Travel Blog for Fredrik and Gunnhild

Fredrik

Liveaboard (going offline)

Today we will go on a liveabord named Deep Andaman Queen. This boat will take us to  Myanmar water and back to Kho Lak.

Deep Andaman Queen

Our itinerary will be like this:

Day 1:

Arrival at MV Deep Andaman Queen in Tablamu pier. Welcome drink serves – Cabin allocation – Staff introduction – Boat briefing – Welcome Dinner – Leave from Tablamu Pier travel overnight to the fantastic dive sites of Similan.

Day 2:

Enjoy with 2 dives at Koh Bon and Koh Tachai then follow by 2 dives at the Richelieu Rock. After diving will have a night cruise to Ranong for immigration on the next day.

Day 3:

In the morning we will clear border formalities at Ranong-Thailand and Kawthoung in Myanmar before cruising out towards islands of Myanmar. Exploring 3 dives at High Rock, Rocky Island and Shark Cave areas.

Day 4:

4 extremely exciting dives at the Black Rock.

Day 5:

Happy dives at North Twin, Shark Cave and Stewart Island.

Day 6:

Morning dive at North Rock then follow by Fan Forest Pinnacle and 2 more dives at Western Rocky.

Day 7:

Two dives at Western Rocky then returning to Kawthoung for checking out from Myanmar and back in to Thailand.

Day 8:

2 wreck dives at Boonsung and another wreck in front of Khao Lak.

Bangkok

We arrived in Bangkok in the afternoon. The official taxi line was very long, so we went for an unofficial one. The taxi driver did not know where we where going, but luckily Gunnhild had saved the location on Google maps and could guide him. The hotel (Playhaus) was a theatre themed hotel and we got the Aladdin Room with an Arabic theme. In the room we had a bathroom with mostly (but not all) frosted glass. Luckily there were curtains! Other than that it was a great hotel with the best bed we had so far on this trip.

We chose this hotel mainly because it was close to many beer pubs like BREW, HOBS (House of beers) and Mikkeller. We also found a place named CRAFT with 40 craft beers on tap when looking for a tailor. In these pubs, they had a lot of beer that we had tried before, but also a descent amount of beers new to us.

We expected Bangkok to be dirty, noisy and way too warm, but was pleasantly surprised, so instead of going to Kanchanaburi as planned, we booked two extra nights in Bangkok. This way we could see the city and get everything in place before the liveaboard (laundry and some shopping) without stress. We didn’t do a lot of sightseeing while in Bangkok. Because of the river festival it was very crowded near the main sights, and getting around was quite hard. Sky train, metro and speed boats were the best options, but with just a few lines and limited transfer options, this took time as well.

 

We took an one hour boat trip on the Chao Praya river, through the locks and into the canals known as klongs. We could see why Bangkok used to be called “Venice of the east”. The klongs were lined by houses in all sizes and styles from small shacks to grand wooden villas. Locals were running their business here, people were fishing, swimming, doing laundry and selling food and d
rinks to boats passing by. We also passed several temples, shrines, restaurants and schools. It felt like a different city, and was a nice break from the busy streets. Our boat ride ended close to Wat Pho (the temple of the reclining buddha), one of the largest temple complexes in the city. It is famed for its giant reclining Buddha that measures 46 metres long, 15 meters tall and is covered in gold leaf. It was squeezed into a building just large enough to cover it, and was a quite impressive sight.
The rest of the temple was also nice, with lots of buddha statues and some funny looking Chinese statues guarding the gates and buildings. We skipped Temple of Dawn which was being renovated and Grand Palace where the dress code was too strict (we didn’t bring any shoes!). We have seen our share of Asian temples and palaces on previous trips though, so one was more than enough. 

Our last night in Bangkok started at Cloud 47, one of very few casual rooftop bars where flip flops are allowed. We had dinner, a couple of drinks and enjoyed the sunset and the views. The rest of the evening was spent in the bar CRAFT, where Italian brewery L’Olmaia were launching their beers. We had a long talk with the head brewer and his team, got a guided tour in the back of the bar and spent the night talking to the owner and his friends and tasting a lot of good beer.

Koh Lanta

After a quick lunch and a beer, we went to the dive shop we had been emailing with (Hidden Depths) to book diving for the next day and agree on the Nitrox course we had booked. Gary and Jo were very welcoming and flexible, so we were really looking forward to the next few days. We ended up watching the PADI video as soon as we had all the paperwork sorted, and went back to the guesthouse with a lot of theory to read. Both were very hard to get through with jetlag and no sleep on the flight, but we didn’t really have any rush, so we just postponed the exam one day. As part of the training we also went to the filling station, where the German owner explained how they were mixing and filling enriched air, and we analyzed and marked the cylinders we were going to dive with after the exam.

Hidden Depth’s speed boat was currently out of the water for maintenance, but they had agreements with the other diveshops, and we could pretty much pick between all available trips from the island. We loved being diving gypies, moving from boat to boat (always with our own guide from Hidden Depths though). They were all quite similar, and served breakfast, fruit and lunch on the boat. Most of them left from piers just next to ours, which was very convenient, but our favourite boat, Kon-Tiki, was worth the short drive. Awesome service, dark bread and delicious pancakes.

We had 11 dives in 5 days: Koh Haa Lagon, Koh Haa Yai, Bidah Nok, Hin Bidah, Kled Gaew wreck, Bidah Nai, Hin Muang, Hin Daeng, Koh Haa Neung, Hin Yung and Hin Klai. We had great visibility on most dives, 30 degrees water and saw a huge variety of marine life. No manta rays or whale sharks, but the over two meter long leopard shark was pretty cool. We saw several cuttle fish, scorpion fish, turtles and moray eels in all sizes, loads of snappers, trigger fish, trivalies, glass fish, longfin bannerfish, moorish idol, scribbled filefish, andaman sweetlips, yellowback fusiliers, yellow boxfish, spotted boxfish, masked/common porcupinefish, trumpetfish, cornetfish, clownfish, shaded batfish, barracudas and lion fish. Banded sea krate (sea snake), durban dancing shrimp, peacock mantis shrimp, flounder, nudibranchs, stingrays, bigfin reef squid, red tooth triggerfish and a bamboo shark.

The first day we had divemaster Erica all to ourselves. This was the first time we really were able to test our new dive gear, and after some minor adjustments we are both very happy with it! The rest of the week we were diving with instructor Dave as our guide. One day we were joined by freshly certified Sam. She was great though, so that was no problem, even though she told us afterwards that she got a bit stressed when hitting a thermocline with low visibility. After that we were joined by Vivian and Trevor, both instructors on vacation. We stayed together until they were headed back home, had a lot of great dives, many laughs at the boat and also spent several evenings together.

On Koh Haa Yai we dived into some cool, quite large caves with swimtroughs connecting them. In one of them we also saw a huge giant puffer. Koh Haa Neung is famous for a series of vertical swimtroughs and caverns known as ‘The Chimney’. We entered one of the shallow entrances head first, had a short stop in the central chamber at 8-9 meters and exited at around 18 meters. At the end of the dive we took the other way through the chimney and ended up in a cave called the fish bowl. Fun! Another highlight was the trip to Hin Muang (purple rock) and Hin Daeng (red rock), which are bearly breaking the surface 40 nautical miles south of Phi Phi. Beautiful colors, loads of marine life and the reef was in a much better condition than closer to the coast. We also had a nice wreck dive just outside Phi Phi. The 47 meter long vessel was originally the Norwegian Ms Norfest (1948) and commissioned into the Royal Thai Navy in 1956 and renamed. The ship was donated and purposely sunk via controlled explosion to create a new dive site on 19 March 2014. It was impressive how much marine life had “moved in” in such a short time. We also did our first Nitrox (enriched air with 32 % oxygen) here. Didn’t really feel much of a difference, but had more energy in the evening which was nice.
Most of the evenings were spent in Saladan where we lived. All along the water there were restaurants with large terraces over the water, and we also found some nice places in the main street. We even had time for some shopping, a rash guard for Fredrik and new glasses for Gunnhild. The first days it was very quiet, but suddenly on Wednesday a lot of people arrived. It was warm (28-32 degrees Celsius), very humid and mostly sunny. A short rain shower in the evening was just refreshing. The last evening before Vivian and Trevor left, we took a Tuk Tuk to Relax bay, where also Dave joined us for a few beers at the relaxed Fusion bar. We were sitting on pillows around a low table, enjoying the sounds of the ocean and the bonfires on the beach. Some of the local boys showed off their fire spinning skills, and we were talking, laughing and having a wonderful time. So good actually, that by the time we were ready for dinner, all the restaurants were closed. We went back to Fusion and they arranged great local food, and later in the evening a private car to take us home. Great night!

We didn’t use the balcony at our hotel as much as expected. During the day, it was way too warm in the sun, and in the evening we were invaded by a monkey trying to steal our swimwear, drinks and whatever he could find. He also loved licking our windows. Funny guy.

On Saturday it was time to leave Koh Lanta for some days in Bangkok. We picked up our dive gear that had been drying in the dive shop, said goodbye to all the great people we had met, packed our bags and waited for our pickup to the ferry terminal. The speedboat to Phuket was a bit delayed, but with 3×250 HP it only took 1,5 hours, including a short stop at crowded Phi Phi. We spent one night in the old town of Phuket Town, mainly to repack our bags and store our dive gear etc instead of bringing it all to Bangkok. Gunnhild got a haircut while Fredrik was waiting in an expensive wine bar across the street. The evening we spent in Brasserie Phuket, which had a nice beer selection and a great waitress very eager to learn more about beer.

Thailand

About 20 hours after we started we arrived in Koh Lanta, Thailand at 3 pm. The travel was smooth and on time, but there were long lines for the passport control both in Oslo and Bangkok, so we didn’t have much time to spare. We were picked up at the airport by the guesthouse owner, Manus. The drive from the airport was supposed to be a 1 hour drive plus 2 ferries, but it ended up being more than 3 hours all together because we where waiting for more than an hour on the last ferry. Too bad the bridge they are building will not be opened until February. Koh Lanta is a small island south of Krabi, and we are staying in a city named Saladan where most of the dive shops are located. We are staying in a small guesthouse at the end of the road (Lanta MP Place). We have a large room with a big balcony, and great views over the palm trees to the beach. The city is quite small, so everything is within walking distance, and the dive shop (Hidden Depths) is just 2 minutes away.

We have booked the room until Saturday, but we haven’t really decided where to go next. Probably Bangkok and maybe Kanchanaburi. The friday the week after we are boarding a liveaboard cruise from Khao Lak (north of Phuket), and will spend 8 days diving outside Phuket and in Myanmar. Hardly any boats go to the dive sites in Myanmar, so they are quite untouched, and there will probably not be any other boats there at the same time as us.

Since we will do a lot of diving, we will probably not update the blog every day, but try to write a summary when we move to a new location.

Panama City and San Blas/Guna Yala

20150126-1-2Our divemaster drove us to Panama City after our second dive. We were allowed to keep our room until then, so we had time for a quick shower. We checked in to our hotel (Doubletree by Hilton), went out to get cash for our shuttle and sailtrip, and spent the rest of the evening in Istmo brewpub, which was located just a few blocks away. Really nice with some craft beer again! We went home early to repack and try to get a few hours sleep before our pickup at 5.15 am.

We left our suitcases at the hotel, and travelled only with small backpacks. Our shuttle was 45 minutes late, not at all comfortable and with too many people. The last part of the trip to Carti was on crazy steep, winding roads with quite a few potholes. 20150127-1-2And when we finally arrived, we had to wait more than an hour for the lancha (small boat) to take us to Banedup, where our home for the next three days was waiting for us. The lancha had several stops, delivering groceries and dropping off people on different boats. We were welcomed to our boat, Perle (Bavaria 41 ft), by captain Miro (Polish) and the two other passengers, Debora and Stefan (Argentinian). We had a small breakfast and a quick swim before sailing to Green Island. Debora and Stefan are sailing regattas back home, so they did most of the work and we could just sit back and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Small paradise islands everywhere, palm trees, perfect white beaches and crystal clear water.

The San Blas Islands consists of nearly 400 small and large islands (only 40 are inhabited) on Panama’s Caribbean coast. They are home to the indigenous Guna Indians, who since the Tule Revolution in 1925 have controlled the islands and a narrow band of the mainland and have named their territory Guna Yala. No non-Gunas are allowed to live in this area, and they check passports of everyone going in or out. They have their own tribal laws, traditions and culture, and the 55000 Gunas are organized within a strict hierarchy of tribal leaders. Their main income is from coconuts, even though tourism is getting more and more important.

20150127-1-3

We spent more than 24 hours anchored outside Green Island or Kanlildup as it is called in the local language. It is surrounded by reefs and sandbanks, so navigation to the island is a bit difficult, but once you are there the waters are calm and the views amazing. We took the dinghy to shore a few times or just swam from the sail boat. It took around 20 minutes to walk around the entire island, and most of the time we were the only ones there. A few other boats were anchored close by, and some Gunas stopped there during the day to cook some lunch on the beach. We did some snorkeling in the area, but it was very shallow, so it was a bit difficult. We did see lots of small fish though, and even an eagle ray when we found a deeper area. On one side of the island there were hundreds of starfish close to the beach. Local fishermen stopped by the boat several times a day to sell fish, lobsters or fruit, and the first day we ended up buying 5 small lobsters, and had a great evening with wine and good food.

20150128-1Our first night on the boat was very warm, so we started the day with a refreshing swim. Some of us went to the island to try some windsurfing, while others relaxed in the hammock or went snorkeling. We also took the dinghy to an even smaller island (Waisaladup) close by. Paradise! We sailed to Western Holandes Cays, where we anchored outside another island named Waisaladup and the neighbouring Acuakargana. On the way there we saw several of the tiny Guna boats, where one person was holding the sail and the other one was struggling to keep the boat from filling up with water. 20150129-1And when we arrived we were met by a small cruise ship planning to visit the same island as us. Too bad! But while they built a small resort on the beach for a couple of hours, we went snorkeling from the boat, and they soon left so we had the island all to ourselves. The reefs here were much better, with loads of fish, a cool flounder, a barracuda and a trumpet fish. We bought some fish from a local fisherman and had another great dinner on the boat.

20150130-1On our last day we sailed back to Banedup where the lanchas where leaving from. Banedup is a tiny island with a bar, two docks and a few cottages for rent. We said goodbye to the others who were continuing to Portobelo (around 8 hours sailing), and relaxed on the beach with a cold beer while waiting for a lancha. Fredrik made a deal with some locals that not only got us safely back to the mainland, but also had a car waiting for us to take us back to Panama City. And we paid less than half of what we paid when booking through the hotel!

20150130-1-2We arrived at our hotel around 6 pm, and enjoyed the luxury of having internet and a real shower again. We took a taxi (3 dollars) to the old town, and had a light dinner and some craft beer at La Rana Dorada, a brew pub we knew from our trip 2 years ago. We were not really used to staying up late with lots of people everywhere after San Blas, so we went for a walk around the old town before heading back to the hotel. Our flight home was at 6 pm, so we had one last day in Panama City. We walked around in familiar streets, had one last craft beer at La Rana Dorada, did some last minute shopping, stocked up on snacks for the flight and tried to take in that our 2 month adventure was over. After 15 hours travelling, we arrived in cold Norway Sunday afternoon and were picked up by Fredrik’s mother, who not just got us safely home, but had prepared an evening meal for each of us to bring home. So sweet!

Portobelo

20150126-1Getting from Belize to Panama was a lot harder than we expected it to be. We looked into several different options and routes (via Rio Dulce, via Roatan etc), but finally decided on just flying directly and take a few more dives in Panama instead. For some reason the flight tickets we booked online kept being cancelled. On the third try we booked from Belize City instead of San Pedro, and we finally received a confirmation a couple of days later. It was a long day of travelling though. The water taxi actually left on time at 1 pm (rare). We took a taxi to the airport and had 2,5 hours there before our flight. We had another 2,5 hours between flights in San Salvador, and when we finally got out of the airport in Panama City it was passed midnight (1 hour time difference). Our dive instructor from Golden Frog Diving, Rey, was there to pick us up and drive us to our hotel (Coco Plum) in Portobelo. Checked in and ready for bed around 2 am. Long day!

 

We did 4 dives in two days in Portobelo. Golden Frog Diving was located just 30 meters from our room, so it was very convenient. Rey and the other people working there were great, and we were diving in small groups. The first day we visited the two most famous dive sites in the area, El Avion and Drake Island. The first one is a sunken C-45 aircraft, 20150125-1-3a small two-engine military transport plane. Quite cool, but the visibility wasn’t great. We continued over the reef, had some fun swimtroughs and even went into a small cave and out a very narrow opening in the cave ceiling. Drake Island is where divers are still searching for Sir Francis Drake’s coffin which was cast out to sea here. We were more interested in the beautiful coral reefs (very different in both shape and color compared to what we have seen before) and all the colorful fish found there. The second day we had two dives around Salmedina Reef. Our dive master was great at showing us small details and letting us touch what could be touched without harm (like a strange sticky coral). Other highlights was a huge barracuda, and helping to find and capture lion fish which do not belong here (native to the Indo-Pacific) and are now threatening the reef ecosystems. We also had lunch in a beautiful bay with white sand and crystal clear water.

Since we had not arranged our trip from Portobelo to San Blas and back to Panama City, we didn’t have too much time to explore the city. 20150125-1Portobelo is a lazy harbour town and the starting port for many boats going via San Blas to Columbia. It used to be an important trading port for plundered treasures for the Spanish, and several forts were built to keep the pirates away. We walked from our hotel to the city centre and passed the well-preserved Santiago Battery, which still has 14 of the original cannons in place. Other famous buildings are Casa Real de la Aduana (The restored royal customs house, now housing a small museum) and Iglesia de San Felipe (a church housing Panama’s most important religious icon, the Black Christ), but we didn’t go into any of them. We went to Captain Jack’s to see if it was possible to go by boat from Portobelo to San Blas, 20150125-1-2but ended up booking a hotel in Panama City before and after instead. That way we can leave our suitcases there and just bring what we need. With all travel arrangements taken care of we just enjoyed the social part of Captain Jack’s. Had some great curry, a couple of beers and a few drinks and talked to a lot of great people from all over the world.

San Pedro – Ambergris Caye

20150124-1The former fishing village of San Pedro is the biggest city on the islands of Belize, located on the largest caye. The city have a population of more than 9000 and even paved roads and cars. 🙂 The main reason for us to go here was that the dive sites were a lot closer, instead of one hour on a boat it is maximum fifteen minutes. We stayed at Hotel del Rio, a little bit out of the city center, quiet but right on the beach. We had two bedrooms and a big balcony. Luxury! Two days we got up early and went out for two dives with the dive shop Chuck & Robbie’s. 20150122-1Since the dive sites were so close we went back to the shop between the dives for some fruit and snacks. Professional, fun and laid back people! The visibility was great on all dives and we saw several turtles, moray eels, groupers, nurse sharks, eagle rays, stingrays, dolphins, lobsters and lion fish. The reefs were also really nice with narrow channels, canyons and steep walls.

DCIM100GOPROThe third day we went snorkeling in the famous Hol Chan Marine Reserve in the morning. It’s on the southern tip of Ambergris Caye, and means “little channel” in Mayan. The site was nice, but we really regretted that we were snorkeling instead of diving, especially since we were with an unexperienced group and had to wait a lot. We also stopped at Shark-Ray Alley, where they were throwing food in the water to attract nurse sharks and stingrays. Not sure we like that, but have to admit it was interesting to see sharks pile up for food, and actually touching a stingray. 20150123-1-3In the evening we went back to Hol Chan for a night dive, and that was a completely different experience! We were a small group of six people where only one had tried night diving before. And we got kind of a challenge. Not only was it pitch dark, but we also had a very strong current. In the beginning it was quite narrow and everyone were staying close to the instructor, so we crashed into eachother a bit when trying to avoid hitting the reef. We all got a hang of it very quickly though, spread out a bit more and had an amazing dive. 20150123-1-2We saw hundreds of stingrays hiding in the sand, several moray eels (both green and spotted), sharks, eagle rays, large lobsters out walking, large groupers and snappers out hunting, a turtle and so much more. We ended the dive by kneeling at the bottom close to the boat and turn off all flashlights. We waved our hands around to make bioluminescence plankton light up. Really fun!

We walked into the city center a couple of times, but normally ended up in one of the beach bars instead. Too much people, cars and noise around the main square. Our favourite bar was probably Hurricane which was located over the water with great views, 20150131-1had good food, great drinks and often live music. It was the kind of place where they remembered your name and people kept coming back. We also bought fresh breakfast from the local bakery, and food in the evening from the Chinese fast-food place. This we enjoyed on our balcony while looking at the palm trees, the sand and the ocean. Wonderful!

Caye Caulker

20150116-1We had an early flight from Flores to Belize City. The plane had space for 12 passengers, but we were only 9. We took a taxi to the dock, and arrived just a few minutes before the ferry/water taxi was leaving. Another hour and we arrived at Caye Caulker, a beautiful limestone coral island (8 x 1,6 km) surrounded by turquoise water. It has become a popular destination for backpackers, and is a good base for dive trips to the Belize Barrier Reef.

20150116-1-2There’s pretty much just two streets on the island, the one by the beach which is full of restaurants, bars, hotels, dive shops and tour companies, and the one in the middle, which is more residential but with a few restaurants and the local bank and ATM. The main means of transport was golf carts, bicycles or just walking, since nothing was far away anyway. The motto off the island was “Go slow”, and we quickly adjusted to the relaxed pace. People were in general very friendly and often stopped to talk on the street. We did sometimes have a little trouble understanding their charming Carib-English dialect though.

20150117-1We went on two dive trips while we were here. The owner of our hotel (Ocean Pearl Royal) was married to the owner of the closest dive shop (Frenchie’s), and since they also had great reviews we decided to go with them. The most famous dive site in the area is by far The Blue Hole, a perfectly circular limestone sinkhole, dark blue in the middle of all the turquoise. We heard that this dive was a bit overrated, but Frenchie’s offered two other highly rated dive sites on the same trip, so we agreed to go. The boat ride there started at 6 am and took two hours. We were split into groups based on experience, and since we are certified as advanced open water divers we got to be in the group going deep. 20150117-1-2We jumped in close to the reef surrounding the hole and the middle seemed like a huge bottomless pit (it’s 124 meters deep and 300 meters across). The deeper we got the more we could see that this once was air-filled caves, with massive limestone stalactites hanging down from what was once the cave ceiling. It was quite cool to swim under the enormous overhangs and zig-zag between the stalactites, but we could only stay 8 minutes at this depth (40 meters) before working our way up the wall again, and in that part there was not much to see at all. 20150117-1-3Our second dive of the day was at Half Moon Wall, which was worth the 2 hour boat ride alone. The coral reef was amazing with lots and lots of fish, and in the deeper part there were plenty of large reef sharks swimming around. A few of them came really close to check us out. We also came across three dolphins playing around and blowing bubbles on the bottom. Amazing dive site! We stopped for lunch on Half Moon Caye, 20150117-1-4a small island declared a national park. We walked to a watch tower to watch birds, but did not at all expect the view we got. There were birds everywhere, mainly red-footed boobies and frigatebirds. The closest ones were so close that we could touch them. It also seemed to be mating season, since most of the male frigatebirds had inflated their bright red gular pouch. On the walk back we saw a few lizards and hundreds of hermit crabs. Our final dive of the day should have been at a dive site named The Aquarium, but we had some 20150117-1-5snorkelers in the boat and the conditions were too rough. Instead we went to Lion’s Den on the other side of Long Caye. We had another great dive there with eagle rays and turtles as the highlights. On the way back to Caye Caulker the crew served fruit, crackers and as much rum punch as we could drink. We were all pretty happy when we arrived there.

 

Our second dive trip from Caye Caulker was a bit further south at two sites named Spanish bay and Gallows point. We were in a small group, and had two great dives. 20150119-1We touched a sea cucumber, saw several eagle rays, a moray eel, a barracuda, a juvenile spotted drum and a few lion fish. On the way back we stopped at St. George’s Cuay, where a local family were running an aquarium. They had several local spieces that are almost impossible to spot while diving, and they were also rescuing marine animals and releasing them when they were strong enough to survive. And as always plenty of rum punch on the way back.

20150118-1We decided to move to an island a bit closer to the dive sites, so the rest of our time at Caye Caulker we mainly relaxed and checked out the local restaurants and bars. The split is where most people go for a swim, and the local bar (Lazy lizard) is full of people in swimsuits showing off, flirting and hooking up. We had fun watching the madness for a couple of hours, while enjoying some live reggae music. We were hanging out in the back yard with our German neighbours, drinking local rum and planning where to go next. We watched the beautiful sunset from the pier behind our hotel and had cheap drinks during happy hour. 20150119-1-2On our last evening we went to the restaurant next door (Wish Willy) with the Germans, and the owner, Maurice, sat down with us. We soon felt very much at home, went to get our own beers, brought the rest of the rum from our hotel and Maurice was pouring us vodka shots. He took us to a Jamaican nightclub, where we were literally hanging in the bar (wooden swings) and had a great night with the locals.

Flores

20150115-1We arrived in the tiny airport in Flores/Santa Elena at 1830 and took a taxi (3 km) to Isla de Flores, a tiny island in Lago de Petén connected to the shore by a 500 m causeway. We were welcomed by lots of men in women’s clothing, most of them quite drunk and wet after swimming in the lake. We stayed at Hotel Isla de Flores, a very nice hotel in the middle of town. Shortly after we checked in a lot of noise started outside, and the reception called to apologize. It turned out to be The festival of the Black Christ, a celebration of a holy statue in Esquipulas combined with a lot of Mayan traditions. 20150115-1-2This included several parades, marching bands, firecrackers, fireworks, conserts, markets, street food and somehow the men in drag, and a big part of it happened on the central square just a few meters from our hotel. Luckily the double windows were reducing the noise a lot, because they kept going most of the night and started again early in the morning.

20150115-1-5Our main reason for visiting Flores was Tikal, one of the biggest Mayan sites in the world (60 km2). The site is dominated by six giant pyramid-shaped temples up to 64 meters tall. In addition thousands of other structures, many not yet excavated, are found in the jungle of the Parque Nacional Tikal. The oldest buildings are from the 4th century BC and the city kept growing almost until it was abandoned in the 10th century. It wasn’t discovered until the 1940s, and declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979. The Great Plaza lays in the center of the site, surrounded by two of the largest temples, the palace complex Central Acropolis and North Acropolis where the city’s royals were buried. The Plaza of the seven temples has seven almost identical temples on one side, a triple ballcourt and several palaces. We were able to walk into the courtyard of Palacio de las Acanaladuras, 20150115-1-4climb the Talud-Tablero temple, and see the amazing view from the top of Temple IV (new stairs built on the side of the temple). We were also lucky enough to see several spider monkeys, and an entire family of white-nosed coatis crossed the path right in front of us. Howler monkeys could be heard in the distance and birds were constantly flying over our heads.

We had plenty of time to explore the city of Flores, even though we were only staying two nights. The city has only a few blocks in both directions, and walking around the entire island doesn’t take more than 15 minutes. It’s a very charming city with narrow and steep streets, 20150115-1-3well-maintained colonial buildings in nice colors, people swimming in the lake all around and plenty of restaurants and bars. On our last evening, we ended up at a nice roof terrace (Sky bar) with a view towards the main plaza. This was the last day of the festival, and it ended with an amazing firework show lasting for at least 20 minutes. Great way to end our visit here!

Lake Atitlán

20150112-1Again we were a bit late deciding where to go next, so we booked our entire trip to the lake the night before we left. That made it impossible to find space on a shuttle, and we had a fast, comfortable and slightly expensive private car (Carlos from our hotel) taking us here instead. We arrived at the pier in Panajachel, the most developed (and quite touristy) town by the lake at 1230 pm, and instead of waiting for the ferry we took a private boat the short ride to Santa Cruz la Laguna. Most of the village is built on a shelf 100 meters above the water, but our hotel (La Iguana Perdida) is located just by the dock, with beautiful views over the water and the surrounding volcanoes.

20150113-120150113-1-3La Iguana Perdida is a relaxed, social and fun place with beautiful gardens, houses painted in bright colours, great staff, a 3 course family style dinner every night and it also houses the only PADI dive shop on the lake (ATI divers). We did two freshwater altitude dives here, and both were amazing. Earthquakes, tropical storms and landslides has made the lake rise, flooding several hotels, houses and piers, and we were able to dive on a few of them.

20150113-1-420150113-1-5Together with our dive instructor, Oli, we were hanging out on balconies, swimming through windows, under piers and through trees, stopping at a garden fence watching fish swim by and crabs run into hiding, had a break at an underwater bar, washed our hands in a still working tap, and even went in to a small sauna with an air pocket on top and a dripping shower. Very cool! We were fascinated by the green algae forming small towers at the bottom, trying to keep air from escaping. We felt the heat in the sand and from the hot springs in a volcanic rift, and even tried to boil an egg on one of them. Very different and a lot of fun!

20150113-220150113-1-6

We planned to visit a few other villages around the lake, but we met so many wonderful people at the hotel that we never got around to it. With only one full day there and focus on the diving, we didn’t really have the time for it either. If we hadn’t booked a flight, we would definitely have extended our stay.20150112-1-2 The day after our dives we left at 8 am, and travelled by shuttle to Antigua (again we were lucky enough to be the only passengers). We went back to the hotel we had been staying at there, left our bags and had time for lunch and internet (no wi-fi in Santa Cruz) before Carlos drove us to the airport.