Exploring the underworld – Caving in San Ignacio, Belize

I don’t tend to consider myself an adrenaline junkie, however, I can be pretty fearless and willing to try things that I have never considered before. Caving was one of those things. Definitely not an adventure for claustrophobic people, I didn’t think it was something I would want to do. However, the opportunity presented itself and I leaped at the chance to explore the Mayan underworld, even though my superstitious self was terrified.

The caves in San Ignacio are very special, an ancient ritual site which can only be descended into through the mouth of a cave at the top of a jungle. Only 10% of these caves have been mapped out, and in order for you to visit or explore you need to be accompanied by experts with licenses that are specifically for these caverns. Only 20 or so people have these licenses, so we knew we were in expert hands, but also very aware that we were not in a very explore territory.

You start your adventure by hiking the jungle for 45 minutes to the entrance of the cave. Here you are given numerous warnings and instructions not to touch any plants, trees or rocks, as you can get cuts, infections and allergic reactions – what a fantastic way to freak us all out! At the end of ascent and muddy path, you are greeted by a large cave entrance into which you descend. Here the adventure begins, head torches on and ready to deal with the clay filled ground which makes this a very slippery experience.

Once inside you are welcomed by the most mesmerising formations of stalactites and stalagmites, endless paths into other chambers, crystalline cavern skies shining down on you and endless darkness. The whole combination is entrancing and exhilarating, leaving you feeling powerless in the Mayan territory and giving you anΒ Indiana JonesΒ adventure kind of feeling.

The caves are dark, and you crawl through some very tight spaces in order to get further into the site and explore more chambers. The soil is rich in clay and extremely slippery, it is easy to see that people might get lost, stuck or have panic attacks. We rest in each section, admiring the pottery, both intact and broken, that shows another story to add to the great narrative of the Mayan civilisation. We are also told of supernatural events that have taken place in this area. It is truly enchanting and terrifying. The cave system demands your utmost respect, as you step and slide through holy ground, sacred land, where many have died, been sacrificed and have prayed to their Gods. We are intruders, and therefore must not upset the balance of this territory. We continue on further deep before starting our ascendance back to the mountains and fresh air.

Sweat drips down our whole bodies. “Who knew you could sweat in darkness?” I think to my self. We take it slowly, one step at the time, as we are guided through the underworld, the land of the dead and the Gods back to where the living breathe. The experience is truly incredible, a gift from the Mayans to have let us find this site and allow us to wander and explore its caves. Here, you get the feeling that we are truly not alone in this universe, and that there are beings superior to us, it is almost palpable in the air, the presence of something more. Or perhaps, the exhaustion speaks too loudly.

We are rewarded at the end by a relaxing swim in a natural pool, a sinkhole. Yet, the strength and intensity of the location is not lost on me and I feel we are still somewhat subject to the location we just visited. A place touched by a force, Gods if you will, but curious, fascinating and intimidating. I have to say, caution is key when trudging in the underworld.

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Death Road, Bolivia – a story of survival

​There we were, climbing to the peak of the mountain at 4800 metres in preparation for the exhilarating descent. The oxygen deprivation was slowly becoming visible as some of us panted for air at every word, others talked and walked slower to avoid exhaustion and some stopped every few steps to try and take a deep breath. We had been told never to try taking deep breaths in such thin air, but it’s the natural reaction. As we arrived we saw the two wheeled instruments laid out according to height, suits and helmets in front of them and most importantly a picnic of tea, bread and jam. We tucked into the marvellous feast before getting dressed and finding our allocated bicycles. We tried and tested them, looked at breaks, re adjusted seats and looked down at the long road that we were about to face. 56 km of road, downhill winding routes, meeting with other vehicles, waterfalls, narrow paths and cliffs so steep but beautiful that plunging to your death was not even a thought as we admired the breath taking views.

We straddled the two wheeled speed machines, posed for a few photos as we were poised and prepared for the descent. The guide started 10 metres in front of us. And off we went. The first section of road is smooth tarmac for 20 km which allowed us to reach speeds of nearly 50 km per hour on the bikes. The wind swept past each of us as we practically flew down the mountains. We didn’t show any signs of slowing down, not even for curves. It was seemless, it felt like we could go on forever on that road. Some of us howled in excitement, taking some of the paths with jumps, screaming in ecstasy, the adrenaline urging us to go faster and faster. It was freedom. At this point all the fear swept away. No one cared if they fell off the mountain, the only thing that mattered was the velocity that we could reach as we continued down the mountain.

The effortless ride soon gave way to the gravel path. The mountain bikes were more than prepared, good suspension and responsive breaks. However, the riders were tricked. We were comfortable on our tarmac descent only to be met by huge stones, landslides and a whole 36 km of road that made each of us sound like red Indians ahh-ing and tapping our mouths at the same time for effect. Our wrists soon began to ache with the continuous impact and struggle to break on the slippery gravel. The previous night’s storm began to show its remains, huge puddles, muddy paths, and all of us looked like we had an untimely accident on the bikes as the brown slime dripped from the top of our backs to the wheels of the bikes. We were not discouraged. This was going to be the most scenic part. We rode on.

Some of us started feeling aches on previous injuries, dislocated shoulders, bad knees, weak backs and broken coccyx, everything slowly but surely started to twinge as the suspension seemed to do little each time to ease the pain. Many couldn’t get up for long periods of time on the bike any longer. Others kept hitting big rocks which swerved the bikes slightly. Yet we were determined, all damned if we were to give up now so close to the end and so close to the buffet lunch and swimming pool we were promised at the start of this adventure. We continued, riding through waterfalls, getting absolutely drenched and dry within instants. We took each corner carefully this time, as the unpredictable nature of the road made us all slow down in pace. The last 10 km or so were flat, forcing us to pedal after all the hard work downhill. It was picturesque, sunny and the lush green mountains covered the path that was once upon a time brought death to many cyclists. Up until 2014 an average of 300 a year used to die on bikes and larger road vehicles. We paid our respects as we calmly made our way to the final stop. Exhausted and completely overwhelmed by the ride we stopped. We survived. We were death road survivors. 3 to 4 hours of cycling later and we were stood looking back at our challenge, a challenge we had overcome with sweat and what looked like shit on our backs. We did it.

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Woah, this is a very different post to what I have written before, and even if you didn’t like it I enjoyed it thoroghly. Combining my love of travel and writing into a creative piece was quite fun.

I have to say, some advice as always: if you are not a confident cyclist this could be quite tasking and at points intimidating. So do your research and watch some videos and see some photos.

Finally, if you are but still want to try it, hell just do it!

Lastly, this is from personal experience, if you had a case of travel tummy and the runs the night before, either be sure you can control yourself and are hydrated enough for it, or don’t do it. I was so determined to finish it that even feeling like death on death road (ha!) I still carried on.

Home Stay in Lake Titikaka

Towards the end of our travel time in Peru, we were gifted with the opportunity to integrate ourselves in the day to day life of the Aymara culture.
After visiting some of the floating islands, of which you will read later, we arrived at our home for the evening and were greeted by our host families. We then had a game of football against the locals which we lost and blamed entirely on the fits of hyperventilation caused by the altitude. We then put on our best traditional outfits to be taught and guided through a dance.

At the end of the day we followed our mother, Lucy, to her home where we had a wonderful dinner and helped clean the dishes. The room was simple but perfect for both of us and we had a restful night in preparation for the following day.

We were encouraged and excited to participate in the mundane tasks of the family, delving into their day to day lives. We helped feed the pigs and sheep, prepare breakfast and wash dishes as well as the laborious task of seiving through barley seeds. The experience was truly wonderful and enlightening as we learned about how this culture continues to live in the most simple way. 

I admire their plain lives, dedictated to the day to day and what the earth can offer them. I must say, I did appreciate the beauty in the simplicity and how it must be peaceful to live like this. On the other hand, I was also able to gain even more appreciation for my own life, as I have the opportunity to dedicate my time and part of my life to a career I am passionate about and in many ways, the things I think are basic items have suddenly become luxuries that I am incredibly grateful for. I am in awe of Lucy, who runs her house, farms her land, cares for her family and still finds the time to host us ignorant and bothersome travellers in many ways. Yet she does it all with such patience and grace. What an incredible woman. She made me realise that although that is not the life for me, there are many things that I can take from it and apply to my daily life. I feel that overall the experience has influenced me to search for constant improvement in my daily home life. It seems all the little things can positively impact on your routine.

I would encourage you all to really delve into your home stays, even if they are short there is always something you can take from it.

The start of my 3 month adventure

I cannot believe that after years in the making, months of payments and preparation it has all actually come to fruition. I am backpacking across south and central America.

Latin America has always held huge fascination for me, and it was honestly a dream come true when I realised it was all going to happen. The last few weeks leading up to my departure have been a mix of sadness, excitement and stress. My blood pressure definitely went through the roof trying to get everything organised for my replacement at work, printing documents, packing and buying last minute things. All added to the crazy period that is Christmas every year, lots of people to see and a lot of food and booze to consume. Now all of that is done all that rests is to enjoy the start of my adventure.

The entire trip to the airport I thought to myself “I am so going to mess this up! I am not cut out for this.” Doubt filled my head as I did not have a clue. I have never backpacked in my life and I was certain that 3 months living off a giant rucksack was nothing like doing short 5 day city breaks in Europe. It couldn’t be the same. I considered all the things that could go wrong in that hour and 15 minute drive. From me being robbed, attacked, killed to simple things like not having enough insect repellent, not making friends, never having clean clothes. I thought about how I would be missing 3 months of my work, work that I am so in love with and passionate about. I thought about not being able to speak to my parents every day, ask my mom for advice on everything and listen to my dad sing any Stevie Wonder song to me at the most inappropriate time. I thought about my boyfriend, how could I leave him to fend for the winter months without a cuddle and extra heat in bed? Who was going to tell him everyday how amazing he is and how he deserves the world? I thought about everything and then some. However, I feel the nerves are a natural thing. I want it so badly to be an amazing experience that I was obsessing over it.

Nerves are healthy. I boarded that flight after crying on the phone to my man, but I got on and went back in time to a different continent where my haphazard Spanish will have to see me through until I refamiliarise myself with the language.

So as I post this my dear readers, I am on a coach to Junquilall where I will embark on my first adventure and save the turtles. Filled with excitement, nerves, a desire to work and save the world and the traditional breakfast of Gallo Pinto I am off. Embrace the fear and you will go far, goodness only knows this the furthest I have ever been.

Until next time.

Hiking the Ulriken

So the national past time in Norway has to be hiking.Β 

My partner and I donned our really unfashionable but sturdy hiking boots to trek the Ulriken, a stunning mountain that you can see from the centre of Bergen. The peak is about 645 metres up and the hike takes on various curves that make you fall in love with the shapely mountain.

The trek we took crosses over with some cycle paths, so be sure not to get slammed on by a mountain bike, and it took us around 2 to 2 and a half hours to hike up, with lots of stops for photos, snacks and water breaks. I would also say that the path at times is not very clear, you are pretty much winging your way up the mountain through difficult and ever changing terrain, but it is stunning and totally worth it. It is also the best work out in the world.

Overall, the trek is meant to take around an hour to an hour and a half for those with more experience, know the path and haven’t carried a crappy back pack. I can tell you now, the correct back pack with lumber support is key! Lesson learned. None of this fashionable pretty looking business for any type of trek in the future. Make sure you always take a rain coat of sorts because Norway is temperamental and renowned for having the most consecutive days of rain… 295 in 2015.

This was a fantastic way to break my hiking boots in preparation for the treks in South America. I think it would have been great if the trek was better signed but it was still do-able as you can see the end line throughout the trek. You walk through some really great locations, it is so refreshing and helps clear your mind. You won’t get to see many people on your hike either, but the few you do will be like mountain goats. This is no joke. The national past time must be hiking, they fly up and down the mountain as if they have no fear of falling off the face of the rock. We saw children hiking too! It was amazing, such a healthy way of living and it made me want to do it so much more. Inspiring really.

Once you get to the top enjoy the mesmerising views and make sure you give yourself a well earned sit down, a hot drink and some food. It was just breath taking. After all the sweat, slipping on a few rocks and the heavens opening up and drenching us head to toe, we reached the summit and it was so worth the work. It was the most beautiful experience, and I wish we had had more time to trek other mountains but sadly we did not. I cannot wait for our next Norwegian adventure and to hike some well known paths in Stavanger next time. For now, enjoy some photos of our trek up the Ulriken.

Happy reading, writing and travelling!

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View from the top

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