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Visiting the Mayan temples of Tikal, Guatemala.

In the far northern reaches of Guatemala enormous, intricately built temples have been rescued from the intense mass of dense rainforest that has swamped them for the last 1000 years. It is not the size, the age or the aesthetic design that impresses most, it is the unbelievable scientific planning that went in to the entire “city”. Evidence has been found that suggests the city was planned up to 100 years before they even laid the first stone. Each temple and platform is built and positioned very specifically, all based around the sun, cycles of time and life, planets and stars. The Mayans were obsessed with countdowns and predicting future events and in fact their calendar is the second most accurate ever made, second only to the atomic clock! Our modern day Gregorian calendar loses 1 day every 4 years, hence the leap year, but by using the cycles of the sun, moon, Jupiter and Venus, the Mayans created a calendar that loses one day every 6000 years! They have accurately predicted solar eclipses, lunar eclipses, etc. as far into their future as 1991! They have predicted the end of the world for December 2012, I for one am slightly worried based on the accuracy of everything else they have predicted! The temples stand proud and strong above the canopy, the highest reaching just shy of 215 feet into the sky, without the wheel or beasts to transport the giant limestone blocks, it is unsure how they accomplished such a phenomenal feat of engineering. The jungle that once tried to camouflage and hide these temples away from human knowledge after the fall of the empire (cause still unkown) is rife with animals, reptiles and insects. Spider monkeys playfully leap from branch to branch, showing off for the cameras and occasionally attacking the onlookers down below with fruit or nuts from the trees in which they play, and now and again even the “fruit” of their bowels! The howler monkeys that can also be found there are shy in comparison, few can be spotted in the forest, but their roars echo through the city ceaselessly. What makes this tour so distinct is the fact that you are located deep into the rainforest. Despite the fact that all the area was stripped of all trees and leveled out to build temples in around 900 B.C., since the demise of the empire 1800 years later, the jungle has fought back and regained some of it’s former territory. From the tops of the temples you can get a phenomenal view and get a grasp on how remote it is here, a full 360 degree turn gives views to the horizon in every direction without one telegraph pole, pylon, satellite dish or high-rise building to be seen. The only evidence of man’s influence on the land was the magnificent temples. The historical element to this tour is fascinating, a race of people far advanced beyond any other at the time created a masterpiece of human engineering, only to disappear from the annals of time, their city to be hidden from the world for millennia. When visiting Tikal, 90% of guide books will tell you to stay in Flores, 30km south. However, on the road in from Flores is a remote eco-tourism village by the name of El Remate. It is imprisoned by a crystal clear lake on one side and dense jungle on the other, a few shacks line the dirt track. For US$2 per night, the top floor ‘penthouse’ rooms boast wooden floors, half height bamboo walls and palm roofing, 2 single beds and accompanying mosquito nets. If remoteness is what you’re looking for then this is it.

From the room, you watch the formidable sun-set over the lake – the reds, oranges, blues and purples all reflect off the lake’s glassy surface as the frogs, toads, grasshoppers, cicadas and howler monkeys fills the air with an almost oppressive evening chorus. This is pure ‘retreat’ country – a place to go to get away from the rest of the world, be at one with nature and your own thoughts. A path less travelled From Tikal in the north of Guatemala to Copan in Honduras to the south is a long, dramatic and complex journey. Starting in El Remate, a chicken bus runs to Flores (if you’re crafty you can do this for free in the morning since all the busses are on their return trip to pick up more tourists to take them to the temples. From Flores a coach runs to Chiquimula, however the coach stops on the outskirts of town and so you have to catch connecting chicken bus into town (don’t expect anyone to know when the next one is due, they seem to be completely at random) they are also filled as full as is physically possible, so seat-space is at a premium. From Chiquimula you can catch another minibus to the border, all you have to do is listen out for the cries of “Frontera! Frontera! Frontera!” Having crossed border patrol, another bus takes you to a tiny village in the middle of nowhere with nothing more than a cross-roads and some tin-roofed huts. It is apparently a bus-station and before long you will be able to get on yet another small, dilapidated and over-filled minibus the final stretch to Copan. Don’t be surprised if you have to carry an old woman’s shopping, a young child or even the old woman on your lap on any one of these journeys! Tikal to Copan – total distance about 400km, total buses 5, total time 14 hours, total cost around $4. It is a great journey to make, if not a major challenge, and one that is highly recommended to anyone visiting the area. Officially the bet scuba-diving in the world 30 miles off the Caribbean coast of Honduras, Central America lie a few small islands at the southern tip of the world’s second largest barrier reef. Utila is the main island and home to an abundance of scuba-diving companies, including PADI’s number one divecentre in the world. It just also happens to be the cheapest in the world too. For all scuba enthusiasts and those wanting to get into it, there can be only one choice of location, here. To say the sensation of scuba diving is a strange is a huge understatement; weightlessness, hearing your own breathing louder than anything else around you, all senses confused as light and sound are distorted by the water, all external stimuli that your body has come to know and accept as normal is thrown into disarray, nothing works the same down there as it does on the surface. You will be struck dumb by the beauty of the underwater world, thousands of fish of all different shapes, sizes or colours dart about through the underwater forest of the coral reef. Nature programmes that try to capture this magical world can only portray its beauty, not the sensation of being part of it. Being underwater and being able to move up, down, left, right, hanging upside down peering into little nooks and crannies, swimming on your back and watching your bubbles rise up

60 feet to the perpetually moving surface is like nothing you can ever experience on dry land, total freedom and a whole new way of moving – your height is controlled by your breathing, a full lung of air will allow you to rise over a tall coral “tree” as you skim the top of a coral plateau incredulously watching the fish world go by, exhaling as you reach the top of the “tree” then drops you down to the plateau surface again to get a closer look at the smaller life forms that dwell on the reef. Most of the fish are completely oblivious to your presence, seemingly going about their daily lives despite the enormous bubbling silhouette invading their patch of sunlit underwater paradise. Getting back into the USA When planning to travel, no matter how many tips and hints you receive from friends and family, there will always be scenarios and problems that you hadn’t prepared for, these are tough to swallow, but issues of our own making through lack of proper planning are even tougher. My initial plans were to fly to Guatemala, travel around the neighbouring countries and then fly back up to Los Angeles to catch a connecting flight to Fiji. This gave me a huge amount of flexibility as I could fly back to LA from anywhere I wanted. However, it transpired that the cost of flexibility is a lot of money and a great deal of stress. On returning to the mainland following 2 weeks scuba diving, a decision had to be made… keep heading south and fly from Nicaragua or head back north and fly back from Guatemala. I had 30 minutes to make a decision before the busses left so I ran into the nearest internet shop to find out what the best way of doing things was. I was here that the stress levels started to build. In my opinion, STA travel is by far the most helpful and efficient travel company worldwide, they’re always the first to get back to you with flights and assistance and usually the cheapest. However, I was unable to make international calls from the internet shop and STA Honduras just doesn’t exist! 25 minutes until the bus leaves. So I got online and thankfully my brother-in-law’s sister was on MSN and gave me a contact to the real world, and more specifically STA travel. After a lot of nervous waiting, she finally came back to me with flight options, and it transpired that flying from Nicaragua would cost the same as from Guatemala. My decision was made, I was going to head south and fly from Managua. However, she could not book the flights for me so I had to leave it for the time being. A day or 2 later I arrived in Leon, Nicaragua still with no flights booked. I got myself to another internet shop (the only places in Central America with international phone access) and called STA in England, but since I was flying neither to or from the UK, I needed to call STA USA, which I did, but they couldn’t help me – apparently it is impossible to book a flight into the USA without booking a return flight out again! Obviously I already had the flight out booked, but it didn’t matter to them, they simply could not book me on a flight!

So I went online and tried to book a flight direct with the airline, which was a no-go since their website didn’t have a booking facility. I was starting to despair, I was running out of options. However, it was imperative that I got back up to LA to catch the connecting flight to Fiji. With my limited mastery of the Spanish language I called up TACA airlines and tried to explain my situation, I got passed from person to person, all with varying English skills but with a consistent lack of ability to understand my predicament. I returned to the hostel no closer to getting booked on a flight, 4 days had passed since I had made the decision to head south and it was looking like an error of monumental proportions. The next day I was introduced to a local man that spoke near-perfect English, this was the opportunity I needed and seized it. He accompanied me to the internet shop where he called the airline and finally managed to portray my situation and find out details of flights. However, somewhere along the line the flight had gone from direct to via Panama 2 hours to the south, adding a total of 6 hours to the entire journey, and had also risen in price by 250%! In fact it was now going to cost me almost as much to fly from Nicaragua to LA as it had to fly from London, to LA, Guatemala, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia! When planning to travel, flexibility is important, but there needs to be a solid spine of rigid plans from which the ribs of flexibility stem from. Going with the flow is fine up to a certain point; beyond that point plans and certainty are essential. The land of the long white cloud New Zealand is a key destination for the majority of travellers and there are many ways in which to travel around this ultimately varied and adrenaline-filled pair of islands. There are several coach-tour operators, the ‘classic’ way of seeing NZ; there is also the option of hiring a campervan or alternatively hiring a car and staying in hostels. Of the three main coach tours, the ‘Kiwi Experience’ bus is known as the most fun, but also has a reputation that precedes it and nicknames that cannot be put into print without a Parental Advisory warning attached! The Magic Bus is seen as the more reserved version, concentrating more on nature and relaxation than a full-throttle extravaganza of high-adrenaline activities and socialising. The final option is Stray, for the slightly older generation looking to take it easy and appreciate the sights and sounds at a leisurely pace. Having chosen your operator (I recommend Kiwi!) there are then multiple tours to choose from covering various regions and areas of the country. The tour I chose ran from Auckland on the North Island to Rotarua with its volcanic geezers, hot baths and steaming streets, Taupo for sky-diving over the lake with ‘Mount Doom’ from Lord of The Rings at the far side. From Taupo the tour runs south to River Valley rafting lodge for the best white-water the country has to offer, then on to the capital Wellington.

A ferry trip over to the South Island and on to Nelson, gateway to the Abel Tasman national park, where the world-famous green mussels are from. From Nelson, the bus takes you down the west coast stopping off in Westport for jet-boating on gold-filled rivers , via Lake Mahinapua and on to Franz Josef, home to one of the world’s only ‘warm’ glaciers, which in typical New Zealand fashion runs straight into temperate rainforest! A full day hike on the glacier cannot be missed, it is one of the highlights of the trip. Next on the agenda is the stunning setting of Wanaka, another classic site for sky-diving before heading to Queenstown – home of the adrenaline junky. Queenstown offers every activity to get the blood pumping, there’s the world’s highest bungy jump, Nevis (not for the faint hearted at 150m high), canyon swings, river-surfing, hang-gliding and much, much more including skiing during the winter months. Queenstown has NZ’s most exciting nightlife and backpackers often find themselves stuck here, draining the funds for far longer than planned, so a word of warning… have your bus out booked before you arrive! From Queenstown you can head south for a 4 day trip to Dunedin, Invercargill and Te Anau, spotting penguins, dolphins and seals along the way. Te Anau plays host to spectacular glow-worm caves and a perfect stop-over before heading to Milford Sound on the west coast, this stunning landmark was carved out by glaciers thousands of years ago and is one of the most spectacular sceneries around. You can then head back to Queenstown and on to Christchurch, the most ‘European’ of NZ’s cities, before heading back up to Taupo and eventually Auckland once again. There is then the option to continue up north to Pahia in the Bay of Islands for some scuba diving, sailing, a day tour to Cape Reinga and plenty of partying in this holiday resort. It’s a whirlwind tour, with numerous daily walks through national parklands, spying the most beautiful of lakes and coastlands but can be taken at your own pace depending on your itinerary and something than cannot be missed. For the young and those travelling alone, the Kiwi Experience is the bus of choice as it combines a thorough education of New Zealand’s history, culture and natural beauty with adrenaline-fuelled activities and a lively social scene. Road-tripping Australia’s East Coast If you haven’t driven a campervan up the east coast of Australia, you haven’t ‘travelled’! It is almost a clichéd thing to do, but it’s worth ignoring that fact to experience some of the coolest and most beautiful areas in the world. Campervan travel is the only way to see this strip of coastland fully, it gives you the freedom to go wherever and stop whenever you want as well as working out to be the cheapest way to travel. There are hop-on/hop-off coaches that cover this area (Greyhound and Premier) however people that do I this way often regret it as you miss out on so much, including the sense of adventure. Having researched into it, the cheapest rental company for a decent campervan is All Seasons Campervans (www.camper.com.au). This company was extremely professional and had a vast range of vehicles for hire at a very reasonable rate (their prices also include all insurance, etc. so there is no hidden cost on vehicle

collection). We went in the off-season and ended up paying $69/day between 3 of us (not including campsites or petrol) and were lucky enough to get a brand-new campervan with less than 100km on the clock. The journey from Sydney to Cairns can be done in 3 weeks at the minimum, many people take far longer than this, stopping off along the way for weeks or even months at a time in different places. A 30 day trip was just about perfect for those wanting to take it at a leisurely pace and see the sights without calling anywhere ‘home’. This is the itinerary I stuck to: On leaving Sydney, the first few days are really all about hitting the road and getting through the miles. Places of interest to stop over for the night include Port Stevens just north of Newcastle, Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour, par of the Coffs Coast National Park. In the summer months these are all beautiful places to stay and see, in winter it is best to get north as quickly as possible to find the sunshine. The first major attraction along the way is Byron Bay, one of the most famous of New South Wales’ surf resorts. This small town is a hive of activity and tourists year-round. It boasts glorious beaches and many different surf breaks along its coastline. Inland from Byron is the hippy town of Nimbin, infamous for its total lack of respect for the law when it comes to marijuana! The entire town is based around the selling and smoking of it and somehow throughout the years the law simply started to ignore it. Every shop-front is full of smoking paraphernalia, every person you pass offers to sell you weed, even the ‘museum’ has a smoking café! From Nimbin most people travel straight to the glitzy own of Surfers Paradise, however we stopped off for the night in Mount Warning national park. A good tip for those who choose to take a campervan along this route is this, you don’t have to stay in campsites every night, we spent about half the nights parked on the sides of roads, in lay-bys and in car parks. The fridge is charged by the engine as is one of the main interior lights, therefore you only really need to head to a campsite for luxuries – full lighting and the use of the stereo, amenity blocks and camp kitchens. Mount Warning is not on many people’s list of places to see, and this only adds to its attraction, it is a huge inactive volcano covered in dense rainforest. A 5 hour trek gets you to the top and back, a predawn start gives a spectacular view of the sunrise, but be prepared to be able to see no further than your nose, this is rainforest and it does rain… a lot! Surfers Paradise is next, an excellent location for those who appreciate the city life more than nature. It is full of life and energy, high-rise hotels and amazing beaches, all lined with malls and promenades full of all the biggest names in fashion. The next township along the coast is Brisbane, also known as “Bris-Vegas”. It is the first proper city since Newcastle and plays host to a plethora of shopping centres, sports ovals, cinemas and also Australia Zoo, set up by the world famous late Steve Irwin. This zoo is unlike many others in that it is designed to bring the visitor closer to nature, not just put he animals on display. You can fully interact with kangaroos and birds, stroke small crocs and get up close and personal with koalas and snakes.

North of Brisbane is Noosa, a very trendy holiday resort for the rich and famous wanting to escape Sydney for the weekend. During the 80’s a huge amount of money was pumped into Noosa and it became a glitzy yet relaxed holiday resort that is a favourite destination for the majority of visitors to the east coast, without doubt a ‘must see’. Another ‘must see’ is Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island. 3 fun-filled days of 4x4 exploration brings out the rally driver in everyone, offering spectacular views of crystalline inland lakes, hundreds of kilometres of beach driving and inland dirt-tracks together with a host of choices of campsites. Going through ‘Beaches Backpackers’ in Hervey bay is the only choice as they are the only operator to offer a base camp on the island, allowing for hot showers and flushing toilets, they also happen to be the cheapest. The stretch of Queensland coastline from Hervey Bay to Airlie Beach has several large towns including Bundaberg, home of Australian rum, Mackay and Rockhampton, unless you want to drive for days on end you’ll have to stop over in at least 2 of these towns, but to be honest they don’t have much to offer compared to the rest of the trip. It is worth seeing the small and quaint Town of 1770 where Captain Cook first landed on your way north from Bundaberg. The next major port of call is Airlie Beach which has grown hugely in the last 20 years as the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands. Airlie itself is not that attractive and caters to the backpacker market with lots of hostels, campsites and loud, late-night entertainment! There are some nice hotels here, but they all tend to be on the outskirts of town. There are almost too many sailing trips operating out of Airlie, it is hard work choosing which one looks best. Many of them offer cruises on the Maxi yachts that ruled the world of sailing racing during the 90’s, most of these concentrate more on drinking games and unruly shenanigans but if you’re looking for a more civilised way to enjoy these stunning islands then there are companies that have classic yachts and ‘pirate’ ship square riggers. The islands are peace and tranquillity typified, pure soft white sandy beaches and corals of all shapes and sizes, clear turquoise seas and an unending array of marine life, including whales and dolphins in the right seasons. Snorkelling, scuba diving, sunbathing and swimming will be the most strenuous activities you will face here, the toughest decision will be another gin and tonic or move on to the wine! After leaving Airlie, the next stop on most people’s agenda is Mission Beach. It is little more than a rainforest-backed strip of sand, however it is a perfect getaway from the hubbub of the real world for a day or two. From Townsville further north it is a quick ferry ride across to Magnetic Island, now the largest koala colony in the world and formally a strategic base for heavy artillery protecting the major port from the threat of Japanese attack during World War 2. If scuba diving is your thing, a 3 hour boat trip will take you south to the Yungalla wreck dive, considered as one of the top 5 dives in the world. The final stop along the typical route is Cairns, the biggest of Queensland’s cities. From here you’d be well advised to take a day-trip north to Cape Tribulation and to go scuba

diving on the world famous great barrier reef, which provides some of the clearest and most diverse diving in the world.