Back at the start of the year, Chris was working away in Los Angeles and I decided to fly out and join him for a mini winter road trip. Luckily I managed to snag a bargain flight price on Air New Zealand (seriously – I haven’t seen a better rate for a West Coast flight since 2008!) so one bleak late January morning I set off on my adventure. Many hours later Chris met me at the hotel in Anaheim with a vegan pizza (from Vegan Pizza – get the Hawaiian – yum!) and a cup of tea. Perfect! I was up at silly o’clock the following day and as Chris still had a few more hours of work to do I made my way to DISNEYLAND (of course!) for eleven fantastic hours… I am very committed to the magic!
As it’s been a while I’m going to try not to ramble on too much and simply share a few of our highlights and hiccups. Admittedly it wasn’t our most successful trip – it rained so much! But we definitely made the most of things and discovered a few gems along the way.
I must confess that although I was in Disneyland for three days, I didn’t actually take a camera until the third day… oops! The first day I was the only person in the park for so long that while wandering around a deserted New Orleans Square I started to panic I wasn’t supposed to be there. I spent most of that first day blitzing the rides on my own (before meeting Chris on Main Street ❤) and eating a giant pickle in the sunshine! By day two Chris had finished working so we were able to go to Disney’s California Adventure park together and spent hours in Radiator Springs, eating Ghiradelli ice-creams and people-watching, listening to all the ’50s Americana music. I finally got up the nerve to ride California Screamin’, which was incredible, and I even got to ride in the front row! Just after lunch a storm rolled in out of nowhere and it chucked it down for the rest of the day. When we were too soggy to go on it was quite late anyway, so we went for dinner at The Cheesecake Factory where everything is deep fried & dirty (have the avocado egg rolls!). Day three was sunny again so we did a bit of park hopping and later grabbed a takeaway from P.F. Chang’s which is my new favourite. There was a firefighter convention on in our hotel and there were firemen everywhere!
We picked up our car, a slightly grubby Chevrolet, from the Alamo on Katella (get your car from the airport wherever possible, if you want choice!) and drove to the outlet malls so Chris could stock up on jeans. We picked up camping supplies in Walmart and Wholefoods before stopping at my favourite restaurant in the whole world for lunch – Veggie Grill. Every single thing on the menu is vegan and delicious. The drive out to Joshua Tree National Park was a little grey and we arrived at Jumbo Rocks campground in the dark but luckily we’d been here before so knew where to go. This is one of the best campgrounds I’ve stayed at in America – it’s very basic with no flush bathrooms or showers, but the scenery is unbelievable. A few years ago we stayed here in super high winds but this time the night was calm and hardly anyone was around so we made a massive fire, stoked up the camp stove for some Idahoan Potatoes & Amy’s chilli and got down to camping!
After an early morning hike around the rocks (where we met a film star timber wolf!) we packed up camp for a long drive to Arizona, destination: Tombstone! It was a heck of a long way to travel but we knew it was a stop we’d never fit it into another itinerary as it’s so remote. So this was the perfect opportunity to go, via Tuscon to visit the Pima Air & Space Museum. However, despite my usually expert navigation skills, I spent an hour directing us the wrong way out of Joshua Tree! We were so surprised when we popped out of the north entrance – but at least the drive was scenic! The weather was appalling. I really wanted Chris to see Arizona the way I remembered it – blue skies and orange desert. But it was thunderously grey and there was so much rain at times we couldn’t really see anything at all. Except an adult shop with a glowing neon sign, alone at the bottom of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. That was odd.
I bet Saguaro National Park looks amazing when it isn’t dreary and drizzling with rain. I’m so sad for all the giant cactus photos I couldn’t take. We arrived in the rain, set up camp in the rain and then just as our little camp stove dinner was almost ready I knocked it all over the floor. Ciders & bed! The next day, after two nights camping without full facilities, we headed to a local YMCA for showers. Before we left the UK I had negotiated, via email, with a man who I swear was called Humphrey, to let us use the showers for a discount rate as we obviously didn’t want to pay $20 for a full day’s club access. We arrived looking extremely scruffy (& sort of homeless) after two nights in the car, laden with carrier bags full of our belongings. I explained my deal with Humphrey and was met with blank stares. No-one had a clue what I was talking about. There was no Humphrey. They were confused. I was confused. Who is Humphrey?! We must have looked completely mental and the bemused staff made us pay full price… $20 for two lukewarm showers! And when we eventually got in the locker rooms, everyone was naked and drying themselves off with great enthusiasm.
Cleaner and none the wiser about Humphrey, we made our way to Pima. Look at that t-shirt! Why oh why didn’t I buy it? At the time I didn’t think I needed it but I’ve clearly never needed a t-shirt more in my life! A nice man in the car park with a spare veteran’s pass gave us a free ticket, so that was sweet. We took a tour of the Boneyard – a huge outdoor aircraft storage facility with thousands of planes, bits of planes, planes missing bits and a haphazard pile of some things which looked suspiciously like nuclear warheads. Military planes take off constantly from the air force base opposite, which was exciting. Back inside one of the hangars I had to wait ages for a nanna to get out of the way of a bomb so I could take a photo of it… doesn’t happen every day! Oh my gosh, if the rain was bad enough when we arrived, it was biblical when we left!
Rain, rain and more rain wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I pictured us in Tombstone. We arrived after dark again to a slightly odd campsite and decided to head into town. We pulled up at the bottom of the historic Western street to the atmospheric sounds of loud hip-hop blaring from a bar! Wandering down the covered wooden walkways, avoiding the giant sloshy puddles, everywhere seemed closed and forlorn. We peered through the windows of a couple of bars and the only people sat there were sad men on their lonesome. As we turned back around wondering what to do, we saw a man in a cowboy hat and jeans carrying a guitar into a bar further down the road. Follow that man! We ended up in Big Nose Kate’s Saloon which was awesome, if a little hokey! It was warm & cosy, they were showing the film Tombstone on repeat and we had such a great night watching the band, drinking sweet tea cocktails and eating calzone! The following day we wandered around the town, visited Boot Hill cemetery, The Bird Cage Theatre, the Court House and stopped for coffee & pie at a little diner. It was fun to see and I’m glad we went but I think I preferred the mystery of the Wild West in the ghost towns we’ve visited on previous trips. Another storm was due to roll in so we checked out the weather app on my phone in the hunt for somewhere sunny and drove for seven hours straight to Palm Springs!
Sunshine! We arrived after dark (again!) and checked into a really snooty hotel I’d found a good last minute deal on at Hotels.com. The following day we woke to the loveliest views – lemon & orange groves all around, bright blue skies, palm-lined streets, everything perfectly manicured. We drove to a cafe called Palm Greens Cafe for breakfast and oh my goodness, it was lush! When I’m old and retired I’m going to learn to play golf, move to Palm Springs and eat here every day! Delicious vegan & non-vegan organic foods – Tofu scramble, tempeh bacon, blueberry pancakes, oatmeal with coconut sugar, fresh ginger apple juice… mmm! Everyone was super friendly too. So, we’re in Palm Springs, we don’t golf and we’re not over 60… what do we do?! The internet said the number one activity is to go up the Aerial Tramway. So like a pair of dum-dums we spent our day in the sunshine on top of a mountain in the snow at Mount San Jacinto State Park! It was amazing though. The tram car spins around 360 degrees as you go up the cables and every time it passes over one of the supports it swings with a jolt. Loved it! We spent a couple of hours stomping around the trails in the snow looking at the incredible views out over the desert towards the Salton Sea. Back on the desert floor we went for dinner at Native Foods – another yummy vegan place with lots of healthy “junk” foods. Highly recommended!
We were loving Palm Springs so much that instead of heading back to the madness of Los Angeles we decided to stay on an extra night. We found an amazing deal on a great little hotel on the other side of the city so after a bit of shopping and chilling out we made our way over. Somehow we ended up on a narrow side street around the corner from the hotel. In the distance some menacing, shadowy figures came towards us, one on a bike and two on foot. They seemed to be wearing hoodies and were swaggering down the middle of the road. Uh oh we thought… they looked like trouble. That is, until we got up close and realised they were elderly men, at least in their seventies! Oh Palm Springs! When we got to the hotel we turned on the television and I was on the telly! One of the channels was showing a Joe Bonamassa concert and there I was down the front of the stage, snapping away for Guitarist magazine. Next morning we were back at Palm Greens cafe, bright & early for breakfast. We hiked for a while at the beautiful Palm Canyon trail at Indian Canyons – I would love to do the full hike one day given enough time. There were some massive lizards and the palms were truly giant.
Back to LA. On the way we stopped at Veggie Grill for snacks then up to the carousel at Griffith Park. It was Walt Disney’s inspiration for Disneyland and I’ve always wanted to see it but when we arrived it wasn’t only closed, but all the shutters were pulled down so we couldn’t even take a peek! Instead we headed up to the Griffith Observatory to watch the sun set over the city. From up high, Los Angeles looks twinkly and peaceful; it’s like looking down on another world. That night we walked from our hotel through the sleazy streets of Hollywood and Santa Monica Boulevard, down to another Veggie Grill. Baja ‘fish’ tacos… yum!
We spent our last morning shopping for treats & gifts (Molly McButter’s Butter Flavour Sprinkles anyone?!). Chris made a quick stop at Amoeba Music, we ate a final Veggie Grill and then it was back to LAX (passing an oil field in the middle of the city that I never knew existed!). It’s always sad to travel home but we left earlier in the day than usual so the views from the plane were amazing – Malibu, Hollywood, Downtown and all the way out across the mountains to Death Valley before the skies got dark. Goodbye America, back soon!
Check out Part One for the start of our adventure exploring ancient Mayan cities, swimming (ish!) in the cenotes and encountering crocodiles and various other beasties in the jungle ruins along the Usumacinta river.
Day Eight: Tikal & Flores
And I thought Chichen Itza was big! Tikal is a vast national park with an awesome main plaza (the main reason I was on the trip) but otherwise it is almost entirely swallowed up by the jungle and its wild inhabitants. Before we’d event reached the temples we spotted a woodpecker, wild turkeys, a tiny frog the size of a penny and some spider monkeys trying to corral their mischievous baby. We only truly got a sense of scale when we climbed through the hot thick air to the top of Temple VI for a view right across the rainforest. Just outside of the park I took a canopy tour and zipline through the jungle. This is definitely the most terrifying zip line experience I’ve ever had as it seemed to be missing a safety line and there was no real breaking system other than a ratty old glove. But once you’re up, you’re up, so you may as well go with it!
Later that day we drove to the island of Flores which had recently flooded and some confused frogs had spawned all over the waterlogged roads. Chris & I were sat on a wall watching the sun set when he said, “Isn’t that your friend Bee over there?” It was! Bee & Nick of Twenty Something Burnouts had been making their way up from South America for months and we had planned on meeting if our stars crossed, but we certainly didn’t expect to bump into each other in the street, on a tiny island on Lake Petén Itzá in Guatemala! We arranged to meet properly in the Caribbean a few days later and joined the others for dinner followed by a half hour boat journey back across the lake to our hotel in complete darkness, captained by a teenager on a mobile phone. The lake is so large it has its own tidal range and we were rolling over the waves with such huge bumps so much we started taking on water at one end of the boat! When we got to the other side, the flooding meant that the dock was no longer there so we had to wade back to shore in the dark where a tarantula was waiting for us!
Days Nine & Ten: San Ignacio
Onwards into Belize where we walked across the border and were picked up in an old yellow school bus. Our accommodation for the next two nights came complete with cold running water, a dirty bathmat and a cockroach… good grief, bring on the rum! Rum here was about £1 a litre and everyone took full advantage. Later that evening we all piled on board the rickety old school bus and a crazy person drove us into town for actual real food!
The major highlight of the trip came the following morning with our excursion to the Actun Tunichil Muknal (the Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre) – a sacred Mayan cave filled with archeological treasures, elongated skulls of sacrificial victims and the full skeleton of a young woman. A few years back a tourist dropped a camera and smashed a 1,000 year old skull so unfortunately no cameras are allowed (although Discover have some good pictures & there is an awesome video here which first made me want to to the trek). But I kind of enjoyed the lack of pressure to document every last detail. The experience was so immersive I don’t know how you would even have time to think to take pictures, or even get a camera through the chest high waters without drowning it. We were picked up from the lodge by our guide – a huge man called Patrick who wore no shoes and carried a machete! We drove through the jungle, left all but a few supplies in the van, we hiked for 45 minutes or so through the jungle crossing three fast flowing rivers. Of course, if anyone was going to fall on their bottom it was going to be me! Thankfully the lovely Kevin hoisted me back out again. At the entrance to the cave we dropped off the supplies, were fitted with head torches (plus those of us slightly more hopeless in the water got some stinky lifejackets) and in we went. Straight into the water for a two mile swim underground, fully clothed, shoes & all. No time to be scared of fish! This trip was absolutely amazing. We swam, waded, clambered over boulders and squeezed our way between rocky obstacles neck first, hoping our feet would join us on the other side! After a while we came to a huge boulder sticking out of the water and somehow we climbed up and over into an enormous cathedral-sized chamber of the cave. There we saw the ceremonial pots, the elongated skulls, and up a slightly shabby ladder into the smaller chamber we saw the crystal maiden. Chris managed to get stuck on top of the ladder (!) but a really amazing guide from another group managed to direct him back down. I think it was Carlos the Caveman who we originally wanted to trek with, but G Adventures arranged the other trip. When we were dropped back off, Kevin & I walked straight through a fire ant nest… so it was another night on the rum for us!
Days Eleven & Twelve: Caye Caulker
Today we split into two vans and drove from San Ignacio to the Belize City ferry terminal where we immediately got caught up in a shooting incident! Our van arrived at the chaos first. There were crowds of people running in all directions and guys with cameras pushing through towards the terminal. Chris, myself and a few of the others ended up inside the terminal getting taped in by police, while our friends in the separate van arrived on the other side of the tape. Eventually we were reunited and quickly ushered onto a large speedboat to the Caribbean island of Caye Caulker. Wow! Blue skies, white sandy beaches, clear waters, pastel painted wooden buildings, men trying to sell you drugs…! Highlights here included lovely accommodation, a sunset rum cruise around the island and sailing back under the stars chatting with our Austrian friends, meeting up with Bee & Nick for pizza & beers and hearing all about their adventures, the amazing baker who looked remarkably like Chef from South Park and rode around the island selling baked goodies from his bike and the lovely lady at the laundry who made all our clothes soft & fresh & again.
Days Thirteen & Fourteen: Playa del Carmen
I am so happy we did this trip and I’m extremely lucky to have seen all the wonderful ruins from such a privileged position. But when Miguel picked us up on the Mexican border and drove us in to Playa del Carmen, I was happy to find it was super Americanised and had a Starbucks where I could get an almost proper cup of tea with soya milk! And food at last! Kevin was leaving a day earlier than everyone else so we went for a goodbye dinner at a restaurant filled with locals and a noisy mariachi band. The next day we visited the seaside ruins at Tulum – giant iguanas, Mexican crafts (I bought the requisite embroidered dress) and a sandy little cove underneath the ruins. We watched a storm roll in and a rainbow appear over the water. A perfect way to end our adventure!
When I was about 10 or 11 I had a book which I think was called Mysterious Places – all about odd natural phenomena and ancient cultures. There was one especially gruesome chapter about Mayan sacrifice atop a giant pyramid, victims smeared with blue body paint, the thump thump of hearts cut from still living bodies… I remember feeling sick and putting the book down in disbelief! Years later I saw the film Apocalypto and the macabre fascination came flooding back! When I found out you could actually visit these places, I knew I had to go. It took about six years of searching to find the right trip (& the time to take it!) but I finally settled on the Mayan Adventure organised by G Adventures. So in mid February after a brief pit stop for some enforced relaxation in Cancun (not usually my thing at all but I was desperate for a break!) Chris & I set off for three weeks of exploring in Central America. We met our lovely G Adventure group in downtown Cancun, piled into our driver Miguel’s plush minibus and headed towards the jungle.
Day One: Chichen Itza
First stop, the Mayan city of Chichen Itza to tour the ruins with a fabulous guide called Felipe. The sun was baking hot, huge iguanas slinked across the abandoned temples and the crowds dissipated easily into the vast site. It wasn’t hard to imagine this as a bustling city. Felipe showed us how, if you stand at the base of The Temple of Kukulcan and clap your hands, the echo thrown back sounds exactly like the quetzal – a native bird much prized by the Mayans for it’s fancy emerald tail feathers. How did they manipulate the acoustics to do this?! Some of the temples had been reconstructed in areas to show how they would have looked, while others remained rough & crumbling. Yet more are still hidden away, undiscovered in the jungle. That evening we headed to the Spanish colonial town of Mérida where many of the historic buildings are made from stone the Conquistadors stole from Mayan pyramids.
Day Two: Cenotes
All aboard the minibus to a village an hour or so outside of Mérida where we took a basic horse and cart ride along a track to swim in the cenotes. I felt awful about doing this, the horses were very thin and sad looking and I would have much preferred to walk. Coming across the first cenote was incredible, the ground simply disappears to reveal a huge cavernous hole in the earth, framed by plant roots and stalactites, with a pool of clear blue water at the bottom. I got all the way to the water’s edge before freezing with the horror of a sudden and unexpected phobia… being touched by a fish! Oh dear. I honestly have no idea what got into me or where this came from but I completely freaked out. I’ve never swam anywhere other than a swimming pool so my odd reaction was a surprise! By the time I forced myself in past the ankles, it was time to move on and we caught motorbike rickshaws to a cenote in a neighbouring village. To reach this one you had to climb to the bottom of a rickety, steep metal ladder. I was definitely more into this but now it was Chris’ turn to panic as he has a terrible fear of heights. What a pickle! I had to reassure everyone that usually we’re pretty adventurous, this was just a very strange day for us both! In the evening we visited the markets and historic sites in Mérida but I was keen to get out of the city and see some more ruins.
Days Three & Four: Palenque
Today we had a nine hour journey south to the rainforest and the ruins of Palenque, via some beautiful waterfalls. We’d had constant sunshine up until this point but the rainforest certainly lived up to its name – it poured from the moment we stepped into the jungle! We arrived at our accommodation – El Panchan – to the atmospheric Jurassic Park-esque roar of howler monkeys high in the trees. Amazing! I have to say, I like roughing it, camping, sleeping outdoors etc… but El Panchan was the filthiest, most disgusting place I have ever stayed in my life! Our room was covered in mould, dead insects and squished mosquito blood splats. There were even mini mushrooms growing out of our bathroom door! I was expecting basic accommodation, and basic is fine, but basic doesn’t have to mean dirty. To top it off, someone was blasting super loud reggae music until 4am and as the windows were only screened, there was no way of avoiding it. I had about an hour or two of sleep before the howler monkeys woke me up, which I didn’t mind really as it was amazing to hear them, but the reggae… no. So it was with bleary eyes we explored the palace and excavated temples at Palenque and even went inside a tomb. The mist rising up to the top of the tree canopy looked spectacular in reality but oh so tricky to photograph in the rain. I couldn’t take many pictures due to the weather but it was still super interesting and fun to see the temples up close.
Day Five & Six: Lacanjá, Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Yaxchilan was one of my favourite ruins on the whole trip, proper Indiana Jones! An incredibly well preserved temple site, it sits on the banks of Usumacinta River on the remote edge of Mexico. We travelled for half an hour across the water, flanked on both sides by crocodiles basking in the sun. At one point the boat stuttered to a halt when something got caught in the mechanics… thankfully it wasn’t a croc! The site itself is so exciting to explore; a little more raw and overgrown, you could easily believe you were the first person to stumble across it. From deep within the ruins you could still hear the howler monkeys calling from across the water in the Guatemalan jungle. We explored alone but before we set off our guide Mark told us about the Mayan rituals that were held there. The Mayans would take hallucinogens and enter the pitch black maze underground in the hope of a spiritual experience. I walked through a few of the corridors but as soon as I shone my torch light across the giant disgusting spider things I rapidly fell into a state of screaming/laughing hysterics and ran until I was free! I really made a plum of myself on this trip! Later that day we visited Bonampak to see some of the best preserved painted Mayan murals in Central America. Imagine how the temples & pyramids would have looked when painted in similar colours.
Day Seven: Lake Petén Itzá
After spending Valentine’s night in a cute little hut by the river with a HOT SHOWER (!) we loaded up the boats for our border crossing, over the Usumacinta River and into Guatemela. There we were picked up by a man in a van for a four-hour long bone rattler of a journey before we even reached a road, ouch! We drove through villages, swarms of tiny butterflies, strange tree plantations and colourful cemeteries but I think we were all glad when we rolled up onto the tarmac and then to San Jose for a proper hot meal (& a cocktail!) under the stars on Lake Petén Itzá. This was so welcome as by this point I was pretty much constantly hungry and had long since munched my way through my back up supplies. I definitely felt the restrictions of being a vegetarian in an area with very little access to fresh, good quality food. Restaurants rarely had anything suitable on the menu (besides the dreaded cheese quesadilla) and the roadside service stations we stopped at only sold junk food. What I would have given for a simple apple!
Coming in Part Two: Zip-lining in the jungle, four-hours swimming underground through the sacrificial caves of Actun Tunichil Muknal to see the skeletons and offerings, bumping into Bee & Nick of Twenty Something Burnouts on a tiny island in Guatemala, cinnamon buns in the Caribbean, getting caught up in a shooting incident in Belize… and the main reason for the trip – visiting the epic ruins of Tikal.