Friday, December 26, 2008

¡Feliz Navidad!

Thanks to everyone from home who wished us a Merry Christmas. As you can imagine, being here in Guatemala for Christmas has been pretty strange - the first one away from home for both of us - and we're missing our families hugely. That said, we managed to have a great time and celebrate in our own very non-traditional way.

That's not us in the huge head costumes, by the way. We're in Antigua, Guatemala, where we got together with some friends whom we've met along the way. Here, the main public celebration for Christmas takes place on Christmas Eve. Children, accompanied by a marimba band on a truck, wear these colourful big-headed disguises in a procession around the town.

The procession passes between the churches (of which there are many) to the sound of marimba music and firecrackers.

The people of Antigua eat traditional tamales at midnight, at which time a huge number of (extremely loud) firecrackers are set off. If you happen to be in bed by this time, you might think a war has just started. Believe me, it's deafening!

During the day and evening, there are also children in very scary masks collecting for charity. I think you'll agree just how scary they look!

On the day, we met up with our friends, one of whom, Anita, had bought a piñata. For the uninitiated, it's a paper maché effigy filled with sweets that, as a game, people take turns in hitting with a stick until it breaks. The twist is that you're blindfolded and, before you take a swing, spun round a few times so that you're quite dizzy. Oh, and we drank champagne while doing it. Let me tell you, it's not as easy to hit as you'd think...

Cute, isn't he? I'm not sure what sort of creature he is (was) though.

Because the photos don't really do it justice, here's a video of Rach's go. She was pretty proud as she managed to hit it twice from three attempts.

He took a surprising amount of punishment before giving up his sweets. In the end, the final blow was struck by Duane, a Canadian and also the only one of us who had prior piñata experience.

Later in the day, we went up to an eco-lodge in the mountains above Antigua. (It was a proper eco-lodge as well, with a composting toilet!) We had a view of not one but three volcanoes, one of which is very active and spewed some lava for us later in the night, was spectacular.

The lodge also has an avocado farm - and consequently about the best guacamole I've ever had!

We had a fantastic veggie Christmas meal of stuffed aubergine, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing... and ate until we were fit to burst! A little bit of tradition after all.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Adventures of the spade #6

Looks like the spade has unluckily turned up late to the food festival in Juayúa. Shame, those tacos were pretty darn good!


Monday, December 22, 2008

Western El Salvador

After San Salvador, we headed west and have barely had chance to draw breath since! We´ve got very used to taking everything at our own pace, so the deadline of Christmas bookings in Guatemala has been a bit of a shock. Still, as we plan to leave El Salvador tomorrow, I think it´s fair to say we have been able to get a good taste of the country.

Santa Ana, where we spent just one night, is a large, bustling city, but the cathedral is very pretty and there are several other striking buildings around the square.

In contrast, the tiny mountain village of Tacuba is incredibly tranquil and we really enjoyed staying there. The hostel, run by a Salvadoran family and really helpful Italian guy (who speaks countless languages fluently!), was great. We went on a really, really long walk with people from the hostel into the mountains. The national park is called Bosque el Imposible - the imposible forest - but really it was just pretty tough.

Although the climbing (or just scrambling at times) was hard work, the views were gorgeous and well worth the effort. We could see Guatemala on one side and the Pacific ocean on the other. Amazing.

Here we are enjoying a well earned rest.

Many indigenous people live up in the mountains and it was fascinating to see their homes and farms.

Here you can see a man beating sweetcorn cobs to remove the kernels. As in all of Central America, maize is an essential part of the Salvadoran diet.

After over 8 hours of serious hiking, we decided to get a lift in a pick up for the last couple of miles back to the village. As you can see, it was a pretty bumpy ride, being thrown around in the back!

Final stop in El Salvador was Juayúa, a small coffee-growing town known for its weekend food festival.

In amongst all the meat and seafood, we did manage to find a few veggie things, like these frozen strawberries, and certainly enjoyed soaking up the lively atmosphere.

Yesterday we walked to nearby series of waterfalls, which were very pretty and we were able to swim in the pools at the bottom.

It feels a bit like a whirlwind tour of El Salvador, but we are both very glad we came. The overwhelmingly friendly people, the beautiful countryside and the complete lack of foreign tourists has made for a very enjoyable couple of weeks.

Rachel x


About 50km to the North of San Salvador is the beautiful colonial town of Suchitoto. Although more people are starting to visit El Salvador, there are still very few tourists and, at the time we were there, all 6 of us were drinking in the same bar! 5 of us were from England, strangely.

The town retains its colonial charm, and most of the streets are still cobbled or dirt. It's very quiet and peaceful.

Stop... hammock time!

The town's main attraction is now the Embalse Cerrón Grande, known as Lago de Suchitlán, formed by the damming of the Rio Lempa to flood the valley to the North, used to generate hydroelectric power.

It can be pleasantly explored by boat, visiting the islands now formed from the peaks in the valley. Apparently, many of the farmers displaced by the flooding have become fishermen. Having said that, our boatman told us the lake was pretty badly polluted and the fish couldn't be eaten, so I'm not too sure.

Nearly all the restaurants around town are positioned to take advantage of the view of the lake. On our last day, we treated ourselves to a top-notch breakfast with an incredible view. The CD of classic Christmas tunes that the staff put on the stereo when we arrived sounded very incongruous though. Still can't get used to thinking it's nearly Christmas!


San Salvador

San Salvador, El Salvador's capital is a city of surprises. With a reputation for being dangerous, noisy and polluted, I have to say we weren't sure whether we wanted to go there or not. We'd heard (and read) though, that it was worth a visit to the safer Western suburbs, and we're always keen to see for ourselves what a place is really like.

In the western part of the city is situated the Metrocentro, which has the distinction of being Central America's largest shopping mall. We can tell you, it's pretty darn big! We had trouble finding our way around at first (especially as there are about 50 branches of Mister Donut). This might sound absolutely awful, but actually we enjoyed it in a curious sort of way. It was actually a refreshing change!

We entertained ourselves by watching a movie in the cinema, a surprisingly attractive building as you can see. Pop-corn is actually reasonably priced here!

The city is definitely hectic and very noisy, and it´s not unfair to say that there isn't really much for the tourist to see. But that doesn't mean that it can't be enjoyed; we certainly did!


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Nicaragua to El Salvador

Our last night in León was La Gritería festival, a Christian celebration of the Immaculate Conception. It´s celebrated all over Nicaragua, but particularly in León. At 6pm on the 7th December the fiesta is kicked off by the bishop in the cathedral, who shouts out "¿Quién causa tanta alegría?" - "Who causes so much happiness?", to which the crowds reply; "¡La concepción de María!" - The conception of Mary! Then everyone rushes out into the streets as the bells ring and fireworks explode. Throughout the town people set up small altars inside their home, which people visit and repeat the cry. As a reward, they are given sweets, biscuits and other small gifts. At one house, we were given a box of matches and a sachet of coffee! As you can imagine, the whole thing is pretty crazy and I was amazed by how much booty some people managed to get during the night; some children had huge sacks full of goodies!

Although this picture isn´t great (it was hard to capture the event in the dark), it does show the slightly manic atmosphere pretty well! You can see the women inside (always shielded by some sort of gate) calling back to the crowd and, if you look carefully through the clouds of incense, you may just about make out the Vigin Mary altar in the background.

On our way towards the Honduran border, we stopped off for a night in the city of Chinandega. The town itself is remarkable only for its proximity to the legendary Flor de Caña rum factory (and for being the hottest city in Nicaragua)! We both really enjoyed the fantastic national rum during our time in Nica and had heard rumours that a tour of the factory could possibly be arranged. "Worth a try", we thought!

Unfortunately, this front wall in the village of Chichigalpa is as far as we got. The guard informed us that visiting the factory was prohibido and we would need to speak to the big men in Managua before they would let us through the gates. He might have said it was "more than his job´s worth", but we didn´t catch it all.

Still, Chichigalpa is a pretty village with a pretty name and it wasn´t a totally wasted journey.

From Chinandega, with our bags strapped tightly to a mini-bus (see below!), we headed towards Honduras... and straight onto another bus through to El Salvador. It was a pretty mammoth journey, in 6 cramped, hot buses in total, until we arrived in the city of San Miguel, El Salvador.

El Salvador is now a peaceful, stable country, but, as recently as 1992, a bitter civil war raged. The country has a very sad history and, for a lot of people, it is still very much living memory. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the village of Perquín, Northeastern El Salvador. During the civil war it was a guerrilla stronghold and, tragically, also the site of some of the worst atrocities on innocent civilians. After the peace treaty was signed, ex-guerrillas set up a museum to document the area´s history. We spent a day there, visiting the museum, meeting the wonderful people and admiring the beautiful countryside.

On display are various relics, such as this helicopter wreckage, which was shot down near Perquín. There are also many photographs, testimonies from some of the massacre survivors and lots and lots of guns. They also have equipment from Radio Venceremos, the station that broadcast secretly from caves during the war.

Despite the horrors that people endured so recently, Salvadorans have emerged to be amongst the most friendly people we have met in Central America so far. They have an incredible optimism.

From San Miguel we also took a day trip to the beach at El Cuco, on the Pacific Coast. The waves were huge and the beach stretched for miles into the distance, but sadly it just wasn´t a great place to spend much time. The seafront was crowded with shops and there were lots of dead fish laid out to dry in the sun. I think we may have been a bit spoilt by the beaches in Costa Rica and Panama, so we didn´t stay long.

Oh well, you win some, you lose some!

Rachel x