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Belize, Guatemala and Honduras (2009)

a travel blog by shoshtrvls



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It's Not The Destination

San Ignacio, Belize


It's the journey. Or so they say.

We started out at the crack of dawn, or rather, before the crack of dawn, to catch our 5:30 flight to Houston. So far, so good ... until we get to Houston and learn that our flight to Belize has been canceled. Rather than booking us on an earlier flight, we were rebooked on a much later flight. Attempts to get on the earlier flight failed due to the fact that our luggage couldn't travel on the later flight without us (9/11 regs) and so we spent a lengthy 6+ hours in the Houston airport, hanging in the Continental President's club.

And, of course, the later flight was also delayed a good hour, so by the time we arrived in Belize, most of our plans were shot. After spending some time convincing Immigration that I *couldn't* have brought a letter from Ellery's father allowing her to travel without him because she had no father (he needed to go up 2 levels of the command chain with her birth certificate to authorize our entry into the country), and then listening to him tell me how I had to teach her about Jesus Christ (I guess the star of David around my neck was either invisible or seen as an invitation), we finally got out of the airport and found William, as expected, with a big welcoming smile (and sign).

The zoo was out because it was so late, so instead we stopped at a little place called "Old Belize" for dinner -- a man-made lagoon and a nice little restaurant. The rest of the drive was lovely; William was great entertainment and a wealth of local information about the Mennonite, the local population, and all that there might be to do.

We finally got to Chaa Creek around 8 p.m., and so tired we immediately fell asleep in our rustic cabin overlooking the river.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on August 22, 2009 from San Ignacio, Belize
from the travel blog: Belize, Guatemala and Honduras (2009)
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Belize City, Belize




permalink written by  shoshtrvls on August 22, 2009 from Belize City, Belize
from the travel blog: Belize, Guatemala and Honduras (2009)
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On Horseback

San Ignacio, Belize


Our first day at Chaa Creek was both active and relaxing.


Shortly after breakfast we embarked on our first activity of the day, a wonderful horseback ride through the jungle. In addition to me and Ellery, there were four others – a family from, of all places, Ardmore, by way of, of all places, Los Angeles. Our guide was Robert, who was truly wonderful, teaching us about the plants and animals of the jungle, as well as a bit of archeology at an unexcavated Mayan site at the top of one of the mountains we climbed. The ride was much longer than expected, almost 4 hours, and well worth every minute of it.

Then it was lunch and the swimming pool, mixed in with a short walk on the River Trail and the Medicine Plant Trail, both of which run alongside the Macal River. Once apparently very clear, the building of a hydroelectric plant upriver has turned the Macal into a very brown, muddy river and unfortunately not at all tempting. But the pool, filled with salt water, was lovely, and we spent several hours there, me chatting away with Chad and Elizabeth (the couple from Ardmore) and Ellery playing with William and Henry, their two young sons.


Dinner was unremarkable, and followed by a “creatures of the night” walk led by Allan. Unfortunately, Ellery was very frightened, despite the fact that the only creatures were saw were a scorpion, two tarantulas, and lots of ants. But what was amazing were the sounds … an amazing orchestra of birds and insects.

Chaa Creek reminds me very much of the lodge we stayed at in South Africa – a compound of rooms, with a central dining room and bar, terrifically friendly people and very knowledgeable guides. And yet, we really could be anyplace in the world; being in this secluded camp is also being away from local culture. It’s one kind of a vacation and a nice one to boot, but I’m really looking forward to moving on to Guatemala, staying in the heart of towns and spending more time getting to know the culture of the region.

Oh, and I need a better camera – or I need to regain those photography skills I once had but seem to have lost over the last two years.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on August 23, 2009 from San Ignacio, Belize
from the travel blog: Belize, Guatemala and Honduras (2009)
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Off Campus

Belmopan, Belize


Getting off the resort, as we did today, was marvelously refreshing for the spirit and the soul.

The main destination for the day was tubing at Crystal Cave near the Caves Branch River, but to get there we had to backtrack along the Western Highway, much of which we “missed,” having driven most of the way to Chaa Creek in darkness.

In daytime, it was a wonderful journey, particularly the stretch between San Ignacio and Belmopan, passing through towns with names like Blackman Eddy and Teakettle and Esperanza. It was the first day of the school year, and so children in their fresh, light blue uniforms dotted the highway, almost like ants in a chain. Roadside fruit stands were everywhere in evidence, and the Amish and Mennonite farmers were riding their horse-drawn carts from Spanish Lookout to town. Underneath the typical Belizean houses, made of wood and high off the ground, were laundry lines, horses, and old cars, while people congregated on the porches above.

Our driver for the day was a wonderful older man, a retired Justice of the Peace from Santa Elena. As we passed by his house, after crossing the small suspension bridge between San Ignacio and Santa Elena, he pointed with pride at his 1950 era Ford Falcon, which he had driven to the United States and back three times.

As we got closer to Jaguar Paw, the jumping off point for our cave explorations, the jungle got much denser, and what stood out the most for me was the amazing number of different flowers growing everywhere. Birds of Paradise, orchids, and every manner and color of blooms surrounded us. And where there wasn’t jungle, there were fields of corn and pineapples and teak trees, and pastures filled with Brahmin bulls, cows, horses, and chickens.

Arriving at Jaguar Paw, we met Rick, our guide for the cave exploration. A wet and sometimes treacherous path took us inside of the cave, and first we sat and listened to Rick tell us the history of Belize – not just modern Belize, and nor just Mayan Belize, but prehistoric Belize as well. Particularly engrossing was his story-telling of the British pirates, and the battles with the Spanish; sitting inside the cave, listening to him talk, was like being in a real life Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

And the cave was spectacular; the stalagmites and stalagtites were huge, and glittered from the quartz contained inside them. The water was crystal clear and cool, and everywhere our lights shown, were bats – thousands of bats hanging on the walls and the roof of the cave, flying overhead and swooping to catch a meal of the bugs attracted by our headlamps, and pouring in and out of small holes in caves. When we got off the tubes, we wandered for a bit, finding (like so many before us) fragments and pieces of Mayan pottery of different centuries.

After our cave experience, we had a late lunch at Jaguar Paw, and then headed back to Chaa Creek. Ellery slept much of the way, but I managed to wake her up to see my finds of the day … the first siting of a roseate spoonbill near Chaa Creek and, more importantly, the elusive toucan!

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on August 24, 2009 from Belmopan, Belize
from the travel blog: Belize, Guatemala and Honduras (2009)
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La Lancha

El Remate, Guatemala


Awakening early, Ellery and I ventured out, with Chad and Henry, to do some bird watching. Alas, my lucky finds of yesterday were far more interesting than anything we spotted today. Still, it was a nice walk around Chaa Creek one final time.


Then, after breakfast, Ellery, William, and Henry did a treasure hunt through the nature preserve and while I did not accompany them, it was reported by Chad and Elizabeth that a good time was had by all.


With that, it was time for us to leave Chaa Creek. We took a cab to the Guatemala border, and easily negotiated both the border crossing and the money changing. We then hopped on a bus coming from San Ignacio and headed to Flores, populated by the usual assortment of travelers: a friendly Israeli couple (fatefully, Ellery was wearing her Hebrew SpongeBob tee shirt), a sullen Italian couple, and four somewhat confused Americans, along with several Guatemalans.


The scenery from the border to Ixlu, where we would be getting off, was far from the jungle I expected. Rather, it was mostly clear cut grazing pastures for the many cows, bulls, and horses we passed along the way (including one herd of cows that blocked the road for a short while). Most of the road was unpaved,which made for a dusty, bumpy trip – just the way I like it.


Getting off at Ixlu, in the middle of nowhere, gained us some respect from the other travelers on the bus, all of whom wanted to know what we knew. Of course, if I told them that we were headed to La Lancha, all of our “street cred” would have been lost, so I vaguely said that we were staying someplace closer to Tikal. Waiting at the bus stop were two drivers, one hoping to take someone to Tikal, and another hoping for a local fare. We, of course, were of the later variety and while I was tempted to walk down the road to El Remate and wait for a chicken bus or shared taxi to come by, I opted for the taxi to take us to the hotel.


La Lancha – rustic, serene, isolated, and empty. Except for the silent and somewhat sullen gay couple from Sydney, it’s just me and Els. But I should have expected it given that it is the rainy season and there are only ten cabanas here to begin with.


The rooms themselves almost hang on the side of the mountain leading to Lake Peten Itza, all with hammocks swaying on the porches and a beautiful view. There’s an open air lodge at the top, a very small swimming pool, and a very steep path down to the lake where there are some chaise lounges and canoes. (I can’t imagine that Francis Ford Coppola, who owns this place, has actually been here; at the very least, I can’t imagine that he has hiked up from the lake to the rooms).


We arrived around 2:30, had lunch, walked down to the lake and back, napped, read, and then I sat by the pool while Ellery swam. Then it was dinner. Despite the uninhabited nature of the resort, our path from the room to the lodge was lined with small luminarias placed there just at dusk by the nearly invisible staff, and the food was definitely wonderful. (At the same time, this attention to detail isn’t available 24/7; this is being posted a day late because by 8:30 p.m., the lodge was dark and hence no internet access).


With the exception of a trip to Tikal and maybe a horseback ride or two, I expect this action-packed routine to continue for the next two days. I may go crazy with boredom; we’ll see.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on August 25, 2009 from El Remate, Guatemala
from the travel blog: Belize, Guatemala and Honduras (2009)
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This Place Is In Ruins!

Tikal, Guatemala


This morning I awoke to the very eerie sounds of howler monkeys. Like something out of “Lost,” it’s a very strange sound. Alas, none were seen.


After breakfast, we headed out to the main attraction of this area of Guatemala, Tikal. Julio was our guide, and Juan our driver. Until this morning, I didn’t realize how far La Lancha is from everything – it is quite a ways down the road from the turn off at Ixlu; I’m not sure how I missed this yesterday. Along the way to Tikal, we passed through several small villages, and along the sides of the roads horses, cows, chickens and pigs.


Tikal consists of 5 main temples, several pyramids complexes and many other buildings. But you can’t see them all at once; you walk through shaded jungle paths and each plaza area is almost like a Surprise. The complex itself is huge and the buildings are imposing. We climbed several of the temples, include Temple 4, which provided a wonderful view of the other temples rising over the tropical forest below. Just as fascinating were the buildings that have not been excavated; some you would never know existed because the trees and the vegetation have completely covered them; others are visible only as a few stones in between monstrous tree trunks.


Almost as amazing is the wildlife in Tikal. We came upon spider monkeys swinging from tree to tree, a coatimundi, toucans and turkeys, and even an interesting little yellow caterpillar that even Julio had never seen before. And the trees – cedar and mahogany and red gumbo limbo, each one towering overhead and with roots so tangled and huge that they brought to mind a kind of medieval fantasy world; I almost expected Bilbo Baggins to pop up and join us.


And our weather luck continued, because it wasn’t until just as we finished lunch that the afternoon rains began, which meant that we had the afternoon to laze on our porch, take in the beauty of the lake, and relax. Which is, needless to say, killing me.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on August 26, 2009 from Tikal, Guatemala
from the travel blog: Belize, Guatemala and Honduras (2009)
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Zip!

Tikal, Guatemala


Today was another adventure – this time to Ixpanpajul and Flores, a small town on the other side of the lake.


The drive to Ixpanpajul passed through much of the same territory as before, but after the turn off at Ixlu, there was a decidedly different atmosphere along the road. Many small guest houses, hostels and roadside restaurants lined the road; people moved with some sense of purpose, whether it was on foot, on horseback, or on truck. And churches … every few kilometers there was a simple, stucco church. The lake side was thick with marshes, crude wooden docks jutting into the blue lake, and horses grazing in the small grassy areas between the road and the water.


Eventually we reached Santa Elena, a standard-issue concrete commercial center with all the usual trappings, including a small airport, a Burger King and a Pizza Hut. However, just 5 miles away was Ixpanpajul, a private jungle reserve where one can ride horses, walk along a skyway, hike, or do as Ellery and I did -- tour the jungle canopy by zip line. Although only a fairly small track of 6 lines, it was tremendous fun and quite different from our South Africa experience. Ellery even did 2 of the lines on her own, without anyone helping her. Ixpanpajul also brought us another crocodile (I’m sure that, like the crocodiles in Tikal, these are imported for the tourists) sighting and a few more exotic birds that we hadn’t seen before.


We then headed to Flores for lunch. While it is touted as a “quaint colonial town” on an island in the lake, quiet doesn’t begin to describe Flores. It’s dead; almost all the shops were closed, and there were more people working on the roads than anything else. But we had a nice lunch at a restaurant overlooking the lake and then took a leisurely boat ride around the lake.


We returned to La Lancha to swim and relax (some more), again just before the afternoon rains, and settle in for our final night. Tomorrow, we leave at 4:30 a.m. to catch the 6 a.m. bus to Coban, spending a night there, and then making our way to Chichicastenango by Saturday night so as not to miss the “not to be missed” Sunday market.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on August 27, 2009 from Tikal, Guatemala
from the travel blog: Belize, Guatemala and Honduras (2009)
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Moving Forward ... and South

Coban, Guatemala


Jose was right on time, picking us up at La Lancha at the ungodly hour of 4:30 a.m. Indeed, we were up before the howler monkeys, a real feat. This is especially true given that a group of Mexican tourists had arrived the evening before, and their arrival spoiled the quiet nights that we had come to enjoy. I wondered if that’s what the Aussies thought when we arrived.

We arrived at the bus station in Santa Elena at 5:45, perfect timing for our bus to Coban, in the center of the country. Except it wasn’t a bus, it was a minibus. With our bags on top, the van could seat 14 and the driver in modest comfort. And we started with a mere 12, consisting of the driver, the driver’s assistant, six Guatemalans, a dashing Italian couple, and Ellery and I. But the difference between a bus and a minibus is that a minibus will stop to take on passengers every time it is waved down (that’s where the driver’s assistant comes in), and will drop off people along the way. Except there are usually more getting on than getting off, such that there were generally about 20 or 24 people in the van, and sometimes the driver’s assistant would sit on top with the bags. Did I mention that the van didn’t have air conditioning?

The people getting on and off were a wonderful assortment of Guatemalan peasants. Early in the morning there were ranch hands heading to cattle farms and women bringing big baskets of goods to where ever the next town was; by late morning it was parents picking their children up from school and men with machetes on their way to the coffee fields (at least, I hope that’s what they were planning on using the knives for).

And where the roads crossed, a unique form of “musical minibus” would take place, with people getting off of one bus and getting onto another, in different combinations.

As we drove south, the cultural and geographic changes were evident. We started seeing women wearing traditional clothing, long dark skirts and loose, poncho-like tops and men wearing jeans, rubber boots and cowboy hats. And the open ranch land cleared from the jungle gave way to dramatic mountains covered in both natural vegetation and man-made corn fields … except these weren’t flat fields; rather, corn was planted up and down the sides of the mountains. And the closer we got to Coban, the more winding the road became, as it wove it’s way through the mountains. The villages and towns we passed were varied. Some were like those near La Lancha, little more than a few buildings and food stalls along the side of the road. But two stood out from the rest.

The first was Sayaxche, a town on the banks of the Rio de la Pasion. To cross, people ride on brightly colored boats while cars and buses are loaded onto a wooden ferry that looks like it would sink under the weight of a feather. And yet, it makes it across the river with ease. Like the boats, the buildings of Sayaxche are a variety of colors and only upon closer inspection would one notice that they aren’t really charming, just dilapidated. Still, it was a unique place.

The other town of note was Chisec, which was one big outdoor market. Here we stopped for a while, everyone piling out of the van to get something to eat, to use the restroom, or to smoke. “Getting something to eat” meant choosing a food stall and asking for tortillas filled with grilled meat, chicken, or sausage – and from the looks of the market, all meat had most likely been running around enjoying life just a few hours earlier. They were delicious. (And yes, traveling and vegetarianism do not go hand in hand).

We finally reached the outskirts of Coban around 11:30, which is as far as the van took us. Although it could have been walked, the Italian couple, Ellery and I took a cab to the center of town. Ellery and I quickly found a suitable place to stay, something between a hotel and a guest house right in the middle of town, with a certain colonial charm – dark Spanish-style furniture in musty-smelling rooms surrounding an overgrown courtyard. Begin in the center of town, it isn’t very quiet, but it is very convenient.

After a brief respite, Els and I toured this little town, taking in the center plaza and, more importantly, the market a few blocks away. Like most markets in small towns, it was a mix of hard goods like shoes, fabrics, and electronics and fresh vegetables, fruits, and breads. And every so often, an old woman selling tortillas out of a large basket lined with brightly woven fabric. A real treat. As usual, the rains came about 4 p.m., and Ellery and I have settled into a quiet afternoon of reading and journaling, and will soon be headed to dinner, most likely in the elegant looking dining room attached to the hotel.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on August 28, 2009 from Coban, Guatemala
from the travel blog: Belize, Guatemala and Honduras (2009)
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Deforestation ... Lessons Learned

Uspantan, Guatemala


Today started out with a walk back to the market, where Ellery and I explored the produce and meat market. There were baskets upon baskets of onions, bananas, oranges, cauliflower, potatoes, strawberries – just about every kind of produce imaginable. And the smells of it all – the strong onion, the allspice, the garlic; you could even smell the freshness of the tomatoes. On the meat side of the equation, one had a choice of live or almost alive chickens, turkeys, pigs and cows. After wandering a bit, we sat at a small comedor and enjoyed a breakfast of eggs, tortillas (you would not believe how many tortillas can be made and sold in one country), beans and bread. And the best coffee I’ve ever tasted in my life, truly.

Our next stop was the small coffee plantation on the south side of the town, where we were given a wonderful, brief tour of the different kinds of coffee beans and how they are grown, harvested, and roasted. The tour ended with a cup of coffee – a good one, but not as good as the one in the market.


We then checked out of the hotel, determined to make it to Chichicastenango by nightfall. To do so, we had three options: taking a bus down to Guatemala City, and then minibuses to Antigua and then one to Chichi; engaging in the “wave down” process through the back roads of the Western Highlands, or hiring a private car and driver. I confess, not wanting to risk being at some crossroad in the middle of nowhere at night, I opted for the private driver. And thus, we were picked up by Armando and Manuel promptly at 10:00 a.m.


Initially, Armando wanted to take the route through Guatemala City, a bit longer milage-wise but much faster due to the good roads. And, there was the small matter of the road to Uspantan having been buried under a massive avalanche a few months earlier. But after many inquiries and confirmations that the road was reopened, Armando agreed to give that road a try. I think if he had known it’s true condition, he wouldn’t have taken it, but I am so glad he did. The road winds high into the mountains and the scenery and views, even though marred by the obvious clear-cutting of the forest, is spectacular, and rivals that of Bhutan, Colorado, and every other mountain range I’ve been lucky enough to see. The road, on the other hand, is unpaved, single lane, muddy, and treacherous. But Manuel, the driver, navigated it well, and it took us only about 3-1/2 hours to reach Uspantan.

One of the more interesting sights along the way, which I'm sorry I did not get a picture of, was a woman spinning thread ... spinning it out of some sort of plant. Even more interestingly, she was doing it by the side of the road, on what looked like an old bicycle tire, the the line went way, way down the road along small branches along the road, almost like miniature telephone lines.

However, if ever there was a cautionary tale about the problems of deforestation, the avalanche is it. A huge area of what was once a stately mountain looks like it has simply been sliced off. As you get closer, and then as you drive through it, you can see how it has all fallen into the valley below, both huge chunks and boulders and tons of dirt and debris. Thirty people were killed at the time; it’s amazing there weren’t more dead.

From Uspantan, it was an easy, although equally curvy, paved road through to Chichi by way of numerous several towns and villages. We could tell when we were getting close to a village because of the road bumps, or "sleeping policemen" as they are called. Why they are needed, however, remains a mystery because, really, it's impossible to go very fast on these mountain roads.

After Uspantan, there was no mistaking the fact that we had started up to the highlands. The tropical jungle plants gave way to the type of forest more common in the U.S., with pine trees and dense brush. The houses and small outposts also changed, from wooden huts with thatched or corrugated metal roofs, to mud brick buildings with red tiled roofs. Cattle returned to the scene, along with sheep and goats, and the wardrobe of the women became more colorful, and more detailed. And corn …not an inch of cleared space was without corn growing on it.

We arrived in Chichi around 4:30, well before dark and, quite frankly, well before we would have gotten here had we taken the Guatemala City route. Our hotel is a large one, colonial in style, with rooms surrounding a lovely courtyard. But we didn’t rest long, because we wanted to take a walk around town before dark (since we’ve been warned not to do so at night, and while I’m not a fearful traveler, with Ellery in tow, it’s advice I didn’t want to ignore). We were treated to a small preview of tomorrow’s market day, as many of the stalls were being set up and the sellers already hawking their wares. It definitely looks to be a huge undertaking worthy of its fame. We also took a look inside the two main churches which, like another we had visited earlier in the day, was rather plain, with the exception of the beautifully-carved wooden statues of just about every saint imaginable. But the main church in Chichi has an added attraction – down the center aisle are square stones with flower petals and other offerings on them. As Armando had explained, in Chichi, Catholicism and ancient Mayan traditions mixed together to form a unique blend of beliefs, and the offerings in the center of the Church were evidence of that.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on August 29, 2009 from Uspantan, Guatemala
from the travel blog: Belize, Guatemala and Honduras (2009)
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Wow ... Just, Wow

Chichicastenango, Guatemala


For the past 30+ years, whenever I've been asked to name the most beautiful place I've seen, I've always answered Kashmir. Well, we have a close contender in Lago Atitlan.

But first, back to Chichi. Unfortunately, Ellery had quite a stomach bug overnight, so we got very little sleep. Fortunately, by morning it had passed, and so we were able to take in the market day we had so looked forward to.

And what a market it was. The town is completely taken over by the stalls, and the streets were so packed it was nearly impossible to get through them at times. What an amazing assortment was spread before us -- from produce to flowers to spices to brightly colored weavings to wooden masks, live chickens and goats, and dead ones as well. And we shopped and shopped and shopped, often from stalls but also from women and children who simply walked the market selling what they had. We bought fabrics and masks and small figurines -- Ellery even found an elephant to add to our collection.

A favorite purchase was a traditional outfit from the area. Which is not to be confused with the traditional dress from Santa Cruz or Sacapulas or Acul. Each town has a distinctive fabric skirt and a distinctive type of blouse, and all were on display on the women selling their harvests and wares.

By noon, we were worn out, and took respite in our beautiful hotel until 2 p.m., when we caught a minibus to Panajachel. Along the way, the clothing changed again -- in Solola, men wore colorful embroidered pants, while in Panajachel the woman wore headresses of dark purple velvet. Like the road into Chichi, this one also wove it's way along and up the mountains, eventually descending into the valley. And I'm not sure I've seen anything so spectacular ... a huge beautiful lake, surrounded by imposing volcanos, their tips barely visible among the clouds.

We opted to stay just a bit out of town, and while I rarely will rave about a hotel, this one is a stunner. Spanish in style, the grounds are botanical gardens, filled with dozens of different kinds of roses, orchids and other flowers, and birds of every kind, some in cages but others simply drawn to area. And each and every room in the hotel has a view of the lake and the volcanos. Really, if there's a paradise, this is it.

After cooling off in the swimming pool, we headed into town for a few hours. Panajachel is like a mini-Kathmandu, a haven for backpackers and what passes for hippies in the 21st century, yet it still feels very much like a small Guatemalan town. After making plans to take a boat around the lake tomorrow, we decided on a vegetarian restaurant with a distinct Woodstock feel, followed up with desert and coffee at a nearby cafe ... a sweet ending to another wonderful day on the road.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on August 30, 2009 from Chichicastenango, Guatemala
from the travel blog: Belize, Guatemala and Honduras (2009)
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Welcome to my travels. On this site you'll find recent trips and some very old trips. You'll note that for some trips I wrote very detailed reports (at least in the beginning), for others, I didn't even take notes of where I was on what dates. Nevertheless, I've done my best to document, to...

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