Today I finally conclude writing my beautiful Central America chapter. Over the last 8 months, I traveled through four amazing countries, discovering new places, cultures as well as new parts of me. ✨
I learned to (somewhat) speak Spanish, I hiked over 10 volcanoes, I was hired as a mountain assistant guide, I watched countless sunrises and sunsets, I volunteered with a lovely Honduran NGO, I trekked 100km in the jungle in search of Mayan ruins, all, while meeting many, many beautiful souls along the way. The cherry on top of my latino sundae was the privilege I had to travel with two of my childhood friends as well as my parents. Merci, je me compte tellement chanceuse de vous avoir dans ma vie. 💙 Thank you to everyone that was part of my journey. You know who you are. Thank you for the friendship, the laughs and the memories we created. I’ll see you again, sometimes, somewhere around this beautiful planet. It’s a long life and a small world. 🌎
This trip was fruitful and enriching in many ways. I did not find my future husband, neither my life purpose nor my next job. Instead, I come back home with more drive and confidence than ever, new skills and knowledge, and of course, a longer list of places to travel.. 😅 I’m not exactly sure what’s ahead of me for now, but I know I am on the right path. Things will fall into places eventually. I trust life. And myself. 😊
My dear Latin America, you stole my heart with your warm people, your colourful culture, your stunning sceneries and por supuesto tus guapos hombres. I don’t think it will be long before I come back for more. But until then, time to go home and unpack that backpack. Hasta luego! ✌🏻
After a few months of hostels, street food and repetitive traveling conversations, I was ready for something new. I started remembering my year in Africa when I helped out drama troupes doing health awareness in schools and communities around The Gambia or when I took care of little ones in an orphanage in Soweto. It instantly brought a smile to my face. Those are some of my best traveling memories. I felt so close to the culture, I felt useful, I felt I had a purpose of traveling. Well, it didn’t take long until I was in search for my next volunteering project.
During this trip, I heard from many fellow backpackers about Workaway; an international platform where volunteering opportunities all around the world are posted for travellers to browse. Volunteers are usually expected to work for a few hours a day in exchange of a homestay and food. The job opportunities are endless: building a beach hostel on the coast of El Salvador, chartering a sailboat across the Caribbean Sea, teaching English in a primary school in Peru… those are all real examples of friends of mine. Workaway is the perfect way to contribute to the local communities while getting an authentic traveling experience (and of course saving a few bucks!).
After a quick research, I found myself in the rural village of El Dorado (in Honduras) helping out a small community-run organisation called Montaña de Vida. Robert, the coordinator of the program, firstly contacted me to teach English to the members of the group, which I did, as well as many other little things such as creating a tourism website, teaching computer skills, hiking in the forest in search of seeds for their plant nursery. I lend a hand in any way I could, and vice versa. They taught me all about coffee production, they helped me out with my Spanish, they showed me how to make tortillas. I believe I learned as much as I taught them. This is the beauty of volunteering.
I couldn’t have asked for a better first Workaway experience. Montaña de Vida is a dynamic and devoted group of young adults who are doing wonderful conservation work for the region’s rainforest and communities. Additionally, they are in the process of developing an eco-tourism enterprise as well as empowering the young generation to protect their natural environment. It is remarkable to see how a little group can make such a big difference. Dedication, passion and collaboration are the key to success. Montaña de Vida showed me that one little step at a time can go a long way. I truly have faith in their future.
Two weeks was the only time I could commit since I had other pre-arranged traveling plans with my parents, but it was enough to make a small difference in both their and my life. Volunteering whether it is for a couple of days or weeks, will leave you changed. We realise the power we have to make an impact in someone’s life. We are all born with skills and knowledge that can benefit someone else. All is needed is an open mind and a little bit of time to spare. We should all be helping each other. The more we will give, the more we will receive and better the world will be.
Honduras was not at the top of my list of countries to visit in Central America until I heard about Utila: A diver’s paradise with affordable prices, great beaches and unstoppable parties. How to resist?! Thus, along with some nuevos amigos, I decided to make it my next destination. I said goodbye to the Guatemalan coast and headed to the beautiful Honduran Bay Islands. 🏖
It wasn’t planned, but (fortunately?) we were in Utila during the Semana Santa (Holy Week). In Latin America, Easter is one of the most important festival of the year. The celebrations normally begin on Palm Sunday and will go on until Easter Monday. Therefore, many latinos make it their biggest holiday of the year. Semana Santa is normally celebrated with colourful processions, enactment of the Passion of the Christ, religious music concerts, the types of activities you would normally except during a religious festival. Well the local crowd that traveled to Utila were more about day drinking on the beach, indulging in street BBQ and dancing the night away to non-stop (very) loud reggaeton. Slightly different from our traditional chocolate Easter eggs hunt and bunch with the family…
So yes, there was a decent amount of alcohol consumed and some early morning walk home but I also made sure to find time to dive (that was the main purpose of this trip!). Utila IS the cheapest place to get scuba diving certified in Central America… 250-300$US for a three day PADI course, including accomodation, is quite hard to beat! I compare Utila to the Koh Tao of Thailand: sublime diving, fun people, backpackers’ prices.
Being already certified, my plan was to dive twice during the week (for a total of 4 fun dives). My first trip was with Paradise Divers, probably the most budget places of all the sixteen dive shops on the island (50$US for 2 fun dives). Cheap, but busy. That morning, we were 2 groups of about 10 divers on the boat. A little overcrowded for me, but once we were off to the peaceful bottom of the ocean, I was in peace. We did our two dives on the north side, where, if you’re lucky, you can spot sharks or even dolphins. Unfortunately, nothing big appeared in front of us, but the coral reefs and walls were indeed magnificent. We also got to see a few blue-spotted rays and impressive baracudas. Paradise Divers is a good place if you are on a tight-budget. It is a busy dive centre and hostel (where the cleanliness sometimes leaves to be desired), but it has a cool vibe with a bunch of laid-back hippy divers.
For my second dive, I opted for EcoMarine Dive Centre, the longest-established dive shop on the island. EcoMarine is a small, but very professional centre with knowledgable staff and an awesome deck where you can enjoy an après dive. Two of my friends were freshly certified so I taught it would be cool to dive all together. I still remember the first time I dove with my whole family in Antigua, five years ago, it was a special moment. I felt very grateful to be able to share this with my whole family. Exploring the underwater world with friends or family just enhance the whole experience! Thus, that day EcoMarine brought us to the south side and we dove at two sites named Black Coral Wall and Laguna Beach. The bright colours and formations of the reefs all took our breath away. We spotted a few calamaris, a lobster and a green moray eel. Nothing I haven’t seen before (I think I have about 60 dives under my belt now), but it was a perfect way to conclude my stay in Utila with my two new dive buddies!
Utila is definitely the perfect spot to chill for a few days, explore the stunning aquatic life and have a good time. However, don’t make the Bay Islands your unique Honduran stop! This beautiful country has so much more to offer, including lush rainforest mountains, beautiful lakes and rivers, friendly people and of course cheap baleadas (local stuffed tortilla). Don’t get fooled by its “dangerous” reputation you might have heard. Honduras is a friendly, hospitable and safe country to visit (by taking reasonable precautions obviously!), and it’s one of the most inexpensive country in Central America! Bring it on! ✌🏻
A lovely childhood friend of mine wanted to escape the Canadian cold winter and join me for a week of traveling. Awesome! Pick the country, I told her, and I’ll meet you wherever! Belize was the lucky winner. Being Central America’s youngest nation (it got its independence from the UK only in 1981), Belize does have a different vibe than its surrounding neighbours: its official language is English, they accept American dollars and it’s a popular holiday destination (especially among Americans), making it one of Central America’s pricier destination. Belize still has a lot to offer culturally, historically and entertainingly. We did have a wonderful girl time exploring mayan ruins and caves, snorkelling with nurse sharks and drinking rum punch over stunning sunsets. Here’s a brief summary of our itinerary.
We started our journey in the heart of the Belizean jungle, in San Ignacio (a two hour bus ride from Belize City). Day one was spent exploring the Xunantunich ruins, one of Belize’s most accessible and magnificent Maya archaeological site. For a reasonable entrance fee of BZ10$, you can explore and climb structures dating from the 7th Century AD. The endless jungle view from the summit of El Castillo was quite impressive. The next day we were off to San Ignacio’s major attraction: the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave, an 8 hour underground adventure that takes you deep into the ancient Mayan world. The ATM cave was used by the Mayans to make rituals (including human sacrifices!) to the Gods of rains in order to save their crops and people. We were able to see an abundance of artefacts (including skeletons!) as well as magnificent stalagmites and stalactites formations. The tour is a little pricy (BZ180$) but we both really enjoyed the experience and learned significantly about the history of the Maya civilisation.
After spending three nights in the nature, we were ready to hit the beach. We took a chicken bus (local transportation) from San Ignacio directly to Belize City (BZ10$) and then a ferry to Ambergris Caye (BZ40$). We spent two days in San Pedro, the main town on the island. Ambergris is a more family-friendly and relaxing island (if compared to Caye Caulker). We spent a day cycling to the Secret Beach (about 45 minutes) where we swam in the beautiful pristine water and drank coconut rum on the white sand. The next day we were off to Belize’s backpacker central: Caye Caulker.
Save the best for last they say. Well, Caye Caulker was definitely my favourite spot in the country. My three nights quickly became one week. Caye Caulker was definitely the busiest, but the liveliest place of all three (we were there during the American’s spring break, hence the number of young festive tourists). The major activities on the island are all about water sports and underwater world: snorkelling with rays and nurse sharks in a colourful coral garden (we did a half day for BZ70$), kayaking along the coast through mangroves to spots pelicans (our hostel, Bella’s Backpacker, offered free kayaks and canoes), scuba diving to the famous Blue Hole (about US300$; unfortunately I didn’t have the budget to do so), as well as kitesurfing, paddle boarding or simply just sunbathing on Koko Beach. I also enjoyed a few yoga sessions at RandOM Yoga studio (donation based classes), thanks to the lovely Jessie. Our evenings were usually spent drinking a sundowner Belikin (local beer) at the Split, eating fresh fish by the beach and shaking our bon-bon to reggae beats.
Although a little expensive for a backpacker, Belize was worth a visit. It’s a safe country and it’s easy to travel. I recommend visiting both the inland as well as the islands to get a full insight of the culture, history and scenery of Belize. Merci pour ce merveilleux voyage ma belle Mel. Tu as été une super partner! À refaire n’importe quand! 😉
After a few days of lounging around the beaches of Belize, I was ready for a little challenge. I met this cool French dude named Scotty, who instantly agreed on my proposition of hiking El Mirador. With a population of more than a hundred thousand people, El Mirador was the largest and most spectacular of all Mayan cities back in the 6th century BC. It covers around 17 square km and holds the largest manmade structure in the ancient World, the Danta Pyramid (75m high!). El Mirador was abandoned around 900 AD, in the great Mayan collapse. It is today an archeological site where only a few structures are excavated. Most of the ruins are still undiscovered, covered with vegetation. Furthermore, El Mirador is located 50km deep in the Guatemalan jungle and is only accessible by foot or mules. Thus, not as touristy and busy like Tikal! To the contrary, only the vivid hikers will venture to El Mirador, normally with an organised trip and local guides. Being both on a backpacker budget, having decent physical condition and sharing a sense of adventure, Scotty and I decided to attempt the hike…alone. We thought this would be a great opportunity to get out of our comfort zone. We did and it was an unbelievable experience. Here’s a summary of our journey to the lost Mayan capital.
Day 1: Flores – Carmelita
After stocking up on all necessities at the grocery store in Flores, we caught a chicken bus (local transportation) to get to Carmelita; a small community that serves as the starting point of the trek. After a five hour drive on dirt roads, cruising through rural villages and farms, we finally arrived at destination. It didn’t take long before we found the restaurant of the village where we devoured our last warm meal and cold drinks before our gruelling 5 day jungle trek. The lovely owner, Brenda, even offered us to install our tent under her roof for the night. What a warm hospitality.
Day 2: Carmelita – Tintal (20km)
We left at the crack of dawn to try to beat the heat as much as possible. We quickly found the head of the trail and off we were! We are very grateful for the application Maps.me with which we were able to download and study the trail beforehand. This was a lifesaver for us. We would not have been able to do the trek on our own without the digital map. The joys of technology! 🙌🏻 The beginning of the trail is quite large and is mostly made of dry mud and holes (it does get better later!). We were also surprised to find a couple of “rest stops” with wooden chairs and shelters along the way. We arrived at Tintal (our first campsite) around noon, just in time for lunch. One of the cooperatives offered us to use their camp kitchen and toilet as well as inviting us to setup our tent on their propriety. We were also relieved to learn that we could buy water at all the campsites (Tintal, Mirador, Nabke and Jabali), which meant (much) less weight on our back! We spent the rest of the day exploring the ruins around the site and admiring the sunset on the Tintal Pyramid.
Day 3: Tintal – Mirador (25km)
The next day we left around 7am, rested and ready to tackle our 25km to the Mirador. The trail itself is pretty flat and straight forward. What makes it challenging is the humidity, the mosquitoes, and of course, our heavy backpacks (but that was our idea!). The scenery is also pretty much the same: a lush green rainforest with tall trees and creepers. Once in awhile you can hear a wild goose, a howler monkey or even see a deer (apparently there are also jaguars and snakes crawling around but we were lucky enough to avoid them! 😅 It could have made a cool story though…). We made a pit stop at the new Jabali camp where we shared coffee, nuts and a few words with the very friendly workers. They invited us to spend the night there on our way back. Que amable! We arrived at El Mirador around 2pm where we had lunch and a well-deserved nap. And what better way to conclude our day by watching another stunning sunset on El Tigre Pyramid (the second highest of the site).
Day 4: Mirador
Our third day in the jungle was all about resting and exploring the vast archaeological site. It started with a disappointing cloudy sunrise on El Tigre Pyramid (hey, at least we tried!). Then, after our typical peanut-butter-banana-english-muffins breakfast, we were off for some discovering. As I mentioned earlier, most of the city is still unexcavated. Only the main structures can be seen and climb such as: El Tigre Temple, Los Monos Pyramid, El Jaguar Paw Temple, El Pava Complex and of course La Danta Pyramid. It was enough to keep us busy for most of the day. Our highlight was, undoubtedly, the sunset on Danta. We were lucky to have the whole pyramid to ourselves. What an amazing feeling to watch this red sphere disappear in the horizon, while listening to the sound of the jungle and being caressed by the warm breeze. It made me feel alive and grateful to be where I am, at this very moment.
Day 5: Mirador – Nabke – Jabali (27km)
We attempted a second sunrise, but this time on Danta. However, the clouds decided to show up, leaving us with another overcast sky… After packing and a quick bite, we were off to Nabke; another campsite with a few ruins to visit. We got there in about three hours (14km). After checking out the ruins, swallowing our sandwiches, chocolate cookies and filling up our bottles, we continued our journey to Jabali. Normally, the trek goes from Nabke to La Florida and then to Carmelita. However, we’ve been told that the trail through La Florida was not well cleared and that there would not be any water points for the next 40km. Thus, it left us with no choice than to take the new trail that crosses from Nabke to Jabali (which is currently not on Maps.me but we will upload it for the next ones braving the trek!). We got to Jabali late afternoon where we were warmly welcomed by our new friends with a complimentary shower, coffee and pasta dinner. We were unbelievably happy. ☺️ Multi-day treks definitely make you appreciate the little pleasures of life.
Day 6: Jabali – Tintal – Carmelita (34km)
The last day was the toughest. We had to face the 34km between Jabali and Tintal. Our plan was take a water/snack break every hour and a quick lunch at Tintal. We had a long day ahead and didn’t want to drag too much. We surprised ourselves by completing the whole trek in less than 7 hours. We felt so energised and strong. It’s crazy how you body and mind adapt to the mileage and harsh conditions when you do multi-day hikes. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We finally arrived in Carmelita sweaty, hungry and weary but oh-so-happy! We rewarded ourselves with a ice-cold coke and another tasty dinner from Brenda. It didn’t take long before we were off to dreamland that evening.
Day 7: Carmelita – Flores
After a lazy morning wandering around Carmelita and chatting with the friendly locals, we were off to Flores. Thankfully the return was much faster, we arrived home in less than four hours. It was a good but strange feeling to get back into the real world after a week without network. I was even a little anxious to get connected again! If you have the chance to do a tech detox one day, I encourage you to do so. It helps you clear your mind and focus on the present moment. 😊 We spent that evening exactly how we planned it: a long shower, a sundowner cold beer, a pizza dinner and a movie night stuffing ourselves with chips and chocolate. Perfect ending to a perfect adventure.
I would like to conclude with a special mention to DIY Travel Blog who guided us the whole way with their article about How to Hike El Mirador Without a Tour. We probably would not have been able to do it without you guys. Thank you! And I hope you get the chance to complete the hike yourselves one day! It’s worth every effort! 😉
I always thought of Mexico as a beach, scuba diving and surfing paradise. Well I quickly found out it is also a hiking heaven! 🙌🏻 So instead of spending my first month drinking Coronas and working on my tan by the Pacific Ocean, I hiked all the country’s highest mountains…more than once! 😛 Here is an overview of Mexico’s four (climbable) highest peaks which I tackled one by one. 💪🏻
Montaña número uno: La Malinche is a volcano which has been dormant for the last 3000 years. Its summit reaches 4 460m making it Mexico’s fourth highest hike. The name, Malinche, is in honor of a Nahum woman who played a key role as an interpreter in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. It is a popular day hike from Puebla (about one hour drive), therefore I encourage to go on a week day when there is barely anyone in view. Having a mountain to yourself is a pretty awesome feeling. ☺️I did this hike with my friendly Airbnb host who was kind enough to drive us at the mountain at the crack of dawn so that we could complete the hike before the afternoon’s heat. It took us about 6 hours round trip.
Montaña número dos: Next in line is the Nevado de Toluca, which peak hits 4 680m. It is also known as Xinantecalt, which means “Naked lord” in the Nahuatl language, as a reference to the fact that the summit of the volcano is devoid of snow for most of the year. An impressive view of this trek is the two crater lakes on the floor of the bassin (at 4200m): el Lago del Sol (Lake of the Sun) and el Lago de la Luna (Lake of the Moon). I went with a local company and it took us around 7 hours round trip. El Nevado de Toluca is a day hike from Mexico City (about 3 hours drive).
Montaña número tres: El volcán Iztaccíhuatl is the nation’s third highest peak. Izta is a dormant volcanic mountain that has four summits (its highest reaches 5 230m ) and various craters, making it a very spectacular hike. Her name “Iztaccíhuatl”, meaning “White Woman” in Nahuatl, reflects the four individual snow-capped peaks which depict the head, chest, knees and feet of a sleeping woman. Izta shares a love story with her neighbouring volcano, el Popocatépetl. In the Aztec mythology, Iztaccíhuatl is a princess who falls in love with her father’s most handsome warriors, Popocatépelt. Before been sent to war, Popo proposes to Itza and promises to marry her when he comes back. Soon after his departure, a jealous rival of Popo tells Izta that her fiancé died in combat. Overwhelmed by sadness, she dies of grief. Popo comes back from war to find out that the love of his life has passed away. In her honour, he carries her to the highest mountain and laid her body at the summit. That’s when the Gods covered her with snow and changed her body into a mountain (where comes her name “White/Sleeping Woman”). Meanwhile, Popo became (and is still today) an active volcano, spewing constant smoke, preserving the fire of eternal passion for his beloved… 💙
I had a rough start with Izta but it ended in a love affaire. My first attempt was a fail. Due to a sickness and altitude, I was not able to climb more than a fifth of the mountain. It was a disappointment but I knew I would be back. Two weeks later I climbed it like a real mountain goat with this awesome guide I met on La Malinche. The round trip took us 8h30 (it’s normally a 10h-12h hike 🙃). I was feeling so fresh and acclimatised after climbing the Pico de Orizaba the weekend before that everything went perfectly. I guess my guide also noticed my new passion for mountaineering as well as my descent fitness level: he asked me if I wanted to help him out on his next group trip. Thus, I had the privilege to give another go at Izta, but as an ‘assistant guide’. What a wonderful experience it was, only giving me thirst for more!
Montaña número cuatro: And finally, there is the famous Pico de Orizaba. Pico is the highest peak in Mexico and the third highest mountain in North America (after Mount Denali in Alaska and Mount Logan in Yukon). Its summit reaches 5 636m which is the highest I have physically been in my life (let alone the highest hike!). You need to be well acclimatised to confront this beast, which normally means sleeping at the base of the mountain the night before (just like Iztaccíhuatl). Pico offers two faces: the north and the south. I did both. 😛
South Face: I climbed this side with the same local company I climbed Nevado de Toluca. We camped at the base for acclimatisation and started the climb at 1am in order to summit by sunrise, which we did. The hike on the south side is mostly rocks and sand making it a slow climb but a fast descend! After a breathtaking sunrise, we made our way down the volcano by sliding on our bum. What a good laugh! 😂 The trek took us about 9 hours (6 to go up and 3 to come down).
North Face: This was my last hike and I couldn’t have asked for a better one. I did this trek with my mountain guide buddy of mine (from Izta). It was only the two of us so we went at our own speed. Well, I went at his speed! 💨 What makes the north face unique is the majestic Jamapa glacier. The last 500m of the trek is an uphill climb wearing crampons and using an ice axe, something I have never done in my life. First time, but certainly not my last! I enjoyed every second of it. You should have seen my huge grin the whole time. 😁 The trek took us less than 8 hours. If you are debating between south and north, I can only recommend to do the north. The levels of difficulty are the same but the view and experience of the north face is simply indescribable.
Now that I have completed my hiking duties, it’s time to trade my boots for my flip flops! I’ll shortly be heading to the east coast where I’ll be meeting a lovely friend of mine in Belize. I guess it’s Corona and tanning time after all! 😛
Well it’s official, I’m a slow traveler. I guess this what happens when you don’t have a fixed itinerary and you fall in love with a place (and its people). I originally thought a week in Mexico City would be enough. Well, I ended up staying almost a month in the national capital. There is simply this vibe about Mexico that makes you want to stay longer… ☺️
La Ciudad de México is the capital and also the largest city in the country (8 900 000 residents). A big city with a lot of character. Each neighborhood has its own charm: El Centro Historia is the financial district and the heart of the city (you can even still see ruins from the Aztec empire!), La Roma is the hipster central where you can find contemporary art galleries, vegan restaurants, and cool coffee shops at every corner, La Condesa a is pretty leafy bohemian district that attracts dog walkers, young professionals and foodies, La Zona Rosa is the Mexican version of Sainte-Catherine Street (the gay friendly hub of the city), Polanco is the fresa (Mexican slang for ‘snob’) neighborhood where all the rich brats live and finally Coyoacán is the colorful, family friendly suburb which was once home of the famous artist Frida Khalo.
Not to say that I was not bored visiting this wonderful city. Here are a few of my highlights:
-Street Food: I still cannot believe how cheap and tasty street food is here! Tacos, churros, juice bars are found EVERYWHERE. You can easily have a proper meal for less than 4$. My two fav vegan places: Por Siempre Vegana and La Pitahaya (both located in La Roma).
-Green Parks and Bike lanes: I originally thought of Mexico City as big, dangerous and polluted. Let’s say I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the numerous parks and bike lines surrounding the city. Every day I was renting one of those Mobike (a bicycle sharing system that I was also using in China) to get to my next museum or restaurant. Who thought I would be (safely) riding a bike around the largest city in North America?! This was an initiative of the city to reduce traffic and pollution. It is surely working.
-La Casa Azul: “The Blue House” was originally the home of the iconic Mexican artist: Frida Khalo. Today, her house is a museum where you can learn about the life of this incredible woman. My visit to La Casa Azul was very moving and empowering. Despite all of the misfortune she faced in her life (sickness, bus accident, miscarriage, challenging relationships), she remained strong and turned her pain into purpose by painting and being politically active. Her message to us: “Viva la Vida” (Live your life. Don’t let anything stop you from being happy.)
-Teotihuacán: Teotihuacán (meaning “the place where the gods were created”) is an ancient Mesoamerican city built 400 BC. It was once the most powerful empire in Mexico (apparently over 100 000 people lived there) until its collapse around 700 AD. Teotihuacán’s origins, history, and culture remain a mystery. Today we can still admire the colossal pyramids of the Sun and the Moon as well as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. Teotihuacán is located about an hour from Mexico City, making it a perfect day trip.
-Meetup: I got introduced to Meetup groups by a friend of mine. Meetup is actually a world-wide used website where events of all sorts are organized for people sharing the same interests. It didn’t take long until I joined my first Meetup event: a Spanish-English language exchange night. What a perfect way to practice my Spanish in a laid-back environment, while meeting locals and enjoying a cold Modelo.
-Bahidora Carnaval: This was a last minute weekend plan and what a weekend indeed! Bahidora is an eco arts and music festival located in the magical place of Las Estacas, a magnificent natural reserve. I’ve been to many festivals before but nothing like this: a two kilometers crystalline river to swim in, multiples stages offering all range of music, artworks displayed all around the site, yoga, meditation and body paint stations, amazing local food kiosks, gigantic pools where the beer flows… good vibes only! ✌🏻
-Mexicans: My last but not my least highlight was all the Mexicans that I met. I did travel quite a lot and encounter other cultures but wow, I have never met warm and genuine people like the Mexicans. They are social, laid-back, generous and don’t they love to have a good time! This is enough to make me want to travel even more in this amazing country! Gracias por todos amigos! 😉
Well, I believe this justify my extended stay in the city! Now I am off to Puebla where hiking, hiking, and more hiking will be on the itinerary. Hasta luego!
As I am packing for my next departure (I am not sure if they are still considered “trips” since I’m more often away from home than actually home! 🤔🙄 #travelholic), I thought about sharing with you my top 12 favorite traveling accessories. Of course I skipped all the essentials stuff such as adapters, traveling towel, earplugs etc. So here are what you will always find in my backpack:
1. Apple EarPods: I bought this pair of earphones when I was training for my first ultra marathon and wow, what a life changer! Cordless earphones are the invention of the year, I am never going back to those tangled annoying earphones again! Today, I use them for everything: running, cycling, skiing, yoga, cooking, taking a bath, talking on the phone (although I started having problems with the mic after a year; this is my only criticism). They just make life much easier! EarPods are also a must for any athletes training with music! No they don’t fall off my ears, never.
2. LifeStraw bottle: I received this gem as a birthday gift from my sister who’s also a traveler and tree hugger. The LifeStraw bottle holds a purification system that removes 99.9% of bacterias in water. You can fill it up anywhere (yes, even from a lake!) and enjoy a nice clean fresh drink (note that the filter does not eliminate the chemicals in the water, so don’t fill it up in a pool!). No more wasting of plastic and money. And to top it off: the purchase of every bottle provides clean water to a child for an entire school year!
3. Lonely Planet Travel Guide: Going to Chapters to buy the Lonely Planet copy of my next destination is always a little pleasure. It’s probably the influence of my father who has been a fanatic of Lonely Planet since he started traveling, but I also convert to this collection a couple of years ago. I love the way the books are designed and they usually have excellent recommendations. I am especially a fan of their Shoe String editions (“Big trip on small budgets”). The Central America one is on my bedside table at the moment! 😉
4. Running Hydration Vest: Since my run across The Gambia, nowadays I always run (or hike or even cycle) with my hydration vest. I do drink a lot when I exercise so I like to have access to my water anytime I want. Plus, it also has many pockets to stuff all your essentials (phone, snacks, keys, kleenex) and it is super comfortable! At the moment I am using the Nathan Fireball Race Vest.
5. Hiking Poles: I might look like a 70 years old when I trek with my poles but I don’t care, I love them! I originally bought my poles to hike the Yunnan ultramarathon (since I couldn’t run it because of my herniated disks). During the entire 60km, they gave me the support I needed going up and down those mountains while keeping my posture straight. They have been my favorite hiking buddies since!
6. Yoga Mat: Since my back injury, I made yoga part of my daily routine. Every morning, while my coffee is brewing, I religiously do my fifteen minutes back extension yoga sequence. What better a way to start my day! After an extended research on traveling mats, I opted for the Yoga Design Lab Mat which I am very happy with. It is ultra compact and very cool looking (but could be a little more grippy).
7. Divacup: This should be a must for any women (traveling and non-traveling chicas). This little rubber cup is revolutionary: cheap, comfy, extremely environmentally friendly and a huge money saver. If you don’t have yours yet, please do yourself and Mother Nature a favor and go get one now!
8. Epilator: Still in the women’s stuff, I discovered the beauty of an electric epilator just recently. I know they have been around for a while but since waxing was so cheap in China, I never bothered getting one. I finally made the move this summer, I bought the Braun Silk Epil 7. Let me tell you, it works like a charm. Ok, it does hurt a little (a lot) at first but you quickly get use to it. No need to search for waxing salons anymore, I got mine in my hostel room!
9. Kindle: Like many of you, I was resistant about buying a Kindle at first (don’t we just love reading real books?), but man it saves on space and weight in my backpack! Not only the e-books are cheaper but you get them instantly on your Kindle! And how about that backlight letting you read all cuddled up in your bed at night? Gotta embrace new technology!
10. Portable Speaker: Music plays an important role in my daily life. When I am not listening to music in my EarPods, I have my portable speaker to keep me company. I just bought myself the Bose Soundlink Micro Speaker as a Christmas present. Can’t wait to listen to some Anjunadeep around a bonfire on a lost beach somewhere in Oaxaca!
11. Collapsible Coffee Cup: My mom bought a couple of Pokito collapsable coffee mugs as a Kickstarter project. Generous woman she is, she offered me one before my trip to Guatemala. I stopped counting how many paper cups I have saved since (…My name is Juliane and I am a coffee addict). Plus, I keep getting cool comments about it in coffee shops and hostels!
12. Journal: And last, but not least, I always travel with a journal. I started writing on a daily basis about a year ago. I use it as a reflective tool. I write whatever is happening in my busy little head. I tell stories, I reflect on life, I write quotes and poetry, I sketch, I organised my budget etc. It is not only a precious traveling buddy, but a everyday life essential.
And finally, I always pack some instant coffee (in case I need my caffeine fix in the middle of nowhere) as well as trail mix and dark chocolate, which are simply my all-time favorite snacks! 😋
I discovered a passion for hiking after my first multi-day trek on Mount Kenya a few years ago. Since then, I always make sure I pack my hiking shoes and poles when I travel! …and I usually pick destinations where they will be in good use! ☺️
Did you know there are 37 volcanoes in Guatemala, including 3 active ones? The reason is that Guatemala is located right on the Ring of Fire (the volcanic and seismic activity area circling the Pacific Ocean), just like Japan, Philippines, New Zealand, Chile etc. More than 75% of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes are located on the Ring. When I wasn’t studying Spanish, I was surely climbing a volcano somewhere! Here’s a brief summary of my wonderful treks (please note that all of them are doable in one or two days).
Altitude: 4222m (Highest peak in Central America!)
Level of Difficulty: 4/5
Duration: 2 days (5 hours to base camp, 1h to summit)
My trek: I did a two-day trek with Quetzaltrekkers, a local volunteer-run company in Xela (all the profits from their trips go to Escuela de la Calle, an organisation that provides education, housing, and social support to disadvantaged children). I was extremely pleased with this hike! The first day included quite a strenuous 5 hours climb to base camp (we had to carry all our camping gear, food and water; that was the tough part!). Next morning was an early 4am wake up to climb to the summit, but what a better feeling than catching the first rays of sunshine at the roof of Central America! We had perfect weather which made the experience unforgettable. After a stroll around the crater we slowly made our way down for a total of 6 hours of hiking for the second day. I warmly recommend this company to anyone who wants to tackle Tajumulco. Price was Q500 including all meals and gear (food is amazing!).
Level of Difficulty: 4/5
Duration: 2 days (4 hours to base camp, 1h15 to summit)
My trek: Acatenango is the most hiked volcano in Guatemala. You quickly understand why when you get to base camp and see from your own eyes the very active Fuego volcano, as well as Agua and Pacaya in the background. If luck is on your side, you might even get a spectacular night-time lava show from Fuego. I did this trek twice since the weather was sh*t during my first attempt. I went firstly with the popular company Wincho and Charlie (Q450) and the second time with a cheaper local company in Antigua (Q300). The only differences in the price include the comfort of the base camp (tents, beds), the quality of food and the number of people in the group (I was as satisfied with the cheaper smaller company). The first day is a 4 hours (steep!) uphill trek to base camp through corn fields and lush forests. Afterwards, it is another 1h-1h30 of trekking through volcanic ash to summit for the sunrise or/and sunset. During my second trek I was spoiled with clear skies and a few red eruptions at night. I was very happy I came back! This is a must-do trek for anyone who is relatively fit!
Level of Difficulty: 2/5
Duration: 1 day (2 – 3 hours round trip)
My trek: Pacaya first erupted over 23,000 years ago and it has been active since. Papaya’s eruptions are non-explosive (compared to Fuego) which means the lava flows are relatively calm. It is not uncommon to spot lava flowing down the peak. Unfortunately, the day of my hike, Pacaya was taking a nap… so no magma but clear views and a wonderful sunset! Pacaya is an easy day trek from Antigua (about an hour drive). Many companies offer morning and afternoon tours. The trail is well indicated so it is possible to do it on your own. I went with a local friend who knew the route so I only had to pay the Q50 admission to the park. I really enjoyed walking through the black lava fields, feeling the warmth coming out of the geothermal holes. A wonderful hike in a surreal landscape!
Level of Difficulty: 3/5
Duration: 1 day (5 – 6 hours round trip)
My trek: The San Pedro Volcano is a must for any hikers staying around San Pedro La Laguna (the party-village at the Lake Atitlan)! I did the hike with a buddy and, to be on the safe side, we decided to hire a local guide for Q120 each (which included the admission park fee of Q100). We have been warned and strongly encouraged to hike with a guide since there have been reports of harassment and robberies in the past few months (something to be cautious when trekking around Atitlan). The hike is mainly through the jungle with a few miradors (view points) along the way. It is a good three hours climb but you’ll get rewarded with magnificent views over the Lake. Don’t forget to get your picture taken with the tire swing!
Level of Difficulty: 3.5/5
Duration: 1 day (5 – 6 hours round trip)
My trek: The last eruption of Santa Maria was in 1902 and was considered one of the three largest eruptions of the 20th century. The eruption completely ravaged the countryside of Xela (now covered with coffee plantations and farms). Since, Santa Maria has been dormant. This was my first volcano hike of my trip. I did it with an amigo from my Spanish school. Feeling pretty confident and fit, we decided to tackle the volcano ourselves. Beforehand, we found this very useful website enumerating all the necessary information (with pictures) about doing the trek on our own: https://diytravelhq.com/hike-volcan-santa-maria/ Like any other hikes, it is recommended to leave as early as possible. You want to reach the summit before the clouds show up. We left Xela at 5:30, started climbing at 6:00 and reached the summit three hours later. The trek goes from easy to moderate to difficult (the last bit only). However, the panorama at the peak will quickly make you forget the pain! When we summited, we were surprise to see many religious groups singing and praying (apparently it is a common activity for locals to do on a Sunday morning). What a soothing experience to hear this music while admiring Xela from above!
Level of Difficulty: 2/5
Duration: 1 day (3 – 4 hours round trip)
My trek: Santiaguito is the third active volcano in Guatemala (alongside with Fuego and Pacaya). It is not actually possible to climb Santiaguito because of its activity (it is one of the most active volcano in the world!). However, there is a mirador (view point) you can hike to get a clear view of the monster. I went on a field trip that my Spanish school organised. Therefore we had a local guiding the way (but it would be possible to do it on your own). The Santiaguito Mirador trek starts at the same location as the Santa Maria trail (both volcanoes are neighbours), but instead of climbing up, this trek goes around Santa Maria. There is a Q10 entrance fee (since the trail is on a private property) we had to pay directly to the farm owner. Once we reached the mirador, we were fortunate to see not one, but two eruptions (in less than one hour)! Another very pleasant and recommended morning trek from Xela!
Here I am at the moment, sitting in a cozy Guatemalan coffee shop, drinking an amazing latte (made with local beans), eating a vegan chocolate cake and writing this over-due blog post (tough life huh? 😌). I moved to the hippie-outdoorsy city of Xela five weeks ago para aprender español. I have always dreamed to learn a third language (unfortunately Chinese and I didn’t quite get along!) so I decided that Spanish was my best option (and I have in mind to travel to South America later this year!). After researching online and talking with my dear colleagues in China, I chose to come to Guatemala which is currently a very hot (and cheap!) destination to learn Spanish. Let’s not forget to mention that the country offers spectacular volcanoes hikes, some of the best Maya ruins in the world, glorious lakes and of course awesome coffee AND chocolate! I didn’t think twice before buying my one-way ticket! ☺️
Bienvenido a Xela!
En la calle
La vida en el campo
Xela (short for ‘Quetzaltenango) is the second largest city in Guatemala where foreigners come either to hike, volunteer or learn Spanish (I came for all three!). Today, I am starting my 5th week of classes in the lovely family-run El Quetzal school. Every student at the school receives one-on-one lessons in the morning for 4 or 5 hours. In the afternoon, the school organises plenty of activities for us such as cooking classes, salsa classes, visits to museums, hikes in the countryside etc. In order to have the full immersion, I opted to stay with a local family (that doesn’t speak a word English of course!). At first, family dinners were definitely putting me out of my comfort zone! However, in four weeks only, I went from mumbling a few words into telling stories about my weekends’ hikes. I am also teaching English once a week to a small group of chicas at my school. It feels good to give a little bit of my time while doing what I like! So far, my stay in Xela has been muy bueno! No doubt I have a hard time leaving!
Almuerzo a la escuela
Lucky, mi maestra
Clase de cocina
The 1st of November was El Dia de los Muertos; a day celebrated throughout Latin America where people commemorate the deceased. In Guatemala, families go to the cemetery for the day to eat, pray, play music and spend time with their loved ones who have died. Contrary to what one would expect, it a very happy and festive day! I have never seen cemeteries with that much colours, music and joy! Families come to paint, clean and decorate the graves a few days prior so that everything is perfectly ready for November 1st! As for myself, I decided to go to Sumpango for the day to attend the famous kite festival -another tradition of El Dia de los Muertos. The festival is also a prestigious kite competition where several groups work for months to build kites ranging from 3 meters to 30 meters high! After they have been judge on their aesthetic, the groups try to fly their kite for as long as they can (some flew for 2 hours, some only 5 seconds!). The atmosphere was surreal during the competition, so much excitement! What a great first Dia de los Muertos!
Cementerio de Sumpango
Festival de barriletes
¡El barrilete más grande!
Only two more weeks left in Xela before I start my travels around this beautiful country! I must say I am very excited to finally pack my bag and explore Guat! Hasta pronto mis amigos! I’m heading to my yoga class now! ✌🏻