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On the Streets of the Murder Capital of the World

Backpacking in El Salvador is a rare thing. It is one of those countries that constantly remain in news because of its bad reputation. The statistics are also not in favor of El Salvador. Earned the title of ‘Murder Capital of the World’ many times in the last few decades, El Salvador has been trying to find a way out of the crippling problem of homicides and gang violence. How does it feel to walk on the streets of San Salvador and other cities of the nation? One has to experience it; merely reading news articles may not be that useful.

I was a bit nervous about my travels through El Salvador when I googled about the safety issues in the cities. As per one of the news reports, there was not a single day from 2012 to 2016 without a murder on the streets. Amid confusion and uneasiness, I decided to follow the original plan to spend 3-4 days in the country. Why leave El Salvador when I had done Colombia, Brazil and Mexico?

An express bus from Guatemala City to Santa Ana in El Salvador was a relatively a comfortable and hassle-free ride. The border crossing took only 10 minutes, and no surprises. Santa Ana is the third largest Salvadoran city known for its coffee industry. I was not the only tourist on the busy streets of the city; I met a few more travelers from the US who were also following the same route through Salvador to get to Honduras. The most touristic city in the country, Santa Ana has many things for visitors including its churches and museums. I did not feel any sort of danger while walking on the city streets. It was yet another city experience to me; although, there were areas I was told by the hostel staff not to walk alone in. Scenic beauty of the Coatepeque Lake, one of the most visited places in country, reassured me that it was worth coming to Salvador.

Just a few hours from this beauty is situated San Salvador, the biggest Salvadoran city and home of many gangs. The hostel doors closed at 9 PM. The staff had many stories to tell. The fellow travelers and I decided to spend time learning about the city from locals while enjoying local beer in the confine of the hostel walls. The city is heavily patrolled in the night time by armed police. Some of the spots in the city were alive way past midnight, under heavy security though. We all decided to pass on the nightlife to save our lives. We were told that tourists are always  easy targets for the street gangsters. The city was different after the sunrise. The same busy, noisy streets; the same hustle-bustle of life and the same crowded restaurants and coffee places. I hardly sensed any fear in the street walkers. We enjoyed street food while doing a walking tour of the city, which looked pretty westernized with many global names displaying big to attract affluent spenders. The patrol trucks with armed cops were still operating. It seemed as if the citizens are used to of all this now.

La Libertad was certainly a better place to see a better side of metro area. Less than an hour from the San Salvador, the small fishing town offers a local Salvadoran feel. Small shops, not very commercialized beaches and less crowded streets. The pacific waves are perfect for surfing around this town. We ended our day with some beers and the sunset on the pacific ocean.

On the bus to Honduras, I was thinking how much potential the country is losing because of all the senseless crimes on the streets.

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Sleeping Next to an Awake, Spewing Volcano

Just a few weeks before I drafted this post, Ms. Fuego, the fully awake spewing volcano, erupted on June 3rd, 2018 killing hundreds of people. I camped overnight within kilometers of Fuego in January 2017, not knowing the extent and imminence of the danger. But I saw lava spewing out, heard rumbling and felt vibrations when I was there. Maybe, she was getting ready for the big show. Maybe, she wanted to display to me its majestic powers.

There were two stops in Guatemala after crossing the Belize-Guatemala border and before meeting Ms. Fuego. The first one was Flores to visit Tikal National Park and other one was Guatemala City to be lost on its crowded streets.

An ancient Mayan citadel in the rainforests of northern Guatemala’s Petén Province, Tikal National Park is an UNESCO World Heritage site exemplifying an extraordinary  archaeological story of the Mayan Civilization. My camera could just collect the images, not the tales each temple reflects about its role in the Mayan society. A monument galore, the Tikal complex presents a great deal of insights into the Mayan culture and its evolution. Hours went by so quickly walking along the trails of park observing one structure after another. The day concluded with a beautiful panoramic view, from the top of a hill, of temples scattered in the lush green cover stretching for kilometers. A traditional Guatemalan dinner on the streets of Flores was a good way to say bye to the town and set for a long bus ride to Guatemala City. Skipping all the touristic spots, I chose the busy streets and local markets of the city to feel the buzz in the limited time I had before another bus ride to Antigua, my final destination in Guatemala. I was comfortable with chaotic, noisy streets, but the staring looks made me a bit jittery. I guess, a very few backpackers from India may have walked on those streets.

As I entered the city of Antigua, the scenic view in the backdrop greeted me with an assurance that the time here would be amazing. And, in a few days, it was new year’s eve too. In a new city with a bunch of new friends, I clinked my beer bottle with those of others forgetting everything for a moment. However, one thing was definitely in my mind- meeting with Ms. Fuego. A two day hiking and camping tour started early in the morning of the very first day of 2016. The itinerary on papers looked pretty cool. Little did we know that the meeting with Fuego would be back-breaking. A pack of 14 including our tour guide and a couple of porters set on a 15 kilometer long hike to the top of Volcano Acetanango. at approx. 13, 000 ft. The target was to reach there before sunset to mount our tents. As we settled in on the rocky camp ground on one of the peaks of Acetanango, the neighboring Volcano Fuego welcomed us with a firy and roaring show. All cameras were out to capture the lava spewing out. A hot dinner and red wine was nothing less than heavenly on that windy and chilly evening. Ms. Fuego kept doing the show for us every hour or so. It was a bit uncomfortable feeling sleeping near a rumbling, hissing, and roaring volcano. All was going perfectly as planned until altitude sickness forced two members of the pack to go down in the middle of the night. The remaining of us were scheduled to wake up at 3:30 AM to hike another 3-4 kilometer to get to the highest peak to watch the sunrise. A few more backed out knowing that the part of the hike was very steep and slippery. We were hiking against time as the sun would not wait for us. At 5:40 AM, the sun rose over the town behind the volcanoes and mountains.

Everything was worth doing for this moment: watching the sunrise standing on the peak of one volcano while the other one is rumbling and throwing out lava and thick smoke. It was a perfect timing for photography as well. The breakfast was ready when we came down to our base camp. Packed our stuff and back to the town. I had to catch a bus in the afternoon to my next adventure- El Salvador.

 

 

A day in the Mysterious Mayan Underworld

When we think of Belize, we imagine diving and snorkeling in its clear blue waters. However, there is something else in Belize that is totally contrasting yet equally appealing: Actun Tunichil Muknal or the ATM Cave and its secrets. Swimming in shallow waters with baby sharks and playful stingrays was fun; but muddy, cold water of the ATM cave was not very friendly to swim. Well, that’s what I signed up for. If you plan to visit Belize, do not miss the ATM Cave Tour.

Belize was the first stop on my Central America backpacking trip crossing borders of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras on buses. The three- week adventure started with a welcoming rum punch in Belize and ended with a nasty vomit comet ride in Honduras (covered in the Honduras post). Ferries loaded with backpackers and vacationers were headed one after another to Ambergris Caye, the biggest and the most popular island of Belize. As the sun set on the island, the bars got packed and the music got loud.  A good time to socialize and make new friends. Nobody wanted to be alone on the island. Maybe, a few!

There wasn’t any kind of water sport that was not there in the menu; and to make it complicated, there weer so many tour companies promising the best deal ever. The blue green sea was alluring, nevertheless, and so were the sharks and stingrays at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. A paradise for snorkelers and divers, Ambergris Caye is just a few miles away from the Great Belize Barrier Reef making it rich with sea life. It was my first time snorkeling and diving; it felt almost dreamy to see colorful fish, sharks and stingrays circling our group. I never saw sea life that close before. For a moment, I became a part of that magical environment. Stingrays were cool and let us touch them.  Sharks kept distance with us. Caye Caulker was my next destination, and it wasn’t any less mesmerizing. It was so tiny that I ran two rounds in one hour. One island to the next, one bar to another, one water adventure to something else; it continued for almost a week. I had to drag myself out of these energy and bank balance draining islands to get to the next agenda item: town of San Ignacio.

A full day in hammock eating and reading only helped regain some energy for the next task, a tough one. The ATM Cave tour is a full day activity, mostly in wet condition. Cameras and cellphones were not allowed, so no pictures or videos are available of this arduous tour. However, the company I did the tour with have some pictures and videos available.

https://www.mayawalk.com/belize-atm-cave-tour

 

There are so many tales around the history of this cave. Our tour guide narrated his own version spiced up with his own beliefs and superstitions. The experience wasn’t anything like swimming in clear water with dolphins and turtles. The day started with a bit easy task of crossing a muddy river by ropes followed by a jungle hike into the cave. The meeting with the Mayan underworld was not supposed to be easy anyways. We had to swim/ walk through narrow openings against the flow of water in the cave. If this wasn’t enough fun, cold muddy water made it more thrilling. The underworld revealed its secrets when we walked around the remains and remnants. The one who got everyone attention was a human skeleton. They call it “The Crystal Maiden.” It was sort of going back into the ancient time. But after being in cold water for hours, it was good to be back in the modern time to sip a hot coffee.

It was worth the efforts to witness something one of its kind. The ATM Cave tour was certainly an unique experience for me; if not just for the history, but definitely for the thrill.

 

 

 

 

 

Racing Down an Active Volcano Insanely

There are a few places on earth where boarding an active volcano is possible. Nicaragua’s Cerro Negro or Black Hill volcano is the most popular among these spots. Around 50 kilometers outside of León in Nicaragua, Cerro Negro was calling me to get  an adrenaline rush on its slippery slopes.

To know more about Nicaragua, its history and its culture, Managua, the capital city, was a right place to start off with. First thing I saw that the city was lit with metal trees installed on the roads. The cab driver told me that the wife of the country’s leader likes flowers, so the city installed flower shaped metal trees instead of real flower trees in many parts of the city. Welcome to Nicaragua! Like many other colonial cities, Managua has its unique history and architecture to intrigue visitors. Surrounded by agricultural lands, the city is the political as well economic center of the country. It was interesting to see street-art and graffiti culture all over the city.  The nightlife was very happening here amid many safety concerns.

My next destination was Granada covering Masaya Volcano National Park and Mombacho Volcano National Preserve on the way back. I loved Granada. The colorful city is filled with castles and its streets are packed with bars, cafes and up-scale clubs. Islamic architecture meets colonial-era churches here. Aroma of food was everywhere in the city. Another kind of smell, a bit pungent one, was fuming out not very far from Granada. I was told that Volcano Masaya emits Sulfur Dioxide through its active craters. I could see red hot lava boiling in one of its active craters. But I wanted to touch, feel and play with an active volcano. A scenic road trip from Managua to León was the backpackers’ way to see small towns of Nicaragua and eventually to meet Cerro Negro.

The tour guide loaded a dozen of us, wooden boards and a crate of beer in an open truck. The instructions were clear: don’t take it as a child’s play. A 750 meter steep hike on loose gravels and rocks to the top of Cerro Negro took around an hour. Everyone had to carry their boards on their backs. Strong winds made it so difficult to move that a few people decided to hire a porter. The group was asked to put on a protective suit and goggles to avoid skin and eye injuries. Wooden board integrity check, suiting up check, eye protection check before we were made to stand in a queue at the drop point. A crew member with a speed gun was ready at the end point. The challenge was to manage balance, direction as well as speed. Too fast would end up in a crash landing, too slow wouldn’t be any fun. The winning prize was an extra beer! One by one, we went down. I lost my balance a couple of times but still managed to race down at 20 mph. I realized that the sand was not that fine as I expected. My shoes took most of the heat; the hard sole was torn and bruised at many places. In just a few minutes the fun was over with a bit of volcanic ash in my mouth.  A cold beer and hot food at the end felt like a winning treat. The winner who got the extra beer came down like a meteor at 35 mph.

Back to León for a relaxing walk on the crowded, narrow streets of the city. It was worth spending the remaining energy in the Managua’s bars for a few more days before I took flight back home. The experience of sledding down on the black ash slopes of an active volcano would remain unmatchable until……..

The Flattest, Remote and Un-inhabited Terrains

Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats, the largest mirror on earth, was in my mind for a long time. I headed remote central Bolivia in 2016 to see why the world’s flattest piece of land is listed as one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is so flat, high and reflective that the area is often used by satellites to calibrate their instruments. But what is there for travelers in this barely inhabited region. I was curious to find out.

The first challenge was to quickly adapt to 12,000 ft. altitude at the La Paz (the highest administrative capital in the world) airport when flying from Dallas, which is at sea level. Even though I am pretty good with altitudes, the elevation change in 5 hours showed some signs of fatigue. I spent a few days in La Paz exploring its urban jungle while acclimatizing to get on the journey ahead. Thanks to Mi Teleférico- the world’s longest and highest cable car system, it was easy to get around the city. The street life in La Paz is noisy, chaotic, often theatrical but never dull. There are footprints of the colonial era at every corner. The city has its peculiar colors and fragrance everywhere- in food, drinks, shops and even in churches. Popular Bolivian cuisines and homegrown spirits made me ready to fly to the small town of Uyuni.

Internet off, camera on. Three rugged 4X4 SUVs loaded with food and fuel were ready to take a group of 15-16 people on an adventurous ride for the next three days. The only connection to the real world was the satellite phones with our tour guides. As the first day unfolded, I realized for the first time in my life how it feels to be in a remote place in a foreign country with no connectivity whatsoever. We drove for hours on the salt flat, so flat and clear that we could see the horizon and feel the curvature of earth. Everywhere, everything was salt. Lake Minchin dried up 40,000 years ago, creating the largest salt flat on earth that contains an astounding 10 billion tons of salt and covers over 4,000 square miles. How much is it?? I guess enough for entire humanity for centuries to come!

Even the hotels we stayed at were made of salt. A salty day full of dryness, whiteness and flatness had a brief moment of some vegetation and unevenness when we visited Inca Wasy island- an island with giant cacti and coral rock formations. After a nice hot dinner, I wanted to take some moments to absorb what I saw that day. I was thankful that I witnessed all of this beauty.

The next day was more colorful and with some intense variation. The desert of Chiguana surrounded by volcanoes, the Andean lagoon crowded with colorful flamingos, the big desert of Siloli at 4,550 meters – the highest and driest in the world, the Rock trees, the Red lagoon filled with pink flamingos, the 5000 meter high Sol de Mañana volcano with boiling mud pots. The freezing cold day ended with a relaxing dip in a natural hot spring, gazing at the Milky Way galaxy in the clear, dark sky. Thankful to the Universe once again!

The intrepid tour wrapped up around the Chile-Bolivia border, driving through an extremely barren and harsh valley of southwestern Bolivia that spreads across the tough Atacama Desert and Salvador Dali Desert. No signs of humanity in this part of earth. 8 hour ride through un-inhabitant lands, dusty deserts and dry mountains finally back to humanity and connectivity in Uyuni.

I still had some fun left, but not much energy though. A series of bus rides to get to Santa Cruz de la Sierra with stopovers in small towns of Patosi and Sucre experiencing slow-paced life and delicious food. Bolivia is definitely a country to visit again.

 

 

Beyond the Drug Cartel Stories Lies Beauty

Before I traveled to Colombia, almost everyone told me that it was not safe to visit the country. I can understand the reasons behind these sentiments. Maybe, Narcos- the Netflix series, depicting real life stories of drug cartels and cocaine trade, played a role too. Once known for its gold and silver mines, Colombia got on the world map in the last few decades of 20th century because of illegal drug trades, earning a bad reputation among global travelers. Organized crimes around the illicit drugs made its streets unsafe for tourists until the recent times. It did not sound cool to many people the idea of traveling to the region that has been the epicenter of all this: Medellín, Sabaneta and other parts of the state of Antioquia. I wanted to do it anyways.

My expedition began in Bogota, the capital city and the beating heart of Colombia. Surrounded by Andean peaks, the city is a potpourri of preciously preserved colonial culture. Drugs and crimes have left a mark on this city as well, creating a rift between the working-class barrios and influential drug trade gangs.  A couple of days in Bogota gave me a chance to acclimatize and feel the sensitivity around the drug related topic that tarnished the country’s image. Nevertheless, there was much more to hear, sense and absorb in the coming days.

A bumpy bus ride through mountains and valleys ended in another beautiful city of Medellín. Once a murder capital and the most dangerous cities in the world- as noted by Time Magazine, the city is now a hipster holiday destination that gravitates backpackers from all around the world. I hardly sensed any danger walking on the crowded streets with so many hostels, bars and restaurants to cater to travelers of all sorts. I noticed one thing I made me remember my days in India- Bajaj motorbikes- Colombia is a big market for the Indian motorbikes manufacturer. I was told by some Colombians, who became my tour guides and then friends, that Medellín is positioning itself as an entrepreneurial center in Latin America. Medellín has been focusing on improving its infrastructure in the last few decade, building a public transport system including modern cable car system that has made it easier to travel in this mountain city and integrated slum areas  with the city.

When I tried to hear from locals more about Medellín’s unfortunate past, I received a mixed kind of responses; some tried to dodge, others presented only a dark picture while a very few attempted to openly speak out their experiences. I wanted to hear and see more. A visit to La Catedral, a prison built by Pablo Escobar himself for his own negotiated imprisonment, and a museum helped me gain some insights into the region’s past. Many locals still come to pay their respect; Escobar built houses and schools for the slum population.

My short trip away from the Medellín city’s hustle-bustle to Guatapé, one of the most colorful towns in Colombia,  was a soothing car ride through the Peñol lake, El Peñón de Guatapé, Pueblo de Zócalos and other small towns- all represent the colors and shades of Colombian beauty.

I could not skip Hacienda Nápoles, a luxurious estate built and owned by Pablo Escobar in Puerto Triunfo, approximately 150 km east of Medellín. This was my last stop and the final piece of my story.  Hacienda Napoles was Escobar’s idea of Eden. A huge piece of land spread across lush green hills had elephants, giraffe, buffalo, camels, lions and other exotic animals bought from various continents. The animals are gone now, donated to zoos in Colombia and other countries.

Once a personal paradise now turned into a tourist attraction and family outing shows  the transformation Colombia has undergone. I could see dozens of patrol soldiers along the highway while driving around rural towns of Colombia. The roads and cities are a lot safer than in recent decades, boosting tourism and bringing revenue.  It looks Medellín has been able to come out of it’s darkest period, shaping itself into a vibrant and modern city.

Along the Majestic Avenue of Volcanoes

My new 70 L backpack was ready for a new country. Ecuador, a small county straddling the equator, is home to 47 volcanoes, both active and extinct. Touching the sky, dressed in white, these volcanoes give a unique identity to the country: a volcano country. Pachamama (Mother Earth) has been a bit tough on this little country with a double whammy: earthquakes and volcanic activities. However indigenous communities and locals don’t take it as a curse. Cotopaxi, the second highest volcano, erupted in early 2015 displaying a grand show, so it was a good time to see the aftermath of the Pachamama’s play.

I landed in Quito, the capital city, with almost no plan. And, then came a flood of information from the fellow travelers. In addition to the Volcanoes, the country has a lot to offer to nature lovers and adventurers. Three days in Quito were good enough to explore its colonial setup and architecture. Mitad de Mundo, a popular site, consists of monuments and a small village that was constructed around the equator site. There are  many stories of balancing egg and nails on the equator site.

But my quest was to meet some of the tall, fiery volcanoes. The only capital city threatened by an active volcano, Quito goes about its business despite Volcán Pichincha grumbling on its doorstep. Telefériqo, a slick sky tram, took us up along the volcano’s haunches to 4100 meters. A couple of hour hike got us to around 5,000 meters, giving a spectacular view of the valley and the city. I needed more of this, more raw and explosive adventure. Volcán Cotopaxi, a perfect volcano, ice-cream-cone, was the spot. Almost 6,000 meter high, it gives an opportunity to the adrenaline seekers to witness Ecuador’s volcanic bounty in one sweeping panorama. Hiking to the peak was not allowed due to the recent eruption. An alternate hike to take a feel of this hot and beautiful volcano was good enough. Big and small stones were scattered all around, showing the power of Mother earth when she gets angry.

My next stop was Baños, a frontier town near the Ecuadorian Amazon. An overnight bus took me to the town known for natural thermal pools. Sitting in the lap of Volcán Tungurahua, the town is a perfect place for water-sports, zip-lining and many other thrilling activities.  Eventful days and chill-out evenings is the specialty of this town. A final look toward the peak of Volcán Tungurahua wrapped up my meetings with the volcanoes of Ecuador, the majestic, fiery and sky-high ones.