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Panama City and Portobelo


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Not a long post there, as Panama city was for me more a springboard to reach Colombia. Indeed even though you cannot cross the border between Colombia and Panama by land (because of the Darien Gap), there are other options available. One is to fly over to Bogotá or Cartagena but this is a bit expensive, or the other option is to take a boat from the Caribbean coast of Panama and sail directly to Cartagena (or just to the Colombian border).

So while waiting to find a boat which would take me to Colombia (I have decided to avoid flying when I can), I took the opportunity to visit a bit Panama City and its famous canal:

The finance area of Panama City

The finance area of Panama City


Little streets in the old Panama

Little streets in the old Panama


Ships waiting to cross the canal

Ships waiting to cross the canal


The new Panama City by night

The new Panama City by night


The old Panama City by night

The old Panama City by night


A huge cruise ship crossing the canal

A huge cruise ship crossing the canal


Miraflores lock

Miraflores lock


The gates in action

The gates in action


A Chinese cargo ship entering the canal

A Chinese cargo ship entering the canal

I would spend 3 days in total in this city, which was plenty enough for me as I quickly got fed up with the taxis trying to rip you off of every dollars they could. I mean it's a common scenario in all countries, especially in Latin America, but the way it is done in Panama is more irritating, especially when you know how much you should be paying and they still insist that you need to pay twice more, just because you are a tourist. Besides that, the town itself (food and accommodation) is not cheap so I didn't have any regrets in leaving early.

After Panama City then, me and my Irish buddy Aidan who I met on the way to Panama decided to head off to Portobelo, a little village on the Caribbean coast, where we had found a boat which was leaving for Colombia a few days later (see next post). Not much to do there except exploring the bay in kayak and taking pictures of the different forts which were protecting the town from the pirates, hundred years ago, with or without success.

As a bit of history, the privateer William Parker attacked and captured the city in 1601 and Captain Henry Morgan repeated the feat in 1668. He led a fleet of privateers and 450 men against Portobelo, which, in spite of its good fortifications, he captured. His forces plundered it for 14 days, stripping nearly all its wealth while raping, torturing and killing the inhabitants.

Besides this, it is even said that since 1956, the coffin of Francis Drake, a pirate famous for raiding all the towns in that area of the Caribbean sea, lies down somewhere in the sea, not far from the coast, but so far hasn't been discovered.

The cannons protecting Portobelo

The cannons protecting Portobelo


The first fort overlooking the bay

The first fort overlooking the bay


Somehow we really wanted to fire that cannon! <img class='img' src='https://tp.daa.ms/img/emoticons/icon_smile.gif' width='15' height='15' alt=':)' title='' />

Somehow we really wanted to fire that cannon! :)


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Kayak session in the bay

Kayak session in the bay


Sailing ships anchored in the bay

Sailing ships anchored in the bay


Portobelo

Portobelo

Posted by manolo84 11:00 Archived in Panama Tagged boats canals cities kayaking english Comments (0)

Antigua


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Après avoir passé donc 2 jours in Semuc Champey, ce qui était suffisant je pense, je décidai de continuer ma route vers le sud en direction d'Antigua, l'ancienne capitale historique du Guatemala, avant que de nombreux tremblements de terre ne décident les autorités à changer la capitale pour ce qui est maintenant Guatemala City (que je ne fis que traverser).

Antigua est apparemment très prisée des touristes, pour son architecture coloniale de style baroque et de Renaissance espagnole ainsi que pour ses ruines causées donc par les deux tremblements de terre de 1773. Pour se repérer dans la ville, c'est simple, les rues sont à angles droits et à chaque fois que vous demandez la direction pour telle ou telle endroit, les habitants se réfèrent au blocs de rues plutôt qu'à leur nom: "là vous continuez pendant deux blocs tout droit puis un bloc à gauche et vous y êtes"... Ce qui est aussi vrai pour la plupart des villes coloniales espagnoles (au Mexique aussi) construites après donc les années 1500.

Beaucoup de touristes viennent aussi à Antigua pour son atmosphère très "relax", ses nombreuses auberges de jeunesse, sa vie nocturne avec bars et clubs, ainsi que les nombreuses écoles qui proposent des cours d'espagnol à un bon prix. La ville a conservé aussi son influence Maya et on peut y trouver des magasins d'arts Maya à tous les coins de rue ou presque.

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Personnellement, j'ai bien aimé la ville mais la présence de nombreux "gringos" (comprendre: anglophones ne parlant pas un mot d'espagnol et ne désirant pas faire d'efforts) fait perdre un peu de charme à la ville je trouve (encore plus que San Cristobal au Mexique) donc je n'ai pas souhaité trop m'y attarder, mais juste le temps de flâner un peu dans les rues et les marchés, prendre quelques photos, boire quelques coups avec des amis rencontrés en auberge de jeunesse et aussi en profiter pour grimper un des volcans qui entoure la ville.

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Les Gens d'R à Antigua... :)

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Dégustation de café Guatémaltèque

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Une machine à café authentique

En effet, la ville est entourée de 3 grands volcans (ce qui rend les tremblements de terres logiques car c'est une zone sismique assez active). Le plus imposant, au sud de la ville, est le Volcán de Agua (Volcan d'Eau), dont le sommet est à 3766 mètres de haut. Quand les espagnols arrivèrent pour la première fois, les habitants de l'endroit (les Mayas Kakchikel), l'appelaient Hunapú (et certains l'appellent encore ainsi). Cependant, il devint connu comme Volcán de Agua après que de la lave provenant de du volcan enterra le deuxième site de la capitale, ce qui décida les autorités espagnoles de déplacer la capitale là où se trouve maintenant Antigua. Le site original fait maintenant place à un petit village appelé San Migual Escobar.

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A l'ouest de la ville se trouve une autre paire de volcans, l'Acatenango, qui entra en éruption pour la dernière fois en 1972 (3976 mètres) et le Volcán de Fuego (à 3763 mètres de haut). "Fuego" est connu pour être quasi-constamment actif à un bas niveau. Des jets de vapeur et des gaz sont rejetés chaque jour, et la dernière grande éruption date de Septembre 2012.

Mais le volcan que je décidais de grimper (via un tour organisé) est le volcan Pacaya, volcan aussi toujours actif. Il entra en éruption il y a approximativement 23 000 années et entra en éruption au moins 23 fois depuis l'invasion espagnole au Guatemala. Le sommet se trouve à 2552 mètres et après s'être "endormi" pendant plus d'un siècle, il décida de se réveiller brutalement en 1965 et de fréquentes éruptions se produisent constamment depuis. La dernière grande éruption se produisit en Mai 2010, causant des pluies de cendres sur Guatemala City, Antigua et Escuintla. Personnellement je pensais que nous pourrions voir de la lave active mais cela en fait dépend vraiment des jours et le jour où nous y sommes allés, nous pouvions voir de la fumée s’échapper du volcan mais malheureusement point de lave...

Cependant notre guide avait apporté des marshmallows et nous avons pu les "rôtir" au sommet, car des poches d'air brulant s’échappent du volcan constamment. Bon, les marshmallows rôtis par un volcan, c'est pas très bon, mais c'est quand même assez cool... ;)
D'ailleurs j'avais profité de la randonnée pour prendre une petite vidéo et vous montrer en direct la vue à laquelle j'ai pu assister:

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Notre petit groupe de randonnée

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Vue panoramique des autres volcans, depuis le Pacaya

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Erik, Lieke et moi-même, mes companions Antiguans

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Un des trous sur le volcan desquels sorte constamment de la fumée

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Un paysage lunaire....

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Nos marshmallows rôtis!

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Un chien, en haut d'un volcan... rien de plus normal...

Posted by manolo84 21:43 Archived in Guatemala Tagged cities volcanoes french Comments (2)

San Cristobal de Las Casas

or the hippie feeling...


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After another long journey by bus overnight (around 10 hours), I arrived in San Cristobal de Las Casas, described by some people as the most european of the mexican towns, where a friendly "hippie" feeling can be felt. For me San Cristobal is somehow similar to Oaxaca, although it is located in a different state, the Chiapas, land of numerous indigenous maya villages. Following a recommendation from an Irish guy met before, I booked into a hostel called Rossco which was offering cheap deals and good accomodations (about 65 pesos a night = 4 euros). I originally planned to stay only a few days but found myself extending my stay as the city really invites you to do so. So I stayed a week there, some days spent doing absolutely nothing apart from chilling out at a nice cafe, checking internet or reading books to improve my spanish.

Here are a few pictures taken that week:

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The Amber stones are popular in Chiapas as it is one of the only places where they can be found in the world. Here is a stone with a fossilised insect in it, more expensive than the "pure" ones as this is more rare...
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There are also a couple of other interesting things to do or to see around San Cristobal though.

Cañon del Sumidero

With a tour booked from the city, I headed to a famous cañon near San Cristobal where some majestic views can be found, along with a few crocodiles and monkeys (unfortunately I did not see any monkeys that time...). I would have liked to show you some videos but unfortunately my camera and computer got stolen recently, with all my videos so I only have a few pictures to offer. I will talk about this incident later in a different post (with hopefully a happy ending thanks to my insurance) as this only happened today and I am still quite angry about it.
Anyway to come back to the cañon, once thing which quite frankly shocked me is the pollution in the river. Plastic bottles and other things were flotting and could be seen all along the trip, sometimes even forming a floating "island". I am pretty sure that the tourists are not involved in this situation but rather the locals who do not see the damage they are causing by throwing their shit everywhere without any consideration for the environment. Hopefully this will change in the years to come and they will realise that the only thing they achieve is destroying the land they are living in and from.

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A crocodile getting a bit of tan...
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Waterfalls of El Chiflón

Another impressive site, formed a main waterfall and a succession of several smaller ones. It took us a while to get there as we didn't want to book another expensive tour, so ended up switching between local buses ("colectivos"), facing a strike, walking a while under the heat, but at the end we made it and it was quite rewarding. You could even go down near the main waterfall and experience the "rain" as the water splashes around. I think the main waterfall was about 56 meters if my memory serves me right.

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Enjoying the "rain" coming from the waterfall...
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Posted by manolo84 21:13 Archived in Mexico Tagged waterfalls cities nature Comments (5)

Oaxaca and Hostal Casa Angel

What a week!


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Next stage in the trip was Oaxaca de Juarez, a nice city located in the south of mexico, in the state of Oaxaca. Once again, this was a 4.5 hours trip journey by bus from Puebla. Arriving in the hostel Casa Angel, I could already seen some familiar faces seen previously in Puebla. I think pretty much all backpackers follow a "recommended" route and by booking hostels via the famous websites such as www.hostelworld.com, people end up in the same ones most of the time.

So far Casa Angel is the nicest hostel I have stayed in, not only because of the hostel itself which is great, but also for the atmosphere. Everyone spends time in the common area and it's not rare to share dinners all together, which is quite nice.

One could easily stay a few weeks in Oaxaca without being bored as there are so many things to see and explore. Besides for those who like the Mexican food, Oaxaca is a little paradise with all the different markets and restaurants, offering traditional dishes.

Here are a few things that I have experienced:

Hierve el Agua

Don't pay attention to my face, I had the sun right in front of me so it looks like I just woke up... :)

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Mezcal

The Mezcal is one of the most famous and most appreciated alcohol in Mexico. You actually drink it a bit like we would drink Tequila in France, in shots with a bit of salt and lime. With a few people we wanted to know more and went to see how Mexican used to make Mezcal, in a traditional Mezcaleria. With the heat and the different bottles we tried, I think pretty much everyone ended up quite drunk that afternoon!

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The little grasshopers you are supposed to eat after a shot of Mezcal... Hum, you'd be better to close your eyes and not to look too close...
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Another one? Of course!

The Tule tree

Supposedly the largest tree in Latin America, quite impressive. That tree is in the village of Tule, about 10 minutes drive from Oaxaca.

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Monte Albán

This was one of the best site I have visited so far. Monte Alban was a city built by the Zapotecs a few thousands of years ago. Work is still in progress to excavate and restore some of the monuments but you can almost go everywhere on this site. The pyramids are not as impressive as the ones of Teotihuacan (see previous post) because they are not tall but the overall feeling is more majestic if I can say. All the different temples are closer from each other and the whole site is covered with grass, surrounded by trees and on the top of a small mountain. It is actually easy to take a moment and try to imagine the city like it was two thousands of years ago, with all the activity and its 26000 inhabitants. As usual, pictures talk more than words so here are a few pictures I have taken that day, and more are in the gallery section.

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Ixtlán

Here we are, my first hike of this round the world trip! Well we actually spent more time in the transports than hiking but it was quite nice nevertheless, to spend about 2 hours climbing up and down the mountain overlooking the village of Ixtlán in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca.
There were a couple of 2-3 days hikes available in the area as well but all were requiring a local guide and were a bit pricey. Besides I think there will be more opportunities to hike as I am going down to the Chiapas (southern state of Mexico) or in Guatemala later on.

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Finally, I would like to do a big hug to all the Casa Angel team: Clinton, Paula, Kenneth, Marc, Hini, Ellen, Elo, Ray, Zach with whom we have shared some very nice moments during these 5-6 days. Take care guys and maybe see you soon!

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Posted by manolo84 12:50 Archived in Mexico Tagged trees cities ruins hostels alcohol Comments (3)

Mexico City

sunny 30 °C
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After a bit more than a week, time has now arrived to start my journey through Central America, therefore heading to the south of the country.
What will I remember from Mexico City in a few words? Huge city, hot and sunny weather (with the sunburns that go with...), friendly people, noise, pollution, history and archaeology...

Depending of what you are interested in, I think a week is largely enough to visit the most important museums, explore the Chapultepec park, Zona Rosa, the Zocalo square with its main cathedral and make a trip to the pyramids of Teotihuacan.

As I said the city is huge and its reputation for being noisy and polluted is not a myth either. Pollution will not be noticed constantly but sometimes I have found myself walking down the streets with my nose suddenly running and my eyes crying, which apparently are typical signs of a highly polluted city. I think the government has been trying to tackle the problem for years but unfortunately this is still not enough.
Also after having living in a city like London, I was expecting not to have any problems with the number of people in the streets of Mexico City but actually I still got a little bit overwhelmed. Especially at the weekends, there are literally thousands and thousands of people in the streets near the center and after a few hours, your only wish is to get back to your quiet hotel or find a nice spot in the shade of one of the parks. But although there are a lot of people, I have to say that all the local people I have talked to have been really friendly and helpful, even with my every poor spanish skills. Finally, in term of safety, well I think the reputation of Mexico City is maybe a bit exaggerated. Of course bad things can happen, like any big city and of course there are more police cars and men than I have ever seen anywhere else but I have never feared for my life. You just have to be sensible, stay in the center or the touristy areas and avoid doing stupid things I guess. I had also heard bad things about the Metro but once again, no problem there, even when arriving at 10pm from the airport with my big backpack and trying to find my way to the hostel.

Apart from that, the city is really filled with history and here are a few things that any new comers to the city will need to visit:

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  • Museo Nacional de Antropología

That one is really huge and you could spend easily a few days going through all the galleries, looking at the different civilizations that existed in Mexico, prior the arrival of the spaniards. Mayas, Aztecs, all the pre-columbian populations are all described in details and the collection of antiques and ruins from these periods is really impressive. I have personnaly spent something like 5 hours in it and for those who know me well, that's definitely a record worth an entry in the guinness book! :)
Check out the photos in the gallery to get a better idea.

  • Templo Mayor

This temple has actually only been recently excavated (35 years ago I think) and it was one of the main temples of the Aztecs in their capital city of Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City. The temple is located right in the center of the city and that's only when doing some engineering work near it that some engineers started to uncover a massive monolith, just two meters from the surface. I'm not going to replace Wikipedia here but finding something this big and that old right in the center of the city is really impressive. Once again, check out the photos.

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  • Chapultepec park

The biggest park in Mexico city, which has in its center a little hill where you can find the Castillo de Chapultepec. The site of the hill was a sacred place for Aztecs, and the buildings atop it have served several purposes during its history, including that of Military Academy, Imperial residence, Presidential home, observatory, and presently, the Museo Nacional de Historia. The Museo Nacional de Antropología which I have mentioned above is also in that park, with a few lakes as well.

I could obviously go on and on for a while but my overall impression of Mexico city is a good one, although I am really keen now to get to see a bit of nature. I also took the opportunity during this week and a half to take some time to sit down and improve my spanish, see things at a slow pace in order to not rush and try to see as much as I could and as quickly as possible, which would have been a bad idea in my opinion, especially under this heat. Besides that allowed me to meet nice people and have a first grasp of the "backpacker community".

The next stage of my journey will be Puebla and Cholula, about 2 hours drive south of Mexico city.

Posted by manolo84 23:52 Archived in Mexico Tagged museums parks cities trip Comments (5)

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