1. El Salvador, more shotguns than papousas.

    Guatemala was supposedly dangerous and it can be if you’re unlucky but it’s not as in your face as in El Salvador.  Before even entering the country from Guatemala you’ll hear how some travellers will just bounce right through and head further south, not even giving it a chance.  Often just a few nights in El Tunco for a spot of surfing or a night in the capital San Salvador.  One of the highest homicide per capita rated countries in the world it is rated second behind Honduras.  This is evident in the amount of armed security personal guarding almost everything there is to be guarded and not just a sly little piece off the hip, but usually a full throttle shotgun slung broadly across the shoulder an accessorised with the rest.  Ranging from convenience stores to Burger Kings to beer delivery trucks and what is increasingly evident now is the jacked security of the tourist police which a few years ago was just a small room full of people dedicated to reviving the dying tourism industry.  Take these two chaps for example, they both had jobs in the city and jumped at the opportunity to be posted out here near Lago Coatepeque on the flanks of Volcan Santa Ana.  With a view towards San Salvador to the south east and a view of the Pacific Ocean to the south west who wouldn’t want to be amongst the fresh air up here in the mountains.  1 at the front and 1 at the back of the group is the protocol as visitors are escorted on a climb to the peak.  We’re wearing shorts and singlets and stopping for water every 20 minutes and these guys are steady as they go, full leather boots, pants, tucked in uniform, longsleeve tops and all the security equipment one could hope for.  Not even breaking a sweat.  Both agreed that life is better out here with a week straight on the job then several days off to go catch up with the family.  Leaving the daily grind of El Salvadorean police enforcement behind in the city, these days they just deal with the occasional tourist-stalking volcano-bandits and the pleasure of nature walks and conversational English.  El Salvador, friendly and safer, than ever.

     
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  3. "Cheeky Greg"

    The Takahè (Porphyrio hochstetteri) is an endangered flightless bird indigenous to New Zealand. Conservation efforts have isolated Takahè populations to remote predator-free wildlife sanctuaries like Gregs home, Tiritiri Matangi Island. Less than 250 birds remain and 19 year old Greg is the unofficial ambassador and PR bird to his species.  Heavier, stockier and stronger than its look-a-like, the Pukeko, Takehè are monogamous and territorial, usually eating grass, shoots and insects.  Greg however, prefers to forget about his ex-girlfriend “Cheesecake” and amuse himself by chasing around visitors and volunteers snaffling up earthworms from fresh volunteer-dug drainage channels around the visitors centre.

    EDIT:  Voting closed on the Getty Images Iconic New Zealand Photo competition earlier today and there’s a few insights into Facebook vote competitions that outline how a photography contests credibility is inevitably tarnished through the use of such a platform.   A photography contest by nature should be voted on the basis of which photo is the best, plain and simple.  For a vote to be fair each photo should receive the same exposure.  What happened in this case is through the nature of facebook, the person that is willing to ‘share’ the link, spread the word and basically ask people to vote for their photo the most, wins.  It’s a rigged popularity contest which really only indicates who’s got the best social network and who’s willing to sell themselves and their soul the hardest.  It has almost zero factor to do with the quality of the image itself.  Accusations by a fellow competitor of ‘vote buying’ were spammed under several other competitors photos which by their standards had unusually too-larger number of votes, apparently.  After some research I found out that such a thing did exist and that a person for a fee of money is able to buy votes to enable them to win a facebook competition.  It’s called VOTE BUYING, this brings us to question the validity of such a competition.  If one can pay for votes, what’s the point?  That’s pretty outrageous.  Where’s the equality in that?  Let’s bring it back to the old school methods, let the pros put in their time, they have the trained eye, they know what’s good, fuck the public, fuck the publicity stunt, they’re uneducated, they’d vote for a burger just cause they were hungry and it looked yummy.  But that’s not the world we live in is it. 

     
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  5. El Paredon, Sipacate, Guatemala

    The king wall or boss wall, so the name implies a paradisical place so elusive that basic knowledge of Spanish or little desire to talk by acting and improvised sign language will likely only get you half the distance to arriving in a spot that you will probably never forget for the rest of your life.  Places like this just don’t exist for very long and if they do you wouldn’t even know about it in the first place because you wouldn’t and he wouldn’t and I wouldn’t have been there to tell the story of marvels.  What I’m talking about here is the catch phrase “to-be-off-the-beaten-path”  It’s harder than you might initially think.  It, the place needs to have certain qualities about it that draws you in and only you and maybe a few others but not the rest of the circus show to it.  It can’t be just an boon arse-loch of a place, otherwise there’s really no point in going there, is there!?  Word of mouth is the key, not everyone’s mouth, just a chosen select one or two that you can trust with your life or have that little feeling about in your gut that what they say is worthy information.  El Paredon is just that.  You need to be adventurous, have a firm grasp of the Spanish language, be willing to change buses, modes of transport and direction at a whim of 2 seconds notice.  When you finally get there, I hope to hell that you know how to swim in a Tsunami and learn to love it fast.  I also hope that you have packed with you various forms of insect repellent because this will test your zen-abilities.  Mosquitos that almost speak to you all day long telling you …zzz “you are off the beaten track my friend”.  I won’t tell you about the rest of the splendors except that there are many, too many to recount or spread the proverbial word about.  Take a side step off “the gringo trail” you’ll be rewarded.  

     
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  7. Trying to find a church in a huge hay stack of a country called Guatemala where there are many many churches in every little town and village it can be a tough ordeal sometimes, especially when all you have to go by is a vague low percentile of a photographic memory of an image that was once seen on the cover of the Guatemala Lonely Planet guide book (which by the way is kinda rare, most carry the Central America on a Shoestring version).  Was it blue and red? or blue with a little yellow or maybe it was all yellow, who knows? certainly I couldn’t remember for the life of me.  All i knew was that it was and still is colourful and that i wanted to find it, like big time.  It became my mission and my purpose and also an excuse to kick back for a while and dry my 5 year old hiking shoes.

    With a limited Spanish vocab, a keen sense of direction and adventure anything can be accomplished in this nation where English will certainly not get you very far, well it might get you far, but often not in the right directions as i found out and was about to find out once again.

    My first attempt at finding ‘the church’ led my wildly of course chasing down chicken buses to a town called Tatonicapan (lonely planet said the picture was taken here), which at first for maybe the first week I could never recall the name of so when asked “a donde va?” “where are you going?” I would just answer with a reply such as “thhhatooo algo?” (tato something..) raising my voice in slight insecurity about where I was heading.  Maybe I should have written it down? jajaja, but where’s the adventure in that/  Let’s work on memory recollection here and not make it too simple.  

    Crammed or more correctly wedged into a 2.5 person seat on a maxed out bus, I had a grandma with a baby strapped to her back, probably her daughter also with a baby strapped to her back next to granny and between us a little girl of roughly eleventeen who mal-nourished and overworked looked probably about 8.  Needless to say this chicken bus was…well loaded with Mayans dressed in their fine colorido (colourful) mayan wear ready for where ever it was they were going.  Where they were going, I was going too, I only hoped there would be this mystical church at the end of the rainbow.

    I stumbled into what i wasn’t quite expecting…. a huge bustling network of streets jam packed full of everyone local selling everything local aka the Saturday Tato Market, if only I’d read the guide book, I might have known that this existed much like the famed Chichi market but with the exception of not a Gringo in sight, a welcome site and refreshing surprise indeed.  Squishing, squeezing and con permiso-ing (excusing) my way through the hussling unrelenting Mayans that all seemed to be able to squeeze through faster than a mouse through a crack in the wall (well at 4 foot 8 tall it must be easier for them right?) I made a bee line towards where I felt this church might be.

    6 blocks of market mosh-pit-like escaping manoeuvres later, 1 hour and a fresh belly full of crispy fried chicken skin there was no colourful church insight, just a standard whitewashed, too-recently-constructed catholic church.  Not exactly what I was looking for.  Approaching some armed blokes of the local police force I finally managed to describe the object of my dreams to some police officers who quickly pointed out in pretty plain old understandable English that it was in fact not even located in or even near this town.

    "La Iglesia esta en San Andreas Xecul alli alli!! no lo aqui!" (pointing beyond the mountains and mentioning a different town name to my dismay and simultaneous outburst of laughter)  Fun day it was indeed.

     
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  9. San Pedro la Laguna, Lago de Atitlan.  A relatively small town on the shores of Lake Atitlan that is notorious for swinging hammocks, overstaying intended pre-planned stays, an abundance of Spanish language schools and old ladies running around selling cake.  

    My first piece of cake at the ‘other’ more busy end of town was a disaster, I threw it into the lake after one bite.  Sorry lady, but cardboard doesn’t do well with me. The second piece took me 2 weeks to muster up the courage to purchase and boy was it moist.  People will tell you they hate the word moist, but this cake is the only way it could be described, moist and delicious.  Juanita, you may not be able to see the cash in front of your eyes but you sure do sell a fine piece of Pan de Banana!  

    It’s a place to drop your bag for a while, lie in your hammock and watch the storm clouds brew and roll in over the lake practicing your Spanish verb conjugations.  A routine that will never get boring, waking up to clear blue skies and falling asleep to the pitter patter of the rainy season. 

    Everyday we’d come back from school at lunch time and have an intense discussion about which of a dozen great food joints we’d like to spend our afternoon drinking gaseosas which usually comprised of soda water and a good helping of ice and lemon, chow down on a fanciful lunch and discuss the days lessons after which we’d retreat back to the pad and get ready by laying in the hammocks and talking smack until it was time to go pop open a litro bottle of beer and begin the nights rituals. 

    It’s a place with narrow colourful pathways and friendly locals, the ones you always say hi to but don’t know their name, a kind of oasis for travellers where you can feel at ease and not have to worry about booking further travel for at least a while or being bombarded by husslers.  It’s life as usual here but with a lake and mountain view at a temperature where you can bring out that beanie, hoody, jeans and fresh pair of socks that you’ve been lugging around for the last few months in hope of some worthy weather.  

    A little bit of party, a little bit of Spanish, a little bit of toilet problems and a lot of relaxing with a bunch of good people.  A worthy visit….if you dare have the time to chill and swing a hammock or two.

     
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  11. Mainly old but with little bit of something not so old is how I would describe the quaint colonial-style historic town of Antigua (meaning ‘old’ in Spanish) which is situated less than an hour away from bustling gong-show-like Guatemala City, population too many…aka 4million.  

    Antigua was the capital for many years but after they realised that frequent earthquakes and general people-inhabited buildings do not mix well together, the capital was soon moved elsewhere.  

    Numerous early Spanish colonial-style churches remain in piles or in near mint second-hand condition dotted around the city in handfuls drawing daily attention of every inhabitant long or short, short or tall.  The buildings in part were effected badly by earthquakes over the decades and as such have multiple sometimes and mostly shady looking additions/renovations added to them in an attempt to reinstate them to their former glory.  All this of course adds to the charm of the place, a story told with every mismatched and misaligned brick and strip of makeshift mortar.  

    The charm is certainly not lost here and the rest of the architecture of the city helps to form a firm backdrop that furthermore has its own charm and allure.  Single storey multi-coloured plaster walled buildings are flushly lined with the very orthogonal street grid composed of avenidas in one direction and calles crossing them at very calculated intervals in the other.  Every building or almost every has a bay window or two facing the street jutting out over the sidewalk with jail-like screens articulated in a sometimes very unique and individual fashion.  It’s a sure bet that every weekend and even any given night during the week a borracho or borracha (drunk person male & or female) inevitably will have their face claimed by one of these cool looking bay windows as they stumble through the night in an attempt to navigate the narrow cobble-lined side walks searching for their ubiquitous grand-appearing timber entry door to wherever they are crashing for the night.  

    Rather quiet and a little boring during the week, Antigua blows up during the weekend with an infestation of city slicking Guatemalans riding their fancy motorcycles and 4 wheeled weatherproof shiny boxes into town for a couple nights of hands in the air or feet 6 beat stepping salsa dancing.  A playground for the wealthy locals, without a doubt it is a spectacle.  

    Surrounded by volcanoes, engulfed by mountains and zoning laws, this city is kept at bay from expansion.  McDonalds aren’t even allowed to have a golden arches, but rather a small sign on their plaster lined single story tenancy like every other shop in town letting people know of their presence as best as they possibly can.  Subway and Burger King are the same.  I walked past 3 times before I knew they existed, maybe my nose wasn’t working? Or maybe they have their pickles shipped in from a dodgy supplier.

    What really makes this town are the people, especially the old people that stroll out of their homes in numbers sun soaking in the late morning dressed in their finest daily garb going wherever needs to be gone and on-route finding time to upkeep their vocab and language skills spreading their love and presence around town.  These people with a backdrop of colourfully-painted often-peeling plaster-lined streets makes for a great combo, one that can not be missed on the Central American specials menu. 

     
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  13. Copan Ruinas, Honduras.  A little trip into an oasis of oldness and raining mangos.  Everyday we would watch this tree pooping out ripe mangos, then we would take turns and risk our lives or more seriously our noggins retrieving them from under the tree without being bombed by more raining fruit.

    Seeing old things is cool, sometimes, like when you visit your grandmother and she makes you some delicious tasting food that your mum tries to make but she can’t because your mum isn’t your grandmother.  Don’t ask me how this works but it’s just how it works sometimes.  Old buildings are cool too, because back then there were some pretty sweet people to build those buildings.  Nowadays often it aint the case, people get lazy, there’s nobody to whip them into shape and well the liqour store is almost always just around the corner.  The mentality was different back then,  people worked hard, very hard, like their whole life on constructing a big pile of awesome looking rocks where their superiors, project managers and jefes could later sit on and smoke chillums overlooking their righteous empires knowing that these things would be here for pretty much the lifetime of any god.  That must be a pretty sweet feeling.  Putting your mark on the planet with a pile of well assorted crafted rocks and then having macaw birds and avatar like trees live and climb all over it in a harmonious fashion amongst your creation.  Not too bad Sir Lord Cacao the 27th, muy bien Señor!…..and now we have gardiners with sick looking cow boy hats mowing the lawns with machetes keeping the rocks fit and in good shape.  

     
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  15. Livingston Jamaica! no! Livingston Guatemala.  A little weird, quirky and isolated little corner of Guatemala where Mayans, Spanish and Garifuna culture collide.  Imagine grabbing the Carribean & Central America and smooshing it together tightly into a little hacky sack of culture.  To add to that, throw some mountains, oceans and rivers around it, sprinkle some fried chicken and poverty into the concoction and you have yourself a little place called Livingston, Guatemala.  Accessible only by boat this was a safe haven during the civil chaos of the recent past and is in a sense still a haven of sorts aka a politically forgotten area of Guatemala, especially for the Garifuna people.  

    You arrive and instantly are greeted by English speaking rastas and the sweet sweet smell of fried chicken.  The relentless on shore salty assault by the sea and general lack of TLC make the buildings look like crumbly pieces of dry cake.  Colourful decaying paint jobs of old and streaks of rust from nails and exposed steal rods make the architecture of this town so very interesting indeed.  Being able to speak English here is refreshing so is finally being able to converse on another level with the locals.  Located only a simple hours boat ride from Rio Dulce where Guatemala is much more like the rest of Latin Central America, the journey winds and threads its way through a grand canyonesque type gauntlet lined and smothered with green lushness.  Popping out the other end is like arriving in another time and dimension and there it is, living like it has been for many years, little old Livingston, Guatemala. 

     
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  17. Semeniac Chamianak, Something Champagne, Cheminic Samanac whatever you want to call it, Semuc Champey is on the tip of every travellers tongue that roams around this country called Guatemala.  Located in the geographical centre of the country at the bottom of a lush valley, no matter where you are coming from it’s a long journey.  Yet this journey is spectacular, bumpy, windy and rough, it’s certainly worth the effort.  All roads that lead here still feel like primitive donkey trails.  Up and down, side to side, standing holding onto the cage of the back of a pick truck with 15 others getting thrown around like livestock for half an hour is more fun than it sounds because at the end of this theme park ride lies a valley of turquoise terraced waterfalls with natural water slides, caves, jumps and little fish that peck at your feet, you know the type they have in Thailand where you hang your feet in a tub and let a thousand little fish eat the dead skin off your feet.  It’s like this but only free and so many times more natural minus the great Thai food. Semuc Champey, a colourful waterfull playland where your inner child roams wild.

     
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  19. I hear the word Guatemala and instantly a vague memory will pop up of the New Zealand soap ‘Shortland St’ and the famous quote “We’re not in Guatemala now Dr Ropata!” closely followed by mental movies and images of a lush, wild, vine ridden tropical jungle with echos of howler monkeys and parrot screaches reverberating from the steam shrouded depths within.  Flashes of Mel Gibsons Apocalypto movie popped up as we tore through the hot plains towards Flores the tourist capital of El Peten and the jumping off point for the infamous Maya Ruins of Tikhal.

    Sleeping in a tree house with 2.5 open walls and a view of bananas and mangoes growing outside your eternally open window is a treat. Seeing the sunrise creep over the distant mountains and light up the draped weaved ceiling is also not bad at all.  But being woken up to a gong show circus of 4am temple enthusiasts and the staff required to cater for these insane beings is not so much fun.  The clanging of doors, high pitched Spanish, sounds of the kitchen…..you forget the soothing sounds of rustling leaves and rain is just as easily equally cancelled out and the idea of an airtight, lightproof room seems like a great idea. 

    Hanging out with ancient ruins is fun, so much fun, it’s exercise disguised as fun.  It’s basically a giant ancient theme park minus the annoying kid inticing kitsch crap, your own Indiana Jones adventure with less risk of dying.  Climb, relax and imagine to your hearts content.  Temple V pretty much the coolest temple I have climbed to date. Honestly no less than a 70 degree ladder (bruises in my shins prove it) up 60 metres to the top of the limestone temple where you feel like a monkey and a bird all at the same time with views over that sultry green sea of life. The feeling you have scaling something so precarious that would be so illegal to do so in any western country and be rewarded by that cool refreshing canopy breeze feels like that ice cold Kokanee beer at the end of your first ever shift of summer dishwashing.  Equally as awesome, same same but different.

     
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