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.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Honduras: Copan Ruinas

Thanks to my early booking, I managed to snag a morning bus out of Puerto Barrios, and onward to the Honduran border!  The best bit of travel advice I have for anyone who intends to follow this route in the future is to book your departure at least 2-3 days ahead of time.  Otherwise, it's likely that you'll have to navigate a series of Chicken Buses, combis, lanchas, and tuk-tuks to get where you're going. And while I'll admit that that sort of travel is how adventures are made... you won't do yourself any favors if you've got a schedule to maintain (which you will if you're getting by on a paltry 3 weeks of vacation per year).

I found the border crossing into Honduras to be relatively painless, but I'd definitely suggest picking up an extra roll of toilet paper before you attempt the journey.  Most backpackers are always prepared for this eventuality, but I'm here to confirm: the toilets in the Honduran crossing station have TP rollers only as a distant memory.  I changed some money at the crossing, with mixed results.  The rates were OK.  But the Honduran Lempira is so de-valued compared to the USD or even the Guatemalan Quetzale that even a poor exchange of around $40 is going to keep you afloat for a few days.  Hell, I almost ended up using some of it as toilet paper before I found my emergency wet wipes.  It's also a very real possibility that the ATMs (there are about 2) in Copan Ruinas will be out of cash over the weekend, and won't stock up again until Monday.  Most businesses will take USD in a pinch, but unless it's a weekday, don't plan on withdrawing cash once you cross into Copan proper.

From the border, it's a very short combi ride to the town of Copan Ruinas -- but beware! The vans don't leave until they're full (a common, but annoying, practice that most travellers are aware of).  In this context, at a slow time of day, that can mean waiting more than an hour for other passengers to turn up.  Once I got into the town, I navigated my way out from the Central Plaza and found a hostel about 2 blocks away: Don Moises.  The rates were great, the accomodations were clean, and the water was hot.  Plus, they had a large balcony with hammocks.  Honestly, you've got to be prepared to navigate the hazards of electric shower nozzle water heaters throughout Centeral America, but Don Moises' were the least zappy... so they get an honorable mention for that.

Copan was once a major Mayan center, but it collapsed on itself -- archaeologists tell us -- because the huge volume of people and agricultural advancement led to extreme erosion of the jungle soil over steep, mountainous terrain.  The same thing is happening to Copan today, during its tourism renaissance, and it's easy to see where mudslides have come over roads if it's been raining.  But apart from that, it's a quite nice town with a busy street market.  There are all the usual goods, the token chicken-and-corn stalls, and one special feature that I didn't find in Guatemala: lychee berries.  The locals sell produce out of small shopfronts and pickup trucks, and you can buy a bag full of lychees for around $2 USD (and I assume this is the hose-the-tourist price).  I spent my down-time lounging in a hammock, drinking a licuada (smoothie -- banana and peanut, for preference), and reading Prattchett.

Then, before sunrise on my second day, the real highlight began.  Copan Ruinas, as the title implies, houses some of the finest Mayan ruins remaining today.  Though not the largest complex, or built on the scale of the Tikal pyramids, the carvings, stellae, and palaces are in excellent condition.  The jungle has been cut back to reveal intricate statues with beautiful and distinctive Mayan writing, and the foundations of massive homes, sports arenas, and tombs are scattered around the park.

The Copan Archaeological Site gets a 10/10 from me.  Keen visitors should arrive a day ahead of time, rise early, and take a tuk-tuk up the road about half an hour before the park opens.  Anyone with even passing Spanish should be on good terms with the cleaning ladies in about 5 minutes, and into the park twenty minutes before anybody else even shows up.  Having a space like that to yourself, in the cool of the morning... perfection.  My only real regret on this trip was not making time to see more of the surrounding sites in Honduras; I'm planning on going back some day.

They also have great trails out to some of the more remote sites, and there's very good bird watching.  I saw what I think was a Quetzal, about 10 different colored parrots, and heard more interesting chirping than I could even begin to identify.  Then we have the flora.  Some of the plants were wild.  I never expected that I'd be interested in visiting the rainforest; I've done the end of the Amazon that interests me, the pampas, and the rest seems buggy, muggy, and dense -- unless you're the sort of person who likes canopy walks and zip-lines (AKA not me).  But just walking through the underbrush in the Honduran jungle was a fabulous experience -- so I might revise my opinion on visiting central Brazil one of these days.

In fact, I liked it so much that I visited a botanical center that evening.  Just outside of town, Macaw Mountain functions as a bird sanctuary and finca, but the real treasure is their garden. They highlight local plants with small signs, and showcase the more exotic-looking flowers alongside some of the common growths I'd been seeing around the countryside.  The only moderately inconvenient thing were the transport options -- I had to walk about half way back to the town before I found another tuk-tuk.  But it was a nice walk, over paved roads, and all around a nice way to finish the day.  Definitely plan at least 2-3 hours if you're visiting.

By the time day 3 rolled around, I was sad to say goodbye.  But I was bound for Antigua, in a touristy shuttle-van, which -- though slightly more expensive than a coach bus ticket -- made shorter work of the 8-10 hour journey, and was the most direct solution for my scheduling options.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Rio Dulce & Livingston: Sweet & Sour

Leaving Flores and St. Elena is not challenging; the St. Elena bus station can get you just about anywhere in the country, or beyond.  Guatemala City and Antigua also have really great connections.  However, if you're going to do a short stay Rio Dulce, I have to advise that you book your next connection immediately on arrival... unless you're planning to stay for a week or more.  Arriving buses in Rio Dulce drop their passengers off in Puerto Barrios, near the bridge (one of the largest in Central America) and ferry pick-up for Livingston.  Lago Izabal defines the region, and a massive market leads back through the harbor -- a favorite among ex-pat sailors and yachters during hurricane season.  In other words, there are lots of travelers coming in via road and water, and only a certain number of seats on the buses.  I booked my next leg, toward El Floridio and the Honduran border, and still found that the bus (again, not a Chicken Bus) was over-booked to standing room only.  However, many of the travellers were locals, and they got off at numerous villages on the way.  By the time we hit the border, I was the only one left... but that's a story for another day.

Arriving early in Puerto Barrios, I decided to push on to Livingston at the first opportunity. I had a few hours to kill, so I grabbed a Caribbean cocktail at one of the local bars, where I'm pleased to say they had live music playing at 8 o'clock in the morning.  Not too shabby! Then I hopped on board the 9:30 lancha (ferry) for the coast.  Livingston, a town on the Carribean accessible only by water, boasts a colorful Garifuna culture that makes it unique among Guatemala's more traditionally Mayan background.  The Garifuna are the descendants of African slaves whose transport ship crashed off the coast; their cultures mixed with the Mayans, and the area remains a largely blended culture to this day.  Of course, that also means that it's marketed to tourists as a one-of-a-kind stop on the way downt he Gringo Trail.

Well, I'm here to tell you: they may know how to party in Livingston, but that town is NASTY.  The beaches are filthy, the streets are full of garbage, and the local digs are both disgusting and expensive.  I'm sure that there are nicer places to stay than the one I found, but I just wasn't willing to spend more than $20 on a dormitory bed in Guatemala's biggest tourist trap. Yes, trap.  There are 2 lanchas in and out each day; other than that, you're S.O.L.

I got to try their most famous food, the seafood stew known as Tapado, and drink their trademark beverage, the Coco Loco, a coconut filled with rum.  I'm not sure what else was in there, actually.  Tasted just like coconut water and about 4 shots of liquor.  I also tried what the locals referred to as a "stronger" drink (though I'm not sure how much stronger than basically pure rum we're going to get) called Garifuti -- which is either distilled or infused right in the community. Either way, it tastes like a Pisco took a piss in a Vodka bottle, but at least it's unique.

 The Tapado was OK, but I think I could have just as easily skipped spending the night and popped by for a quick lunch.  There are a few famous sites in the area, namely the fishing beaches and the small series of waterfalls in the nearby jungle, but neither of these really impressed me.

Still, it's worth a ride if only for the lancha voyage down the Rio Dulce.  You'll pass through lily-pad encrusted lagoons, be shamelessly paraded past canoe markets that -- at a bare minimum -- seem to support the local culture, get a good look at El Castillo, and pass through a small canyon with pale, white cliffs.  There's also a stop along the way at a small hot spring and bar that is definitely worth a visit -- as long as you're in the mood for a soak and a drink sometime between 10AM and noon.

Once I got out of Livingston, I grabbed a bunk at the quintessential Rio Dulce hang-out, Hotel Backpackers, and simply enjoyed a day of luxuriating in the sun.  They have a waterfront bar and dock that allows for an excellent view of the passing vessels, and it's easy to flag down a lancha or rent a kayak if you want to get out and explore.  In retrospect, I really wish I'd taken both of my Rio Dulce days to simply relax over a good Discworld novel and some Gallo on the Sweet River.  It was definiely a trip highlight.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Flores & Tikal: Jungle Pyramids

I learned a lot on my trip to Tikal, not all of hit historical or archaeological. For example, I learned that the ATM is called the Cajero.  I learned that potholes are not just for roads, but also for sidewalks. I learned that the logic behind decisions like: "Just take the night bus and skip spending money on a hostel that night; you'll save some money and make better time" is the sort of nonsense best left to travelling 19 year-olds.  It worked for me in Bolivia.  Less so in Guatemala.  I also learned that the Guatemalan people are beautifully indulgent of their children.  Babies cry.  In the States, it's cause for embarassment when your screaming kid keeps an entire bus full of people up all night.  Not that there's anything an American parent can do for their child that a Guatemalan parent can't.  But that's exactly my point -- the parents tried, failed, and it was OK.  They got support from the people around them.  Nobody threw a fit or made a scene.  There's something about children throwing tantrums that tends to translate to adults throwing tantrums in the USA; not so in Guatemala.  The people (excluding myself, because I REALLY wanted to sleep) were amazingly patient, and took turns holding the baby.

My overnight bus to St. Elena & Flores (two sister cities, one on an island and the other on the banks of Lago Peten Itza), the gateways to Tikal, took me via Belize.  We all got off the bus at the border, a few other passengers got on, and we looped back into Guatemala, where I was dropped off at around 4:30 AM.  Blessedly, my restless night was not spent aboard a Chicken Bus (more on that later), so it was at least a reasonably comfortable night.  The Touts at the station wanted to immediately sell me on a ticket for an early-morning trip to Tikal, but I had given myself a bit of time and planned to camp overnight in the jungle; so I wasn't in any rush.

I grabbed a nap at a real hole-in-the-wall hostel (so much for saving money), and then grabbed a sunrise breakfast of Juevos Rancheros overlooking the Lago.  It almost made up for the bus ride.  I had a bit of time to walk through Flores, and I got to enjoy all that this terracotta-tiled tourist trap had to offer.  Quaint cobbled streets, narrow alleys, tightly-packed homes, and passels of short, stout Guatemalan ladies selling everything from live chickens to Tide laundry detergent.  But the highlight - by a long shot - was finding a giant, plastic Christmas tree in the town square, with a glowing, red rooster on top of it.  (They don't have pine trees in the tropics, but that didn't stop Gallo beer from sponsoring one more than a month ahead of the holiday.)

Later that afternoon, I borded my combi for Tikal National Park.  The ride lasted around an hour, over rough roads, We made it in time to check in at the hotel (I was renting a tent from the Jaguar Inn), and then to walk into the park.  I took the opportunity to explore a bit around Teples I and II, surrounded by macaws and howler monkeys.  As the day wound down, I made my way to Temple IV, and hiked up the scaffolding stairs for sundown. There's an extra fee to access the crest of the pyramids for sundown and sunrise, but (after a lot of research), I found that Temple IV had the better view for sundown, and Temple I for sunup... so that's what I did.  There are fairly reasonable entry rates (around USD $20-30) for combination entries that include both a sunset and a next-day sunrise. Paired with the rather economical camping arrangements I made, the two most expensive days of my trip actually came in slightly under estimates.

After a slight adventure in the jungle after dark with my new friends, an Irish woman and a young Amerian WOOFer, I retired to the bar for Gallo beers and a bit of stargazing.  The summer prior, I'd treated myself to astronomy lessons at the local observatory; they came in very handy in the near perfect darkness of the Central Amerian Jungle.

I found Tikal to be well worth the expense, and it was a definite highlight of my trip.  But I can see how, when faced with the boatloads of tourists pouring in around midday, the experience becomes a bit lackluster.  A late-day and early day visit provided plenty of times to take in the whole park, climb everything you're allowed to climb (and some of the stuff you aren't); the temperatures were a little cooler overall, and there were far fewer people to contend with.  Plus, viewing the Temples by moonlight (which I don't suggest, as it's a shooting offense... but if you get lost, hey, take advantage of the opportunity) is amazing.

Trying to cram it all into one day... it's doable, but I imagine that it's a hot, sweaty, exhausitng experience that starts and ends with 20 people crammed into a 15-passenger van.  Granted, the 2 day experience also goes kind of like that... but it's much more tolerable when you have time for a beer and a shower in between.

It's kind of amazing to look at this place and think that it saw its golden era around 750 AD.  To put it in perspective, that's the same time that most of Europe bowed to Charlemagne; the Chinese had just invented gunpowder; the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem was still brand new; and the pyramids at Giza were already over 3,000 years old. By the time the Mayan people abandoned this site around 900 AD, the Franks and Saxons were still at war with the Vikings.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Guatemala City: A Visiting Giant

Arriving in Guatemala City after 8+ hours in transit (the highlight of which was spotting a herd of Air Japan stwardesses in their matched uniforms with frothy scarves prance through the terminal in 3-inch heels), my initial impression was something like what I imagine a giraffe feels when it stands up for the very first time.  Due to what I can only attribute to extreme poverty, poor nutrition, and perhaps some genetic factors, the majority of Guatemalans whom I enountered came up to about the tops of my breasts.  It's a little strange, even for someone who's used to being large in a thin-woman's world, to stand almost half a torso taller than the crowd disembarking around you.

I know that a number of travel books and bloggers will advise tourists to get off the plane and hop straight onto a bus for Antigua, but in the end, I was glad I took a couple days to visit the city. It was noisy, crowded, smelly, and probably a bit dangerous without basic precautions... and it was also worth visiting on the weekend, if for nothing else than a trip to the Calle Real and Central Plaza.  If at all possible, I'd suggest visiting on a weekend; the music, performers, food, vendors, and people-watching are Aces.  The cultural blend of Mayan and Spanish customs, blended with Caribbean and African triats brought over by slaves after the colonization, are fairly rote expectations for a visit to any Central American country; but it's only in Guatemala that I've ever heard Irish rock, performed in Spanish, and accompanied by a Garifuna gentleman playing bagpipes. Or graffiti that I an really only describe as Indiginous, Slutty Virgin Mary.

Of course poverty was visible.  Of course there were beggars in the streets, and little old women wearing clothes that very much looked as though they were homemade and on the verge of decay.  But there were affluent, very westernized people in Guatemala City too.  The young, rich Guatemalans out for their Saturday night dates dressed in precisely the same clothes I see on the semi-Hipster crowds down 2nd Street in Brick City.  There's really nothing surprising about that to me; but I find that when I tell people about my trip, they ask questions on the line of "did you get a lot of stares for not wearing a poncho?" and other ignorant inquiries on about that line.  Blue jeans are basically universal... though, admitedly, they are a bigger luxury in some countries than others.

I spent most of Sunday exploring the after-Church market (Guatemala is still a predominantly Catholic country) and arranging tickets for the over-night bus to Tikal.  The food in the streets was a major highlight -- grilled, spiced meats; tamales; fresh fruit with salt and spices sprinkled over them; frozen bananas dipped in chocolate, which is less of a regional speciality and more of a personal favorite.  I grabbed a few beers -- Gallo appears to be the national cerveza of choice -- and set off for the red-tiled island of Flores (gateway to the Pyramids) with a better appreciation for what everyday life looks like outside of Guatemala's tourism industry.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Backpacking Central America

In winter 2012, I had a fairly good idea what I wanted out of my next trip: archaeological parks, moderate weather, and a low price-tag. 

On most of my trips, fully 2/3 of the budget goes toward transit, so somewhere with affordable ground transport and airfare was my best solution to keep prices down.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I needed to stay in my own hemisphere, probably north of the equator.  I also wasn’t looking for another jaunt in the Caribbean so soon after visiting the Bahamas, and island hopping doesn’t really appeal to me.  I am not a beach person. 

So anyway, no islands.  And not Mexico again.  I love Mexico, but I spent a lot of time there as a child, and I wanted to try something new. Realistically, that left Central America.  But where in Central America?  I spent Kinky Thanksgiving (exactly what it says on the label) listening to a friend regale me with details about the cloud rainforests of Costa Rica…. It sounded good! 

With a vague idea that I intended to leave in autumn 2014, I started researching some options.  As always, time away from the office was the primary obstacle.  No big deal – just yuppie problems.  So nowhere that I couldn’t get in under a half day of flying.  Costa Rica was still in the running… then I spent 5 minutes on Google.  Costa Ricans have every right to charge prime money from tourists – their country is amazing – but it would have blown a hole a mile wide into my carefully cultivated savings.

Frustrated, I dug deeper.  Was Costa Rica worth it? They touted some of the world’s best zip-lining, mountain climbing, horseback riding, white water rafting, bungee jumping… but those aren’t really my scene.  Besides, they kind of seem like a waste of money.  Yeah, great, you have a killer story about the time that you jumped down a canyon attached to a safety line…. Personally, I’m much more interested in finding out what formed the canyon in the first place than spending $50 to look at it very quickly, upside-down, screaming.

I’d still like to spend some time in the Cloud Rainforests, because the ecology looks amazing, but I’m thinking that’s something I can do if I ever scrape together the balls to live out my dream and drive the Pan-American Highway.  Instead, I started looking at the other Central American countries.

Guatemala stood out immediately.  Maybe it’s selfish of me to say, but I really loved the idea of visiting places where the Mayan and Colonial cultures had blended so thoroughly.  Guatemala promised an intoxicating blend of Euro Trash, local tradition, massive ruins, and global commerce.  They had everything I wanted, which – after giving it some thought – wasn’t all that much: an excellent bus network and pyramids.  My God, the pyramids.

I started planning like a fiend. You can’t really get the full measure of a city – never mind a whole country – in just 2 weeks, but I that was all the vacation time I had.  Needs must, it would seem.  In retrospect, I felt a bit like Cassandra though my planning phase.  I kept telling people – “come to Guatemala with me, it will be amazing!” and nobody ever believed me.  The most common reaction was “Why would you ever want to go to Guatemala?” with “Is this a volunteering thing?” in short succession.

Why the hell would anyone NOT want to go to Guatemala? What terrible thing has gone so wrong in their lives that they’ve given up on curiosity? The whole trip cost less than $1,000.  That’s less than most people spend on their annual cell phone plan! 

I’m sick to death of people telling me that they’d travel with me if it was a trip to someplace interesting, like Europe.  Not even a specific country, just Europe.  I’ll go back some day, when I have the luxury of cash or time (you need one of the two, but ideally both, to do it right), and I’ll drive from Munich to Prague; I’ll visit the acropolis; I’ll dance in Budapest; I’ll eat my weight in carbs in the north of Italy; I’ll see Austria and Switzerland and the fjords in Norway; I’ll return to Paris and London and Rome and Prague and I’ll do all the tourist spots without the slightest hint of irony. 

But in 2014, I wanted Central America, and Guatemala turned out to be the best decision I could possibly have made.