The end of 2014 marks the end of another year of worldy travels, but I’m not stopping now! I’m continuing well into the new year, a first for me. I’ve never spent the New Year holidays outside of Michigan and to celebrate the occasion, I wanted to go balls to the wall in Antigua with my comrades here in Guatemala!
I’ve heard Antigua is a pretty special place to celebrate the dawn of 2015. Everyone gathers around the central park and underneath the arch in hordes and bunches. The plan was to spend the night with a nice dinner somewhere and then hit up the squares and see where the night takes us. My housemates Carly, Laura, and Ellie along with Hanni and Abby (Chicago, USA) from the Shakina volunteer house joined me for dinner at a place called Luna de Miel. Before we left the house, Olga warned me to watch out for pickpockets and thieves since this is the night if anything should happen. I brought my big bad Nikon which Olga advised against, but I always protect my camera is if it were my child. I also need it for blogging purposes. At Luna de Miel, we sat upstairs and ordered up a feast. I was feeling fancy, so I stuck with vino tinto (red wine) for a good majority of the night. After a bit, I asked the ladies to say something about their year that they were the proudest of; a moment or something that will stick with them about 2014. They each had some pretty neat things to say, all of them completely different.
For me? I told them how lucky, fortunate, privileged, and blessed I am to be able to travel the world nonstop on a yearly basis with 2014 being my biggest adventure yet. The stars have aligned perfectly for me to be able to do this and 2014 was another terrific year that bid me well in those regards. I can’t take all my friends and family back home with me on these amazing trips, but the least I can do is share my stories and photos with them through this blog site.
After dinner, we went straight to Jungle Party, a hip hostel bar kind of place with swings at the rail in place of stools. It’s also the place with the cheapest beers that we’ve found so far. The bartenders here are really cool and pretty generous. They hit us up with multiple free shots!
I always mention how I don’t like to talk about our drunken antics on this site, but psshhh…it’s New Year’s!
At the Jungle Party we met up with a few other volunteers and hit the streets. It was jam packed!
I knew what Olga meant when she said this was the night of the pickpockets. I was on heavy guard though and thankfully I made it through the entire night with all of my valuables. Hanni, Abby, and I went over to Monoloco to meet up with a few locals who also gave us more free drinks. Beer this time. Antigua you’re too kind! It was about twenty minutes before midnight when we decided we should go near the arch and countdown to midnight. We found Jacob, who came back to Antigua for a visit, and somehow found the others as well and found the perfect spot in front of the fire explosives. As the time ticked closer to midnight, fireworks would go off behind us and all around us from all corners. I had a tube of confetti in my right pocket that was filled with compressed air that I blasted into the crowd!
Ten seconds! Five…four…three…two…one!……..Nothing happened. Maybe Guatemala’s watch was a minute or two off. Twelve minutes went by, past midnight, until suddenly the New Year’s explosive sign lit and finally went off!
The crowd was going wild and everyone held their smartphones and cameras up to capture all the action. We were squished arm to arm in the masses of locals and foreigners from all over the world and it was pretty great! The sparks flew and died down after several minutes.
“Let’s go to Parque Central!” I shouted as I pointed in the direction.
We grabbed each other so we wouldn’t get separated and slowly inched our way there. I had sparklers in my left pocket I had bought earlier that I wanted everyone to have and get silly with.
The mood was just right. We had our sparklers as people around lit stuff on fire and set them into the air. One group had a miniature hot air balloon that they lit into flames and set into the air. However the balloon didn’t go very far and almost sailed right into our group. Kids threw their snappers into the ground as other locals set off miniature fireworks in the park. There was cups and bottles of beer littered all over the cobblestone streets with people relaxed and perched on the corners of the museums and churches surrounding the square. Dozens and dozens of stray dogs were roaming between everyone, maybe looking for scraps of food or maybe just excited from all the exploding objects that were going off. There were people everywhere dancing and mingling. Everyone was having a great time!
A few of us went to another bar somewhere near the arch street. At this point, my memory was a little fuzzy so I don’t remember the name of the place or where exactly it was or what time it was. I do remember someone had bought us another shot there. The rule is you can’t refuse a free shot. Abided.
I had the severe munchies.
“I want McDonalds,” I told Hanni. It sounded like a great idea but only if it were open. A few of us left the bar and straggled to the only McDonalds in Antigua. There were still masses of people roaming the street. Bad news was, we could see McDonald’s in the distance…dark, lonely, and absolutely closed. Good news, there was a Burger King right across from us that was completely open! That should do. It was the best Burger King of my life!
I think I got home just a little after 3:30 in the morning. I’ve lost my housemates ages ago and had to walk home by myself. Even though I had a few drinks in me, I was still cautious and aware of my surroundings if anyone had tried to mug me. I got home safe and sound and instantly passed out. I had no idea if the others were home or not yet.
I woke up the next morning with a text from Hanni that she sent when I fell asleep:
“Not even remotely sleepy… Going to hike Cero to see the city at night, want to come? :-P”
It’s Christmas Eve and it doesn’t even feel like it!
I looked everywhere in Antigua for a Santa Claus hat. Whenever I asked people where I could find one, I was always directed to the main outdoor market. The place was sprawling with holiday spirit!
I found plenty of Santa hats but none that could fit my big noggin. Finding a big fluffy red one required going into Guatemala City, which I didn’t have time for.
Christmas in Monterrico!
For me, Christmas without the cold weather and snow is like having Oreos without the milk. It’s like a hamburger without any fries. The Australians always tell me the opposite, they can’t imagine having a cold Christmas. This particular Christmas was gonna be a hot one and I couldn’t wait! Laura, Ellie, Carly, Mark, Valerio, Marco, Katie, and I organized a private shuttle about two hours drive to the Pacific Coast. Our destination: Playa Monterrico! Monterrico is a beachside village with slate black sand made of volcanic ash. The shores are torrential with consistently strong waves. The dark color of the sand heats as the sun rises over. During midday, the sand is scorching hot; too hot to stand on. The heat from it rises and boils Monterrico like a giant sauna. We arrived to Monterrico just before sunset on Christmas Eve.
The eight of us checked into a hostel resort called Johnny’s Place, one of the higher rated spots in the area. We walked around the villa and it really is the place to be! Tons of huts, pools, hammocks, and chairs to lounge on. We put away our bags and went to the outdoor restaurant near the beach. The mosquitos were biting! Thankfully, Johnny’s Place was smart enough to sell mosquito repellent to their guests. We sprayed it up as we began to drink and feast! It was only 7pm, so we still had ways to go before midnight officially struck.
What’s great about this particular group of volunteers is that they’re easy people. We evenly split the costs of everything between the eight of us: drinks, foods, and even our rooms. Although majority of us shared a dorm, the Italians were stuck in a private room in which we just split everything evenly. It made life easier that way. Plus, still it was fairly cheap. We went up on the drinks and casually moved over to a hangout hut just a few meters away. There we met a separate group of volunteers, all from Germany including one named Lionel. We merged our groups and played a massive game of “Werewolf”. Afterwards, Lionel joined my group over to another bar next door. Carly spotted a silly excuse for a Christmas tree there but thought it was festive enough to have a holiday group photo!
The bar we went to was situated on a rooftop which was perfect for the night. It was too dark to see the ocean but you could hear the sounds of crashing waves booming in the background of the salsa music that was playing. Still it didn’t feel like Christmas Eve at all. I’m not used to all this heat during the holidays yet!
As the hours went by, we began to realize that even though it wasn’t officially Christmas here in Monterrico, Guatemala, that it was Christmas in our respective countries. The Australians were first, followed by the Italians, and at 11pm in Guatemalan time, it was Christmas back home in Michigan. Everytime we announced it was Christmas in our home countries, we toasted and cheered! Soon enough, midnight hit and fireworks went off along the beach. Everything that night was more than amazing!
The next morning, I was feeling it. I had a little headache but it was the good kind of headache knowing it came from a really great night. Katie and I woke up a little after dusk and walked along the beach. The sun was in the beginnings of its intensifying rays as our feet sunk into the thick gravels of dark ash. Sizeable pelicans flew by across the shore scoping for their morning breakfast. During the morning, the ashy sand is cool enough to walk on. The waves left blankets of thick white foam among the crests. It was Christmas day and it was going to be a good one.
Even though some of us weren’t feeling well from the night before, we still had an appetite, albeit a small one, for breakfast. I heard a vanilla banana smoothie does wonders for hangovers, so I ordered one of those. But it wasn’t until we decided to go into the water that my small hangover went away. I discovered the cure to hangovers! Those waves in Monterrico knocked the hangover right out of me! Those waves were freakishly strong!
The tide was so brutal that it literally swept you off your feet and pulled your whole body into the currents. It was advised to not go out too far into the ocean or else you could get trapped out there. At times I felt like I was stuck, but in these kind of currents it’s best to just relax and not fight it. Flow with it!
Later on, a group of volunteers from Antigua joined us on the beach. Roxy and Hanni among others. The sand started to become too hot to walk on. Our plans to play soccer and volleyball during the afternoon were put on hold. It was so hot that the sand made the air and everything around it sweltering. I’m known for doing dumb things, so I challenged Hanni to see who can withstand the sand the longest between us. We weren’t even out there for 20 seconds before we caved. We felt our feet burning for a long time afterwards. Don’t do what we did!
It was so hot out that all of us stayed under the huts, lounging on the cushions and hammocks. What a relaxing holiday!
Lionel volunteered here in Monterrico with the sea turtle rescue project. He knew of a place, about five minutes walking distance into the village that served cheap but tasty food. We followed his lead and went on. There we spotted a litter of puppies, barely a couple of weeks old scattered among the village. I’m a sucker for cute animals.
It was midday and the suns heat began to lessen a bit. The sand was still burning, but now it was bearable as long as you didn’t stand in one place for too long. It was perfect for volleyball because it forced everyone to move around. It was team Mark vs team Valerio. I was on Valerio’s side and we ended up losing by two points. It made for a great game though.
My group I came with only planned on staying one and night and headed back to Antigua at 4pm on Christmas day and what a Christmas it was. Pure relaxation and fun under the Pacific sun. Thanks for hanging out with us Lionel!
This was the best Christmas gift I’ve gotten this year and I’m glad I got to spend it with such a great group of people.
Halong Bay is considered one of the new seven natural wonders of the world and is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you come to Vietnam, it’s one of the excursions you MUST do. It definitely seems like the pleasure trip; fortunate passengers literally sailing through thousands of small islands made of limestone aboard a wooden ship.
Sounds like heaven! However, the only way I would agree to go on this outing is if I had a pirate ship. I’ve seen pictures of it on the internet and it’s definitely possible. Lucy felt the same. We booked a tour through Ethnic Travels. Their whole mantra is taking their guests to places where most tourists don’t go. Sounds perfect! And one of their boats resembled a wooden pirate ship with giant red sails! We’ve turned down many tour companies offering us a cruise through Halong Bay because their boats didn’t look anything like a pirate ship, but with Ethnic, we were also able to nab a great deal, thanks to Ibrahim who is a master bargainer.
A minivan picked us up in the wee hours of the early sunlight. Inside it were six other passengers who would join Lucy and I on the ship, including a couple from the Netherlands, Jurre and An. It was about three hours drive east in northern Vietnam until we finally made it to the port of Halong City. There were many tourists and fellow backpackers crowded about, eagerly waiting to board their boats. What made our cruise extra special was that the eight of us had an entire ship to ourselves, unlike most other ships where there could be 20+ passengers on just one vessel. In addition to Jurre and An, in our group we also had a couple from Switzerland and two friends from Singapore. It was a solid bunch and we were primed to board our ship!
Ha long means “Bay of Descending Dragons”. The legend goes like this:
In the ancient world, when our ancestors were in a war with barbaric adversaries from the northern region, the heavenly gods blessed our ancestors with a family of powerful dragons to help defend their earth. The dragons descended upon the empty sea, which is now called Ha long Bay, and began to spit diamonds onto the calm waters. Upon hitting the surface, these diamonds transformed into thousands of small islets, becoming a complex barrier against the barbarians. With the help of the dragons island barriers, our ancestors were able to defeat the barbarians and keep their country safe. The family of dragons fell in love with the peaceful waters and with the gratitude of the people, and so, decided to remain on earth. The mother dragon lives in what is now Ha long Bay and her children live in Bai Tu Long Bay, an area of equally rich waters neighboring Ha long Bay.
What a cool story! Not only will I see Halong Bay, but the next day we will be able to see where the dragon children live in Bai Tu Long Bay!
As we boarded the ship, we were treated to a lunch in the cabin. Lunch that contained seafood…lot’s and lot’s of seafood. Blah! Thankfully there was rice, chicken, and a medley of sautéed veggies to hold me over until dinner. Soon enough, we began our descent through the bay!
Technically, I am a tourist, but I really don’t care for that label. I prefer “adventure seeker”. I climbed to the top of the ship and set my eyes across the distance, past hundreds of islands, through the courses of our route.
Before boarding the ship, I was a bit worried about becoming sea-sick. Regular readers already know that motion sickness has been my worst enemy while traveling amongst the continents. And stupid me forgot to bring prevention tablets for this trip. Fortunately, the waters in Ha Long Bay were blissfully calm and serene. The ship glided smoothly among the surface of the sea, like an airplane in a clear sky. Islets of limestone, scattered around the region created a soothing, tranquil effect. The clouds were as white and puffy as I’ve ever seen. It was the perfect day for sailing.
After a couple of hours, we cruised to a floating village. Literally dozens of small, worn wooden homes and shops floating on the water. Four locals came to our ship by rowboat and picked us up for a tour around their village. In this village, children learn how to row and swim at the ripe age of four! As peaceful as it is here, it can be a bit of a drag. There isn’t really anywhere to walk to and since this village is so far from towns on the mainland, the villagers must often wait long periods of time for water and food to be delivered. In any case, the villagers catch, sell, and trade a hefty amount of fish and crustaceans; a couple of food sources they will never run out of.
After rowing for a bit, we boarded our ship and sailed to a spot on the bay that was surrounded by numerous caves and towering islands. We then had the opportunity to jump into the water! My neck hasn’t felt 100% yet so I first jumped off the mid-deck. Awesome fun! The water was warm and deep. I immediately got out and went to the top-deck and decided it was okay for me to jump. I decided wrong. My neck felt a sudden painful jab as soon as I hit the water, and sent a jolt down my spine. I didn’t flip or anything, just kinda jumped like a silly man into the water. I played it off like nothing was wrong. The others had no idea! Most of us decided to swim about 100 yards over to a cave nearby called “Drum Cave”. It hurt me to much to freestyle swim, so I backstroked the whole way. I couldn’t really hear or see what the others were doing, but I just knew to swim to the entrance. When I made it, I looked up and saw the others going the opposite direction. I didn’t know why, the entrance was right here by me! Anyhow, as I started to slowly climb the sharp rocks, I was getting cut up all over my hands, legs, and feet just by the slightest touch of a rock. I didn’t even make it to the entrance because I was getting slashed up so much as the others, who were still so far away, looked on. I looked at my fingers and saw all of the blood collecting on each of my fingertips. A shark is going to come get me! I saw our tour guide flagging us to come back to the boat. But, why? We just swam out here? Did she spot something in the water? I saw the others starting to swim back. So off I went too! My mind started to play tricks on me. My neck was hurting so I had to swim upside down and my blood was spewing into the ocean, so I fastened my pace, juuuuust incase a shark really did pick up my blood trace and wanted to take a bite out of me. In the process, I grew fatigued and switched to resting strokes. At one point, I looked up and saw the others had already made it while I was still so far behind. I eventually made it to the ships anchor and kinda chilled there for a bit, regaining a bit of energy. In the process, the anchor was also scrapping my legs, so off I swam back to the ladder onto the deck, finally! My neck and chest were hurting and my fingers were a bloody mess. Lucy bandaged me up and I went to go put on my neck brace. “Why didn’t you guys swim to the cave?” I asked her. “We wanted to go around the other side and the water was warmer where we were”, she replied. Pssshh.
We all then spent the rest of the evening on the top deck, reveling under the moonlit, night sky.
The next day we woke up pretty early. Kayaking to caves a bit further away was on the agenda. Lucy and I got into our kayak and paddled away! It was drizzling a bit, with a few booms of thunder, but not enough to stop us! We paddled our way through to a cave, almost hidden behind a giant limestone, and docked our kayak on the sandy shore of a small island.
On the island was the entrance to what turned out to be an enormous cave that you could see through to the opposite side. Our tour guide told us that this is called “Fairy Cave”. There was a huge crater in the center of the cave edged out with boulders that grew in size the further you went. On the opposite side, we had a framed view of another island, about a few dozen meters across the water. Worthy of photos, but I didn’t have a camera on me, in fear of it getting wet and destroyed. I must go back to the ship and retrieve my GoPro! The others were walking around the cave so Lucy and I decided to hightail it back to the ship. As we kayaked away, it started to rain and thunder heavily. It was so sweet!
Once we made it to the ladder of the ship, I went up, retrieved my handy GoPro and jumped back into my kayak. l wondered why the others didn’t follow us. Where did they go? It continued to downpour but Lucy and I were lovin’ it! On the way back to Fairy Cave, we witnessed sinister lighting strikes shatter the sky as the surface of the sea fluttered with zillions of pelting raindrops. We made it back and saw our group standing near the entrance. Apparently, they were waiting for this storm to succeed, by the suggestion of our tour guide. Whoops…
Anyhow, Lucy and I trekked back into the cave, now with my GoPro in tow, to document what we’ve seen. Worth the effort.
Later on the same day, we sailed back to the dock of Halong City. We parted ways with the Swiss couple and the two Singaporean friends. A couple from Barcelona, Spain joined our group and we took a minivan to Bai Tu Long Bay, the next destination of this excursion. Our new boat was a bit smaller, as we didn’t have any private rooms this time. The rain and thunder ceased and we were able to set sail through Bai Tu Long Bay. Bai Tu Long was similar to Ha Long Bay except the islands were noticeably bigger and more connected than the limestone islets of Ha Long.
We cruised for a few hours, some of us even falling asleep on the roof of the boat. We eventually reached a large island where bicycles were awaiting each of us. We biked about three kilometers to a secluded beach. There was no other person there but the six of us and our tour guide. After playing around there for a bit, we continued on our bikes through the island to a small village.
At the village was a guesthouse where we would stay the night and enjoy authentic Vietnamese cuisine. It included fried spring rolls, sticky rice, strewed spinach, chicken, and of course tons of seafood. Bleh! I enjoyed the non seafood things and then called it a night in one of the hottest sleeps in Vietnam thus far!
The morning we woke up to pouring rain and muddy streets. Thankfully we didn’t have to ride our bikes all the way back to our boat, but instead we took a miniature pick-up truck thingamajig back. The pouring rain turned into a harsh thunderstorm, so instead of kayaking again today, we just sailed back to shore. The water was a tad choppy so I made sure to lie down, not look at the water, and try to fall asleep so I wouldn’t get seasick. Worked like a charm! When we returned to the dock, the storm began to lessen, so our tour guide arranged us rowboats to a nearby island. On this island, was a tall mountain with a cave hidden within it.
One of the dragon children was rumored to live here deep within the caves. There were dragon statues and simulacrum hidden within the overgrown brush of the islands’ forest.
Jurre, An, Lucy, and I climbed maybe a quarter of the mountain and found the entrance to the cave; and in we went.
This cave was deep. It was long and maze-like. Not to mention, total darkness. We needed torches to navigate through. It looked as though a small museum was being built here awhile ago but has been abandoned, maybe temporarily or maybe not. It was kinda eerie because the abandoned showcases and other random man-made objects lying around rendered a haunting influence within the cave.
We could hear bats flying about, but could not see them. We went for several minutes, with diverging paths coming every few careful steps of the way. Our tour guide suggested we turn around because it was easy to get lost inside. I agreed that it was easy to get lost, but I wanted to continue further. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my own torch and I would have been lost in the cave forever. On the way back, Lucy spotted a spider the size of my fist!
We exited the cave and continued our way up the mountain. Once we reached the summit, we had a great view of Bai Tu Long Bay! This completed the end of our stay at the bays. The three days flew by and was as relaxed as I imagined. Except for the whole bleeding in the ocean thing, but that’s a story in itself!
Later on in the day, we packed our bags and took a van back to Hanoi. As soon as we got off the van, Lucy and I immediately took a taxi to the bus station. Literally, no times to go to a hotel and regroup. We parted ways with the cool couple, Jurre and An, but only for the night. The next morning we would all reunite, after a long 11 hour bus ride to the northwest to an otherworldly place called Heaven’s Gate or more famously known as Sapa.