San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala

If I haven’t told you this yet, I belong in Guatemala. Have you ever been abroad in a place that you fell truly in love with, that is Guatemala. Everything about my time there I remember with fondness and love, I eagerly want to return and spend more time exploring it. My parents and boyfriend have expressed an interest in coming with me too, and honestly, I would love them to. A lot of people will ask me why, what is the fuss, and I can give you a million examples of why I love it but I also can’t quite put my finger on what makes the place so utterly spectacular and homely.

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San Pedro Volcano in the middle, Lake Atitlan

My adventure started in Panajachel, a small town where we only stopped over for the evening before getting on a boat to cross the stunning Lake Atitlan. We stayed only for the night in this small town, a lay over really, but I decided to go for a wander and try to discover some little bits of it. Straight away I began to fall in love with Guatemala, art everywhere, the gorgeous tapestries, the music. I was excited to see more, and Daniel (our guide) had assured me that San Juan La Laguna was the place to visit.

The next morning we got in our small boats and sailed across the lake. San Juan la Laguna is an incredible little village, it works alongside G Adventures and Planeterra to help bring education, tourism and prosperity to the region. All the businesses are local and work as cooperatives to help and support each other. We had the chance to visit some of the businesses ourselves and talk to them.

We began by visiting the weaver women. They showed us how to weave cotton thread out of wool, how to naturally dye the cotton and keep the colour from fading by using boiled banana bark water. We then admired their craftsmanship and I even bought a scarf, hand made and dyed, and had the pleasure of meeting the wonderful lady who made it for me, Rosa.

We then visited an art gallery, where we learnt about different painting techniques that are used here. Some of the traditional paintings are of all the local dresses from across the country, they all differ a bit. They also make birds eye views paintings, mostly of working environments in the fields and fishing, traditional images of work. Here I purchased the most stunning painting of a Quetzal, the endemic and national bird, also the name of the currency of the country.

Finally, we visited a group of homeopathic traditional mayan doctors. This was really cool! I love natural medicine and find that it works wonders with me and my family. They told us of a lot of treatments with herbs that are very easily found. I suggested some teas for mum for high blood pressure and snoring.

After a very busy day discovering so much of this wonderful place and culture, we headed off for the evening with our families. I absolutely love homestays, you really get to know people from the culture and live their realities, help them, talk to them and support them. It is a wonderful thing to do and I could not recommend it more. Our father for the evening, Juan Diego, is one of the local artists and his paintings revolve around the traditional outfits. We had a lovely evening, playing football with the children and learning each other’s languages.

The following day we said our sad goodbyes, which for the locals is just another day waiting for the next group of tourists. However, it feels like such a simple thing, a simple evening with a family that after 3 months without one fills a little warm place in my heart. This is where it all began for me, my love affair with Guatemala started here and the rest of the journey was just as wonderful. I am excited to share more of it with you all, but mostly, I am excited to write to my temporary family and also return to Guatemala.

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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 an Indiana Jones 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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The lost treasure of keys – Tales of Travel gone wrong

As you know, I am currently traipsing around Costa Rica enjoying the pura vida and the sea turtles. Volunteering here has been an amazing experience, we really get to know the locals, brush up on our Spanish and embrace the culture of the area. Here the concerns are very ltitle as people just want to eat, beach and save turtles.

So a few days ago we were doing hatchery work, which you can read about here, and as I am knee deep into a hole of wet sand a lot of sand flies a lady approaches me. The tide was slowly but surely coming up and the sun setting perfectly in the background, decorating the skies with pink and orange hues, when this lady reveals that the buried her car keys in the sand and can no longer find them… I was baffled to say the least. Many questions sprung to my mind straight away. First of all who buries their car keys in the sand  for safe keeping? This beach only has around 10 punters a day and they only come out when they see the turtles being released. Secondly, if you’re going to bury something in the sand make sure you mark it so that you know where you put it.

So it turns out that as the tide started coming in the woman moved her chair first, which was the marker for the location of keys INSTEAD of the keys. Narurally, with sea water coming in an out at a rapid speed and dragging sand with it, she lost its location. She approached me and asked for some shovels we were using so we decided to be good samaritans and go help. We spent nearly 40 minutes digging hopelessly as the ocean dragged our feet, sand and potentially these disappeared keys to its depths. We did everything humanly possible to find them within the limited time and trying to trace the angle and original position of the chair through a selfie the lady had taken earlier on. The situation was awful but laughable. I honestly did not know whether to cry or laugh as the ocean continued to eat at the beach and the light was disappearing.

By the time we left the beach the whole family was still there, hopelessly searching but also celebrating in glee the hilarity and ridiculousness of the whole scenario. They now plunged into the water aimlessly continuimg their search if anything just to try their best to recover their treasure and head home.

I do not know if they ever found them. I don’t know how they even left the beach that evening, but they suffered, searched, thrived and laughed through it together, never stressing and taking it on their stride. I genuinely think they took it home as a great story to tell the kids.

Saving the Turtles – volunteering

For those of you who know me incredibly well or have read my rant about my love for animals (click here), then you would know that the very first thing I would like to invest on doing while abroad is volunteering. So here I am in Costa Rica’s gorgeous Pacific Coast saving the turtles.

Playa Junquilall is a very secluded place with a small population of 300 people. The whole community has a deep respect and love for the sea turtles that come here every year to lay their eggs and start new turtle families. So in general there is a huge focus on the area to help rescue these creatures.  I will share more information on all of this and how my volunteering program came to be on a later post, today I want to talk to you specifically about hatchery work.

So most turtle eggs are rescued by us and nested in a hatchery to minimise the risk of them being eaten by any birds, crabs or getting bugs all over them.

Yesterday was my first time working at the hatchery. We replaced a nest for a new and bigger one for leatherback turtles, cleaned out all the sand, replaced it with new wet sand which is preferable so that the nests do not collapse. Afterwards we had to replace some poles to secure the fence and freshen up all the hatchery by putting a new fresh layer of wet sand. Controlling the temperature is key for the turtles to develop well. Finally we put another roof up to provide extra shade.

The hatchery duty and its maintenance lasts 3 hours in the afternoon and it can be very tiring as the sun scorching hot. However, contrary to many friends of mine that have done humanitarian volunteering felt at times that they were not contributing, I know for a fact that all my hard work here is helping in the maintenance of thsee animals, the local environment and their protection.

This morning, for example, we got to release a baby Olive Ridley turtle (Lora) and it was great to see the beautiful little thing head off after our hard work to protect and help it. I will post videos of her release some other day and also about our patrol work and what it is like. For now I leave you with this and a few photos of some of the most rewarding work I have ever done.

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.