Saturday, September 27, 2008

Dougs Infamous Yacht Trip

Monday 4th of August- Day 1, Panama city to Porto Belo

I was up ready to leave 4am. I kiss my weeping girlfriend goodbye and promise her everything is going to be ok. It is still dark and just walking the 4 blocks to the bus stop is unnerving as the only people around are the homeless sorting through trash cans, its also the first time I have been on my own since the start of the trip. I get my first bus and a kind Panamanian nurse on her way to work chats to me for the 1hr 15km trip to the main bus station. Once at the main bus terminal I wait with all the other early morning work commuters for another hour to get on a freezing cold bus to colon and of course I forget my jumper because it 30 degrees outside and for some reason these Latin American buses always have the air con set to about 2 degrees – I freeze the entire way even the arms inside the t- shirt trick didn’t work.
On arrival to colon my nerves have not settled much as the previous night I read that there are three murders a day in this city and a gringo with a big backpack won’t stand out much. I get off the bus and have to walk a couple of blocks to the bus station, I stop a passerby to confirm that I am going the right way because I look down the street I have to head down and there is not a soul in sight, quite strange considering it is morning peak hour and the street that I am standing on is bursting full of people, any way the passerby informs me that I am correct but then warns me in a serious tone that that I must take a taxi as that street is very dangerous, I am thinking a taxi for just 2 blocks – geez. So I try and get a taxi along with all the other 50 people trying to do the same thing, it chaos, but they are seasoned professionals and I don’t stand a chance. After 5 minutes of trying I almost resign to just walking the blocks when miraculously out pops the guy I asked directions from, he must of seen the desperation written all over my face and he magically instantaneously gets a taxi to stop at his feet, he signals me over and I share his cab 5 blocks in wrong direction, drop him off and then head back 7 blocks to the bus station, luckily the cabbie still only charges me $2.
2 hours later I arrive in Porto Belo my destination. I wait by the cathedral for another hour for the mystery boat captain’s wife to collect me but 2 South Korean guys and Russian guy show up, introduce themselves and then we are off to the supermarket to top stock up on supplies, mainly beer and vodka. We then head out to the yacht a 40 foot catamaran and meet the captain – Freddy a 60 something Danish bloke who spends most of time lazing around in his underwear drinking rum and his wife Yuderkis a pretty 26 year old Dominican republican girl. They tell me that they have to head off to another town to sort out the paper work for our journey to Cartagena which they also told me should only take 3 or 4 days. So I had the afternoon to myself.
Getting to Porto Belo safe and sound was an achievement I though I should let Monique know about so I emailed her from the only internet in town – the library, and told her that I would be in Cartagena sooner than expected and that I looked forward to meeting her at the airport. I then adventured around Porto Belo for the afternoon as it is an old Spanish port that was used to ship gold and silver back to Spain in colonial times, it was also repeatedly attacked by pirates so many reminiscents remain in the form of forts, cannons and walls.
That night we 4 boys decided on bonding by having a few drinks. Well a few drinks soon turned in to a lot of drinks. This was helped along by the Jonathon a gregarious Russian who fed us all shots of vodka like they were chocolate Easter eggs on Easter morning.
Tuesday 5th of August- Day 2, Porto Belo to El Porvenir, San Blas Islands
We all felt pretty sorry for ourselves on this morning, we were nursing pretty bad hangovers all day. I was glad we didn’t head out to open sea until later in the evening around 5pm because the captain liked to take his time getting things ready. I have never met a more relaxed person on my life, his wife on the other hand was energetic and always kept busy cooking or cleaning and as the boat did not have radar she was also look out for any reefs, she had amazing night vision. So we traveled all through the night to reach our destination. I was expecting to get sea sick considering all the stories I had been told, but I slept like a baby.
Wednesday 6th of August- Day 3, El Porvenir
Now this was almost paradise relaxing, getting a tan, chilling out on the yacht and swimming in lush Caribbean waters. Our aim here was to get our passports stamped for leaving panama and to get a zarpe (a document that you need from the marine authorities when making a voyage).
We anchored about 400 meters from shore and it did not take long before I was bored on the boat and as the captain thought that lowering the dinghy in to the water was to much work I decided I would swim to shore to get a water taxi to come pick him up so we could get the paper work sorted. On the islands lived the Kuna Indians, a placid beautiful people who wear traditional clothing which is unique and colourful. I organized the water taxi to pick up our captain and then returned with him to ensure my passport was stamped and all was in order. Unfortunately the officials could not give us the zarpe because the captain could not give them the correct paper work, Freddy claimed he had it on the boat and he would return the next day to have it all sorted.
Thursday 7th of August- Day 4, El Porvenir
We returned the following day to find that the official who we had spoken to the previous day and the only person on the islands who could issue a zarpe had left to Panama City for the day and should return the following day. So we were stuck for another day. We boys decided that it was not too much work to lower the dinghy in to the water and we went exploring on another island where there were more locals. They had traditional huts made of wood and straw and sold authentic and a lot more not so authentic artisans.
By this stage we had also run out of fresh water on the boat. The captain claimed it was because we took showers for too long, I think he had not filled the tanks before we left, I hadn’t even taken a shower yet as I was swimming all time and felt it was pointless. The boat also had a faulty battery so we had to use a petrol powered generator most of the time which he also did not have enough petrol for so we had to go and buy more gasoline from the islands. We bought some water from the island but that did not last long. I’ll mention now though that we did not run out of beer for the entire trip.
During the day we had some dug outs row up to the yacht selling fresh fish, lobster and artisans. We ate sea food like kings that night.
Friday 8th of August- Day 5, El Porvenir – Hollandaise Cays
In the morning I went for now my daily morning swim to the island to see if the official we needed to write the paper work was there to find he was not. One of the locals informed me that he may not even be there until Monday, three days later. I informed the captain of this and the decision was made to leave with out the zarpe later that evening.
I was glad to be finally moving somewhere as I was bored of staying put in the same place for so long. I was also concerned that I would not arrive in Cartagena in time to meet Monique at the airport. We left that afternoon to hollandaise cays where we hoped we would find more fresh water, some diesel as we might be running low the captain said and some more petrol for the generator.
When we arrive at Hollandaise cays we find no supplies at all, quite disheartening as we were hoping to head straight to Cartagena from here the following day. Instead we were head down to Isla Tupak where the captain was sure we would find the supplies (by the way I should probably tell you that this was the first time he had ever done this voyage, he had done Cartagena to Porto Belo but not vice versa)
Saturday 9th of August- Day 6, Hollandaise cays – Isla Tupak
We spent the day anchored in the beautiful hollandaise cays swimming, chilling out on the yacht, eating coconuts and playing cards. The setting was amazing, beautiful Caribbean palm tree filled islands, crystal clear blue and green waters and powdery white sand beaches.
By the time the captain was ready to leave it was 5:30 pm. So once again it was another all nighter on the sea. We spent a lot of the night collecting rain water using the fabric roof of the deck as a catchment which we had also been doing the previous three nights.
Sunday 10th of August- Day 7, Isla Tupak
We arrive at about 10am in the morning, we should have arrived several hours earlier but the captain had made a navigational decision to head out further from the coastline to avoid the reefs but he headed out about 2 hours too far. As we were heading in to the anchorage the captain took a bad route and even though his wife and myself said the water was to shallow he assured us it wasn’t. Before we know it we a stuck on a sand bank. Freddy chucks it in to reverse to no avail. So I get all the boys and we jump in to the water to try and push the 8 tonne yacht off the sand bank. We pushed and heaved with all our might and after about 3 or 4 minutes of strain we cut it loose. It was a good victory!
Here in isla tupak we found a small shop with a few food supplies. But my first aim was to find a phone to call Monique, the public phone on the island is out of order, so I go around asking if I can use someone’s mobile phone I offer US$10 for privilege but there is no reception on the island so my search is futile.
Jung hu and I had to trek to a river to find fresh water supply and then carry it back to the dinghy then I went in search of fresh fish, would have fished for it myself but all the fishing equipment on the yacht was broken and there was no tackle. So after asking several people in the village I get led in to a hut where there are 3 old women cooking a plethora of lobster, crab, fish and pulp. They are willing to sell me 8 fresh fish for US$8, quite a steep price, but I’m not paying for it, the captain is. I have to wait for them to clean the fish, it was pretty awesome sitting in their hut for around half an hour watching them go about their normal daily lives, no electricity, just a wood fire to cook, dirt floor and most of the family lying around in hammocks.
So the Korean Boys are getting pretty fired up by this stage. They have a flight from Caracas, Venezuela to Mexico City, Mexico booked for the 14th of August and it is a 24 hour bus ride from Cartagena to Caracas, so if they don’t get to Cartagena within 2 or 3 days they lose over $1000 worth of flights. They want to leave now to get on route to Cartagena, but the captain is too tired from sailing all night the previous night and the decision is made to leave first thing in the morning.
Monday 11th of August- Day 8, Isla Tupak – on route to Cartagena
So I wake up at 6am and see that the captain is sitting on the deck drinking a beer in his jocks and realize there is no way that we are going to be leaving soon so I go back to sleep. When I get up at 8 not a lot has changed. I go out and ask captain what has to be done before we leave he says he has to fix the navigational light on the front of the boat, I’m thinking we have come this far with out it why would we need it now, but who am I to argue. I offer to fix it myself which I had also done a few days before as I needed to do something to relieve the boredom but he assured me he would get to it. So I leave him to it. An hour later I head out to the front of the boat to see how the light fixing is going and the old fella has not got very far which is funny considering he used to be an electronic engineer. I help him for a while and ascertain that it not the globe but some wiring. Then he goes for a drink break, a very regular occurrence for Freddy. I investigate the wiring problem and find the fault, the earth was shorting so I rewire the light and it’s fixed, it took about 20 minutes in total.
We finally leave around 2pm in the afternoon. Finally we are on our way to cartagena!!!
It slow going, we only have one engine working and the current and the wind is against us. We are going about 2 – 4 knots which is about 5 to 7 kms per hour, now you can walk faster than that. But we are slowly heading in the right direction. Luckily there is a dvd player and a television on board so it gives us something to do while we a putting along.
During the evening we get some wind and we get up to a speed of about 6 -7 knots and we all start cheering.
Tuesday 12th of August- Day 9, on route to Cartagena
About mid-day the engine starts spluttering and struggling it conks out a couple of times before she just won’t start again. This is a major blow. Freddy reckons it is the diesel filter and it takes him until about 3am the following morning to replace it.
But it does not fix the problem and all night we are bobbing about the ocean. I think we were actually going backwards for a few hours.
Wednesday 13th of August- Day 10, on route to Cartagena
I get up early to hear no engine working. This is pretty disappointing. I head out to the deck and to no surprise find Freddy sitting at the table drinking a beer. I ask him what wrong with the engine, he tells me that the diesel is still not getting through. I figured what have I got to lose I will try and get it going myself. Freddy tells me how to try and pump the diesel through. So I climb in to the small stuffy engine room. There is oil all over the floor and the smell of diesel and oil is pungent plus with the ocean throwing the boat about it is not a very comfortable environment. I try and pump the diesel through and hit the same wall that Freddy did. I return up to deck and ask him if the is actually any diesel to actually pump through. He casually replies that maybe not. What do we do now? Well luckily there is still some diesel in the tank of the other broken engine. Freddy had siphoned out some back on isla tupak but thinks that we may have already used it. He is not keen get down and siphon any more out. Its pointless arguing with him so I go down there myself to siphon it out.
Now this was a difficult task. First of all it was hot stuffy and there was not bearly enough room to move, then the level of the diesel in the tank was to low to siphon it out (unless I got in the ocean), so I created a container out of a 4 litre milk bottle and slowly poured diesel into it bit by bit, it is hard to explain the process in writing but after about 2 hours of collecting diesel, and lots and lots of sweat, grunting and swearing we had about 12-13 litres of diesel (all those times spent installing fence posts under decks helped me through). The problem was that because it was all from the bottom of the tank and had probably been sitting there for a long time it was filthy. So thanks mainly to Yuderkis (the captains wife) we filtered and cleaned the diesel using a funnel and coffee filters. So after about 4 – 5 hours of work we tried to start the engine again, but no luck. I was at my wits end.
I was now convinced that freddy had incorrectly installed the new diesel filter and the system was not pressurized. I told him that if it is not fixed by the morning, we would get on the radio and get some help. I had suggested this earlier but he ensured me that it was not an emergency we were just going slowly. I then went to bed.
Thursday 14th of August- Day 11, on route to Cartagena
Once again I wake up, no engine sound the yacht just bobbing around in the ocean going in circles. I go out to the deck to see an exhausted freddy sitting at the table. Apparently his wife had been shouting and hitting him all night trying to get him to fix the engine. I asked him if he had got anywhere, he told me that the gaskets were the wrong size and he had got some other gaskets from the old filter. I figured that I may as well try and fix it myself before we radio in for help. I head down in to the hell hole engine room to find the filter in pieces on the oily floor. I remembered what it looked like yesterday and I put it back together. I try and manually pump the diesel through and alleluia the filter fills up with diesel. This is so exciting! We try and start the engine but it doesn’t start. Except this time I am in the engine room and notice that it sounds really dry. I check the oil and guess what it is bone dry! Now you are maybe wondering why I didn’t check it earlier, well that is because every time before we started a voyage the captain spent about an hour putting oil in the engine, so I figured it was something he had well and truly covered.
I soon figured out why there was so much oil on the floor, the captain had been pouring it there instead of in the engine. It was actually really difficult to get oil in to the engine and the only way I could do it was to use a small coffee cup and pour a little in at a time another difficult time consuming task.
Ok so after its about 11:30am I had been working on the engine since about 6:30am, I had been fighting off the sea sickness all morning as the ocean was throwing us about a bit. We try the engine, more gas! more gas! I yell and broom broom broom WOO HOO! The engine starts. It was one of the most jubilant relieving moments in my life!
I take a seat on the deck, the captain gives me a beer and says here you’ve earnt that and that was the only thanks I got.
We putted along the engine didn’t miss a beat for the rest of the voyage I wanted to increase the power but the captain was worried we would run out of diesel so it was painfully slow.
Friday 15th of August- Day 12, finally arrive to Cartagena
I didn’t sleep much the previous night as I was excited that we would be reaching land soon, and I was really worried about what Monique was going through and I was excited to see her. I wake up and see the cartagena sky line on the horizon. We were still going painfully slow but it was still a sight for sore eyes. I watched big cargo ships stream past us like we were standing still but it didn’t matter we were going to be there soon.
We eventually get to the anchorage. The captain argues with other captains about where he is anchoring as they think he is too close to their boats. We put the dinghy in the water and just out luck the outboard motor won’t start. So we have to row in to the dock. I was just laughing at this stage.

I head straight to the supermarket as I am dying of thirst, after sculling a 2 litre bottle of juice I try and get hold of Monique on the phone to no avail. I then jump on the internet and try from that angle, I only see one email from her, so I figure she must not be too concerned as she only sent one email. I leave the internet café and wonder back to the dock, at this stage the exhaustion hits me and I feel like a zombie walking down the street. Then I look up and there is Monique running towards me screaming balling her eyes out. She basically jumps on me and hugs me for about 15 minutes, now this is the welcome I had been looking forward to; it was such a good feeling having my baby back in my arms

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Honduras through to Panama

Hey everyone. Well it has been a while since the last update and well that probably Monique’s fault because she left me (Doug) in charge of writing this and she knows how much I procrastinate, anyway I’ll get on with it.

Last time we left you with our diving adventures in utila Honduras. From Utila we took a ferry back to the mainland then an 8 hour bus ride through to Tegucigalpa with our mates Kim, Eliza, Jack and Hannah. We stayed there the night before bussing it through to the capital of Nicaragua, Managua. There we were pushed and shoved through an insane bus change to the quaint colonial town of Granada. Our 3 day stay here included: chilling out in the beautiful tree lined plaza, watching a beauty pageant which turned in to a concert where the only people willing to dance were the town drunks – quite amusing – until the towns gay contingent joined in with a display of regaton that drew a crowd of spectators until the dancing got particularly sensual dispersing the crowd rather rapidly. Another night in Granada was spent at the local expat karaoke bar, my renditions of Wonderwall – Oasis and Paradise city – Guns and roses were mediocre while Monique’s Foolish Games – Jewel and Ironic – Alanis Morrisette were brilliant. But it was our duet of Grease lightning that absolutely brought the house down!

From Granada we went on a chicken bus adventure to rivas then another ferry to the impressive island of isla omepete. Formed from 2 volcanoes isla ompete is a haven for lush and forest, wild fauna and awe inspiring views. We stayed here for a few days and just soaked up the beauty.

From Isla ompete we moved on to San Juan Del Sur, a surfer hang out on the south pacific coast of Nicaragua. Here we reunited with our friends Kim, Eliza, Jack and Hannah and had a good night out. We also checked out the beach with some of the most brightly colored crabs we have ever seen, and thousands of them at that.

From San Juan del sur, Nicaragua we moved on to Nicoya, Costa Rica. This involved an interesting, time consuming border crossing, where we waited in lines for several hours. We had hoped to make it to the beach town of Savana on this day, but time ran out and we ended up in Nicoya. It just so happened that there was a big celebration commemorating the area independence from Nicaragua. We sat down and had a few beers in one of the marquees playing loud Latin music with intervals of Latin karaoke and it wasn't long before the locals had us up dancing and partying the night through. I have to say that we were really impressed by the friendliness and hospitality of the Costa Rican people, we made some new friends and had a memorable time.

The following day was spent at a beach called Savana, recovering, before missioning onwards to the capital of Costa Rica – San Jose where we stayed at the Panga, a kick arse hostel before heading up to Tortuguero, which involved 6 hours of bus rides and a lovely scenic boat trip down the the Rio Pavona and Rio Suerte, where with the help of Monique's super spotting skills we saw a sloth, monkeys, heaps of different birds and a crocodile. Tortuguero is an awesome town set in the jungle kind of like a mini Amazon. The people here are of Caribbean decent where they speak a Creole dialect of English man. In the evening we saw the inspiring event of a 180kg green turtle lay 120 ping pong size eggs and then completely exhausted head back to sea.

Before sunrise the following morning, we went on a canoe tour deeper in to the jungle. All the sights, smells and sounds of the jungle waking up were sensational. Later in the afternoon we headed off to our next destination – Puerto Viejo – it took a 3 hour boat ride followed by a 1 hour taxi to arrive at this chilled out beach town. Here we met an interesting fellow who goes by the name of Captain Zero who volunteered to be our leisure consultant. This 60 year old surfer hippy expat wanted to start his leisure coaching by trying to sell us some of his home grown weed, he quickly tried to prove his credibility by showing us a 3 page article in 'High Times' magazine devoted to him and his escapades as Captain Zero who back in the 70's was trafficking container loads of weed from Africa, the Caribbean and Cayman islands to the states. There was even a book written about him called In Search of Captain Zero: A Surfer's Road Trip Beyond the End of the Road. By Alan Weisbecker. And watch out, I did some research on google and a movie is coming out soon. Anyway back to our trip we spent the afternoon with this eccentric fellow and it was pretty interesting.

Next we headed on to Bocas Del Toro in Panama. This involved another border crossing. Its quite amazing how just on the other side of the border there is always a mini shuttle bus waiting just for the gringo back packer, eager to tell you that the only way you are going to get to your destination is with them for the very small fee of US$10 per person, but in reality with a few questions to kind locals you find you can catch a bus with the locals for US$1.25 per person. Then when you arrive at the river side to take boat to your next check point you are accompanied by two guys “helping” you find the correct boat company to go with although it is clearly evident that we already know exactly where we are going. When they 'lead' you to the boat company that we were already going to, they expect a tip. I guess that what we have become accustomed to here in Latin America.

Highlights in Bocas del Toro include: Eating yummy chicken and plantain chips from the road side vendors, Seeing a Red tree frog and chilling out with hundreds of star fish at Playa Boca Del Drago. After a few days there we moved on to Panama city where we checked out the enormous engineering feat that is the Panama Canal. We also enjoyed doing some normal stuff like go to a see the new batman movie and got to a huge shopping centre. From panama City I decided to go my separate way to Cartagena, Colombia, in a yacht and Monique decided to take a plane as she hates sea sickness, and a few days on a yacht in the open sea did not appeal to her.

Next installment we will fill you in on all the details of Doug’s Caribbean yacht adventure.

For now take care every one and don’t forget we absolutely love any feed back, makes us feel just that bit closer to home.

Doug and Monique

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Hi everyone, if you missed the first entries here they are so you can catch up.

April 28, 2008

Hello everyone! We´re in La Paz, Mexico and tomorrow are catching a ferry across to the mainland to ride a train through the Copper Canyon. Today was great...we took a tour to an island just off the coast and saw some amazing beaches! We stopped off at a Sea Lion colony where we snorkelled with them. It was amazing!!!! They play with you like big puppy dogs! Very curious and playful! We were in San Jose Del Cabo for 3 nights, it was great, really friendly ppl. Then we caught a bus to San Lucas Del Cabo, which was a crazy American party town. So we took advantage and went out to sample some of the night life. Highlight; belting out Bon Jovi´s Living on a Prayer!!! After one crazy night there we headed over to La Paz which seemed to be a bit quieter, still quite a few tourists, more from other parts of Mexico rather than from USA. After three nights here, tomorrow we set off on the ferry!
Hope all of you are well and behaving yourselves! Miss you all like crazy and wish you could be here with us! Make sure you fill us in on what´s been happening in your world!
Lots of love and tequila from La Paz, Mexico!
Monique and Doug xoxo

May 19, 2008

Hola Amigos! I think its been a while since we've messaged you all! Sorry, I think we're getting lazy! And I'm sure it'll only get worse!
I can't even remember where we got up to in our last message, so if we overlap i'm sorry!
Lets start with Mexico City! We stayed in a great hostel called Hostel Moneda, it was a great place to meet other travellers and they included breakfast and dinner so it was a bargain. On our first morning we took the free walking tour from our hostel around the main sights of the city. Before long you get the feeling that some of the buildings don't look quite right. And this is because they are sinking! Mexico City sunk around 10 metres in the 20th century due to water being pumped from aquifiers below the ground to provide 70% of the city's main water supply. You can see the effects everywhere... cracking streets and lop sided buildings.
Mexico City is huge! Around 25 million people in one City! It wasn't until we climbed to the top of the Latino Americano tower one night (the tallest building in Mexico City), that we could really get a grasp on how big this city really is!
From Mexico city we took a day tour to Teotihuacan, the archaeological zone of Mexico's biggest ancient city! There, standing tall, is the world's third largest pyramid; Piramide Del Sol. The Aztecs believe this structure was dedicated to the Sun God. And just down the road is the equally impressive Piramide De La Luna; Pyramid of the Moon. It stands nearly as tall because it is built on higher ground. It was pretty amazing to climb to the top of Piramide De La Luna and get an incredible view of the Piramide Del Sol! Magical!
From Mexico City we took a bus with our new Columbian friend Nicole, to Oaxaca, stopping in Cholula to see the widest pyramid ever built! However, today it looks like a big grassy mound with a church built on top of it. Archaeologists have uncovered a series of tunnels running from one end to the other, which for a fee, we are permitted to explore. I must say i don't feel very comfortable in tunnels, but apart from that it was a pretty cool experience!
And now onto Oaxaca! Oaxaca was a beautiful colonial city with lots of crafts, cafes and a happening main plaza. On our first day there we jumped on another tour bus! Our first stop was to see El Arbol del Tule; a Cypress tree measuring 58 metres around the trunk and standing around 42 metres high! It is estimated that it is between 2000 and 3000 years old! Pretty impressive!
The next stop was in a showroom where we were shown the traditional techniques for creating beautiful woven rugs and other crafts. We were shown the entire process; from the way the cotton is washed to the way the colours are extracted from natural elements through to the patternmaking and the hours of weaving to create these beautiful pieces.
After lunch we eventually made our way along a very windy road to Hierve El Agua; set on a clifftop with panoramic views of the nearby mountains, a series of mineral springs, fueled by bubbling water coming from the hillside. Doug took a dip in the funny smelling water, and I opted to watch.
On our next day in Oaxaca we skipped the tour bus and made our own way to Monte Alban, the ancient Zapotec capital. It is built on a flattened hilltop surrounded by panoramic views! We managed to get there early enough to beat most of the other tourists, so it was nice to be able to absorb the aura of this magical place in peace and quiet.
Next on our travel itinery was the steaming hot Puerto Escondido along the Oaxacan coast. After being hit with the humidity disembarking from the bus we headed off to find our hostel. When we got to the hostel, we were told that the owner had left for a week and had left the place in the capable hands of a nice Irish backpacker. Our room was a bargain, a mansion compared to the shoeboxes we've been staying in. And the property came with a pool too, pity it was as warm as a bath!
We didn't do much exploring around Puerto Escondido, it was just too hot!! So we took the time to catch up on some reading and some much needed zzzzzz's. On our last afternoon there we managed to find a secluded beach about a 20min walk from our hostel. After making it down the long staircase we were greeted by a nice sea breeze and an awesome beach! The water was perfect! After two small steps into the water you found yourself not being able to reach the bottom! It was a great feeling just letting the gentle waves carry you up and down.
After 2 nights we caught the night bus headed for San Cristobal De Las Casas. After the 12 hour bus ride it was so nice to step off into the fresh mountain air! Ahhhhh! We can breathe again! And so here we are...San Cristobal! Yesterday was spent wandering the cute cobblestone streets of this gorgeous little town, stopping to look at all the crafts in the market stalls. Life goes by at a nice slow pace here, a pace we could easily get used to! But we have to keep on moving on!
Well done if you've made it to the end of this message! Thanks for reading! I know it was a long one! Hopefully we'll be able to write the next one sooner!
Until next good...stay safe...and keep smiling! :o)
Miss you all lots,
Heaps of love,
Monique and Doug xoxoxo

June 2, 2008

Hola amigos!

Welcome to the next installment of our travelling adventures. We hope this email finds you well.

So our last email left you in san cristobal so I guess we will start there. So the next day we took a boat tour down a river that ran through a giant canyon. There we were greeted by crocodiles, monkeys, iguanas, baby bats and beautiful scenery. The following day we jumped on yet another tour bus which took us to a couple of impressive waterfalls including aguas azules, which as you can see from the photos is the most crystal clear perfect blue water you could possibly imagine. In the late afternoon we arrived at Palenque, the first ruins we have seen in a jungle setting. It was hot and sticky but unique and beautiful and our favorite ruins thus far.

Then it was on to another night bus to Cancun, with the air conditioning set to somewhere below freezing we eventually got to sleep and then THUD! Screeching tyres, people gasping, angry bus driver swearing loudly in Spanish, we had hit a deer (or at least I think that’s what he said) on the road. The damage to the bus was substantial but drivable; we changed buses at the next town. I (Doug) did not get back to sleep after that and on arrival in Cancun I had a terrible cold and spent the day sneezing uncontrollably.

The next day we boarded flight CU151 Cubana Aviation bound for La Havana Cuba! The plane seemed ok from the outside but after ducking the head to enter we felt as if we were stepping in to a 1970´s Russian spy movie. When the air conditioning was turned on strange smoke came out from the floor, the seats wouldn’t stay upright and we were basically laying the persons lap behind us. From the airport we caught a taxi and this taxi ride will be one of the most memorable experiences of my life, nothing untoward happened but just seeing all the cars, the old buildings, the socialist propaganda posted on factory walls and highway billboards, the people using horse carts, the really old trucks and buses. It was Culture Shock, and we loved it! After finding a casa particular (this is where you stay with a Cuban family that the government has allowed to host tourists, works like a bed and breakfast) we went out for dinner where we were serenaded by a typical Cuban band and then we went to hotel Florida to dance some salsa, where we met some Cubans with whom we partied with until the wee hours of the morn. The next day was spent wandering around Havana trying to take in as much as possible although our heads were a little sore from the night before. I was looking through some travel brochures when I stumbled across the little yellow piece of paper that said ¨Los Van Van, Live Saturday night¨ and it was Saturday! Now for those that don’t know Los Van Van are one of the best salsa bands in the world (some would say the best) I could not believe our luck. So we went to the intimate music venue with an underground New York Jazz feel -Salon Rojo - later that evening we lined up, got in and then danced all night only a few feet from the band, this was unforgettably amazing!

Next day was spent going to the museo de la revolution and taking a bus tour around the city. Late that night we caught a taxi to a venue called 1830 but found it shut on our arrival we asked the taxi driver to takes us back, on the way he stopped the car in this small dark no one around back street, we freaked out a bit, he said he was just going the toilet, now if this was Melbourne I would be suss but fine, but after all the horror stories we had heard we were seriously contemplating jumping out of the taxi and making a run for it, but we stayed… luckily he was telling the truth and we were soon on our way, he still charged us double to take us back where we came from I wanted to argue with him but a few prompt elbows in the rib from Monique and no small notes there was not much I could do.

Next day we met Sam a cool English guy traveling around and shared a cab to the lovely colonial town of Trinidad, we found another casa particular where our host fed us enough food to feed an army. We went out here to the casa de la musica where we saw so many amazing Cuban dancers, made me feel like I was back learning level 1 salsa. We still managed to dance the night away.

Next day we went horse riding through the valle do los ingenios, which was beautiful. We swum at a local waterfall and hung out with some campesinos when the rain started bucketing down that was probably the high light, one of them was playing tradition Cuban campesino songs on his guitar and singing away, one of the others asked me if I would give him my sunnies, I politely refused, he gave us a bunch of bananas anyway. That night we got a salsa lesson from one of the locals – Antonio, it was hard, and I felt like a complete amateur but that’s cool, I´ve got plenty of improving to do which is fine with me.

The following day was spent chilling out getting sun burnt on the pristine playa ancon (a beach). It was beautiful and very relaxing, the water was magnificent! After wandering around the markets the following morning we caught a taxi back to Havana. Yeah, that’s right, 400 kms in a taxi! It only cost us 50 bucks and was 2 hours quicker that the bus. The highlight of the taxi ride was all the socialist propaganda on the billboards on the highway, check them out in our photos. That night we wandered around Havana again and bought a piece of art that we couldn’t afford but would deeply regret if we didn’t bring it back to put somewhere in our house. It’s a beautiful painting of a couple dancing salsa. We went dancing again that night at Hotel Florida and got an early night (2am) to get up for our flight the next day. We were really sad to be getting on the plane, we didn’t want to go, but due to financial and time constraints we had to. I’m still trying to work out a way to go back though! If any of you are thinking about going to Cuba we highly recommend you get there before it all changes.

Saludos a todos,

Besos y abrazos,

Doug and Monique

June 19, 2008

Hey everyone! Hope you're all keeping well!
We are writing to you from Anigua, Guatemala where we are enjoying the cooler climate.
So our last update left you at the end of our amazing week in Cuba. When we returned to Cancun, we jumped straight onto a ferry headed for Isla De Mujeres, a small island just off the coast of Cancun. It rained non stop for the first couple of days, which gave us plenty of time for reading, relaxing and catching up on the internet. On our second night there, we found a small bar with a fantastic Cuban 7 piece all girl salsa band. So naturally the rythms soon took over and we were up dancing on the empty dancefloor. It wasn't long before a Cuban who was working there came over and started to give us a few pointers. We all clicked straight away and ended up staying on the island for another week getting daily dance classes from our very own salsa guru, Jorge. Jorge is one of those special people that you are lucky to meet once in a lifetime. He has such a deep passion for music and dance and was so generous in sharing his gift with us. He took us right back to simple basic steps and didn't move on until he could see that we were dancing in complete unison, as one, feeling the rythms of son in our veins. His classes were always challenging, yet so uplifting and everyday we walked away with a hightened sense of passion for the dance and for each other.
The remainder of each day was spent soaking up the sun on the white sand of a palm fringed carribean beach, admiring the amazing, crystal clear, blue water. Ahhh...what a life!
Jorge had introduced us to one of his many friends on the island who ran tours to swim with whale sharks. Whale sharks are the biggest of all the fish and sharks in existence and can grow up to 14m in length! So one morning we jumped on a beautiful, spick and span boat and headed out for the 45 minute journey to where the whale sharks could be spotted. Once we arrived at the sighting area, our captain circled around for a good 20min or so looking for one of these huge creatures. And then there it was, in all its glory, calmly cruising along on the surface of the water. So quickly it was on with our flippers and snorkelling gear and we waited for the captain to give us the ok to jump in. And then into the water we went and soon after we heard "SWIIIIMMMMM!!!!" being yelled from the boat. Imediately we were off, swimming as fast as we could towards this enormous whale shark! As we got closer the shape of this giant creature became more and more apparent, until we were swimming along with it; side by side, eye to eye. It was only then that we realised how big this whale shark really was! We estimated it would have been between 8 and 9 metres in length roughly the size of a bus! It was such an unreal experience being so close to this gentle creature, and one we certainly won't forget in a hurry! Because you have to swim so fast to keep up with the whale shark, you only last about 10 minutes before it is out of your sight. So then it's back on the boat to have a bit of a break and then you jump in and do it all over again!
So a week after we had originally planned to leave the Island, we sadly said our goodbyes and were headed for the mainland and onto Playa Del Carmen.
This was possibly the most touristy place we had been so far, complete with 4 starbucks on the one street! It was quite a change of pace from the peaceful, laidback atmosphere of Isla De Mujeres!
One night we were having a quiet drink in a bar when we met Kyla and Clinton, a young couple on their honeymoon. They were staying at one of these super expensive all inclusive resorts and got sick of the crowd and the food there pretty quickly so came into town to get away from it. We all got along really well and ended up having a really fun night with them. So the next day we arranged to meet them at there hotel from where we would catch a ride with them in their hired van to see the ruins of Tulum. The next day we all jumped in this minivan, complete with a driver, loaded up the esky and headed for Tulum.
The ruins of Tulum are set on the clifftop with a background of pure blue water and white sand. Unfortunately the weather wasn't at its best, it was quite dark and gloomy, however we still found these ruins to be really beautiful and definately worth seeing!
After travelling for most of the afternoon we were all pretty tired when we got back to Playa Del Carmen, so we called it a night and made plans for the following night to go to a famous nightclub called Coco Bongo.
Coco Bongo is in Cancun, about an hour north of Playa. We'd heard from alot of people that this was definately one nightclub you had to see to believe. And they were right! This place was crazy! The cost was $40us for your entry, but it also included all your drinks. The entertainment was a continuous carnival of celebrity impersonators, circus acts, samba dancers, burlesque dancers, acrobats and more! And then after each performance they would shower us with colourful streamers or balloons or bubbles like we'd just won a major competition on a world stage! It was definately a night to remember!!!
After recovering from severe hangovers, two days later we were on a night bus back to Palenque, where we then took a tour by minibus and boat which took us to Flores, Guatemala.
Flores is a really nice little town set on a huge lake. The popular thing to do from Flores is take a tour to the ruins of Tikal. But we went one better and got up at 3am to make it there to watch the sunrise from the tallest temple in the park. At around 5.30am, after a good 20min powerwalk to the base of this temple and then up the countless number of stairs,we were 70m high, looking over the jungle canopy in prime position to watch the sunrise! This was a truly magical experience; not only seeing the sun rise over the jungle, but also hearing the jungle come to life. We could hear the sounds of howler monkeys making there way through the treetops and the songs of the various bird species that inhabit the area. The rest of the morning was spent touring the rest of the ruins, stopping to check out the howler and spider monkeys, tarantulas, toucans and racoons along the way.
There isn't much more to do in Flores besides swim in the lake, so thats how we spent the following day! That night we took a canoe out on the lake just before romantic! lol! :o)
We booked our transport to Antigua, our next stop, through a travel agency in Flores. Our package was supposed to include the 8 hour first class bus to Guatemala City and then a shuttle bus was going to be waiting for us there to take us to Antigua. We got off the bus in Guatemala City and showed our ticket to the officials, who all laughed and informed us that this company did not exist! We got RIPPED OFF!!! Oh well, if that's the worst we get ripped off then we'll have done pretty well. Our only option was to take a taxi to the local bus station and then jump on one of the local chicken buses to Antigua. This was actually quite a fun experience on its own, and i'm sure this won't be the last chicken bus we get on!
So here we are, safe and sound in Antigua!
As always, thanks for reading our update! We love hearing from you all too, so make sure you let us know what you've been up to!
Missing you all incredibly!
Take care,
Lots of love and hugs,
Monique and Doug xoxoxo

July 18, 2008

Hey Everyone!

Is it just us or is the interval between these updates getting a bit longer each time? Oh well, we're doing our best to keep you up to date! :o)

Ok so we ended up safe and sound in Antigua, Guatemala at the end of our last message.
Antigua is a really nice little town surrounded by volcanoes but is pretty crowded with tourists. The cobble stone streets are lined with colonial style buildings that all blend in together, making it a little difficult to distinguish the hotels from the houses and the restaurants from the shops. Everything looks the same, there are no signs or flashy lights to advertise whats inside so you pretty much have to walk up to the door to see what's inside the place. It rained quite a bit most afternoons so we spent most of our time there hanging out with other travellers and watching the Euro cup.
One of the big atractions in Antigua is an active volcano called Pacaya. We took a morning tour there where it took us a good hour to climb the steep walking track to the top. When we reached the top we scrambled across the hot rocks to where there was a stream of lava flowing from the ground. The whole experience was surreal, it was like being on another planet! We were surrounded by black volcano rock and could smell the rubber melting from everyones shoes. Some people brought up marshmellows to toast on the lava, and others bought big sticks from kids down the bottom that they used to poke into the lava. It was definately one of the highlights of our trip so far!
From Antigua we took a shuttle bus to a small town called Panajachel which is on the shore of the majestic Lake Atitlan. From there we jumped straight onto a boat to go across the lake to the popular backpacker town of San Pedro. Our original plan was to travel to the city of Quetzaltenango to do our spanish study, but we really like the atmosphere of San Pedro and there were ample opportunities to study so we decided to stay there.
We found a great spanish school there called San Pedro Spanish School, where we both took classes for four hours a day for the next five days. We both had our own teacher and the classes were taken in little cabanas that were scattered around a huge garden right on the lake. It was beautiful, the perfect learning environment!
The school runs a project called Ninos del Lago which provides education to the children of poorer families in the area. We decided to sign up as volunteers and each taught a class in the afternoons. Each volunteer was given a class of 5 or 6 children to teach, and then you were sent on your way. Their teacher didn't really give us any guidence or teaching materials, so we had to plan our class right there and then on the spot! It was quite a challenge just to keep them in control let alone try to teach them anything. But on the second day now knowing what to expect, we were slightly better prepared and the classes ran pretty smoothly. I taught my class some basic english grammar and played some games and Doug did a bit of work on vocab and played some games with them. In the break we pulled out our cameras and showed the kids how to use them. They loved it! They would all beg us for the next turn and would all pose for one another. In the 5 days they took over 300 photos! On the last day all the kids brought in some fruit and Doug and I brought some hot chocolate that we'd bought in Oaxaca. Their teacher made waffles and we all sat around eating the waffles with fruit salad, drinking hot chocolate and watching all the photos they'd taken on a big projector screen. It was a great afternoon, the kids were so excited to see their faces up on the big screen!
On our last weekend there, it turned out that it was the festival of San Pedro. We thought great! We're so lucky to be here at the right time! Ba bow!!!! was probably the worst time to be there! For about 4 days straight there were these fireworks going off day and night, each blast sounding like a gunshot. I usually quite like fireworks, but they have to be the ones that go high in the sky and create a fascinating display of light and color. These ones just made the awful light, no colour! The fireworks were bad enough, but add to that this really bad, out of tune marching band that started up at 5am every morning outside our hotel that played what sounded like the same 4 bars of music over and over.....AAAAHHHHHHH!!!! Needless to say, we did not sleep at all for about 4 nights. Not very happy campers! Lol!
From San Pedro we took the boat back across the lake to Panajachel where we took a shuttle bus back to Antigua. We stayed there for two nights, and came across a great little suprise on our second night there. We were walking back from dinner when we saw a small bar that had a big banner saying *Buena Vista Social Club de Corazon.* We way...not the buena vista social club...impossible! So we walk into the place and there is the band setting up! There weren't any seats left on the floor, so the waiter takes us up to the stage and sits us next to the band on the stage! Ignacio "Nachito" Herrera, a member of the original Bueana Vista Social Club, was playing in this bar with his band! Sitting up on the stage, we felt like we were at a loungeroom jam session! It was such an incredible experience, but unforunately this was one of these times we didn't have our camera with us, so you'll just have to take our word for it!
The next morning we caught a bus to the Honduran border where we changed buses in Copan. After about 4 hours waiting time we were on a bus bound for La Ceiba, which is a transit point for ferries to the Bay Islands. We got into La Ceiba pretty late and had to get up early the next morning to make the morning ferry to Utila. The ferry terminal is about a 20min taxi ride out of town, and we arrived there at 8am. When purchasing our tickets, we were kindly informed that the 9.30am ferry would not leave unless it had 130 passerngers. The next ferry was not until 4pm! Because they told us that there was a chance the ferry could still fill up and leave early we decided to hang around the terminal. And there was nothing at this terminal! There was one little kiosk with a very limited menu. We had met an Australian couple on the bus from Antigua to Copan, who were also on their way to the Bay Islands so at least we were in good company! At around 12.30 in the afternoon, the male halves of our couples went on a search for beer. We asumed they would find a shop, grab some drinks and food and 3.15 when the crew wanted to start loading our luggage there was still no sign of the boys! We had no idea where they were! We frantically looked around the whole terminal and they were nowhere to be seen! After about 20 min, the crew was getting really impatient with us and wanted to load our bags. Then a French couple aproached us to let us know they might have seen our fellas in a bar about a 15 min walk away. So Eliza ran down the road towards the bar where she ran into the tipsy pair walking back from the bar. She shoved them in a taxi and they all made it back just in time to load our bags onto the ferry! They spent the next couple of hours in BIG TROUBLE!!!
So after a pretty hairy, hour and a half long ferry ride we arrived at our destination! The laid back island of Utila. This island is well known for its cheap diving, so naturally thats what most people are here to do! Doug and I decided to do our Advanved Open Water Certification. We started off with a refresher course on our first day and then on our second day, we were down 30 meters underwater looking at a shipwreck! Yep, straight in the deep end! As part of the course we also completed a night dive, a navigation dive and I did an underwater naturalist dive, while Doug did a peak performance bouyancy dive. The night dive was pretty amazing! The marine life is just so different at night! All the little crabs an lobsters come out of hiding, and we were lucky enough to spot a turtle sleeping, an octopus and a little sting ray. In our spare time on the island, which we didn't have much of, due to all the diving, we chilled out in our favourite cafe playing scrabble and chess! You may laugh, but trust us, these games are seriously addictive!
So tomorrow we're off to Nicaragua...another day, another country! :o) We'll definately be writing to you all again soon, and there should be some new photos added to the group page really soon!

Hope you're all smiling and looking after yourselves!

Make sure you write to us and let us know what you've been up to, we love hearing from you !!!

Until next time,
Missing you all lots and lots and looking forward to hearing from you!
Lots of love and hugs all the way from Honduras,

Monique and Doug xoxoxoxo