,

Freediving in the Sea of Cortez by Hanli Prinsloo

I am Water, Freediving with jackfish, Baja California

Jacques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez ‘The Aquarium of the World’ and often when I hear things like that I sigh – ‘yep, maybe when you were diving there… ‘. Our oceans have changed radically since the time of the early ocean explorers and part of our challenge at I AM WATER Ocean Travel is to find those deep blue nuggets where life is still abundant and the ocean feels wild and alive. Baja is truly one of those places! Famous for white beaches, great surf and night-long parties in the south, it is still only the discerning diver who has done the pilgrimage to this desert wonderland.

Hacienda Beach, Baja California

Our accommodation, a traditional hacienda, sprawls over the sparse desert landscape, surrounded by an assortment of century old cactus plants, swooping desert eagles and the occasional wild donkey. Crystal blue water meets desert sand where the hacienda steps lead onto the beach. Each morning starts with a fresh smoothie while the red sun rises over the water and we prepare for a day at sea. Starting with deep training we drop the ropes into the calm blue water of the Frailes cove; mobula rays swirl beneath us as we prepare with deep, slow belly breaths. Freediving is more about how you breathe than how long you can hold your breath. Our group ranges from a globe-trotting Australian to a Swedish crime writer, a British paralympian, a Californian environmentalist and a French financial services expert… as always on our trips, the people are diverse but the similarities are clear. Everyone wants to learn about stillness, about depth, about meeting the ocean giants on one breath.

Our diving days are split between La Paz in the north and Cabo Pulmo just to the south. Our La Paz host is Dr Deni Ramirez and her team of whale shark experts. Deni has been working with the Mexican whale sharks for over 20 years, nobody knows these spotted giants better than she does. From behaviour to population size, feeding preferences and breeding she is an expert and we love that our guests get to share time with her on her boat and learn more about the hundreds of whale sharks who come into the bay of La Paz each year. A huge fin breaks the water and we get ready, sliding quietly off the boat. We follow Deni as she approaches the whale shark, ‘It’s Fabio’ she shouts and a cry goes up from the team on the boat – Fabio is a large individual that Deni and her team have been monitoring for several seasons, but today is the first time this year. Hello Fabio, I whisper into my snorkel as the expansive spotted back glides past me. Entering a patch of dense plankton, Fabio stops swimming and goes into a vertical feeding position. Something whale sharks only ever do in places of great food abundance. There is no need to swim and open his large vacuum-like mouth, he just dips his tail down and opens his mouth wide pulling the tons and tons of his tiny prey into his mouth. The group spends hours watching the whale sharks feed, interact and move effortlessly through the plankton rich waters. The La Paz bay truly is a special place for observing the oceans’ largest fish.

To the south, we bounce along dirt roads to the small village of Cabo Pulmo – fishing community turned conservationists. Mario Castro convinced his father and the other fishermen to turn from fishing to diving, successfully lobbying the Mexican government to create a fully protected area both on land and at sea. 25 years later this wild place has exceeded even the most idealistic expectations with fish numbers increasing by 400% and flourishing biodiversity. Here we come to see one of the greatest spectacles I’ve ever experienced on land or sea… the schooling of the jacks. The silvery jack fish are as long as my arm and move in great, great numbers – thousands of fish reaching from the surface down to the sandy sea-bed twenty metres below. A tornado of scales, eyes, fins and gills, the jacks are like a giant storm cloud beneath the surface. ‘On a windy day I can smell them from the boat’ says our guide, David Castro, son of our hero Mario who fought for the protection of this area. In the water the experience is overwhelming. A mind-boggling wall of fish meets you as you dive down, then slowly opens up and lets you enter the school. Swirling around you the wall closes behind you like an optical illusion and you are surrounded by life. A living testament to the success of protected areas. The experience is humbling and invigorating all at once.

I am Water, Jackfish, Baja California

During our four days at sea we get to freedive with whale sharks, schooling jacks, mobula rays, sea lions, reef fish and maybe even a bull shark for those who want to. Thanks to the likes of Deni and the Castro family we can still today call this the Aquarium of the World.’

Join Hanli and learn how to freedive in the Sea of Cortez on our small group tour in October. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

, , , , , ,

Steppes Big 5: Latin America Carnivals

Carnival Season, Brazil

It is carnival season in Latin America and with the residents of Rio preparing to drum, mambo and shimmy their way through the streets of the city this coming weekend, we thought we would share our favourite carnivals with you. Joyful processions, music and masquerade are not just the reserve of Brazil…

1. Brazil

Aside from the world-famous Rio Carnival, here are two others that we feel are well worth considering:

Olinda is a beautifully preserved colonial town and its annual festivities are known as the ‘carnival of participation’ during which people of all ages are encouraged to make their own costumes and join in with the street celebrations. Notable for the huge papier mache puppets, known as ‘bonecos’ which are carried aloft amidst the colourful parades and rousing music.

Probably best known as the first carnival to feature an electric parade float the colourful carnival of Salvador de Bahia is the second largest after Rio and nowadays features a huge truck decked out in some serious lighting and topped by a live band which forms the centrepiece of the celebrations.

2. Argentina

A carnival with the devil at its centre, the festivities at Quebrada de Humahuaca begin with the unearthing of Satan – a large devil shaped doll, buried at the end of the previous year’s festivities.  Mixing traditional indigenous and catholic celebrations, Satan is let out to play during 9 days of partying before being buried for another year.

3. Bolivia

Located amidst the Andean highlands at 3,710 metres above sea level, Oruru Carnival is the highest located carnival in the world and celebrates the traditional dress, cultures and dance from all corners of Bolivia. Recognized by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” the centrepiece of this 10-day festival is the ‘Dance of the Devils’ featuring hundreds of devils dressed in suitably scary costumes. The aim is to appease the devil through offerings, dance, music and costume. The festivities end with a huge water bomb fight.

 4. Mexico

Nicknamed the most joyful carnival in the world, the 9 day Veracruz carnival is the largest in Mexico. Opening with a huge bonfire to burn away bad moods the festivities feature numerous competitions for the best group based on anything from their costumes to their dancing and even their joyfulness.
The carnival ends with the burial of Juan Carnaval, a mock funeral and an amusing reading of his will.

Traditional Mexican Bunting

5. Colombia

Set in the colonial town of Barranquilla, this 4-day carnival has strong European, African and Indian traditions and is the largest carnival outside of Brazil. Another carnival that has been recognised by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” the festivities stem from a mix of catholic and pagan celebrations. Beginning with a six-hour parade of flowers the festivities feature much drum and wind based music and many dances with strong African links having originated from the Congo.

If you would like to plan a holiday to Latin America to coincide with any of the above carnivals. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

, , , , , , ,

Walking the Americas

Levison Wood returns to our screens with a new series on Sun 08 Jan, 8pm. This time Levison is trekking 1800 miles from Mexico to Colombia, initially exploring the diverse range of landscapes found in Central America before attempting to cross the Darien Gap into Colombia and South America.

Along the way Levison meets a fascinating array of people from Mennonite farmers, shamans and pilgrims to the Bribri tribe in Costa Rica. Catch all the action of this new series on Channel 4.

If you are interesting in following in some of his foot steps, check out our Colombia – Darien Gap, Caribbean Coast and Medellin holiday here.

,

Costa Rica: Wilderness and White Knuckles

Zip Lining at Rio Perdido

I’m on the lower forest-clad slopes of Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica. Nerves and my carabina-draped harness are jangling as I step into the ‘departure lounge’, a steel platform hovering in the trees 200 metres above the rainforest floor. SNAP! I’m now attached to a wire that slants down into a sea of green.  “Pura Vida” screams the cabin crew as he pushes me into the void.

Zip Wiring Costa Rica

Pura vida means pure life and is a phrase oft heard in Costa Rica. I’m here to check out the great range of thrilling outdoor activities and experiences for which the country has developed a reputation.  Costa Rica is renowned for its epic volcanic scenery and incredibly rich and varied flora and fauna. My previous visits have been happily spent gently ambling through pristine tropical rainforest and cloud forest in search of wildlife.  The wild life I’m discovering on this trip is of a very different nature and Costa Rica is extremely creative at coming up with new and thrilling ways of accessing and exploring its wilderness.

Pan Dulce beach, Osa Peninsula

 

Within 24 hours of stepping off the new direct BA flight into San Jose, I’m in a raft, floating down the Pacuare River along a very well behaved stretch of water that has just a few slightly bumpy sections.  We drift through the most astonishing beautiful river-cut valley, past galleries of intensely green tropical forest, filled with insanely colourful birds and squealing cicadas. The lodge clings to a bend in the river that is embraced by forest and welcomes us with terrific food and beautiful cabins that are lit at night by candles and oil lamps. This is soft-adventure bliss!

Pacuare Lodge, Costa Rica

Things change….the following morning we are trussed up in our harnesses and hike up a steep valley side to platform #1 to embark on a series of zip lines that zig-zag their way back down to the lodge.  The unique thing here is that you are zipping just metres away from trees and the forest canopy, keeping your eyes open for sloths, toucans and howler monkeys.  The lines are fairly short but thrilling and views from the platforms across the valley suck the breath out of you.  By the last platform I’m converted to zipping as my preferred mode of transport.  Prosecco and canapes on the last platform seal this view and make the final 30 metre rappel down from the tree eminently manageable.

Capuchin Monkey, Costa Rica

The following morning I discover that the ‘float’ into the lodge in no way resembles the white water that waits for us downstream and this was where our thorough rafting instruction is really tested over 3 hours (punctuated by a riverside picnic lunch) as we negotiate a series of grade 3 and 4 rapids.  The Pacuare River tosses and drenches us as we are sluiced through a procession of stunning gorges. Along a less ‘extreme’ section, I’m allowed to helm the raft for a while until my rafting companions scream at me to let our guide reclaim control (further encouraged by the sighting of an extremely venomous fer de lance snake swimming next to the raft). I still assert that I was deliberately trying to reverse through the rapids but the very experienced guides definitely know how to command our raft and tame the water. White water rafting is addictive and towards the more sedate end of our journey, we are all straining to hear the next ‘rumble’ that announces our approach to a new set of rapids.

White Water Rafting, Costa Rica

Zip-lining and rafting are two of the most iconic experiences on offer but there are a wide range of thrilling activities that will keep the adrenaline flowing and take you into Costa Rica’s pristine interior.  Over the next week, I take aerial trams up volcanoes, hike to waterfalls, swim under waterfalls, take night hikes, stroll along forest canopy walkways, kayak through coastal mangrove forests, ride horses, mountain bike, do canyoning and river tubing (white water rafting but replace the raft with an over-inflated inner-tube that you sit in!).

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

I finish up at the fabulous Rio Perdido hotel in the north of Costa Rica.  This is a wonderfully remote lodge that specialises in outdoor activities but also offers a series of natural hot springs that feed into thermal pools along a river that cuts through a magical forested gorge. You don’t have to sacrifice comfort to visit some of the more remote wilderness areas of Costa Rica and the thermal pools at Rio Perdido are a great spot to sooth the muscles after a day of action and reflect on the trip.  All of the activities I experienced were remarkably well arranged and very safe.  Costa Rica is a great destination for adventure addicts and active families but why Costa Rica rather than a Centrepark or activity centre in the UK?  Simple – it’s the outstanding scenery witnessed from zip platforms, the baby black howler monkey that watched me from the gorge rim that morning while I was Tarzan-swinging across the river, the laughing falcon that was sat on a post while I was horse riding, the fer de lance snake that swam by our raft, the dolphins that accompanied my boat on Golfo Dulce, the sloth seen along the mountain bike trail, the snakes, frogs, insects and night time smells and noises on a nocturnal forest hike.

Costa Rica, Wildlife, Sloth climbing

And so back to Arenal – I’m nearing the end of a zip line that’s almost a kilometre long, having reached speeds of up to 60 miles per hour.  The huge bulk of Arenal volcano looms behind me, the forest stretches out below me and Lake Arenal is the backdrop to the rapidly approaching platform.  I’ve just witnessed a toucan take a baby snake and as I glide towards the landing platform, I see a coati climbing a tree.  “You made it” shouts the guide. “Pura vida” I whimper.

Get in touch to learn more about how we operate our holidays to Costa Rica. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

, , , ,

World Oceans Day 2016

globe‘Time and tide wait for no man’ – today on World Oceans Day we take action and highlight the need to preserve and protect our blue planet.

Healthy oceans are critical to our survival. They are the heart and lungs of our planet, regulating our climate, producing oxygen, home to a huge array of marine wildlife and the lifeblood to many communities around the world. Join us in promoting their conservation.

90% of seabirds are estimated to have plastic in their guts. Plastic pollution affects hundreds of species of ocean life from huge whales to microscopic corals via ingestion or entanglement. Not only is it harmful to marine life, chemicals in plastic consumed by fish may eventually travel up the food chain and get into our bodies.

Join us in pledging to use less plastic with the Better Bag challenge, get involved in a clean-up campaign either locally or internationally or join one of our marine holidays supporting marine conservation and local communities.

Together we can make a difference. Healthy Oceans = Healthy Planet.

Justin Wateridge
Managing Director | Steppes Travel

Did You Know?

  • Every year on the same day, at the same hour, usually within the same minute, corals of the same species, although separated by thousands of miles, will suddenly spawn in perfect synchronicity.
  • Six times the size of the human brain and in many ways more complex, the sperm whale’s brain is the largest that’s ever existed on Earth.
  • Phytoplankton, the microscopic algae that make up at least half of the biomass in the oceans, absorb about one third of all carbon dioxide and produce more than 50% of all the earth’s oxygen. From 1950 to 2010, the number of phytoplankton species has dropped by an astounding 40%.

Get in touch

For #WorldOceansDay, will you join @jackjohnson and others around the world on the#WaveforChange?

A video posted by Steppes Travel (@steppes_travel) on

World Oceans Day header

  1. Take the Better Bag Challenge – Pledge to stop using disposable plastic bags for a year #BetterBagChallenge. If you are passing our Steppes HQ (located in Cirencester) – pop in and we will give you a reusable jute bag.
  2. Use a reusable, refillable water bottle.
  3. Avoid ‘microbeads‘ used in cosmetics and toothpaste – These do not bio-degrade, are ingested by zooplankton and other aquatic animals.
  4. Support new developments like Salt water’s edible six pack rings
  5. Do the Wave for Change and share it #WorldOceansDay.
  6. Eat sustainable seafood – the goodfishguide.org
  7. Travel responsibly – Steppes only use boat operators that have good boat conduct around marine life.

Dive in…


freediving with Hanli Prinsloo

Learn the basics of freediving under the expert tutelage of Hanli Prinsloo and practise yoga in view of the ocean each morning. This area, the Ponta D’Ouro coast is renowned for the pods of dolphins that dot the waves off its beaches.
Learn more about Freediving from champion freediver Hanli with her FAQ here.


marine holidays

Dip your toe into our marine holidays. From humpbacks and whale sharks to pelagic birds and dazzling underwater coral gardens, the world’s oceans are a playground for wildlife enthusiasts.


Cruises & Voyages


cruises

Small expedition vessels allow access to remote areas larger ships simply can’t reach which make for fantastic wildlife opportunities. We have a huge selection of journeys from Antarctica voyages to luxury river cruises.


Shackleton Centenary Voyages


shackleton voyage

Do get in touch to find out more about our two dedicated Shackleton centenary Antarctic voyages.


Private Charters


Private Charters

Set sail on your own private charter, or join one of our exclusive Steppes charters with expert leaders. Journeys such as our Telegraph Tours Antarctica charter with Monty Halls and Sue Flood, filmmaker James Brickell in the Seychelles or our new Sue Flood Photographic Galapagos Cruise. We also have a NEW charter to Indonesia with Richard Dawkins travelling in June 2017 – contact us to register your interest.


galapagos

GALAPAGOS 
Photographic Cruise with Sue Flood
Explore this archipelago next Spring with leading photographer and wildlife filmmaker Sue Flood.


seychelles

SEYCHELLES
Exclusive Charter
Join wildlife filmmaker and diver James Brickell on our 18 day exodus to the ‘Galapagos of Africa.

Antarctic charter

The ultimate Antarctic cruise for anyone with a love of wildlife and wild places. A combination of the right ship – the Akademik Ioffe, the right itinerary and the right experts on-board make this the perfect way to discover the white continent.


turkey

TURKEY
Private Gulets

Sail the Lycian coast bathed in warm Mediterranean sunshine this summer.


indonesia

INDONESIA
Private Charters

World class dive spots such as Raja Ampat and pristine remote beaches.

png

Due to a cancellation we have one place remaining on this exciting charter. Join naturalist and BBC presenter Chris Packham onboard True North sailing around the remote islands of PNG and up the Sepik River.


baja mexico

BAJA MEXICO
Private Charters
The best whale watching in the world. Grey, blue, fin, sperm and humpback all make for breathtaking encounters.


polar bears canada

CANADA
Photographic Cruise with Sue Flood

Photograph black bears, grizzlies and spirit bears under expert tuition and timed for the salmon run.


On Location


South Africa

“Have you ever had your finger nibbled by a sea anemone?” Hanli enthuses. A walk along the seaside in South Africa has turned into an eye-opening voyage of discovery. Perhaps unsurprising given that I am with Hanli Prinsloo, world champion free diver and passionate ambassador for our oceans.

 

Steppes @tourientexpress in #Norway for #WorldOceansDay #waveforchange

A video posted by Steppes Travel (@steppes_travel) on

Bridget Cohen #waveforchange #WorldOceansDay

A video posted by Steppes Travel (@steppes_travel) on

Get in touch to learn more about our wildlife holidays. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

,

A Guatemala Holiday with Maximón, the cigarette-smoking hooch-tooting god

Our tuk tuk screeches to a halt outside a nondescript house whose dirty walls are adorned with red and yellow posters promoting Brahva beer. Roosters crow in the next-door backyard. A sound system blasts out music‎. The only distinguishing feature are coloured plastic strips hanging underneath a corrugated iron lean to. They denote the house of the shaman and the residence of Maximón.

A folk saint venerated by the Mayans in the highlands of Guatemala, Maximón is represented by an effigy which resides in a different house each year, being moved in a procession during Holy Week. Devotees visit Maximón and offer money, spirits or cigarettes to gain his favour in exchange for good health, good crops and good luck.

I am ushered into a darkened room. The concrete walls are bare. The ceiling adorned with colourful plastic strips. On the right hand side of the room in gloomy silence stand two painted statues. Next to them, in a glass cabinet, lies a figure of Jesus Christ with a US flag draped around his head.  On the left of the room are a couple of wooden chairs on which sit members of the cofradía, the brotherhood who keep the shrine in order and pass offerings from worshippers to Maximón.

In the middle of room sits an elderly man opposite Maximón. ‎In front of Maximón is a wooden stool on which is a wooden statuette of an angel and a packet of Dart cigarettes. In front of the stool on the floor are lit candles flanked on each side by an earthenware pot of flowers. It is bizarre in the extreme; eclecticism gone mad.

Must bizarre of all was Maximón himself. A stunted figure of a few feet high he is clad in black boots and coloured trousers. His shoulders are draped in silk scarves. Around his neck a couple of dotted ties and on his head a black cowboy hat. He has a smoking cigarette rammed into his mouth. Most striking of all is his face. Ghoulish, long and drawn it bizarrely reminds me of Kirk Douglas on a bad day. Not sure why I say that – perhaps it is the cowboy hat?

A diminutive elderly man sits penitent in front of Maximón. He looks faintly ridiculous in oversized hat, oversized jacket and oversized shoes. Given that Guatemalan men are so vertically challenged where did they find such a pair of oversized shoes? The old man has a problem with his legs, hence he is seeking Maximón’s help. The shaman is chanting. He wafts incense. He holds the old man’s head. He sprays alcohol from his mouth over the man – an act of cleansing.

Meanwhile one of the other shamans is attending to Maximón.  He carefully lifts a bottle of rum to Maximón’s open mouth and pores it in. He then pats Maximón’s face mouth with a cloth like a nurse attending to an elderly patient in an old people’s home. A new cigarette is placed in Maximón’s mouth and lit.

Maximon,-Guatemala-Steppes-Travel

The show is over. The old man is derobed and trousers, oversized jacket and oversized shoes are returned to the dressing up box in the corner of the room.

And then it was my turn. But I have nothing to atone for, nothing to pray for. My arrogance was treated with the scorn that it deserves and I am told to kneel on the hard concrete floor. The shaman starts wafting incense ‎in front of my face, the acrid smoke fills my nostrils. I feel slightly nauseous.

He starts blessing us, chanting in Tzutujil, the local language. He switches to Spanish to ask my name. More Tzutujil chanting. Back to Spanish to ask where I come from and then returns to his dialect. The black cowboy hat is placed on my head. He hat is turned round and he fondles my face with silk scarf. I am asked to kiss the hat.

It is without doubt the most surreal manifestation of the hybrid belief systems. I ask Pedro, my guide who is in his late twenties, whether the local people believe in Maximón. He says very much so. I ask does he (Pedro)? His answer is much less positive and certain. Is belief in Maximón waning?

Do I believe? Well, I returned safely. Maximón had given me his protection whilst in Guatemala.

Get in touch with us for more information on your Guatemala holiday, call us on 01258 787 557 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

,

Guatemala – A land of colour

“I will wear any brand of clothing but Banana Republic,” quipped my guide. Whilst it was typical of his sense of humour there was also a serious point to his joke. A quiet reference to the way in which his country has been stereotyped over the years.

Yes, Guatemala was embroiled in a civil war for thirty years until 1996 – the late 70s and 80s being its nadir – but with the ending of the war things have improved for the Guatemalans. The literacy rate is a good indicator of this – in 1996 60% of the population were illiterate, today that number has fallen to 13%. Whilst the population has increased substantially – it was nine million twenty years ago and is now fifteen million – there is poverty but not malnutrition. Where once there was uncertainty and insecurity there is now peace and calmness.

My guide Rambo – a name bequeathed to him whilst serving as a captain in‎‎ Guatemala’s Special Forces – personifies the country and its emergence from civil war. Some twenty odd years ago Rambo participated in two coups‎ and had to flee the country but for the last twenty-five years he has worked as a guide, showing tourists the highlights of his country. There are many.

Guatemala is a small Central American country – about half the size of the UK – that is a kaleidoscope of colour. Everywhere there is colour. From the lush green landscapes of Atitlan to the pastel colours of Antigua, from the flowers in the markets to the floral designs embroidered on the vibrant costumes that many of the Mayan women still wear.

Unlike many Latin American countries, Guatemala still has a large indigenous community – the Mayans make up around 40 per cent of the population. It is this that makes the country so fascinating, not to mention visually arresting. The Mayan way of life remains remarkably untouched by modernity.

In the twelve lakeside villages around Lake Atitlán, the majority of Mayan women still dress in their traditional hand-loomed costumes. Colours and patterns vary according to which village you come from – in one village the women wear red and black stripes whilst in the next door village blue and purple zigzags might be de rigueur. Or in another, Santiago Atitlán for example, the women’s pale lilac or blue huipils, a sleeveless tunic, are covered in dozens of embroidered birds.

There is colour too in the landscape. Not literally but in terms of how varied and different it is. The volcanoes of Guatemala are an unexpected delight. The startling blue of Lake Atitlan is set against the dramatic backdrop of three enormous volcanoes jabbing at the southern sky: Tomilan, Atitlán and San Pedro. The city of Antigua is cradled by the soaring peaks of the volcanoes Agua and Fuego.

Lake Atitlan

 

There is certainly colour in Antigua, among the finest examples of colonial architecture in the Americas. I walk the cobblestone streets – the best way to fully appreciate the fabric of the city – and take in the red-tiled roofs, walls of terracotta or Córdoba blue. The buildings are low and massive, a potent symbol of the strength of the Spanish. Thick imposing walls guard the courtyards of colonial houses. I peek through an open doorway and glimpse shade, bougainvillea and jasmine.

Guatemala masks

There is colour too in the forests – Guatemala means place of forest. From a splash of green of a rare emerald toucan to the bright red head of a woodpecker, from the dazzle of a miniature hummingbirds to the giant kaleidoscopic butterflies.

There was once colour – predominantly red – on the myriad Mayan temples that make the northern region of Peten unique and unparalleled. Blasted away by the elements and archaeologists, literally in the case of the latter, the temples and pyramids are more muted than in their prime.

Tikal - Plaza of Seven Temples (3)

Yet this does not detract from the magic of the experience of visiting the temples. With its countless pyramid-style temples which date back to 200 BC, the historical site of Tikal is world-famous. The temples are awe-inspiring, the views from their summits of the never-ending green almost equally so. The Mayans were an incredible civilisation not least for the fact that the Mayan word cacao means the food of the gods.

There is colour in Guatemalan humour. They like joking about Mexicans: what do you call a Mexican crossed with a Chinaman? A car thief who can’t drive. There is colour in their smiles – that is not a reference to the flash of gold as they smile but the warmth of their smiles.

There is colour in the accommodation. The standard of boutique accommodation is of good quality – quirky and filled with colonial and Mayan antiques. The gorgeous Casa Palopo overlooking Lake Atitlán stands high against the hillside and out in my memory.

Arguably most important of all, there is colour in the guides. Rambo and Carlos remain among some of the best guides that I have been lucky enough to meet in my travels. No spouting a litany of dates or facts but rather an intimate and personal view of their country. They are proud of Guatemala. And rightly so.

Get in touch with us for more information on your Guatemala holiday, call us on 01258 787 557 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Guatemala & Honduras - The Maya World

expert led group tour

Guatemala & Honduras – The Maya World

14 days from £3,595pp

View Group Tour

Guatemala - Highlights including Lake Atitlan

Guatemala – Highlights including Lake Atitlan

9 days from £2,325pp

View Holiday Idea

,

Antigua – A city saved by earthquakes

Cradled by the soaring peaks of the volcanoes Agua and Fuego, Antigua is among the finest examples of the colonial architecture in the Americas. Built by the Spanish in 1543, when it went by the name of Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala, for centuries Antigua was Central America’s most powerful city, something to which its squares, buildings and private houses bear witness today. The city has retained its eighteenth century charm and a remarkable state of preservation due to a particularly destructive earthquake in 1773, Antigua was evacuated and the capital moved to Guatemala City thus avoiding the urban sprawl of the unsavoury modern day capital.

I walk the cobblestone streets – the best way to fully appreciate the fabric of the city – and take in the red-tiled roofs, walls of terracotta or Córdoba blue. The buildings are low and massive, a potent symbol of the strength of the Spanish. Thick imposing walls guard the courtyards of colonial houses. I peek through an open doorway and glimpse shade, bougainvillea and jasmine.

Antigua (2)Antigua (3)Antigua (6)

Baroque churches and their bell-towers stand testament to the power of the Catholic Church. But even such might is not equal to that of the earth and its unpredictable movements – the churches have literally been so shaken to their foundations by earthquakes over the centuries. Within they are a hollow shell of their former selves.

Antigua is not just a museum. The city has a thriving population of 40,000 and it is nowhere more alive than in the market. I arrive at the market on the deep rumbling of the diesel engines of the gaudily coloured ‘chicken’ buses – former US school buses whose trademark yellow has been replaced in a blaze of bling. Tuk tuks toot their horns as they bustle in between the leviathan chicken buses.

Guatemala chicken bus

The market is a sensory overload. There were huge bunches of lilies and chrysanthemums. There were flowers for weddings, flower for funerals, flowers for graves. Tomatoes of every shape, size and colour. Chillies as big as plums, chillies as small as peas. Oversized carrots. So much fruit both in terms of the amount and variety. Fruits I did not recognise such as the chico sapote‎ (the bark of this tree is rich in a white latex called chicle which is used in making chewing gum), a brown fruit that tasted not dissimilar to dates. Candles of varying sizes and colours. The colour is significant – you light red for love, blue for work, white for children, pink for illness and green for economy‎. Such public display of what is ailing or irking you offends my private self.

IMG_2581

Food abounds. Spices, small chunks of limestone into powder, corn tortillas cooked on giant terracotta tortilla plates, vegetables chopped and piled in little clear plastic bags – the Guatemalan equivalent of a ready-made meal. At impromptu outdoor cafés market-goers sit around drinking bowls atoll blanco, a hot corn soup or a seafood soup. My guide tells me that the seafood soup is always popular on a Monday as a hangover‎ cure.

There is a sense of civic pride. The market is clean, the paths being sprayed with water and then diligently swept. There is a quiet warmth to the people. Smiles and laughter break out with ease revealing flashes of gold.‎

Get in touch with us for more information on your Guatemala holiday, call us on 01258 787 557 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Guatemala & Honduras - The Maya World

expert led group tour

Guatemala & Honduras – The Maya World

14 days from £3,595pp

View Group Tour

Guatemala - Highlights including Lake Atitlan

Guatemala – Highlights including Lake Atitlan

9 days from £2,325pp

View Holiday Idea

,

Steppes Beyond | What Can A Costa Rica Holiday Offer?

Squirrel-Monkey,-Costa-Rica

Costa Rica has an extraordinary wealth of eco-systems. Home to cloud forests, tropical dry forests, rainforests, highlands, wetlands, plains and two coastlines it is no wonder that Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world.  The slogan here is “Pura Vida” meaning the good life and indeed it is.  Plus, British Airways has also announced its non-stop service to San Jose starting in 2016, making Costa Rica a must for anyone looking for the ideal family, wildlife, beach or adventure holiday.

Below is copy of my presentation on our Costa Rica holidays at our Steppes Beyond event in November 2015. For more information on any of our destinations please do get in touch.

Start your Costa Rica holiday with us, call us on 01285 601 639  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

,

Guatemala Holiday: Dare I Challenge Aldous Huxley?

Lake-Atitlan,-Guatemala,-Steppes-Travel

Lake Atitlán is Guatemala’s gem, or at least one of its many jewels. It is renowned for its scenery – it is a scenic set-piece that is astonishing.  It wowed the likes of Aldous Huxley thus, “Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.”

Landscape impresses but with people you connect. It is the people of Atitlán that I will remember most.

In the twelve lakeside villages, the majority of the women still dress in their traditional hand-loomed costumes. Colours and patterns vary according to which village you come from – in one village the women wear red and black stripes whilst in the next door village blue and purple zigzags might be de rigueur. Or in another, Santiago Atitlán for example, the women’s pale lilac or blue huipils, a sleeveless tunic, are covered in dozens of embroidered birds.

Many women wear headdresses. Again this is a distinguishing feature of residence. Some wear a colourful cloth folded in layers while others wear a cloth wound loosely about the head like a turban – such headdresses represent the snake a symbol of fertility.

The best place to see such colour, to see the difference in patterns and designs are the local markets. There are many markets in the region – Chichicastenango, Solola and Comalapa to name but a few. They are all ablaze with colour: the colour of the embroideries, the colour of the flowers, the colour of the vegetables and the colour of the characters. Diminutive figures of men shuffle slowly forward in cowboy hats, colourful garb and oversized wellington boots. Women weave between the stalls balancing heavy loads on their heads‎.

 Solola market, Guatemala

Whilst dress might be distinctive and a determinant as to ‎where people are from, common to them all is their friendliness. Wherever I go, the endearing shy reticence of the people of Atitlán easily and quickly breaks into a warm and friendly smile. The landscape might amaze but it is such warmth that wins you over.

Get in touch with us for more information on your Guatemala holiday, call us on 01258 787 557 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.