Tuesday, December 1, 2015

African Safari: Planning Phase

In late 2014, when I made the decision to go on safari, I knew that I'd need at least two years to save and plan everything.  Apart from the fact that I'd need at least a month on the ground just to scratch the surface in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, it's hugely expensive.  As always, time and money tend to have an inverse relationship as you progress.  The more time you have, the less it potentially costs... up to the point where you've dragged out your transportation to a full year and have now also added 365 nights of accomodation to the tab.  Well, I didn't have a year.  Or, if I did, the net result would also be that I did not have a job.  And, as I'm quite partial to money, a month it was!

I considered, briefly, that I might just visit South Africa.  Johannesburg to Kruger and back, and then a week in Cape Town.  Maybe splurge on a flight to Victoria Falls for a weekend, if I had the funds.  Or, I could have attempted a single week in Tanzania and Kenya; not during the migration, but still -- a week in what is arguably the best safari preserve in the world was approximately equal to 3 weeks in and around South Africa.  But as I planned, my list got longer and longer... I wanted to see more animals, for one; and I wanted to experience more than the big parks and largest cities in that part of the continent.

The obvious answer was to fly into my destinations, which is what many with deep pockets do.  There are scores of small air strips both in the field and in the neighboring towns to support short-flight tourism, and the tickets are actually pretty reasonable.  But a reasonable flight is still not a cheap commodity, and I didn't want to beggar myself to save what amounted to 3 days.

So, instead, I turned my idea toward booking an overland tour.  Normally, when I travel in South and Central America, I can move relatively easily and affordably on public or chartered transit.  A bus seat from La Paz to Rurrenabaque cost a whopping USD $20, even if it did take nearly 2 days.  But the options I was able to research in South Africa and Botswana were significantly more limiting.  Schedules were irregular, seats were pricey, and stops were frequent.  When you have to travel overland on a crowded bus for 2 days, you'd at least like it to be the same vehicle the whole way.  Lots of changes makes it quite stressful.

Overlanding and camping, I managed a budget and a time-table that worked for me.  The overland option priced lower than renting a car to self-drive (barely), but it really won out because we were able to rent out the equipment we needed.  Tents, bedrolls, and cooking equipment are all bulky and not something I particularly wanted to purchase on the ground when we arrived.  There are any number of overlanding companies online, but we chose Nomad.  Their trucks are rugged, their gear is reliable, and they had departure dates that we liked.  It was just that simple.

Looking back, I can say that overlanding was a bit too much like chartering a tour for my tastes. We also had a couple of long drives, in excess of 12 hours, which gets tedious fast.  It might have been worth the effort to do less, but on our own terms.  However, camping was exactly the right choice.  We had so many amazing experiences around the camp fire -- spotting glowing eyes in the bush, listening to predators prowling beyond the fence, watching Scorpio and the Southern Cross circle high overhead.  We even introduced our camp-mates to s'mores culture, which we had to toast on the wrong end of a serving spoon.

For me, it was heaven.  Oh, early mornings and strange nights punctuated by disasterous toilets and cold showers -- that's true.  But also building up a fire to cook over the coals (commercial charcoal being uncommon or even unheard of), unplugging and sipping Pinotage on a camp stool, watching monkeys fight for marula nuts in the trees above, sipping red tea and nibbling on biscuits at sunrise on the waterfront.  It was the best choice we possibly could have made.  So, as this blog moves (belatedly) into 2016, I just want to record the full weight of the undertaking.  I'm sure to focus more on the sights, animals, and experiences, but getting there was an experience worth remembering in and of itself.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Cozumel & The Coral Reefs of Mexico

Well, I've accepted by this point that an annual vacation with my mother is the wage of returning home only for Christmas and Thanksgiving.  And, given how well we get on (which is to say: in short bursts), we've decided that a cruise is the best middle ground.  It's affordable, convenient, and boozy.  Someone else does all the housekeeping and cooking; we can sip cocktails and read all day; we can dip our toes in the sea.  So, it was with some trepidation that I added my father to the mix this year.  He's good company, but I don't think we'll be doing that again.

I shall spare you the doldrums of a floating hotel and instead focus on the one thing about this trip that was a little bit unique: we got to spend a couple of days in Cozumel!

Anyone who's met me knows that I am completely disgusted by fish.  I mean... God, why? The eyes alone, yeesh.  But, at my father's invitation, I spent part of a day with him on a tour of the Cozumel Reef.  It is the same reef that runs all the way south toward Belize, and offers some of the best scuba, snorkel, and biodiversity of any marine habitat anwhere in the world -- second only, perhaps, to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  So, suffice to say, we booked a submarine.

It was just about as uncomfortable as a day at the aquarium, but hey -- I drank a lot of tequila and took some photos.  A unique experience.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Antigua Guatemala - Adios!

And so, bathed in the stank of a thousand hemp products and unwashed dredlocks, I returned to Antigua.  I'm sad to say, I didn't stray far from the city center.  The old cobbles and Spanish architecture with is cracking veneer of ruin embodies the beauty and terror of colonization.  Whatever blood was shed to build it (and by all accounts, it was a lot), Antigua is a haunting town full of history, and well worth seeing.

In many ways, it's like stepping into a time machine, and I rather suspect that the tourism boar are heavily invested in keeping it that way.  I will end this long-overdue blog entry with a few photos, and simply reaffirm that this was a trip that took me entirely by surprise, in the best possible way.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Lago Atitlán & Panajachel

After a brief over-night in Antigua, which served as more of a way-station than a an actual destination at that moment, I got up early and boarded a Chicken Bus for Panajachel.  Pana, the largest city on the rim of Lago Atitlán, is the traditional stopping-place for visits to the highland lake.  Luckily for me, I had budgeted several days to spend in the area, so I got to see a lot more than the Pana Santander High Street and bus terminal.   From the main bus drop-off, it's a short walk down to the lancha, where a fleet of bulky, fiberglass boats that strongly resemble bathtubs wait to ferry passengers to the neighboring towns.

Perhaps, on a re-do, I would sacrifice some of my time in Pana and spend a little more time in Honduras instead.  But not much of it!  To start with, the lake is beautiful.  The clear waters reflect the sky, turning the entire lake a deep sapphire color, and a ring of volcanoes surround the site.  It's genuinely one of, if not the most, beautiful place in the country.  And this from the girl who was loath to leave Rio Dulce.

The view from the lancha alone was worth a visit, but actually getting out onto open water was a spectacular (and very wet) experience.  Pro Tip: Don't bring anything you haven't waterproofed or that can't afford to have soaked onto the boat.  Sleek, ergonomic vessels these are not; they kick up tremendous wake, mostly into the laps of the passengers.  Zip-locked electronics are a must.

From Pana, I headed directly to San Pedros, the back-packer capitol of Guatemala (or possibly second to Antigua).  It's the kind of place that any one in the mood for a bowl of weed and a mountain of banana bread at the beach would enjoy.  Personally, I kayaked.  A lot.  Rentals were very cheap, and there wasn't much else to do that didn't involve consumption of some sort.  The food on offer in town was decent, and it was a nice chance to change my diet from more traditional Guatemalan fare to a special treat -- an Israeli restaurant attached to my hostel.  Definitely don't visit San Pedros if you can't deal with stinky travelers and lots of parties, though.

Just across the lake from San Pedros is San Marcos, a laid-back hippie town full of aging ex-pats and massage parlors.  It's much quieter than its neighbor, and if you were looking for a truly restful time, this would be my recommendation.  I passed a lovely afternoon reading on the pier, walking through its twisting, overgrown alleys, and checking out the many murals.  Ultimately, I returned to San Pedros well rested and ready for another night out.

The somewhat interesting thing I found in San Pedros, that wasn't true in many of the other places I visited in Guatemala, was that it was the only destination for many of the travelers I met there.  Out and about, I would predominantly meet European and American gringos who were visiting the sites: Tikal, Rio Dulce, Antigua... all were common.  Some were going on down / up the trail a little further than others, but ultimately they were trying to live the dream: see the world cheaply, independently, and not from the pool-side bar at a resort.  Some even mentioned plans to visit the Lago.  But in San Pedros, it seems like people more or less got off the plane, hired a shuttle, and went straight there.  I guess I'm used to weed tourism in some capacity, but I didn't realize that I was walking into its Mecca.  The El Dorado of Pot.

Deciding that my time in San Pedros was over, I returned to Pana and holed-up there in a small hostel with a beautiful courtyard.  Pana has a lot to offer, and a fairly broad appeal for tourists.  I'm not sure that the very-elite snobs of the backpacking world would like its middle-class tourist vibe much, apart from using it as a base to climb the near-by volcanoes, but it's definitely a good stop if you're travelling with family or just want to slow down for a few days without all the fuss of the lanchas.

I visited the museum, took a walk through the Atitlán Nature Reserve, and enjoyed lots of live music on the Santander.  Then, on a Thursday, I boarded a Chicken Bus for the market at Chichicastenango.  Chichi is famously one of the largest markets in Central America, and definitely the biggest one in Guatemala.  What I expected was to find something like the infamous Black Market in Bolivia, mixed with elements of the Mercado Central in Peru.  Or, maybe on a stretch, something semi-permanent, like the Istanbul Grand Bazar.  What I found was infinitely more crowded, and ultimately exhausting.  But I got my Christmas shopping done for under $300, so I guess I'm not complaining.

Chichi is a labyrinth of streets and alleys, crowded on both sides with vendors whose wares sit on tarps on the ground.  A few fortunates had card tables, but most simply piled up goods (including caged animals) so high that they came up to browsing level anyhow.  The closer I got to the central plaza, outside the Cathedral, the more likely I was to encounter tourist goods.  Dozens of blanket sellers, jade sellers, and kiosks full of kitsch crammed together in the plaza under loose scaffolding.  If you saw one of each booth, you realistically saw them all.  The uniqueness of individual sellers was fairly non-existent, but a few blocks further out I found some actually interesting textiles and embroidery made by the women who were selling them, instead of what I presume was a big machine from China.

I simply didn't have a full day of shopping in me by the time I had walked half of the crowded market on my initial browse, so I looped back for the 1 or 2 items that I really wanted, bought a few blankets for gifts, and boarded the Chicken Bus back to Panajachel -- where a shady hamock in a private garden awaited me.

With the bulky gifts bought and my vacation time winding down, I really only had one last stop on my agenda before flying back home: Antigua.  I caught a bus back to the historic capitol of Guatemala the next morning, fully intending to see more than the back of my eyelids this time around.