nicaragua continued.

The Sandinistas had resoundingly won the general elections held in 1984, and under the new constitution elections were required every 6 years. So in 1990 the country went to the polls again, and the Sandinistas were confident of victory. But the people were sick of war, and knew that peace was only likely if the Sandinistas weren’t in power. Violeta Chamorro, one of the moderates on the post-revolution Junta, was elected president.

When we arrived, there had been ten years of democracy and, more or less, peace. In remote mountain areas, factions who wouldn’t put down their weapons still fought sporadically, but where we were going was well away from trouble spots. The Sandinistas were still a major political force, but had not recaptured the presidency. However, a Sandinista had just been elected Mayor of Managua, the capital, and expectations were high for the elections due in 2001.

We spent our first morning on Ometepe exploring around Altagracia. The contrast between the peaceful, stable and relatively prosperous Costa Rica and Nicaragua was sharp. Nicaragua was visibly poorer than Costa Rica – most of the houses were tumbledown shacks, and while every third house seemed to be a shop of some sort, they usually had pretty limited stock, and were dark inside. The shopkeeper would turn the light on when a customer came in, to save electricity.

I could have passed through Costa Rica entirely ignorant of the politics of that country, but it would be impossible to do the same in Nicaragua. Walls everywhere were covered in political graffiti, supporting one or other of the Sandinistas, the PLC (Partido Liberal Constitucional) or the PC (Partido Conservador), and people wore t-shirts and caps proclaiming their allegiances. According to my guidebook, Ometepe was relatively untouched by the revolution, so I wondered what the mainland would be like.

Into Nicaragua

Sep 25, 2000 in Central America 2000

Into Nicaragua

The next day we headed out of Costa Rica. Our next stop was to be Ometepe Island, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. It’s the largest island in a freshwater lake in the world, and Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America. The island itself is made up of two volcanoes, one active, joined together by ancient lava flows. It can be seen from far away, the twin peaks rising from the waters of the lake. Before the Spanish arrived, the area was inhabited by the Nicarao tribe, who spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. After a civil war in Mexico, the Nicarao people had fled south, and, on consulting their idols, were told that they should continue until they came to a huge expanse of fresh water with two mountains in the middle. Thus they settled on Ometepe and around the shores of the lake. The name Ometepe comes from the words Ome Tepetl, meaning ‘two hills’ in Nahuatl.

Latin American border officials have never had the best reputation in the world, so we were a little daunted as we got the bus to Peñas Blancas for our first border of the journey. However, in the event the border officials weren’t a problem. We crossed without paying bribes or having drugs planted on us. The main problem was the bank, who spent a good half hour stamping, scratching, marking and variously defiling our travellers cheques, before giving us Nicaraguan córdobas at an abysmal rate, counting them out four times.

But soon enough we were across the border. Some taxi drivers told us there were no buses onwards from the border and we’d have to take their taxi if we wanted to get anywhere. We were too streetwise for them, though, and hopped aboard a nearby bus, which was going to Rivas, from where we would continue our journey. As we drove off, we could see Lago de Nicaragua and the towering peaks of Ometepe Island on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other.

The first thing we noticed when we entered Nicaragua was that the people looked very different to Costa Ricans. Straight away we could see that the people are mestizo, a mix of Spanish and indigenous. In Costa Rica, disease and cruelty very nearly wiped out the indigenous people within about 50 years of the Spanish arriving, so no intermixing took place. But in Nicaragua, the Spanish were a little bit less brutal in their treatment of the natives, and the mixed descent is clear to see.

As we arrived in Rivas, we found that despite 10 days of learning, our Spanish still wasn’t very good. We never worked out what the old man was trying to tell us when we asked him where the San Jorge bus stop was. We wandered off up the road trying not to look abysmally stupid, and down the deserted street towards us came a battered old taxi. It said ‘Pablo Garcia’ in the window, and Señor Garcia leaped out when we glanced in his direction, cheerfully hustled us in and drove us to San Jorge, from where we were going to get a ferry to Ometepe Island.

On arrival at San Jorge, we bought tickets for the Señora del Lago, a beaten up old ferry which plieD the waters between San Jorge and the island. The sun was setting over the lake as we crossed, and we arrived at the village of Moyogalpa just after dark. Here we got another bus, to Altagracia, where we would stay. This was a great ride, on an absolutely packed bus, with loud music on the radio, fireflies flickering outside the window, and people carrying chickens and fruit and vegetables home from the market. It was almost disappointing to arrive at Altagracia just after 7pm.

Around the mountain

Sep 24, 2000 in Central America 2000

Around the mountain

The next morning, we set out to explore the mountain. Rincón de la Vieja is at the centre of a region of great geothermal activity, and the evidence for subterranean heat is everywhere. A well-trodden trail winds past many geothermal features, and we set out along it. Before long we were temporarily out of the forest, and all around could see steam rising from the ground. It was quite a sight, and we set off in search of what was steaming.

Over the next three hours or so, we passed hot pools of water, gently simmering and glooping pools of mud, warm streams, and a steaming hole in the ground which was rumbling and groaning ominously. We also saw a fearsomely boiling pool of mud known as Volcancito. It was quite a sight, and we couldn’t help but wonder just how far below us the magma here was.

After seeing all that we could on the trail, we returned to our tents and had a magnificent pasta, tomato and tuna meal, before breaking camp. We had arranged to be picked up at the park’s other ranger station, 8km away, and we had four hours to do it in. We wanted to stop at some hot springs on the way, so we thought we’d leave plenty of time.

It was pretty hard going, though, with the first four kilometres being almost entirely uphill. Moh at one point complained that his legs weren’t working, and promptly fell over. However, we were making very reasonable time. With about an hour and a half left before our driver was to pick us up, we arrived at the trail which led to the springs. A quick kilometre and we were there, and it was truly wonderful. Hot water emerges from beneath some rocks, and flows into a cool stream, and where they mix is pure heaven. I sat with my feet in the cool water and the rest of me in the hot, and relaxed.

But all too soon we had to be on our way, and we set off renewed for the final 3km. We set a blistering pace, and arrived at the ranger station at the same time as our lift, although Moh was looking somewhat the worse for wear. ‘Bue…nos…di…as’, he said to our driver, wheezing terribly. ‘You look terrible’ replied our scrupulously honest driver. We had a great run back to Liberia in the fading light of day, and on arrival back at our hospedaje, we drank about a gallon of water each and I had the best shower ever.

Onwards and upwards

Sep 23, 2000 in Central America 2000

Onwards and upwards

We had spent enough time around Arenal, so the next day, we moved on to our next destination, Rincón de la Vieja. Situated in north western Costa Rica, this is another active volcano, which last erupted in 1998. We hoped to climb to the top and camp the night there. We made our way to Liberia, via the towns of Tilaran and Cañas. During the three-leg journey, the weather got ever hotter. As well as talking to a crazy young Costa Rican called Jorge, who would occasionally lean out the window and do tarzan whoops as we passed through the forest, we met two Austrian travellers, Andi and Eva, who also wanted to go to Rincón de la Vieja. We decided we’d all go up together, and decided to try and find a way there the next day.

There is no public transport to Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja, but the owner of the hotel Moh and I were staying at had a 4WD, and said he’d take us to the park and pick us up the next day for $10 each. We hired him, and after we’d bought food and fuel, we set off.

It was an awesomely bumpy but beautiful drive up to the park. We arrived at about 11am, and after paying our park fees, we decided to go hiking. We left our backpacks by the ranger station and set out for Catarata de Cangreja (Crab falls), which the park ranger told us was the best of the many waterfalls in the park. It was a marvellous walk through the tropical dry forest (it’s a technical name – it really isn’t dry at all), and after about three hours we arrived. Much like the waterfall we visited near Fortuna, it was a perfect tropical cascade plunging into a shimmering blue pool.

We gladly swam, as it had been a hot and exhausting walk. By the time we set out for the return leg, the afternoon rains were approaching. The rains turned out to be light, but there was thunder so loud it made me duck. But we made it back to the ranger station OK, only to find that disaster had struck. Before we had left for the falls, a friendly racoon had wandered right up to us. He was quite an endearing little fellow, we thought, but when we got back, we found that he had opened Eva’s backpack, eaten all her bread, and just for a laugh, thrown her dried pasta everywhere.

Fortunately, Moh and I were unusually well prepared, and our contingency stocks were more than sufficient to feed us all well. We set up camp a few hundred yards into the woods, and as it got dark we cooked a marvellous meal of dried pasta and vegetables. Simple food, but when you cook it over a tiny stove in a jungle wilderness on a volcano in Costa Rica, it seems like the best food in the world.

Crazy exploding volcanoes

Sep 20, 2000 in Central America 2000

Crazy exploding volcanoes

We had met two Germans, Colom and Sylvia, down by the falls. Colom had a pickup truck, and when we saw that the volcano was visible, he said he would drive out towards it after nightfall, and invited us along. We gladly accepted.

When darkness fell, a distinct orange glow could be seen over the volcano, and when Colom called around with his truck, we leapt keenly aboard. It was a spectacular drive out along the road past the volcano, with the wind in our hair, fireflies flashing around, and the volcano glowing high in the sky. However, as we watched, the clouds began to lower, and the volcano disappeared from view. Soon it was pelting down with rain. We sat inside the cab of the pickup until it had eased off, and then drove on.

It was not long before the top of the volcano emerged again, and we decided to stop and watch it. All the rivers which run off the volcano are heated by the magma, and several places along the road here channel streams into pools. We stopped at one of these and sat in the thermal waters, watching the truly awesome sight of the volcano erupting.

Eventually we had to leave. We stopped at a café by the roadside for a bite to eat and watched the volcano from there, but now we were round the other side from the eruptions, and all we could see was the glow. It had been an amazing sight, and we hoped we would see it again.

The next day, we planned to hike back along the road, and make our way to a viewpoint we had seen signposted the day before. We were going to watch the eruptions from there as the sun set. We bought food and drink and were all set to go, when suddenly Moh was afflicted by what they call Montezuma’s Revenge in these parts. We had to give the walk a miss, but later on when it was dark, the eruptions could be seen again, so we went for a walk around town, and took some photos.


Much later, I learned a painful lesson from the photo here. Someone asked me if they could publish it in a book. I was very excited by this and agreed. Sadly, the person concerned never paid me as promised, and also lost the slide. So, all I have now is the poor-quality highly compressed JPEG from a budget scanner that you see above. Ah well – I’ll just have to go back to Arenal some time.

In the jungle

Sep 20, 2000 in Central America 2000

In the jungle

It was a spectacular run through misty mountain forests and small villages, with an awesome thunderstorm erupting overhead as we passed through Ciudad Quesada. We arrived at the small town of Fortuna late in the evening, and checked into a cheap hospedaje. We noticed for the first time how quickly night falls in the tropics when we walked outside 20 minutes later to find it was completely dark. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and we could see no sign of Volcán Arenal, which was the reason we’d come here.

Volcán Arenal had caused no-one any bother until 1968, when it suddenly erupted violently, destroying a village and killing 78 people. Ever since then, though, it has been erupting constantly, with lava flowing constantly out of its crater. Occasionally larger eruptions take place – just three weeks before we arrived, three people had been killed by an unexpected explosion. We were pretty much certain of seeing eruptions here, if only the weather would clear up.

The next morning was cloudy, though, so we got essentials like washing done, then went for a walk towards the volcano. No sign of eruptions, though, and we had not yet even seen the summit. We turned back as the afternoon rains began, and hoped for better weather the next day.

It was sunny the next morning, but still the volcano’s summit was covered in cloud. Eruption watching was clearly out, so we decided to hike to a nearby waterfall. We set off early in the day, but it was still phenomenally hot, and it was an exhausting walk up a rough track for a couple of hours. Then thankfully the path went into the forest, where it was a lot cooler, and half an hour later we emerged from the jungle to find a beautiful cascade of water plunging 25m into a lovely blue pool. We cooled our feet for a while before wandering off down river. It was amazing to be right in the jungle, and the noise of all the animals (none of which we could see) was fantastic. After several hours exploring, we decided to head back to Fortuna. When we emerged from the jungle we were startled to see that the clouds had lifted and the top of the volcano was visible, a plume of steam rising from the top.

Irazú (ovavu)

Sep 17, 2000 in Central America 2000

Irazú (ovavu)

We had intended to depart for San Jose early the next day, but Jose said there was a great fruit market in Alajuela, so we went to that. It was a vibrant, colourful affair, with a beer tent and live music, and we had a great time buying lots of weird tropical fruits. I got horrifically sunburnt for the first time on the trip, but it had been a fun day so I didn’t mind. Eventually at about 4pm we left for San José.

This meant we arrived just after dark, and it was raining. This is not really a sensible time to arrive in a big bustling Latin American capital, and it wasn’t long before we attracted unwanted attention. ‘Where you going?’ said a shifty looking character. ‘We’re looking for the Tica Linda hostel’ we said. He strode off purposefully, beckoning to us to follow him. Having no better plan, we did just that. He introduced himself as Patrick Fernandez, and said he hoped we’d enjoy Costa Rica. Friendly enough, but when he began walking down very dodgy looking streets, we began to worry. Then he walked into a dark unlit park, and we began to really worry. We made it out the other side unscathed, though, and saw a sign saying ‘Hotel Rialto’. We sent Patrick on his way and checked in. Only much later did we realise that ‘Tica Linda’ means ‘pretty Costa Rican’, and we could then guess where Patrick might have been leading us.

We managed to avoid any further dodgy situations that evening, and after a very noisy night at the Hotel Rialto, which had paper-thin walls, we got a bus the next morning to Volcán Irazú. At 3432m, it is the highest active volcano in Costa Rica, and like Poás, is a well-developed tourist attraction. However, unlike Poás, we found that the summit was cloaked in thick cloud when we got there. We walked to the edge of the crater, but we could see nothing, so we went and ate a rice and beans breakfast in the food shack near the top. However, about an hour later, things were brightening a bit, and we walked back to the crater edge. The cloud was thinning rapidly, and suddenly we could see green far below, and a few moments later the view was clear.

Irazú erupted last in 1965, but has been quiet since then. It is less lunar than Poás, and the lake is green, but otherwise it’s much the same – a rather safe, touristy, and unadventurous destination. Impressive, but we were eager to get on to more remote areas, so the next day, we got a bus over the mountainous spine of Costa Rica to Volcán Arenal.

Up to Poás

Sep 15, 2000 in Central America 2000

Up to Poás

Day 2, mission 1. Most of the population of Costa Rica live in a fertile valley in the central highlands called the Meseta Central. About 1500m above sea level, it is ringed by towering volcanoes. Some of them are active, and one of these is Volcán Poás. It stands 2704m tall in the middle of Parque Nacional Volcán Poas, and it last erupted in 1994, destroying what park facilities existed at the time. Since then, though, the number of tourists visiting Costa Rica every year has quadrupled to more than a million. Volcán Poás is a prime attraction, so they have rebuilt everything and put a paved road right to the very top.

We went to the bus stop in Alajuela early in the morning, and got the bus to the crater. Our first sight of Costa Rica in the daylight was impressive – the fertile farmlands of the Meseta Central with dramatic cloud-capped peaks rising behind. After an increasingly bumpy two hour bus ride, we were at the top. A short walk led us to the edge of the crater, and far below was Poás’ amazingly turquoise crater lake, surrounded by a barren lunar landscape. The lake was steaming gently, confirming that the volcano has not shut up yet.

After we had taken all the photos we could, we walked through the cloudforest (it’s like a rainforest only at high altitude) to Poás’ other crater, called Laguna del Botos. This one has not erupted for thousands of years, and is a beautiful green colour. Lush forest surrounds it, and it would have felt very remote, but for the families with their picnic lunches sitting around. The name comes from the Botos indians, who inhabited this area before the Spanish arrived.

It had been a beautiful morning, with plenty of sunshine. I’d never been to the tropics before and It had seemed strange to see the sun directly overhead, but now it began to cloud over. We were to learn over the next few weeks that it does this without fail during the rainy season in these parts. By the time we had walked back to the park museum building it was hammering down. We bought a coffee and waited around. The rain didn’t stop, though, and eventually we had to brave it and go and catch our bus. This done we enjoyed the run down. The rain was heavier than I’d ever seen before, and raging torrents were forming by the roadside. Lightening was striking incredibly close by, and the thunder was so awesomely loud it was scary.

We made it back to Alajuela safely, though, and spent the evening waiting for Moh’s backpack to be delivered. Warren was there as well, waiting for a fried chicken that he had ordered to arrive, and as we all waited, we found out what Warren was doing in Costa Rica. It turned out that he had driven down from Nevada. He was about 65 and retired, but somehow he had got himself employed to drive a car containing seven Chihuahuas from Nevada to Costa Rica (what for, we never discovered). Despite knowing no Spanish at all, except for ‘No Espanol’ and ‘Shervaza’, which was his poor attempt at saying cerveza (beer), Warren had done OK, driving through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, crossing the borders without trouble.

It began to go wrong for him when he entered Nicaragua. The Chihuahuas had been getting their documents stamped all the way down, but somehow one was overlooked at the Nicaraguan border. Unaware of this, Warren drove on, but when he got to Costa Rica, the border guards naturally asked where he’d got the other Chihuahua from, and when he couldn’t answer, they impounded his car. In the confusion, Warren didn’t get his passport stamped. He had made his way to Alajuela and was trying to get in touch with the owner of the Chihuahuas, who had not yet paid him, and seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. So Warren was now illegally resident in Costa Rica, with no money and no car. Despite this, he was quite a cheerful fellow, but he was also a complete lunatic. Just as he began to talk about his wolf spirit guide, Moh’s backpack thankfully arrived.

Do you know the way to San José?

Sep 14, 2000 in Central America 2000

We had an inauspicious start to the trip. I’d arranged to meet Moh, who I would be travelling with, outside Smith’s on Victoria station, but unfortunately there are two Smith’s on Victoria station and we spent ages waiting for each other. Then we somehow managed to miss two Gatwick trains, for which there was no excuse. We made it to Gatwick in time for the flight, though, and had an untraumatic journey across the Atlantic and down the East coast of North America. Weather delayed us landing in Houston, but with just a little bit of panic and fast running, we made it onto the flight from there to San José, Costa Rica.

I was a bit nervous as we flew south. Far below I could see towns in what must have been Mexico lighting up as darkness fell, and I could hardly begin to imagine what travelling in Central America might be like. My efforts at learning Spanish had not got beyond the appallingly basic, I didn’t really know if we’d got enough money with us, and I had no idea if the place would be crawling with tourists or if I wouldn’t see another foreigner for the next six weeks.

But thankfully, I’d booked our first night’s accommodation. This was the only thing I was not worrying about as we landed in San Jose at a quarter past eight on September 14th. However, there was soon another item on the ‘To Worry About’ list – Moh’s baggage did not appear. On enquiry it turned out it had been sent to San José, California, but they said they’d have it by the next day.

So we gathered what belongings we had and walked out of the airport. The air outside felt like it had just been let out of an oven, and a scrum of taxi drivers fell upon us as soon as we appeared. We waved them aside, though, because José, whose B&B we were going to stay at, was standing there holding a sign which said ‘Welcome to Costa Rica, Roger’.

We got to José’s, in a town called Alajuela, at about 10pm, and met Warren, a crazy American from Nevada. But we had been up for nearly 24 hours and were in no mood for small talk, so we made our excuses and slept.