Darkness Between The Fireflies

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Next stop: Monteverde. My frustration with the health and safety rules continues. The Monteverde cloud forest itself was in fact so cloudy that we could barely see anything on our three hour hike through the park. The hummingbirds however in the national park’s ‘humming bird garden’ were simply stunning: ranging in many different luxurious colours and sizes.

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We decided to explore the lower forest that night and stumbled across a number of different creatures including agoutis (like a small version of a capybara), racoons, numerous fireflies, white-nosed coati and red-kneed tarantulas. We were also harrased by the tarantula wasp, which apparently gives one of the most painful stings in the world. It kept landing on our clothes – my back for example or our guides neck. Not nice! The forest became unusually quiet for a significant period of time – the reason soon became apparent  We got a very brief glimpse at a mountain lion wandering through an old farm!

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‘Headlight click beetle’. When in the air it shines about twice as brightly as the fireflies. It also has a nifty way of flipping itself over when it’s stuck on it’s back: It tucks it’s legs in and makes a loud ‘click’ noise with it’s wings plopping back over onto it’s front!

ImageI have to admit that I was completely unaware that scorpions reflect UV light! Pretty cool.

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A Spoonful of Sugar?

“Anything is good if it’s made of chocolate.”
 – Jo Brand 

My first impressions of Granada are rather more favourable than of the gritty León: yet another classic colonial town with beautiful churches, cathedrals and general architecture.

Being Easter Sunday, I decided to indulge in a course in local chocolate making! The process was great fun, starting from the dried bean right through to a bar of chocolate!

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Roasting the, previously fermented and dried, Cacao beans – a wok can be used in place of this traditional ‘ceramic pot over an open fire’ method!

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The outer ‘husks’ are then removed (a ‘crushing’ technique before peeling seems to be the most effective method!) to leave Cacao nibs which you then ground with a pestle and mortar into a cocoa mass called chocolate liquor. The natural fat in the bean produces a surprising amount of moisture once ground thoroughly!

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We then used this chocolate liquor to recreate ancient Aztec and Mayan recipes! Cacao has been cultivated for at least three millennia in Central America, with it’s earliest documented use being by the Mayans in 1100BC! Adding boiling water, cinnamon  honey and pepper and then mixing naturally through pouring from one jug into another produces the original Mayan take on Hot Chocolate!

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The Aztec version involves simply adding chilli and cardamom to this concoction creating a bizarrely uplifting drink! It was in fact believed to fight fatigue. I was shocked to find out that there is actually no caffeine in chocolate, as I had previously thought, but the similar, mood enhancing, theobromine possibly explaining why chocolate supposedly makes people ‘happier’! These chocolate drinks were consumed widely in Mayan and Aztec culture, also being used at sacred ceremonies and even as sacrifices for the gods and as currency!

The Europeans were the ones to include the additions of refined sugar and milk, ingredients unknown to the inhabitants of Central America. We also had a crack at making this more modern take on the drink through adding three teaspoons of the Cacao mass to a cup of hot milk then two teaspoons of sugar, resulting in a much more familiar taste! Unlike the Mayans and Aztecs, however, the Europeans never integrated chocolate into their general diet, isolating it instead into the ‘sweats and deserts’ category. Perhaps this idea may itself evolve with the help of some of the more adventurous modern chefs!

Following the class, I headed out to the local Easter service in the country’s most renowned cathedral (Granada Cathedral). Despite the fact that my Spanish has come a long way since Argentina I must admit that I struggled to understand the service but enjoyed the atmosphere, nevertheless! I then found myself stuck in an Easter procession on the way back, with fireworks and a loud brass band accompanying me to the hostel!

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So there’s my Easter experience in Central America! More to follow tomorrow…

True Colours

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Scarlet Macaws are undoubtedly an incredibly beautiful specimen of nature. Their delicate patterns and rich colours seem almost artificial in their extravagance.

The Mayan ruins of Copán, Honduras, where streaked with flashes of vivid reds, blues and yellows as hoards of Macaws flew overhead creating an unforgettable backdrop to yet another fascinating archaeological site.

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Copan ruins are renowned for the abundance of hieroglyphs amongst the ruins, the majority of which are yet to be interpreted. Dates are one of the few sets of hieroglyphs which historians have managed to master. Each date has its own unique properties which are only repeated after the solar system has completed a full cycle every 52 years. My birth date for example, the 2nd of October 1992, has its own properties and characteristics which were thought to be typical of those born on that particular date. My colour is blue, my stones are Amethyst and Lapislasul, my points of energy are the crown of my head and my left big toe (which is rather worse for wear at the moment following the night out in Argentina), My number of good fortune should be 15, I need to remember to ‘put myself first’ and my animals are the rare Blue Eagle and the Deer. These particular characteristic will be common to those born on this exact date 52 years before and after my birthday.

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Above is the head of a dragon Carving. Many of the mayan relics reflect ancient chinese and Japanese culture. Here the dragon’s eyes and mouth have maintained some of their original red colouring. All of the ruins would originally have been brightly coloured in reds yellows and blues. Below is an alternative to the ball game I spoke of in Chichen-Itza, Mexico (Ulumi) Here the teams would aim to hit the ball at one of the stone Macaw heads, using only their torso, elbows and knees to bat the ball around.

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Speaking of deer, bizarrely, having arrived now on Roatan Island off the Caribbean coast of Honduras, I spotted a deer on the beach at night after popping in for a late night swim. It was incredibly surreal, as you could imagine! What’s more, the doe seemed incredibly tame, munching on the shrubs at the edge of the beach a mere few metres away from me and watching attentively.

Roatan is very similar to Caye Caulker in that it is a classic laid-back Caribbean Island. Unfortunately our visit has coincided with a bout of rather bad weather so snorkelling has not been particularly successful. We have however become familiar with the local bars which offer the most fantastic cocktails on the beach! Bliss!

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“I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it.” 

– William Shakespeare, ‘As you like it’

The Beat Of Black Wings

“Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?”

– David Attenborough

Following Flores we travelled down to ‘Lago Izabel’ in the South East of Guatemala. Our base camp was a fantastic hotel on a tiny Island in the ‘Rio Dulce’ called hotel Catamaran. The Island was so small that I decided to swim around it in the evening! We took a trip down the river to Livingston, a town on the miniature Caribbean sea coast of Guatemala.

The number of Cormorants and white herons on the boat trip down the river was outstanding. I have never seen so many Cormorants in my life! One particularly strange phenomenon was the aptly named ‘Bird Island’ where hundreds of the black and white feathered creatures gathered together to nest.

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As we drew closer to the coast the Pelicans began to gradually increase in number until they too become ridiculously abundant!Image

At one point there was a large number of them sitting on a pier facing towards us creating the hilarious appearance of some sort of military assembly. Image

However we only stayed for one night in this peaceful location, moving swiftly onto lively Antigua, the previous capital city. It’s a beautiful old classicaly colonial town filled with local cafés, artisan markets and first class coffee (So I’m told, not being a coffee drinker myself!)

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The city is currently swarming with an influx of tourists, locally from Guatemala and further afield, gathering for the ‘Semana Santa’ celebrations in the build up to Easter. This evening was a (slightly premature perhaps, Good Friday being a week away) procession of the stages of Christ’s crucifixion. The small floats were held by children dressed in their Lent-time purple cloaks.

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Closer To The Sun

Leaving Belize at the crack of dawn, we made our way into Guatamala and headed straight for the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. Yet another fascinating anthropological and historical site. Image

There seems to be no end to the incredible information. Our guide was explaining to us how they can tell the social ranking of a Mayan’s remains through their skeleton: The most obvious sign would be the shape of the skull. Artificial cranial deformation was used frequently. The parents would bind their child’s head between two pieces of wood where it would stay for around six months. The process would usually begin when the infant was around one month old and would result in an elongated skull, not affecting the growth of the brain itself. Similarly, they would hang a bead of wax or gum in-between the child’s eyes in order to generate a permanent ‘cross-eyed’ appearance which was deemed attractive. Noses were also broken to create a more ‘hooked’ shape and teeth were implanted with Jade and other precious stones. Particularly amongst the royals.

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Photo courtesy of good old Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_cranial_deformation

ImageThe site of Tikal constituted a large number of temples and grand structures that would have formed the centre of the city. A random bit of trivia: The area was also apparently used In the filming of ‘Star Wars: Return of the Jedi’! The climb up to the top of one of the tallest temples was, however, by no means an easy feat!! It seemed significantly hotter as if we had reached such height that the sun was closer to us! You can understand why they felt ‘closer to the gods’.ImageImage

The ruins are hidden amidst the dense rainforest, in which Howler and Spider monkeys are screeching as they swing around the tree tops, greatly adding to the atmosphere! We also were not too far behind a local jaguar as we found it’s faeces and an area it had clearly been sleeping in, along with the fresh smell of the beast marking it’s territory! Very exciting but also rather tantalising as we are unlikely to get a glimpse of the great cat itself.

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Here’s a frustratingly unfocused shot of one of the spider monkeys.

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We’re now staying on a little Island on a Lake in the town of Flores. Although we’ve thoroughly enjoyed the refreshing lake and the many opportunities that the piers into the lake present, we don’t have too long to loiter as we’re off again tomorrow to Southern Guatemala and the Rio Dulce!Image

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Caye Caulker

We’ve now settle for a couple of days in a town called San Ignacio near the Guatemalan border in Belize. Following my previous post we crossed the border from Mexico into Belize by speedboat after a very thorough search by the Mexican military and sniffer dogs!!

We then headed out to a little Belizean Island called Caye Caulker which was absolutely gorgeous. I think Belize is a little hidden jewel of a holiday destination, entirely under-rated. As an ex-British colony English is the first language which makes life easier. The Islands dotted about the coastline are all essentially little Caribbean islands. Incredibly beautiful, incredibly laid-back and with fantastic marine life!

Caye Caulker is incredibly small – you can stroll the length of the island, along the sand roads, in around 20 minutes with reggae music filling the air from the local shops and cafes. I particularly enjoyed somebody calling out to me as I rushed to get my camera from the hotel before leaving on the sailing boat “Where you goin’ in such a hurry girl?” In a heavy Jamaican accent. They’ve probably never seen somebody running in their life! They’re certainly unaccustomed to even the slightest stress!

Unfortunately we were only staying in this little paradise for two nights so we booked a days snorkelling excursion for our one whole day. It was certainly worth it. In one of our stop-offs the local nurse sharks had become accustomed to being fed by the sailing boats full of snorkelers so they surrounded our boat. In my excitement I jumped straight into the water in my snorkelling gear and startled the others by screaming loudly in my surprise at being surrounded by numerous large sting rays! The nurse sharks themselves are toothless so I was able to get incredibly close to them, even stroking their bodies and feeding them by hand! At one point around 12 of them were gathered in a feeding frenzy supplied by our captain throwing sardines into the sea. The current in the water pulled me right into the frenzy itself so I had the metre and a half long sharks thrashing all around me! It was an incredibly experience.

The captain, who is also the equivalent of a ‘park warden’ for the marine conservation area which we visited, was catching the sharks and the rays for us to ‘pet’! Seeing how docile the creatures were I then dived down in front of one of the rays so that it slid up and over my body!

At our next stop we also became acquainted with three of the local green turtles, again ridiculously accustomed to humans to the point where I could dive down and stroke their smooth shells!

For any enthusiastic snorkellers or divers out there I would definitely recommend Belize as an interesting marine destination!

Caye Caulker Green Sea Turtle

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An inquisitive Green Moray Eel!

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A beautiful spotted Eagle Ray

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