Since I started my new job March I’ve been camping in Preston Beach and Denmark, Western Australia as well as a weekender back to our old home in Melbourne for a quick visit. I made a promise to get away at least once a month, and so far we have met target 😃 More on that story, later!
“Excuse me, I’ll need to see your onward travel confirmation”. My heart sank a little as the words rolled off the airline check in clerk’s tongue. No boarding pass for me unless I could come up with the goods.
After spending almost a year on the road, and being thoroughly sick of wearing the same clothes day in and day out (planning my laundry trips has become my greatest challenge – tough life for sure!), I thought I’d have a look inside my beloved backpack and see how the contents have evolved along the way.
Arriving in Nicaragua towards the latter end of a fourteen hour bus journey, having made three border crossings in one day, I was understandably weary and ready for a rest! However, that wasn’t to be the case as plans had been made, and I was duly informed that I was to go on the hostel’s infamous Volcano boarding tour the following morning at 8am. Instantaneously glad that I had US currency in my pocket, having not had the chance as yet to withdraw any local money, I stumbled toward the bar and ordered myself a beer.
The following morning my alarm didn’t sound (probably because in my tired haze I had forgotten to set it) and I jolted myself awake just ten minutes before the tour left, quickly throwing some clothes on and trying to make sure I had the required equipment for the day. Everyone piled into the hostel’s troop carrier, and soon the suburban streets of Leon were long behind and we were making our way along dusty tracks, passing horses carting people and farm produce, making our way towards Cerro Negro which is one of the most active cinder cone volcanoes in the world.
The sun was intense and our hike up to the top was not made any easier from carrying our volcano boards, the wind picking them up like sails. Carry them bottom side down, we were instructed as otherwise the glue holding the all important slide panel would become unstuck, and that would mean we would go nowhere fast.
Our guide Oscar inspired us with tales of all the crazies who had gone before us, including the Aussie who invented the sport (who also happens to own the Bigfoot hostel) along with others who had ridden bicycles down the volcanic slope only to have them disintegrate on impact at the bottom and wind up in hospital with every bone in their body broken.
Stopping at the crater rim for obligatory photo poses, the guide stooped down to uncover something with his hands. Pulling up a plastic bag, he them surprised us with baked potatoes which had cleverly been left there the previous day – the volcanic heat had baked them through, and they were tasty (particularly so after missing breakfast in my hurry!)
Pulling on the orange “safety” suit, I sincerely hoped everything was going to work out just fine… I’ll admit the piece of wood I was holding in my hand made me a little nervous. Brakes? “Just use your feet, but don’t dig them in if you are going fast, you’ll break your legs” we were told. Great. Just great. So why am I doing this again? I wondered as I sat down making sure I was centred on the board. I leaned all the way back as I shot off down the slope, careering down whichever way the board felt it wanted to go, faster and faster until I was seriously worried that crashing was going to cause serious injury.
Coming down on to the final stretch, I saw someone in the track below me and sat up to slow down in an attempt avoid crashing, only to find myself out of control and rolling off across the volcanic rock, arms held up over my head to protect my face as I finally came to a stop. Shaking, and in mild pain, I looked myself over for injuries to find that I’d broken a couple of nails, and torn most of the skin off my right forearm. It could be worse, I told myself as I climbed back onto the truck and held a cold Brahva (beer) against my arm to try to stop the stinging. I was told my speed was 89km/h, a mere 2km/h off the all time record for a female – and my first thought was, I could totally have gone faster!
Arriving back at the hostel, the fastest man and women of the day have two “privileges” to attend to. Firstly, publicly shaming the slowest people of the day with a nice ice cold esky bath, and secondly a free entry in the Lava Shot challenge and the chance to earn Bigfoot hostel legend status. Three shot glasses were lined up in front of me, two singles and a double, each containing ghost chilli infused tequila (?). The rules were simple. Fifteen second between each shot, and a thirty second countdown after the last shot. No drinking anything until time is up, no kissing, and no throwing up to win. Completing the challenge, the worst part was actually how quickly one gets messed up by drinking that much so quickly! I definitely earned that “free” shirt.
It took a bumpy, eight hour journey with twelve of us cramped in a small van to reach the peaceful paradise of Lanquin – this was for the most part due to the large number of seriously massive speed bumps and even a four Yamaha-powered car ferry!
Arriving into town we were greeted by the Zephyr lodge 4wd buggy, and as we climbed in eagerly, we saw a group of our backpacker friends cruise by smiling and laughing after completing their full day Semuc Champay tour – making it a priority to book this in straight away!
The lodge itself was more of a hotel than a hostel, perched on a steep hill a short walk outside of town – on first sight we wondered how the buggy would even get up there. The promise of a pool to relax in all day, facilities overlooking the valley, and a stunning view to wake up to each morning. I can get used to this.
Climbing in the back of the buggy for the 10km drive to Semuc Champay, we jostled for our positions and settled in for the next hour’s shake rattle and roll over the steep graded narrow hillside streets, Ben exclaiming and ducking every so often after a low hanging branch came hurtling towards his head. Yes, it took an hour to go ten kilometres!
Each of us was given a candle to light as we entered into the cave system. Safety Sam has clearly not made it to Guatemala yet, with no proper lighting, rickety ladders, and only the guides instruction of where not to step to help us navigate safely. At one point I was asked if I wanted to climb the waterfall, sure did. My candle was extingused and placed into my mouth as I held my weight back on the rope and climbed upwards over the vertical rock.
Reaching the turnaround point, a few of us opted to jump a few metres off the rocks into the darkness of pool below, with only a vague instruction from the guide as to where we needed to jump – great fun! However, my near death experience came when we had to squeeze ourselves between rocks and drop down behind the waterfall on the way back. Full of confidence, I stepped up and positioned myself, and was told to go when ready. Not quite sure what that meant, I didnt realise the water was literally just below my feet and I did an awkward half step down thingy which resulted in me gasping for air with my head stuck in an air pocket behind the waterfall. Luckily, I’m a confident swimmer and didn’t panic!
Exiting the cave, on the way back down to the river to go tubing, we were afforded the opportunity to try the aptly named “car crash” swing and of course so we of us were not smart enough to refuse. Keeping the swing underneath myself, I drew my legs up close and launched towards the river, however as the seat was not so slippery it took a fair amount of force to push myself forwards off the seat when we reached our destination – only to end up crashing face first into the water and regretting the whole incident for days afterwards. Ben, too, had a similar dilemma as did everyone else who was game enough to try it!
Each one of us armed with a tube we headed for the river, followed by some enterprising Guatemalan boys holding small eskies selling beers. Who am I to refuse?
Arriving at the bridge it was time to take the 12m plunge down into the water below. I stepped up the the railing, climbed over one foot then the other, and launched myself off the ledge.
Ben however, liked to stand on the edge and talk about it for ten minutes, by which time I’d made it back up. Bets were made and beers promised if he didn’t jump but still no action. “For Engaaaland!” was the cry but still no action and those beers were looking tasty. Finally he managed to talk himself into it – but only after the rest of us were about to go eat our lunch!
Following a good feed, we began a short but steep hike up to the viewpoint and we were afforded a great view of the rockpools and their turqoise coloured water, which would be our next adventure.
Following a guide through the maze of natural rock slides, we made our way down to the bottom – moving more quickly after we discovered the resident fish woud nibble on your feet if you stood in one place just slightly too long.
Happily heading back to the hostel, the daily Zephyr happy “hour” took its toll, along with the tequila dice game which no sober person would ever bet on as it was heavily favoured towards the house.
While if you stay three nights at Zephyr you get the fourth night for free, we thought the better of it as we knew we would spend the savings and then some over the bar. We booked our shuttle for Antigua for 8am the following day, and after another killer happy hour, we all managed to make it on somehow! (after a little frenzied bag packing and tab clearing going on, what’s a little help amongst friends!)
Ten hours later after our first tour of the infamous Guatemala city traffic, we would arrive in Antigua, a charming old colonial city that would be my home for the next four weeks.