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On the Varieties of Nature

a travel blog by Alex Kent

Obadiah Walker, writing in the 17th century, recommended travel abroad to:

"...learn the Languages, Laws, Customes, and understand the Government, and interest of other Nations... To produce confident and comely behaviour, to perfect conversation... To satisfy [the] mind[s] with the actual beholding such rarities, wonders, and curiosities as are heard or read of. It brings us out of the company of our Relations, acquaintances and familiars; making us stand upon our guard, which renders the mind more diligent, vigorous, brisk, and spiritfull. It shews us, by consideration of so many various humours, and manners, to look into and form our own; and by tasting perpetually the varieties of Nature, to be able to judge of what is good and better."

He also praised its ability to break the habit of laziness, disentangle the traveller from "unfitting companions" and reform the vice of drinking. Hmm.

So, I’m setting off around the world in search of rarities and wonders. Much to Obadiah’s doubtless disgust however, I fully intend to laze, drink, and maybe even make some ‘unfit’ friends along the way. Hopefully it won’t ruin my chances of returning more learned, comely and formed in my humours. After all, with the prospect of ‘perpetually tasting Nature’s varieties’, who could resist?!

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Leg 1

London, United Kingdom

After two rather stressful days of packing and preparing, during which Dave was an absolute hero, providing constant advice and emotional support, I said my tearful goodbyes to home and the boy himself and headed down to Heathrow on 15th with Ma and Pa, where we met Gertie at the hotel. I will readily admit to feeling pretty daunted and upset by the whole situation, but a Bloody Mary and a couple of glasses of red calmed my nerves somewhat. And having seen the menu, which charged £17 for a portion of shepherd´s pie, I was encouraged that leaving the country might have its benefits! Plus, the few days of English sunshine had once more resorted to torrential rain, so my imminent departure was looking up.

The following morning seemed to fly by, and all too soon I was shedding yet more tears outside departures. The delights of British Airways ensured that I had a good few hours extra to pull myself together though, and four hours late I was finally in the air on the way to Miami. In between snatched minutes of sleep, and a great viewing of Blades of Glory, I got chatting to Simon, the greatest air steward ever, who had studied Spanish in Antigua about 20 years ago and enthused about it so much I couldn´t help but get quite excited. He also introduced me to another girl on the plain who was returning to Guatemala City (her home town) after a year studying in Madrid, so she and I had a good chat and agreed that after our late departure, making the connection in Miami was going to be a challenge.....

permalink written by  Alex Kent on August 16, 2007 from London, United Kingdom
from the travel blog: On the Varieties of Nature
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The Transfer

Miami, United States

Hot. That was pretty much the only impression of Miami I had time for.

Having practically sprinted off the plane, we (my new friend and I!) found a very helpful lady in arrivals who cheerfully told us we had almost certainly missed our connection and handed us each a piece of paper containing the hotel reservations which had been made on our behalf, and the time of the alternative flight tomorrow. Great. In small print at the bottom of the page it said, somewhat sardonically, "If you do wish to try and make your flight, go to gate D39". So we hurried through customs with as much agitated urgency as it was possible to convey without seriously pissing off some edgy American officials and hurried on to Gate D39 just in time to join the queue boarding the plane.

permalink written by  Alex Kent on August 16, 2007 from Miami, United States
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Bags Can´t Run

Guatemala, Guatemala

So we made it. Hardly surprisingly though, our bags didn´t. At first I thought my baggage label hadn´t made it either but I found it just before panic set in and managed to log my claim with the charmingly apologetic men at American Airlines. (Thank god, I thought, I had had the foresight to put the address and phone number of the Spanish School in my hand luggage.) They assured me that the problem was probably purely due to our rushed connection in Miami and that there was another flight tomorrow which would hopefully come bearing our stuff.

So I headed out to arrivals and was greeted by Sergio, the driver from the school. Thanks to another essential hand luggage inclusion (phrase book and dictionary, thanks Davey!) I greeted him in return and together we lamented my "equipaje perdido". Despite being only 6.45ish pm it was almost totally dark, so my impression of Guatemala City as we set off in our little mini bus was fleeting. A powerful smell of rubber on the warm night air as we passed the landing strip. Colonial stone arches. Palm trees.

As we headed out of the city the smell of fast food drifted in, not McDonalds-like, but exactly the smell of food at funfares, which seemed simultaneously familiar and very exotic! This was swiftly followed by the overwhelmingly disgusting smoke from throngs of the old American school buses which have been adopted as public transport. And so, amid the chaotic 1 / 2 / 3 lane traffic, accompanied by the whistles of traffic police all but invisible in the darkness, optimistically waving tiny torches, we aimed for Antigua.

permalink written by  Alex Kent on August 16, 2007 from Guatemala, Guatemala
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Back to School

Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala

So, Antigua.

As I write this I have been here for almost a week and a half and the place is beginning to feel, if not like home, at least comfortingly familiar.

Your arrival in Antigua is impossible to overlook, as it is marked by an abrupt encounter with cobbled streets, which, combined with the unerring speed at which some people seem to drive, may well explain the clapped-out nature of most of the cars here. Upon arrival we went straight to my host family´s home, where a slightly frazzled Clemencia greeted me (all previously prepared phrases of polite small talk swiftly abandoned me) and asked me to wait a few minutes as my room was not quite ready. She speaks no English, but somehow I managed to catch on and sat in the kitchen, too spaced out by my journey to be nervous and therefore also to take much in, but I clearly remember Eric and Daniel, Clemencia´s two sons, sneaking curious glances at me round the door.

I had my first lesson the following afternoon, so spent my first morning drifting around town trying to get my bearings, and quickly appreciating why Antigua has a good reputation.

Surrounded by three impressive volcanos, the town retains its colonial architecture and a huge number of the streets are punctuated by the grand ruins of numerous churches. Guatemaltecans mingle with hoards of foreign language students, indigenous Mayans peddle their wares and the ubiquitous "tourist police" hang around chatting and keeping a quiet eye on things. I found my language school and registered, then returned to mi familia for lunch. We spend the first few days battling through meal times with the heavy use of a dictionary and a phrase book, while Clemencia explained to me what I was eating. Black beans (which taste very similar to kidney beans) make up a very important part of the diet - served with rice; whole in a thin soup; as a paste with the consitency of humous and in numerous other ways - and all very delicious. Maize is also ubiquitous, in all sorts of forms which I haven´t figured out the names of yet, but which include tortillas, and a delicious thin porridge (rather like Ready Brek) which I have been given for breakfast quite a few times. So far everything I have eaten has been enjoyable and interesting, and I have avoided any tummy problems!

My lessons are going well - some days are naturally better than others, but I have made sufficient progress to be able to follow the vast amount of Spanish that is directed at me - it´s a totally different ball game to try and follow someone else´s conversation! - and to hold a basic conversation, which makes meal times a lot easier! Classes take place in a pretty little courtyard full of beautiful flowers and with a fountain tinkling away in the centre. We are all taught one to one, and the lessons are totally flexible - today we spent almost the entire time in conversation about whatever cropped up, and at other times we spend most of the time covering grammer and doing practice exercises.

Having started classes on a Friday afternoon (nearly all lessons take place in the morning, and most new students arrive on Mondays), I hadn´t met anyone so spent Saturday drifting around seeing some sights, and sitting in the central park which is always bustling with students and locals alike.

A huge, noisy parade of school children passed, with what appeared to be a mini beauty pageant at the front, followed by various marching bands and dancers so the town was ringing for about an hour as they marched around the park. On Sunday I met an Erica, a travel writer, who speaks fluent Spanish and has recently completed a guide book on Nicaragua, so I spend an interesting day with her, exploring some of Antigua´s many eateries and cafes and chatting about life as a traveller!

Cerro de la Cruz (the hill of the cross) overlooks the town and the tourist police accompany groups who wish to walk up there every afternoon. (The group was introduced to try and deter muggings and other attacks in the more remote tourist hotspots, and since their introduction a few years ago safety in the town has apparently dramatically improved.) The view from the hill is beautiful, and we were blessed with a clear sunny afternoon.

Antigua has so far proved an ideal start to my trip.

Studying the language is obviously going to be a big help, but it´s also already allowing me to appreciate in more depth what I am seeing and doing. Being able to exchange even a few words with the locals is really rewarding, and they are always very pleased to chat. Being at school is also a great way to meet other people and find companions for exploring the area, making trips and planning my onward journey. The town is fun - foreign enough to feel like I´m away and to practice my Spanish and experience different cuisines and customs, but also developed and touristy enough to act as a safe and comfortable base until I find my feet a bit.

My camera has now given up so more photos will have to wait until next time, and I have some errands to run before I go home for supper, but I will be back soon with tales of my weekend jaunt to the beautiful black beaches of El Salvador.

permalink written by  Alex Kent on August 16, 2007 from Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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El Salvador

El Zonte, El Salvador

On the basis of some excellent advice, a group of us decided to spurn the school-organised trip to Monterrico (a town on the Pacific coast of Guatemala) and head instead to the chilled out surf resort of El Zonte in El Salvador. There, we were assured, it was actually possible to get in the sea and swim (the rip tides in Monterrico make it impossible), the locals were welcoming and unjaded by mass tourism, and the resort, Horizonte, was fabulous.

True, true and true.

The four hour drive was a great chance to take a look at the gorgeous rural scenery of both countries - ranging from forested mountains to dusty little shanty villages, and verdant lowland cattle pastures which almost look like home, until you realise that the trees scattered around the field aren´t oaks but palms. Very strange.

The border crossing was great - my first experience of a non-airport arrival, and what a good one! Hoards and hoards of market stalls selling seriously dodgy looking fruit, clothes, water, shoes, evrything under the sun, including the last comida tipica before you leave Guatemala. Blokes with huge stacks of grubby dollars in hand try and get you to change your last Quetzales and everything is chaotic and loud and dusty. Fabulous! Unfortunately the Guatemalan entry stamp allows access to El Salvador as well and depite our best efforts to charm him, the official wouldnt indulge our request for an extra stamp to add to our passports! Suspicions were aroused when the search of our van revealed a stockpile of dog food in the back (I´m still not entirely sure what it was doing there, I think the drivers brother has a pet shop or something - as dodgy as it sounds it genuinely was completely innocent!) but it seems that as soon as you explain you are a tourist group they are totally disinterested - apparently only locals are capable of smuggling drugs!

As we approached the coast and saw the beginnings of the pounding surf which make the coastline around La Liberdad increasingly popular, we got a real sense of summer holiday excitement - I think there was even some singing in the bus!

On arriving we weren´t dissapointed. The "resort" is a little collection of residential properties, beach shack hotels and sea front bars but the charm is all in the ruggedness. As seems to be the case everywhere in Central America, everything is dusty. The roofs are either corrugated tin or palm fronds and most of the public `buildings´ are open-sided and sand-floored. I finally felt like my trip was beginning.

We spent a blissful weekend swimming, surfing (I´ve got the injuries to prove it!), dancing, drinking, eating, sunbathing and generally rueing the fact that we had to return to the city and our classes on Monday. On Saturday afternoon we visited Las Olas (the waves) - a hotel down the coast which has a sea water pool where you can stand on the edge and let the full force of the wavres break against you and send you flying backwards into the water. Endless entertainment! Pupuserías - thick hand made tortillas stuffed with queso (cheese), carne ("meat"!) and frijoles (beans) - from a street side stall are a revelation, although the Salvadoran method of opening them up to fill them with salsa inevitably results in burnt fingers. But wow, how delicious. I´m giving myself hunger pangs just thinking about them.

permalink written by  Alex Kent on August 24, 2007 from El Zonte, El Salvador
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Antigua 2

Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala

So, some more observations.

Butterflies ... abundant and incredibly beautiful here. There are some whose lemon yellow wings are so unnaturally vibrant that every time I see one I assume it is a bit of rubbish blowing around. Others are a Bright tangerine Orange, and some are patterned with black stripes against a similarly citrus background. Unfortunately, they seem to be far busier than English butterflies and so far I haven't been able to find one settling long enough to snap a photo. Wretched things.

Election fever ... national general elections are taking place at the beginning of September, and the whole country is awash with political proPaganda. There are 14 different presidential candidates from 14 different parties - imagine the chaos! Endless pick-uptrucks loaded with loud speaker systems and A-boards, and plastered with posters are driving through every town, shouting their message or else just blaring loud music in the hopes that it will win you over! Even in the depths of the countryside, farm houses, trees and even rocks have been painted with slogans and logos and the newspapers are covering it endlessly.

Fountain ... the fountain in the Central Park is famous for its rather naughty statuary (see photo). I asked a couple of people and apparently there is no Pagan symbolism of fertility or anything else so wholesome - it was merely the voyeuristic Spanish conquistadores filling the town with 'their type of art'. Charming.

permalink written by  Alex Kent on August 27, 2007 from Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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Into the unknown .....

Panajachel, Guatemala

After two weeks of Spanish school I had made friends with quite a few people, and four of us (Laura, Jaime, Jana and myself) decided to head on to the next part of our trip together, so on 1st September we caught a shuttle up to Lage de Atitlan. This beautiful highland lake has formed in a collapsed volcanic crater, and covers about 200sq miles. Like Antigua, it is surrounded by three imposing volcanoes and it is absolutely, staggeringly beautiful. We spend our first night in the main town on the lake, Panajachel, where the majority of tourist traffic arrives and departs. The place is bustling and fun, with some great live music (Daddy, think Paolo Conte but Spanish - equally gravelly and supercool- the singer sipped rum and smoked cigarettes throughout the night!) and beautiful views over the water.

The following day we caught a chicken bus to Chichicastenango, the site of Guatemala's most famous market which offers everything from livestock (hang two cockerels upside down by their legs and sagely nod while you compare their weight) to vegetables to second hand clothes to broken loud speakers and other useless nicknacks to traditional clothing and craft goods.

The whole day is absurdly hectic and fascinating - particularly if you venture away from the tourist oriented stalls into the central food market, where chickens run around piles of gorgeous vegetables, and the air is heavy with the chatter of Mayan dialects and the smoke from endless comedores cooking meat and tortillas. Oh, and the less atmospheric smell of boiling soup with a whole chicken foot sitting perkily in the middle. My favourite! Our journey home was a genuinely 'local' experience. Chicken buses are chaotic at the best of times, but this was so full that we were standing in the central isle clinging on for dear life as the driver hurtled unforgivingly round the hairpin mountain bends and we tried to avoid landing on one of the three or four people squeezed onto each seat on either side of us. Needless to say we all got pretty hysterically giggly, which made it all the more challenging when we tried to capture the moment on camera.

More transportation excitement came on our return to Panajachel and the lancha (little motor boat with cabin) over the lake to San Pedro. The winds tend to pick up mid afternoon and whip the surface of the lake into small but choppy waves and so it was that once again we were hurtling at break neck speed being thrown around all over the place and once more gettling the giggles as we tried to take photos and got sprayed with every crash landing.

San Pedro is a hippy little town on the other side of the lake, heavily populated by bohemian travellers who have settled permanently and (in the case of the older generation) live in little huts amid the maize and banana plants doing ostensibly nothing or (in the case of the younger generation) sit on the pavements all day making jewellery from wood and shells. Despite all this madness, it's a fun little town with some good hostels, some fun bars, more fabulous views and some seriously good food.

Over the water at the even more 'alternative' San Marcos, we spend a great afternoon jumping off cliffs into the lake, swimming, sunbathing and exploring the settlement, much of which has no real roads but just dirt tracks between the maize, bananas and avodado plantations.

permalink written by  Alex Kent on September 1, 2007 from Panajachel, Guatemala
from the travel blog: On the Varieties of Nature
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Back to Antigua

Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala

Back to Antigua for a couple of days.

Trek up nearby active volcano called Pacaya ... full details to come.

P.S. I sincerely apologise to my loyal fans for the severe time lapse since my last post - this is now being remedied. And I would further like to apologise for the lack of photos in the forth coming entries. Limitations of internet availability and storage space have contributed to a brief breakdown in the system, but all the photos are hopefully winging their way to safe storage in England in a matter or hours, from where I should be able to get hold of them and upload them so you can just look at the pretty pictures and ignore the words. x

permalink written by  Alex Kent on September 6, 2007 from Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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The Journey North

Coban, Guatemala

My third and final impression of Guatemala City, where we (Jana, from Spanish school, and I) had a bus change-over on our journey north, did nothing to convince me of any redeeming merits, but people-watching in a bus station is always rewarding, and the sheer number of locals who constantly seemt o be making long cross-country journeys still confuses me - the National Express services certainly don't sell out, hour upon hour. Where are they all going?

The journey to Coban was uneventful in itself, but rendered memorable by our unfortunate seating allocation, which placed us directly beneath the only working speaker on the whole bus which, because of its solitary task, was cranked to full volume and played local adverts and maddening Central American pop non-stop for four hours.

Coban itself was also unremarkable, but the parque central boasted a pupuseria (see El Salvador) which more than justified our evening stroll, and we even managed to find a cash machine which actually dispensed cash - a minor miracle in most areas. The follwing morning saw the arrival of the long-awaited election day, and ushered in a weekend of national inactivity - Saturday to vote, and Sunday to celebrate the end of the 24hr drinking ban (but of course). As a result, public transport was expected to go to pot and most travellers we had met were planning to sit the weekend out and get on the road again on Monday. Determined to press on however, we asked around and heard that there might be a bus departing early on the Saturday morning for Lanquin - the town we needed to reach, so we booked a 5.30am taxi to the bus station .... naturally the only time Guatemaltecans are ever early is when you have just crawled out of bed bleary eyed at 5.15 in the morning, so half asleep we arrived in town and found a very suggestable minibus driver who seemingly on the spot agreed to run a service to Lanquin. Miracle of miracles, we noticed me was parked right outside a panaderia where, miracle of miracles, an angle of a lady was just stocking the shelves with freshly baked banana bread and boiling her first batch of coffee. Evidently fortune was on our side!

permalink written by  Alex Kent on September 8, 2007 from Coban, Guatemala
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To Lanquin

Lanquin, Guatemala

The bus to Lanquin quickly filled up with locals, all animatedly discussing the forthcoming elections. As a nation they seem to have an incredible propensity for cheerfulness despite the ungodly hour of the busyness (business?) of the buses. Lanquin - when we finally made it down the the steep, bumpy, swervy, hardcore track - was hectic - small, dusty and, in the absence of any nice tourist-oriented signposts, totally counterintuitive, but a friendly man quickly came and offered us transport to his new hostal which looked gorgeous and proved to be just that. Three little two-storey wooden cabins nestle in flourishing gardens above the river, and 30 seconds from the entrance to Semuc Champey national park - the sole reason for our trek into this part of the country. There couldn't have been a better location. Semuc had been recommended to me by a friend and it exceeded expectations - a natural limestone bridge 30m long sits at the bottom of a beautiful deep wooded valley. Most of the river's impressive force flows beneath the limestone, but a little runs over the top, creating a stepped series of exquisite turquoise pools - ideal for floating on your back and admiring the butterflies floating in the dappled sunbeams and listening to the screeches of spider monkeys in the surrounding trees.

Just over the river from our hostel ("El Portal") were the Las Marias caves which one can tour by candlelight - and so it was, that I foudn myself swimming (rather lopsidedly) through a pitch black cave as I struggled to keep a lighted candle aloft with one hand and keep myself afloat with the other. As if that wasn't enough, the tour included climbing up a raging underground waterfall, scrambling over rocky outcrops with unseen potholes disappearing into nothingness (lit candle between teeth - thank god my hair was wet by this point) and, to top it all, our guide suddenly disappeared into the gloom to reappear (or at least his light reappeared) suspended impossibly several metres above our heads from where he plunged into the blackness and landed with a splash in an unseen pool. For some reason I decided it was a leap of faith worth making, so I followed in his steps and clambered up the wall of the cave to balance on a precipice - unable to stand up because I'm too close to the roof of the cave, heart thumping, sick with adrenaline - and somehow convinced myself to launch forward, aiming for a spot the guide was vaguely illuminating in the inky water. Terrifying, probably crazy, but the most fantastic 'two fingers' to health and safety regulations, and utterly exhilarating.

permalink written by  Alex Kent on September 9, 2007 from Lanquin, Guatemala
from the travel blog: On the Varieties of Nature
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