lake

Flores and Tikal

I got off the bus in Flores and had to remind myself where I was: Guatemala. I had moved countries. That’s the thing about making such last-minute decisions – they don’t really have time to sink in before you find yourself standing in the dark on a cobblestone street being asked what hostel you’re going to. Hostel? Right, we had to find one of those. Cassidy had a recommendation, which matched the friendly travel agent’s who accompanied us into town, so off we went. It didn’t take long to find Los Amigos, since Flores is a tiny island whose circumference can be walked in no more than 10 minutes, and once inside it didn’t take long to reunite with the girls from Bacalar. The gringo trail is strong in Latin America.

Too exhausted from the full day bus journey (we had to pass through Belize, meaning two border crossings with four passport stamp stops), we decided to dine on the surprisingly good but totally overpriced international fare at Los Amigos, and only made it through one giant Jenga game at the Night Bar before succumbing to sleep. In the loft. Because apparently real beds are just too easy, so I decided to sleep on a pad on the floor above a real dorm room, covered by a peaked roof but sans walls and doors. The sacrifices we make to save Quetzales.

My time in Flores was focused on two things: 1) Arranging the trek to El Mirador; 2) Seeing Tikal. Arranging the trek took most of our first day – a topic that will get its own post soon – but we were able to secure a Monday morning departure (it was Saturday). We celebrated our success at Jorge’s Rope Swing, a chill place on the edge of the lagoon with hammocks, tubes, a surprisingly daunting platform to jump off of (my estimate is 8 meters), and, you guessed it, a couple of rope swings. We had a solid group of 9, a combination of former Green Monkey residents and bus trip buddies, who casually changed positions between land and water until the dazzling sunset signaled our return to the island.

Sunday was Tikal day, and Tikal does take the greater part of a day. We opted for the sunset tour, having heard about the struggle our friends endured for the sunrise tour, complete with 4 am departures and cloud-covered skies, and were picked up at noon. The ride to get there was hot and long, and the guide was not in any rush to get started, but once we did begin we were treated to stories about Mayan history and details of what we were seeing. It was well worth going with the English-speaking guide.

Tikal is gorgeous. It’s a great mixture of the kinds of ruins I’ve seen: it’s out in the jungle and not totally uncovered, but what is restored is jaw-dropping. The main positive about going on the sunset tour was being able to take our time exploring the site on the way to the tallest temple, as opposed to the morning when you go directly to the tallest one and work backward. We saw lots of wildlife on the walk in through the jungle, from toucans to spider monkeys to some relative of the raccoon whose name I forget, but did not see many other people, thankfully. There’s a lot to explore at Tikal, lots to climb up and around, which put it at the top of my ruins list thus far. Plus Temple 1, the one on all the postcards, is actually that pretty in real life. We were sitting in a grassy plaza surrounded by two towering temples and two multi-room complexes built up on hills when the colorful, strangest-looking turkeys I’ve ever seen came over to say hello. It was one of those scenes that is almost too good to believe, one that makes me think “wow I’m here right now.”

As sunset approached we climbed the tallest pyramid at Tikal for an overwhelming view of the jungle expanse beyond, with the tops of two temples peeking out in the near distance. Then we went to the oldest pyramid for the main event, which we had to earn by climbing up one of the more challenging ancient staircases I’ve ever ascended. Why people who were so short built such steep giant stairs I will never understand. Were they meant to be climbed like a ladder? Did they actually go up these? The climb was of course worth it. From our perch we could see the sun setting over the jungle, with the tops of the other pyramids lit up around us. The moon was just a few nights from full on our walk back out. We caught a glimpse of it behind Temple 1, which created an eerie, mystical scene that made me feel like I could understand a bit better the Maya’s fascination with the sky.

Flores itself though is not to be discounted. I’d heard that it wasn’t worth staying in for more than a day, it was just a launching point for Tikal, but I was charmed by its tiny size and the colorful buildings and cobblestone streets that covered it. If they promoted it well, Flores could really be a tourist destination itself. But hopefully that wouldn’t ruin my favorite part of town: the tostada stands. Every night at the water’s edge five stands set up that all sell the same things: tamales, burritos (the tiny Guatemalan version), empanadas, jugos, cakes the size of the one Miss Trunchbull made Bruce finish, and the highlight, 3 for 5Q tostadas. My personal favorite was the beets, but others preferred the noodles, and the carne wasn’t too shabby either. We went there for our second, third, and final dinners in Flores, and if I ever go back I will go again.

 

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BARcalar

Bacalar was the embodiment of what I wanted to happen in this trip.

I was not planning on going to Bacalar. I’d read that the lagoon was pretty but it was on the way to Belize, which I had already cut, instead of along the prescribed Yucatan route I had embarked on. But after I lost count of how many people told me I had to go to Bacalar, I remembered that I wanted to follow that kind of advice this time no matter what path I may have thought I was on. So I joined John and Thomas, my Valladolid/Merida travel companions, and went to check out this rumored lake haven.

What I discovered at Laguna Bacalar was serenity, comfort, good people, and good vibes. It was everything I was hoping it would be. When I arrived I booked two nights – I stayed four. That’s just how things go for me now.

We stayed at the Green Monkey, a laid back hostel right on the lake. When we arrived they had space in the bus – a yellow school bus whose seats had been replaced by bunk beds – so we booked two nights there. Because when you get a chance to play Lost and sleep on an abandoned bus you go for it.

The day we arrived it was rainy and muddy. The lake was nowhere near the color it was supposed to be and, since all the activity in Bacalar centers on and around the lake, there wasn’t much to do. But the point of Bacalar wasn’t to go go go, it was just to chill, so I didn’t mind the excuse to dig into the literary feat I had decided to set out with this trip  – Moby Dick – and chat with the other travelers who were sticking it out hoping for good weather. Day two had some patches of sun, just in time for our excursion to the swings on the lake and margaritas, but day three we woke up to a beautiful sunrise. It didn’t take much convincing to extend our stay another night, although we were forced out of the bus due to an influx of online reservations and had to settle for a hammock. When I extended yet another night I actually asked for the hammock even though beds were open; I loved sleeping outside in the breeze. Those last two days were perfect weather. John and I did a little boat excursion one morning, but otherwise I spent most of my time hanging out in hammocks or on the dock.

It probably doesn’t sound like somewhere that would be so hard to leave when the main thing to do is just sit around and look at how pretty it is, but that is just the foundation of why I stayed longer. The beautiful setting got everyone there, but it was the everyone that made us all stay. The travelers that were in love with this place were cut from the same cloth. Everyone wanted to take a step back from the pace of the Yucatan, relax in a lovely place, and spin yarn with other people who wanted to do the same. A group would form on the dock swapping stories before deciding to grab veggie burgers together for lunch in town. Three out of four nights I cooked dinner with a mixture of travelers. My last night we enjoyed rum punch and cigars while playing a dice game. The talented Irish couple treated us to a live performance of traditional music and Tenacious D. Friendships were formed, laughs were had, and memories were made that will live with us all forever.

The lake was a big part of it all though. I felt like I’d returned to a home in an alternate world. A dock, ample reading time, and the clearest turquoise fresh water lake – I was in the Wörthersee of Mexico. All those years I visited the lake in Austria came flooding back to me at Laguna Bacalar. No wonder I wanted to stay as long as possible, it was familiar and sentimental and relaxed me to the core.

I left Bacalar in a way similar to my arrival there – totally unexpectedly. I had gone under the impression that I would continue with John to Palenque in Mexico. Something inside me felt uncomfortable about the prospect of the night bus though, and after a couple of days of hesitating with the idea, combined with a great group of people I didn’t want to leave just yet, I came up with an alternative that allowed me to leave after one more night on a day trip. I would go to Flores, Guatemala.

Flores, the launching point for Tikal and El Mirador, two sites I absolutely did not want to miss, is not near the rest of Guatemala. But geographically it happens to be almost on the way from Bacalar to Palenque. And our hostel offered a direct bus to Flores. And then I picked up a new travel buddy, Cassidy, who also wanted to see Flores but probably wouldn’t make it if she didn’t come with me. So totally last minute I changed the pseudo-plan once again and the next morning Cassidy and I left for Guatemala.

So because of travelers I landed in Bacalar. Because of the idyllic setting and other travelers I extended my stay in Bacalar. And because of gut instinct and spontaneity I left Bacalar for Guatemala.

Chiang Mai, My First Livable City in Southeast Asia

Chiang Mai is a bigger city than I thought it would be. When I arrived I was initially surprised by the built up busy streets and seemingly sprawling urban landscape, and the fact that it was rush hour didn’t help. But once I got to explore more on foot, especially venturing into the Old Town, I started to get a sense of why so many expats stay here longer than planned.

It’s actually a manageable, walkable city. The traffic is not nearly as overwhelming as it is in other major Southeast Asian cities, with a noticeable absence of honking horns. The food is reasonably priced and good, with a plethora of fresh fruit and cold drink options. Markets, abundant across the region, are actually pleasant to walk through. The park in the corner of the old city is, as a friend put it, “Venice beach for expat hippies,” where slacklines and acroyoga are a focal point for the people lounging on bamboo mats. I have been hard-pressed to find any city in Asia that I felt like I could live in, but Chiang Mai might be the first one.

My days in Chiang Mai were a mixture of exploring and hanging out. I happened to be there during the Flower Festival (the second Flower Festival of my trip, the first was in Medellin), so I watched some of the morning parade and checked out the floats by Thapae Gate on my way into the Old City. I entered the Old City with a plan – temples, lunch, massage – and quickly discovered that a plan was not only not necessary, but not wanted. This is a city to wander around. Everywhere I walked I passed another temple. Which one is this? No clue, most of their names are written in Thai. It doesn’t matter really, they’re all pretty. I just roamed the streets toward the one destination I knew I wanted to find, stopping in any temple that looked worth stopping at, happening upon an outdoor photography display outside the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Center, and getting a sense of the city. I had the traditional soup of Chiang Mai for lunch, kow soy – which honestly was a bit disappointing, I added some extra spice to the curry but the chicken piece was fatty and it was overall a bit greasy, but at least now I know – and then reached my one destination: my first Thai massage.

There was no better way to cure the feeling my body had after a rough 24 hours cramped on minibuses than getting all my muscles worked out by a Thai prisoner. The Vocational Training Center of Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution Centre trains inmates in massage techniques, which is where I originally tried to go but it was all booked for the day, so I ended up at the place where the graduates work. One hour massage is just 180 baht. What a steal! A Thai massage is unlike any massage I’ve experienced before. I was bent, twisted, poked, and rubbed in all kinds of ways, and even had to participate at times, like when I was asked to lift my upper body off the bed as my arms were pulled behind me into a back bend. Different, but still felt great.

As the afternoon wound down I made it to the final big temple I wanted to see and ran into Pat and Mirco, companions from my Laos minibus adventure. We roamed the temple and went to the park – they had bicycles so I rode on the back seat of one of them – but before we got there we found a street fair with food and the Flower Festival floats. It was a happy surprise and great to walk through, plus we got snacks for the park. This solidified my opinion that just wandering through Chiang Mai is the best way to see it; you never know what you’ll discover.

My second day was unexpectedly chill; I meant to go play with some elephants but unfortunately overslept, so I joined Pat, Mirco, Ivana, Katharine, and Leon for a motorbike adventure to a nearby lake, Huay Tung Tao. Just driving around was enjoyable with this group. I rode on the back of Mirco’s bike, and this crazy Swiss wanted to see how fast he could go on the highway on our beaten up moped. We hit 100 km/h. A bit fear-inducing but fun nonetheless. We spent most of the day hanging out in bamboo bungalows suspended over a picturesque lake; it was lovely. And a good way to get over the hangovers.

My nights in Chiang Mai were unexpectedly lively. Just hours after I arrived I went to a drag cabaret show with some people in my hostel. It was entertaining, to say the least. The next two nights I went out with the group I was at the lake with. We would meet up on the street outside the tattoo shop – an odd meeting point, but the only place we all had in common since we were riding to my hostel on the bikes when we ran into Ivana who had just gotten a new tattoo, and with her injured ankle she took my place on the bike for a ride back to their hostel and I walked the rest of the way home. Random, but it worked. I should go in and thank them one day, they have no idea how helpful they were for us. We started our nights at bars near the tattoo place and twice ended it at the club Spicy. These were late, drunk nights with lots of dancing and playing with Leon’s tourist tchotchkes that he kept buying – the frog, the light-up spinning top. It was fun to have some nights out like this with new friends.

The day I left Chiang Mai for Shambhala In Your Heart Festival I planned to go from the festival to Pai then come back to Chiang Mai on Friday so I would have another day in the city before my flight on Sunday to Myanmar. As I will soon write about, those plans changed entirely. So I never did get to play with the elephants, do a cooking class, or spend more time in cafes or the park, which I don’t regret, I had a great time in Chiang Mai, it just means that I’ll have to go back. I’m already thinking that I could go back after my big plan is done. It’s a city worth revisiting for sure.

Khao Sok: A Perfect Place to Escape Christmas (and Sort of Celebrate it)

Within the first fifteen minutes of meeting Chris and Pascal we figured out that we would all be in Thailand for Christmas. We said we should meet up again there so we wouldn’t have to spend Christmas alone. It was a nice idea, but considering I had barely even learned their names, who knew if I’d actually want to see them again for the holidays.

Then we spent Whitsundays, Fraser Island and Byron Bay together, and to avoid actually saying goodbye when I left Byron we made real our first impression plan to meet up for Christmas in Thailand.

They were coming from Phuket on their way to Koh Phangan and I was coming from Cambodia on my way to Krabi, so we picked a location in between: Khao Lak. We’d never heard of it either… I knew I wanted to try to get to Khao Sok National Park, a can’t-miss recommendation from Josi (whose recommendations have never steered me wrong), and they wanted to do some beach time and snorkeling, and Khao Lak is the launching point for Similan Islands trips, supposedly some of the best underwater scenery in the area.

We met in Khao Lak and decided the order of events (partly decided for us by weather conditions): we would spend one night there, then do two days/one night in Khao Sok, then a snorkeling day trip to the Similan Islands, and still have a final day to chill in Khao Lak before going our separate ways.

This meant we were in Khao Sok for Christmas Eve night and Christmas morning. We were all united in our lack of care for how we spent Christmas. When you’re traveling holidays are just another day. I completely took this perspective to heart with Christmas. Why does a calendar have to tell me when I need to see family? Just because I was out of the country on December 25th doesn’t mean I miss them any more or less. I got to spend three weeks at home with my parents before I left and saw more family at a great going away party. To me that was more important time spent with family than a day someone centuries ago declared should be the family day of all family days.

Still though, there was something special about being in such a scenic place on the pinnacle of Christmas for both of us – the Germans celebrate on the evening of the 24th and the Americans on the morning of the 25th. We toasted to Christmas with our cheap red wine. And our next bottle of red wine. And all those beers. We toasted and played cards until they shut the power off on us and forced us to go to sleep, before 11 pm.

Khao Sok is gorgeous. We met up with the other 6 people doing the two day one night tour at an office near the park and were driven out to the dock, where we all crammed into a long tail boat and set out into the wide open lake. Karst rock formations rose out of the water all around us, more densely than I’d seen in Halong Bay but no less majestic. The water was a deep turquoise blue, a color I didn’t know a lake could be. Long tail boats sit low in the water and we were a lot of people in our little boat, so we got a little wet. This is why, about 20 minutes into the ride, our guide flagged down a passing bigger long tail boat and informed us we would be switching boats. There was no pier in site. We pulled into a little inlet where the water was calmer shielded by the mountain and jumped from the front of our boat into the new boat that was pulled up alongside us, and its former passengers did the reverse. Somehow this worked out and we were back on our way. I got to lay up front and watch the mountains pass by in the sky above. Not much longer and we saw where we would be spending the night: our floating bungalows.

The image in my mind of floating bungalows did not do them justice. In the middle of this expansive landscape of mountains and water, a small row of half a dozen traditional bamboo huts were latched together in a row, hovering on floating barrels. They were loosely attached to a permanently wet plank walkway in front (which I was terrified of falling off of in the dark after the wine) that connected to the most intact structure, the bathrooms, which linked to a few more substantial houses, lashed to the dining area, which was then attached to the staff area. When we arrived the dining to staff areas were in an L shape, when we woke up the next morning they were in a straight line. They’d made some adjustments.

When we got there we had lunch and free time before an afternoon hike. It didn’t take long to get our bathing suits on and jump into the water right in front of our bungalow (all three of us shared one bamboo bungalow – guess who got to sleep in the middle with neither of the two blankets). We took the kayaks out for a joy ride around a smallish island, the calm water making it easy to glide around. The jungle hike was more than expected; it was wet in Khao Lak so a lot of the path was just mud. We practiced our balance, jumping from root to root, playing hot lava with the mud; or at least most of us did, Chris gave up pretty easy and just trudged through the mud and water. We saw spiders and crabs and lots of rainforest trees. I even picked up a leech, which the guide quickly tore off of me. It had bitten me through my sock, which was now soaked in blood. I learned that leech bites don’t stop bleeding for a long long time. First a wasp in the Amazon, now a leech in the Thai jungle, it’s like my insect initiation into jungle life. After the hike we did a quick walk through an old cave and saw bats, more spiders, and played the stalagmites like chimes.

The next morning we were out on the boat before breakfast to spot some local wildlife – birds and monkeys – and had more swimming time when we got back before our after-lunch departure home. It was a peaceful two days with lots of down time, swimming time, hanging out time, learning new card games time, and generally disconnecting from reality time. Which I think was a great way to avoid the social media influx of Christmas reminders. I couldn’t be happier with how I spent the holiday and who I was with.

The ride back out was just as picturesque as it was on the way in. The rain flirted with us, it had been on and off all morning but mostly held off for our ride back out, but even in overcast weather Khao Sok was a magical place. As happy as we all were with our time there, more than two days probably would’ve been too much. There’s only so much nothing you can do sometimes, and we had fish to swim with in the Andaman Ocean.