A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: gadgetex

Havana: Everyone Loves Kittens

semi-overcast 28 °C
View Triptacular on gadgetex's travel map.

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Travelling by land across Central America, changes in landscape and culture happen relatively gradually - each country feels noticeably different, and even within countries there are often very distinct regional traditions and landscapes, but the transitions are rarely a shock to the system. However when we flew from Mexico (via Panama, for complicated reasons) and landed in Cuba, it was immediately, startlingly different. And our week in Havana turned out to be without doubt one of the major highlights of the trip.

We had just passed through the international airports in Cancun and Panama City, huge and glittering monuments to capitalism where branding clamours for attention in everywhere you look in a way that, eventually, you stop noticing - in short, they are much like home. The arrivals hall in the Cuban capital's Jose Marti airport has nothing but a state-run currency exchange booth, our first chance to change any of our Mexican pesos into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) since you can't buy Cuban currency outside the country. It really jumped out at us that there was no commercial advertising or branding. The only international brands we spotted at all in Havana were Adidas (who sponsor the Cuban Olympic team) and Nestle, which supplies all the icecream, coffee sweeteners, etc (no idea - seems quite inexplicable that this famously obnoxious capitalist giant has earned a favoured position in a supposedly Communist country). Of course, no American individuals or companies are allowed to do business here, by order of their own government (let's see if that will change soon).

But back at the arrivals gate, we jumped in a taxi (just a regular modern people-carrier type, this time) and headed into town, past Plaza de la Revolution with its eight-storey image of Che Guevara and his slogan "Hasta la victoria, siempre!" A Fidel banner proclaimed "patria o muerte" ("homeland or death").

We got our first glimpses of retro cars, more and more of them as we got closer to the city. Let's get that out of the way right now - the cars are stunning! Every other car in Havana is a classic. Some of them are beautifully preserved, while others are in need of a bit of attention.

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The taxi ranks are like vintage car shows. I predict that even now as U.S. restrictions are relaxed and Cuba begins to import more foreign cars, the classic taxis will remain a feature of Havana, too popular to simply disappear. But Cuba is changing fast.

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We settled into a casa particular, which are B&Bs run by Cuban families - many get much better reviews than the large hotels, they are available for a fraction of the cost, commonly air-conditioned, en-suite and very comfortable. The hosts will make you breakfast for a little extra - usually lovely and packed full of fruit, some we'd never laid eyes on before (including one squishy, hard-seeded fruit that we wished we'd stayed ignorant of - it was like eating gloopy sugary sweetcorn, with buttons). We loved staying in casas as it provides a fantastic opportunity to meet local people, and I think this enjoyable and affordable system is one of Cuba's very best features for the traveller. We stayed in several and our hosts were fantastic, without exception.

Most hotels are state-owned, and so are most shops and restaurants. The government tries to find jobs for everyone, which can have some strange side-effects, for example one beer-hall we went to had around 40 waiters standing around the perimeter, trying their best to look busy and delivering a pretty confusing service while they were at it. We tried for ages to get someone's attention, then a procession of waiters came to take our order, not knowing that it had already been done. I ordered pasta from the "childish and vegetarian menu" and got salty semolina soup with some rubbery mushrooms floating in it. I had to fetch my own spoon.

Havana is really beautiful, in its way. The whole city is slowly crumbling, despite some attempts to restore the architectural highlights. But it is colourful and alive with activity, and this gives it the feel of a place worn down by living, not simply abandoned to the elements.

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We discovered that there are only a few TV channels, which are censored. Some of them cull approved garbage from international TV channels, and this is such fatuous crap it may well convince Cubans that the rest of the world is beyond hope. Access to the internet is expensive, and rare. State-run internet cafes are reportedly in bad shape, and it takes forever to queue for an internet card for those. To get wifi we had to go to the lobby of one of the swankiest hotels in town, and it cost $8 an hour. Logistical difficulties seemed to be widely accepted as the reason, rather than political control - but it was easier to get online in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle than here.

The flipside of a shortage of consumer entertainment is that there is an incredible, thriving arts scene. We visited the gallery at Palacio de las Bellas Artes, which was great, but art is everywhere you look and listen.

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We went to one of the city's most famous jazz clubs, La Zorra y El Cuervo. "Its just old gringos in there!", someone told us when we said where we were headed. When we walked in, we could see what he meant - it looked like a coach from a village social club had got lost on its way to the garden centre, but they all went home to bed within about half an hour! La Zorra is a great value night out, at $10 entry including two beautifully-mixed cocktails, so we got elegantly tipsy while watching some of the country's most talented musicians, and had such a good time we went back again another night.

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One Sunday afternoon, we headed to a party in a courtyard hidden away near our casa - more great live music and dancing followed by a happy, shabby parade through the neighbourhood, which everyone could join - a little piece of Rio.

Of course we needed a spot for afternoon mojitos too! And we found a fantastic cosy little place that I've completely forgotten the name of,, lost in the backstreets of Havana Vieja - but if you stumble across it, it'll have a sign saying that happy hour is from 5-6 every day, and every cocktail is half price (no small print, and a great bargain)!

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On our second to last day, we were wandering along a small calle in the centre when we met a bicycle taxi driver holding a tiny kitten. It had been spotted emerging from a ruined house which had become a rubbish tip, with no mother in sight. The neighbours were concerned because the kitten was probably too tiny to survive and could be attacked by stray dogs, but no-one was really in a position to take him in. We stuck around for a while, and bought a fish from a passing fisherman - the kitten devoured it! By this point we were getting a bit attached, and trying to formulate a plan. Thinking back, it wasn't the most foolproof plan ever...

We popped the kitten in a cardboard box and jumped in a bicycle taxi, an experience which he didn't enjoy one bit and probably still hasn't forgiven us for. We figured that our best hope was to talk to the acquaintances we had made by staying in a few different casa particulares in the same neighbourhood, so we took him back to the place we were staying. It took some explaining - we were very fortunate that the landlady was so remarkably understanding (or rather, so willing to tolerate the incomprehensible behaviour of a couple of very weird Brits!) We had less than 48 hours before our flight back to Mexico, and a mewling kitten in our bedroom who wouldn't go to sleep unless it was right next to us. We had to take shifts at sleeping ourselves, and eventually we all began to smell of fish.

But in the morning, we started knocking on doors of people we'd previously chatted to, and one contact led to another, and another, until we found the most amazing people in all of Cuba - who happened to own a B&B right round the corner. Animal-lovers through and through, Cary and Nilo were not only willing to take us and our kitten in for the night, but would go on to say that they would not ever let him go back on the streets, and promised to find a home for him. We called him Bucanero because he reminded us of a tiny pirate, and it is also the name of one of Cuba's national beers. Last we heard he has a new home with the couple's cleaning lady, who has a lot of other cats for him to socialise with. An unlikely win, that was all down to the kindness of one amazing couple and their neighbours.

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If you are looking for somewhere to stay in Havana, please check out Cary and Nilo's place. It is the most comfortable we stayed in, with beautiful colonial architecture and furniture, and they are just the kindest people, they are sure to make you very welcome! The location is great too - you can easily walk to Old Havana, the Malecon, and Vedado, and the neighbourhood is friendly and free of hassle. There is also a great rumba party in Callejon de Hamel just around the corner every Sunday afternoon!

And finally, I got my vintage taxi ride! In the dark, on the way to the airport (what better way to see the stars!)

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===A few tips for travellers===

We couldn't find a whole lot of detailed info online before we went to Cuba, so we thought we should share a few tips and interesting details we picked up.

Money - this is quite difficult to get your head round, at first. Most sit-down restaurants are priced in CUC, while kiosks selling streetfood - pizza, icecream etc - are priced in CUP. It is perfectly fine to change some of your CUC to CUP, at one of the official 'CADECA' exchance offices, and you can make your money go a lot, lot further by grabbing your lunch at these places (whole pizzas and plates of pasta which aren't always especially tasty but do come in under $1). Consumer goods are always priced in CUC, so apparently most Cuban families try to ensure that someone in the household works in the CUC economy, for example by running a casa particular or working in a bar. Although some basic food like rice and milk is provided by the state as rations, its not enough, and cornershops price extras (e.g. pasta, biscuits) in CUC. Don't let anyone tell you that Cuba is expensive for travellers - with comfortable double rooms in casa particulares available for $20-25 a night in the capital, less elsewhere, it offers better value than much of Central America, and its apparently the cheapest island in the Caribbean. There are lots of cheap bars, and lots of cheap eateries, even when you pay in CUC. But you will get stung on the exchange rate - don't take dollars, and avoid Mexican pesos too, but pounds sterling are a good bet.

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The shops do look pretty much how you'd expect, and sometimes have large queues. On the left, a ration dispensing store, and on the right a department store display window of edible treats.

Scams - It is probably worth adding a word of warning to potential visitors about the sophistication of the street scams in Havana's most touristy areas, for example Paseo de Marti, above. Most Cubans are horrified by this, and you will probably be warned many times to be suspicious of anyone on the street who tries to sell you something. We were used to this level of caution by this point (see our Playa del Carmen post), and didn't expect to struggle. But in Havana, you also need to watch out for those who don't appear to be selling anything. An example is the "cigar co-operative" scam. On our first day (and we must have looked like it!), we were approached by a guy who engaged us in pleasant conversation about our visit and the city, various things that might be going on. He wasn't at all pushy or particularly suspicious - people do talk to you like this in Central America, and usually its fine. He mentioned at the end of the chat that there was a "cigar co-operative" in town, selling cut-price cigars, the only day in a month that they were allowed to. 'It helps Cuban people, you know, to buy from them instead of the Havana Club store'. Sure, we said, maybe later. Further down the street, another guy started chatting to us - "hey, I'm Federico's neighbour, I saw you arrive at his casa last night. I remember because you have the same name as my mother!" If we hadn't been warned by Federico himself not to trust people who claimed to know him, we might have gone for it. We slowly realised that our names, when we arrived and the first name of our host at the B&B were all things that had come up in conversation with the first guy we met, and been passed on to the second, probably by phone. Of course this guy also told us about the cigar co-operative. Maybe later, we said, and made a quick exit. By the time a third guy appeared on our route to escort us to the "co-operative", he was pushier, and we noted that he had followed us down the street from where we first noticed him. Finally we dared to be rude, told him to leave us alone and struck out firmly in the opposite direction. Of course we later found out that the reason that the cigars are cheap is that they're mostly stuffed full of banana leaves. So if you're wandering the tourist areas, definitely keep your wits about you. We preferred the friendly chaos of the backstreets anyway!

Posted by gadgetex 14:11 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Sun, sea and Cavemen!

sunny 30 °C
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Caye Caulker was the second place we visited on our travels and also one of the last. The laid back atmosphere of the island made it one of our favorite places to stay and was one of the reasons we were eager to visit a second time on the return leg of our trip. This blog is a two parter covering our first and second visits to the island.

Part 1

We first landed on Caye Caulker in early October after having left Playa del Carmen. After the crowded Playa and our first (unpleasant and extortionate) border crossing we were eager to stay somewhere more relaxed. Since we were still in low season for tourists (roughly coinciding with the rainy season and the tail end of hurricane season) the island was very quiet and relaxed. At that time of year it just seemed to bucket it down for an hour in the afternoon - you could set your watch by it - and then revert to splendid sunshine. We did have one fairly impressive storm, which drove even the coconut sellers indoors. This panoramic photos shows the storm moving in, seen from the Split (a channel which was widened by Hurricane Hattie in 1961, splitting the Caye into two smaller islands).

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The motto of Caye Caulker is 'go slow' and that describes the pace of the island well. We spent most of our time cooling off in the sea and wandering the sandy streets between bottles of Belikin stout (easily one of the best beers in Central America), fresh juice, rum punch and freshly barbecued fish straight off the boat.

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Spend any time on Caye Caulker and you'll soon run into Pizza Caulker, run by the gregarious Greg. You'll know you've found it when you hear a shout telling you of overpoured rum, cold beer and the best pizza on the island. We went for a look and before we knew it we were seated at the bar drinking Greg's ridiculously strong rum punch and found ourselves chatting to the two gentlemen below, one an ex-soldier from the USA and the other a calamity prone Brit (having lost two laptops and been mugged during his trip thus far). They had come to visit the island for one night, yet roundabout every lunchtime we ran into them again, squinting from behind dark glasses and telling us some variation of the same story - that they'd got too drunk to go back to the mainland to get the rest of their clothes. We had a few great nights sampling the rum and the pizza (which is probably some of the best in Central America, never mind Belize) and the bar became one of our favorite places to hang out.

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As an aside: almost anywhere you eat in Belize will be well stocked with delicious Marie Sharp's sauces. Here I am modelling a bottle of Beware: Comatose Heat Level, the spiciest and therefore tastiest one they do.

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One of the main attractions of Caulker is the coral reef. Diving and snorkeling is very popular and there are loads of companies running trips. After talking to various companies we decided we wanted to go out for a full day snorkeling trip with Caveman who won us over with his friendliness.

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As it was low season we were worried that we might not be able to go on the trip as we needed two extra people but our hotel Jeramiah's did a great job of finding them. By contrast when we returned to the island in high season Caveman's business had really taken off and he had bookings for days.

We had a great day out on the boat swimming about with rays, nurse sharks, turtles and coral. This was one of the highlights of the trip and we hardly need to recommend it to anyone heading out that way.

Our snorkel day was also the hottest we had on the island and we got pretty nicely burnt (the only time during the trip we got properly burnt). Swimming about with your back out of the water for hours it's easy to get burnt so be careful.

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Part 2

We were very glad to be able to return to Caye Caulker towards the end of our trip and relax somewhere familiar. It was high season when we returned and there were lots more people this time round, however more of the hotels and restraunts were open so it never felt crowded. Though it didn't feel as chilled as in low season there were more people to hang out with.

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We managed to book a room at Jeramiah's which had been nicely done up since our last visit. We bumped into Caveman the next day who recognised us - but he'd grown a beard and spent a while trying to convince us he was actually Caveman's brother, it didn't take us all that many days of knowing him to realise that this is pretty typical Caveman teasing! We arranged to go on one of his half day trips which this time would be an eight person trip and decided that this time we had to rent a waterproof camera to capture the beauty and the silliness.

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With the island in high season there was more going on, the bars were fuller, the snorkel tours busier and kite surfers had shown up on the island. We spent several lazy afternoons down by the split drinking beer, reading in the sun and watching the kite surfers bouncing around on the water. We also met up with our frind Quincy who had been at Buenas Cosas with us during our first week there.

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In the evenings we drank rum at Pizza Caulker, hung out with the other people at the hotel or went to the 'trivia night' at the sports bar which was very much a pub quiz and run by a Brit. Its possible to party quite hard on Caulker in high season, but to be honest the 'go slow' attitude had got so ingrained that we often couldn't be arsed!

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We were sad to see the sun set on Caye Caulker the last night we were there. Its a lovely laid-back place with some real characters, and seeing the reef was an amazing experience. One day we'll be back (for one thing, Caveman has promised his favourite early customers a free day out on the boat and we plan to make sure he's got the chance to keep his promise!)

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Posted by gadgetex 14:18 Archived in Belize Comments (0)

Silly signs


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Along our way through Central America we came across a few signs, notices and ads that were probably meant quite seriously but had actually come out somewhere on the spectrum from hilariously cheesy to downright frightening. Here's a selection!

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To look directly into his eyes is to risk being turned into a cardboard cut-out and forced to sell cutlery in a Nicaraguan supermarket forever!
Luckily I was provided with a really convincing Jim robot to bring back with me, so no-one suspects a thing.

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The Belizean winner of our embarrassing photoshop subcategory!

And some yummy, nutritious ice.

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This nutcase is after your gold...

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... and this guy really wants you to vote for him.

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A clever bit of branding by Apple, Panama

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Sangre means blood. And this chap clearly means well.

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I think these two were from Antigua, Guatemala - a city with a lot of English-speaking expats who have left health and safety laws far behind them.

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This is a flyer for a Cuban comedy night - the promoter read it to us as "el negro pega con todo" and helpfully translated this as "the black man will hit everyone!"

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Eventually we figured it's probably an idiom meaning that the comedian will heckle the audience, but we'd welcome some help with this if anyone knows better! (We didn't go to the event on the grounds that if we didn't understand the flyer, we probably wouldn't get very far with the comedy!)

And finally...

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Posted by gadgetex 08:44 Comments (0)

Hidden treasures in Benque Viejo

sunny 32 °C
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Over the border into Belize, we set up a base in San Ignacio. We didn't love it - although there were some nice places to eat (we'd recommend Ko-Ox Han Nah, already well-appreciated on Tripadvisor - the food is just fantastic), there were a few too many tour agencies and we just didn't especially like the feel of the town. We went from here on a trip to the nearby Mayan ruins at Xunantunich, back towards the border in the village of Benque Viejo - which we liked so much it became our new base.

To reach the Xunantunich site entrance, you approach from the other side of the river and then cross by means of this hand-cranked ferry (free).

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Xunantunich has some good pyramids with well-preserved frescoes and good views over the surrounding forest. We arrived in the morning and got a good look at the site...

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...before the inevitable arrival of the tour buses.

I'm sure there might be advantages to joining this kind of tour (the information provided by the guide, the convenience of the transport back and forth from your hotel). But we are both too stubborn to enjoy being herded from place to place and too impatient to wait for others before wandering off to explore, so we've never chosen this option. If you are outside the tour group, however, they're a bit of a nightmare. Xunantunich rules limit the size of groups to fifteen per guide, but this still allowed for groups of about 40 shepherded by 3 supervisors. If a group like this goes and see one small part of the site, you don't want to be there too. Jim pointed out that standing atop this pyramid watching tour groups swarm up it was a bit like playing Left for Dead, preparing to fight off a zombie hoard, and he could be seen quietly calculating how soon it would be before one of the nippier ones came within range.

At one of the smaller pyramids on the site we actually heard a guide yell "OK, just go up, take a picture and come back down!" Ugh.

[If you want to avoid sharing sites with tour groups, they seem to come streaming in around 10-11am at most sites we've seen - better to be in and out before then]

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Benque village is a very relaxed and sleepy place, but its got more than its fair share things to see and hosts regular festivals and cultural events. Being right on the border, it has a good number of Spanish speakers and Guatemalan influence, while remaining unmistakeably Belizean. Its not much of a tourist centre, yet, and I think this helped to make it a friendly and welcoming place where its easy to get involved in whatever is going on in the community. Our new accommodation was the Benque Resort and Spa - which is rather an overly grand name for a small, well-kept hotel by the river (it offers some massages, but we didn't indulge). it does have an amazing roof terrace with views over the river and town, and owner Steve can give you information on about 100 things you can do in the area to suit your tastes.

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We borrowed some inner tubes for floating down the river, and braved some minor rapids (a lady on shore told us if we both went down in one tube over the largest rapids, it would tip over. The next day, we thought we'd try it anyway, but of course she was right and we got some bumps and scrapes to show for that) Steve also directed us to the 'Cave Garden', where a Mayan flute musician serves great coffee and plays his music amongst bamboo trees and basking lizards.

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Wandering on our final day in Benque, we came across a group of people doing something rather strange - they were dyeing heaps of sawdust in bright colours and laying it out to dry. Questioning the lady in charge (bottom right), we discovered that this was in preparation for the Easter parade, and the work would take a full month to complete with volunteers. Pictures would be made from the colourful sawdust to line the parade route. That day was a public holiday, so the sawmill was closed and they'd run out of raw material and were taking a break that afternoon. Along with some donations via the Cultural Centre in town, it would be funded from the volunteers' own pockets. She said that although it was hard work, she didn't mind, because she believed that God gave the world so much and it was nice to give something back. We were sorry that we'd miss the parade.

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The tiny Monte Magico bar, which we'd already visited because it was local to our hotel, was our final stop that day before taking our onward bus. The public holiday found the owner, Jose Quetzal, having a very small party with two regulars who were swinging each other around the bar to salsa music. Jose is a fascinating character, who while clearly loving his job serving the coldest beers in town in his cozy bar, also has great stories and big ambitions. He's writing a book, on the origins of the border town, and has firm opinions about Guatemala's claim on this part of Belize - historically, its English, and it always should be. The two nations have something of an ongoing feud as Guatemala claims that much of Belize should be part of Guatemala and that this was prevented by British colonial occupation. Of course its crazy to generalise about the opinions of everyone in a nation, particularly one as diverse as Belize, but most Belizeans we've spoken to seem to be remarkably pro-British, and some have mixed feelings about independence. Belize gained its independence in 1982 and welcomed self-government, but many Belizeans are concerned that without British protection, Guatemala will attempt to claim its territory once more (a claim that has rumbled through the courts for years, after Guatemala agreed to no military intervention on the condition that the British built a new road connecting them with the Atlantic coast, a promise which it seems the British never fulfilled).

Jose might have been feeling particularly charitable towards the British that day because the public holiday being celebrated was Baron Bliss Day, which honours a wealthy British sailor who left his entire estate to the country of Belize to be used for the benefit of the people. The capital has not been touched, but the interest has provided for many pubic buildings, projects and festivals in Belize. Interestingly, he Baron never actually landed on Belizean soil, but spent the last months of his life exploring the coastline by boat (more eccentrically still, he specified in his will that no American should ever be involved in the administration of the trust, and no-one knows why).

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It was great to talk to Jose about his book, his country's history and his visions for a united world. We promised to send him a postcard from home, and to keep an eye out for his e-book ("and maybe the Queen would like to read it too!" he added). In the past he has worked alongside trade union leaders, and he dreams of setting up a school to train future political leaders of his country to rule honestly and in the best interests of the majority. Right at that minute, his computer was broken, so he was content to sit in his shady bar, happily chatting to us and watching his friends dance the salsa.

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Posted by gadgetex 18:21 Archived in Belize Comments (0)

Buenas Cosas

sunny 35 °C
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One of our main reasons for wanting to head back into Guatemala was for a chance to do some volunteer work. We'd found an organisation called Buenas Cosas which would take volunteers for short term stays and so decided to go there. Buenas Cosas is located in Barrios Los Horizontes which is on the outskirts of Santa Elena just over from Flores where we had studied Spanish near the start of our trip.

We stayed at the 'volunteer centre' which is also the home of the family which runs the organisation. Angelica runs the show with the help of her husband Memo and their kids Reina, Wilson, Perali and William. The house features organic gardens, a stream through the middle which uses plants to filter water from the barrio, a treehouse and a volunteer champa with tables and hammocks for relaxing in the shade.

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For our volunteer work, we undertook a range of tasks involving the chickens and goats raised by BC. We fixed up a chicken coop, repaired a holey fence and mucked out the chickens using the contents of the coop to fertilise the garden.

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But our main task was to build a milking table for the goats as two of them had just given birth. The contraption includes a table to raise the goat up for easier milking, a food trough to lure it in and a pair of planks to hold its head in place. The goats love their corn so much that once they recognise the table they just hop up onto it to get their food.

Now from these photos it might look like Jim did all the work while Iz spent her time cuddling newborn goats (cabritas in Spanish). Er, totally not true! They are pretty cute though, even with their weird goat eyes.

We were less keen on the older goats, who were impressively obstinate and often had to be rescued from their own stupidity - the mama goat kept sitting on her young, and every time we thought we had the fence fixed up just right for the billy goats they escaped, and made us chase them round town for a bit. We soon discovered that luring them back with a bit of that delicious crunchy corn was pretty effective.

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Barrio Los Horizontes is a neighbourhood with a lot of poverty and malnutrition. The goats' milk is given out to the old people in the barrio and to sick children to improve their health and is sometimes also made into yoghurt and cheese which we were sadly unable to sample.

We were however able to try out the goat milking platform on our final day and have a taste of the fresh goat milk. Nice, once you've overcome the idea that its just come out of a goat instead of via the supermarket!

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We also got a lot of language practice, especially with Angelica (who speaks only Spanish), partly in the form of formal language exchange sessions and partly just chatting over work and dinner. This made 5 weeks during our trip of language lessons or speaking mostly Spanish, and we're now reasonably fluent with basic conversation (which will make the trip to South America we're already dreaming of a lot easier!)

Because we'd stayed in nearby Flores early in our trip we already had some friends there, and it was great to catch up with them on a trip to a beach across the lake from Flores town.

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For another daytrip with a fellow volunteer (the only one - Buenas Cosas isn't exactly a large organisation!) we headed to another lakeside spot with a WATERPARK! You're never too old for a waterpark.

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After two weeks at Buenas Cosas we headed on to Belize for some river tubing, Mayan ruins and beers with a fascinating guy lucky enough to be named 'Jose Quetzal'.

Posted by gadgetex 10:25 Archived in Guatemala Comments (1)

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