I was chosen to lead the ultimate tour of South America way back in September. Everything happened very quickly, and here I am, in a Quito hotel room, anticipating the start of ‘El Circuito’ tomorrow as we begin our expedition through 9 countries in 171 days. Not a bad cricket score that, 171-9…I think. To be honest I’m more of a fan of sports that don’t include breaks for tea and crumpets.
I digress. Apologies for the lack of recent activity on this blog, as I’ve had to do a fair amount of research to prepare. At least I got to pop back home to Dublin for the last month to see family and friends – a welcome but unexpected bonus! I was also delighted that The Irish Times published my follow-up article (link below) – I had originally pitched the title of the article as ‘Slothing Around Central America’, but no dice. Oh well.
Unfortunately the region in the title of this blog is a bit of a misnomer now, but I think I’ll keep it anyway. I will understandably be a lot busier on this new tour but I’ll still post updates when I have the time! In this part of the world, there’s always a good story yet to be told. While there may not be as many sloths south of the equator, rest assured that there will be at least one Irish eejit still slothing around.
We visit two indigenous villages in the highlands of Mexico on our tour, firstly to San Juan Chamula and then to Zinacantan, but in my view the most interesting community is the former. The people in SJC are traditionalist Catholic – a blend of Catholicism and pagan ideologies. Sacrificing a chicken is not an uncommon sight within their church.
They also administer their own affairs autonomously, including the rule of law. There are many fascinating aspects to their way of life, but this particular issue struck me the most. Any citizen who breaks the law in SJC is subject to spending a few days in the public jail in full view. If the shame isn’t enough for you, repeat offenders and perpetrators of more serious crimes face worse punishments. There was a case a few months ago where three rapists were lynched by the locals. Coincidentally, the rate of crime is very low. A fascinating way of life.
I travel for a living, so I’m used to whole days spent on buses and boats. But probably the worst travel day I’ve ever had was returning to San José from Dublin back in July. I organised a pub crawl for my last night in Dublin and set my alarm to go home at 6am. I had banked on getting my sleep on that 9-hour morning flight, but it was a gamble that backfired spectacularly.
The plan worked like clockwork…except for the 5-hour delay in Dublin Airport. The worst part was getting called to gate every half-hour and then being told another fault with the plane had been found. Once finally on the plane, I couldn’t sleep as I had seemingly been put in the 0-5 age category section of the plane. Great craic.
I had already missed my connecting flight so I had to spent the night in Atlanta. All in all, it took me 38 hours to get from from door to door. Exhausting.
I had to go and buy a local SIM card in each country here for use in my work phone, so when I first got over the border to Panama, I popped into the local Movistar shop in Bocas del Toro. The process involved the usual formality and nominal fee up until the point your man asked for my passport to register my details on the system.
Unfortunately, the dual Irish and English language confused him somewhat, as the Irish words were completely unrecognisable next to their English counterparts. After a few minutes of his best guesswork, he handed me my receipt bearing the name ‘Antony Michael Éireannach’ – as in, Irish for ‘Antony Irishman’. I hadn’t the heart to correct him.
But from then on I’ve introduced a few cúpla focal in the Irish language to locals and my groups around Central America. The poor guy in Panama must still be wondering what kind of made-up, leprechaun language that was on my passport. Amach!
Queues can take a few hours on certain border crossings, especially on the notorious Honduras to Nicaragua frontier, so you have to get creative. The first time I went through, clearing just the Nicaraguan side took us over two hours. A sloth smoking a joint would have moved quicker than that queue. Therefore I started devising schemes to get the group across more efficiently in future.
Two months later we had to go through the same border, so I pitched my best idea to our driver, and we went for it. We arrived at the migration offices, where a lengthy line had already formed, and we both acted as if we were in a huge hurry. We jumped to the front of the queue, shouting “We’re press!” to anyone who would listen, loudly claiming that we represented a group of important international journalists working on a documentary for the BBC in Nicaragua. It worked beautifully. Plus we didn’t even have to pay a tip!
Next time I fancy being a group of important international film producers. Efficiency rules.
It seems harsh to choose just one favourite place on tour, but this is the place: it ticks all the boxes. Caye Caulker was the first slice of Caribbean island life I ever tasted and I always look forward to returning. The main activities on CC are sunbathing, snorkelling, and chilling. Especially the last part.
In actual fact, the island motto is ‘Go Slow’, and locals will implore you to ‘Go Slow’ if you’re walking a little too quickly down Front Street. Even with this speed limit, you can easily explore the whole town in 20 minutes, especially with only Front, Middle and Back Street to cover. There are no cars on the island, only golf buggies and bikes, and the roads are paved with sand.
The Split, pictured above, is the birthplace of the radioactive-green- coloured ‘Lizard Juice’ cocktail. Its secret recipe remains unknown, but all anyone knows is that it contains enough rum to knock you for six. Late-night activities also may include pole dancing in the local I&I reggae bar. Unpoleivable. You beta Belize it.
At the end of my training tour (when I shadowed our best tour leader for three weeks) I had to get the 3am night bus from Rio Dulce to Guatemala to catch my flight back up to Mexico. We got the boat at 2am with our security guard, who only escorted me 200m to the bus station, but as this is Guatemala, he was still fairly necessary. Due to the high rate of head-on collisions on Guatemalan roads I had been advised to sit as far back as possible to ‘give me a chance’ – but I ended up getting seat number 4. Oh well.
It was grand in the end, with only the one accident on the way. Ironically we had seen an overturned truck just earlier that day and our van only narrowly passed though the gap left on the side. We could have been stuck for ages otherwise. There were a dozen locals crowded around the truck. Their blasé attitude to the wreckage in front of them conveyed the sense that this was a regular occurence on these roads. The daily life in Guatemala.