Back to the rush continent

We don’t even set foot on Europe that we can already feel the rush that everyone lives with: the plane lands in Lisbon and the hostess tells us to be patient, the door will open as soon as the bus approaches, less than five minutes later two men start shouting in Portuguese, all we understand is that they want to get out of the plane and they can’t understand what is taking so long. Welcome back to reality! In all the countries we’ve been we always felt that we were the fast ones, always getting on time everywhere and walking fast. We soon realize that we actually got slower and more tolerant, around the city of Lisbon people overtake us continuously. It’s sad to think that we are the only continent that never has time for anything and is always rushing around, as if the world would end if we don’t do so. At the end of the days we are the most unhappy people, the most sick ones and the ones that commit suicide, in other places people have barely food and a roof on top of their heads, but they are always smiling and appreciate every single moment of their life. Our stressful life is at the door and we too have to get used to it again. Here we are in the capital of Portugal, where with metros, buses and old trams we move around to explore the big city.

IMG_6819It’s a pretty hilly place so once reached the Castle of San Jorge we walk our way down to the old part of the city, stopping to admire the view of it lying on the side of the river Tago. In the area of Rossio we find a nice market where we take a plate of delicious raw ham and cheese accompanied by a good glass of sangria. Recharged we continue along the river and visit the monastery Jerónimos, now fully used as a showroom for few different museums one of which we visit, the maritime museum where many small and big models of the first ships until the newest ones are represented. Next we take a look at the monument of the discoverers, where many figures of people that left the old continent in search of new lands are carved and, further away, we see the tower of Belém, symbol of this area of Lisbon. After two days wondering around we take the train and move north to Porto. We arrive to the nearest tram station to the hostel we are going to stay, but have no idea of where to go, the maps we find around are all too big, luckily there’s a tourist’s assistant that looks for the address on his phone and gives us direction.

IMG_6910The hostel is really nice and clean, we are very nicely welcomed by the receptionist who also gives us a map showing us where the main attractions are. The room consists in four boxes where two are with single and two with double mattresses, each box has its own light, two little shelves and a curtain for privacy. The bathroom floor is tiled with all tiles in different colours and designs. Everything here is gorgeous, we are very happy about it, especially after the hostel in Lisbon which had no character, bunk beds were everywhere there was space, it was an open space with no doors, there were only two bathrooms for all the guests and worst of all Patrick got bitten by bed bugs every night. We take advantage of the cosiness and have a nice long sleep before setting out for a long walk around the marvellous city. First we walk to Library Lello, where J.K. Rowling, the writer of Harry Potter’s saga used to spend time every morning for two years when she was living in Porto. From the outside the building doesn’t look very special, but on the inside it’s all old style and kept the way it used to be with interesting stairs taking to the second floor.

IMG_6873We spend almost two hours looking through books. Back out in reality we climb up the Clérigos tower to admire the view of the city from different angles, this is the symbol of the city and also the highest tower of the country. We walk down to the river Douro, wonder by its bank and on the way back to the hostel we stop at Sao Bento train station to have a look at the nice painting that are inside. Our second day is dedicated to sampling the very known porto wine, but first we go for a walk through road Santa Catarina where we can see few buildings covered by their amazing white and blue tiles, which I really like, then we cross Luís I bridge and along the river we stop at Sandeman, one of the biggest porto producers. We take a guided tour which explains us how this special wine is produced, then we have a tasting of a white and a red one. Before going to the next tasting we fill up our stomach with a Francesinha, a speciality from here, then we walk up the hill and stop at Croft where we taste four different types of porto. Of course we can’t resist and we buy some to bring back home, now that we can afford to do so as we are almost there. We sadly say goodbye to the lively colourful city of Porto and with a rented car we drive to Caldelas, while back home in Switzerland people are suffering from the hot weather, here each time we move it gets colder, which makes it easier to walk and visit. Our plan to have a relaxing day in the thermal pools changes as soon as we realize that it’s full of old people that already have one foot in their grave and are coming to heal themselves with the magical water hoping to live few days longer, adding the fact that no one speaks English and Portuguese is way harder than anyone could expect, we decide to drive to Braga instead.

IMG_7037Braga is the first settlement of Portugal, a very important place for the country, we have a walk around the old area and I finally have my hair cut after years. But the nicest drive in this area we have it up the hills to Gerês, not far from Spain, on the way we are dazzled by Vilar da Veiga, a lovely village by the lake, knowing about it before we would have booked our nights here. We drive back to Porto’s airport, drop the car and take our fortieth and last flight of the trip. Even though we are very happy to go back home after four hundred days of travelling, see our families and friends, have a nice shower, a good bed and be back to have all the comforts, we are very sad that this adventure is over, we are not tired of travelling and could keep on going for much longer.

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Approaching the end

We arrive to very pretty Placencia, where the infrastructure for tourists are plenty, but at the moment is very quiet. We find friendly Lydia that has a nice clean room for us, then we sign up for one more day of diving in the Caribbean sea. Early in the morning we get some gear and hop on the boat that will take us to South water Caye to plunge around the island and stop on it to have some break from the big waves. The second immersion, on the dive site called trick ridge, will turn out to be the best I’ve had so far: the corals below us are absolutely wonderful, around us we see many white spotted eagle rays and schools of them up to ten, by the end we spot a turtle from far away and the best thing of all is an affable nurse shark that follows us for the entire time, playing around and let himself even pet, it’s an incredible moment! In the evening we have a walk on the gorgeous walking street where I buy a nice wooden bowl from a local artisan and we have dinner in one of the many well decorated restaurants.

IMG_6662Even though we really like the small village, the wind and the emptiness of the place make us decide to leave the next morning, so we have our last long, never ending journey of the whole trip. The first bus leaves at 6:15am, after over four hours we change in Belize City and get on a less comfortable one where we meet for the first time some “apprentice backpackers”, a group of young people from all over the world following a guide and only having the thrill of being on a local bus until we get to the border, after a very easy passage from Belize to Mexico, they switch to a nice and comfortable minivan with air conditioning. We continue on the same bus to Chetumal where we find a honest taxi driver that takes us with his tiny old car to Bacalar, our final destination, reached by 6pm. The hostel where we would like to stay is already full, so we walk along the street looking for a place to sleep finding Casita Carolina which offers us a small trailer on a wonderful green garden directly on the lake.

IMG_6694The place is stunning, we don’t waste a minute to run across the long wooden footbridge and jump into the gratefully coloured water. We find ourselves very relaxed here and decide we want to spend our last days in the small comfy trailer, updating the blog and trying to realize that our long planned journey across the five continents is almost at the end. Unfortunately when we ask to stay two more nights they tell us that it’s already booked, so we have to change our plan. We enjoy the last day in the lagoon then take a bus to Cancun and a ferry to Isla Mujeres. Here we swim in a very see through sea with white sand beach the first day we arrive, after that the rain doesn’t stop a minute, not even on Patrick birthday, which turns out to be another not so special day, last year we found ourselves in an unknown city in Madagascar where we had dinner in a restaurant by ourselves, no other customers in the whole hotel and by luck we could have the last two desserts. At least this time we can have few beers in a nice little restaurant and chose the dessert, but of all the activities that we could have done here, none of them would have been worse doing with such a weather.

IMG_6718Never mind, we spend our days getting to know a little bit more about our next and final country. Of course to be able to tell people that we’ve been travelling in five continents we also need to do so, we’ve been first to Africa, then to Asia, moved to Oceania and now are finishing America, still one is missing, our own continent, we started there and will end it there, but the actual travelling is missing, so to make it more realistic we will spend our last week in the most westerner country of the Iberian Peninsula.

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Sailing Belize’s cayes

We meet our companions at Raggamuffin’s pier, introduce ourselves and straightaway the discussion between us two, two Dutch girls, Chiara and Pia from Austria, Monty and Julie from the United States falls in to politics, all starting from the usual question asked in this period by us Europeans: “what do you think about Trump?”. Since he’s in power we’ve met many Americans, yet no one likes him and no one seems to have voted for him and each time we hear some crazy stories about what he’s trying to do or what he says he will do. This time we also hear about other bad politicians from Holland and Austria of which we haven’t heard before, being always on the go we don’t listen much to the news, but we find it more interesting to hear them from people coming from the countries in question. It’s time to leave and we decide to concentrate on the vacation and not on what is bad back home.

IMG_6034For the first few hours there is enough wind to sail, afterwards we mainly travel by engine, however it doesn’t really matter, what’s important right now is to have fun which we definitely do with the wonderful people we have with us, apart from the ones listed before, there is Stephen from England, Lara from Spain that now lives in New Orleans, a couple from the near Ambergris Caye, a family from Wisconsin, two Belizean girls with an American and last but not least the amazing crew: Kevin the captain, Larry the cook, Chris and Bobby. On the way we have a break at Goff’s Caye, see many small and bigger islands, few dolphins swimming by and, when we stop for snorkelling, we spot a manatee, also called sea cow as it is a herbivorous mammal, big and gentle like cows on land. The legend says that the name was given by drunken pirates that when they first saw these animals coming out of the water with seaweed stuck on their head they thought they were mermaids, when they looked closely and they figured they weren’t, their reaction was “Oh man…”, then seeing their T-shaped tail “…a T”, putting the two together it came out as manatee. Wherever the name comes from, I find it to be a very nice animal and I’m glad we managed to see one so close to us. Continuing our way along the world’s second largest reef we arrive to Rendezvous Caye, a piece of sandy land right on top of the reef, we set up our tents and enjoy a beautiful sunset standing in the water with a rum punch in our hands.

IMG_6080After a delicious dinner we spend the evening chatting in good company. Some of us wake up in time to see the sunrise, we wake up just after and once put the tent back together we have a good breakfast and restart our journey on Ragga Empress catamaran, after two stops for some snorkelling we dock at Tobacco Caye. Being this our next destination we go in search of the hotel where we will be staying to have a look at it, here we meet Eric, the dive master who tells us he will try to arrange a pick up from the island where we will be staying tonight, so that we don’t have to go all the way to the main land and back out here. About two hours later we get to Ragga Caye, here we have some nice four bed dorms where to spend the night. Larry makes us a exquisite cevice with the conch that were found today, one of them was picked up by me, of course it was the best one. Whilst for dinner we have a barracuda bought from the fishermen and all the fish that were caught today by us, unfortunately the huge fifteen centimetres long fish caught by Stephen “accidently” fell into the sea. Pia and Chiara explain us a very funny card game called cambio which we play the whole evening getting addicted to it and modifying it to a drinking game. The only reason that makes us stop playing is the fact that us girls have to go to toilet, being far away and having to get soaking wet under the storm, we decide not to go back, but go directly in bed.

IMG_6176After breakfast we hop on the big boat for our last time, we go to a small island to observe frigate birds, next we go in search of manatees. We spot about six, but all we can see is part of them coming out from the water. Near to South Water Caye we snorkel once more learning few interesting things about fish and corals from Chris, then back to Ragga Caye we have lunch and exchange e-mail addresses with everybody, in order to keep in touch and share the pictures of the three incredible days. We watch our companionship taking the speed boat to the main land and wait for Eric to come and pick us up. Half an hour later we find ourselves on the small Tobacco Caye, a fishing island completely surrounded by conch shells with a population of twenty people and the reef just off shore. Already from the pier of Reef’s End Lodge we can scrutinize many giant southern stingrays and white spotted eagle rays, when we put our masks on and the heads under the water we discover a whole area full of them feeding from the grassy bottom. It’s hard to get out but it’s time for a shower and dinner.

IMG_6479In the morning we go scuba diving seeing many corals and two nice nurse sharks, one of them pregnant. The next day we are happy to go out again to see such a rich marine life and after the second dive the very friendly Swedish owner offers us a beer that we enjoy on the way back to the island. Last time we stayed in an all inclusive resort on an island it was in Borneo with very basic room and food, here compare we are treated really good, with very good food, a comfortable room and nice people. We really enjoy this place, swimming, snorkelling, diving, paddling and relaxing, but after four nights we leave hoping to find another wonderful place in beautiful Belize.

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UnBelizeble

The border crossing from Guatemala to Belize is way easier than expected. We get out of the bus with all our belongings, get stamped out, walk about fifty metres, get stamped in and walk back on the bus, no questions are asked, everything goes smooth and fast. After seven months without crossing any borders by land all we remember is scams, problems, strange tips to be paid, long waiting time, … Non of all this happens here and once again the first approach to the country is very positive. We arrive in San Ignacio and ask directions for Hi-Et Guest House, everybody is happy to help, even taxi drivers. At the hostel the man explains us about the small village, what there is to do and on the street we meet many Afro Rastafarian greeting us, together with boards advertising jerk chicken and a slang hard to understand, it seems like being back to Jamaica, the only big difference is no smell of weed in the air.

IMG_5831The village doesn’t have much to offer, but we are here for one reason, the ATM cave tour which we organize for the next morning. On a minivan we drive to the valley where after about half an hour walk we get to the entrance of Actun Tunichil Muknal, we jump into the refreshing water and start swimming, walking and climbing upstream. Apart from the usual stalactites, stalagmites and columns that we’ve seen in other caves before, we see some superb crystallizations made from the water melting the limestone. At one point we climb up a stone, take our shoes off and enter, through a small hole, into a huge dry chamber where the trace of human beings is apparent from the beginning: there are ceramic pots everywhere, following what is clearly the waterway during wet season. Back in eight hundred A.D. Mayan started to assist at a bad dry period that became worse and worse until, not having enough water to drink and to produce food for the overpopulated region, by nine hundred A.D. they moved north and south losing a lot of their power having to submit themselves to other populations. Of course as soon as they realized that the rain wouldn’t come as often anymore they tried everything they could, dragging themselves into the darkness of caves like this one in search of the God of Rain to perform rituals hoping to bring the rain back.

IMG_5821These rituals went on and on for eighty years, in the chamber we can see that they started with simple smoke, as we go deeper in we see pieces of bones that were diagnosed to be fingers and further in we find skulls and full bodies skeleton, meaning that with the time they sacrificed not only pieces of their bodies, but they were so desperate they would secrify people, not anyone though, studies made from archaeologists show that the rests found are all modified skulls, which means they were wealthy people, as those kind of modification were made as symbol of beauty only to royals and such. They really tried everything and gave their best to the Gods. Being able to see human skeletons one thousand years old is an uncommon opportunity, I feel very lucky, especially because it was already closed to the tourists once after the third time a camera fell down on the artefacts ruining them, now no camera is allowed in, but still I think is not going to be open to the public for ever, it’s such a treasure and needs to be kept in good conditions. From the very start to the very end of the whole tour our guide Hugh didn’t stop giving us information, he’s like an open encyclopaedia, he knows all about Mayan culture and has answers to all our questions, without him it wouldn’t have been so interesting. He made the tour worth every single cent spent and left us with a lot more knowledge about this mysteriously amazing culture.

IMG_5829We leave the inland part of the country very satisfied and take a local bus to Belize City, where a very kind young man that was on the bus, walks us to the water taxi terminal showing us a little bit of the small city. The whole country has a population of only three hundred sixty eight thousand, impressively a small amount of people, but still has many different ethnicities, the main ones are Maya, Garifuna (Afro-Amerindian), Chinese and the new arrival white people attracted by a land geographically interesting, where anybody can easily buy a property and the official language is surprisingly English, as England was the last country to invade, letting them nicely have their independence in nineteen eighty one. The tendency of retiring in such a beautiful nation we especially see it on Caye Caulker, the island we stop to for several days. We come here after hearing many people talking good about it and we understand why, the motto is “Go slow”, there are no cars or paved roads, only bicycles and golf carts wonder around and the barrier reef is very close by. Our plan is to move from here with a sailing boat which we organize already the first day with Raggamuffin, a very recommended company.

IMG_5837Of course while on the island we want to take advantage of the spectacular water to do some diving, most of all we are interested in a day trip to the Lighthouse Reef where we can dive into the famous Great Blue Hole. We ask few different diving shops about it and decide to go with Black Durgon, the price is one of the cheapest and they are very friendly, our wish to first go for a local reef dive cannot be fulfilled as there is way too much wind for anyone to go out with a small boat. Unfortunately even the Blue Hole trip, for three days in a row, is moved to the next day, so all we have left to do is to go with the flow of the motto and “Go slow”, thinking, considering and rethinking of what to do next, after the three days sailing, shall we go to Glover’s Atoll Resort for a week, or spend four days on Tobacco Caye and other four in Placencia? It’s a very hard decision and finally we opt for the second, in order to see more of Belize. On our fourth day, we can go diving, we leave the island early in the morning and after three hours of very bumpy ride, with a break of calm water when crossing the Turneffe Atoll, we arrive at the edge of the huge three hundred metres diameter perfectly rounded hole where we have a deep dive of forty metres. The natural monument is surely amazing to see from an helicopter or a aeroplane, but diving into it is nothing that special, I don’t see why is reckoned to be one of the ten best dive sites in the world, apart from some big stalactites that were hard to see in such darkness, the only nice thing is a big reef shark swimming right below us.

IMG_5916We will see more sharks in the next dive as well as a lionfish, a stingray, a lobster and many nice corals. For lunch we stop on Half Moon Caye where a big colony of red footed boobies live and later we have one more not so interesting dive always in the Lighthouse Reef. Back on Caye Caulker we get some information about the sailing trip of the following morning and prepare for departure.

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Adventures in the river

Passing quickly to Panajacel we leave Lago Atitlán looking backwards few time, as it could be the last time we see volcanoes in our life. With eleven other tourists we hop on the small bus that will eventually take us to Lanquin. The driver seems to be very confused of which road to take and this doesn’t sound like a good thing to us, in fact after more or less one hour drive he stops and tells us we can get out and have a walk if we want, it might take long before we can continue. At this point we understand what is going on: there’s a national strike blocking all the roads of Guatemala. The protest is against the president Jimmy Morales and the government who decided to sell all the energy companies to private. Of course this signifies cut of jobs and raise of electricity price. While we are listening to the various men protesting and demonstrating is only 10am and a woman who comes up to us asking how we’re doing tells us that the road will probably be closed until 4-5pm, not bad considering that we only have another nine hours to get to our final destination. Luckily the woman was wrong and by 1pm the street is cleared. After a long way on a dirt road, sure we have arrived, the driver stops in front of Mc Donald telling us this is our only chance to have dinner. It’s 8pm and we still have two hours to go. The day seems to never end, when we finally arrive at El Retiro Lodge we are welcomed in the worth way by the manager who refuses to give us the included breakfast we have on our booking being very rude. At least the room is actually as nice as we were expecting, after a shower we fast fall asleep.

IMG_5428In the morning we wake up at the wonder of this magnificent place set right beside a clear and refreshing river, still mad and disappointed about the behaviour of the manager, we decide to let him win and stay here a bit longer organizing the shuttle bus for the next destination and the tour to Semuc Champey which we will do the next day. Together with a dozen of other travellers we jump on the pickup, holding on tight we ride the nine kilometres of bumpy road reaching the Cahabón river, we take off our clothes, with the swimming costumes, shoes and the lights of a candle each we enter the K’Anba cave. Following the guide we crawl, swim, jump and climb into one kilometre of it. We have a lot of fun and once out the fun is not over, we take a tube each and walk until a nice pool where we drink a beer floating under warm waterfalls, we then let us slowly drag down the stream. After lunch is time for the steep climb up to the view point, from here we enjoy the famous blue pools formed in years by the river excavating through limy rocks, before we benefit of them to have a swim: we jump into the first one, let the fish eat out the dead skin from our feet, then continue further down until the last one crawling or sliding.

IMG_5670Unfortunately time always goes fast when you’re having fun and soon is time to leave. One more crazy drive down the road and, exhausted, we take a rest on the hammock in front of our room meeting our neighbour, a Belgian couple who, like us, left home one year ago and is travelling the world for thirteen months going east, the only difference is that instead of having business cards of their blog, they have t-shirts. It’s an interesting encounter, the first time we meet people doing something so similar to us. We enjoy this paradisiacal place for the last time having a delicious buffet dinner and by 8am the next morning we are ready to move to Flores, fortunately this time we don’t find ourselves in the middle of protest or big traffic jams, everything goes well until, early in the evening, about five minutes away from the village, they tell us to move on to another minivan, where a too kind man gives us advises of what to do, how and when to organize activities and a lot more. At one point he stops and asks us if we want to go with him to the archaeological site the next morning, when we answer that we don’t know yet when we’re going and we first want to get to the hostel, he drops us all down in the middle of a storm not telling us where we are. Getting nicely wet we walk all together asking people directions and luckily finding straightaway Los Amigos Hostal. I and Patrick are the only one not having a reservation, when we ask for a room the kind receptionist tells us that the only space left is on the loft. At first I worry about the price as the name sounds to me very posh and luxurious, we soon realize that it’s a simple platform with six mattresses on the floor and just a roof to cover from the rain, the cheapest option they have. It turns out to be the best place to be, as there’s always a nice breeze passing through letting us sleep much better than anyone else we talk to in the morning, whom are complaining about the heat. Without any doubt we book the next three nights in this simple and comfortable accommodation. With our river tour and minivan mates we decide to go to visit the famous Tikal the next morning, so at 4:30am we are all ready at the reception, as usual in Guatemala we don’t leave until forty minutes later. In about one hour we get to the archaeological site, the group gets bigger as more people arrive and the thirty four of us start to walk following the helpful guide, a man who knows a lot about the place and Mayan culture.

IMG_5758We pleasurably listen to him learning a little bit more about this amazingly curious people. The constructions are massive, from the top of the biggest one all we can see is the forest and the top of some other awesome buildings. Being very early and still practically empty the place is magical, all we can hear are birds singing and howler monkeys screaming. Continuing our walk through the dense jungle we spot some howler and spider monkeys that happily answer to our stupid noise, when we get to the main square the tour is finished and the temperature is getting higher and higher, so we decide to take the first shuttle back. The next few days we spend them relaxing and discovering the streets of this small island on lake Petén Itzá, where we also swim together with local people. We say goodbye to the many people met and organize the journey to cross the border for Belize.

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Xela to Lago Atitlán in three days

The alarm rings at 5:30am and surprisingly the sky is clear. Happy to start our trip with no rain we meet up with everybody at Quetzaltrekkers’ office, we have breakfast and walk through the city to reach he chicken bus who takes us to Xecam, where we start our hike. The first two hours are a steep uphill. I struggle a bit, but thanks to the patient of Eeva, our Finnish guide who replaced the sick guide we met the day before, slowly, with many brakes to regain breath or to let people and mules loaded with wood pass, I reach the highest point of the whole trek, Alaska, at three thousand fifty metres above sea level. Between one cloud and the other we can see the many cultivated fields, impressive how steep and high they go to. Descending a narrow track through thick vegetation and beans field we reach a road that we follow until we get to Santa Catarina, where we will spend the night on comfortable mattresses. After toasting with a beer for Megan’s birthday we have the rare chance to wash ourselves in a Temazcal, the typical Mayan sauna.

IMG_5218It’s a small cement house where we have to crawl to get in, inside there’s a coal fire, a bucket with hot water, one with cold water and an empty one to mix the two with a scoop, sitting on a wooden bench we take a nice and hot bucket shower in a warm environment. Done this we are so relaxed that it doesn’t take long to fall asleep after an abundant plate of pasta. Breakfast and another early start, the first hour is a nice flat track, then a short downhill and here comes one of the hardest stretch of them all, to make it less tiresome they have called it Record Hill, making out of half of the ascent a race. The fastest gets up in just over ten minutes, I don’t even really check my time as added to my normal difficulty I have two huge blisters that are really very painful. Once on top of the mountains we soon reach Ice-cream Village, called this way because of a lady that sells ice-creams, here I finally take my shoes off to continue barefoot on nice soft grass and with flip-flops where the ground is too rough. Every time we take a long break James, the American guide, tells us something about Guatemala’s present or history, letting us know a lot we didn’t know about and making the trip even more interesting. Of course he also tells us what Quetzaltrekkers does for the communities around these mountains, not only they help children and their families, in the past they have also brought water to some villages and fixed pipes after the earthquake.

IMG_5233Of the efficiency of their works we have a proof in the evening when Don Pedro, the man who hosts us for the night preparing a delicious strawberry milkshake and chicken for dinner, thanks us all for participating with the organization that helped him and many other people a lot giving them a better life. After a nice hot shower and marshmallows with chocolate biscuits around a campfire we go to sleep and wake up very early, at 3:30am. We have a small one hour walk and reach a spectacular mirador from where we can appreciate a fantastic sunrise over the lake Atitlán surrounded by many hills and three imposing volcanoes. We then descent the mountain hearing few interesting facts about the lake which is created by a crater and has no tributary or outflow river, it’s made out of rain water and flows out through underground channels. Once we reach the bottom we stop at La Voz coffee cooperative, in San Juan, the hike is over and it’s time to enjoy a tasty iced coffee. With a pick-up, an actual pick-up car properly fitted to carry standing people on the back, we move to San Pedro La Laguna, where we have a good lunch at El Fondadero restaurant. From the terrace we can directly jump in to the lake Atitlán which is nice and refreshing.

IMG_5284We wait for our bags to arrive, give all the borrowed gear back to the amazing Quetzaltrekkers’ guide, say goodbye to everyone and go to look for a comfortable room where to spend few nights. We find a nice place right on the lake, with delicious breakfasts included, private bathroom and even a television with many channels, after long time without one we are happy to be able to watch some movies, cartoons and, being in Spanish, it’s good for me to learn more words. The first day in this cute little village we spend it relaxing and thinking of the nice things we have seen in the past three days: all the villagers we have met were absolutely kind and happy to see us; the view hasn’t been the best due to the many clouds, but it didn’t rain and the temperature was really good; our group was very nice, we got along with everybody and met some very interesting people, learning about other countries’ politics and cultures. The next day we take a walk uphill meeting many villagers saying hello to us and two women who are happy to pose for us to take a photo.

IMG_5296Once we reach the lake again on the other side, we find out that the village isn’t really that small, there’s plenty to see and do that we hadn’t realized. We book a professional massage for the day after and we find the restaurant where we will go for a tasty dinner with the cheapest beer of all our trip: ten Quetzales for one litre, which correspond to one dollar forty. After the very relaxing massage we still haven’t had enough of San Pedro and decide to stay one more night and take a day to add something to our blog: the itineraries we followed in every single country. We thought about it already a long time ago, but never had time or good internet connection to do it, hopefully this will be interesting for somebody, for us it was a nice way to remember everywhere we have been and different experiences we’ve been through since when we have left home one year ago.

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Friendly Guatemalans

Not only the first flight was anticipated, the second flight was delayed, so we end up staying at San José airport for seven hours, at the beginning thinking that our bags got lost, instead they were directly transferred, or better, they were once the lady has called us at the counter to assure the codes of them and put them into the system. When we arrive at the small plane that will take us to Guatemala there are still people coming out so we assist at the emptying and refilling of the toilet and luggage. Finally we leave. Once arrived we happily find our bags and, just after, a man who offers us a shared taxi to Antigua. We’ve heard some bad things about Guatemala City, apparently is one of the most dangerous place in the world, therefore we’re not planning to stop even if it’s late in the evening, as soon as two other people are interested in going straight to the small town around forty kilometres away, we leave and in less than one hour we arrive at the nice little guest house that we had booked earlier.

IMG_5092Our first impression of the country and his people is very positive, the taxi driver is very friendly, he tells us about his life and family, what there is to do around the area and asks us about Switzerland, our lifestyle and landscape. At the end he leaves us without pretending any tips, but with a shake of hands and a “mucho gusto de habiendo conocido”, it was a pleasure meeting you. It seems strange to see Mc Donald’s, Coca Cola, many American products and Wi-Fi everywhere, after almost a month without all of this in Cuba. Not only these products are widely spread, but we find the country very developed, we were expecting a lot of poverty and bad infrastructure, instead when we go for a hike the man who picks us up has everything noted on his Smartphone, knowing exactly where everybody who’s joining us is staying. After one hour drive through a couple of villages we arrive to our start point where many children are waiting for us to hire handmade sticks for the walk. Following the kind and informed guide we hike uphill, behind us men and women walk with horses on the leash asking whoever they see struggling if they want a “taxi”. By the time we reach the top of the mountain all of the approximately six horses carried someone for the happiness of the rural villagers.

IMG_5138From here we enjoy the view of four volcanoes: Agua, Acatenango and Pacaya and Fuego that are two of the three active volcanoes of the thirty seven there are in the whole country. Sometimes we can hear a noise on top of our heads, is the near Pacaya that spreads out smoke. We walk on the lava that flowed down in 2014 and we cook some marshmallows in a hole where hot steam comes out. Back to Antigua we walk around the lovely streets, women try to sell us handmade clothes and jewellery asking us where we come from and whishing us a good day, a man sells us some long peanuts, I buy a nice pullover bargaining a good price and we walk into a free chocolate museum where the staff explains and gives us samples of their handmade chocolate, interested to know about our famous and delicious Swiss chocolate. At the end of the day we walk through a local market full of fresh fruits until we reach the bus station where we try to understand how the famous chicken buses work, so the next day we hop on one leaving for Chimaltenango.

IMG_5103These are old American school buses redecorated, once there are three people per seat obviously made for the bums of small children and not for our big adult’s one, the driver starts the engine and a clown jumps on the bus telling jokes, this is something we hadn’t seen yet. He’s very funny and when he leaves we give him a tip. At high speed we cross few small villages and when we are almost there a heavy storm starts, of course our bags are on the roof and not covered. With soaking wet bags on our back that will also get us nicely wet, we walk in the town asking where to catch the next bus to Xela, everyone is very friendly and helps us until one stops the driver and tells us to get on. Luckily this time our backpacks are put inside, but we are less lucky with the seat, having to be the ones sitting on the “third” space, which means having one butt cheek on the seat and the other one hanging in the air, this makes the ride very challenging especially being the road very curvy for two long hours. One last change of bus and we arrive to Quetzaltenango, also called Xela. A taxi takes us to Casa Argentina where we know that the tour agency Quetzaltrekkers has its base, we take a room, have a walk around the second biggest city of Guatemala and have a jug of beer overlooking the main plaza and mountains on the background.

IMG_5154As soon as the sun goes down we feel very chilled, realizing that we are at two thousand three hundred metres above sea level, pretty amazing thinking that the highest village in Switzerland is just over two thousand one hundred metres high and basically only used as a ski place, here the population is around one hundred fifty three thousand and no one seems to bother about the altitude, well I do, as soon as I walk a bit uphill my breath is missing out. Later in the evening we go to meet some of the volunteers of the agency, a non-profit organisation who raises money to help children of the nearby villages giving them the opportunity to go to school and, in case of need, a place to sleep and eat. The explanation and organization of the trips they offer convince us straightaway so we book a three days hike to Lago Atitlán. We still have two days before leaving, therefore we move to a nicer hostel finding a spacious room at Casa Reinassance, where to hang to dry everything that got wet on the way here. We have a nice long sleep and when we enter Cafe Lounge to have breakfast we meet again Hugo, a French guy now living in Costa Rica that was with us at the Pacaya trekking. We join him at his table and chat until after midday giving us an appointment for the same evening. Early in the afternoon we take a minivan to Fuente Georginas, a natural hot water spring nearby.

IMG_5156It’s Sunday and the pools are full of local people, the only tourists are I, Patrick and Brianne, an American girl with whom we spend the afternoon talking about travels and cultures, inviting her to join us for a drink later. At seven O’clock, punctual like a Swiss watch, we go to pick up Hugo and Brianne at their hostel and go to have few beers at a nice bar. The next day we get our stuff ready and when it’s time to go for the pre-hike meeting a big storm starts, there’s not much we can do about it, so we walk to the place getting nicely wet and hoping that it’s not going to be like this for the next three days. The details of the trip are explained to us, the two American guides and the ten other hikers are introduced to us: six British, one Canadian, one Australian and two Israelis. A little bit of food is given to each one of us to carry and we borrow all the gear we need: a large backpack to put everything we don’t need to be taken directly to the lake, a nice thick sleeping bag, a sleeping matt, a rain coat, a pair of woollen socks and a jumper. We say goodbye to everybody and go to sleep early to be ready to meet everyone again in few hours.

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Trying to understand Cuba

In Trinidad we move to a better Casa Particular and spend two days trying to organize the following of our journey in the country. The plan is to go to Santiago, then to Baracoa, but once again the buses are all full. We consider an alternative route, but calculating quickly the distances, the time needed and the expenses, we figure that it may be better to stay on the western part of Cuba and take our time to discover more about this area. With a shared taxi we go to Playa Girón, on the way we assist at the massacre of hundreds of crabs which are trying to cross the road and we see how farmers lay their rice to dry directly on the road, using a whole lane for long distances.

IMG_4508Once there we ask about Julio, a dive instructor that also runs a Casa, unfortunately he can’t host us because he’s painting the house, but he recommends us Kenia y Yosnel, friends of him. Here we will have the best seafood and breakfasts of the whole Cuban trip. What we find very disappointing though, is that staying in these Casas Particulares doesn’t mean living with the people, they are always very distant and never want to open up to us or chat a little bit, it’s a shame because we would really love to hear something more about their recent history and all the changes they have been through with Fidel and the communism, the “Special Period” where they had no more helps from the outside due to the collapse of the USSR, the opening to the tourism in 1993 and the switch to Raul Castro as a president in 2008. I guess all we can learn remains on books or on the web. In the morning we walk down to the very old and bad equipped diving centre where they give us whatever gear they still have and, with an old somehow still running truck-bus, they take us to Punta Perdiz where we immerge twice through small reef caves and to the wreck of an American ship sunk back in 1961 when they attacked Cuba from the sea, failing their temptation.

IMG_4750We plunge for three days in a row with the luck of having some better equipment brought directly from Julio that, despite his neutral being, took a liking to us. There aren’t many fish at all, we only see few lionfish, not many aquarium fish, small nudibranchs and govios, which are tiny fish that live in corals or rock holes. However the corals are very colourful and intact, which make the environment around us very picturesque. We spend one more day in the Bay Of Pigs enjoying the wonderful water of Caleta Buena, then take advantage of the opportunity to go directly to Viñales sharing a taxi with two young Germans. We will spend more than a week here taking few excursions around the area. The Casa is nothing really special, but the woman who owns it seems to be nice and explains us a little bit how things work in Cuba: a normal job gives people enough money to eat, healthcare and education are free for everybody, whilst the only way they can afford more is to work for the tourism. With Maribel we have some nice chats and we know that what we pay will help her family a lot.

IMG_5016On the street of this very touristy village we meet Roy, a guy that has lived in Italy and knows very well Italian, we will arrange our tours through him, saving a little bit of money, as he organizes everything without paying taxes to the government. The first of May, very important day for Cubans which demonstrate on streets for socialism and in memory of El Che and Fidel, we share the taxi with an Italian couple and drive all the way to the western part of the country, Maria La Gorda. There’s not much at all down here, only one old resort, beautiful beaches and a wonderful sea. We snorkel a while, then decide to go scuba diving in what is known as one of the best spots in the Caribbean Sea. It is well worth it, the visibility is very good and being a place far away from everything, where not many people arrive, corals are plenty and amazingly intact. Among the many stickers that are on the door of the diving centre, we find one that comes from Gambarogno, it makes me feel close to home, I wonder if I know the person who brought it here. The next day, with the same couple we visit the Cueva De Santo Tomás, the second largest cave of Latin America. Of the forty six kilometres long pothole we are allowed to enter one kilometre following a guide.

IMG_4950I find really interesting that the whole way we walk without artificial light and climbing up and down the rocks without any support, only with the help of our hands. After this exercise we deserve a good dinner and enjoy some good gnocchi and tortellini. As Patrick doesn’t feel very well we take one day to update the blog deciding to connect to the world. Good thing we do, because we find out that our flight from Havana has been anticipated from 1pm to 7:55am. We also finally get to know how much we will be refunded for the car accident that we had almost four months ago in Australia. We will calculate exactly once we receive the money in my account, but we will probably come out even, which makes us really happy, I was worried that we wouldn’t get anything back from the insurance. Patrick is feeling a bit better so we take the bus that makes the roundtrip of Viñales valley stopping at few places with a nice view and at a hotel where with three Cuc we can take a swim in their swimming pool. The next day we take a shared truck-taxi to Cayo Jutías.

IMG_4987Everybody talks very good about it, it’s supposed to be one of the best islands of northern Cuba. It might be because of the wind and the clouds, but we don’t find it so spectacular, still worth the two hours there and back on a very bumpy and broken road. Our last day in the Pinar Del Rio region we spend it doing the most famous of all activities here: horseback riding. I remember being on a horse when I was a child, but never after that, so it’s like the first time and probably also the last one, I don’t find it much fun at all, my feet are a lot happier when they touch the ground. Fortunately the ride isn’t very long, with the tenths of other tourists we follow a track that first stops at a tobacco farm where a funny guy explains us how the leafs are treated and dried making a cigar right in front of us. Next stop is a coffee farm where they briefly tell us how the coffee beans are toasted then try to sell us some. Third and last stop is at a lake with an agreeable view of the mogotes (limestone mountains).

IMG_5010We leave Viñales very disappointed about the “pour” Maribel, which in effect takes advantage of us tourists just like anyone else, making us pay a very high price for the laundry she does for us and giving us the discount we agreed only for three nights out of eight. Back to the capital, our start point, we decide to try to go to a Casa Particular recommended by Lonely Planet, Dulce Hostal. It turns out to be the best place we’ve been to, Dulce Maria is the friendliest person of whole Cuba, the first one that doesn’t give or take any commissions to anyone, has a lower price for the room, doesn’t like the way we are treated like “banco che camina” (walking bank) by locals and doesn’t fully agree with socialism, understanding that humans are capitalists by nature. People always tell me I talk too much, well with this woman I don’t even have time to open my mouth… She tells us about what happen when the revolution started in 1956, what Fidel’s crazy plans were and how much he failed letting them almost starve. How she was made to be a teacher at only fourteen years old. How she found out from tourists about Yugoslavia been split up and many more interesting stories.

IMG_5058Apart from listening to Dulce for hours we have a walk around Habana Vieja and visit the informative Museo de la Revolutión and the Havana Club museum, which luckily this time is open. At 5am we wake up, have a coffee with Dulce and say goodbye to her. The prearranged taxi doesn’t arrive, so we find another one on the street, saving five Cuc which we will spend in the duty-free shop of the airport, even here the woman at the counter tries to make us pay fifty cents more. We really had enough of this and are happy to fly to San José, in Costa Rica, where we’ll have many hours to wait for the next flight to Guatemala City.

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Cuba with my parents

At the airport of Havana we expect to see my mum and my dad waiting for us, but they are not there, so I look for our names and find a big black man holding a piece of paper saying “Loly y Patrick”. The man introduces himself to us and calls the taxi. Once in the city I spot my dad on the side of the road, instant later my mum comes out of a building. I’m so happy to hug them after almost one year. They take us in the Casa Particular that they have booked from home, which turns out to be the worst one of the whole trip, but very typical and interesting, with a funny lady named Marisa that prepares breakfast and cleans the house. We leave our bags in the room and go to have our first cocktail together. Somehow we manage to find the most expensive places of the whole country for both dinner and drinks afterwards.

IMG_4217In the morning we go to the bank to change some money, my mum has done this procedure before, but I don’t believe her when she says that she had to wait on a queue for more than one hour, so we send the two men for a drink and we queue up behind “el ultimo”. After one hour we are not even inside, but still out under the sweating hot sun, finally we enter and find out that there another fifteen to twenty people already sitting on the chairs waiting. For every person that goes at the counter it takes at least ten minutes. Mum tells me to give her the money and wait outside with dad and Patrick, somehow she manages to get up and reach the counter where a man counts the money and writes down every single piece he receives and gives out, waits for approval by the chief and finally let her go. We’ve been lucky, it took only two hours, we’ve heard of people waiting until more than three hours. It doesn’t take long to feel that we are in a communist country completely controlled by the government, where even the internet access doesn’t exist, there are only three spots in the whole of Cuba where there’s connection and with one and a half Cuc and a scratching card you can sit around the plaza with other tourists for one hour of Wi-Fi.

IMG_4483Procedure that we will eventually do to upload our photos and this article. Life for locals is very cheap and paid in Moneda National (Cup), while everything for tourist is much more expensive and paid with Pesos Convertibles (Cuc). Nobody ever does anything for free, there’s always a high commission to pay, between twenty to fifty percent on a price that is already high itself for such a pour country, where we hear that the average monthly pay is twenty five Cuc. But we are here to discover the place so, despite all this, we decide to take a tour around the city with an old timer cabriolet passing through Plaza de la Revolution where the recently passed away very much loved Fidel Castro used to make his speeches, then we have a walk in the pretty old city arriving to the Havana Club rum museum just after closing time.

IMG_4184The next morning we are ready at 8am, a Cuban lady that now lives in Ticino has organized for us a taxi with a guide-driver to take us around the main attractive spots of the country. The phone of the Casa rings, the driver will arrive only at 10am because he has to change vehicle. It doesn’t surprise us, we take advantage to go for breakfast. When he arrives the car isn’t big enough for the four of us and the baggage, the price per day that he tells us is higher than what was arranged, plus the driver that is supposed to be also a guide doesn’t even introduce himself, we don’t hear him saying a word. We all agree that this isn’t what we want, we will find another way to get around. We consider various options and discuss about them, until we decide to take a taxi to Varadero and think about what to do later on from there. We arrive early in the afternoon and find a nice Casa Particular where to spend two nights. We put our swimming costume on and jump into the wavy water of the Gulf Of Mexico. I, dad and Patrick have a lot of fun jumping in and over the big waves, while mum relaxes with a book and a mojito.

IMG_4251There are plenty of restaurants around, all offering the same meal that we will find anywhere else: chicken, pork or fish with a bit of salad and rice. The next day we take the recommended hop on-hop off bus. We will laugh about it for the whole trip as it is the worst ever sightseeing bus, all we see is every single resort of the peninsula and nothing else. We find relief on few mojitos and another jump in the sea. The only bus to Cienfuegos is already full, so we take a taxi, having to wait about an hour at the police station for “inspection”, we will never fully understand these checking by the police, what we do notice is that they only stop cars that have tourist in, which manly means money matters. As soon as we get out of the car in Cienfuegos, Victor approaches us offering two rooms at his Casa, we accept and have the second best meal and breakfast at his rooftop restaurant. The city doesn’t have much to offer except some nice buildings to look at, so the next day, thanks to the advice of a young man working at the Casa, we take a trip to the botanical gardens then to Rancho Luna, the closest beach. Finally for the first time we manage to take a Viazul Bus and, in one and a half hour, we arrive to Trinidad. The town is small and very colourful, is probably the most touristic place of Cuba and also the one with the most choice of restaurants. While I and mum chat, Patrick and dad go in search of an accommodation with two available rooms. We go to the best museum of the town, where the only interesting part is a terrace on top of a tower where we can admire the view of whole Trinidad.

IMG_4353We line up for some information at the only tour operator and organize a trip to a nearby park for the next day. When we wake up it’s raining and it continues even after breakfast, we get to the tour office and they honestly tell everybody that the weather isn’t going to change so they are willing to give the money back to whoever wants to cancel the excursion. We get our money back and think of what else we can do, outside the office a man offers us a taxi to Santa Clara, where we can visit the Che Guevara museum which is inside, so doesn’t matter the rain. We bargain the price and leave with a nice old Chevrolet, luckily with windows. We arrive in front of the big statue and mausoleum of the famous revolutionary, take few picture and when we try to go in the museum a man stops us and tells us that it’s closed due to the rain which brings too much humidity. What? Really? Nobody really understands this, it makes no sense, but it is so and the only thing that remains for us to do is have a walk in the city, have some lunch and drive another two hours back to Trinidad taking it as a funny joke to tell people. At least along the way we see some interesting villages, the way people still use horses as a main transport for people and goods and many propaganda posters.

IMG_4290One last good dinner together with my parents, although they give us fish fritters without any fish, then in the morning we wait for the taxi that takes them back to Havana where they have a flight in the evening. We have spent some very nice time together and had a lot of funny situation to laugh about.

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Welcome to paradise

During our stopover in Fort Lauderdale we find out that Fabi’s flight was delayed, so she will arrive only the next day. The booking she had done at a hostel has been cancelled too, so we have a new address of an apartment in New Kingston. Once entered in Jamaica we wait for the bus that takes us downtown. At the bus station in Parade we are very confused of which bus to take next, a king lady tells us to take one bus to Half Way Tree and at the Clocktower Plaza ask for a taxi, here between a “ya man” and another we understand where to go and find a man of which we only understand the price, luckily at the entrance gate of the apartment the guard knows Edie, the woman we are looking for. She welcomes us with a smile and a comprehensive English, she shows us the apartment and takes us for a drive around the area, she even stops for us to take home some jerk chicken for dinner. In the morning we go on the main road waiting for a bus, a car stops and takes us downtown for the same price as the bus, this is a route taxi and from now on is what we will mainly use as a transport. At Parade we observe the people around, who sells fruit, who’s having a walk with the children, who just sits around, who comes around with trolleys loaded with speakers and plays his music loud, who sells cold drinks and who like us is waiting for the bus to come.

IMG_3951Finally, with one day delay, here comes Fabi. We buy some fruits, go back to the flat and decide to walk to the Bob Marley Museum, after a long walk and a taxi taken at the last moment we arrive and unfortunately it’s closed, we find solace with a nice cold Red Stripe. We return to the museum in the morning and have a rousing tour around the house where The Legend has been spending plenty of time and recorded many albums. I learn a lot more about his short life. We take our bags and stop to eat what is one of the best dishes we have here in Jamaica: Jerk pork. The taxi takes us to the minivan that goes to Port Antonio, a two hours long journey squashed in four people on a three seat per lane space, this sounds more like a real local way of travelling. It’s nice to be back to a country where every single movement is an adventure, it can be tiring, but it’s a lot of fun. In Port Antonio we ask people where to go for Garden House, until a lady tells us to follow her, she’s going that direction. From the bottom of the stairs we see two rastamen smiling and telling us to go up.

IMG_4020For two days we are very spoiled by Patrick and Bobo, they cook us some delicious Rastafari Food and treat us very well. We take a walk to the mountains meeting many interesting people like a man who’s building a Rastafari Village, we stop at a fresh water pond for a swim and the next day we relax at Winnifred Beach, where many local people welcome us to paradise, Jamaican are very proud of their land and wish we all could appreciate this everyday. This area, Portland, is very hilly with a lot of vegetation, it’s very nice and less visited than other places, we would have liked to stay longer, but we want to have a taste of the different areas of the island. At the bus stop we have to wait for the minivan to fill up, so we fix our bags and sit on a bench where we have a lot of fun talking to a man and listening to him singing his own songs. Arrived in Ocho Rios the vibe changes, they don’t wait more than two seconds to start hassling. We avoid all the taxi drivers and walk in the village asking where we can find Reggae Hostel, a man tells us to follow him and as soon as he sees a woman with a uniform he tells me to keep on going straight and disappear. The lady even scares us when she asks us where was that man taking us. She tells us the way, which is the same one the man was showing us, and tells us not to speak to the people. The same thing happens again in the evening, this time we don’t listen to the uniformed person and follow the local guy who takes us to the background of the market, where Jamaicans live.

IMG_4023Here we have some very good food at a good price and we see people singing at a karaoke, while other gamble. Very interesting. Sadly this small town is usually full of tourist coming from the cruise ships, which now aren’t here, this is why the tourist’s police keeps everybody away, I guess they need to show that Jamaica is a safe country, which to me this way makes me feel more in danger, there’s no need to keep the real local people away. While we’re here we decide to go to Nine Miles, where Bob Marley was born and lived until thirteen years old when he moved to Trench Town. We are so disappointed about this visit. Bob Marley was a person that shared and wanted to help everybody, people everywhere tell us that we are one people and are happy to help. In this very special place for him and everybody that loves him the only thing they do is taking people around trying to sell stuff like a specially made brand of sauces of “Bob’s mum special recipe”, saying stupid jokes about smoking weed that are not funny at all, make you buy more special drinks and where Bob’s and his mum’s mausoleum are they are building a chapel where people can get married. At the end of this sad commercialising tour the guide even asks us for a tip. Fabi is the first one running away from the place and catching the taxi as soon as possible. We leave Ochi and with six different minivans and taxies, getting even played around by one, seven hours on the road, we arrive to the very quiet Treasure Beach.

IMG_4129Except a sport centre where in the evening they put very loud music, as they Always do everywhere, and few restaurants that close at nine in the evening, the only thing they offer us is to go for a boat ride. We accept and stay out half a day where we see dolphins swimming and playing just beside the boat, crocodiles relaxing along the Black River, we stop to try some river crabs and back in the sea we go to the Pelican Bar. A wooden bar built few hundreds metres off the coast on a reef by a fugitive to escape from the police, this brought more and more curious people to check what the construction was and now is famous and brings many tourist especially from Negril, which is our next stop. Once again with many different taxis we arrive in this touristy town, that’s actually cut in two, on side is a four miles long stretch of sandy beach called Seven Miles filled with resorts, whilst where we are staying, the West End, is the rocky side, with big cliffs falling into the sea.

IMG_4142It’s low season, so there’s not much around, but we find a very nice little stand to eat some different tasty food and a nice bar from where to reach the water by stairs. Here we have to say goodbye to Fabi, the next day she takes the first of a series of taxies to reach Kingston where she has her flight the next morning. We take the day off to update the blog and prepare for the next Caribbean island.

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