What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
The Panama Canal. I sat on the observation deck for hours, watching in amazement as several ships passed through one of mankind’s greatest engineering feats – which saves ships the arduous 8,000 mile (12,875 km) journey around South America by connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean.
Cost: $20 a day
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen recently?
Volcano boarding down the slopes of Cerro Negro, outside of León, Nicaragua has become a popular activity with travelers, especially since making number two on CNN Go’s Thrill Seeker’s Bucket List. Ignorant as to what was involved in this new sport I had visions of cutting sharp turns in powdery volcanic ash, much as as snowboarder would in fresh powder. In actuality volcano boarding is far from graceful. Instead of standing on the board you sit down as one would on a sled. There’s a loop of rope you hold onto like reigns, which gives you some semblance of control as you hurtle over jagged bits of volcanic rubble. Orange jumpsuits and protective goggles are worn to prevent bits of volcano from piercing skin and eyeball. Participants look a bit like extras for Walter White during a meth cook. After a short ¨How to Volcano Board¨ introduction the group I was with started down the slope one by one. It quickly became apparent that the protective attire was rather important. Over half of our group fell off their boards showering themselves in bits of basalt as they spun and rolled like a gran prix cars crashing off circuit. I managed to keep my butt plastered to the plank of wood but only reached a measly 57km an hour. A feather weight girl in our crew reached 83km an hour before her head met the slope in an unwanted embrace. Fortunately she was fine and won bragging rights for the day.
Recently I’ve been reading, “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. When the author was in her mid-twenties she solo hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Her book unfolds as she treks north, nursing her blistered feet and cumbersome heavy pack along a majority of the 2,663mi (4,286km) trail. It initially begins at the Mexican border, passes through California, Oregon, and Washington in the USA and over the border into Canada. Several years ago I’d been gearing up to ride my horses along the same trail, but heavy snows in high mountain ranges and challenges with support team coordination threw a wrench in the trip–so it never happen. But I did ride sections of that trail, along with parts of the Continental Divide Trail, Chilkoot Trail, and the historic Oregon Trail. On foot I’ve graced sections of several other long paths, and driven a dog cart on one pulled by twelve huskies.
Reading Strayed’s book got me thinking about other long-distance footpaths around the world. A popular one in Europe that comes to mind is El Camino de Santiago which starts many different places but ultimately ends at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I first heard of the trail in a novel by Paulo Coelho called, “The Pilgrimage.” Other countries in Europe such as Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have quite a lot of paths. In Asia I’d looked into hiking the Annapurna Circuit in central Nepal. But it appears that Israel and Japan have many for the choosing as well; Japan’s most popular being the 88 Temple Pilgrimage.
Here are the worlds’ best hikes according to National Geographic.
Mark Moxon has an extensive website of information and stories from his long walking adventures.
The UK has a Long Walkers Association.
One Canadian man even walked around the world in eleven years.
Have you ever hiked or ridden on a long-distance path? Or do you have plans to do so?
Please share your stories or plans in the comments!
Cost: $50-60 a day
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen recently?
Immediately after learning to scuba dive in Utila, I hopped on over to nearby Cayos Cochinos (Hog Islands). Some of the small islands and cayes that make up Cayos Cochinos resemble one of those ‘paradise island’ posters that bored office workers paste on their cubicle walls to remind them of the next holiday they’re working towards. You know the ones. Chalk white sand at their perimeters and a couple of lonely coconut trees with an obligatory hammock slung across them. The waters are clear turquoise and the shallows hint at the abundant marine life that abounds in the deeper waters. Bait fish flit around as spotted eagle rays glide past. At night queer bio luminescent creatures twinkle in the inky waters creating a bizarre light show.
Under water things are perhaps stranger. Shortly into our fifth dive along a big reef wall at a dive site called Pelican 2 my girlfriend and I were met by a small remora fish that ended up accompanying us for the entire dive. Remora’s attach themselves to sharks or large fish via a sucker on top of their heads so they may get a free ride and feed on the scraps of food produced by their larger hosts feeding habits. This particular remora was somewhat confused and continuously tried to attach itself to my girlfriends upper thigh. Given that she is highly unlikely to start devouring reef fish mid-dive the little creature was out of luck.
At one point in the dive we saw a majestic hawksbill turtle flapping elegantly along the reef wall. We followed it for a short while before it moved off into deeper water. At this point our remora companion saw the turtle and decided to check out the heavy shelled reptile. It quickly swam towards the departing turtle with an awkward wriggling motion, sussed the situation out and upon deciding the herbivore wasn’t worth its time turned back and returned to us.
Towards the end of the dive the remora rejected my girlfriend and decided to attempt attachment on me. It tickled but after a while I gave up fending him off and let him nibble at bits of debris attached to my wet suit. I felt a little warm inside at making a new friend and was a touch sad when our dive ended and we had to part ways.
Cost: $50 a day
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Two days of trekking through muddy paths deep into the mosquito infested jungle of Northern Guatemala’s Peten region brought me and nine other adventurous travelers to the ancient Mayan city of El Mirador. Upon first viewing the ruins I was struck by how thoroughly nature can reclaim its territory after human abandonment. Thick layers of soil and dense vegetation surround, infiltrate and in some cases completely cover structures that are believed to have been abandoned almost two thousand years ago.
Even the higher reaches of the mighty, multi-tiered La Danta temple rising roughly seventy meters (230 feet) from the jungle floor are covered with trees. Archeologists have deliberately left the vegetation there to provide shade and protect the antiquated walls from the debilitating effects of the sun. Without our leather skinned Guatemalan guide Antonio, I’m sure that myself and my compadres would’ve been largely unaware that we were standing on the most massive ancient Mayan structure in the world. Unlike at the more popular site of Tikal it’s easy to mistake parts of the structure for normal contours of the land.
Over time it appears that the wilderness can erase almost all traces of a civilization. El Mirador, which is thought to have been populated by as many as 200,000 people at its peak was engulfed by the jungle and only discovered in 1926.
Sitting atop the 55 meter (180 foot) El Tigre temple as the sun set and pink oozed over the horizon like a slow bleed, I pondered the tenacity of nature. As if to punctuate my thoughts some howler monkeys started a chorus of guttural roars, spider monkeys crashed though the canopy and a diminutive humming bird the size of a large insect helicoptered onto a near by branch. Left alone the wilderneas is raw and formidable.
Cost: $25 a day
The strangest thing I’ve seen lately
Few people outside of the small town of San Pedro la Laguna on the shore of Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalan highlands have heard of the San Pedro Celtics basketball team. With a population of approximately thirteen thousand people, mostly of Mayan descent, one could be forgiven for thinking that there wasn’t a basketball team at all in this soccer (fútbol) mad part of the world. But exist they do and although the players lack that most important asset of a good basketballer- height- they play with a speed, determination and passion that is commendable. Of course, these attributes don’t tend to matter when they come up against players who are two feet taller than they are; which is exactly what happened recently when the Celtics were pitted against a selection of some of the finest professional Guatemalan players- team Seleccion. The Seleccion came to town during the annual week of festivities, celebrating the Apostle Peter, who the town is named after.
Team Seleccions players, some of whom apparently play for the Guatemalan national team, arrived fashionably late with a group of attractive girls in tow. Most of these giants appeared to have European blood in them and they towered over the short, squat players the Celtics Mayan blood had produced. Once the Seleccion posse had settled into some seats the players started a fairly serious looking warm up routine as the locals practiced their shooting down the other end of the court.
During the warm up I was surprised at how few people had shown up to watch the elite of Guatemalan basketball play, especially given that it was mid fiesta and the court is right next to the town centre. Once the game started, however, it was a different story. The locals seemed to emerge from thin air and surround the court despite the game starting thirty minutes late. The crowd wasn’t a particularly boisterous one but they clapped whenever the Celtics netted. They kept a deathly silence when Seleccion scored, which was a lot more frequently. No one seemed to notice, or care, that a dog had decided to take a snooze on the court mid game.
It struck me as strange that a group of professionals would travel to San Pedro to play a rag tag team of locals, some of whom are well over forty years old. Having said this, the Seleccion players chief asset was their height and their ball skills were about as good as the San Pedro Celtics, which is to say, not the best. In fact for a short time it looked like the Celtics may cause an upset as they scored the first six points of the game.
Chief play maker for the locals was Luis, one of the teachers at the Cooperativa Spanish School that I have been studying at. He scored the first four points of the game and always looked a threat, however as the game wore on the height of the Seleccion players started to tell, and one particularly enormous player started swatting the Celtics shots out of the air like a cat playing with a ball of string. Eventually Seleccion sorted themselves out and came away with a 73 to 41 point win.
The Caribbean isn’t really that cheap. However, if you’re creative and have some skills, anything is possible. Most of my money went on beer and bus tickets.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Three men waving a live lobster, barracuda pizza and and an Ugly Man competition.
Many moons ago I was flown to the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica to evaluate a business plan for horse tours on a 2,024 hectare family owned ranch. It has mangroves, jungle, two river estuaries and 3.5 km of undeveloped shoreline. The family was in the beginning stages of protecting a good chunk of that land as a nature preserve and wildlife refuge. At the time I knew very little about managing large scale horse operations. Back home I was spoiled. We had accessibility to good feed, vet care and certified farriers. Riding horses along the beach is a romantic notion for many and I was no different. Heading for stables where the front gate was set only a few feet from high tide line had my mind souring with excitement. The gap is often vast between what we imagine about a place and what our experience truly is. So after three plane flights followed by a 45 minute taxi ride over molasses covered dirt roads we arrived on the sands of Ario beach beneath a vaulted ceiling of stars. What I saw over the next two weeks changed the current path I was on.
When someone says “paradise” what image comes to your mind?
My mind paints a warm, pristine beach with inviting waters; which is exactly what the Ario Ranch seemed like at first glance. But quickly that dreamy veneer was peeled back as I watched two cowboys shoe a gelding. The animal awkwardly tried to balance on three other hooves. Metal shoes, too small for his feet, got nailed on using the improper size nails. This will cause the head of the nails to protrude and create cleats. Those cleats catch on terrain and make the hole in the hoof wall larger and can lead to infection or lameness. But improper shoeing creates a whole other set of problems too. A horses’ heart alone isn’t large enough to circulate all of its blood throughout its body. A horse must move to keep healthy circulation. Blood is forced back up the limb by the pooling of it in the sponge like coffin bone. But the steel shoes on this gelding weren’t set properly which did restrict blood flow and can lead to bruising. I knew as it was happening that it wasn’t right. Yet at that moment my lack of language skills and ability to do it myself, held me back from saying anything.
As time progressed; I noticed the ranch hands had to rope horses for saddling rather than simply walking up and putting a halter on them. I discovered a horse with a vampire bat wound but no one seemed concerned about treating it. And in regards to the knowledge of horse care in the area the local vet said, “They [the people] just don’t know better.” Altogether these things shorten the animals’ life span substantially.
The whole experience left me feeling helplessly inadequate with horse skills and wanting to learn more. The wheels in my head started turning. I spent the next several years working with large herds of horses, learning how to manage ranches, study and apply natural horsemanship, volunteer to care for injuries, learn to shoe, and studied equine chiropractic and massage.
Now all those skills will be put to the test. Two weeks ago I was asked to help organize a large scale equine event in Mongolia. While I don’t know everything about horses, at least I know much more than I did seven years ago standing at the corral watching that gelding get shoes.
Have you even had a moment while traveling that set you in motion down an unexpected path?
There has been a lot of talk on Vagablogging lately about the merits of slow travel and taking time to understand local culture when traveling. This was my goal when I came to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, to volunteer at an after-school program for a month, and I quickly discovered an even better, unexpected outlet for cultural immersion – Spanish school.
There are dozens of Spanish schools throughout Guatemala – and hundreds in Latin America overall – aimed at teaching Spanish as a second language. Many programs focus on medical or social work Spanish and partner with schools in other countries to offer an elective course or an “away rotation” for medical students.
I decided to take Spanish classes after arriving in town and realizing that although I could get by with my “basic” Spanish, it wasn’t enough to make a real difference as a volunteer. Plus, I figured it would benefit my upcoming months of travel throughout Latin America. I quickly found even more benefits:
Aside from Spanish lessons in Latin America, do you know of other locations that are popular for learning other languages?
Have you learned a language in another country? What did you think were the benefits?
Just three weeks before I’d planned to leave for Guatemala, the first country on my itinerary for my first long-term trip, a friend forwarded an email from her Guatemalan friend regarding my upcoming travels:
“My advice is that if she has her heart set on going to Guate, do the volunteering thing and keep travel limited to Lake Atitlan and Antigua … If her heart can be persuaded to go to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, I would highly recommend that … Guatemala is in a sort of state of war where human life is very poorly regarded and that is why if you get mugged it is VERY dangerous …”
She also referenced a recent New York Times story explaining that the Peace Corps recently decided not to send new volunteers to Guatemala as it is assessing safety.
Ok, I knew Guatemala was a developing country and that there would be dangers, and I’d been armed and ready to explain to my family and friends that I’d be ok. I’d read tons of forums about safety in Guatemala. I’d read numerous blogs about female solo travel. I knew all the places to avoid, all the things to do and things not to do.
But the Peace Corps backing away and a Guatemalan resident recommending against coming? This was enough to give me major pause.
I spent the entire weekend researching other options. I narrowed it down based on volunteer opportunities I’d found in Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and Paraguay. I was all set to completely change my flight and my entire plan.
And then I talked to more people: A 23-year-old woman who recently arrived at the volunteer organization in Xela, Guatemala, where I’d be going, said she had the same concerns as me – especially after hearing the news about the Peace Corps – but once she got there, she felt safe overall. I heard from another female volunteer coordinator who confirmed that Xela has a large foreign community and that the majority of volunteers are single female travelers. She said, “You should definitely take precautions and use common sense at all times, however there is no need to be afraid or alarmed all the time.”
I also talked to my friend who lived in Guatemala for a year, who could connect me with many contacts if needed. And I talked to my uncle, who has done missionary work there for many years, who said as long as I’m with others, I will be ok.
It’s tough to know who to listen to, but I decided to stick with my original plan.
Dealing with the safety concerns brought up by others has been one of the most unexpected aspects of my trip planning so far, and has certainly spun me in circles several times. But what it comes down to is that there’s no guarantee of safety anywhere, and as long as I take all the precautions and remain aware of my surroundings, I’ll be doing the best I can to avoid problems.
Here are some of the things I try to remind myself as well as others when they question my safety:
Here are some articles I found helpful in my research about Guatemala safety and female solo travel safety: