A year of travels – 14 countries

A year of travels

A year ago today I boarded a plane in London for Madrid, and began a journey that has taken me through fourteen countries in 12 months, culminating back in Spain where I am now. Along the way I have had some amazing high points, and also without doubt some of the most challenging times of my life. The countries I have travelled through are, in this order:

SpainGuatemalaHondurasNicaraguaCosta RicaPanamaColombiaVenezuelaBrazilEcuadorPeruBoliviaChileArgentinaSpain

12 months later I am speaking Spanish fairly well (albeit with multi-country accents & vocabulary), I’ve finally learnt some yoga, and I’m in the process of setting up an online English teaching business with an old friend here in Barcelona. You’ll be hearing more about this sooner rather than later as it should be ‘going live’ within the next couple of weeks.

Finally, I just wanted to say a big thank you to all the people I have met along the way. The trip wouldn’t have been the same without you. Special thank-yous to: All at the Cooperative School in San Pedro, Sushi, Francisco, my mother, Paul, Serena, Jameson & Laney, Pete & Heidi, Svayam, Carlos & the Reina Madre crew in Buenos Aires, Rachel, Ben & Marina, Rory/James & Marcela in Spain, and Ana-Maria.

Click here to see some of my trip photo colllections on Flickr.

Podcast: Story of a Guatemalan War Victim (in Spanish)

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Filipe and Rosa were wonderful hosts whilst studying in San Pedro, Guatemala. Although I wasn’t strictly doing a home-stay with them, as I ate two meals a day at their house, they soon felt like family.

Podcast story of a Guatemalan war victim

After a few weeks I asked Filipe if he would be happy to tell me his story. In 1981 during the Guatemalan civil war he was abducted and shot twice by the army. He was only 17 years old. Some of the other hostages that were taken from San Pedro the same night as Filipe were murdered by the army in front of him. To this day, he still doesn’t know why the army abducted him, nor how he managed to survive his ordeal.

Listen to Filipe’s story (in Spanish) by clicking on the play button at the top.

The Mayan temples of Tikal in Guatemala

I last visited Tikal 15 years ago, in 1993, and had a rather magical experience here. At that time, we climbed the highest temple, temple IV, in the middle of the night and witnessed the jungle spectacularly bursting into life at dawn. The sounds of the roaring howler monkeys have stayed with me ever since.

Tikal in Guatemala

Unfortunately tourists are no longer allowed to enter the park before 6am, so we left El Remate at 5.30am arriving shortly after 6.

Tikal – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is the largest of the Mayan ruins, and is located in the hot and steamy El Petén region of North East Guatemela. Tikal’s prosperity peaked during the Classic Period, around 200 – 900 AD, during which time the site dominated the Maya region politically, economically, and militarily. It was at this time that the wonderfully named King Moon Double Comb (Aka. Lord Chocolate) ruled over Tikal.

There are thousands of ancient structures at Tikal (some higher than 60 metres), and only a fraction have been excavated, still allowing visitors a bit of an Indiana Jones experience, although word has it that the ruins at El Mirador now surpass the splendor of Tikal.

Tikal was mysteriously abandoned around the 10th century, and popular theories now cite drought as one of the likeliest causes of its sudden demise.

In the last 15 years there have been inevitable changes at Tikal. Apart from the opening time, now there are wooden steps leading up all the temples, and the main pathways and temples are more manicured than before. My biggest disappointment with this visit was due to the presence of a generator near the park entrance which can be heard throughout the park. The generator obviously frightens a lot of the wildlife away (including the previously ubiquitous howler monkeys) and partially destroys the illusion of untouched jungle which I remember previously.

Onwards to the Copán Ruinas in Honduras….

Rancho de Rosa: Our host family in San Pedro, Guatemala

Living with a host family has both advantages and disadvantages. Significant advantages are: practicing your Spanish on a daily basis, experiencing Guatemalan life and culture from "the inside", and living in a safe and filling environment (the food is more than sufficient). Some disadvantages might be: lack of privacy, eating at set times (not decided by yourself), and noise because you live with a family with young children.

Rancho de Rosa, San Pedro, Guatemala

We, however, have got the perfect solution. We have rented a house from the amazing family Phillip and his wife Rosa, so we have our own privacy. But we eat our meals with the family in their restaurant "Rancho de Rosa". This way we get to practise our Spanish and be part of a family, but with the option of withdrawing and having our own privacy.

When we met Phillip and Rosa we were looking for privacy after two intense weeks with another family – but had we not already stayed with another family I would have surely wanted to stay in the house with Phillip and Rosa because they are such a lovely and warm couple.

You do not have to stay with them as a student though to eat in their restaurant "Rancho de Rosa". It is open everyday from 9.00-20.00 and you can have very cheap, traditional food there (such as rice with refried beans and platanas for 10 quetzals ($1.50)).

Rancho de Rosa is located next to San Pedro Spanish school (and also works with San Pedro Spanish school) in zone 2 of San Pedro.

If you have the chance to drop by there at any time – please send them my love.

Video: Cooperativa Spanish school in San Pedro, Guatemala

This video shows you the popular Cooperativa Spanish school in San Pedro, Guatemala. It includes footage from the garden, classrooms and interview with the current coordinator of the school.

The cooperativa Spanish school in San Pedro was founded in 2003 and has in five years developed into one of the most recommended Spanish schools in all of Latin America. There are many reasons for this. Not only is it one of the cheapest places in the world to study Spanish (with 20 hours of one-to-one teaching a week and home stay with a family with all meals included for 150 $), but it also has a socially conscious ideology. The school is run as a cooperative and guarantees good working conditions and fair wages for the teachers. Furthermore, the school donates money and food to poor families in the community.

The after school activities include conferences on Guatemalan culture, videos, kayaking, climbing tours, salsa classes, canopying, and dinners with the teachers.

Please find more information about the school at: www.cooperativeschoolsanpedro.com. You can also read more about the school on our website, see photos and listen to our podcasts about Spanish studies at the school.


Podcast: Studying Spanish in Guatemala Episode 1
Podcast: Studying Spanish in Guatemala Episode 2
Podcast: Studying Spanish in Guatemala Episode 3
San Pedro and the longing for empty spaces
San Pedro and the dreams from another dimension
Our photos of Guatemala – including Lake Atitlan, San Pedro, The School, & Antigua

El Remate, Guatemala

What a great decision this was, avoiding Flores and staying in the significantly more chilled-out village of El Remate. El Remate is a small roadside settlement on the shores of a huge lake, about 40 kilometres closer to the Mayan temples of Tikal than Flores – the usual Tikal stopover.

El Remate, Guatemala

I just spent my time here (in between visiting the Tikal temples) swimming off the jetty in the photo above, wandering around the lake shore with wild horses, and listening to the howler monkeys from the nearby bio-reserve.

Photos of El Remate

Video: Climbing Pacaya volcano in Guatemala

This video shows you the amazing active volcano Pacaya in Guatemala and us climbing it.

UPDATE: Thousands Flee their homes as Pacaya Volcano erupts (BBC News May 2010).

Climbing Pacaya volcano was quite an exhilarating experience. We left Antigua at 06.00 in the morning and arrived at the base of the volcano at 07.30 and started the summit trail. The initial climbing was through a forest trail. Suddenly the trail ended and the land in front of us was barren and grey looking like pictures from the moon. You could still see the beautiful landscape around us, but rivers of grey had run into it. At this point we started climbing through dunes of grey sand dust and the wind blowing was strong and cold.

The last part of the climb, to the point where hot burning lava is flowing, was the hardest part. The trail was very steep and you had to climb in either lava sand which kept disappearing under your feet (so that you basically took one step forward and two back) or you had to balance on the dry rivers of hot lava rock. Now for those of you who have not seen a lava stone, let me tell you "it is very very sharp and putting your hand down would surely cut you. But the color and formation is amazing it looks like silver and is at times shaped like waves.

While climbing the old lava waves you could feel the heat from underneath getting increasingly hot and finally we reached the point where the river of hot, burning lava came flowing out it was truly magical.
Good advice: I suppose it is needless to say that you need warm clothes and solid hiking boots to climb the volcano. It would be impossible to climb the sharp rocks in thin shoes or stand the cold without a proper jacket and pants.

Directions: You can buy a ticket to the volcano from Antigua for about 50 quetzals. This covers a return trip to the volcano. At the base of the volcano you pay 40 quetzals for entering the parquet. Some travelers report having a guide with them with a shot gun for protecting (against robbery). We had a good guide but without a gun. The tours leave Antigua at either 06.00 in the morning or 14.00 in the afternoon. I would recommend you taking the early morning trip because climbing down from the volcano in pitch dark (the last trip) is dangerous.

Good luck.