Having met in Cancun airport, Julia and I launched a month-long part of my trip that I called â€śdĂ©jĂ vuâ€ť. I brought Julia to the places I liked the most in Mexican Yucatan, Belize and Guatemala.
Cuidad Cancun was a very pleasant surprise as it appeared to be a clean and modern city free from tourists who would crowd the beachfront resorts 12km away from the city. Staying in centrally located Cancun Suites cost us a mere $45 for a very spacious and clean room with private bathroom. That was a surprise â€“ I could never expect such a property be priced at lower than $100-150.
We spent a couple of nights in a beachfront Cabana near Tulum ruins.
Julia, who grew up among snow-white sand dunes on Baltic Sea, gave it a firm â€śfive-starâ€ť rating. And, really, Tulum beaches beat those of Cancun easily. Cancun beachfront is overdeveloped with most properties rising 20-30 m from water. I felt squeezed into the sea.
Chetumal. While waiting for Belize consulate to open.
Belize hypnotized us with its Caribbean charm. Christmas in Placencia and New Year on Caye Caulker happened to be an unexpected twist in our itinerary only because all the consulates were shut down for the holiday season and I couldnâ€™t get Guatemalan or Honduran visa until early January. But that was a chance to fully relax and enjoy great diving on the Barrier Reef. Julia got her Open Water and Advanced licenses there. And I added 10 extra pounds â€“ the vital necessity after the challenge of Doyleâ€™s Delight expedition. Big Fish Divers offered surprisingly competitive prices for the two courses â€“ US300 and $250 for Open Water and Advanced respectively.
That is better than Roatan packages!
Heard of The Blue Hole?
Advanced PADI divers, Julia and I were fully prepared to dive the Blue Hole, the major Belizian attraction. Ages ago, when the sea level was some 120m below where it is now, there was a huge cave on one of the islands. Later on the cave went underwater and its top collapsed because of the additional pressure. Amazing perfectly round 100m-wide entrance into the humongous cave attracts thousands divers from all over the globe. Getting there was a beautiful ride worth experiencing. The sunrise (we took off at 6am), the 600 hp boat, the wind, the waves that we were jumping at 50kmh.
The Blue Hole itself looked awesome inside. I felt myself a little insect flying among 30m long stalactites hanging from the cave ceiling. Unfortunately we only spent 7-8 minutes down there to avoid any decompression problems.
But just being there, seeing that bottomless darkness below, breathing the super-dense air at 40m depth, feeling high because of nitrogen impact, watching dozens of divers among the gargantuan stalactites â€“ all of that makes the dive an unforgettable experience. Many divers, though, who like bright colors and rich life of warm southern seas might be disappointed with that world of darkness. Oh, and Julia went down to 45m (!) beating me by 5m; I doubt I would ever try to repeat that J
Our brave captain. The Blue Hole trip
We literally rushed through Guatemala visiting Flores, Tikal and Volcano Pacaya in three days. Julia got her trekking shoes melted despite my early warnings J Unfortunately that day there were not any significant lava flows in a safe vicinity and we enjoyed the immense heat and the incredible view of the volcano.
And then I had a chance to â€ścheck the boxâ€ť I missed during my first visit to Guatemala. Chichicastenango market is popularized by literally every guide book and every tourist kiosk there. Despite the fact the whole market is gringo-oriented we had a blast spending a day in Chichi. Two days prior, Julia and I met another Russian couple in Tikal. Four of us joined for the market day adventure. Having four Russians in a foreign environment is an adventure itself. Every bargain becomes a cosmic drama. One of us trying to make a deal would feel the compatriotsâ€™ support and gain unique confidence sufficient to crush any bargaining strategy of the locals. Julia bought a beautiful red coral necklace for $34 â€“ a mere 40% of the price she would have paid in any artesania shop in Antigua.
Yurij and Julia, our new friends from Moscow, were leaving the next day.
So we got together for a couple of beers in a local Italian restaurant. After a couple of liters of beer (each), tons of jokes, and good three hours of Guatemalan recollections we finally let the restaurant owners off the hook and had our farewell hug.
Chichicastenango. Julia & Julia.
Early in the morning I kicked myself our of the bed to get to Guatemala city where we were supposed to meet Carla â€“ my old good Guatemalan friend I met through Juan (aka TravBuddy john1112). Julia chose to stay in bed and fight her hangover that way.
Have you ever had piĂ±ata for your birthday? Thatâ€™s the Latin way to celebrate birthdays, well, until you are 14. Carla, her son Iram and their family treated me with that precious thing now as in October I had to leave Guatemala a week before my actual birthday.
Basically, piĂ±ata is a mascot made of paper and loaded with candies. In my case it was a yellow and blue chicken, 3 feet tall! They put it on a long rope, hang it on another rope going across Carlaâ€™s garage, gave me a stick, got me blindfolded, make me turn 35 times (my age in years) and then let me figure out my way towards the piĂ±ata navigating me with â€śLeft! - Right! - More to the right! â€ś while laughing their butts off. I was supposed to hit the piĂ±ata (while being blindfolded) and crash it so the candies get out of the mascot and fly all over Carlaâ€™s garage.
Pinata fine-tuned for Russians.
The key thing was that Iram would pull piĂ±ata by the rope away from me to make me look like a complete idiot. God! I had so much fun â€“ not less than the audience who were literally tearing and gasping for air while laughing at my best efforts. Finally I managed to partially destroy the mascot â€“ thatâ€™s when Iram and I traded places (Iramâ€™s and my birthdays are just one day apart). I took a revenge on him and Iram did show to all of us how fearsome Latin boys could be. The piĂ±ata turned to a messy papier-mĂ˘chĂ© as soon as Iram managed to get hold of it.
La Palma. The view of El Pital - Salvadoran tallest peak.
A couple of days later Julia and I got to discover El Salvador.
Since early 2006 when I started planning my living in Latin America I had been trying my best to figure out why it was worth going to El Salvador. Ruins are way better in Mexico, volcanoes are more active and mountains are higher in Guatemala, diving is way better in Belize, cloud forests and jungle are untouched in Honduras, wildlife is more abundant in Costa-Ricaâ€¦ So why would I spend a couple of weeks in El Salvador?
Over the half a year of living in Central America I met plenty of other travelers who got to El Salvador.
Most of them would strongly suggest visiting the country. They all mentioned one key reason for that â€“ the people of El Salvador. I trusted my acquaintances. I decided to experience El Salvador myself.
People of San Salvador.
Travbuddy Carlitotis (hey-hey Carla!!!) shared her precious advice on how to plan our two-week stay in El Salvador. One has to plan for at least a month or two in the country to enjoy its major attractions.
Salvadoreans are unique. Every interaction I had there with locals was a very pleasant one. Even cab drivers in bustling and highly westernized San Salvador got style! None of them would try to squeeze an extra dollar from us! Normally I would check the appropriate fares with locals and then take a cab.
In most cases fares go up AT LEAST twofold for me. Cab drivers are nasty creatures in general. In San Salvador every time we take a cab I want to hug our cab driver â€“ they NEVER quoted a â€śgringoâ€ť price!
San Salvador. Cafeteria in MARTE.
Somehow Salvadoreans come across as quite educated people who enjoy life tremendously, have inner peace, and are naturally polite with each other. Every time I talk to a Salvadorean I sense a very sincere welcome from the bottom of their hearts. I guess that peopleâ€™s attitude is shaped by their still remembering the times of Civil War. Now, they KNOW how it could be when death squads patrol villages and leftists explode bridges and power plants. Having lived through war and peace Salvadoreans consciously enjoy living every moment of their lives and meeting every stranger.
And, of course we discovered other unsung treasures of El Salvador.
One of those is countryâ€™s magic landscapes. Salvadorean volcanoes are not as tall as those of Guatemala or Costa Rica but they rise from lowlands and thatâ€™s why they look so impressive and visually dominate the scenery. Volcanoes there are separated from each other and do not form mountain chains, which creates a sort of extraterrestrial feeling as you ride in between the sleeping giants on a bus.
Volcano San Salvador.
San Salvador, the capital, is something totally worth checking out. Its upscale neighborhoods with US-style malls, clean little houses with beautiful blossoming backyards, art museums and branded hotels â€“ are a real treat for a weary traveler who is looking for a break after 9 months of Latin America saga. Just 10 minutes away (by bus) thereâ€™s the center of the capital fully overtaken by street vendors.
The downtown is so dirty and dilapidated, so gross and smelly (guys pee right on the walls) that one instinctively wants to run away from that dump. We managed to overcome our first impression and were awarded with the beauty of the interior of Iglecia El Rosario. We noticed a strange building that looked from a distance like an unfinished 1960s style hotel or aircraft hangar with its concrete unpainted walls richly covered with pigeonsâ€™ shit. I recognized a church in it only when we entered the building there was a cross and a line of clay apostles against the wall. But inside! Oh, that was a miraculous transformation of the grotesque material reality into a pristine spiritual dimension. The whole thing is designed as a contemporary masterpiece with the story of Christâ€™s Golgotha told in 12 scenes created from scrap metal and concrete.
San Salvador. Iglecia El Rosario
Another miracle is Salvadoran little villages. We went to four so far and all of them were super clean and each with its unique ambiance. La Palma enjoys the heritage of Frances Llort, a celebrated Salvadorean artist, and locals painted every building in the center in Llort-esque motifs.
I couldnâ€™t help photographing virtually every corner, every wall in La Palma. Suchitoto, a village on steep slopes of lake Suchitlan, is a sort of Salvadorean artistic Mecca, similar to Antigua in Guatemala or San Miguel in Mexico, but of a smaller scale. Thatâ€™s where you can go to a house of an Argentinean artist, enjoy his art, and then have an â€śall-you-can-eatâ€ť Argentinean meat buffet â€“ a home-made version of Fogo de Chao in the States.
La Palma. Our hotel.
Allegria, where we are now is Salvadorean capital of florists. Here it looks like every family grows flowers in their backyards. The little paradise sits on a slope of a dormant volcano facing North. So itâ€™s pleasantly cool here and tons of big city vacationers come here for a week-end to enjoy the magic views down into the lowlands.
While being the key destination for many Salvadoreans, Allegrians maintain their little gem immaculately clean. The miniature central plaza is all covered with glazed pottery â€“ similar to how they finish bathroom floors in Chicago condos. I would eat off Allegriaâ€™s central plaza! J
Alegria. Restaurant & vivero "Cartagena" - must see!
Julia and I originally planned on spending just a day here. Well, itâ€™s our third day here and we are having hard time even thinking about leaving it. But we will have to leave tomorrow as our great friend from Chicago, Serguey Lubenskiy is joining us on the 8th of February in Honduras for two weeks of diving and hiking in Moskitia jungle.
Laguna de Alegria in a volcano crater.