Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Wonders of Salt

La Paz, Salar de Uyuni, BOLIVIA: 18 - 23 Dec. 2009

As my flight arrived in La Paz at 1am my first view of this amazing city was at night. And what a view - the city, the highest capital city in the world at 3660m, is built in a canyon so buildings of all shapes and sizes cling to its sides. In the morning the sight became even memorable as I saw the snow-capped Mt. Illamani looming over the city.

As arranged, I met up with my friends Sinead and Gavin, who were coming to the end of their 12-month trip back home to New Zealand from Dublin. After nearly four months of travel it was very nice to see some familar faces.

We headed south on a night bus for the ¨must do¨tour of Salar de Uyuni - the world´s largest salt flats. We spent three days driving in a jeep around part of the 12,000 sq km area. The landscape here is simply unique. We visited red lakes and green lakes, saw llamas, vicunas and flamingos, stood next to bubbling mud geysers, relaxed in a sulfuric hot spring pool, slept in a hotel made from salt and, of course, spent a fun few hours trying to take photos that make use of the optical illusion created by the flat, white, desolate salt plains.

It certainly is an amazing natural part of the world, and a great introduction to Bolivia.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pura Vida

Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, San Gerardo, San Jose, COSTA RICA: 8 - 17 Dec. 2009

My last stop in Central America was always going to be San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, as this was where my flight to Bolivia was departing. To give myself more time in Guatemala and Costa Rica, I decided to fly between those two countries. This unfortunately meant that I missed out on El Salvador and Nicaragua, but I thought this option better than doing a whistle-stop tour while travelling through on buses.

Costa Rica has a very different feel to the rest of Central America and its tourism is certainly more developed. Here it is all about nature and the multiple ways that you can experience the amazing bio-diversity of the country.

First stop for me was Monteverde with its incredible nature reserve. I spent a day walking around the huge park and I did a guided night hike where the guide pointed out tarantulas, snakes, sloths (everyone is obsessed with seeing sloths in this country!) among many other animals. Then it was onto the more extreme way to see the reserve - from above flying along ziplines! It was great fun, especially the "Superman" zipline at the end. The picture below does not do it justice - that zipline was over 1 km long and in the middle I was about 200 metres above the valley floor.
From the mountains of Monteverde, I next went to the beaches of Manuel Antonio. Again, there was plenty of wildlife to be seen (especially monkeys jumping from tree to tree) and this time the nature reserve was surrounding by pristine, paradise beaches.

After chilling on the beach, I needed a bit more activity. So I teamed up with a guy from Quebec and we did the two-day climb up the highest mountain in Costa Rica, Cerro Chirripo (3820m). On a clear day you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans from the top. Unfortunately we didn't get that view, but it was still worth the hike.

Then back to San Jose (which isn't all that great) where I did a day trip white water rafting on a river ranked by National Geographic to be in the top five rivers in the world for rafting.

What a way to spend my last day in Central America!

Costa Ricans are constantly saying "pura vida" - literally it means pure life, but I think it sort of translates as "happy days". During my 9 days in Costa Rica, I certainly enjoyed the pura vida.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Chaotic transport to calm locations

Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Xela, Lanquin, Biotopo Del Quetzal, Guatemala City, GUATEMALA: 20 Nov. - 7 Dec. 2009

Not all of my time in Guatemala was spent on top of volcanoes. I spent two weeks (mostly with a guy from Sydney) travelling around the country. For the most part our form of transport was the infamous chicken bus, i.e. old school buses from the US that have been pimped and which are generally packed with people carrying all sorts of things (like chickens, which alas I did not see on any of the buses that I took). Through a system which could be the exemplar of the phrase "organised chaos", the buses work and connections are successfully made.
But Guatemala is not all about choas. I stayed three days in pretty, cobblestoned, volcano-surrounded Antigua, before moving onto the beautiful Lake Atitlan. There we spent three days criss-crossing the lake visiting its villages, one of which had a bizarre cigar smoking, silk tie wearing wodden god. My three days in Lanquin were spent chilling out in hammocks, floating down rivers in a tube having a beer, swimming through caves, jumping into rivers and visiting a bat cave at sunset - it was freaky sitting in the cave in the dark knowing that hundred of bats were flying just past me every minute.From there I headed south to the Biotopo del Quetzal nature reserve. The quetzal, which is Guatemala's national bird and the name of its currency, is famously elusive. Luckily I managed to see two, thanks to the 6 year old daughter of the guesthouse owners. We became best friends once I showed her that I could complete ten jumps over her skipping rope. She banged on my door the following morning to bring me to the place where she had just spotted a quetzal. So my first bird watching experience was a success.

Then onto Guatemala City. Everyone recommends avoiding it, but I had to come to get a flight. In the end I spent a very nice two days there, which included a sunny Sunday stroll around the zoo where I had one of the local snacks - corn on the cob, smothered with mayo and a red sauce, and sprinkled with cheese. Tasty, but very messy to eat, especially with a beard! Admittedly, I heeded everyone´s warnings so I didn´t go out after dark. Still, it was a nice way to end my time in Guatemala. Next stop, Costa Rica.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Volcano Trekking

Acatenango, Pacaya, Tajumulco, GUATEMALA: 22 - 30 Nov. 2009
My first week back in Guatemala involved three great hikes up volcanoes.

(1) Volcan Acatenango - 3976m.

The 4am start, a heavy bag filled with camping gear and food, the gravelly volcanic terrain (near the top, for every two steps up you would slide one back down), and the altitude (its the third highest mountain in Central America) made this a tough seven hour hike to the top. It was all worth it however when we pitched our tents in the crater and then sat on the crater's rim to watch the sunset. While Acatenango has not erupted in 30 years, Volcan Fuego is right next to it and it erupts constantly. Sitting on top of one volcano, drinking a glass of wine, watching a volcano blow out smoke and lava every ten minutes as the sun set was an amazing experience. Then up bright and early to see the sunrise. An unforgettable hike.

(2) Volcan Pacaya - 2552m.

Although it was only an hour and a half hike to the top, it was certainly a hike that stands out. The heat emanating from the ground of this very active volcano was tremedous, so much so that I felt I had to keep moving to prevent from shoes from melting - a far cry from the bogs of the Wicklow Mountains!
Standing next to a river of lava was a crazy experience, and the marshmallows we cooked over the lava were the perfect complement to the scene.

(3) Volcan Tajumulco - 4220m.

Another 4am start and another heavy bag, but again it was all worth it to get to the top of the highest point in Central America. Since we camped 200 metres below the summit, we had to get up at 3.30am to hike to the top for sunrise. Sitting on the top of Central America in a cozy sleeping bag watching an amazing sunrise with erupting volcanoes visible in the distance was certainly a great way to start a day!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Viva La Revolución!

Utila & Copán Ruinas, HONDURAS: 13-19 Nov. 2009

I left Belize for Honduras on a speedboat (my border crossings are getting more and more interesting) and after a bus and another boat I made it to Utila, one of the Bay Islands. After all the recent political turmoil and curfews etc. in Honduras, I decided to attend an event thrown by the mayor in the run-up to the end-of-month elections. It was a beach bbq with free food, free beer and free rum all day long - if this is what comes with political revolutions, maybe we should have one in Ireland. I listened to the mayor's speech and I think I correctly translated part of it as saying that his party's red-white-red flag stands for blood-peace-blood. But at that stage I was having too much fun to analyse the political significance of that statement.

Apart from the free beer, a further reason why I think I didn't fully understand the socio-political happenings in Honduras is that I spent most of my time underwater. I successfully completed my PADI open water scuba diving license and did a couple of fun dives - swimming underneath a turtle was one of many highlights.

Back on the mainland, I spent a morning at the Mayan ruins at
Copán. There were very few tourists so it was pretty much just me and the macaws.
It was a good week in Honduras; now its back to Guatemala.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sailing and snorkeling in beautiful Belize

Caye Caulker to Placencia, BELIZE: 9-13 Nov. 2009.

As our plans were diverging, I said bye to the four people I'd been travelling with for the previous few weeks and I hit for Belize (I plan to return to Guatemala to see the south in a few weeks). But I wasn't on my own for long as I met people on the bus and in the hostel - it seems you have to make an effort to not end up travelling with people!

Tiny Belize (similar in size to Wales) is unique in Central America as it is English-speaking (it was called British Honduras until 1981) and it has a definite Caribbean feel with reggae music everywhere. After a night drinking beer in hammocks on the beautiful and laid-back northern island of Caye Caulker, I started a three day sailing trip that took me south. This trip was a highlight of Central America for me - it was three days of snorkeling and fishing - each night we ate what we caught, which included lobster and barracuda. The first night we camped on an "island" which was little more that a patch of sand not much bigger than a tennis court on its own in the middle of the ocean.

It'll be hard to beat the experience of sitting in the sun reading a good book with my legs dangling over the edge of the boat as a group of dolphins swam beside us. And the free rum was good too.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Jungle Ruins

Palenque, MEXICO & Tikal, GUATEMALA: 5-9 Nov. 2009

After our initial bus was cancelled because a mudslide blocked the road, we arrived in the jungle of Palenque in the lashing rain - I had forgotten that jungles and rain go together. After a night in a jungle cabin, we spent the day in the amazing Mayan ruins. The jungle mist gave the ruins a mystical feel - a very memorable place.

After spending the next day at waterfalls, it was time to leave Mexico. Our route to Guatemala involved a bus to the river that marks the border, than a motorised canoe across the river, and then another bus - it ranks as one of the best border crossings I've done.
We stayed on the lake island town of Flores - we took advantage of its location by ending our Saturday night out with a late night swim in the lake. I then did a day trip to the ruins at Tikal - again these were Mayan ruins and they too were set in a jungle, but they were still mightily impressive.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Día de Muertos

Tuxtla & San Cristobal, MEXICO: 28 Oct. - 4 Nov. 2009

I left the beaches of Oaxaca's coast and headed with my two travel companions to Mexico's southern-most state of Chiapas. Both nights in the state capital of Tuxtla invloved being entertained by free traditional music and dancing. We did a trip to Canon del Sumidero, where we got great views of the very impressive canon and its wildlife (monkeys, herons, conorants, and more crocodiles) from our speedboat.

From the heat and humidity of Tuxtla, we travelled to the highland town (elevation 2100m) of San Cristobal de Las Cases. The change in weather was dramatic - after a month of sun and heat, here it was colder and rainy.

There was a big crowd in the hostel as many people I had met on my travels had picked here to celebrate Halloween and, much more importantly in Mexico, Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). A fun Halloween night was followed by trips to the cemetary on 1 and 2 November. Families gathered at their newly decorated gravesides and had picnics, sang songs and just generally hung out and had a fun family day. Very interesting to see the Mexican attitude to death.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Staying on a paradise beach for €3 a night

Mazunte & Hautulco, MEXICO: 24-27 Oct. 2009

I headed for the coast in a minibus on a very scenic six hour drive. However, the view was slightly hampered by (1) the multiple cracks in the windscreen, with which I decided not to concern myself and (2) the little old Mexican lady who feel asleep on my shoulder - I did not want to wake her (she looked like she has had a hardworking life) so I avoided turning my head to look right.
I met up with two people I had hung around with at the start of my time in Mexico, Lucy from Australia and Marco from Germany. We spent two days relaxing at the hippy beach of Mazunte (where I stayed in a beach hut for just €3 a night - accommodation on similar beaches in other parts of Mexico cost an awful lot more than that), before moving onto slightly more upmarket Huatulco. It was four fun days of swimming in very warm water, snorkelling, going on a turtle watching boat trip and a visit to a crocodile sanctury.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Zapotec medicine mountain trekking

Sierra Norte, MEXICO: 22-23 Oct. 2009

I teamed up with a French couple and headed into the Sierra Norte "Cloud Forest" mountains outside Oaxaca for a two day trek. As the rainy season had just ended, the mountains were a lush green and the Spanish moss hanging from the trees gave the place a mystical feeling. This was enhanced by our local Zapotec guide. He pointed out and explained the uses of loads of plants, including a plant that he said cures hangovers and takes the desire to drink alcohol away - I can certainly see a use for the first part, not sure about the second.

After spending the night in a cabin in a remote mountain village, our second day of trekking brought us down into a valley where men were panning for gold and silver in a river, just like the old days (a lot of this area feels well behind the times).

I really enjoyed the remotness of the hiking - in two days the only other person who passed us was a blind old man who lives in one of the lower villages and was walking up to one of the higher ones to sell his random collection of stuff.

It was a great two days, and a nice change from towns and cities.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Its pronounced O-ha-ka

Oaxaca, MEXICO: 19 - 22 Oct. 2009

Myself, Jessica and Ben hit the road south again to the vibrant city of Oaxaca. Its the home of many fun and interesting things, including mezcal (the smoky brother of tequila), El Tule (the widest tree in the world), and Hierve El Agua (mineral formations on cliffs that look like frozen waterfalls).

The best of all though was definitely Monte Alban - the ancient Zapotec capital set on a falltened hilltop with great views of the surrounding valley. Very serene feel to the place.

When protests, road blocks, a motor rally and a night-time religious procession were thrown into the mix, it all made for a great few days.

A city of clowns and balloons

Puebla, MEXICO: 16 - 18 Oct. 2009

I travelled south from Guanajuato to Puebla with two people I met in my Spanish class, Jessica from Canada and Ben from England. This city, two hours south-east of Mexico City, was full of people selling balloons and clowns doing street performances. After a fun Saturday night out, we spent the following morning in Cholula where we visited a pyramid with a church built on top and we sampled some local food, including some crunchy and weirdly tangy grasshoppers. A nice city.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A room with a multi-coloured view

Guanajuato, MEXICO: 12 - 17 October 2009

My first experience of buses in Mexico was on the 5 hour trip north of Mexico City to Guanajuato. I was very impressed - Bus Eireann could learn a few things from here. I enjoyed reclining in my almost horizontal seat and looking out the sights, which included a large Kerry Group plant.

Guanajuato is a fascinating, mutli-coloured city. It is built on hills and has miles of tunnels running below it in an incredible maze. Very easy to get lost.

I spent 4 hours each day for a week doing Spanish lessons - I´ve a lot to learn but it was very good to get the lessons. To get practice talking, I stayed in the home of one of the teachers and her family, where I got a lovely breakfast and dinner (at 4pm!) everyday. After 5 nights in a Mexico City hostel dorm room without a window, my own room with double-bed and a fantastic view was pretty sweet.

I timed my week in Guanajuato perfectly as it coincided with the start of its biggest annual arts, music and theatre festival - the Festival Internacional Cervantino. This meant that there was a great vibe on the streets as thousands of people just strolled around and watched street performers. I went to a few proper shows too, including an impressive Brazilian dance performance.

So after a chilled out week and armed with a bit more Spanish, I´m ready to start heading south.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Pyramids and football - welcome to Mexico!

Mexico City, MEXICO: 6 - 11 Oct. 2009

After hearing so many varied but mostly bad things about Mexico City, I was a bit worried when the radio in the taxi from the airport started to play the theme from "The Omen". But when the driver switched stations and "Living on a Prayer" came on instead, I knew things were going to work out just fine.

I really enjoyed my 4 full days in Mexico City and I met a lot of nice people at the hostel. As well as walking around the main centre, I did 2 day trips. The first was to the pyraminds at Teotihuacan, which include the third largest pyramind in the world.

The second was to Tepoztlan, the alleged birth place of Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec serpent god.

While people back home were watching Ireland play Italy, a group of us went to the 100,000 seater Aztec Stadium to cheer on Mexico against El Salvador. The atmosphere in the sold-out stadium was amazing. Mexico won 4 - 1 and therefore qualified for the World Cup, so there was a great party atmosphere after the match. A great last night in Mexico City.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Road Trip USA

California, Nevada, Arizona & Utah, USA: 13 Sept. - 6 Oct. 2009

The trip started in San Francisco where I met up with Ciaran and Jason. We saw some of the sights, including Alcatraz, and had a fun night out in Haight (thanks to the advice of an Irish barmaid). Then armed with yoga mats (for camping, not meditation) we hit the road in our Toyota Camry (once we figured out how to drive an automatic car - don´t use left leg to break and drive on the right).

Our first stop was Yosemite National Park, where we camped for 5 nights and did some amazing hikes, including Half Dome and Glacier Point (Jason ran up both on the first day!).

We left Yosemite to drive through the roasting Death Valley (thank God for air conditioning) on our way to Las Vegas. While it was good to see Las Vegas since you hear so much about it, and Treasure Island was a nice change from the tents, we soon realised the obvious that Vegas isn´t designed for non-gamblers. So while I enjoyed sitting by the pool, the Cirque de Soleil "Beatles" show and the first few of the "all-you-can-eat" buffets, I was ready to leave after our 2 days.

It was back to the camping and hiking for 2 days in each of the Grand Canyon in Arizonia and Zion National Park in Utah. Prior to planning the trip I had never heard of Zion, but it was a highlight of the trip. We hiked to the top of Angels´Landing where the views were amazing (the photos don´t do it justice), we walked up the river flowing through "The Narrows", we had a great campsite next to a river (which was handy as there were no showers), and we celebrated Ciaran´s birthday.

A long days drive back to the Californian coast ended with a rocking student night out in San Luis Opisbo. After 2 nights in that cool town, we worked our way up the coast. We spent a night in Monterey (which is aimed at tourists a lot older than us) and 2 nights in weird but wonderful Santa Cruz where UCSC students co-exist with the town´s crustier side. We went to a stand-up comedy competition which, depsite the lack of beer, was very funny.

Back in San Francisco, we were delighted to find that chilling out in Golden Gate Park lived up to its hippy reputation.

The last night out before the lads headed home included a Jameson promotion (we each won fetching, matching hats) and live music in North Beach - the perfect end to the road trip.

The 3 days on my own in San Fran were on a jam packed weekend. This included the Love parade and festival, complete with totally naked people (all old men) walking around the main downtown streets, and the free Bluegrass festival.

After cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge I came across a charity tennis event. When I was told that Steffi Graf (a hero of mine) and Andre Agassi were playing but that tickets were sold out, I locked my bike, hopped over the security fence and then snuck past the ticket checkers at the court - so it turns out that the unshaven, unemployed version of me will do things differently to the business-casual, public sector worker version! It was totally worth it - as well as Agassi and Graf, I saw Michael Chang, Conchita Martinez and Tracey Austin.

My last day included a snooze on the grass of Berkely´s campus. Outside its library a selection of internationally important newspapers were displayed: there was one from the UK (The Guardian) and one from Ireland, which was the Irish Examiner - if only people in Dublin were as enlightened as people in Berkely!

Very happy with my time in the US.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tús maith ...

Sorrento, Maratea & Naples, ITALY: 7 - 12 Sept. 2009

My first experience of being a solo, intrepid traveller involved meeting John's bestman Ray at Naples airport and getting a lift from him in his fancy rental Merc to Sorrento - so this backpacking thing isn't so hard after all. I enjoyed strolling around touristy Sorrento and my day at Pompeii was great. I've always wanted to go (partly because I was born on the anniversary of the eruption of Vesuvius) and it didn't disappoint. I discovered the joys of travelling on my own as I was able to spend as long as I wanted (all day) walking around the ruins.

After a boat ride along the Amalfi coast, I got the train to Maratea. When I arrived I asked someone for directions to the hotel, and she gave me a lift to the door.

The days before the wedding were great - nice to meet up with everyone, including Sinead and Gavin, some nice big group meals, plenty of swimming and a trek up to the Christ the Redeemer statue with Michele (our star Italian guide for the week) and Jacinta.

The wedding itself was perfect - John seemed happy and calm, Lisa looked lovely, nice small church and idyllic outdoor reception and dinner. The prosecco was flowing (which led to slight regrets the following morning) and my dancing feet were kept busy.

Next day a quick walking tour of Naples with John B and Ailin, before flying back for one last night in Dublin.

A perfect start to my travels.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The farewell tour

Well August was a hectic month - I guess starting a career break isn't all easy! It involved wrapping things up at work (thanks for the great leaving presents), sorting out my departure from Ranelagh after finally throwing a house party at Alma Court, and generally running around meeting people for lunches, drinks and some great home-cooked dinners (thanks Kathryn and Sinead). My farewell tour even took me to Donegal and Antrim - I couldn't leave Ireland to travel the world without having made it to up there.

So with my new iPod loaded with music (thanks Ciaran), I was ready to go after packing for the trip to Italy and packing for big trip at the same time as clearing out the house at home, attic and all!

Thanks for all the well-wishes, here I go!